a.ka. The Myths of Hercules or The Tasks of Hercules (Herculean
Hercules was the name by which the Greek mythological character
Heracles was known to the Romans. Heracles, to give him
his proper Greek name, was the most famous of the Greek
mythological heroes. To make amends for a crime, he was
compelled to perform a series of heroic tasks, or Labors.
Amongst these were slaying the many-headed Hydra, retrieving
the Golden Apples of the Hesperides and bringing the hellhound
Cerberus up from the Underworld. Heracles was also an Argonaut.
Like most authentic heroes, Heracles had a god as one of
his parents, being the son of Zeus and a mortal woman named
Alcmene. Zeus's wife Hera was jealous of Heracles, and when
he was still an infant she sent two snakes to kill him in
his crib. Heracles was found prattling delighted baby talk,
a strangled serpent in each hand.
When he had come of age and already proved himself an unerring
marksman with bow and arrow, a champion wrestler and the
possessor of superhuman strength, Heracles was driven mad
by the goddess Hera. In a frenzy, he killed his own children.
To atone for this crime, he was sentenced to perform a series
of tasks, or "Labors", for his cousin Eurystheus,
the king of Mycenae.
As his first Labor, Heracles killed the Nemean Lion. This
was no easy feat, for the lion's skin was impenetrable by
spears or arrows. Heracles blocked off the entrance to the
lion's cave and throttled it to death with his bare hands.
Ever afterwards he wore the lion's skin as a cloak and its
gaping jaws as a helmet.
King Eurystheus was so afraid of his heroic cousin that
he hid in a storage jar. From the safety of this hiding
place he issued the order for another Labor. Heracles was
to seek out and destroy the monstrous and many-headed Hydra.
The mythmakers agree that the Hydra lived in the swamps
of Lerna, but they seem to have had trouble counting the
monster's heads. Some said that the Hydra had eight or nine.
Others counted between fifty and a hundred. And still others
claimed as many as ten thousand. All agreed, however, that
as soon as one head was beaten down or chopped off, two
more grew in its place. Only one of the heads was immortal,
but cutting it off was the challenge. To make matters worse,
the Hydra's very breath was lethal. Even smelling its footprints
was enough to bring death to an ordinary mortal. Fortunately,
Heracles was no ordinary mortal.
The great hero sought out the monster in its lair and brought
it out into the open with flaming arrows. Then he made sure
to hold his breath while grappling with the beast. Heracles
had the strength of ten, but the fight went in the Hydra's
favor. The monster twined its many heads around the hero
and tried to trip him up. It called on an ally, a huge crab
which also lived in the swamp. The crab bit Heracles in
the heel and further impeded his attack. Heracles was on
the verge of failure when he remembered his nephew.
Heracles had a twin brother named Iphicles. Iphicles took
part in a number of heroic exploits but generally remained
in the shadow of his illustrious twin. Heracles employed
Iphicles' son, Iolaus, as his charioteer. Iolaus had driven
Heracles to the swamps of Lerna, and he looked on in anxiety
as his uncle became entangled in the Hydra's snaky heads.
Finally, Iolaus could no longer bear to stand aside. In
response to his uncle's shouts, he grabbed a burning torch
and dashed to the fray.
Now, as soon as Heracles cut off one of the Hydra's heads,
Iolaus was there to sear the wounded neck with flame. This
kept further heads from sprouting. In this fashion, Heracles
cut off the heads one by one, with Iolaus cauterizing the
wounds. Finally Heracles lopped off the immortal head and
buried it deep beneath a rock.
This was not to be the hero's last experience of swamp warfare.
A future Labor would pit him against the Stymphalian Birds,
man-killers who inhabited a marsh near Stymphalus in Arcadia.
Heracles could not approach the birds to fight them - the
ground was too swampy to bear his weight and too mucky to
wade through. Finally Heracles resorted to some castanets
given to him by the goddess Athena. By making a racket with
these, he caused the birds to take wing. And once they were
in the air, he brought them down by the dozens with his
In the course of his Labors and afterwards, Heracles accomplished
some amazing feats. He once forced the god Poseidon to give
way in battle. He wounded Ares, god of war, in another encounter.
