The hero Perseus had many children with his wife, Andromeda, after he rescued her from the sea monster. Three of the sons they raised in Argos were Alcaeus, Electryon, and Sthenelus. In time Alcaeus grew up and had a son of his own named Amphitryon, while Electryon had nine sons and a daughter he named Alcmene.
When Perseus died, Electryon became king of Mycenae. The coast of Argos in those days was plagued by pirates and one day they attacked Electryon’s sons while they were tending cattle. Unfortunately for the princes, they were no match for the raiders. The king himself then decided to seek revenge on the pirates for their crime. He entrusted Mycenae to his nephew Amphitryon as regent along with the care of his daughter—but gave him a stern warning that her virtue had better be intact when he returned. Nephew and uncle then quarreled, with words leading to drawn swords. In the passion of the moment, Amphitryon slew Electryon.
Electryon’s brother Sthenelus took the throne and banished Amphitryon from the kingdom. Alcmene willingly accompanied him into exile and the two made their way north to the city of Thebes, where King Creon purified Amphitryon of blood guilt from the slaying of his uncle. Amphitryon was now eager to marry Alcmene and enjoy the pleasures of her bed, but his beautiful cousin had other ideas. Yes, she would gladly marry him, but—as a matter of honor—he first had to hunt down the pirates who had killed her brothers. Amphitryon was only too happy to seek vengeance against the men who had murdered his cousins, but he was also eager to make love to his new wife. Thus with great urgency, he collected together a band of warriors and set off to destroy the pirates.
Amphitryon was successful, but on the night of his return, Zeus took on his appearance and entered the chamber of Alcmene disguised as her husband. The god showed his bride trophies of his victory over the pirates and said it was time at last for a real honeymoon. Zeus lengthened the night to three times its normal length as he made love to Alcmene again and again.
No sooner had the god left than the real Amphitryon entered the palace. He ran upstairs to Alcmene’s bedroom and embraced his wife at last. The exhausted Alcmene couldn’t understand how her husband still had such energy after the long night of passion they had already enjoyed. When dawn came, the poor woman asked why he had come to her twice in a single night as if it were the first time. Amphitryon was furious, so he decided to seek out Tiresias the prophet to discover who had slept with Alcmene before him. The seer revealed that it was in fact Zeus who had shared her bed. Amphitryon was none too pleased with this news, but he could hardly blame his wife for the amorous encounter and it was pointless to rage against the god. Reluctantly he accepted the fact that both he and Zeus had enjoyed her favors that night.
Hera was angry as always that Zeus had cheated on her. She determined to make Alcmene and her child pay for the philandering of her husband. The goddess was even more eager to do this when after nine months Zeus rose from his throne on Olympus and declared that the fruit of his loins born that day would rule over the fertile plain of Argos. Hera made him swear that this would be so, then she slipped away and sped down to Mycenae, where the young wife of Sthenelus was seven months pregnant. The goddess caused her to go into early labor so that her son would be born first in fulfillment of the prophesy instead of Alcmene’s. As Sthenelus was the grandson of Zeus, his son was also the offspring of Hera’s husband and could fulfill the prophecy.
Meanwhile, to buy time until the wife of Sthenelus gave birth, Hera had sent Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, to wait outside the bedchamber of Alcmene. Instead of easing her delivery, Eileithyia sat with her legs and fingers tightly crossed in an act of sympathetic magic to prolong her labor. The screams of Alcmene went on for many hours as the pain increased. At last one of her servants, a clever old woman named Galanthis, noticed the stranger in the shadows and understood what this mysterious figure was doing. Galanthis then shouted, “Rejoice, a child is born! Alcmene has given birth!”
“Impossible,” cried out Eileithyia, but the distraction was enough to break her concentration and end the spell. Eileithyia was so angry at the trick that she immediately turned the old woman into a weasel. The long-suffering Alcmene then at last gave birth not to one but two sons. One was Iphicles, fathered by the mortal Amphitryon, but the other was sired on the same night by Zeus. His name was Hercules.
After Hercules was born, his mother Alcmene was afraid that Hera would kill her just as she had so many of Zeus’ lovers. She therefore took her baby and left him to die in a deserted field, hoping that this would satisfy the vengeance of the goddess. By no coincidence, Athena happened upon the infant and took him to Mount Olympus. She brought him to Hera and asked if she would nurse the beautiful baby she had found. Hera did not know who the boy was and always had a soft spot for children, so she gladly agreed and put the child to her breast. All went well until the precociously strong Hercules bit his divine nursemaid hard on the nipple. Hera screamed in pain and jumped up, spurting milk everywhere. Athena then took the child back to his mother in Thebes and persuaded her to raise him. Hera’s milk meanwhile spread across the heavens and came to be known as the Milky Way.
Hercules was just a few months old when Hera first tried to kill him. He was in his crib with his brother, Iphicles, one night when the goddess sent two large and poisonous serpents into their room. The snakes silently moved across the floor until they came to the bed, then climbed up until they were on top of the babies. Iphicles awoke and screamed, but Hercules grabbed a serpent in each of his chubby hands and squeezed. Alcmene and Amphitryon rushed in to find baby Hercules laughing as he held two dead snakes by the neck.
From his earliest days Hercules excelled in physical activities, especially since his teachers were the best Greece had to offer. His mortal father, Amphitryon, taught him to drive a chariot, while a king named Eurytus instructed him in the use of the bow. Helen’s brother Castor taught him to fight with a sword and Hermes’ son Harpalycus showed him how to wrestle. Linus, the brother of Orpheus, tried to teach him to sing and play the lyre, but Hercules was a poor student of music. Linus grew so frustrated with his pupil that one day he boxed him on the ears. Hercules flew into a rage and smashed the lyre on top of his teacher’s head, killing him. Young Hercules was put on trial for murder, but argued that by ancient custom a man was allowed to kill anyone who struck him first. The judges were impressed by this clever youth and acquitted him of all charges.
Amphitryon then wisely decided he should send Hercules out into the country to vent his energy doing chores on a farm. The boy loved this rural life and outdid all of his companions in performing farm tasks and hunting in the woods. By the time he was a young man, he was taller by a head than all his fellows and his eyes gleamed with fire. No one could beat him in contests of skill, whether shooting arrows or throwing the javelin.
