Heracles (more well known by his Roman name Hercules) is the mythical son of Zeus and Alcmene - although considered a hero in almost all the ancient myths, Hercules was actually a violent and brutal individual even by the standards of ancient Greece. Hercules is especially famous for his strength and this has remained his main focus in almost all media.
The story of Heracles starts as many stories of ancient Greece do, with a union between Zeus and a mortal woman. A man named Amphitryon, the grandson of the hero Perseus, another son of Zeus, had tried unsuccessfully to have a child with his wife Alchmene for several months before he was conscripted to fight in a war. In the end Amphitryon was drafted before he or Alchmene could tell if she was pregnant and he left swearing he would return to her. Amphitryon was wounded in battle and died of his injuries but with his dying breath he prayed to Zeus that his wife Alchmene would be safe and live to bare him a child. Zeus heard his great grandson's prayer and visited Alchmene that night disguised as Amphitryon. Zeus had relation's with Alchmene but left while Alchmene slept. Alchmene had no clue where her husband had gone but in a month's time received word that her husband had died in combat, leaving her to believe her night of passion with Amphitryon was just a vivid dream. However several months later Alchmene was surprised to find she as pregnant.
Alchmene bore a son and named him "Heracles," a reference to the goddess Hera, Zeus' wife, of whom Alchmene was a worshiper. Hera disliked the affairs of her husband and often punished the women who accepted his advances, in Alchmene's case she was unaware of it and besides was an avid worshiper of Hera so for perhaps this reason Hera spared Alchmene, she was unwilling to spare the child however and sent to serpents to devour Heracles while he was still in his cradle. Alchmene returned to the room to find the serpents about to kill her baby before Alchmene or the serpents could react Heracles grabbed and throttled the snakes and killed them with a simple grip, thrusting them about as if they were rattles. After the death of the snakes Alchmene and Hera both realized Heracles had phenomenal strength and Alchmene realized who it was that really came to her those nine month's prior.
Heracles would grow up using his strength to provide for his mother and hunt dangerous game for food, materials or money. Eventually Heracles met a woman named Megara, a princess of Thebes and the two fell in love. Megara invited Heracles to live in Thebes and the two settled down and had three children. Hera was never content to see Heracles living a simple carefree life and one day, in response to one of Zeus' other affairs, Hera took out her frustration on the adult Heracles. Hera placed Heracles under a spell and drove him to madness when he came home from a hunt one night, Heracles killed Megara and his children in his rage. By the mourning Heracles had come to his senses and was horrified at what he had done. Heracles could not bare to face Megara's father or the people of Thebes and ran off into the mountains in guilt and shame.
Over nebulous amount of time living in the wilderness Heracles came to the decision he had to seek forgiveness for his crimes to be free of his guilt. Heracles went to the Oracle of Delphi and asked what the gods would have of him to atone. The Oracle communed with the sun god Apollo and said Heracles must go to the city of Argos and speak with the king Eurystheus, who would test his resolve.
Heracles went Argos and sought out king Eurystheus, confessing his crime in the city's public forum and asking for some form of forgiveness. Eurystheus was considered a highly religious and spiritual king, unfortunately for Heracles though he was a devotee of Hera and communed with her over the situation. Hera told Eurystheus of many dangers that crept though the countryside, many of them monsters that also served her. Eurystheus told Heracles he would need to complete no less than ten labours to be forgiven by the gods and so began the legendary Labous of Heracles. He ended up completing twelve labors total, two more than the required amount.
1. Slay the Lion of Nemea
This vicious beast was terrorizing the town of Nemea and its hide was impervious to human weapons. Through brute strength alone did Heracles manage to kill it and he later adopted its skin as his armor.
2. Kill the Hydra
One of the children of Typhon and Echidna and raised by Hera just to combat Heracles, this multi-headed snake-whose heads regenerate after they are severed-was slain jointly by Heracles and his nephew who cauterized the bleeding stumps to stop the heads growing back. After severing the beast's final head-which is immortal-Heracles dips his arrowheads into its blood, making them dangerous.
3. Capture the Golden Stag
Sacred to the goddess Artemis and faster than an arrow in flight, Heracles spent a year chasing down this deer-with Artemis's permission-until he eventually captured it. After giving it to Eurystheus, he released it back into the woods.
4. Capture the Erymanthian Boar
This vicious boar was attacking villagers living near Mount Erymanthos until Heracles subdues it and brings it back to King Eurystheus.
5. Clean the Stables of Augeas
In an attempt to break the hero's momentum, Eurystheus has Heracles clean out the foul-smelling stables of King Augeas, which have not been cleaned for thirty years. Using his great strength and brainpower, he diverts two rivers flowing near the stables, which flush out the animal waste.
6. Drive Off the Stymphalian Birds
These vicious birds have fled to an island in Arcadia to escape a pack of wolves and now terrorize the villagers who live near Lake Stymphalos. Using a noisemaker crafted by Hephaestus, he frightens the birds and shoots them down with his poisoned arrows. The rest fly away and are never seen again.
7. Capture the Cretan Bull
This bull is the prized pet of Minos, the king of Crete (in another myth, the same bull impregnated his wife and is the Minotaur's father). A symbol of the Cretan dominance over mainland Greece, Heracles sails to the island, wrestles the bull into submission and sails back to Greece with it. Crete's days of ruling over the Greeks is over.
