Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Labors of Herakles

Herakles, the Greek hero of superhuman strength, was the son of the Greek god Zeus and Alkmene (28.77; 11.55). According to Greek mythology, Zeus desired to sire a son who would be the guardian of mortals and immortals. Thus, he visited the mortal woman Alkmene in Thebes, where they conceived Herakles. However, on the day Herakles was to be born, Zeus boasted that his son would rule over Greece. Homer describes how Hera, wife of Zeus, delayed the birth of Herakles until the day after his cousin Eurystheos was born. Thus, the vengeful Hera ensured that Eurystheos inherited the throne. And she sent two snakes to destroy the infant Herakles as he slept in his cradle. Yet even as a baby Herakles’ strength was legendary, and he saved himself from Hera’s serpents by grasping one in each hand and strangling them (25.28).

After Herakles married the Theban princess Megara, Hera afflicted the hero with madness, and he murdered his wife and all their children. According to some literary accounts, the Greek god Apollo instructed Herakles to atone for his crime by performing labors for Eurystheos, king of Mycenae. The first of these labors was to kill a vicious lion that terrorized the area around Nemea in the Peloponnesos. Eurystheos instructed Herakles to bring back the skin of the slain Nemean Lion, but the hero’s weapons—his club, bronze sword, and bow and arrow—were useless against the impenetrable skin of the beast. Instead, he wrestled the lion to the ground, strangled it, and removed the creature’s tough hide with its own claws (63.11.6). Thereafter, Herakles wore the legendary lion’s skin as his own impenetrable armor.

As a second labor, Herakles was instructed to slay the Lernaean Hydra, a serpentlike creature with nine heads and poisonous venom (27.20.2; 1999.325.227). He accomplished this task by cutting off each of the Hydra’s heads and burning the exposed stumps, which finished off the beast. As a third labor, Eurystheos ordered Herakles to capture the Hind of Keryneia, a deer sacred to Artemis, goddess of the hunt. Eurystheos hoped that Herakles would incur the wrath of Artemis. For one year, Herakles hunted the beast until it finally stopped to rest, whereupon he shot it with his bow and arrow. On his journey home, he encountered the infuriated Artemis, but begged her forgiveness. The goddess consented and allowed Herakles to bring the animal to Eurystheos. However, when he arrived, the sacred Hind leaped out of the hero’s arms and eventually returned safely to its mistress.

Thus, as a fourth labor, Herakles was ordered to capture a vicious wild boar that lived on a mountain called Erymanthos. He chased the boar to exhaustion and then drove it into deep snow, where he successfully netted the beast and brought it to Eurystheos. The king was angered by Herakles’ continued success and ordered him to clean out the Augean Stables, home to the greatest number of cattle in all of Greece. The stables had never been cleaned, and Herakles was instructed to complete the task in one day. This he accomplished by rerouting two rivers and flushing out the mess. When he returned, Eurystheos demanded of him another chore. He ordered Herakles to kill an enormous flock of man-eating birds that gathered near Lake Stymphalia in Arcadia, an area surrounded by a dense forest. According to legend, Athena and Hephaistos provided Herakles with bronze clappers that frightened the birds into flight, and he successfully shot them down with his arrows.

As his seventh labor, Herakles was ordered to capture the Cretan Bull. He stifled the beast with his bare hands and shipped it back to Mycenae, whereupon Eurystheos decided to sacrifice it to Hera. The goddess, however, refused to accept a sacrifice that was a sign of Herakles’ success. Thus, Eurystheos demanded that Herakles capture four man-eating mares that belonged to the Thracian king Diomedes. According to many versions of this eighth labor, Herakles killed Diomedes and then fed his flesh to his horses. The act had an immediately calming effect on the beasts and Herakles successfully brought them to Mycenae. When he returned, Eurystheos demanded yet another task—that he steal the magical belt of Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons. However, Hippolyte was so enchanted with Herakles’ physical strength that she gave the belt to him. While they met on board his ship, the ever-vengeful Hera spread a rumor among the Amazons that the Greek hero intended to abduct their queen. The women warriors charged down to the ship, and Herakles, sensing danger and perhaps betrayal, pierced the heart of Hippolyte and made off with her belt (22.84.2).

As a tenth labor, Eurystheos commanded that Herakles fetch the red cattle of Geryon, a monster with three heads and three sets of legs that lived on the island of Erythia, near the far edge of the known world (41.162.29). Herakles killed Geryon, as well as the monster’s two-headed watchdog Orthos, before successfully escaping with the herd of red cattle. By some accounts, he also commemorated his extensive journey by building two mountains, one in Europe and the other in Libya. They are known today as the Pillars of Hercules at the Strait of Gibraltar.

Upon the hero’s return to Mycenae, Eurystheos demanded yet two more labors of Herakles. The first of his tasks was to retrieve the golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides. The three golden apples were kept in a garden guarded by a hundred-headed dragon and the Hesperides, the nymph daughters of Atlas (24.97.5). During his journey, Herakles did battle with Ares, the sea god Nereus, and the sons of Poseidon. Many of these mythic battles are featured on Greek vase paintings.

Having successfully retrieved the apples of the Hesperides, Herakles had one final labor—the most dangerous one of all. Eurystheos demanded that he travel to the Underworld and bring back the monstrous three-headed guard dog Kerberos (08.258.21). Using brute strength, Herakles wrestled the vicious creature into submission, and with that completed his twelve labors.