When Hercules was eighteen, word reached him that an enormous lion was ravaging the flocks of King Thespius on nearby Mount Cithaeron. The beast was very hard to track, so Hercules spent fifty nights in the home of Thespius while he hunted. The king was so impressed by this young man that he decided he wanted each of his fifty daughters to bear his child. Hercules was potent but not very bright. Every night while he stayed with the king, a different girl slipped into his dark bedroom. Hercules—thinking that it was the same young woman each time coming back for more—gladly made love with each one. Some stories even say that Thespius got Hercules drunk and sent in all fifty daughters at once. But whether in a single night or over a period of weeks, Hercules impregnated each girl. Somehow he also found time to kill the lion.
In the days when young Hercules lived in the city, Thebes was dominated by the Minyans to the north. The king of the Minyans was Erginus, who ruled at Orchomenus and demanded that each year the Thebans send him a hundred of their best cattle. As Hercules was returning home after he had killed the lion of Mount Cithaeron, he happened to meet the Minyan heralds on their way to Thebes to collect their annual tribute. Hercules was so incensed by this humiliation of his town that he cut off the ears, noses, and hands of the heralds and sent them back to Orchomenus mutilated. King Erginus was furious at this outrageous insult and gathered his powerful army to march against Thebes. When he reached the walls of the city he demanded that Creon send out Hercules to be punished. The king of Thebes was seriously considering this when Hercules gathered the young men of the town and broke into a local temple. There the Thebans had long ago dedicated their weapons to the gods and hung them on a wall where they had gathered dust for years. With Hercules leading them, the youthful warriors took up the ancient arms and marched out against the Minyans. The band of Thebans not only slew Erginus and killed almost everyone in the Minyan army, but they also proceeded to the capital of their enemy and burned Orchomenus to the ground. Thanks to Hercules, the Thebans were now free.
Creon was so grateful to Hercules that he gave him his own daughter Megara to be his bride. The young couple lived happily together and had three sons, but Hera had not forgotten her anger against Hercules and was not about to let this happy domestic scene continue. She whispered in the ear of Hercules that he was nothing, a nobody from a small town who was a grave disappointment to his divine father. A true son of Zeus would have accomplished more than kill a mangy lion and defeat the Minyan rabble in a minor war. In visions of the night and in his darkest thoughts, she told him he was no hero.
Hercules wanted to be so much more than a husband and father. Hearth and home had their rewards, but he longed for danger and adventure to prove himself. The conflict between his dreams and the responsibilities of family life caused him such frustration that he didn’t know which way to turn. Hera fanned this frenzy until at last Hercules lost his mind.
One day he was performing a sacrifice to the gods with his wife and sons in attendance. His beautiful young children looked up at him in silent reverence as he carried the sacred basket of barley around the altar. Hercules stood ready to quench the flame of the altar torch in a basin so that he could sprinkle the holy water on his family as a blessing. Suddenly, without a word, he froze. Megara and the children stared at him wondering what was wrong. His bloodshot eyes rolled wildly in his head, drool dribbled into his beard, and then he screamed out with manic laughter: “Why should I sacrifice before I slay Eurystheus, son of Sthenelus, king of Mycenae? I’ll kill that miserable usurper with a single blow. Throw away the basket, pour out the water, and someone get my bow! I’m off to Mycenae. I’ll knock down those mighty walls with my bare hands.”
Hercules grabbed his bow and club, then climbed into an imaginary chariot and whipped invisible horses to a gallop. His servants didn’t know if he had gone insane or if this were some kind of joke. Their master cried out that he was crossing the Isthmus of Corinth and was nearing his goal. He then jumped on the ground and began running around the altar looking for his enemies. His children were now terrified and cried out, catching the attention of their father. He drew his bow on his eldest son, thinking he was a child of Eurystheus.
“Stop!” cried Megara as she threw herself in front of her son. “You gave this child life. Will you now take it away?”
But Hercules was in a world of his own and could not hear her. He chased the boy around the yard and caught him at last, then stabbed him through the heart with the sacrificial knife. The blood of the young child spurted from his small body as he collapsed into his mother’s arms.
“That’s one of your brood, Eurystheus,” cried Hercules. “Now for the rest!”
His second son tried to hide behind the altar, but his father found him there and dragged him away. As Hercules raised his club to crush his head, the boy grasped his father’s knees and begged him, “Daddy, please, don’t kill me! I’m your own little boy.”
But like a blacksmith at the forge, Hercules brought down his club on the boy’s fair hair and crushed his skull.
Megara grabbed her last child and ran into their house, barring the door. But Hercules burst through and drew his bow on mother and child crouched in the corner. Without a word, he shot them both through with a single arrow.
He would have killed everyone present, but Athena suddenly appeared before him and tossed a huge stone at his chest, knocking the breath from his body and driving away Hera’s madness. Hercules slowly rose from the ground and gazed in horror at the scene before him. Then he sank to his knees and wept.
For weeks Hercules was beyond consolation. He had murdered his own wife and children—madness or not, he could not forgive himself. Friends and family came to sit with him, but he wanted nothing to do with anyone. His grief consumed him until he was a shell of his former self.
Although time cannot heal all wounds, as the months passed Hercules realized he would have to move on or die alone in a dark and empty house. At last he roused himself and left Thebes behind to seek the counsel of the oracle at Delphi. He made his way west over the mountains until he came to the temple of Apollo beneath Mount Parnassus. Sacrifices performed, he entered the sanctuary and asked the priestess what he must do to be healed of his pain and find forgiveness. The message she gave him was not pleasing. He must return to his ancestral home in Argos and there serve his young uncle Eurystheus, performing whatever twelve labors this hated king would assign him. This was a bitter pill for Hercules to swallow and a powerful lesson in humility. Not only would he be reduced to the level of a slave, but his master would be the very man who had stolen the rightful throne of Argos from him. Still, there was nothing he could do except follow the will of the god. He left the slopes of Parnassus and walked slowly down the road to Argos.
