When Heracles, son of Zeus and a demigod, slaughtered his family in a moment of madness, Eurystheus, the sly king of Tiryns, ordered Heracles to fulfill 12 tasks as penance.
Records of Heracles’ twelve labors are found only in later writers, Homer and Hesiodus do not mention them. Homer only knows that during his life on earth Heracles was subject to endless dangers and sufferings because of his hatred of Hera, and that he was subject to Eurystheus, who imposed many and difficult tasks on him. Homer, however, mentions only one of these tasks, that of bringing Kerberos. The Iliad also refers to his battle with a sea monster and his expedition to Troy to get the horses that Laomedon had refused.
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Hesiodos clearly mentions some of Heracles’ achievements, but knows nothing about the number twelve. It was probably the work of Alexandrines that these twelve deeds were chosen from the multitude of achievements attributed to Heracles.
Heracles performed the first ten works in a period of eight years and one month. But Eurystheus declared two of them (the killing of the Hydra and the cleaning of Augeas’ stables) to be unlawful and ordered Heracles to do two more.
Here are those tasks, from the hardest to the easiest:
1- Capturing Kerberos, the Three-Headed Dog of Hell
King Eurystheus had saved the worst for last; to fulfill his final task, Heracles had to go to hell and capture the huge, three-headed dog that guarded its gates. Heracles had to search Eleusis for a way to get in and out of hell without killing himself. Then he had to find his way through hell, ask Charon the Boatman to take him across the River Styx, even though he wasn’t dead, and then get permission from his uncle Hades (because you can’t steal a god’s pet without his permission!). Hades gave permission on one condition: His nephew Heracles must not use any weapon to neutralize this undead monster. So Heracles wrestled the huge, three-headed hell-beast with the help of a dragon’s head, until he managed to wrap it in the skin of the lion of Nemea. This was the most dangerous monster Heracles had ever fought, due to its difficulty and the fact that it required a trip to hell.
2- Capturing the Apples of the Hesperids
For his 11th task, King Eurystheus ordered Heracles to bring back one of the golden apples of the Hesperids, the nymphs who lived where the sun sets. The tree on which these apples grew was guarded by the 100-headed dragon Ladon, which meant another challenge for Heracles. So he used his wits. You may remember Atlas as the Titan condemned to hold up the sky for eternity; Heracles offered Atlas to bear his burden for a while if he would pick an apple for him. Heracles thought that since Atlas was the father of the Hesperids, Ladon would not attack him. Atlas accepted the offer, with the plan to dump his burden on Heracles and never carry it again. But Atlas was not as clever as he thought; he brought the apples before telling Heracles of his betrayal. Heracles asked the thick-headed Titan if he could hold the sky for just a second before he could hold it for all eternity in a better way, and of course later, as soon as Atlas had backed the firmament again, Heracles took the apples and walked away.
3- Killing the Hydra
The most impressive monster that Heracles tried to subdue was the Hydra that lived in the marshes of Lerna; the Hydra was a multi-headed monster, when one head was cut off, two new heads grew in its place, and each head also had highly poisonous fangs. We know all this, but it was all very fresh information for Heracles as he tried to track down and defeat the creature in the toxic swamp in which it lived. Hera was not satisfied, even though Heracles was fighting a monster that grew stronger the more he fought, so she sent a giant crab to attack Heracles at the same time as the Hydra. Eventually Heracles’ nephew Iolaus had the idea to use a torch to cauterize the part of the severed head that remained on the Hydra’s body before two new heads grew. Heracles stepped on the giant crab, crushed it and set to work, spending the afternoon chopping the beast until the last head was gone. Then he dipped his arrows in the Hydra’s poisoned blood, an idea he would later realize was a bad idea. The most crucial part of this story is that Hera had raised the Hydra only to be a Heracles-killing machine. So we can say that Hera was not happy with this result, to put it mildly.
4- Killing the Lion of Nemea
Heracles’ first mission was also his most famous because it gave him his iconic appearance. King Eurystheus thought he could easily get Heracles out of his life by sending him to kill the lion of Nemea, a huge lion whose hide could not be pierced by any weapon and who terrorized the countryside. But fighting fearsome animals was just Heracles’ style. Heracles wrestled with the animal until he broke its neck. It may sound easy, but in the end Heracles wrestled a huge, deadly lion. After this task, which took him 30 days, Heracles began to use the skin of the Nemean lion as a cloak.
5- Cleaning the Stables of Augeas
As his deception of Atlas shows, Heracles was no fool; he was just much stronger than he was smart. To complete his 5th task, he used both brains and brawn: To clean the legendary stables of Augeas. They were legendary, of course, because Augeas had more oxen than anyone else in the world, but he had never once cleaned the stables where they stood. Eurystheus was trying to defeat Heracles through shame as much as through physical tasks by forcing him to clean the many mountains of excrement. Heracles took one look at the stables – or one sniff at the stables – found the nearest river, changed the riverbed so that it ran between the stables and let the river wash away all the filth. Heracles had single-handedly changed the course of the entire river without swinging a single oar – an impressive feat of resourcefulness.
