W HEN Hercules was a baby he lived in the palace of Amphitryon, king of Thebes. Although Amphitryon loved the baby dearly and provided many women to wait on him and care for him, Hercules was not his own child. He was the son of the great god Jupiter, king of the heavens.
King Amphitryon was proud of him because he was much larger and stronger than other babies, but Juno, who was the wife of Jupiter and queen of all the goddesses, hated this little son of Jupiter.
One day the goddess sent two great serpents to destroy Hercules as he lay in his cradle, but Hercules wakened as the serpents rustled over his linen coverlet, and, reaching out his strong little hands, he grasped them round the neck and held them tight until they were strangled.
Baby Hercules and the Serpents
His nurses, hearing him crow, knew his nap was over, so they came in to take him up. There lay the two serpents dead in his cradle!
This was such a wonderful thing for a baby to do, that King Amphitryon boasted of it all over his kingdom. As Hercules grew older, the king searched far and wide until he found the wisest teachers to train him in all the ways in which a prince should be trained.
In one way his nurses and teachers had a hard time with Hercules. He had so terrible a temper that when he became angry everyone ran out of his reach. King Amphitryon tried in many ways to teach Hercules to control his temper, but it was no use. One day his music teacher, whose name was Linus, reproved him for carelessness and tried to punish him. Hercules at once raised his lute and struck Linus on the head. The blow was such a terrible one that Linus died.
After that Hercules was in disgrace with King Amphitryon, and the king sent him away to live among his herdsmen and the cattle.
In the mountains where the king's herds were kept, there lived a lion which kept carrying off the fattest cows. Often, too, it had killed a herdsman. Soon after Hercules came to live in the mountains, he killed this lion, and in other ways made himself so useful to the herdsmen that they grew to love him, and held him in great respect.
Hercules continued to grow larger and stronger, and at last he returned to Thebes and fought for the king against his enemies. He won many victories for King Amphitryon, who forgave him for killing Linus.
The rest of his life Hercules spent in twelve adventures that were full of danger. Among them was his fight with a terrible lion which lived in the valley of Nemea. When he failed to kill it with his club, he strangled it with his hands, and returned carrying the body of the great beast across his shoulders.
Hercules returned carrying the body of the great beast.
Next he killed a nine-headed water serpent called the Hydra, which lived in the country of Argos, and then he captured a boar that had long overrun the mountains of Arcadia, frightening and killing the people.
From one of his adventures he returned bringing a wonderful stag, with antlers of gold and feet of brass, which dwelt in the hills about Arcadia.
Whenever Hercules heard of a monster that preyed on the people, he at once set out to overcome it. Sometimes he was sent on these dangerous adventures by Juno, who still wished that harm might befall him, but Hercules had the help of Jupiter and each time returned victorious.
He was sent to clean the stables of King Augeas, who had a herd of three thousand oxen, whose stalls had not been cleaned in thirty years.
Hercules cleverly thought of a way to clean the filthy stables without even entering them. He dug a wide ditch from a river to the stables, and let the waters rush through the stalls into a ditch on the other side and down the hill into another river.
In a few hours the stables were clean. Then Hercules walled up the opening between the first river and the ditch so that no more water could flow through. When King Augeas came to look at his stables, much to his astonishment he found them clean and dry.
Hercules was also sent to find the golden apples which were guarded by the three daughters of Hesperus and by a great dragon which coiled itself among the trees of the garden.
The three daughters of Hesperus guard the golden apples.
Hercules knew that Atlas owned the gardens of the Hesperides, so he journeyed to the mountain of Atlas and asked him if he would not like to rest from the weight of the sky, which he had held on his great shoulders ever since Perseus turned him into stone.
Hercules offered, with Jupiter's help, to change Atlas back into a giant, so that he might walk the earth and wade in cool streams and rest in green valleys. This he would do if Atlas would agree to go to his garden and gather some golden apples for him. Atlas was eager to be released from the burden of the sky and the stars, and promised to do anything Hercules wished if only he might once more be free.
So Hercules took the weight of the heavens on his own shoulders and Atlas stepped out, shaking his head wildly, shouting and leaping with gladness at being free once more. He went joyously across the land, splashing through cool streams and striding through the green grass.
Hercules held the heavens until Atlas finally returned with his big hands and deep pockets filled with golden apples.
Hercules held up the heavens.
Atlas begged that he might carry them to Hercules' land and deliver them. But Hercules was afraid that if Atlas went he might never come back, so he asked Atlas to hold the earth until he rested his shoulders. He then set the sky again on the giant's shoulders and went back to Thebes with the golden apples.
In spite of his temper Hercules was kind, and learning that Prometheus was still chained to the rock where Jupiter had bound him, he urged his father to give him permission to break the chains which held Prometheus, and set him free. Jupiter agreed, and Prometheus, after his long punishment, was unbound.
At last, after many glorious labors, Hercules was carried to Mount Olympus in Jupiter's own chariot, and became one of the Immortals.