The cowardly Eurystheus was terrified when he heard that Hercules was on his way to Mycenae. He thought that his nephew was planning to kill him and steal the throne. As Hercules entered the massive gates of the citadel with stone lions on each side, Eurystheus hid himself in a large bronze jar buried in the ground and hoped that his nephew wouldn’t find him. But Hercules marched into the palace grounds and tore the lid off the jar, hauling Eurystheus to his feet. The king begged for mercy with his hands raised in supplication, but finally calmed down when Hercules explained his mission. The ruler of Argos then determined to assign his nephew the most dangerous tasks he could think of, hoping that he would be killed quickly and never enter Mycenae again.
Seated on his throne but still shaking, Eurystheus commanded Hercules to seek out and slay a great lion that was ravaging the country around Nemea, to the north of Mycenae. Hercules did not think this first labor would be difficult. He had already killed a fierce lion on Mount Cithaeron and supposed this animal would be no different. He began a leisurely stroll toward Nemea and arrived at the little town of Cleone along the way. A poor man named Molorchus invited him to spend the night in his house and served him the best food his humble means allowed. He was so impressed by his mighty guest that when he was leaving the next morning, Molorchus asked if he might sacrifice to him. Hercules laughed and told him to wait thirty days. If he returned having slain the lion, he advised his host to make an offering to Zeus as savior. If he didn’t return, then he might make a small sacrifice to his spirit as a hero.
Hercules arrived in the region of Nemea and found the lair of the beast. The lion made its home in a cave stretching through the rock to the other side of the mountain. He found the lion lounging outside the entrance and notched his arrow for an easy kill. The shaft flew straight at the heart of the animal, but it merely bounced off his hide. The lion yawned as Hercules let fly another arrow, but the result was the same, for this was no ordinary lion. It was none other than a child of the ancient monsters Typhon and Echidna. The skin of the Nemean lion could not be pierced by any shaft or blade.
Hercules considered his options and came up with a plan. He went to the far side of the mountain and blocked the exit to the cave, then he returned to the entrance where the lion slept. He cut a huge club from a nearby tree and rushed the animal, yelling and making such a racket that the lion made its way into the cave to get away from the noisy intruder. Hercules followed the lion and grabbed it around the throat. By now the beast was angry and tried to tear him apart, but Hercules was so strong that he choked the lion to death with his bare hands. Since no blade could cut its hide, he used one of the razor-sharp claws of the lion itself to skin the animal. He then draped it across his shoulders as a cloak with the lion’s scalp serving as a kind of helmet. This skin and the club Hercules carved at Nemea became his emblems thereafter.
As he walked back to Mycenae, he passed through Cleone and saw Molorchus about to sacrifice to him as a dead hero. Instead, Molorchus made an offering of thanksgiving to Zeus. Hercules then continued to Mycenae, where Eurystheus was once again hiding in his jar. He was more terrified of Hercules than ever and forbade him to enter the city gates in the future. From now on he would convey his royal orders through a herald named Copreus—a calculated insult on the part of the king since his name in Greek meant “manure man.”
Eurystheus quickly sent Hercules away on his second labor, to kill the enormous Hydra that lived in the swamps of Lerna south of Mycenae. This monster had a hundred heads and a wicked temper. On certain nights it would crawl out of its swamp and ravage the farms and fields around Lerna with the help of its sidekick, a giant crab. Hercules, along with his nephew Iolaus, made his way to the Lernean swamp, but the muck and mire were so thick that the he had to use burning arrows to drive the Hydra from its hiding place. It was huge and as mean as any monster could be, but Hercules believed he could easily kill it. He rushed it with sword drawn and sliced off one of its heads in a single stroke. Proud of himself, he stood looking at the poisonous blood dripping from the beast when suddenly he saw two new heads burst from the severed neck. He attacked the Hydra again and cut off more heads, but from each stump came two additional heads, all raging against him. He then discovered that its central head was immortal and could not be destroyed by any means. To add injury to insult, the giant crab that was the Hydra’s best friend crawled out of the swamp and began biting his foot.
A strategic retreat seemed in order. Hercules ran from the marsh and found Iolaus standing by his chariot. He ordered the young man to grab a torch and follow him. The pair made their way to the Hydra, which by now was fully recovered with more angry heads than ever. Hercules first killed the giant crab nipping at his heels, then told Iolaus to stand by with the torch. He cut off one of the Hydra’s heads and yelled at his nephew to cauterize the wound quickly with fire. This had the desired effect—no new heads grew from the burned stumps. One by one Hercules cut at the monster until only the immortal head remained. He chopped this cleanly off at its vulnerable neck and buried it alive under a large rock. He then collected the poisonous blood of the Hydra and dipped all his arrows into the black liquid for future use.
The third labor Eurystheus assigned to Hercules was to track down and bring back alive the deer of Mount Ceryneia. This animal had horns of gold and was sacred to the goddess Artemis. Since he was not allowed to kill or wound the deer, Hercules spent a full year chasing it over the mountains of the Peloponnesus. At last he wore it down near a beautiful stream called the Ladon in Arcadia. He crept up on the deer while it slept and grabbed it, then threw it over his shoulders for the journey back to Mycenae.
As Hercules was making his way to Eurystheus, Artemis suddenly appeared before him. The goddess was furious that he had caught her sacred deer and was ready to kill Hercules, but he quickly explained that he had no wish to harm the animal and that he was acting under orders of the king. Artemis finally calmed down and let him continue on his way with a stern warning that he was to release her deer as soon as he reached Mycenae. Hercules agreed and made his way to the city, where he showed the deer to the herald Copreus and then let it go.
For the fourth labor, Eurystheus ordered Hercules to return to Arcadia and bring another living animal back to him, this time the terrible boar of Mount Erymanthus. This huge beast was ravaging the countryside, killing anyone who dared approach him.
Hercules followed the mountain paths to the southwest until he came to the cave of the friendly centaur Pholus, who welcomed him for the night. His host customarily ate his own meat raw, but he cooked a fine meal for his guest. Hercules asked for wine, but Pholus said the only wine available was in a jar hidden in his cave that belonged to all centaurs in common. It wasn’t really his to open and if he did, the other centaurs would smell it and go wild because of their craving for the drink. Hercules assured Pholus everything would be fine, so out of hospitality the centaur broke the seal on the jar.
