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Hercules › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 09 July 2012
Hercules & The Cretan Bull (Jehosua)

The pan - Hellenic mythological hero Hercules (or Herakles ) was famed for his great strength and endurance and celebrated as an extraordinary mortal who, through success in seemingly impossible labours, won his immortal place amongst the Olympian gods. Being the greatest of Greek mythological heroes, he has been ascribed a multitude of adventures and heroic exploits over the centuries which were probably originally connected to lesser, more local figures.

EARLY LIFE

Hercules' mortal father was Amphitryon (nephew of Elektryon, ruler of Mycenae ) and his mother was Alkmene; both were from Argos. However, following a violent quarrel between Amphitryon and his uncle, resulting in the accidental death of the latter, the family fled to Thebes where Hercules was born. In mythology, though, it was Zeus who lay with Alkmene and so fathered Hercules, explaining the origin of Hercules' great strength. Hera, the wife of Zeus, was (understandably) always jealous of Hercules and made life difficult for him from an early age. The goddess delayed his birth so that his cousin Eurystheus would be born first and so become the ruler of Greece according to Zeus' decree. Hera also sent two snakes to kill the new-born Hercules, but the baby easily strangled them. On the other hand, Hercules generally enjoyed divine favour from the Olympian gods - he did, after all, help them in their battle against the Giants - and he was particularly favoured by Athena.
Hercules' youth was spent in the hands of the best teachers in Greece. His father taught him to ride chariots and tame horses.His music teacher was Linus, son of Apollo, although Hercules' quick temper was demonstrated when he killed Linus with a blow from his stool (or lute). He was then sent to live with herdsmen in the mountains to toughen him up, and there he came into contact with the wise centaur Cheiron.
The Infant Hercules

The Infant Hercules

HERCULES' 12 LABOURS

Hercules married Megara, the daughter of Kreo, King of Thebes, and together they had five children. Hera once more interfered and drove Hercules insane so that he killed his wife and children. In desperate remorse he sought the advice of Apollo via his oracle at Delphi. The advice was for Hercules to offer his services to his cousin Eurystheus, the king of Mycenae, Tiryns, and Argos. Hera once more influenced events by persuading Eurystheus to set the hero difficult and dangerous tasks - the famous twelve labours of Hercules:

HERCULES' GREATEST CHALLENGE WAS TO DESCEND INTO HADES AND CAPTURE THE FEROCIOUS THREE-HEADED DOG KERBEROS WHO GUARDED THE GATES.

