While Apollo might be the “most Greek of all gods,” Heracles is often called the “most Greek of all heroes.” He’s not exactly a thinker like Theseus, the quintessential Athenian hero, but he triumphs through a combination of optimism and well…awesomeness. Heracles is up to a little wit too, sometimes, like tricking Atlas into taking back the sky on his shoulders (or building up some pillars so he doesn’t have to hold it anymore, if you believe Pindar.)
Heracles’ birth name was Alcaeus, or Alcides, depending on your story. The name Heracles is a combination of the name of the goddess Hera and the Greek word for glory. So sometimes his name is translated as “glory of Hera” or “Hera’s fame” which seems ironic because Hera was his primary tormenter. She even tried to kill him by sending serpents into his bed when he was eight months old. And then it went down basically the same way it does in Disney’s Hercules. He killed them and everybody was realized “Oh hey, this kid is special.” So maybe his name should be translated as “glory through Hera,” because almost every one of his acts of heroism came as a result of Hera trying to destroy him. (Think of it like the Joker and Batman. The Joker isn’t a villain because he likes crime particularly, he just really wants to take down the Batman and cause chaos. Batman ends up saving Gotham from villains that are only threatening it because of him.)
The trouble is that unlike Batman, Heracles began trying to have a family. He married a princess named Megara and they had at least two children. And then Hera made him go mad and he threw his children and maybe his wife into a fire. He would’ve gotten his best friend Iolaus too if Athena hadn’t knocked him out with a well thrown rock.
So the king of Antikyra, famous for its hellabore, cured Heracles, and he immediately goes to Delphi to find out what he needs to do to be cleansed. (This was not the first time he had accidentally killed someone. He had killed his lyre tutor Linus by hitting him over the head after Linus either beat him or told him he was bad at music.)
Apollo/Pythia (or maybe Hera, if you want to view the Oracle as corruptible) say that Heracles needs to go work for Eurystheus, the king of Tiryns, even though Heracles was supposed to be the King of Tiryns as the son of the first oldest descendant of Perseus. (Although Heracles’ stepfather, said oldest descendant, had been banished by Eurystheus’ father Sthenelus for accidentally killing the Crown Prince, their older brother.)
So About the Labors (Up Until Heracles’ Entrance in Alcestis)
The Oracle told Heracles there would be Ten, but Eurystheus claimed that Heracles had cheated, so there ended up being twelve. They were:
Kill the Nemean Lion
This is where Heracles got his iconic lion skin, which he wore to ask Eurystheus for another Labor. Eurystheus saw Heracles in all his grime, blood, and lion skin and decided he didn’t want to do this directly anymore, so he had a pot made that he could jump into any time Heracles showed up, and he had a messenger give him the Labors.
Kill the Lernaean Hydra
So the Hydra was pretty much what Disney depicted it as: a monster that grew two heads whenever you chopped one off. In the original myth, Heracles and Iolaus figured out how to cauterize the wounds so the heads couldn’t keep growing. The Hydra has one immortal head, so Heracles took that one and stuck it under a rock so he could dip his arrows in its blood as needed. Disney took the Men in Black approach and had Hercules take him out from the inside. (Also watch closely in “Zero to Hero” and you’ll see some other G-rated Labors including the Stymphalian birds and the boar.)
Capture the Ceryneian Hind
So Eurystheus is beginning to realize that Heracles is good at not getting killed by monsters, so he decides to set him up to offend Artemis, who is good at smiting people who offend her. So Heracles is told to capture the Ceryneian Hind, a ridiculously fast deer that is sacred to Artemis. So Heracles chases this deer all over Greece for a year and then one day when he’s really tired, he wakes up and the deer is sleeping next to him. So Heracles gently subdues it and walks it back to Tiryns.
So Eurystheus tells Artemis that her deer has been desecrated and she and Apollo meet Heracles on the road, smiting arrows at the ready. And Heracles says “Oh, sorry guys. I was just doing what I was told.” And they’re like “Oh okay. Well just put her back where you found her when you’re done.”
So Heracles goes to Eurystheus and Eurystheus is like “YOU’RE STILL ALIVE? *cough* I mean, well I’ll take that hind for my menagerie.” And Heracles thinks “Oh man I just got out of getting smited by promising I’d give her back. What shall I do?” And he says, “Okay Eurystheus, but you need to take her from my hands.” So Eurystheus starts to get out of his pot and Heracles lets go of the hind. She’s so fast that she’s back to Artemis before Eurystheus’ foot touches the ground. And Heracles goes “Whooops! Guess you weren’t fast enough.”
Capture the Erymanthian Boar
First, there’s a side story to this one before we even begin talking about going Lord of the Flies on some boar. So, the Boar lives in the land of Arcadia, and Heracles’ friend Pholus the centaur lives there. So they’re hanging out and Heracles convinces him to open some wine. The trouble is that the only wine Pholus has is straight from Dionysus, so it’s like tear apart your son with your teeth strong, and Pholus’ centaur neighbors drink it and they get really, really messy and violent. They attack Heracles and he kills them with his Hydra blood poisoned arrows.