The fragrant smell of the ancient vintage filled the cave and spread throughout the countryside. Soon centaurs descended on the home of Pholus from all directions. They were armed for war and ready to kill anyone who stood between them and the wine. Hercules shot any who dared to enter the cave, then ran out to chase the rest away. But the centaurs were not easily intimidated. They were fearsome creatures of great strength who tore up whole trees from their roots to use as clubs. It was a tremendous battle that lasted for hours until the hero finally killed the last of the wine-crazed centaurs and returned to the cave of his host.
Hercules found Pholus burying the bodies of the centaurs who had fallen around his home. Pholus pulled an arrow from one of the creatures and marveled at how such a small thing could have killed his companions. Then he accidentally let the point fall on his bare foot. Kindly Pholus died in agony, after which Hercules buried him beside his kinsmen and continued his hunt for the boar.
He found the beast at last in its mountain hideout and chased it until it fled into a deep snowbank and became stuck. Hercules then wrestled it into submission and carried it back to Eurystheus alive, just as he had been ordered. The king could not believe Hercules had survived yet another dangerous mission. As he hid in his jar, he tried to think of a different kind of task, one that would be both impossible and humiliating. If Hercules was unable to accomplish such a labor or too embarrassed to carry it out, the trials would be over and Eurystheus would be rid of him forever.
No job in ancient Greece was lower than cleaning up the excrement of farm animals. Only slaves and the poorest laborers shoveled dung from a barn. For his fifth labor, therefore, Eurystheus ordered Hercules to clean the infamous stables of King Augeas, son of the god Helios. This ruler was a mighty cattle lord with vast herds, but he cared little that the animal excrement in his huge barn had been building up for years. The piles of dung were deeper than a man’s knees and the stench was unimaginable. Eurystheus also stipulated that Hercules had to accomplish this humiliating labor all by himself.
Hercules was no stranger to farm life, but he recoiled at the thought of shoveling dung. He also knew it was impossible for him to cleanse the stables of Augeas alone by this method. But as he was under the command of the oracle at Delphi, he dared not offend the god by refusing to try. He made his way to the palace of Augeas to offer his services to the king. As he passed the swift Alpheus River along the way, he had a marvelous idea.
When he reached the palace, he was so confident he could accomplish the task that he told Augeas he would clean his stables in a single day if Augeas would give him a tenth of his cattle when the deed was complete. The king knew this was impossible, but he decided to let the young fool try. Hercules conveniently forgot to tell Augeas that he was acting under the orders of Eurystheus and had to clean the stables even with no payment. He made Phyleus, son of Augeas, witness the agreement and then set to work.
The next morning Hercules went to one wall of the stables and knocked a large hole in the side. Then he strolled through the muck to the other end and made another opening. After this, he went to the nearby banks of the Alpheus and diverted the stream into a channel he had dug into the barn. Thousands of gallons of fresh river water poured through the stables and washed away years of dung in a matter of minutes. Hercules then closed the channel, patched up the holes in the barn, and demanded his payment.
Augeas was incredulous, especially as he had discovered in the meantime that Hercules had come to him under orders of Eurystheus. The king refused to give him a single cow as he claimed to have been deceived. Hercules called on Phyleus as witness, with the king’s son confirming that his father should pay. Augeas angrily ordered both Hercules and Phyleus to leave his kingdom forever.
Hercules made his way back to Mycenae without any cattle. In a bad mood, he stopped at the home of a local king named Dexamenus. This ruler had been bullied into promising his daughter in marriage to a centaur named Eurytion, who was coming that very day to claim her. Hercules had no use for centaurs after his encounter with them during the hunt for the Erymanthian Boar, so he killed Eurytion on the spot and then made his way back to Mycenae.
The sixth labor of Hercules was again not particularly dangerous, but Eurystheus considered it impossible. In Arcadia, in a dense forest near the town of Stymphalus, a flock of birds countless in number had settled on a lake and fouled it beyond use. Some say the birds shot their feathers like deadly arrows at anyone who approached, but most stories agree they were simply an enormous nuisance. The inhabitants of the region had tried many times to drive them away, but to no avail. The king therefore ordered Hercules to clear the lake, believing he would surely fail.
Hercules made his way back to Arcadia and gazed in wonder at the number of birds before him. He knew he could never kill them all, so he sat down on the shore and came up with a clever plan. He carefully fashioned a pair of bronze rattles that made a horrendous noise when he shook them. With these he ran around the lake causing such a ruckus that the birds took to the sky and never came back.
By now Eurystheus must have thought he would never get rid of Hercules, so for his seventh labor the king decided to send him on a mission across the sea to Crete, far from Mycenae, where the king hoped Hercules would be killed. His task was to capture alive the bull that had once emerged from the sea at the prayer of Minos to Poseidon. When the Cretan king refused to sacrifice it as he had promised, the god made Minos’ queen, Pasiphae, fall in love with it and mate with the animal, producing the murderous Minotaur. After knowing the queen intimately, the bull had escaped the fields of Minos and was terrorizing the island.
Hercules found the bull without much difficulty and wrestled it to the ground, but getting the wild creature back to the mainland would not be easy. However, Hercules borrowed a trick that his father Zeus had used with Europa and rode the swimming bull all the way across the sea. Once he had shown it to the herald Copreus, he released it to wander around Greece until it eventually settled on the plain of Marathon near Athens and was slain by Theseus.
Eurystheus had failed to kill Hercules by sending him south to Crete, so Hercules’ eighth labor was to go north to the wild land of Thrace and bring back alive the man-eating mares of King Diomedes. These ravenous horses had been reared on human flesh by the king and would eat nothing else. They were so fierce that their feeding troughs were made of bronze and so strong they were held in their stables by iron chains. Eurystheus hoped that Hercules would be their next meal.
On his way to Thrace, Hercules passed through the kingdom of Admetus who ruled over Thessaly. He noticed that the whole palace was in mourning. When he inquired why, he was told only that a woman not of the king’s blood had passed away. Hercules couldn’t understand why there should be such a fuss over someone not even related to the royal family. He therefore demanded wine and food be brought to him, then spent the evening laughing and joking with the tearful king.
