Hercules—whose name came from the Latin form of the Greek word Herakles, meaning Hera’s, or Juno’s, fame—rightfully deserved to rule Mycenae and Tiryns. Because of Juno’s machinations, however, his cousin Eurystheus becomes his lord. Driven mad by Juno, Hercules kills his own wife and children and is required by the Delphic oracle to atone for his crime by becoming King Eurystheus’s vassal. Eurystheus originally assigns ten athloi, ordeals for a prize, but he refuses to count either the killing of the hydra (because Hercules was assisted by his nephew Iolaus) or the cleansing of the Augean stables (because Hercules demanded payment). The athloi required twelve years and are described according to Apollodorus, the first or second century mythographer; in that version, however, the third and fourth labors are reversed, as are the fifth and sixth. In some recountings, the last two labors are also reversed, which subtracts from the supreme accomplishment of conquering death, as it were, by returning from Hades. The same twelve exploits, nearly life-size, were sculpted on the metopes of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia in the mid-fifth century b.c.e.; four of those scenes were reconstructed from the fragments. In his Hrakles (c. 420 b.c.e.; Heracles, 1781), Euripides perhaps reflects an earlier tradition, which begins with Homer, when he lists encounters with the Centaurs, with Cycnus the robber, and with pirates in place of the boar, the stables, and the bull.
The twelve labors are not the extent of Hercules’ fame. Apollodorus, Pausanias, and Diodorus Siculus detail the “life” of this folk hero, and Ovid briefly recounts the labors and death of the hero in book 9 of his Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567). From their accounts and from other sources, there is an additional wealth of exploits accomplished before, during, and after the labors. Among those before is Hercules’ fathering a child by each of the fifty daughters of King Thespius. During the labors, Hercules performs a number of well-known parerga, or “side deeds,” such as joining Jason’s Argonauts in quest of the Golden Fleece. He never completes that...
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