  1. To kill the Nemean Lion.
    A lion with a hide impervious to weapons was terrorizing the region of Nemea, in some accounts because of a lack of piety from the inhabitants. Hercules strangled the lion with his bare hands and forever after wore its pelt as a protective cloak.
  2. To kill the Lernaian Hydra
    A fire-breathing monster with a lion's head and a body of many snakes which dwelt in a swamp near Lerna, close to Argos, was sent by Hera to torment Hercules' home town. Hercules fought the creature but was hampered by a giant crab which bit his foot and by the fact that every time he cut off one of the snake heads, another two grew in its place.Helped by his faithful companion and nephew Iolaos, who used fire to stop the heads re-growing, Hercules eventually killed the Hydra and dipped his arrows in its poisonous blood.
  3. To capture the Keryneian Hind
    Sacred to Artemis and with golden horns, the hind took its name from the nearby Mount Kerynea close to Argos.Hercules, having to capture this famously swift-footed animal and present it alive to Eurystheus, was successful only after a lengthy, perhaps one-year, chase which exhausted the animal.
  4. To capture the Erymanthian Boar
    The area of Mount Erymanthos in Arcadia was plagued by a huge, ferocious boar and Hercules was set the task of capturing it and taking it to Mycenae. Goading the animal into a lengthy chase, Hercules again exhausted his prey, captured it, tied its feet, and carried it to Mycenae on his shoulders. It was during this labour that a fight with the centaurs over a broached wine cask resulted in Hercules accidentally killing Cheiron with one of his poisoned arrows.
  5. To clear the Augean Stables
    Augeias, the king of Elis, possessed a herd of animals given to him by his father Helios. The herd was so vast that the excrement it produced threatened the health of the city. Hercules' seemingly impossible task was to clear the herd's stables in a single day. To accomplish the task, Hercules dug ditches on either side of the stables, shovelled the dung into them and then diverted the rivers Alpheios and Peneios to wash the ditches clean.
  6. To kill the Stymphalian Birds
    These were aggressive (possibly even man-eating) birds which inhabited a forest near Lake Stymphalia in northern Arcadia. Hercules used brass castanets or clappers ( krotala ) given to him by Athena to startle the birds into flight, allowing him to shoot them down with his arrows.
  7. To kill the Cretan Bull
    A destructive bull was troubling the inhabitants of Knossos on Crete and was of two possible origins: either it was the animal ridden by Europa to the island or it was the bull which mated with Pasiphae (the wife of King Minos) and created the Minotaur. In some versions Hercules does not kill the bull but captures it and takes it to Mycenae.
  8. To capture the Mares of Diomedes
    Diomedes, son of Ares and King of Thrace, had in his stables horses which fed on human flesh. Hercules had to capture them and hand the horses over to Eurystheus. In some accounts Hercules pacified the horses by feeding them either the body of Diomedes or their groom.
  9. To steal the Girdle of Hippolyta
    Hippolyta was an Amazon queen and her girdle had been given to her by her father Ares. With his faithful companions, Hercules travelled to the home of the Amazons in the city of Themiskyra near the Black Sea. They received a hostile welcome from the Amazons who had been persuaded by Hera to attack the heroes; however, ultimately Hercules secured the girdle for Eurystheus.
  10. To capture the Cattle of Geryones
    This herd of cattle on the island of Erythia was guarded by the formidable trio of: three-bodied Geryones; Orthros - a dog with two heads and a serpent's tail; and the herdsman Eurytion, son of Ares. However, they were no match for Hercules who defeated them with his trusty club and captured the herd. It was on his journey to this island in the western ocean that he set markers in the Strait of Gades which thereafter became known as the Pillars of Hercules.
  11. To take the Apples of the Hesperides
    The Hesperides lived in a far away garden on the outer edges of the known world in which grew trees which bore golden apples. These sacred fruit were protected by Hera who had set Ladon, a fearsome hundred-headed dragon, as their guardian. Hercules first sought the advice of Nereus, the Old Man of the Sea, as to the exact location of the garden. On his way to the garden Hercules came across Prometheus who was bound to a rock. As punishment for having stolen fire from Hephaistos ' workshop and given it to mankind, Zeus sent an eagle everyday to eat his liver.Hercules shot down the eagle with one of his arrows and freed Prometheus; in return, Prometheus informed him that his brother Atlas (and in some accounts the father of the Hesperides) would show him how to reach the sacred garden.Atlas was then holding the heavens on his shoulders (as punishment from Zeus for supporting the Titans in their battle against the Olympian Gods), but he offered to get the apples himself if Hercules would support the heavens in his absence. Hercules agreed and was assisted by Athena in bearing the tremendous weight. Bringing back the apples, Atlas was (understandably) reluctant to take back his place. However, Hercules, under the pretext of getting cushions for his shoulders, tricked Atlas into temporarily taking back the heavens. Once Hercules was free he took the apples and returned to Mycenae. In an alternative version, Hercules subdued Ladon by giving it an intoxicating herb and then took the apples himself.
  12. To capture Kerberos from Hades
    By this time Eurystheus was becoming increasingly frustrated with Hercules' success, and so the final task had to be impossibly difficult. This was to descend into the underworld of Hades and capture the ferocious three-headed dog Kerberos who guarded the gates. On his journey in Hades, the hero encounters many souls and persuades the god Hades to allow him to take Kerberos provided he does so without weapons. Hercules succeeds and takes the creature back to Mycenae, causing Eurystheus to jump inside a jar in fear.

