T HERE was once a baby whom Hera, queen of the gods, hated. She sent two huge snakes to kill him in his cradle, but he sat up, caught one snake in his right hand, the other in his left hand, and choked both of them to death.
This boy was called Heracles. In the Latin language his name is changed to Hercules.
When he grew up and was very strong, Hera put him as a servant in the care of his cousin, who gave him much hard work to do.
He was sent out to kill a furious lion, which ate men and women in Nemea. Heracles shot at the beast, but the tough hide turned the arrows away. He went near, and struck the lion with a club, but he only laughed if lions ever do laugh. Then Heracles took the beast's throat in his strong hands, and finished the battle.
Heracles and the Lion
He threw the body over his shoulder and carried it to his cousin, who told him not to bring such things into the house, but to leave them outside. Heracles took off the lion's skin and wore it as a cloak.
He was sent to kill the Hydra. This monster had nine heads and lived in a swamp. Its breath was so poisonous that it killed many people in that neighborhood. Heracles struck off the heads with his club, but two new heads grew each time. He told his servant to build a fire, and with a lighted stick to burn each neck as soon as the head was gone, so that no new one could grow. In that way he got rid of eight heads. The ninth was immortal; it could not die. Heracles cut it off, burned the neck, and buried the head under a rock.
His next work was to clean the Augean stables. Thousands of cattle had lived in them for thirty years. Heracles had not only hands, but a head. He dug two canals, by which he let two rivers run through the stables and in one day they were clean.
His cousin's daughter wanted a girdle or belt worn by the Queen of the Amazons. These were women who were soldiers. They wore armor and fought fiercely. No men were allowed to live in their country. Heracles went to their queen and politely told her what he wanted. She said that she should be happy to please the young lady and gave him the girdle. Hera was angry because he succeeded so easily. She made herself look like an Amazon and went among the women, telling them that the stranger meant to carry off their queen. Heracles had to fight his way back to his ship, but got away safely with the belt.
He was sent to the far West to bring away the oxen of Geryon, a monster with three bodies who had a dog with two heads. Heracles reached the shore of the Atlantic Ocean, broke a mountain in two, pushed one half over into Africa, the other into Europe, and made the Straits of Gibraltar. Those mountains were afterwards called the "Pillars of Hercules." He took the oxen and drove them home to his cousin.
When Hera was married to Zeus the Earth gave her a wedding present of some golden apples. Ever since, they and the trees on which they grew had been kept by the Hesperides, daughters of King Hesperus and nieces of the giant Atlas. As usual, a dragon helped the girls keep watch. Heracles was ordered to find the golden apples and bring them back with him. After much trouble he found Atlas in Africa. The giant was holding the sky and all the stars upon his shoulders.
Heracles said to him, "You are better acquainted than I am with your nieces. Would you kindly go and ask them to give you some of their golden apples for me?"
Atlas was cross. "While I am doing that who will hold up this sky? Can you tell me?"
"Why, yes," said Heracles. "I will."
The giant grunted. Heracles stooped down and took the sky on his shoulder. The jolt caused by the change was so slight that only a few loose stars fell from their places.
Atlas stood up straight and was much pleased to be free. He went off and was gone a long time, but when he came back three golden apples were in his hands. He gave them to Heracles, took the sky again on his back, and may be found to-day, a mountain instead of a giant.
After some other labors were finished, nothing would suit his cousin but that Heracles should go to the underworld and bring up the dog with three heads, Cerberus. He could never have done that alone, but his friends the gods Athene and Hermes helped him.
They went down together, and asked King Pluto to lend them his dog. He said, "He is not a house-dog." Heracles said, "I only want to show him to a friend of mine." Pluto answered, "He is not very pretty to look at." "No," returned Heracles. "I will just take him up to my friend's palace and bring him back here again."
"You may take him" said Pluto, "but come back as soon as you can, or my people will all run away from this kingdom."
The cousin was more frightened than ever when he saw the three-headed dog following Heracles into the palace. Cerberus was sent home very soon.
In the underworld Heracles saw his friend Theseus sitting on a rock from which he could not rise. He had gone down to help a friend who wished to carry off Pluto's wife. The angry king caught them both and seated them on a rock at his palace gate, there to stay forever. The strong man took Theseus by the hand, and lifted him loose with one pull, and they went up into the light together.
When Heracles died his body was burned to ashes, but the immortal part of him was placed among the stars.