Gateway to the Classics: Famous Men of Greece by John H. Haaren and A. B. Poland
Famous Men of Greece by  John H. Haaren and A. B. Poland

Hercules and His Labors


G REATEST of all the heroes of Greece was Herakles, or Hercules, who was born in Thebes, the city of Cadmus. His mother was one of the descendants of Perseus and his father was Jupiter.

Juno, the queen of the gods, hated Hercules. When he was only a baby in the cradle she sent two large serpents to devour him. He grasped the throat of each serpent with his tiny fingers and choked both to death.


Hercules and the Serpents

When he had grown to manhood he was forced by the will of the gods to become the slave of a hard-hearted cousin of his named Eurystheus, who was king of Mycenæ.

Eurystheus set twelve tasks for Hercules. The first was to kill the Nemean lion. This was a ferocious animal that lived in the forest of Nemea and ate a child or a grown person every two or three days. Its skin was so tough that nothing could pierce it, but Hercules drove the lion before him into a cave and, following boldly, grasped the beast about the neck and choked it to death. That done, he stripped off its skin, which he ever after wore as a cloak.

When the Nemean lion had been killed Eurystheus said to Hercules, "You must now kill the hydra that lives in the marsh of Lerna."

This hydra was a nine-headed water serpent whose very breath was poisonous. It was hard to kill the creature because as soon as one head was cut off two others at once sprang up in its place. This task might have proved too much for Hercules if a friend had not prevented new heads from growing by burning each neck with a firebrand the instant that Hercules cut off the head.

The third of Hercules' tasks was to bring to Eurystheus the stag with golden horns that was sacred to Diana. It lived in southern Greece in the woods of Arcadia. It had brazen feet and could run so fast that Hercules had to chase it for a whole year before he caught it.

"Now," said Eurystheus, "you must kill the boar that roams on the slopes of Mount Erymanthus." This creature laid waste the farmers' fields of barley and wheat at the foot of the mountain. Hercules captured the brute in a net and killed it.

The next command of Eurystheus to Hercules was, "Clean the Augean stables."

The Augean stables belonged to Augeas, one of the kings of Greece. As three thousand oxen were kept in them, and as they had not been cleaned for thirty years, they were filthy. Hercules cleaned them in one day. He dug a great ditch as far as the stables and turned into it the waters of two swift rivers.


A S soon as this was done Eurystheus said, "you must now kill the birds of Lake Stymphalus." Instead of wings of feathers these birds had wings of arrows which darted out and shot any one who passed by. Their claws and beaks were of brass, and they fed on human flesh. Hercules killed them with poisoned arrows.

Still Eurystheus hoped to find some task that might prove too much for the hero, so he said, "Bring me the bull of Crete."

This bull was a terrible monster that had been sent by Neptune to ravage Crete, an island not far from Greece. Hercules set out for Crete at once, conquered the bull, rode on his back across the sea from Crete to Greece, then swung the great animal to his own shoulders and carried him to Eurystheus.

Eurystheus now said to his wonderful slave, "Tame the man-eating horses of Diomedes, king of Thrace." He fully expected that this task would be fatal to Hercules. But the hero went to the palace of Diomedes and soon discovered a way to tame the savage steeds. He killed Diomedes and threw his flesh to them, when lo! the man-eating beasts became like other horses and gladly ate oats and grass.

Eurystheus immediately set a ninth task.

"My daughter," said he, "wants the girdle of the queen of the Amazons. Get it for her."

The Amazons were a nation living upon the shores of the Black Sea. It was the custom for the women to go to battle. Bravest of them all was Queen Hippolyte, whom Mars had rewarded for her courage by giving her a beautiful girdle. All Greece had heard of this girdle, and it was no wonder that the daughter of Eurystheus wished to have it.

When Hercules reached the country of the Amazons and made known his errand he found that the queen was as generous as she was brave. She said that she would send her girdle as a present to the daughter of Eurystheus. So it looked as though Hercules was to have no trouble at all with this task. Juno, however, tried to prevent his success. She made herself look like one of the Amazons and went among them and persuaded them that Hercules wished to carry away their queen. A great quarrel then arose between the hero and the Amazons, which ended in a battle. Brave Hippolyte was killed, and Hercules then took the girdle and carried it to Eurystheus.


"B RING me the oxen of Geryon," Eurystheus now commanded.