Finally Admetus explained to his guest that it was indeed his own wife, Alcestis, who had died that very day. He had not wanted to be a poor host for Hercules, so he had tried to hide his sorrow. Hercules was profuse in his apologies and asked how such a young woman had died so suddenly. Admetus then told him the whole story.
Zeus had been angry with Apollo for killing some of the Cyclopes, so the ruler of the gods made him a slave of Admetus for a whole year. The king had been so kind to the god that at the end of his service Apollo granted the king a special favor—he need not die at his appointed time if he could find someone to die in his place.
Admetus searched throughout his kingdom for a person who would willingly die for him. He went to wealthy nobles who owed him their fortunes and to poor beggars living in squalor on the streets, but no one would take his place. He then went to his brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, seeking desperately for someone who would make the long journey to Hades for him, but they all turned away. At last he went to his aged parents, hoping that they, nearing the end of their lives, would be willing. But his father spoke for both when he said, “Admetus, the light of the sun is all the more sweet to us because it is fading fast. We gave you life, but we will not die for you.”
The king had almost given up hope when at last his lovely wife, Alcestis, came to him: “My husband, you have searched high and low for someone to take your place in Hades’ pale realm, but you did not ask the one who loves you most. Admetus, I will die for you.”
The king sadly consented, then sat beside her on her deathbed as she breathed her last.
Hercules was deeply moved by this story and swore to Admetus that he would find a way to make things right. He rushed to the tomb of Alcestis and there found Death, who had come to claim her spirit. He wrestled the grim specter to the ground and took back the soul of Alcestis, reuniting it with her body. He then led the living queen back to the throne room and presented her to Admetus.
After a good night’s sleep in the joyful palace, Hercules continued on his way to Thrace with a few of his companions, including a young man named Abderus, who was his lover. Hercules promptly found the horses and calmed them by feeding them their own master, Diomedes. He then led them to the beach to take them by ship back to Argos. The Thracians launched an attack on the Greeks as they were leaving, so Hercules left the horses with Abderus on the shore while he and his friends put the natives to flight. By the time he returned, the horses had eaten most of his boyfriend. In his memory, Hercules founded a town named Abdera and instituted an athletic festival with every sort of game and contest—except for horse races.
Hercules returned to Eurystheus with the mares, but the king of Mycenae did not want the savage animals in his own land. He let them go so that they ran away north to the forests below Mount Olympus, where they were eaten by wolves.
King Eurystheus had a daughter named Admete who knew how to wrap her father around her little finger. This princess demanded that Hercules sail to the distant land of the fierce Amazons and bring back the belt of the warrior queen Hippolyte. Sometimes called a girdle, a maiden’s belt was the symbol of her sexuality. Since it held her clothing in place, to freely loosen it for a man was a most intimate act. To have it forcibly taken was a prelude to rape.
Admete got her wish and soon Hercules was on his way north with a band of volunteers across the Aegean and into the Black Sea. Along the way he laid siege to unfriendly islands, battled newfound enemies, and killed two sons of King Minos, but at last he arrived at the town of Themiscyra in the kingdom of the Amazons.
Hippolyte received the visiting hero kindly and, most impressed by her handsome guest, offered to freely give her belt to him. Hercules was looking forward to this when suddenly the other Amazons attacked his ship. Hera had enflamed the warrior women against the Greeks, claiming they were there to kidnap the queen. Hercules mistakenly believed that he had fallen into a trap set by Hippolyte, so he killed her at once and took her belt by force. Fleeing arrows and spears, Hercules and his companions quickly sailed away.
The voyage home was full of trials as well, with Hercules rescuing the princess Hesione from a sea monster at Troy, killing Poseidon’s son Sarpedon, and invading the island of Thasos off the coast of Thrace. Finally he arrived back in Mycenae, where he gave the belt of Hippolyte to the herald Copreus, who presented it to Eurystheus for his daughter Admete.
The tenth labor of Hercules was to capture the cattle of the monster Geryon, a ferocious creature with three bodies joined together at the waist. This dangerous beast lived in the farthest west on an island that lay in the great Ocean encircling the earth. No one had ever traveled so far from Greece before, thus Eurystheus was hoping Hercules would either be killed by the monster or become lost and perish in the land of the setting sun.
The hero journeyed alone across the Mediterranean to Africa, then west across the desert until he came to the land of the giant Antaeus. This enormous bully was the son of Poseidon and Earth, and it was his custom to challenge every stranger who came to his land to a wrestling match. In spite of his size, Antaeus was not a particularly good wrestler and was frequently thrown to the ground. But each time he touched his mother the Earth, his strength was renewed. With this advantage, he eventually defeated and killed every opponent. He then took their skulls and used them to decorate the temple of his father Poseidon.
Antaeus was eager to add Hercules’ head to his collection, so he demanded the usual wrestling contest. Hercules easily threw him time and again, but each time Antaeus arose he seemed stronger even as Hercules was growing ever weaker. At last Hercules understood the connection between his opponent and the earth beneath him, so he grabbed Antaeus and held him high above his head so that he could not touch the ground. Unable to reach his mother, the giant grew weak. Hercules then snapped him in half like a dry twig.
After many weeks of travel, Hercules reached the western end of the Mediterranean and saw the vast Atlantic before him. He was so impressed by the sight that he decided to erect two pillars on opposite sides of the narrow passage to the Ocean, one in Europe and the other in Africa. These enormous rocks became known as the Pillars of Hercules and marked the boundary of the world.
As he worked erecting the pillars, Hercules grew so hot under the withering heat of the sun that in anger he shot an arrow at Helios as he drove his chariot across the sky. The sun god laughed at his folly but he admired the audacity of the hero so much that he loaned him his own golden bowl. This was a large vessel in which Helios journeyed with his horses every night from the sunset lands to his home in the east to rise again the next day. Hercules was grateful not to have to walk the rest of his way, so he climbed into the bowl and followed the Iberian coast north until he came to the island kingdom of Geryon.
