Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The First Labours of Heracles

Standing high amongst all the heroes of Classical lore, and possessed of one of the most famous names in civilisation, is Heracles. Son of Zeus, slayer of countless fierce monsters, towering of stature, founder of cities and raised to godhood, the answer to why his name has emerged from the ravages of time unscathed is not easily forgotten. The name of Heracles will always be associated with the famous Twelve Labours, daunting and formidable tasks worthy of testing the potential of a man to become a god. Let us then look to the beginnings of the adventures, and the first labours of Heracles.

Heracles strangles the Serpents
Sculpture in the Capitoline Museums, Rome.
There was once a mortal man named Amphitryon, who lived with his wife Alcmene in the grand city of Thebes (the kingdom of Oedipus, for more please click here). But the King of gods and men, Zeus the Thunderer, was ever the ceaseless philanderer, and his eyes had found Alcmene. One time, when Amphitryon went away to war, the god came down to Earth, slowing the passage of time, so that the night grew long and the slumber of mortals endured. Assuming the shape of Amphitryon, Zeus entered the house and deceived Alcmene into believing her husband had returned from the war at last, as the two embraced. The following day, Amphitryon himself returned to Thebes. Yet his wife did not greet him with the enthusiasm he expected. Upon questioning her, she revealed in utter confusion that he had of course returned last night and that she had conceived by him. Suspecting divine play at hand, Amphitryon consulted the blind seer Tiresias, who revealed that Alcmene bore twins, one the son of Amphitryon, the other the seed of Zeus. Furious at her husband's repeated affairs, Hera, Queen of the gods, planned a torturous future for his extramarital offspring. When the boys were born, the son of Amphitryon was named Iphicles, and the son of Zeus, so that Hera might be appeased, was named Heracles, a name which means 'The Glory of Hera'. Far from being sated, the goddess raged at the insult. Hera sent forth from Olympus two serpents to the cot of Heracles, commanding them to strangle the infant. Shrieking at the sight, Alcmene cried out for Amphitryon to help, but upon looking back at the infant's cot, saw Heracles playing with the lifeless bodies of the snakes, whose lifeforce he had crushed with his bare hands.

Raised as one of their own by Amphitryon and Alcmene, Heracles learned the ways of the bow, the sword and the lyre, and soon surpassed all peers in his size and near boundless strength:

                 " The mere sight of him was enough to show that he was a son of Zeus:
                    for his body measured four cubits, a fiery gleam shone in his eyes,
                    and he never missed his mark with his arrows or javelins... "
                                                                      - THE STATURE OF HERACLES

Serving his adoptive father loyally in the fields, tending to the cattle in the mountain pastures, one day two nymphs came to the son of Zeus. They were Pleasure and Virtue, and they prophysied a momentous choice that lay before Heracles. Either he could lead a simple and easy life, or one of toil but boundless glory. A proud son of the greatest of gods, the hero chose the latter. Not long after, the Minyans, another Greek people, marched upon Thebes in arms, resolved to destroy the great city in war. Amphitryon fell in the battle, and in a rage, Heracles lead the Thebans to a fresh assault, unleashing his fury upon the Minyans, slaying many and putting them to flight. Men looked on in awe at the feats of Heracles.

As a prize for his valour, King Creon of Thebes presented to Heracles his own eldest daughter, Megara, and his younger to Iphicles. Megara gave to Heracles three sons; Therimachos, Creontides and Deicoon. The gods, too, gave gifts to the hero. The sun god Apollo gave to him a bow and quiver, such that he would never miss a target.  Hermes gave a sword, Athena a robe and Hephaestus forged a breastplate of gold for the glory of Hera. But the wrath of Hera would not be so easily abated. The vengeful goddess sent a madness to descend over Heracles' eyes. The hero writhed in the agony of his mind, blind to those all around. In his writhings, Heracles murdered his own children and two of Iphicles' too. Coming to his senses, deepest shame welled up inside Heracles at what he had done. Tormented by his unholy crime, Heracles went into exile from Thebes, coming to the Oracle of Delphi for purification. Little did he know that the words of the Oracle could be influenced by Hera. The Oracle spoke, and pious Heracles listened. She commanded the hero to journey to the court of King Eurystheus (who was the grandson of Perseus, for more about him please click here) in the mighty walled city of Tiryns, and serve the King for ten years, and complete any task that may be assigned to him, and upon completion of his service, he would be granted immortality.