And he wrestled the great god Zeus himself to a draw. The
hero could move mountains that hindered the route of his
cattle herd. He could and did toss boulders about like pebbles.
He even relieved the Titan Atlas of the burden of holding
up the heavens. This came about when Eurystheus challenged
him to retrieve the Golden Apples of the Hesperides.
The Hesperides, or Daughters of Evening, were nymphs assigned
by the goddess Hera to guard certain apples which she had
received as a wedding present. These were kept in a grove
surrounded by a high wall and guarded by a dragon named
Ladon, whose many heads spoke simultaneously in a babel
of tongues. The grove was located in some far western land
in the mountains named for Atlas.
Atlas was a Titan, which is to say a member of the first
generation of gods, born of Earth. One of his brothers was
Cronus, father of Zeus. Atlas made the mistake of siding
with Cronus in a war against Zeus. In punishment, he was
compelled to support the weight of the heavens by means
of a pillar on his shoulders.
Heracles had been told that he would never get the apples
without the aid of Atlas. The Titan was only too happy to
oblige, since it meant being relieved of his burden. He
told the hero to hold the pillar while he went into the
garden of the Hesperides to retrieve the fruit. But first,
Heracles would have to do something about the noisily vigilant
This was swiftly accomplished by means of an arrow over
the garden wall. Then Heracles took the pillar while Atlas
went to get the apples. He was successful and returned quickly
enough, but in the meantime he had realized how pleasant
it was not to have to strain for eternity keeping heaven
and earth apart. So he told Heracles that he'd have to fill
in for him for an indeterminate length of time. And the
hero feigned agreement to this proposal. But he said that
he needed a cushion for his shoulder, and he wondered if
Atlas would mind taking back the pillar just long enough
for him to fetch one. The Titan graciously obliged, and
Heracles strolled off, omitting to return.
As his final Labor, Heracles was instructed to bring the
hellhound Cerberus up from the infernal kingdom of Hades.
Hades was god of the dead. His realm, to which all mortals
eventually traveled, lay beneath the earth and was called
the Underworld, or Hades, after its ruler. The first barrier
to the deads' journey beyond the grave was the most famous
river of Hades, the Styx. Here the newly dead congregated
as insubstantial shades, mere wraiths of their former selves,
awaiting passage in the ferryboat of Charon the Boatman.
The afterlife, as conceived by the early Greeks, was a grim
and gloomy proposition. Although there was no religious
dogma on the subject, most imagined that some part of a
being lived on after death. What survived, however, was
very insubstantial, a ghostly shadow - or shade - of the
The surviving families did their best to provide for these
wraiths, sending them off to the Underworld with a bribe
for Charon the Boatman, to induce him to ferry them across
the Styx to the kingdom of the dead. Here they would live
on forever in soulless company - unless, that is, they had
been guilty of some egregious sin, in which case they might
be punished for eternity by the ruler of the Underworld.
The only worse fate, perhaps, might be to lack the toll
for Charon and be condemned to wander in lonely desolation
on the near bank of the river Styx until the end of time.
The concept of the afterlife was vague and often contradictory.
The blind poet Homer, who sang of the Heroic Age, said that
the dead passed on to a gray and gloomy realm below the
earth, ruled over by Hades. But Homer also spoke of the
Islands of the Blessed, located somewhere at the far western
edge of the world. Here the greatest heroes went when they
died, to live on in comfort and pleasure. In time these
two ideas were put together, so that entrance to the Underworld
was situated in the west, near where the flat earth dropped
off into nothingness. Later still, people began to speak
of other entrances to the world of the dead below.
There were two ways to get to the Underworld. The first
and simplest was to die. The other way was only open to
gods or heroes, who could proceed with caution to Hades'
realm via certain natural chasms and caves. The most popular
of these seems have been Taenarum in Laconia. This was the
portal chosen by Theseus and his companion Peirithous on
their ill-fated venture to abduct Hades' queen Persephone.
