Herakles   HE rah kleez

Hero of Heroes

His name is often rendered as Heracles, using a C, instead of K, to represent the Greek letter kappa.

The beloved son of Zeus and, the mortal, Alkmene (Alcmene), Herakles was the archetype for bravery and living proof that might-makes-right. According to Hesiod (The Shield of Herakles, line 51), Alkmene bore two sons, not twins but brothers by blood. Herakles was fathered by Zeus and Iphikles (Iphicles) was fathered by Alkmene’s lawful husband, Amphitryon.

With armor and shield forged by Hephaistos (Hephaestus), Herakles was more than a match for men and gods alike. After his death Herakles was granted godhood and was welcomed to Mount Olympos (Olympus) by all the Immortals. Even Hera put aside her jealously to receive our Hero. After he was on Mount Olympos, Herakles married sweet stepping Hebe, the daughter of Zeus and Hera.

Herakles was of the Age of Heroes, the fourth generation of mortal men on the earth. Half-man and half-god, he was the focus of considerable wrath and love from the Immortals. When he killed the son of Ares, Kyknos, Zeus would not let Ares harm him (Shield of Herakles, line 443). Athene (Athena), as messenger, stood between Ares and Herakles and delivered Zeus’ judgment, which Ares obeyed. Apollon (Apollo), also a favorite son of Zeus, instructed the river Anauros to obliterate Kyknos’ grave because Kyknos had stolen the ’hecatombs’ intended as sacrifice for The Archer, i.e. Apollon.

(back to Top)

In the Underworld

His life was one of self sacrifice and sadness. Strangely enough, Herakles (his “shade”, that is) met and recognized Odysseus while Odysseus was in the underworld seeking an oracle (Odyssey, book 11, line 601). Odysseus noted Herakles’ terrible glance and his war costume. His belt and golden baldrick were artistically designed with all manner of vicious beast and graphic acts of manslaughter. Odysseus hoped that the artist who designed these horrid images would never again display his craft (Odyssey, book 11, line 614). Herakles told Odysseus of the time he was sent to the underworld to fetch the Hell Hound, Kerberos (Cerberus). He asked Odysseus if he too was the victim of some wretched destiny, which of course, he was. Why else would he be in the underworld while he was still living?

(back to Top)

Herakles and Prometheus

Herakles also freed Prometheus from his bondage and torture (Theogony, line 526). As punishment for giving the mortals stolen fire, Zeus ordered Hephaistos to chain Prometheus to a rock. Then, as torment, Zeus sent an eagle to ravage the Titan’s immortal flesh. In due time, Herakles killed the eagle and freed Prometheus, as was also the will of Zeus.

(back to Top)

The Twelve Labors of Herakles

By the time the walls of Troy were toppled by the Greeks, Herakles had ended his mortal existence and ascended to Mount Olympos as one of the Immortals. As Herakles laid on his funeral pyre he offered his bow to anyone who would light the blaze and end his suffering. The hero had been poisoned by the blood of the centaur, Nessos, and was begging to be released from his pain and torment. I will relate the story of Nessos in detail after the Labors.

Philoktetes lit the pyre and took Herakles’ bow to fight with the Greeks during the siege of Troy... using the fall of Troy as a semi-datable historical fact, this would put the end of Herakles’ mortal life at circa 1250 BCE. By the time the exploits of Herakles were committed to paper, i.e. after 480 BCE, the adventures of Herakles were greatly exaggerated and diluted but the essence of the ultimate hero was still preserved in the somewhat artificial classifications of: Labors, Incidentals and Deeds.

The Labors (athloi) were twelve tasks that Herakles was obliged to undertake for his cousin, Eurystheus, the son of the son of the king of Argos. In The Odyssey by Homer, Odysseus encountered the “shade” of Herakles in the Underworld (end of book 11) and Herakles described Eurystheus as “A man far worse than I, a rough master”. The Incidentals (parerga) were adventures Herakles had during the course of his Labors. The Deeds (parxeis) were various other feats and adventures that punctuated Herakles’ glorious, yet troubled, mortal existence.

The life of Herakles was documented in artwork that predates any written account by as much as four hundred years. For this reason I have compiled this brief explanation of his Labors, Incidentals and Deeds from the surviving artwork rather from the later, understandably, embellished, written versions.

