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Known at the Greeks as Heracles and to the Romans as Hercules, he was a hero of epic proportions. As grandson of Perseus born of Alcmene and fathered by Zeus, who had disguised himself as her husband, Hercules was of divine blood. On the day Alcmene was to give birth, Zeus swore an oath that the descendant of Perseus born that day would eventually rule all Greece, but Hera intervened to delay his birth while arranging for Eurystheus, another descendant of Perseus, to be born. Zeus held to his oath. Eurystheus grew up to become ruler of Greece and played a key role in the myths of Hercules.
Hercules' home town made annual tribute payments to Orchomenus. One year Hercules disfigured a herald who was sent to collect the tribute, thus starting a war. With Athena's aid he defeated the King of Orchomenus, allowing Creon to become king. He was rewarded with Creon's daughter, Megara, for his wife. Hera, always an antagonist of Hercules, drove him mad in which state his mistakenly killed Megara and their children. Wishing to remove the shame of this crime, Hercules consulted the oracle at Delphi who told him to serve twelve years in the servitude to Eurystheus, who imposed an impossible twelve labours upon him.
1. KILLING THE NEMEAN LION - Ordered to kill this monster and bring Eurystheus the skin, he found the beast could not be pierced by arrows. He strangled it with his hands, but rather than turn the skin over, he used it to make a robe which made him invulnerable.
2. THE LERNAEAN HYDRA - The hydra was a nine-headed serpent, with poisonous breath, who was ravaging farms near Lerna in the Peloponnese. Hercules tried to kill it with his club but as each head was knocked off, two more grew. With red hot brands, Hercules burned off all the heads except for one, which he cut off and buried. He used the hydra's blood to make his own arrows poisonous.
3. WILD BOAR OF ERYMATHUS - Living on Mount Erymathus in the area of Arcadia and Achaia, this boar ravaged the territory of Psophis. While traveling to Mount Erymathus, Hercules visited the Centaur Pholus who served him his best wine. Attracted by the wine, other Centaurs attacked but Hercules drove them off and went on to capture the boar alive. When presented with the live boar, Eurystheus was terrified and hid.
4. THE STYMPHALIAN BIRDS - Monsters with claws, beaks and wings of iron, these birds lived in the marshes of Stymphalus in Arcadia and fed on human flesh. Hercules used cymbals to frighten them into the air where they were so numerous that they darkened the sky. He then killed them with arrows.
5. CERYNEIAN HIND - With bronze hooves and golden antlers, the hind lived on Mount Ceryneia. After an entire year of pursuit, Hercules eventually caught her by the river Ladon.
6. STABLES OF AUGEIAS - King Augeias of Elis kept a herd of cattle which included twelve white bulls sacred to Helios. The stable had not been cleaned of manure for years, so Eurystheus ordered Hercules to clean it out. King Augeias agreed to give Hercules 10% of the herd if he did the job in a single day, which he did by altering the course of the rivers Alpheus and Peneius to run through the stables. Augeias refused to make payment and was later punished.
7. CRETAN BULL - Poseidon gave a bull to King Minos of Crete for the purpose of offering it back to Poseidon as a sacrifice. When Minos decided to keep the bull, Poseidon drove it mad, causing it to terrorize the island. Hercules captured it and carried it across the sea to Argolis.
8. MARES OF DIOMEDES - Diomedes, the son of King Ares of Bistones, owned a group of mares which he fed human flesh. With the help of a group of volunteers, Hercules killed their guards, did battle with and vanquished the Bistones. Upon capturing Diomedes, he fed him to his own mares.
9. GIRDLE OF HIPPOLYTE - Hippolyte (or Melanippe), the Cappadocian Queen of the Amazons, was given a beautifully adorned girdle, by Ares. Eurystheus ordered Hercules to acquire it for his daughter, Admetus. Together with the heroes Theseus, Telamon and Peleus, he first went to Paros and fought the sons of Minos, then to Mysia where he helped King Lycus defeat the Bebryces. Next, he arrived in the land of the Amazons, where Hippolyte willingly gave up the girdle. Hera was enraged and spread the story that Hercules was planning to kidnap Hippolyte. The Amazons armed themselves. Hercules, believing Hippolyte had betrayed him, slaughtered them.
10. CATTLE OF GERYON - In either Western Iberia or Epirus (depending on the version of the legend) a triple-bodied monster named Geryon owned a herd of red oxen which were looked after by Eurytion and the dog Orthrus. Commanded to bring the oxen to Eurytheusim, Hercules killed Geryon, Eurytion and Orthrus and left with them. During the return journey, Hercules slew the sons of Poseidon when they attempted to steal the cattle. Some of the cattle escaped and ended up held by Eryx, King of Elymans in Sicily, who agreed to return them only if Hercules beat him at boxing and wrestling. During the contests Eryx was killed and Hercules continued on to Thrace where Hera sent a gadfly to drive the cattle mad. Eventually they were gathered up and presented to Eurytheus who sacrificed them to Hera.
11. GOLDEN APPLES OF THE HESPERIDS - The Hesperids, daughters of Atlas and Hesperus, guarded a garden in which grew golden apples. Eurystheus ordered Hercules to bring him the apples. First traveling to the river Eridanus, he captured the prophetic god "Nereus" who told him how to find the garden. Traveling to Libya, he wrestled with and killed the monstrous bandit Antaeus. He was then attacked by Pygmies whom he sewed up in his lion skin. Traveling on to Egypt, he was captured by king Busiris and ordered sacrificed to end a famine. He escaped and slew Busiris and his son, Amphidamas. In Ethiopia he placed Memnon on the throne by killing Emathion, then crossed the sea in a golden boat belonging to the Sun. Arriving in the Caucasus he killed the eagle that gnawed Prometheus' liver. Finally reaching the garden he killed its guard, the dragon Ladon, and seized the apples. He delivered them to Eurystheus, who gave them back to him, so he presented them to Athena who returned them to the garden.
12. JOURNEY TO THE UNDERWORLD - Having successfully completed the first eleven labours, Eurystheus ordered Hercules to bring back Cerberus, the guardian of the infernal gates of the Underworld. First learning the Iinfernal Mysteries at Eleusis, and with Hermes as a guide, he descended into the Underworld where he first rescued Theseus who had earlier ventured there. Defeating Menoetes, herdsman of Hades, he went on to wound Hades and was granted permission to carry off Cerberus if he could defeat him with only his bare hands. Successful in this, he dragged Cerberus before Eurystheus and then released him back to Hades.
Having completed all twelve labours, Hercules was released from servitude and went on to many more adventures and great deeds. One can see that the labours occurred over diverse parts of the Greek world. As a result, he was widely worshipped and his cult remained popular well into the Roman era. Representations of his labours can be found throughout Greek art, including on a wide variety of Greek and Roman coins where he is most commonly shown as a very muscular grown man, bearded and wearing the lion's skin or carrying a club.
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