And some say that it was via Taenarum that Orpheus pursued
his wife Eurydice when, bitten by a snake, she shared the
common fate in journeying to the afterlife below. But others
maintain that Orpheus's entrance was Aornum in Thesprotia.
Before becoming a fully fledged member of the godly council
on Mount Olympus, the wine-god Dionysus brought his mother
up from Hades. She was the heroine Semele, who had been
consumed by lightning when she asked Zeus to reveal to her
his true nature as storm god. To retrieve her from the Underworld,
Dionysus went to Lerna and dove into the Alcyonian Lake,
which has no bottom.
In being challenged to bring back Cerberus to the land of
the living, Heracles was faced with one of his most difficult
Labors. Descending to Hades via Laconian Taenarum, the first
problem he encountered was a glowering Charon the Boatman.
Charon wasn't about to ferry anyone across in his rickety
craft unless they met two conditions. Firstly, they had
to pay a fare or bribe. And secondly, they had to be dead.
Heracles met neither condition, a circumstance which aggravated
Charon's natural grouchiness and caused him to glower more
fiercely than usual.
But Heracles simply glowered in return, and such is the
perseverance of a proper hero - at least one of Herculean
magnitude - that once having set about a task, said hero
will not fail to achieve and excel. The task in this instance
being glowering, Heracles accomplished it with such gusto
that Charon let out a whimper and meekly conveyed the hero
across the Styx.
The next and greater challenge was Cerberus himself. The
dog had teeth of a razor's sharpness, three (or maybe fifty)
heads, a venomous snake for a tail and for good measure
another swarm of snakes growing out of his back. When Heracles
closed and began to grapple with the hound, these snakes
lashed at him from the rear, while Cerberus's multiple canines
lunged for a purchase on the hero's throat. Fortunately,
Heracles was wearing his trusty lion's skin, which had the
magic property of being impenetrable by anything short of
one of Zeus's thunderbolts. After a titanic struggle, Heracles
got Cerberus by the throat and choked the dog into submission.
Taking care to secure the permission of Hades and his queen
Persephone, the hero then slung Cerberus over his shoulder
and carted him off to Mycenae, where he received due credit
for the Labor. In its grueling nature, the entire adventure
was so at variance with the experience of Orpheus that it
When Orpheus' wife Eurydice was claimed by Hades for his
kingdom of the dead, Orpheus determined to get her back.
Journeying to the Underworld by the entrance chasm at Taenarum,
he too fetched up on the banks of the Styx. But instead
of out-glowering Charon, Orpheus won him over by song. Such
was the sweetness of his singing and his strumming of the
lyre that not only did Charon willingly submit to ferrying
Orpheus across the River of Darkness, but Cerberus, beguiled
by the melody, lay down, crossed his paws under his chin
and listened entranced.
The mortal status of Greek mythological heroes was subject
to varying interpretations. Most heroes were sons of gods,
and as such at least semi-divine. But this by no means meant
that they automatically got to go to heavenly Mount Olympus
when they died. Perseus achieved immortality of a sort by
being made into a starry constellation. The Dioscuri, or
Hero Twins, were originally accorded a mixed blessing. Polydeuces
(Pollux to the Romans) was deemed godly enough to be admitted
to Olympus, while his brother Castor was dispatched to Hades
as a mere mortal. But Polydeuces interceded on his twin's
behalf, on the plea that he could not bear eternal separation.
The gods relented to the extent that the two were allowed
to remain together forever, spending half the year deep
in the earth beneath their shrine in Sparta and the other
half on the airy heights of Olympus.
Heracles was the only hero to become a full-fledged god
upon his demise, but even in his case there was his mortal
aspect to be dealt with. He received special consideration
because he had aided the Olympians in their epic battle
against the Giants. These titanic sons of Earth had stormed
the godly citadel in a hail of flaming oaks and rocks. And
the deities of Olympus would never have prevailed without
Heracles and his bow. By virtue of his spectacular achievements,
even by heroic standards, Heracles was given a home on Mount
Olympus and a goddess for a wife. But part of him had come
not from his father Zeus but from his mortal mother Alcmene,
and that part was sent to the Underworld. As a phantasm
it eternally roams the Elysian Fields in the company of