#1 The Killing of the Lion of Nemea

The chronology of the Twelve Labors is rather arbitrary but, since the time of the Greek grammarian, Apollodorus Dysklus (circa 140 BCE), the numbering of the Labors has become, literally, written in stone. On the Temple of Zeus, built in the mid-fifth century BCE, the only metope that depicts Herakles as beardless (i.e. young) is the scene where he stands with his foot on the dead lion of Nemea. For that reason it is understandable why killing of the lion of Nemea was considered to be the First Labor of Herakles. The ordering of the other Labors are not quite so obvious but we will yield to the authority of Apollodorus Dysklus.

Nemea was a valley in southeast Greece, in ancient Argos. According to Hesiod (Theogony, line 327), the Nemean lion was the predatory offspring of the dog, Orthos and the monster, Ekhidna (Echidna), and presumably, the sister of the deadly Sphinx of the city of Thebe (Thebes) and the half-sister of Kerberos, the watchdog of the gates of the Underworld. As you can deduce from her family, this was no ordinary beast which terrorized the travelers and livestock in the peaceful countryside around Nemea.

Eurystheus sent Herakles to kill the lion of Nemea as the first of his Twelve Labors. Herakles wrestled with the lion and strangled it to death. Early artistic renderings of this wrestling match showed the lion on its hind feet fighting Herakles in the same manner that two men would grapple but after circa 530 BCE the lion and Herakles were usually shown on the ground fighting like animals.

#2 Killing the Hydra

According to Hesoid (Theogony, line 314), the Hydra was the offspring of Ekhidna and Typhon but he fails to describe the Hydra in detail. However, the Hydra’s actual appearance was well documented in ancient artwork as a large multi-headed snake. This description agreed with later writers who said that the Hydra had a huge body with eight mortal heads and one immortal head. The creature lurked in the swamps of Lerna, which was a marshy region near ancient Argos in southeast Greece on the Peloponnesian Peninsula. The artistic representations of this Labor date back to the end of the eighth century BCE, where a bearded Herakles was almost always assisted by his devoted nephew, Iolaos.

The Hydra was very hard to kill because each time one of the serpent-like heads was hacked off, two new heads grew to replace it. Also, the blood of the Hydra was a deadly poison.

With the help of Iolaos (and with Athene watching the battle to lend her protection) Herakles attacked the Hydra. He used either a sword or a sickle to hack at the heads while a giant crab, sent by the vengeful Hera to distract him, snapped at his heels. To prevent the heads from growing back two-fold, Herakles succeeded in cauterizing the squirming necks with fire as he cut off each head. After the Hydra was dead, Herakles dipped his arrows in the poisonous blood . . . an act he would regret during his Fourth Labor.

#3 Capturing the Keryneian Hind

According to the chronology of Apollodorus, the Third Labor that Eurystheus commanded of Herakles was the capture of the Keryneian Hind. This Labor is the subject of Attic artwork dating back to the mid-sixth century BCE and perhaps, but not definitely, to the eighth century. The hind, i.e. female deer, was portrayed with golden horns which is indicative of a male deer but such sexual ambiguity was not uncommon in Greek mythology (see Labor #8).

The Keryneian Hind was sacred to Artemis and was named after a Peloponnesian river. Herakles spent a year searching for the elusive deer before he was able to capture it. Later versions of this Labor show Herakles breaking off the horns of the hind and writers, such as Euripides (circa 480-406 BCE), say that the hind was killed, not captured, by Herakles.

While returning the hind to Eurystheus, Herakles encountered Apollon and Artemis. They demanded the return of the sacred creature but Herakles successfully argued the justice of his quest and was allowed to complete his Labor. Several depictions of this encounter show Herakles and Apollon struggling over the hind in a sort of tug-of-war.

While representations of this Labor appear on the metopes of the Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi and the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, the topic is not to be found in non-Attic artwork before circa 350 BCE.

#4 Capturing the Boar of Mount Erymanthos

This, the Fourth Labor of Herakles, has the distinction of being the most tragic and comic of the Labors. It is tragic because it caused the death of two renowned centaurs, Khiron (Chiron) and Pholos, and comic because when Herakles took the boar to Mykenae (Mycenae) he threatened to drop the fierce beast on his cousin, Eurystheus, as he cowered in a pithos, i.e. a very large earthenware jar used to store wine, food and, sometimes, bury the dead.

