The greatest of all Greek heroes was HERACLES, a son of Zeus and hated by Hera. His mother was Almena, a granddaughter of Perseus. She was married to her cousin Amphitryon, but Zeus had disguised himself as the groom and anticipated the wedding night. Heracles is his Greek name, which can also be transliterated as"Herakles." He often called by his Roman name of Hercules. By any name, he was incredibly strong, gluttonous and good-natured, with a bad habit of accidentally killing people. As a punishment for one such incident, he was made to serve King Eurysteus of Mycenae as a slave, carrying out Twelve Labors--killing monsters and other impossible tasks.
The labors of Heracles are variously numbered, but the usual reckoning is that his lst task was to kill the NEMEAN LION, which had a hide impervious to any weapon. Heracles had to strangle it. He then used its own claws to get the hide off the carcass, and from then on he wore its skin as his armor. Some say he lost a finger while wrestling the lion.
Heracles's second task was to kill the HYDRA, a monster with eight or more snake-like heads. As soon as he would bash in a head with his mighty club, two or three more would grow back in its place. Heracles solved this by having a friend light a torch and bum off the roots of each neck as fast as Heracles would knock off the head.
In his next two labors, Heracles captured wild animals and brought them to Mycenae alive. In the Third Labor, he caught the Ceryneian Hind, a beast sacred to Artemis, and for the Fourth, the fierce Erymanthian Boar. Both animals are named for the mountains which they frequented--and, in the case of the boar, ravaged.
For his Fifth Labor, Heracles was to clean the stables of King AUGEAS of Elis in a single day, a task which he accomplished by diverting a couple of local rivers. His Sixth task was to get rid of some man eating birds which were infesting the Stymphalian Marsh. He raised such a clamor (with bell or crackers) that they all flew up, whereupon he shot them with his arrows.
For his Seventh Labor, Heracles went to Crete to capture a fire-breathing bull--perhaps the very bull which sired the famous Minotaur. Next, he captured some man-eating mares belonging to King DIOMEDES of Thrace, an unsavory character unrelated to the Greek hero Diomedes at Troy. The mares had often dined on Diomedes's unfortunate guests. Heracles fed their master to them.
For his Ninth Labor, Heracles got the golden girdle of Ares worn by HIPPOLYTE, queen of the Amazons, a tribe of female warriors. Accounts vary as to whether he got it as a love gift or by killing her.
In his Tenth labor, Heracles turned cattle thief, capturing the cattle of GERYON, a monster with three bodies, whose herds were watched over by other monsters as well.
For his Eleventh Labor, Heracles was sent to bring back the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides. These were the daughters of the Titan ATLAS--they were also known as the Pleiades. Aided by the dragon Ladon, they guarded the tree given Hera as a wedding gift-either by Zeus or by mother Earth. The garden's location is disputed, and Heracles himself did not know it. Heracles went to Africa, where their father Atlas was busy holding the world on his shoulder. Heracles relieved Atlas of his burden for a while, on condition that Atlas fetch the golden apples. The only problem was that Atlas proved reluctant to resume holding up the world, but Heracles persuaded or tricked him into doing so.
For his final Labor, Heracles fetched back to Mycenae the many-headed dog CEREBUS, who guards the gates to hell. King Hades allowed him to do this on condition that he use no weapon but his hands. On his way back from this final labor, Heracles is said to have rescued Theseus, imprisoned by Hades after Theseus and his friend Pirithous had tried to abduct and rape Queen Persephone.
ALCESTIS was the wife of King Admetus of Pherae, who won her hand by successfully driving a team of yoked wild boar and lion. When Hades came to collect Admetus for death, Admetus talked him into accepting a substitute. His parents declined but Alcestis volunteered. Fortunately, Heracles came along, heard the story, went below, and terrified Hades into letting Alcestis return. The story inspired a play by Euripides, in which Admetus does not come off well.
Heracles won his wife
DEIANEIRA by out-wrestling the river-god
Achelous. She was the daughter of
Oeneus (or perhaps of Dionysus) and a sister of Meleager.
A centaur (horse-man) named NESSUS
tried to rape
Heracles killed him, and the dying Nessus gave Deianeira a magic
formula to ensure Heracles's fidelity. When she was driven to use it by
jealousy over his (unrequited) passion for Iole, it
killed him instead. After his death, the divine part of Heracles was made
the gate-keeper of Olympus and married to Hebe.
Pelias usurped the throne of lolchus from his half-brother Aeson and decimated the royal kindred, but Aeson's son JASON survived, being brought up by the centaur Cheiron (Chiron), a famous healer who had also tutored Achilles and Asclepius, and who died while trying to make peace between his friend Heracles and his fellow centaurs. Pelias was not pleased when the grown Jason returned to Iolchus. He conned Jason into leading an expedition on the good ship Argo to Colchis at the far end of the Crimean sea to recover the golden fleece of a winged ram Zeus had sent to rescue 2 children (Phrixus and Helle) about to be sacrificed to him.
The Argo's crew included such heroes as Castor and Pollux, Orpheus, and Heracles himself, and many tales were told of the voyage. At Lemnos, for example, the Argonauts helped repopulate the island, whose women had revolted and killed their men.
Medea, the princess of Colchis, fell for Jason and helped him meet the tests set by her father Aeetes and then steal away with the golden fleece, delaying her father's pursuit by strewing limbs from her butchered brother Absyrtus in his path. When Jason and the Argonauts got back to Iolchus, Medea tricked the daughters of Pelias into butchering him, thinking that they were performing a ritual to renew his youth.
This got them exiled for Iolchus, and they moved on to Corinth. There
are very different accounts of subsequent events, though they agree that
their children died. In the version of Euripides, Jason decided to divorce
Medea and marry a local princess. Medea then
sent the bride a fatal wedding gift, killed her children by Jason, and
flew off to Athens in a chariot drawn by winged serpents.
Theseus was the long-lost son of King Aegeus of Athens. He showed up just in time to have his step-mother Medea try to poison him and to be chosen as part of Athens' annual sacrifice tribute to Crete. With the aid of his lover, the Princess Ariadne, Theseus defeated the man-bull Minotaur that lurked in the Cretan labyrinth and escaped, deserting Ariadne on the way home.
By an Amazon queen Antiope [not the same as the mother of Amphion], Theseus had a son, Hippolytus, who shared his mother's devotion to Artemis and chastity. Irked, Aphrodite made his stepmother Phaedra (Ariadne's sister) try to seduce him and then accuse him of rape. Theseus cursed his son, whose horses bolted and killed him. The most famous Greek version is by Euripides. The Roman poet-philosopher Seneca wrote a play on the story, and it is told again in the classic French playwright Racine's Phedre.
After the death of his son, Theseus went into a long exile and may have been assassinated while a guest by King Lycomedes (Lykomedes) of Scyros (Skyros), later a more genial host of Achilles.
Theseus and Phaedra had two sons, Acamas and Demophon. Both fought in the Trojan War, and both were said to have had tragic love affairs with suicidal Thracian princesses named Phyllis, who may have become an almond tree.
as a local hero equivalent to the Peloponessian
Heracles, but some of the stories told of him were less than edifying,
including an alleged abduction of Helen and
an attempt on the goddess Persephone, from which he had to be rescued
[Last posted July 6, 2002, by Bob Canary, mail comments to email@example.com]