Introduction: the Twelve Labors of Hercules

To say that Hera, wife of Zeus, had it in for her stepson is an understatement at best. Herakles, better known as Hercules (Greek vs. Roman), was a hero of epic proportions, and a constant reminder to Hera of Zeus’ many infidelities.

Worse still, Zeus dotted over the boy.

So much so that he attempted to trick Hera into suckling the infant Hercules, which would have made Hercules immortal. When the child clamped down on Hera’s breast, she pulled away, squirting milk across the heavens.

If you don’t believe that story, look up at the night sky on a clear evening. That band of light that arcs across the heavens – well, there’s a reason it’s still known as the Milky Way.

Yet another reason to inspire Hera’s rage.

In her cruelty, she drove Hercules into a fit of madness. When he came to his senses, he found he had murdered his children, and his beloved wife (in one version, she is spared).

Grief stricken; he went to the Oracle at Delphi for advice. She instructed him to serve his cousin, who had replaced him as king…a cousin who, unbeknownst to Hercules, was under the sway of Hera.

Still, this cousin, Eurystheus, promised absolution and immortality to Hercules if he could perform ten tasks.

Ten tasks, all engineered by Hercules’ stepmother, Hera…

Due to technical violations, Hercules ends up having to perform twelve tasks, known commonly as the Twelve Labors of Hercules.

The closest thing to an authoritative list is from the Bibliotheca, a compendium of Greek mythology dated to the first or second century CE. Earlier accounts are fragmentary, though a lost work, attributed to the poet Peisander, apparently structured the narrative framework of the Twelve Labors (circa 600 BCE).

This is the list, as per the Bibliotheca:

  1. Nemean Lion
  2. Lernean Hydra
  3. Ceryneian Hind
  4. Erymanthian Boar
  5. Augean Stables
  6. Stymphalian Birds
  7. Cretan Bull
  8. Mares of Diomedes
  9. Belt of Hippolyta
  10. Cattle of Geryon
  11. Golden Apples of Hesperides
  12. Cerberus

These Labors have provided raw material for storytellers and artists for millennia; in time, they would pave the way for Hercules’ path to redemption, and his eventual death and apotheosis (while the latter isn’t part of the Twelve Labors, his final fate is intimately tied to them, specifically the Second Labor, the slaying of the Hydra).

More to come, in good time…

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