Erymanthos is a mountain in southern Greece on the northwest Peloponnesian Peninsula. To be rid of the deadly wild boar that was menacing the countryside around the mountain, Eurystheus commanded Herakles to capture the beast and deliver it to Mykenae alive. During his search for the boar, Herakles stopped at the dwelling of the centaur, Pholos. When Pholos opened the wine pithos so that he and Herakles could drink, the other, less civilized centaurs started a ruckus. Herakles used his bow to drive off the intruders and accidentally wounded the noble centaur, Khiron, with an arrow poisoned with the blood of the Hydra. In the confusion of the confrontation Pholos dropped one of the poisoned arrows on his foot... both centaurs died from the poisonous Hydra blood.

Artwork depicting the death of the centaurs, Khiron and Pholos, dates back to the early sixth century BCE including a frieze on the Temple of Athene at Assos. Representations of the capture of the boar date back to the late seventh century and often include Iolaos and Athene. Herakles is shown in various poses with the boar: clutched to his breast, thrown over his shoulder; and holding the boar’s hind feet and walking it like a wheelbarrow.

Arriving at Mykenae, Herakles presented the savage boar to Eurystheus who was hiding in a half-buried pithos in fear of the grisly beast... a comic ending to an otherwise tragic Labor.

#5 Cleaning the Stables of Augeas

Augeas was the king of Elis which was a country in western Greece on the Peloponnesian Peninsula and the site of the ancient Olympic Games. Eurystheus gave Herakles the lowly, but formidable, task of cleaning the kings stables in a single day.

The only surviving artwork of this Labor is the metope from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia and dates from the mid-fifth century BCE. For obvious reasons (lack of glamour, minimal manliness, subtle heroic ideals), this Labor did not seem to be a lively theme for ancient artists.

Herakles undertook this Labor with the same shrewd combination of brain and brawn that characterized his other labors. With the help of his protector, Athene, he diverted the rivers Alpheus and Peneus to the stables and, using a large wrecking bar, knocked a hole in the wall allowing the torrential waters to flush out the accumulated detritus.

#6 Killing the Stymphalosian Birds

The first six Labors of Herakles are commonly called the Peloponnesian Group because they were all done on Peloponnesian Peninsula. This, the Sixth Labor, is the last of the Peloponnesian Group and took place near Stymphalos, in Arkadia (Arcadia). Herakles was sent to kill the Stymphalosian Birds either because they were a nuisance or, as later writers profess, because they were man-eaters.

I personally believe that the classical Greeks, Romans and later writers (up to the present) weren’t satisfied with the fragmentary condition of the ancient myths and sacrificed symbolism and subtlety for the sake of drama (like man-eating birds!) and thus inflicted their personal literary preferences on posterity... for that reason I have tried to recount the earliest versions of the myths in the hopes of preserving the simple beauty and, sometimes, confusing nature of the fragments we still possess.

Herakles entered the woods around the lake near Stymphalos with his bow and a pair of krotalas... the krotalas were castanet-like clappers that were made by Hephaistos and given to Herakles by Athene... the idea was to frighten the birds with the krotalas and then shoot them with his bow when they took flight. This Labor doesn’t seem too dangerous or laborious but we can only assume the task was beyond the abilities of other men simply because Herakles was sent to do it.

There are a few black-figure vases portraying this Labor that date back to the mid-sixth century and also a metope on the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (mid-fifth century) with Herakles giving what appears to be dead birds to Athene.

#7 Capturing the Kretan (Cretan) Bull

In this Labor Herakles had to go to the island of Krete (Crete) and bring back a savage bull to Eurystheus, in Mykenae. The principal aspect of this Labor is simply the size and strength of the bull. It seems likely that Eurystheus wanted the bull brought to him to symbolize his virility as a leader of men and, perhaps more importantly, to demonstrate his dominance over the son of Zeus, Herakles.

