In Greek mythology, an immortalized hero (Roman Hercules); son of Zeus and Alcmene; and famed for his strength. While serving Eurystheus, king of Argos, he performed 12 labours, including the cleansing of the Augean stables. Driven mad by the goddess Hera, he murdered his children by Megara, his first wife, and was mistakenly poisoned by his second wife Deianira.
Although an archer, later portrayals depicted him wearing the skin of a lion and armed with a club cut from an olive tree.
Early life Having fathered Heracles on Alcmene, wife of Amphitryon, Zeus boasted that a descendant of Perseus would soon be born; the future king of Argos. Zeus' wife Hera, jealous of Alcmene, used her powers as goddess of childbirth to delay the birth of Heracles, and bring forward that of his cousin Eurystheus. As another descendant of Perseus, Eurystheus reaped the benefit of Zeus' promise. Alcmene, who was also carrying a son by Amphitryon, finally gave birth to Heracles and, one night later, to his half-brother Iphicles. Fearing Hera's anger, she tried to expose Heracles but the goddess, confusing him with Iphicles, rescued him in error. Hera later sent snakes to attack Heracles in his cot, but he strangled them.
As a child, Heracles killed his music teacher Linus with his lyre for chastizing him, and was sent away by Amphitryon to keep cattle on Mount Cithaeron. He killed a lion which was terrorizing the herdsmen of Amphitryon and his neighbour Thespius; in some traditions, this was the lion whose pelt was worn by Heracles, its head arrranged as his helmet.
Servitude to Eurystheus On Heracles return to Thebes, he freed the kingdom from a tribute of cattle demanded by the Minyae of Orchomenus, and in reward was married to Megara, daughter of King Creon (not the brother of the tragic Jocasta). They had several children whom Heracles killed under Hera's influence; in Euripedes dramatization Heracles, Megara was also slain with the children. As atonement for their murder, Heracles was instructed by the oracle of Delphi to live at Tiryns for 12 years under the command of King Eurystheus, where the hero was set 12 labours.
During this period he also accomplished other deeds: he briefly joined the expedition of the Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece; rescued Alcestis, wife of Admetus, who had agreed to take her husband's place in Hades; released his friend Theseus who had been imprisoned in Hades for attempting to abduct Pluto's wife Persephone; and freed Prometheus, who was chained in the Caucasus for giving fire to mortals, and tortured daily by an eagle which ate his liver – Zeus gave Heracles permission to shoot the bird.
12 labours1st labour – killing the lion of Nemea As the beast's skin was impenetrable, Heracles strangled the lion with his hands. In some traditions he skinned and wore the pelt to make himself invulnerable to weapons.
2nd labour – slaying the Hydra of Lerna Decapitating one of the Hydra's nine heads caused two more to grow from the stump, but Heracles defeated the monster with the aid of his nephew Iolaus, who sealed the wounds with fire before new heads could emerge. After burying the immortal ninth head under a pile of rock, Heracles dipped his arrows in the Hydra's poisonous blood. During the struggle, Heracles also crushed a giant crab which nipped his foot; Hera rewarded the crustacean by transforming it into the constellation Cancer.
3rd labour – capturing the Ceryneian hind (Roman Arcadian stag) Sacred to the goddess Athena, the creature had golden horns and brass hooves. After a year-long chase, he lamed it with an arrow, pinning its forelegs together without drawing blood.
4th labour – trapping the Erymanthian boar Heracles exhausted the swine by chasing it through a snowdrift before binding it with chains. While tracking the boar, he accidently shot his old tutor Chiron, a centaur (half man, half horse).
5th labour – cleaning the Augean stables King Augeas of Elis had 3,000 cattle, whose stabling had not been swept for 30 years. Augeas promised to give Heracles a tenth of his cattle if the stables were cleared in one day; a feat accomplished by diverting the rivers Peneius and Alpheus through the cattle-yard. Learning that Eurystheus had sent him, Augeas refused his part of the bargain, so Heracles took revenge by invading Elis in his later years.
6th labour – driving off the Stymphalean birds Feared for their brazen claws, wings, and beaks, these murderous birds nested on Lake Stymphalus, deep in Arcadia. They used their feathers as arrows and were sacred to Ares, the god of war. Wielding a rattle given to him by the goddess Athena, Heracles startled them into flight; many were shot in the air and the rest were frightened away.