Geryon was a monster with three bodies. He lived on an island in the Western Ocean, as the Greeks called the Atlantic Ocean. In the fields of this island grazed Geryon's herd of red oxen guarded by a two-headed dog. At first Hercules did not see how he could reach the island. But the sun-god, Apollo, came to his aid and said to him, "I will lend you the golden bowl in which I sail every night from the land of the Western Sea to the land of the rising sun."

So in the sun's golden bowl Hercules reached the island safely. He slew the two-headed dog, then got the whole herd of oxen into the golden bowl and sailed back.

For the tenth time Eurystheus was amazed. He now commanded Hercules, "Get me some of the apples of the Hesperides."

At the wedding of Jupiter and Juno, the grandest that ever took place on Olympus, Ceres, the great earth-mother, had given to Juno some branches loaded with golden apples. These branches were afterwards planted and grew into trees upon islands in the Western Ocean, far away from Greece. The trees and their fruit were in charge of the nymphs called Hesperides, who had a terrible dragon to aid them. When Hercules was told to get some of the apples of the Hesperides he was puzzled. At last he went to Atlas, who was the father of the Hesperides, and begged his help. Atlas lived in Africa, opposite Spain. His duty was to hold up the sky, with all it contains, the sun, moon and stars.


The Daughters of Atlas

"I will get you some of the apples," said Atlas in answer to Hercules, "if you will hold up the sky for me while I am getting them."

The bargain was made. Hercules held up the sky while Atlas went and secured three of the golden apples. Then the giant took the sky again on his shoulders, and Hercules carried the apples to Eurystheus.

The Fates allowed Eurystheus to send Hercules upon only one more of his dangerous errands.

"Go to the gates of the underworld," said Eurystheus, "and bring Cerberus here."

Hercules now, if ever, had need of aid from the gods. They did not fail him. Mercury, the god who guided the souls of the dead to the unseen world, and Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, both went with him to the kingdom of Pluto.

Pluto said that if Hercules could overpower Cerberus without using any weapon he might take the great watchdog to the world of light. Hercules wrestled with the monster, overcame him, and dragged him to the palace of Eurystheus.

This ended the power of Eurystheus over the hero.


H ERCULES had a friend named Admetus, a king in Thessaly, who was about to die. The Fates had promised that his life should be spared if his father, mother or wife would die for him. When both father and mother refused, Alcestis, his wife, gave her life for him. Admetus was crazed with grief at losing her, and so Hercules went to Pluto's kingdom, seized Alcestis, and brought her to her husband.

Once Hercules became insane and killed a friend whom he greatly loved. The gods punished him for this with a serious sickness. He asked Apollo to cure him, but the god refused, and Hercules tried to carry away the tripod on which the priestess of Delphi sat when the god spoke to her. For this he was deprived of his great strength and given as a slave to Omphale, Queen of Lydia. She took the Nemean lion's skin from him and dressed him as a woman. Then she made him kneel at her feet and spin thread and do a woman's work for three years. After he was again free he did many brave deeds.


Hercules as the Slave of Omphale

Once when journeying with his wife Deianira he reached a river. There was neither bridge nor ferry. Nessus, the centaur, half-man, half-horse, who owned that part of the river, undertook to carry Deianira across while Hercules waded. When Nessus reached the middle of the river he tried to run away with Deianira, but Hercules shot him with one of his poisoned arrows. Nessus, while dying, told Deianira to save some of his blood and use it as a charm to make Hercules love her more.


Nessus Carrying Off Deianira


S OME years after this, Deianira became very jealous, and the foolish woman sprinkled some drops of the centaur's poisoned blood upon a robe that Hercules had to wear at a sacrifice. When Hercules put on the robe the poison burned like fire. He tried to pull off the garment, but it clung to him, and as he pulled it his flesh was torn.

Seeing now that his end was near, he went to the top of a mountain. There he pulled up some trees by the roots and heaped them together to make his funeral pyre. With his club for a pillow and his lion's skin for a cover, he lay upon the pyre and soon he ceased to breathe. A friend kindled the pyre, and the hero's body was burned to ashes. Then a cloud, gleaming as though on fire, descended through the air, and amid the pealing of thunder the mighty spirit was born to the skies.

There Jupiter made him one of the gods and gave him the beautiful goddess Hebe for a wife.

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