The earliest depiction of this Labor seems to be from 550 BCE. However, there are numerous Attic black-figure vases from the late sixth century and early fifth century with Herakles either fighting or leading the bull. Some versions of this Labor indicate that after the bull was presented to Eurystheus it was set free and made its way to the fields of Marathon where it was finally captured by the Athenian hero, Theseus, and sacrificed to Apollon.

#8 Capturing the Mares of Diomedes

Diomedes was the king of Bistones, in Thrake (Thrace). He was also a son of Ares and true to his bloodthirsty heritage and to keep his mares battle-keen, Diomedes fed the mares human flesh. Its not clear whether Herakles accomplished this Labor alone or if he enlisted a group of soldiers to assist him. It’s also not clear whether Diomedes was killed defending his horrible horses or if Herakles fed him to the mares as a just desert. Regardless, Diomedes died for his savage behavior and Herakles took the mares back to Eurystheus, in Mykenae.

The earliest artistic depiction of this Labor appears on archaic Attic vases and cups. The Archaic Period was roughly from the sixth century BCE until the sack of Athens by the Persians in 480 BCE. On some of the archaic cups (circa 520 BCE) the mares of Diomedes are clearly stallions... again, as with the Keryneian Hind, we have deliberate sexual ambiguity. This ambiguity was not restricted to animals... even the beautiful goddess Artemis was sometimes called “The Bull Goddess”.

#9 Retrieve the Belt of Hippolyte

Hippolyte was the queen of the Amazons but, as we will see, she was as much a mystery as the legendary Amazons she represented. The Amazons were a tribe (or society, if you prefer) of female warriors who lived at the fringe of the civilized world beyond the shores of the Pontus Euxinus (Black Sea). Herodotus (book 4, section 110) said that the Skythians called the Amazons oeorpata which is the equivalent of “mankillers”... orer being the Skythian word for “man” and pata for “kill”.

In this, the Ninth Labor of Herakles, we are faced with several questions for which there are no definite answers: 1) did Herakles go on this Labor alone or did he take other soldiers with him, 2) did Herakles kill the Amazon queen or did he simply subdue her and take her belt (the mid-fifth century metope from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia shows Herakles standing over the fallen queen with his club raised as if to strike her), and 3) was the queen of the Amazons named Hippolyte, Andromeda or Andromakhe (Andromache)?

Judging by the surviving artwork of this Labor it seems to be almost as popular as the First Labor, i.e. the Killing of the Lion of Nemea, which was by far the most popular artistic theme associated with Herakles. The oldest definite depiction of the Ninth Labor shows Herakles with the Amazon queen, Andromeda, on a late seventh century Corinthian alabastron (a jar for oils, ointments and perfumes)... later Attic depictions name the queen as Andromakhe. The first written accounts of this Labor did not appear until hundreds of years later... by then the queen was Hippolyte. The early representations of this Labor always show Herakles taking the belt by force but by circa 430 BCE the encounter with the Amazons became quite peaceful showing the Amazons in Persian attire (instead of Greek garments or Skythian war-gear) and entertaining Herakles as if he had dropped by for tea... this seems completely out of character for both Herakles and the Amazons. The “belt” is often referred to as a girdle but it was probably more like an abbreviated cuirass, i.e. armor worn around the mid-section instead of completely covering the chest and back.

When Herakles was returning from the land of the Amazons he stopped at Troy just in time to save the king’s daughter from one of Poseidon’s ketos, i.e. sea monsters. King Laomedon (whose great-great grandfather, Dardanos, was a son of Zeus) had neglected to give proper tribute to Poseidon and, as punishment, his daughter, Hesione, was to be sacrificed to one of Poseidon’s beastly minions. There is a wonderful proto-Corinthian krater from circa 560 BCE which shows Herakles shooting arrows at the giant skull-faced monster while Hesione stands face-to-face with the foul creature bravely throwing rocks.

Hesione was saved and the Belt of the Amazon Queen, whatever her name may have been, was delivered to Eurytheus.