6- Capturing Hippolyte’s Belt
The 9th mission was a bit strange. It sounds hard, but then it turns out to be very easy, until Hera messes things up and everything gets hard again. The task was this: to capture the belt of the queen of the Amazons, who are known for being powerful warriors and for hating and/or killing every man they see. The Amazons let Heracles wander around Themiscyra and go wherever he wanted. Heracles even went to Queen Hippolyte and asked her to give him her belt, and she agreed! Heracles then took a short break to celebrate this easy task and have fun with his new friends. Hera, meanwhile, was so angry that this mission had ended so easily that she disguised herself as an Amazon, went to Themisycra and started talking back and forth about Heracles, mostly about how Heracles was going to kidnap the queen. Eventually all the Amazons tried to kill Heracles. What is remarkable about this mission is that Heracles managed to escape and survive a nation of troublesome and angry female warriors. But during his escape, he killed Hippolyte, whom he thought had betrayed him.
7- Capturing the Keryneia Deer
After hearing about all the monsters Heracles fought, it doesn’t seem so hard to catch just one deer, does it? But what if this deer could run faster than an arrow? Heracles had to run non-stop for literally a year before he could catch this deer. Every day for 365 days, Heracles ran three full marathons – 120 kilometers for about 12 hours a day – a feat of valor typical of demigods. The stag was also the sacred animal of Artemis, the goddess of hunting; Eurystheus had set this mission to get Heracles in trouble with the goddess. After Heracles captured the stag, he quickly tried to persuade his cousin, who was divinely higher than him, to show him mercy, and he succeeded.
8- Capturing the Erymathian Boar
When you think of the other quests Heracles has completed before, like the Keryneia deer, capturing a boar – even if it is a huge animal with big tusks and a temper problem – doesn’t sound very interesting. But here’s the thing: when Eurystheus was king of Tiryns, the boar was wreaking havoc on Mount Erymanthos. The distance between the two places was 134 kilometers. The average boar weighs about 80 kg, but we hypothesize that the Erymathian boar was much bigger and heavier than that. So Heracles carried this 90 kg boar – which didn’t want to go anywhere or be taken anywhere – on foot for 134 kilometers.
9- Driving away the Stymphalian Birds
Mission 6: Go to Lake Stymphalia in Arcadia and take care of the crazed birds whose beaks look like spears, who throw their knife-like feathers at humans and whose feces are pure poison. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Well, not really. The only reason these birds are high up on this list is that, according to one version of the story, Heracles killed them all with his bow and arrows dipped in Hydra’s poisonous blood. In the other version of the story, Heracles makes a rattle, shakes it and scares all the birds away. Let’s still consider the other version of the story and move on.
10- Shepherding Geryon’s Cattle
Eurystheus ordered Heracles to bring him some cattle as the 10th task. The deception here was this: The cattle were at the end of the world. They also belonged to Geryon, a giant with three heads and six arms who had no intention of giving up his cattle. But getting to Geryon was more difficult than dealing with Geryon himself. Heracles first had to cross the Libyan Desert. By this time he was so blinded by the heat that he shot an arrow at the sun, an act that somehow moved the sun god Helios, who gave Heracles a boat. Finally reaching Geryon’s island, Heracles struck a blow on the head of Geryon’s two-headed guard dog, did the same to the shepherd of the flock, and finally fired a single poisoned arrow at Geryon, who died instantly. Getting the cattle to Eurystheus was more difficult than getting them because Hera kept sending horseflies to bite the cattle and scatter the herd. So this mission was more of a struggle than a mission.
11- Stealing Diomedes’ mares
Unlike Geryon’s cattle, these mares were centrally located and not guarded by a three-headed giant. These mares belonged to Diomedes, a common mortal, albeit a despicable one. The problem with the mares was this: Diomedes had bred the mares to eat human flesh and often fed his guests to the mares. But instead of fighting the scary, man-eating horses, Heracles grabbed Diomedes by the scruff of the neck and threw him in front of his own horses to eat. The horses were completely calm after that. In short, Heracles eliminated the man and then shepherded a group of normal horses. We could probably all do it.
12- Capturing the Cretan Bull
The last mission on the list was the 7th mission of Heracles. The Cretan bull was famous for wreaking havoc in Crete and was probably the father of the Minotaur, a creature that was half man and half bull. The best thing about the Cretan bull was that it was not wild. All Heracles had to do was sneak up behind the bull and put him in a headlock, and he captured him. Now you will realize that this task was much easier than you thought: Not only did the bull meekly go with Heracles to Tiryns, but he allowed Heracles to ride on his back as he swam across the Mediterranean Sea to the Greek mainland. The bull gave Heracles the perfect ride.