Hercules and His Twelve Labors

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 893

*Tiryns

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*Tiryns (TIR-inz). Ancient city in southern Greece that is home to Hercules’ cousin King Eurystheus. 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 the vassal of Eurystheus, who sets twelve difficult labors for Hercules to perform. Juno and Eurystheus hope that Hercules will perish while performing one of them.

*Nemea

*Nemea (NEE-mee-ah). City of northern Argolis, northwest of Mycenae, that is the site of Hercules’ first labor: to kill the lion that threatens to eat the people of Nemea. The lion’s cave is on Mount Tretus, two miles from Nemea.

*Lerna

*Lerna. Coastal town, five miles south of Argos, where Hercules performs his second labor: killing the multiheaded hydra, a creature living in a swamp whose body odor kills all who breathe the fetid area. The hydra’s lair is beneath a plane tree at the seven-fold source of the Amymone.

*Erymanthus

*Erymanthus (ir-a-MAN-thahs). Mountain range in southern Greece, in the northwest Peloponnesus, where Hercules performs another labor: killing the Erymanthian boar. Along his way to Erymanthus, he stops at Pholoë, where he has a dispute with the centaurs when he drinks wine they claim as their own. To escape, he kills most of the half-horse men.

*Arcadia

*Arcadia (ar-KAY-dee-ah). Region west of Argolis through which the River Ladon runs. On the river’s banks near Mount Artemisium, Hercules captures the Ceryneian Hind, a deer that he spends a full year chasing down, after following it all the way to Istria in the land of the Hyperboreans, on the coast of the Black Sea.

Stymphalian Marsh

Stymphalian Marsh (stim-fal-ee-an). Wetland in the northeast corner of Arcadia, overlooked by a spur of Mount Cyllene, that is home to the loud man-eating birds that Hercules must remove. The marsh is neither solid enough to walk on nor liquid enough to float a boat on and can increase in size as the channels draining it are blocked. One version of the story has Hercules draining the marsh, probably by freeing these natural channels. Hercules startles the birds with a bell, shoots many of them with arrows, and causes the rest to fly away.

*Elis

*Elis (EE-lis). Region west of Arcadia whose city of the same name lies near the River Peneius. Hercules’ task is to clean the stables in which King Augeas keeps three thousand oxen; the stables have not been cleaned for thirty years. Hercules accomplishes the task by diverting the rivers Alpheus and Peneus through the stables and washing them clean in one day.

*Crete

*Crete (kreet). Island in the eastern Mediterranean, south of Greece, where Hercules captures a bull that has been causing havoc around the fertile valley of the river Tethris. He takes the bull back to Eurystheus by making it swim across the sea, carrying him on its back.

*Thrace

*Thrace (thrays). Country to the north of the Aegean Sea and east of Macedonia where King Diomedes keeps four savage, flesh-eating mares. Hercules’ eighth labor is to steal the horses. He drives them down to the coast, leaving them on a knoll, probably opposite the island of Thasos. To confuse his pursuers, he cuts a channel from the sea to flood the plain and create a lake.

Amazonia

Amazonia. Region on the southern coast of the Black Sea, renowned for its female warriors, who dwell on the plain of the River Thermodon, which rises in the mountains to the south. Hercules’ task is to get Queen Hippolyta’s girdle. The queen is willing to give it to him, but Juno interferes by telling the other Amazons that Hercules intends to kidnap their queen. In the battle that ensues, Hercules kills Hippolyta and takes the girdle from her dead body.

Erytheia

Erytheia (ayr-eh-THEE-ah). Island near the Atlantic entrance to the Mediterranean on which the monster Geryoneus keeps a herd of oxen that Hercules steals for Eurystheus. The precise location of the island is uncertain, but the story tells of Hercules having to cross Europe to reach Tartessus to accomplish his tenth labor. He drives the oxen overland to Mycenae, visiting Spain, Gaul, and Italy along the way.

Garden of the Hesperides

Garden of the Hesperides (heh-SPEHR-a-dees). Garden on the slopes of North Africa’s Mount Atlas where the chariot horses of the sun end the day. Here grows the tree bearing golden apples that Hercules is charged to collect as his eleventh labor. Solid walls surround the garden, and a dragon coils around the base of the tree. Hercules’ greatest challenge, however, is simply locating the tree, which he roams far and wide to find. During his long search for the tree, he kills a giant, a host of pygmies, and burns alive some of his captors in Egypt. In India, he sets Prometheus free. At last, when he discovers Atlas holding up the heavens, he assumes the Titan’s burden, releasing Atlas to go after the apples. After Atlas returns with the apples, he reluctantly takes up his burden again, while Hercules delivers the apples to Eurystheus.

Tartarus

Tartarus. Underworld home of Hades, at the bottom of which flows the River Styx, which Hercules crosses in Charon’s boat to capture Cerberus for his twelfth labor. The three-headed dog Cerberus is chained to the gates of Acheron, where he guards the entrance.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 217

Bonnefoy, Yves, comp. Mythologies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. An excellent reference source for the beginner. Includes a concise history and interpretation of the twelve labors of Hercules. An excellent companion to the study of mythology as well as source for bibliographic references to major criticism of myth.

Farnell, Lewis Richard. Greek Hero Cults and Ideas of Immortality. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1970. Examines hero worship in Greece. Detailed discussion of the origin, function, and ritual of the cult of Hercules. An exceptional work for a serious study in the meanings and influences of this myth in the Greek culture.

Galinsky, G. Karl. The Herakles Theme. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1972. Traces interpretations and characterizations of Hercules through a wide body of literature and art. Examines the twelve labors individually and explores the myth’s influence in literature.

Kirk, G. S. The Nature of Greek Myths. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1975. Traces Hercules’ labors in classical literature. Analyzes the meaning of the myth and how it applies within the Greek culture. Excellent source for analyzing the structure and meaning of myth.

Schoo, Jan. Hercules’ Labors. Chicago: Argonaut, 1969. Includes a detailed description and explanation of each of the twelve labors, as well as bibliographic information. Illustrations supplement discussion of the oral tradition of the Hercules myth. Excellent source.

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