7th labour – overcoming the Cretan bull Commanded to bring the animal alive to King Eurystheus, Heracles journeyed to Crete and successfully overpowered the fire-breathing beast.
8th labour – capturing the mares of Diomedes The Thracian king Diomedes, ruler of the Bistones, fed his horses on human flesh, but Heracles rendered them tame by killing the king and throwing his body to the mares. Returning home, he founded the Thracian coastal city of Abdera in honour of his friend Abderus, who had been eaten by the Bistones.
9th labour – fetching the girdle of Hippolyta Admete, daughter of Eurystheus, wanted the golden girdle which Ares had presented to Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons (a race of female warriors). Hippolyta promised Heracles the girdle, but Hera incited the Amazons against him, and he was reluctantly forced to kill the queen during the ensuing battle.
10th labour – stealing the cattle of Geryon The three-bodied monster Geryon lived at the end of the world on the island of Erytheia; his red oxen being guarded by the two-headed dog Orthrus and giant Eurytion. Hercules sailed westwards in a golden vessel borrowed from the sun god Helios, setting up the ‘Pillars of Hercules’, Calpe and Abyla, on the way; the pillars are usually considered the rocks either side of the Straits of Gibraltar. After clubbing the herdsman and hound, and overcoming Geryon, he brought the cattle back to Greece, where they were sacrificed to Hera.
11th labour – collecting the golden apples of the Hesperides A wedding present of the goddess Hera, the apples were tended by the Hesperides, and guarded by Ladon, a 100-headed dragon. In one version, Heracles killed the dragon to achieve the task. In another, the Titan Atlas, as the father of the Hesperides, fetched the fruit from his daughters while Heracles held up the heavens in his stead. On his return, Atlas had to be tricked into resuming his tiresome burden; Heracles asked the Titan to take the weight briefly while he adjusted his position.
12th labour – dragging Cereberus from the underworld Heracles descended to Hades and brought back the three-headed watchdog, Cerberus; Pluto allowed its absence on condition that no weapons were used. Poisonous aconites sprang from drops of its saliva, as the creature was hauled to Eurystheus and back again.
Later life On his journey home from the land of the Amazons, Heracles had visited Troy and rescued Hesione, daughter of King Laomedon, from a sea monster sent by Poseidon. The king had promised to reward him with a pair of immortal white horses, but later refused to part with them. After his release from Eurystheus, Heracles returned to Troy, accompanied by his friend Telamon, and killed Laomedon and all his sons except Podarces. Hesione married Telamon and released her brother Podarces, who was renamed Priam or ‘redeemed’.
Athena then led Heracles to Phlegra to fight for the gods against the Gigantes, creatures who had sprung from the blood of the vanquished supreme ruler Kronos where drops had fallen to earth.
Death Having given Megara to his nephew Iolaus, Heracles fought the river god Achelous for Deianira, the Calydonian princess who eventually caused his death. Heracles shot the centaur Nessus with his poisonous arrows for attempting to abduct Deianira, but before he died, Nessus told Deianira to preserve his blood as it would bring Heracles back to her if he were unfaithful. Later, doubting her husband's fidelity, she sent him a shirt dipped in the blood which began to eat his flesh, and could not be removed. Realizing his mortal life was at an end, Heracles built himself an enormous funeral pyre and gave his bow and arrows to his companion, the renowned archer Philoctetes, for lighting the pyre. The hero was carried straight up to Olympus, home of the gods, where he was reconciled with Hera and married the goddess Hebe, former cupbearer to the gods.
Origin The myth of Heracles became complicated because several Greek states tried to claim the hero as their own, inventing stories to demonstrate a connection. The only recorded account of his birth linked him with Thebes, where his name Alcides stemmed from the father of Amphitryon, Alcaeus. Of the 12 labours, six took place in the Peloponnese, one in Crete, one in Thrace, and four outside Greece altogether. Homer called him an Argive or Tirynthian, which has led to the suggestion that the man behind the legend was possibly a minor king or prince of Tiryns, who performed various exploits for his overlord, the king of Mycenae.
Interpretation Viewed as the personification of strength, courage, and endurance, Heracles and his legends may have been regarded as an allegory of the triumph of good over evil. In this role he was seen as an ideal model to later philosophic schools such as the Stoics (see Stoicism) and the cynics.
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