Hercules and his twelve labors

Hercules and his twelve labors

Hercules, also called Heracles, is a hero of Greco-Roman mythology, famous for having accomplished for having accomplished a series of extremely difficult tasks: the " twelve works ". Demigod, son of Zeus and Alcmene, a symbol of courage and strength, he will tirelessly fight fantastic creatures and throughout his life will be the prey of his stepmother: Hera. This is what we mainly remember from him but what about its dark side? Greed, violence, modest intelligence, fits of madness… Heracles also has the worst faults.

A tormented mortal life until the attainment of immortality

According to Homer, a Greek poet, Heracles (Hercules in Latin) is the son of Zeusand a fatal: Alcmene, princess of Mycenae and descendant of Perseus (son of Zeus). Eager to conceive a mortal son capable of accomplishing great feats, Zeus seduces Alcmene by assuming the appearance of her real husband: Amphitryon. The latter, returning from the war, also conceives a child with his wife whom he will name Iphicles. This "twin brother" will be born three months before Héraclès.

Hera, sister and wife of Zeus, mad with jealousy decides to deprive Heracles of the throne of Argolida, the throne conferred on him by his ancestry with Perseus. It delays its birth and accelerates that of another descendant: Eurystheus for him to inherit the kingdom. Shortly after the birth of Heracles, the god Hermes make Heracles drink Hera's milk so that he may become immortal. The dozing goddess wakes up and violently pushes the child away. The whitish splashes will create the Milky Way. Throughout Heracles' mortal life, Hera will never stop setting traps for him. When he was only eight months old, she sent two snakes to kill him in his cradle, reptiles which he eventually suffocated.

The twelve labors of Heracles constitute a part of his adventures. Others include his fight against the thief Cynos and the slave king Sylée d´Aulis. Heracles even participates in the expedition of Jason and the Argonauts who are in search of the Golden Fleece.

It's his wife Deianira, jealous of her relationship with Lolé, who is unwittingly responsible for the death of Heracles. Believing to make a love potion with the blood of the centaur slain by her husband, she soaks her tunic with blood that is actually poisoned. By putting on his outfit, Heracles is consumed by the poison. He decides to be immolated at the stake and asks his friend Philoctetes to light it. It is as the flames set the pyre ablaze that a divine cloud sweeps away Heracles and takes him to theOlympus. Heracles, finally at peace, attains immortality. He will reconcile with his mother-in-law and marry Hebe goddess of youth.

The twelve labors of Hercules

The twelve labors of Hercules are his most famous exploits. Why did he have to make them? Because of a fit of madness caused by Hera, Hercules kills his first wife: Megara, and his children. Collapsed, he consults the Pythia (the oracle) who sends him to his cousin Eurysthée. The latter imposes on him the twelve works, feats deemed unrealizable.

- The Nemean lion, brother of the Sphinx : Hercules' first mission takes him to Nemea. He strangles the lion whose skin is insensitive to human weapons and puts on his skin.

- Lhydra of Lerna, serpent with nine heads : Monster whose heads grow back once cut off. Hercules succeeds in killing the serpent thanks to the intelligence of his half-brother who cauterizes every wound.

- Capture the Doe of Cerynia : Having to capture the animal without harming it, he chases the doe for a long year until it runs out.

- The Erymanthian boar: After bringing it out of its den by imitating cries, Hercules brings the boar alive back to Mycenae.

- The Augean stables: It is by diverting two rivers that our hero succeeds in cleaning up the stables whose manure has accumulated for years.

- The birds of Stymphalian lake: Carnivorous birds with iron beaks, nails and wings were killed with cymbals and arrows.

- The Cretan bull: He captures the bull from the Ridge Island to bring it back alive to Tiryns.

- The marches of Diomedes: Charged with taming King Diomedes' mares which feed on human flesh, the hero feeds their master before bringing them back to Eurystheus.

- Hippolyte's belt: The recovered belt belonged to the Queen of the Amazons.

