Strength and Suffering in Ancient Tales

The Greek hero Herakles, better known as Hercules in Roman mythology, stands as one of the most celebrated figures in ancient tales. He is the son of Zeus, the supreme god, and Alcmene, a mortal woman. Zeus, notorious for his romantic adventures, took on the appearance of Alcmene’s husband to father Hercules, blessing him with the incredible strength and endurance of a demi-god. Throughout his life, Hercules accomplished remarkable feats, yet he also faced significant struggles, primarily because of Hera, Zeus’s wife.

Hera harbored deep resentment towards Zeus’s children with mortal women, and Hercules was no exception. She targeted him since birth, prompting Alcmene to abandon him, fearing a worse fate for him alive. However, Athena, spotting the abandoned infant, saw something special in the baby and, as the hero’s guardian, took him to Mount Olympus. In an ironic twist, Athena had Hera nurse Hercules, leading to an accidental creation of the Milky Way when Hera recoiled from his strong bite, scattering her divine milk across the sky.

Athena later reunited the baby with Alcmene, who eventually named him Heracles (Greek for “Glory of Hera”), attempting to appease Hera. Despite these efforts, Hera’s hostility persisted, leading her to send serpents to kill Hercules in his cradle, which he strangled effortlessly.

Baby Hercules strangling a snake sent to kill him in his cradle, 2nd century CE

Baby Hercules strangling a snake sent to kill him in his cradle, 2nd century CE

As Hercules matured, he married Megara, daughter of Thebes’s King Creon, only to fall victim to Hera’s wrath again. She drove him to temporary madness, causing him to kill his children. Overcome with guilt, Hercules sought guidance from the Oracle at Delphi, which instructed him to serve his cousin Eurystheus, the King of Tiryns and Mycenae. Eurystheus assigned him tasks to atone for his sins, starting with ten labors that eventually increased to twelve.

Hercules began his legendary 12 Labors by defeating the Nemean lion, immune to weapons. He cornered the beast in its cave and strangled it, thereafter wearing its pelt as a cloak for the remainder of his life. He then faced the Hydra, a venomous, nine-headed creature residing underwater near the Underworld’s entrance. Despite severing its heads, they regrew until his nephew Iolaus helped by cauterizing the stumps, a tactic that disqualified the labor in Eurystheus’s eyes, necessitating an additional task.

Hercules and the Nemean lion by Pieter Paul Rubens, c. 1615

Hercules and the Nemean lion by Pieter Paul Rubens, c. 1615

Hercules’s third challenge involved securing the sacred hind of the goddess Diana, which he accomplished without incurring the wrath of the goddess by explaining his mission. He then captured the man-eating Erymanthian boar using a giant net and cleaned the vast Augean stables in one day by rerouting two rivers, an ingenious feat that Eurystheus nullified over a technicality.

To rid the city of Stymphalos of its carnivorous birds, Hercules used a rattle from Athena to scare them off before shooting them down. His quest in Crete involved seizing a bull that had impregnated the king’s wife, leading to the birth of the Minotaur. 

In Thrace, Hercules faced Diomedes’s man-eating horses, subduing them by feeding Diomedes to them. His diplomatic skills were tested when retrieving the belt of Amazon queen Hippolyte, a task that turned violent due to Hera’s deception.

Hercules and the Hydra by Antonio del Pollaiuolo, c. 1475

Hercules and the Hydra by Antonio del Pollaiuolo, c. 1475

The tenth labor took Hercules to the brink of Africa to seize the cattle of Geryon, a monstrous giant with three bodies joined to one pair of legs, a quest once again complicated by Hera’s interference. Then, charged with obtaining Hera’s golden apples, Hercules sought Atlas’s help. Atlas consented to retrieve the apples, with Hercules temporarily taking on the burden of holding the earth and heavens on his shoulders. Upon returning, Atlas hesitated to reassume his duty, but Hercules cleverly requested a brief respite to adjust his cloak. As Atlas lifted the earth and heavens once more, Hercules seized the opportunity, retrieved the apples, and made his escape.

Hercules’s final labor involved capturing Cerberus, the ferocious three-headed guard dog of the Underworld, without weapons, a feat he achieved with consent from the god of the dead, Hades, showcasing his ability to overcome even the most daunting challenges.

Following his 12 Labors, Hercules embarked on numerous other quests, including saving the Princess of Troy and fighting for control of Mount Olympus. However, these adventures, while notable, did not match the intensity of his earlier labors.

Hercules of the Forum Boarium, 2nd century BCE

Hercules of the Forum Boarium, 2nd century BCE

In his later years, Hercules married Deianira as his second wife. During an encounter with a centaur who attempted to abduct her, Hercules used an arrow dipped in Hydra’s lethal poison to shoot the creature. As the centaur lay dying, he tricked Deianira by giving her his blood-soaked tunic, falsely claiming it would ensure Hercules’s loyalty to her.

When Deianira later suspected Hercules of infidelity, she gave him the tainted tunic, hoping to win back his affection. Tragically, the poison from the tunic inflicted unbearable pain on Hercules. Acknowledging his end was near, he constructed a funeral pyre and chose to end his life in flames. Athena then transported Hercules to Olympus in her chariot, where he was destined to live among the gods forever.

Hercules, embodying the quintessential hero, faced numerous challenges and betrayals, yet his tales were more than mere entertainment. They conveyed to ancient audiences that even someone as heroic as Hercules could endure misfortune, providing a sense of solace and inspiration amid their own struggles. His resilience in adversity made him a symbol of hope and the enduring human spirit amid life’s tumultuous trials.

Editors’ finds

Masterpiece spotlight

Going West by Jackson Pollock, 1934-35

Going West by Jackson Pollock, 1934-35

Words of wisdom

“Man often becomes what he believes himself to be.” —Mahatma Gandhi

“A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you.” —Elbert Hubbard

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” —Albert Camus

“The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d rather not.” —Mark Twain


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