#10 Taking the Cattle of Geryon

Geryon was a three-bodied warrior, the son of the Immortal Khrysaor (Chrysaor) and Killirhoe (Cillirhoe). He grazed his cattle in the far-western land of Erytheia. He was depicted in a variety of forms because the ancient artists weren’t quite sure how a three-bodied man might look... he’s shown with three heads and six feet, one head with three faces and six feet, three winged bodies and other equally unlikely combinations. The written accounts go back as far as Hesiod (eighth century BCE) but the artistic record is much more extensive. This Labor seems to have been a popular theme for the mid-sixth century Attic black-figure vase painters as well as red-figure vases from the end of the fifth century. Several sixth century lekythoi (vases used for oils and ointments) and a seventh century Corinthian pyxis (a container for salves) also show the fight for Geryon’s cattle.

On the long journey to Erytheia, Herakles became so weary of the burning heat of Helios, he raised his bow and shot an arrow at the Lord Sun. Helios was so amused at Herakles’ impudence that he gave the hero a golden bowl to traverse the western sea. Upon arrival in Erytheia, Herakles promptly slew Geryon’s two-headed dog, Ortho, and after a fierce fight Geryon and his herdsman, Eurytion, were killed. Herakles loaded the cattle into the golden bowl and sailed back to Eurystheus, in Mykenae.

#11 Retrieving the Golden Apples of the Hesperides

This, the Eleventh Labor of Herakles, was perhaps the most symbolic and definitely the most convoluted of all the Labors. In order to get the Apples of the Hesperdies Herakles had to: 1) find the sea god, Nereus, 2) fight the giant, Antaios, 3) escape death in Egypt at the hands of king Busiris, 4) free the Titan, Prometheus, from bondage, 5) seek out the Titan, Atlas, and 6) return the Apples of the Hesperides to Eurystheus.

The Golden Apples were originally a wedding gift from the primeval goddess of earth, Gaia, to Olympian Hera. They grew in a garden which was cultivated by nymphs collectively known as the Hesperides. The Garden of the Hesperides could easily be imagined as an idyllic grove with beautiful nymphs basking in eternal spring but this fanciful scene is quickly dispelled by the sight of the two-headed snake coiled in the apple tree.

In order to find the Garden of the Hesperides, Herakles first had to trap the Ancient of the Sea, Nereus, and force him to reveal the garden’s location. Herakles found Nereus asleep and pounced on the ancient god. Nereus struggled to get free by shape-shifting... he assumed the appearance of various animals and forces of nature but Herakles was dauntless. Nereus finally relented and reluctantly told Herakles the secret of the of the Hesperides’ garden.

Herakles proceeded to Libya (which at that time comprised all of northern Africa west of Egypt) where he encountered the giant son of Poseidon, Antaios. Antaios would not let Herakles pass without a fight... it’s not clear whether Antaios was killed or simply defeated but, in the end, only Herakles was left standing.

After the fight with Antaios, Herakles traveled east into Egypt. The king of Egypt, Busiris (also a son of Poseidon), had been advised by an oracle that to end his nation’s drought he must sacrifice a stranger... it seemed to Busiris that Herakles was the perfect stranger. In ancient Greece, strangers were always treated with respect because the Immortals would often assume disguises and roam the countryside or city streets seeking adventure or distraction... you never knew if the stranger at your door was a mere human or a divine wanderer... to be on the safe side, all strangers were welcomed until they proved themselves either unappreciative or unworthy. Busiris, as an Egyptian, had no similar tradition to guide him. As the priests were leading Herakles to the sacrificial alter he realized their true intent and, in a fit of rage, killed Busiris and the priests.

After leaving Egypt, Herakles traveled to the Caucasus Mountains where he found the Titan, Prometheus, chained to the mountainside. Prometheus had defied Zeus by giving fire and other gifts to the mortals of earth... for such an affront to Zeus’ authority, Prometheus had been bound to the mountain. Herakles, as a son of Zeus, was the only one who could break the chains and free the humane Titan. In gratitude, Prometheus advised Herakles to seek out Atlas for assistance. Atlas, a brother of Prometheus, stood on a mountain in northwestern Africa and supported the heavens on his shoulders. Atlas agreed to retrieve the Golden Apples from the Hesperides if Herakles would assume his burden and hold up the sky until he returned with the apples.

Later writers imagined that Atlas tried to betray Herakles... they insist that he never intended to resume his burden and that Herakles had to trick him into fulfilling his oath of assistance. To me, this is nothing but slander... Atlas was as noble as he was strong... if Atlas was without honor the sky would have fallen on us years ago! The metope from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia seems to exonerate Atlas... it shows Herakles with the sky on his shoulders while Atlas stands before him placidly offering the Golden Apples... what really makes this scene dynamic is the figure of Athene standing behind Herakles with one graceful arm extending upwards effortlessly helping to support the weight of the heavens.

