Introduction to the 12 Labours of Heracles

Updated on March 12, 2018
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

Heracles was the greatest hero of Greek mythology, so great in fact that Rome would incorporate the hero into Roman mythology, where the hero would become known as Hercules.

From birth to death, the life of Heracles was full of adventures, but today, he is best remembered for undertaking the 12 tasks of Heracles, or labours, as they are also called.

Primary Resources for the Labours of Heracles

Heracles, or Hercules, is a figure that appears in many works from Ancient Greece and Rome, but one of the earliest sources that wrote down 12 labours is said to be Heracleia. Heracleia was an epic poem written by Peisander of Rhodes in C600BC; unfortunately this is a lost epic, and is simply a work referred to by other writers.

There are four sources that are cited today when talking about the twelve labours of Heracles; Bibliotheca (Pseudo-Apollodorus, c150AD), Bibliotheca historica (Diodorus Siculus, c50BC), Fabulae (Hyginus, c10BC), and Heracles (Euripides, c416BC).

The first three sources talk of the same 12 tasks to be completed by Heracles, although differing in order, whilst Euripides talks of differing labours. Today, though it is normal to take the order and make up of the 12 labours of Heracles from the Bibliotheca.

Why did Heracles do the 12 Labours?

As a relatively young man, Heracles stayed for a while in Thebes; whilst there he defended the city from Minyans, who had previously demanded tribute from the city. King Creon of Thebe offered the hero his daughter, Megara, in marriage as a reward, and so Heracles and Megara were married.

Heracles though was being persecuted by Hera, Heracles being the son of Hera’s husband Zeus by Alcmene, and so the goddess Madness was sent down to Heracles. Not knowing what he was doing, Heracles would kill his own children, numbering between two and eight, and in some sources he would also kill Megara.

Eventually Madness departed and Heracles realised what he had done. Heracles was forced to leave Thebes, and the hero travelled to Delphi to find out from the Oracle how he could atone for his crime.

The Oracle of Delphi advised him to travel to Tiryns and undertake any tasks that King Eurystheus would demand of him.

Heracles Comes to King Eurystheus

Daniel Sarrabat PD-art-100
Daniel Sarrabat PD-art-100 | Source

King Eurystheus Setter of the Trials of Heracles

Everything that had happened to Heracles though, may have been predestined, as the lives of Heracles and King Eurystheus were already intertwined.

Before Heracles was born, Zeus planned that his soon to be born son would be king of Tiryns. Zeus had indeed proclaimed that a prince of the line of Perseus would be born on a certain day, and that son would be king.

Hera though, angered by her husband’s infidelity brought forth the birth of Eurystheus to Sthenelus, the son of Perseus and Nicippe, whilst delaying the birth of Heracles and Iphicles to Amphitryon and Alcmene.

A bargain was then said to be have been struck between Hera and Zeus; Eurystheus would continue on the path to become king, whilst Heracles would eventually be transformed into a god. The bargain though did not prevent Hera continuing to persecute Heracles.

A Summary of the 12 Labours of Heracles

Upon the arrival of Heracles in his court, Hera directed King Eurystheus to set task after task, each of which was believed to be impossible, and quite possibly deadly.

Initially there was going to be ten labours for Heracles to complete over a period of ten years, but Eurystheus would refuse to recognise two completed tasks, and so two more were set, to make the 12 labours of Heracles.

Whilst famous as a group, most people today, if asked what were the 12 labours of Heracles? would struggle to name all 12.

Heracles and Lernaean Hydra

Guido Reni (1575–1642) PD-art-100
Guido Reni (1575–1642) PD-art-100 | Source

Nemean Lion

The Nemean Lion was the monstrous offspring of Typhon and Echidna that terrorised Nemea. Anyone that crossed the lion’s path would be killed, as the lion had claws that could cut through armour, and fur that was impervious to weapons.

Heracles tried to use arrows to kill the Nemean Lion, but when he found them to be useless, the hero took up his club, and fought with his hands against the lion in its cave. The immense strength of Heracles would see the hero eventually strangle the lion.

Heracles would make a robe out of the fur of the Nemean Lion, and upon his return to Tiryns wearing the robe, King Eurystheus fled at the sight.

Lernaean Hydra

The second labour of Heracles would see the hero travel to Lernae. In the swamps of Lernae lived a multi-headed serpent, another child of Typhon and Echidna. The Lernaean Hydra had been raised by Hera specifically to kill Heracles, and it looked like the hero would be in trouble, as two heads grew every time one was cut off.

Eventually, with the help of his nephew Iolaus, Heracles would cauterise each open wound, until all heads were cut off and the Lernaean Hydra was dead. Heracles would use the blood of the Hydra on his arrows to make them even more deadly.

Ceryneian Hind

The Ceryneian Hind was a golden-horned deer sacred to Artemis. Swift of foot, the Ceryneian Hind could even outrun an arrow. Heracles would chase the Hind for a whole year before he eventually caught it on Mount Artemision.

Eurystheus believed that even if Heracles caught the deer, Artemis would be so angry that the goddess would kill the hero. Heracles though, managed to explain the situation to the goddess, and promised to release the Ceryneian Hind once the task was complete.

King Eurystheus wanted to add the hind to his menagerie, and so Heracles had to arrange the creature’s escape before the king could take possession.

Erymanthian Boar

King Eurystheus also tasked Heracles with the capture of the Erymanthian Boar, a boar that was ravaging Psophis. The capture though proved to be relatively easy, and by trapping it in snow, the Erymanthian Boar was easily captured.

