Hercules and His Twelve Labors Summary


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Hercules is the son of a mortal, Alcmena, and the god Jupiter. Because Juno is hostile to all children of her husband by mortal mothers, she decides to be revenged upon the child. She sends two snakes to kill Hercules in his crib, but the infant strangles the serpents with ease. Then Juno causes Hercules to be subject to the will of his cousin, Eurystheus.

As a child, Hercules is taught by Rhadamanthus, who one day punishes the child for misdeeds. Hercules immediately kills his teacher. For this act, his foster father, Amphitryon, takes Hercules away to the mountains to be reared by rude shepherds. Early in youth, Hercules begins to attract attention for his great strength and courage. He kills a lion single-handedly and takes heroic part in a war. When Juno, jealous of his growing success, calls on Eurystheus to use his power over Hercules, Eurystheus demands that Hercules carry out twelve labors. Juno and Eurystheus hope that Hercules will perish in one of them.

The First Labor. Juno sends a lion to eat the people of Nemea. The lion’s hide is so protected that no arrow can pierce it. Knowing that he cannot kill the animal with his bow, Hercules meets the lion and strangles it with his bare hands. Thereafter he wears the lion’s skin as a protection when he fights, for nothing can penetrate it.

The Second Labor. Hercules has to meet the Lernaean hydra. This creature lives in a swamp, and the odor of its body kills all who breathe the fetid fumes. Hercules begins the battle but discovers that for every head he severs from the monster two more appear. Finally he obtains a flaming brand from a friend and burns each stump as he severs each head. When he comes to the ninth and invulnerable head, he cuts it off and buries it under a rock. Then he dips his arrows into the body of the hydra so that he will possess more deadly weapons for use in future conflicts.

The Third Labor. Hercules captures the Erymanthian boar and brings it back on his shoulders. The sight of the wild beast frightens Eurystheus so much that he hides in a large jar. With a fine sense of humor, the hero deposits the captured boar in the same jar. While on this trip, Hercules incurs the wrath of the centaurs by drinking wine they claimed for their own. To escape from them, he has to kill most of the half-horse men....

(The entire section is 963 words.)