He found the cattle he sought grazing on the banks of a river and crept up on them silently. But nothing could escape the notice of the guard dog, Orthus, who was another ancient offspring of the monster Typhon and the half-nymph, half-serpent Echidna. The terrible hound rushed at Hercules with teeth bared, but the son of Zeus swung his club at the dog and smashed his skull with one blow. This caught the attention of the herdsman of Geryon, Eurytion, who came running, only to be killed in turn.
Hades also had a herd of cattle nearby, watched over by his servant Menoetius. Standing on a hill, this herdsman saw everything that had happened and warned Geryon that a thief was stealing his cattle. The three-bodied monster stormed into the meadow near the river and attacked the cattle raider, but he was struck down by Hercules’ poisonous arrows. Hercules then herded the cattle into his golden bowl and ferried them across the sea to the mainland near Tartessus. Safely ashore, he returned the vessel to the sun god and began the long journey by land back to Greece.
Hercules led the cattle across the Iberian peninsula, then over the Pyrenees to the land of Liguria below the Alps. There he was attacked by two brothers, Ialebion and Dercynus, sons of Poseidon, who tried to steal the cattle from him. Hercules pounded them and their followers with so many stones that they were all killed and the land was covered with rocks.
For some reason, Hercules decided to turn south into Italy instead of taking the obvious route beyond the Po River into Greece. He crossed the Alps and followed the shore of the Tyrrhenian Sea past the cities of the Etruscans until he came to a quiet valley beneath seven hills on the banks of the Tiber River.
In a cave there under a rocky crag lived the half-human, fire-breathing monster Cacus, whose very name means evil. The ground around his dwelling was covered with blood and gore, while the rotting heads of his victims decorated the entrance to his dark home. The valley was deserted and Hercules had no idea anything lived there, so he placed the cattle in a pasture and retired for the night. While he lay sleeping, Cacus snuck up on the herd and grabbed four bulls and four heifers by the tails, forcing them to walk backward just as Hermes had done with the cattle of Apollo. He then led them into his black cave.
The next morning Hercules woke up and realized eight of his best animals were gone. He saw their tracks, but was baffled since they didn’t lead away from the herd. He searched in vain and was at last ready to move on, when one of the cows in the cave let forth a mournful Mooooo.Hercules heard this, grabbed his club, and ran toward the sound. Cacus panicked and piled giant boulders at the entrance of his cave, but Hercules diverted the Tiber River to reveal a back door to the cavern.
Cacus tried to escape, belching black smoke to create a thick cloud to hide behind, but to no avail. Hercules grabbed him by the neck and strangled him until his eyes popped out. He then soothed his missing cattle and herded them out of the cave to rejoin the herd and continue on their way.
Hercules apparently had a poor grasp of geography and made his way south to the straits separating Italy from Sicily, then realized at last that this was not the route to Greece. After retrieving a missing bull and killing a local king in a wrestling match, he made his way back up the Italian shore of the Adriatic and returned finally to the northern borders of Greece. There Hera, reverting to the trick she had used with Io, drove some of the cows mad with a gadfly so that they escaped across Thrace and swam the Hellespont to Asia. Hercules took the remainder of the herd south through Macedonia and Thessaly until he crossed the Isthmus of Corinth and came to Mycenae. After he had given the cattle to Eurystheus, the king added insult to injury by sacrificing the entire herd to Hercules’ nemesis, the goddess Hera.
Hercules had now worked for Eurystheus for over eight years, fighting monsters and performing impossible deeds to purge himself of guilt for the murder of his wife and children. The king of Mycenae had almost given up trying to kill his unwanted servant and instead tried to keep him away for as long as possible in distant lands. With this in mind, the next labor he assigned Hercules was to fetch the golden apples of the Hesperides. The Hesperides were nymphs who lived somewhere in a remote region of the earth, though few knew where to look for them. Their apples were of pure gold growing on a tree given by Mother Earth to Zeus and Hera as a wedding present. They were guarded by a hundred-headed serpent named Ladon who could speak with a multitude of voices. But the surest protection of the apples was their unknown location. For Hercules to seize them, he would first have to find them.
He began by seeking out some sister nymphs of the Hesperides and asking them for directions. They had no idea where to look and sent him on to the ancient sea god Nereus. The shape-shifter did not care to be disturbed, so Hercules snuck up on him while he was sleeping and held him fast. Nereus changed into many different, terrifying forms to frighten him away, but Hercules held the god tight until he relented and revealed the location of the golden apples.
Nereus either gave very poor directions or Hercules was continuing his habit of getting lost, for his search for the Hesperides took him over most of the known world and beyond. His first stop was Egypt, where he entered the kingdom of Busiris. Years before when Egypt had suffered a famine for nine years, a soothsayer had come from the island of Cyprus and told the king the only way to restore the land was to sacrifice a foreigner to Zeus. Busiris took his advice and killed the Cypriot seer on his altar. Fertility returned to the land of the Nile, so the king decided thereafter to sacrifice every foreigner who came his way. When Hercules crossed into Egypt, he was seized by the king’s soldiers and led to Busiris. While the king prepared for the sacrifice, Hercules broke through the ropes holding him and grabbed one of the priests by the ankles. He used him like a club to smash his countrymen, then killed Busiris and his sons.
Hercules next sailed north to the Greek island of Lindos, where he arrived famished. The first sight that met his eyes was a cart pulled by two bulls and a driver whipping them on. The man was terrified and ran away when Hercules came running toward him, so the hero helped himself to one of the bulls and, after dedicating the offering to Zeus, roasted and ate the animal. The angry driver stood on a nearby hill the whole time calling Hercules every foul name he could think of for stealing his bull. For generations afterward, the people of Lindos offered sacrifices to Hercules, but always with curses instead of prayers.
Hercules next wandered east to the Caucasus Mountains, where he found Prometheus chained to a rock, the eagle of Zeus gnawing at his liver. Just as the Titan had foreseen long before, the son of Zeus killed the eagle, broke his chains, and set him free. As thanks, Prometheus pointed out to his rescuer a fact obvious to any Greek, that Hesperides meant “nymphs of the west” and therefore he should direct his search in that direction. He also told him that once he arrived at the garden he should not try to retrieve the apples himself, but find a way to have mighty Atlas do the deed for him.