When the affair was over Pholus wondered why his friends were dead as a result of non-lethal arrow wounds, so he picked up one of Heracles’ arrows. He dropped it in surprise, and stepped on it, and he died. Chiron, the famous centaur trainer of heroes, also got hit by a stray arrow, but he couldn’t die, so he was just in agony all the time. Later, after Chiron could bear it no longer, he offered to take the place of the titan Prometheus who had given the mortals fire. That’s how much pain Chiron was in. Having your liver pecked out by an eagle every day while you were exposed on a rock was a better alternative. The gods let Chiron take Prometheus’ place and a few Labors later (probably after saving Alcestis) Heracles killed the Eagle that tortured his old friend, and freed him. In a lot of the legends, that was how he achieved his immortality.
Okay, about boars: Capturing the boar was easy really. Again, Heracles just hugged it until it went limp and he carried it back to Eurystheus who couldn’t get into his pot fast enough.
Clean the Augean Stables
So Augeus is one of Heracles’ old buddies from the Argo, so he’s thinking this’ll be cake. He’s just got to clean some stables, right? WRONG! These horses are immortal, and no one has cleaned the stables. Ever. So Augeus is like “Yeah sure dude, if you clean these stables I’ll give you a tenth of my cattle.” And Heracles literally picks up two rivers and re-routes them so they run straight through the stables. Problem solved! But Augeus doesn’t make good on his bargain. He decides it’s better to kill Heracles. As we all know by now, that is a very silly thing to do, and Augeus ends up dead. So even though Heracles didn’t get his reward, Eurystheus says that since he was paid this Labor doesn’t count so he has to do two extra. (Apparently having Iolaus help was not kosher too.)
Kill the Stymphalian Birds
The Stymphalian birds were Ares, the war god’s pets. They were man-eating and could launch their metallic feathers like porcupine quills. Their poop was also poisonous. (You know some poor hero felt pretty lame in Elysium when people asked how we got there and he said “A bird pooped in my eye.”) The punchline to this is that they set up shop in Arcadia because a pack of wolves had chased them out of where they had been. A pack of wolves vs. birds with flying swords for feathers and poisonous dung. Right. Sure.
So the whole pointy feathers thing makes the hugging them to death thing difficult, so Heracles needs a new idea. So he goes into the forest where they roost, near Lake Stymphalia, but he can’t get them to move. It’s so dark he can’t see exactly where they are. And they keep pooping from atop their trees. (Really. This is in the story. It heightens the danger!)
So these birds just won’t move and Heracles is like “OH NO! WHAT DO I DO?!?” And then Athena comes down all grey-eyed and serene, and she says “I’m having Hephastus make you some clappers right now. Chill. Avoid the poop.” And she brings Hephastus’ clappers to him and he claps the great bronze curves together and all the birds take to flight.
So Heracles goes all duck hunter and is just firing his Hydra blood dipped arrows at these birds and they all die or just fly away never to return.
Capture the Cretan Bull
So this bull was the bull that fathered the Minotaur. And King Minos was just sick of this bull because not only had it impregnated his wife but it was rampaging all over poor little Crete. So Heracles does his deal and sneaks up on the bull and hugs it to unconsciousness and takes it back to Tiryns. And Eurystheus takes the bull and thinks “I will sacrifice it to Hera and she will love me because this bull is really awesome.” and then Hera says “NO YOU FOOL. THAT WOULD BRING HONOR TO HERACLES. YOU ARE A FAILURE. KILL HIM. NOW!” And Eurystheus is so scared that he lets the bull go and it goes rampaging all the way to Athens where it gets killed by a very young Theseus, who is prepping for other bovine slaughter related activities. (Theseus and the Minotaur? Anyone? Anyone?)
Steal the Mares of Diomedes (or…now we’re up to date)
So Diomedes was the son of Ares and Cyrene, who might be the same Cyrene that’s Apollo’s common-law wife, but Apollo and Ares don’t seem to be the same type at all so I doubt it. (Golden boy vs. bad boy, you know?)
Diomedes had driven his horses mad by feeding them human flesh, and somehow they also developed the ability to breathe fire. In Alcestis, Heracles seems to know about the fire breathing but not the man-eating, so that gets you up to date.
(If you want spoilers for the rest of the Labors, plus some cursing, vulgarity, and silliness, check out the “Better Myths” version of Heracles’ life.)
Mostly, think of Heracles as a mythical Ghostbuster, a slayer of chthonic monsters (i.e. monsters “from the depths” or originating from the Underworld.) But he’s also kind of tragic too, because he doesn’t fit in anywhere and trouble follows him everywhere he goes.
God or Man?
In The Odyssey, when Odysseus goes down to the Underworld, he sees Heracles among the dead in Elysium, even though there are myths also say that Heracles became a god after his death. This is typical of the Heracles myth. He is every Greek, so he belongs to all of them. He appears in many legends and sometimes the timelines don’t add up. But he always stands for the best intentions, no matter what the outcome. Heracles is hope.