The Labours of Herakles

Herakles, who was called Hercules by the Romans, was the only hero honoured throughout the Greek world and the only human to be granted immortality among the gods.


The most famous exploits of Herakles were eventually systematized in the story of the Twelve Labours. The most common version of the myth recounts how Hera sent Herakles into a fit of madness, during which he killed his wife and children. The oracle at Delphi told him that in penance he must serve Eurystheus, king of Tiryns, for twelve years. Eurystheus imposed twelve gruelling tasks on his servant, as related below. The first six labours took place in the Peloponnese.


Herakles wrestles the Nemean Lion, as Athene looks on. A black figure vase of c.530BC

1. The Nemean Lion. Herakles was sent to the land of Nemea to kill a monstrous lion, whose hide was impervious to any normal weapon. The hero fashioned a huge club with which he battered the lion before strangling it and cutting through its skin with its own claws. He donned the lionskin, which rendered him invulnerable.
2. The Lernaean Hydra. The hero had to slay this nineheaded water-snake, which lived in a swamp near Lerna; but whenever Herakles cut off one head, two more grew in its place. Herakles was aided by lolaus (the son of his half-brother lphikles) who cauterized each decapitated neck with a burning torch, preventing the growth of new heads.
3. The Cerynean Hind. This bronze-hooved and golden-horned beast lived on Mount Cerynea and was sacred to Artemis.. Herakles had to capture it unharmed or incur her anger. After a year's pursuit he wounded the beast and carried it back to Eurystheus, whom he blamed for the hind's injury, thereby avoiding the wrath of Artemis.
4. The Erymanthian Boar. A monstrous boar was ravaging the area around Mount Erymanthus and Herakles was ordered to bring it back alive. On the way, he defeated the Centaurs in battle. He eventually returned to Eurystheus with the boar, which terrified the king so much that he hid in a bronze urn.
5. The Augean Stables. Augeas, son of Helios, owned great herds of cattle. They were kept in stables that had never been cleaned out and were piled high with the enormous quantities of dung that had built up over many years. Herakles was given the noisome task of cleaning out the filth in just one day, which he achieved by diverting the rivers Alpheus and Peneus through the stables.
6. The Stymphalian Birds. Lake Stymphalos in Arcadia was home to a flock of monstrous birds that ate humans and had beaks, claws and wings of iron. Herakles was commanded to get rid of them. He frightened them out of their trees by clashing bronze castanets, and then shot them one by one with his bow.
7. The Cretan Bull. A giant bull was running wild on the island of Crete and terrifying the population. On the orders of Eurystheus, Herakles captured it and brought it back alive to Tiryns.
8. The Mares of Diomedes. Herakles was commanded to bring back a herd of mares belonging to the Thracian Diomedes, who fed the beasts on human flesh. Herakles killed him and fed him to his own mares, which he tamed and took back to Eurystheus.
9. The Girdle of Hippolyte. Hippolyte, the queen of the warlike Amazon women of Asia Minor, possessed a beautiful girdle which was coveted by the daughter of Eurystheus. Herakles fought and defeated the Amazons and killed Hippolyte, taking the girdle from her corpse.
10. The Cattle of Geryon. Geryon, a three-bodied monster, lived in the far west and kept red cattle, helped by a giant herdsman and his hound. Herakles borrowed the Cup of the Sun to sail on Okeanos, the Ocean , to Geryon's land. He killed Geryon, the herdsman and the bound, and returned to Eurystheus with the cattle. The Pillars of Herakles (Straits of Gibraltar) mark this most westerly point of Herakles' adventures.
11. The Apples of the Hesperides. The Hesperides were nymphs of the far west, daughters of the Titan Atlas. They tended a tree bearing golden apples which Herakles was ordered to bring back. Herakles slew Ladon, a dragon guarding the tree, and stole the apples.
12. Cerberus. Herakles' final task was to bring up the fierce three-headed dog, Cerberus, which guarded the gates of the underworld. The hero entered the underworld, wrestled with Cerberus, and dragged him off to show Eurystheus . Herakles then sent him back to the underworld.

Panche Hadzi-Andonov , AAI
 Copyright 2000 

All rights reserved.
Revised: April 19, 2001