When Heracles returned to Tiryns with the boar, the king was so afraid that he hid in a wine jar for three days. Heracles released the boar, where it was said to have subsequently swum to Italy.

Heracles and Diomedes

Antoine-Jean Gros (1771–1835) PD-art-100
Antoine-Jean Gros (1771–1835) PD-art-100 | Source

Stables of Augeas

The cattle of King Augeas of Elis were legendary, and the large herd of the king lived in a gigantic stable. The stable had never been cleaned, and so the cleansing of it was given to Heracles. Heracles asked King Augeas for a tenth of the cattle if the task could be completed, and the king agreed, believing, like King Eurystheus, that the labour would prove impossible.

All Heracles did though was to divert the rivers Apheus and Peneus through the stable, washing it clean. Augeas would refuse payment afterwards, and this would lead to war years later.

Stymphalian Birds

Heracles was then dispatched to Lake Stymphalia; there sacred birds of Ares were killing people their beaks of bronze, and feathers that fired as arrows.

Athena assisted Heracles by providing him with a bronze noise maker. The noise maker sacred the birds to flight, and they then became easy targets for the bow and arrows of Heracles. The Stymphalian birds that were not killed by Heracles would fly to Aretias, where they were encountered by the Argonauts.

Cretan Bull

On Crete, the sacred bull that Minos had declined to sacrifice to Poseidon, was ravaging the countryside. Again, Heracles was tasked with capturing the beast, but when he returned to Tiryns with it, Hera would not accept it as a sacrifice.

Heracles therefore released it, and it would then roam to Marathon, where eventually it would be encountered by Theseus, in the guise of the Marathonian Bull.

Mares of Diomedes

Diomedes was the gigantic king of Thrace. Diomedes was also the owner of four man-eating horses. King Eurystheus tasked Heracles with their theft, believing that either the horses or Diomedes would kill the hero.

It was Heracles though who killed Diomedes, although the horses did kill Abderus, one of Heracles’ companions. Heracles would feed the dead king to the horses, and subsequently, the horses would never need to feed on flesh again.

Heracles Obtaining the Girdle of Hyppolita

Nikolaus Knüpfer (1609–1655)  PD-art-100
Nikolaus Knüpfer (1609–1655) PD-art-100 | Source

Girdle of Hippolyta

Hippolyta was queen of the legendary Amazons; she was also in possession of a magnificent girdle that Eurystheus wanted. King Eurystheus believed that the Amazons would kills Heracles tried to steal it.

It did not prove necessary for Heracles to steal the girdle of Hippolyta though, as the queen willing gave it to the girdle. A fight would break out between Heracles and the rest of the Amazons, and during the battle Queen Hippolyta was killed, although Heracles managed to return to Tiryns with the girdle.

Cattle of Geryon

Like Diomedes, Geryon was a famous giant. Geryon lived in Erytheia where he raised a herd of red cattle which Eurystheus wanted. The cattle though were guarded by a two-headed dog, Orthrus. Heracles easily killed the guard dog with his club, whilst Geryon was killed with an arrow. The red cattle were then easily transported back to King Eurystheus.

Apples of the Hesperides

At the very edge of the world was the garden of Hera, a garden that was home to a tree that produced golden apples. Heracles was tasked with stealing the apples, but the garden was tended to by the Hesperides, whilst the apple tree was guarded by the dragon Ladon.

Heracles managed to sneak past the Hesperides, and would kill Ladon, although in some versions of the myth it is Atlas who completes the task. The apples were taken to Tiryns, although Athena would later return them to the garden of Hera.

Cerberus

All of the previous labours were thought to be impossible, but the twelfth task really should have been impossible. Heracles was tasked with descending to the underworld, and bringing back the triple-headed guard dog of the River Acheron, Cerberus. No mortal should be able to leave the underworld once they have entered, and thus the impossibility of the task.

Heracles easily wrestled Cerberus, but had to promise to Hades that the dog would not be harmed, and that it would be free to return to the underworld once the task was complete.

Of course when Heracles returned to Tiryns with Cerberus, King Eurystheus hid once again in the wine jar.

King Eurystheus would discount the slaying of the Lernaean Hydra, as Heracles was assisted in the task, and the cleaning of the Augean Stables, as the hero had received payment for the labour. Thus two more labours, that of the Hesperides’ Apples and Cerberus, were added.

Mosaic of the 12 Labours of Heracles

Sgiralt CC-BY-SA-3.0
Sgiralt CC-BY-SA-3.0 | Source

The Aftermath of the Labours of Heracles

Having successfully captured Cerberus, King Eurystheus was so afraid, that he banished Heracles from the whole of the Argolis region; this could be taken as a successful completion of all tasks by Heracles and therefore atonement for his earlier crime.

Heracles would go on to have many more adventures, some of which were classed as minor labours, the Parerga. Heracles would also become a famous womaniser, siring a long list of children with various women.

King Eurystheus would live out his life fearful that Heracles or one of his descendants would come to Tiryns to assert his claim to the throne. After the death of Heracles, Eurystheus would travel around Ancient Greece with his army, attempting to kill any of the Heraclides that he could find.

Chased from city to city, many of the Heraclides found refuge in Athens, and when Eurystheus arrived demanding that they be given up, Athens refused, and a battle ensued. During the battle Eurystheus was killed by either Hyllus or Iolaus

Questions & Answers

  • What is the purpose of the Labours of Heracles?

    The 12 Labours of Heracles served two purposes.

    Heracles, having been advised by the Oracle of Delphi, entered a period of servitude with Eurystheus as atonement for killing his wife and children.

    Hera made use of the set labours to try and kill the illegitimate son of her husband, Zeus.

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