Hercules and His Twelve Labors

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Critical Evaluation

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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 journey, however, since he is left at Mysia looking for his lost squire and boy-love Hylas. Among other parerga are his rescue of Alcestis from death after she volunteers to die in place of her husband, King Admetus of Pherae. He also rescues Hesione, daughter of the king Laomedon of Troy, who was to be sacrificed to Poseidon’s sea monster. In Italy, he kills the fire-breathing Cacus who steals the cattle of Geryoneus that Hercules is driving back to Eurystheus. In Libya, he lifts the giant Antaeus from his mother Earth, from whom he derives his strength, and crushes him. He rescues Prometheus from the rock in the Caucasus and Theseus from the Underworld.

After the labors, Hercules seeks to marry Iole, the daughter of Eurytus, the king of Oechalia and the man who taught him archery. Eurytus refuses, and Hercules kills the king’s son, for which he is sold into slavery to Omphale, the queen of Lydia. There he performs numerous feats, including killing a great snake, fathering a child with Omphale, and burying the body of the fallen Icarus, who flew too near the sun. Freed, Hercules goes on to seek revenge on Laomedon and Augeas for their refusal to honor their debts for services rendered. He later marries Deianira, whom he soon rescues from the lustful Nessus, who instructs Deianira to dip Hercules’ tunic into the dying centaur’s blood. The wearing of the tunic, he tells her, will prevent Hercules, notorious for his amours, from...

(This entire section contains 940 words.)

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loving another. Soon Hercules returns to Oechalia, where he murders Eurytus and abducts Iole. In desperation and ignorance, Deianira sends him the tunic, and as soon as Hercules puts it on it begins to sear his flesh, for Nessus’s blood was poisoned by an arrow that long ago was dipped in the Hydra’s blood.

By the twelve labors, Hercules earns the immortality promised by the Delphic oracle, and so when Hercules dies (having mounted his own funeral pyre), Jupiter persuades all the gods, including Juno, to accept him into the pantheon. He takes Hebe (“Youth”) to wife and is thereafter universally honored. If Hercules’ mythic origins are indeed solar, it is appropriate that he enjoys apotheosis, or deification, and allegorical union with Youth, since the sun, passing through the twelve zodiacal constellations, returns each year, renewed in strength. On the other hand, Hercules may well have been the original male consort to a pre-Greek mother goddess (Hera), as his name would imply. Whatever his origins, throughout the ancient world in religion and literature, he is welcomed as the ultimate folk hero, simple but not obtuse, powerful but humane, whose myths symbolized the pains and indignities that even great men, beloved of Jupiter, must undergo to attain undying glory. On him, the Athenians modeled their local hero, Theseus. Elsewhere he was variously worshiped as a hero, if not a god. The Cynics and Stoics, for example, admired his attention to duty and hardy self-reliance.

In art, Hercules is a favorite subject—his broad, muscled shoulders draped with the skin of a Nemean lion. Although he gained fame for his archery and physical strength, he is usually represented wielding a knotted club. In Roman art, representations of his brutality tend toward brutishness, so that he becomes more the gladiator than the noble demigod who courageously submits to the will and whims of the lesser. More than any other figure, Hercules draws together the mythic experiences of Olympians and Titans, monsters and human beings, death and immortality.