- The oxen of Géryon: The herd of oxen is captured after it kills Geryon, the three-headed giant.

- The golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides: the hero brings back the apples from the garden guarded by a dragon named Ladon.

- VSerbère the dog: This is the three-headed dog guarding the gate to Hell. After a bitter struggle, Hercules brings him back to Eurystheus to terrorize him.

The dark side of Heracles

Heracles is a demigod, which gives him exceptional qualities such as strength and courage but also the worst faults of a mortal: greed, violence, madness, modest intelligence. Slave to his passions, he represents the dark side that can exist in every man. Heracles illustrates excessiveness and his appetite is insatiable. He is also portrayed as a glutton for beef and banquets. As for his sexual appetite, our hero does not control it more. He is credited with numerous concubines and wives, in particular the fifty daughters of thee of Thespies. His descendants would include more than sixty children whose fifty Thespiades. Moreover, it was his passion for women that led him to his downfall. Remember, jealous of his relationship with Lolé, his naive wife Deianira, creates a love potion for him which turns out to be poison.

In his research entitled "Epilepsy of Heracles," historian Emmanuel Filhol explains the psychological causes of Heracles' violence. It shows that it is linked to a disorderly family environment based on a doubles system: "Double mother, double double and double father, such is the confused situation in which Hercules finds himself [...]".

The system breaks down as follows:

The two doubles : his twin brother Iphistes and his cousin Eurysthée who inherited the throne in his place.

The two mothers : Alcimene biological mother and Hera whose name he has in common.

The two fathers : Amphitryon who is not his real father and Zeus who watches over him from Olympus.

At the end of the article, Emmanuel Filhol sums up this chaotic situation by quoting Euripides, the Greek poet: "When a family is founded on an unsettled foundation, the children who come from it must expect misfortune".

Our hero has been very violent in his life. On several occasions, he murders human beings from an early age. Unruly student and annoyed by the remarks of his music teacher: Linos, Heracles, ends up killing him with a blow from Lyre. Another example: refusing to be granted the hand of Lolé, daughter of King Eurytos whom he had won in an archery competition, Heracles kills one of the king's sons by pushing them from the ramparts. Subsequently, wanting to repent of this act, he threatens the Pythia who did not wish to listen to him and quarrel with Apollo. As a punishment for these deviations in behavior, Zeus imposes three years of slavery on him. The examples are numerous and his madness can also be very cruel to himself because it led Heracles to murder his family.

The symbols and the posterity of Hercules

In Roman mythology, Hercules, who is often depicted with a club, lion's skin, and a bow, was a great source of inspiration for artists. Indeed, the myth of Hercules is found in many arts: cinema, theater, painting, sculpture, music, or even comics. We remember his exploits more than his excesses. He symbolizes strength and the phrase "strong as Hercules" derives from his legendary power. The number twelve is a number rich in symbols: 12 titans, 12 apostles, 12 hours of the day, 12 months of the year ... It is in particular the reference to the ancient (titans and works) which can explain the twelve stars on the European flag.

The hero's first name is " Alcide Which means in Greek "descendant of Alcea", the son of Perseus. This is a tribute to his grandfather. Heracles, Greek name, will be attributed to him when he goes to consult the oracle and will be entrusted with the twelve labors. It is baptized thus in reference to Hera: "To the glory of Hera". Hercules is its Roman name.


- Frontisi-Ducroux Françoise, The ABCs of Greek and Roman Mythology, Flammarion, 1999

- Grimal Pierre, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Mythology; Pref. by Charles Picard. - P.U.F., 1999

For further

- Virtual tour of the Louvre and works dedicated to Hercules.

The twelve labors of Hercules, by Christian Gernier. Pocket youth, 2003.

- The twelve labors of Hercules, by Isabelle Pandazopoulos. Junior Folio, 2013.

Video: The Young Hercules Complete Greek Mythology Stories - See U in History