Knowing the troubles that Hera had inflicted on Herakles, I’m surprised that Eurystheus would want to risk her anger by possessing the Golden Apples that were rightfully hers... perhaps he thought that Hera would blame Herakles for the theft of the Golden Apples and that the insult would provide her with more fuel for the fire of her hatred for the son of Zeus’ infidelity.

#12 Bringing Kerberos (Cerberus) from the Underworld

This, the last Labor of Herakles, was the most dangerous and supernatural Labor that Eurystheus forced Herakles to endure. In The Odyssey by Homer (end of book 11), Herakles’ “shade” told Odysseus, “I brought back the beast (Kerberos) from the Underworld; Hermes and gray-eyed Athene showed the way”.

Kerberos (another offspring of the monster Echidna and the snake-bodied Typhon) was the ferocious watchdog of the Underworld and was usually depicted having three heads, a dragon tail and snakes writhing from his body. The artistic and written descriptions of Kerberos differ as to the number of heads but the common theme is constant in that he was a beast of untamed savagery who only obeyed the voice of Hades, Lord of the Dead.

Herakles descended into the Underworld and confronted his uncle, Hades. Either through consideration for Herakles or intimidation by Zeus’ wrath, Hades agreed to let Herakles temporally take Kerberos into the sunlight on the condition that no weapons be used to subdue the beastly hound. Exactly how Herakles was able to capture and chain Kerberos is not known but with Hermes, who guided the dead to the Underworld, and Athene, Herakles’ protector, Kerberos was led to the court of Eurstheus. Eurstheus was so terrified at the sight of Kerberos that, as in the Fourth Labor, he hid in a giant pithos buried in the ground.

The mid-fifth century metope from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia shows Herakles pulling Kerberos from a hole in the ground with Hermes watching, presumably to be sure that no harm came to Hades’ immortal watchdog.

(back to Top)

The Deeds and Death of Herakles

Upon the completion of the twelve Labors, Herakles was free of the authority of his cousin. Eursytheus. Without the comfort of a wife or children, he ventured out into the world, not necessarily seeking adventure but, more likely, to live a life that was not dominated by vengeful Immortals or vindictive relatives.

Herakles spent the remainder of his life as a wanderer... he had several experiences which belong to the classification of Deeds (parxeis), which were variously interesting, comic and finally, fatal.

The Encounter with the Kerkopes

Artwork from the early sixth century BCE has a trivial story that was surprisingly popular throughout Greece (with the exception of Athens) and southern Italy for over two hundred years. As Herakles was sleeping under a tree, two mischievous characters, known as the Kerkopes, stole his bow. Herakles caught the barbaric looking brothers and tied them upside-down to a pole which he carried on his shoulders. The Kerkopes were not only unrepentant but highly amused by their plight... as they dangled behind Herakles they began making disparaging comments about Herakles’ hairy posterior. Our hero, who was so accustomed to sorrow and brutality, couldn’t resist the infectious good humor of the Kerkopes and set them free. It’s assumed that this tale was never very popular in Athenian artwork because of their aristocratic sense of humor but they weren’t immune to ribald satyr plays which, among other topics, often belittled the Labors and Deeds of Herakles.

Syleus of Aulis

Syleus of Aulis was a villain who made the fatal mistake of trying to force Herakles to work in his vineyard. It’s assumed that it was the regular practice of Syleus to stop travelers passing by his farm and force them to toil in his vineyard. You can certainly guess the outcome of this story... Syleus tried to force Herakles to work... Syleus, his family and all his vines died in the inevitable conflagration.

The artwork of this simple story dates back to the early fifth century BCE but writers, such as Euripides (circa 480–406 BCE), infused the plot with divine intervention as the primary motivation instead of letting it stand as a straight-forward morality tale.