8. Capture the Horses of Diomedes
The pets of the tyrannical Thracian king Diomedes, these horses are savage because their master has fed them on the flesh of his enemies. Heracles travels to Thrace and shuts the king in the stable, where the horses savage him to death. Placated by eating their master, Heracles has the horses released into the countryside around Eurystheus's palace
9. Steal the Belt of Hippolyta
Heracles travels to Scythia, the homeland of a warlike all-female society called the Amazons. Their queen Hippolyta sports a magic belt which was given to her as a gift from her father, the war god Ares. Hera, who is the Amazons' patron goddess and a close friend of Hippolyta's, tries to sabotage the task by disguising herself as an Amazon and warning them that Heracles has come to capture the queen. The female warriors attack, but the hero fights them off and defeats Hippolyta, stealing her belt.
10. Capture the Cattle of the Geryon
A three-headed monster with a deadly familial line. Geryon is the grandson of Medusa - the Geryon lives on an island at the edge of the known world. Defeating the Geryon is only half the battle: the other half is finding it. Heracles sails to the island and after defeating the two-headed watchdog Orthrus, he shoots the monster with poisoned arrows. After the Geryon is killed, Heracles leaves with his cattle.
11. Retrieve the Apples of the Hesperides
Located in a garden at the far edge of the world, these apples are not only guarded by a giant snake, they are also the prized possessions of Hera. Heracles wanders the world in search of the sacred fruit until he comes across Atlas, a Titan who is forced to bear the earth on his shoulders. Atlas reveals he knows the location of the golden apples and offers to retrieve them for Heracles if he holds up the earth for him.
12. Retrieve Cerberus from the Underworld
Hera told king Eurystheus to send Heracles to present Cerberus, the guardian of the Underworld before him. Heracles first needs to wrestle Nereus - the old-man of the sea with the power to shape-shift. Upon winning the contested, Heracles is told by Nereus where to find the back entrance to the Underworld. Heracles travels to the Underworld, crossing the River Styx to the gates of the Underworld where he sees Cerberus. Cerberus is trained to let anyone pass him in, but none leave and so, though the hound growls territoriality at the living mortal it does permit him to pass, Heracles however had heard many stories of Cerberus, the Underworld and Hades, and so he initially ignores Cerberus to go in deeper to speak with Hades. On his way in he sees living mortals Theseus and Pirithous who were strapped to their chairs at Hades' dinner table. When Heracles asks why the living mortals are there Theseus explains that Pirithous wanted to take Persephone as a wife and he had gone with him to help him make off with her, Hades had invited them to sit down and wait for his wife but commanded the chairs to grab unto them and never let them go. Heracles frees Theseus as he is passing through but when he goes to free Pirithous the room began to shake with Hades ire and Heracles determines doing so would make him an enemy of Hades, and so he continues his quest inward to talk to Hades. Upon meeting Hades, Heracles explains to him his task and asks for permission to take Cerberus. Hades is flattered that unlike the half-a-dozen other heroes who broke into the Underworld, Heracles was not trying to subvert death and thought to ask Hades before taking something from it - as a result Hades granted Heracles permission to take Cerberus on a few conditions, the first was Heracles could not kill his beloved pet, the second was Heracles could not use any weapons, the third was Hearcles must return Cerberus when he was done and the final condition was Heracles must tell Hades who had put him up to the task, Heracles agreed, explaining it was King Eurystheus and putting away his weapons as he headed back the gate with Hades to meet with Cerberus. Hades unbound Cerberus and Heracles went to wrestle the three-headed hound. Hercles was just barely able to head-lock Cerberus as he dragged it back into the ferry, up the stairs, across the land and back to Argos. It took Heracles a year by some accounts to drag Cerberus all the way there on foot. When Eurystheus saw Heracles return with Cerberus he was terrified and hid. Heracles asked where Eurystheus wanted Cerberus put. Eurystheus cowered in a vase and told Heracles to just take the monster away. Heracles waited for Eurystheus to confirm the task was complete and when the cowering king confirmed it, Heracles began the arduous task of dragging Cerberus back. The night after Cerberus was returned, Hades appeared before Eurystheus to ask him why he dared to send someone to take his beloved pet, his anger shifted to Eurystheus instead of Heracles. Eurystheus broke down and admitted he was only doing what Hera told him to do, as he had with all the labors assigned to Heracles. Hades told Eurystheus he would be seeing him again very soon but left to Olympus. Hera was ambushed by Hades and told that if she sent Heracles on any more tasks she would have to answer to him. The next day when Heracles met with king Eurystheus to ask him if he had anymore tasks both he and Hera were too afraid to set further tasks for him, and thus ended Heracles's twelfth and final labor.
Though Heracles would be involved in several other adventures around Greece, such as traveling with Jason and the Argonauts to find the Golden Fleece or fighting the Centaurs of the north, completing the Twelve Labors officially pardoned Heracles for the deaths of his family and redeemed him in the eyes of the Gods. Zeus considered Heracles his favorite son, Hera considered her pride avenged, Hades saw to it Megara and Hercales's children were cared for in the Underworld and Heracles himself would eventually remarry a woman named "Deianira".
Hercales was quite happy to kill and although he was never a truly evil character he was in many ways a force of nature who could tear another man to shreds if it so suited him - this type of hero is common in mythology. Because Rome's and Greece's cultural heroes were based less on morals than on deeds, Hercules/Heracles managed to be one of the first genuine ancestral super-heroes, while illustrating profound character flaws.
Folklore, Religions, and Myths