Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 963
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 Fourth Labor. Hercules is ordered to capture a stag that has antlers of gold and hoofs of brass. To capture this creature, Hercules pursues it for a whole year.
The Fifth Labor. The Stymphalian birds are carnivorous. Hercules alarms them with a bell, shoots many of them with his arrows, and causes the rest to fly away.
The Sixth Labor. Augeas, the king of Elis, has a herd of three thousand oxen whose stables were not cleaned for thirty years. Commanded to clean the stables, Hercules diverts the rivers Alpheus and Peneus through them and washes them clean in one day. Because Augeas refuses to pay the agreed amount, Hercules later declares war on him.
The Seventh Labor. Neptune gives a sacred bull to Minos, the king of Crete. Minos’s wife, Pasiphae, falls in love with the animal and pursues it around the island. Hercules overcomes the bull and takes it back to Eurystheus by making it swim the sea while he rides upon its back.
The Eighth Labor. Like the Stymphalian birds, the mares of Diomedes feed on human flesh. Usually Diomedes finds food for them by feeding to them all travelers who land on his shores. Diomedes tries to prevent Hercules from driving away his herd. He is killed and his body fed to his own beasts.
The Ninth Labor. Admeta, Eurystheus’s daughter, persuades her father to send Hercules for the girdle of Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons. The Amazon queen is willing to give up her girdle, but Juno interferes by telling the other Amazons that Hercules plans to kidnap their queen. In the battle that follows, Hercules kills Hippolyta and takes the girdle from her dead body.
The Tenth Labor. Geryoneus, a three-bodied, three-headed, six-legged, winged monster, possesses a herd of oxen. Ordered to bring the animals to Eurystheus, Hercules travels beyond the pillars of Hercules, now Gibraltar. He kills a two-headed shepherd dog and a giant herdsman and finally slays Geryoneus. He loads the oxen on a boat and sends them to Eurystheus. Returning on foot across the Alps, he has many adventures on the way, including a fight with giants in the Phlegraean fields, near the present site of Naples.
The Eleventh Labor. His next labor is more difficult, for this task is to obtain the golden apples in the garden of the Hesperides. No one knows where the garden is, and Hercules sets out to roam until he finds it. In his travels, he kills a giant and a host of pygmies, and he burns alive some of his captors in Egypt. In India, he sets Prometheus free. At last, when he discovers Atlas holding up the sky, Hercules assumes this task, releasing Atlas to go after the apples. Atlas returns with the apples and reluctantly takes up his burden again. Hercules brings the apples safely to Eurystheus.
The Twelfth Labor. This is the most difficult labor of all. After many adventures, he brings the three-headed dog Cerberus from the underworld. He is forced to carry the struggling animal in his arms because he is forbidden to use weapons of any kind. Afterward, he takes Cerberus back to the king of the underworld. That ends the labors of this mighty ancient hero.