Herakles and Iole

The prince of Oichalia, Eurytos, was seeking a manly husband for his daughter, Iole. Eurytos devised an archery competition in which the winner would marry the fair Iole. Herakles, as subtle with his bow as he was brutal with his club, entered the contest and won. Eurytos must have known that Herakles was presumed to have murdered his first wife, Megara, so it’s difficult to blame Eurytos when he refused to allow Iole to marry Herakles... Herakles did not see it that way... with no hesitation, Herakles killed Eurytos and his sons and, to add to Iole’s dishonor and sorrow, Herakles took her as his mistress instead of his wife.

The Death of Herakles

Herakles had competed for Iole and had intended to marry her but the treachery of her father stilled his desire to make her his wife. The desire to marry and have a family was rekindled by another woman, Deianeira. She was from Kalydon (Calydon) and the daughter of Oineus.

The river god, Arkheloos (Acheloos), was already courting Deianeira and he refused to step aside for Herakles... a fight began. Artwork as old as 570 BCE documents the struggle between Herakles and the bull-like Akheloos... throughout the centuries his appearance varied from bull-like with human features to human-like with bull horns but the bull countenance was always persistent. The two grappled until Herakles broke off Akheloos’ horns and ended the fight.

With the blessing of Deianeira’s father and the protection of Athene and Nike, Herakles and Deianeira were married and had a son, Hyllus. Sometime later, while they were traveling, they came to the river Evenus where they met the centaur, Nessos. Nessos offered to carry Deianeira across the river on his back while Herakles waded across. Nessos quickly transported Deianeira across the river and, with unbridled depravity, tried to forcibly seduce her. Herakles fell on the centaur with savage fury and moments later Nessos lay bleeding to death on the riverbank. Before he died he managed to commit one last act of malice... he secretly told Deianeira that his blood was a powerful love potion... he said that if she were to put the magic blood on Herakles it would bind him to her forever. Deianeira collected some of Nessos’ blood and put it on Herakles’ cloak. The result was disastrous... the blood was poison to Herakles... it burned him like acid. Deianeira was horrified... she had mortally wounded the man she had hoped to bind with love . . . she killed herself in desperation.

In agony, Herakles made his way to Mount Oita and prepared himself for death. As with all the ancient myths, there are many elements that will always remain nebulous... the death of Herakles is no exception. Later writers said that Herakles killed Nessos with an arrow dipped in the poisonous Hydra blood and that the combination of the Hydra blood and the centaur’s blood synergized to make a poison deadly enough to kill the semi-divine Herakles. However, artwork which predates the literary sources by several hundred years, shows Herakles killing Nessos with a sword and not arrows.

Herakles laid upon his funeral pyre and begged for someone to light the fire... either the renowned archer, Philoktetes, or his father, Poias, finally lit the blaze. In gratitude for the release from his pain and suffering, Herakles gave Philoktetes (or Poias) his famous bow and quiver. Before the flames could consume his essence, Athene (or Nike) lifted Herakles from the fire and took him to Mount Olympos (Olympus) where he still resides in splendor with his goddess wife, Hebe, and the other Olympians.

Herakles is most often confused with the Roman hero, Hercules.

(back to Top)

Herakles in The Iliad (listed by book and line)

(back to Top)

Herakles in The Odyssey (listed by book and line)

(back to Top)

How to Cite this Page

Cut and paste the following text for use in a paper or electronic document report.

Stewart, Michael. "Herakles", Greek Mythology: From the Iliad to the Fall of the Last Tyrant. http://messagenetcommresearch.com/myths/bios/herakles.html (November 15, 2005)

Cut and paste the following html for use in a web report.

Stewart, Michael. &quot;Herakles&quot;, <i>Greek Mythology: From the Iliad to the Fall of the Last Tyrant</i>. http://messagenetcommresearch.com/myths/bios/herakles.html (November 15, 2005)

Cut and paste the following html for use in a web report. This format will link back to this page, which may be useful but may not be required.

Stewart, Michael. &quot;Herakles&quot;, <i>Greek Mythology: From the Iliad to the Fall of the Last Tyrant</i>. <a href="http://messagenetcommresearch.com/myths/bios/herakles.html">http://messagenetcommresearch.com/myths/bios/herakles.html</a> (November 15, 2005)

(back to Top)

Home • Essays • People, Places & Things • The Immortals
Greek Myths Bookshop • Fun Fact Quiz • Search/Browse • Links • About