After a long march across the northern coast of Africa, Hercules arrived in the distant west and found Atlas holding up the sky. He asked the Titan if he would fetch the golden apples if Hercules took Atlas’ place while he was gone. Atlas gladly agreed and handed the weight of the heavens to Hercules to bear on his shoulders. It didn’t take Atlas long to return with the fruit, but he told Hercules that he had no desire to take the sky back and would deliver the apples to Eurystheus himself. Hercules groaned underneath the burden and asked Atlas if he would take back the sky for just a minute while he placed a pillow on his shoulders as padding. Atlas was strong but not very smart, so he agreed. Once the transfer was made, Hercules thanked Atlas kindly and went on his way, leaving the foolish Titan to hold up the heavens for eternity.
After a long journey, Hercules arrived back at Mycenae and presented the apples to the king. Eurystheus marveled at their beauty, but was so frightened at the prospect of having them in his possession that he refused to keep them. Hercules therefore gave them to Athena, who returned them to the Hesperides.
The final labor of Hercules was the most difficult and terrifying of all. Eurystheus ordered him to go to the underworld and bring back Cerberus, the three-headed, snake-tailed guardian of the kingdom of Hades. If Hercules failed at this task, as seemed likely, he would be trapped forever among the shades of the dead.
This was not a journey to be taken lightly, even by a man who had slain monsters and traveled to the ends of the earth. Hercules had a great deal of innocent blood on his hands—blood that might cause the lord of the underworld to keep him in his realm rather than allow him to return to the land of the living. Thus before he started down the long path to Hades, he went to the city of Eleusis to be initiated into the mysteries of Demeter. The goddess had shown her followers how their spirits might escape the eternal night of the underworld. Hercules very much wanted this knowledge in case things did not go well on his last labor.
Leaving Eleusis, Hercules proceeded to the cave of Taenarum near Sparta and began his journey down into the earth. For what seemed like days he walked through darkness until at last he reached the kingdom of shades. All the souls fled before him except for the Gorgon Medusa. Hercules drew his sword against her, but she was only an empty phantom who could not harm him. The hero felt such pity for the shades that he slaughtered one of the cattle of Hades and gave its blood to the grateful souls of the dead. He also found Theseus and Pirithous sitting trapped on their chairs after trying to steal Persephone from her husband, Hades. They reached out to him for help, but he could release only Theseus, sending him on his way to the surface.
Finally Hercules came before the throne of Hades and asked if he might take Cerberus in fulfillment of his duty to Eurystheus and the oracle of Apollo. Hades agreed, provided he use none of his weapons to capture the hound. Thus Hercules approached the beast with only his lion skin and bare hands. They wrestled and fought, but the serpent fangs on the tail of Cerberus could not penetrate the skin of the Nemean Lion. At last Hercules grabbed Cerberus around his neck and held him so tight that the creature yielded. He then carried him all the way to the upper world and presented him to Eurystheus. The frightened king hiding in his jar pronounced the labors complete, then ordered Hercules to take Ceberus and leave, never to return. The hero, now purged of his guilt for killing his wife and sons, bade his uncle a bitter farewell and returned the guardian of the underworld to his dismal home.
Now that Hercules was finally finished with his labors, he decided it was time to marry again. He heard that his old archery teacher, King Eurytus of Oechalia, was offering his daughter Iole to anyone who could best him and his sons in a contest with the bow. Hercules went to the kingdom and won, but Eurytus refused to give him his daughter as his bride. The king was afraid that the girl and any children she might bear would end up dead at the hands of the unstable Hercules, as had Megara and her sons. Iphitus, a son of Eurytus, stood up for Hercules, proclaiming that his hero would never do anything so base. The king still refused and so Hercules stormed out of Oechalia swearing vengeance. He settled in the town of Tiryns on a rocky outcropping of the Argos plain not far from Mycenae.
Only a short time later someone noticed twelve of the prize horses of Eurytus were missing. The suspect was obvious, but again Iphitus defended Hercules to his father, saying he would journey to Tiryns himself to prove his innocence. Hercules welcomed the young man when he arrived and promised to take him on a tour of the surrounding countryside to show he was hiding no horses. He then gave him a fine meal and led him to the top of the high walls of Tiryns to see the beautiful view. While Iphitus was admiring the scenery, Hercules pushed him off to his death on the rocks below. He then went down to the nearby pasture to admire his new horses.
Hercules believed he could get away with anything and so went to King Neleus in Pylos to be purified of the crime of killing Iphitus. But the ruler refused as Eurytus was a friend of his. The frustrated Hercules soon realized he was developing a horrid disease, undoubtedly as a punishment for the murder. He once again made his way to Delphi to consult the oracle on what he must do to wash away the guilt of his impetuous actions, but the priestess of Apollo wanted nothing to do with him. She was disgusted that he would kill an innocent man and expect to be purified so easily. Hercules grew angry and grabbed a sacred tripod from the temple and began running down the road with it. He cried out that he would establish his own oracle if the god would not help him. Apollo saw this from his home on Olympus and flew down to Delphi, grabbing the tripod and fighting with the hero to take it back. Zeus finally had to send a lightning bolt to break up the squabble between his sons. Apollo then reluctantly told Hercules he could be cured of his disease if he would again serve as a slave, this time for three years. The god led him in chains to the nearest slave market, where he was purchased by the visiting queen Omphale of Lydia, who thought he would serve her quite well in bed.
During his three years as a slave, Hercules delighted in dressing up in Omphale’s clothes for their romantic evenings together. One night the couple slept in a woodland cave after making love and were spied by the insatiable Pan. The goat god crept up on the pair in the dark and felt a woman’s nightgown. Thinking he could rape Omphale as she slept, he mounted the bed, only to crawl on top of Hercules, who smashed him against the wall of the cave.
