The strongest and most celebrated of the heroes of classical
mythology, Hercules, called Heracles by the Greeks, was the son of
the god Zeus and the mortal Alcmene. The goddess Hera, who hated
the infant Hercules, sent two serpents to destroy him in his
cradle, but Hercules strangled them. As a boy Hercules was trained
by the centaur Chiron. When Hercules was a young man, two maidens
came to him. Arete represented virtue; Kakia was vice. Kakia
offered Hercules pleasure and riches if he would follow her. Arete
offered him only glory for a lifelong struggle against evil.
Hercules chose to be guided by Arete. In a fit of frenzy caused by
Hera, Hercules slew his own
children. To atone he had to serve his cousin King Eurystheus, who
ordered him to perform the tasks known as the 12 labors of
The first was the slaying of the Nemean lion. Hercules strangled
the animal and wore the lion's skin. He then slew the Hydra, a
terrible serpent with nine heads. The third and fourth labors
involved the capture of two wild creatures the Ceryneian stag with
golden horns and the wild Erymanthian boar. For his next labor
Hercules had to clean the Augean stables, which had not been
cleaned for 30 years. He turned two rivers, the Alpheus and the
Peneus, through the stables, finishing the work in a single day.
Next he slew the fierce Stymphalian birds, after which he captured
the Cretan bull. Then he captured the flesh-eating wild mares of
Diomedes, king of Thrace. Hercules killed Diomedes and fed him to
the horses. He then had to obtain the belt of Hippolyta, queen of
the Amazons. He defeated the Amazons, killed the queen, and took
the belt. For his tenth labor Hercules captured the oxen of the
monster Geryon, which dwelt on the fabled island Erytheia. The last
two labors were the most difficult. One involved stealing the
golden apples guarded by four sister nymphs called the Hesperides.
Their father was Atlas, who supported the heavens on his back. To
obtain the apples Hercules took Atlas's place while Atlas took the
apples. Finally Hercules traveled to Hades, where he captured Cerberus, the
many-headed dog who guarded the gates of the underworld. He brought
Cerberus to Eurystheus, but the king was so terrified that Hercules
had to return to Hades to take the monster back. Having completed
the 12 tasks, Hercules was now free, but he performed other feats.
The centaur Nessus tried to carry off Hercules' wife, Deianeira.
Hercules shot Nessus with a poisoned arrow. The dying centaur had
Deianeira keep some of his blood as a love charm. When Hercules
fell in love with another maiden, Deianeira sent him a robe steeped
in the blood. Hercules put it on, and poison spread through his
body like fire. He fled to Mount Oeta, built a funeral fire, and
threw himself on it to die. Hercules' heroic strength inspired many
works of art. A fine example in sculpture is the Farnese Hercules,
a copy of an earlier work by the ancient sculptor Lysippus.