Heracles slays the Lion of Nemea
Painting by Rubens.
Journeying to the city of Tiryns, Heracles came before Eurystheus. Under the sway of Hera, the King crafted a series of impossible tasks, such that no ordinary man could ever accomplish. For his first task, Eurystheus ordered, Heracles was to bring to him the skin of the Lion of Nemea. This monster was no ordinary lion. One of the dread offspring of Typhon and Echidna (for more about them, please click here), the Nemean Lion was invulnerable to the weapons of man. Its hide was impervious to spear, sword and arrow. Heracles arrived in Nemea, and soon found the creature, which terrorised the local people. Taking up Apollo's bow, Heracles loosed an arrow at the Lion, hoping for an easy victory. The arrow however, simply bounced off the monster's hide. Fashioning a club from a nearby tree, the hero tried to strike the monster, but it too was in vain. The Lion retreated to a cave in the mountains, so Heracles walled up one exit, leaving one cave mouth open. Venturing inside, the two powerful beings launched themselves at each other, the Lion's roar shaking the plains as Heracles grappled with the beast. Heracles throttled the Nemean Lion, using his own Titan strength to crush the beast's neck. Finding his knife unable to flay the body of it even in death, Heracles could only cut the monster's hide with its own claws. Wearing the hide around him as a cloak, Heracles journeyed back to Tiryns.

Heracles slays the Lernaean Hydra
Painting by Antonio del Pollaiolo.
Shocked by Heracles' prowess, Eurystheus hid inside the walls, forbidding Heracles entry to the city, fearing his might. Angered by the hero's success, Eurystheus decreed a second task, sure to prove too great this time. The King ordered Heracles to slay the infamous Hydra of Lernaea, a hideous monster which emerged from the swamps of Lerna to devastate the plains, slaughtering cattle and humans alike. Another of the fearsome brood of Typhon and Echidna, the Hydra was a vast creature, crowned with nine heads, each dribbling toxic poison. Eight of the beast's heads were mortal, but the ninth was invulnerable. Treading cautiously, Heracles, along with his nephew Iolaos, discovered the monster's lair near the springs of Amymone, hurling flaming brands to make the creature emerge. Emerge it did, and the hero hurled himself at it, grasping hold of the monster's trunk. The Hydra slithered its tails around his leg and began to squeeze, as Heracles drew forth his mighty club and swung down with all his might, striking with such force that one of the beast's many heads flew through the air, severed from its giant body. To the hero's despair, however, two new heads sprouted forth from the scaly stump. Retreating to rethink, Heracles called upon Iolaos to help. Attacking once more, as Heracles struck off the monster's heads, he ordered Iolaos to burn the stumps with a torch to prevent the creature regenerating. With one last almighty strike, Heracles severed the final head. But the head could not die, for it was blessed with immortality. So Heracles used his mighty strength to lift a huge boulder high, burying the monstrous head beneath it, so that it might never strike out again. Moving over the huge body, Heracles dipped his arrows in the creature's blood, which ran with lethal venom, sure that more fierce beings were yet to come on his adventures. Taking himself back to Eurystheus, Heracles was enraged to hear the King refuse to accept the validity of his task. Secretly furious that Heracles still lived, the King decreed that the slaying of the Hydra did not count, since the Hero had required the help of Iolaos to slay the beast. More labours were yet to come, but now Heracles was truly alone...

Revered by the Greeks, worshipped in the West and imitated by more than one Roman Emperor, the stories of the toils and hardships endured by Heracles have been told for not just centuries, but millennia. In coming posts we shall return to the adventures of Heracles, ever relentless in his quest for immortality and redemption. The stories of this great hero are scattered wide through the literature of Greece and Rome, but a good narrative may be found in the work of Apollodorus, a tome easily available from Amazon:

United Kingdom

The Library of Mythology:
The Library of Greek Mythology (Oxford World's Classics)
(A vast collection of stories of old Greece, written and compiled in ancient times)

United States

The Library of Mythology:
The Library of Greek Mythology (Oxford World's Classics)
(A vast collection of stories of old Greece, written and compiled in ancient times)

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