Hercules also had more traditional heroic adventures during his time as a slave, such as clearing the Lydian countryside of bandits and assorted evildoers. One such pair were the Cercopes, bandits who assaulted travelers along the road. One day they saw Hercules sleeping beside the road and decided to rob him. But before they knew what was happening, he had grabbed both of them and hung them upside down by their feet from a pole over his shoulders. As he carried them down the road, the two began to joke with each other. The hero was sunburned on his backside from all his journeys through the desert, so the Cercopes began to chant, “Beware the big black butt! Beware the big black butt!” Hercules laughed so hard at this that he decided to let them go. Zeus later turned the pair into monkeys.
After he had served his years as a slave with Omphale, Hercules decided it was time to settle some old scores. The first was against King Laomedon of Troy, who had cheated Hercules of his reward when he had rescued Laomedon’s daughter Hesione from a sea monster. Hercules recruited enough soldiers to fill eighteen ships to attack the city, including Telamon, ruler of the island of Salamis near Athens. At first the Trojans got the better of the invaders and pushed them back from their city, but at last Telamon breached the walls and entered. Hercules was so upset that someone besides himself was first into Troy that he advanced on Telamon with his sword drawn. But the savvy king of Salamis quickly began to gather stones and pile them up. When Hercules saw the stones, he asked what Telamon was doing. “Building an altar to you as victor,” calmly replied Telamon. Hercules was so flattered that he let Telamon live. Hercules then killed Laomedon and all the princes of Troy save one, a young boy named Podarces. When the princess Hesione was brought before Hercules, he offered to let her buy the freedom of one of the Trojan captives. Hesione cleverly chose her brother Podarces to preserve the royal line, giving Hercules her veil as his price. The lad was thereafter known as Priam, Greek for “ransomed one.” He later became king of Troy and as an old man ruled the city during the Trojan War.
After assaults on other kings and princes who had once offended him, Hercules at last collected a large army and marched against Augeas, who had refused his promised reward when he had cleaned his filthy stables. He killed the king and his sons, then instituted a series of athletic contests in nearby Olympia in celebration. These were afterward repeated every four years and came to be known as the Olympic Games.
• • •
After so many adventures, romances, and bitter disappointments, Hercules still did not have a wife. But then he heard of a beautiful princess named Deianira in western Greece and determined to make her his own. However, the maiden had another powerful suitor, a river god named Achelous. Hercules eagerly fought him for the hand of Deianira. It was a difficult contest, as the river god had the body of a water serpent and a deadly horn on his forehead. The two suitors wrestled and grappled and butted heads until at last Hercules grabbed Achelous by his horn and ripped it from his head, ending the fight.
Hercules took his new bride and traveled east to settle the city of Trachis near the pass of Thermopylae. Along the way they came to the swift Evanus River, where the centaur Nessus made a meager living ferrying passengers across the stream on his back. He had lived in Arcadia years before until Hercules drove him out after the battle at the cave of the centaur Pholus. Since then Nessus had lived a humiliating existence serving as a beast of burden for travelers. The last person he had wanted to see was Hercules, but when the hero appeared at the banks of his stream, Nessus had little choice but to ferry Deianira across as Hercules demanded.
Perhaps it was his lascivious centaur nature or perhaps it was a foolish act of vengeance, but halfway across the river Nessus began to fondle Deianira and then tried to rape her. In an instant Hercules shot him through with one of his poisoned arrows. As he lay dying on the far bank, Nessus seemed contrite. “Take some of my blood,” he told the woman. “It is a powerful love potion in case you ever need it.” Deianira trusted Hercules and believed he would never leave her for another woman, but decided to keep some of the blood just in case.
After they reached Trachis, Hercules made a home for himself and Deianira, but in time decided on one last act of revenge. He was still angry at his old archery teacher Eurytus, who had refused to give him his daughter Iole after he had won her fairly in a contest with his bow. He therefore raised an army and took the king’s city, killing Eurytus and his surviving sons. He then took Iole home to Trachis as a concubine.
Deianira took one look at the beautiful young maiden and knew it was time to use the blood of Nessus. She smeared it on a cloak and presented it to Hercules as he was about to sacrifice to his father Zeus. Her husband was grateful and draped it around his shoulders—but then something terrible began to happen. The cloak burned his skin like a blazing fire. Hercules screamed in agony and writhed on the earth, but he could not remove the cloak. He begged someone to kill him to end the pain, but no one dared approach him. Slowly the poisonous blood of deceitful Nessus ate away his flesh until at last Hercules built a funeral pyre for himself and ascended it. He dragged himself to the top and asked a young man named Philoctetes to set it ablaze, giving him his bows and arrows for his service. In an instant the hero was consumed by the flames and his torture finally ended.
When his friends and family went to collect his bones and ashes after the fire had cooled, they could find nothing. Zeus had snatched up his son and taken his soul to Mount Olympus, where he became an immortal god. He was reconciled with his stepmother Hera and married Hebe, the goddess of youth. There in the heavens, honored by gods and mortals alike, Hercules at last found the eternal glory he had sought all his life. In the words of an early Greek hymn:
I will sing a song of Hercules, son of Zeus, mightiest of all the men who walked the earth. Alcmene bore him in Thebes, the city of beautiful dances, when the dark-clouded son of Cronus lay with her. The hero wandered over the earth at the orders of King Eurystheus. He performed many dangerous tasks and suffered much, but now he dwells in snowcapped Olympus with slim-ankled Hebe as his wife. Hail to you, lord, son of Zeus. Grant us prosperity and excellence.
© 2012 Philip Freeman
A Modern Retelling of Greek and Roman Myths
Oh My Gods
A Modern Retelling of Greek and Roman Myths
Oh My Gods is a contemporary retelling of some of the most popular myths by Philip Freeman, a noted classicist. These tales of errant gods, fantastic creatures, and human heroes are brought to life in fresh and modern versions. Powerful Zeus; his perpetually aggrieved wife, Hera; talented Apollo; beautiful Aphrodite; fierce Athena; the dauntless heroes Theseus and Hercules; and the doomed lovers Orpheus and Eurydice still inspire awe, give us courage, and break our hearts.
From the astonishing tales of the Argonauts to the immortal narrative of the Battle of Troy, these ancient tales have inspired writers from Shakespeare to J. K. Rowling. In Philip Freeman’s vibrant retelling they will doubtless inspire a new generation of readers.