Hercules Captures Kerberos
HERCULES CAPTURES KERBEROS

HERCULE'S OTHER ADVENTURES

Whilst performing his labours, Hercules is involved in many more secondary exploits such as fighting Hades to rescue Alcestis from the Underworld, killing Kyknos who waylaid pilgrims to Delphi, and joining the search for the Golden Fleece with Jason and the Argonauts.
Hercules also went to Troy to save Hesione, daughter of the king, Laomedon. Following Laomedon's failure to pay homage to the deeds done by Poseidon and Apollo for the city, the gods respectively sent a sea-monster and a plague to wreak havoc with the city. The Delphic oracle stated that only the sacrifice of Hesione would avert disaster for Troy. Laomedon complied but offered his celebrated immortal horses (a gift from Zeus to Laomedon's father Troas) as a reward for anyone who could save his daughter. Hercules took up the challenge, killed the sea-monster and rescued Hesione. However, Laomedon reneged on his promised reward, and years later Hercules returned with an army, sacked Troy and killed the king (thereby making his son Priam ruler) and gave Hesione to his friend Telamon.

DEIANEIRA

On the successful completion of his twelve labours, Hercules started a new life. During his exploits in Hades he had met Meleager who told him he should marry his sister Deianeira, daughter of Oineus, King of Kalydon. On arrival in Kalydon, though, Hercules found that Deianeira was betrothed against her will to Acheloos, the river god. Winning the affections of Deianeira, Hercules wrestled Acheloos into submission and married the princess himself. Deciding to settle in Tiryns, the couple had to cross the River Eunos. It was here that they encountered the centaur Nessos who carried people across the river. However, mid-crossing he unwisely molested Deianeira and Hercules fatally shot the centaur with one of his poisoned arrows. Unfortunately for Hercules, though, just before he died, Nessos lied to Deianeira and told her that his blood had aphrodisiac properties and she should collect some and keep it.
Hercules Fighting the Centaur Nessos

Hercules Fighting the Centaur Nessos

Following some years of peaceful marriage during which the couple had a son, Hyllos, Hercules decided to enter an archery competition where the prize was Iole, daughter of Eurytos, King of Oichalia. Naturally, Hercules won the competition but was refused the prize because he was already married. Piqued, Hercules then stole the horses of Eurytos and took them back to Tiryns. Iphitos then visited Tiryns to demand his father's horses back but was killed by Hercules.
Forced to flee from his homeland, Hercules once more had to seek expiation from the oracle at Delphi. However, as he was tainted with murder the oracle refused to advise him; consequently, Hercules stole the sacred tripod of Apollo in an attempt to set up his own oracle at Pheneos. Apollo and Hercules then became enemies and only Zeus' thunderbolt was able to separate them.

A HORRIBLE DEATH & DIVINITY

Hercules then fled to Trachis from where he went to serve Omphale, Queen of Lydia, at the orders of Zeus. He also destroyed Oichalia and took Iole as his servant. Suspecting amorous motives and seeking to win back the affections of her husband, Deianeira decided to use the blood of Nessos, covered a cloak in it and gave it to a messenger to take to Hercules.The hero wore it but the impregnated cloak caused his skin to burn terribly. Deianeira took her own life in remorse and Hercules, seeing no future for himself, instructed his son Hyllos to take him to Mount Oite and burn his body on a funeral pyre.In the event, Hyllos was unable to start the fire, and it was left to Philokretes (in exchange for Hercules' bow and arrows) to seal the hero's fate. Immortality was assured, though, when Athena descended in her chariot and took Hercules from the flames to Mount Olympus where he married the goddess Hebe, was given the gift of eternal youth, and permitted to reside with the gods for all time.
Statue of Hercules

Statue of Hercules

REPRESENTATION IN ART

In ancient Greek Archaic and Classical art Hercules is often depicted carrying a knotted club, a quiver full of arrows, and wearing a lion's pelt with sometimes also a lion's head helmet. He is usually bearded (until the late 5th and 4th centuries BCE when he is more often depicted beardless) and has very large eyes. The earliest complete depiction of Hercules' twelve labours is from the metopes of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (completed in 457 BCE). In Greek Classical comic plays he is often somewhat parodied as a party reveller. On Greek coins (notably 5th century BCE Theban ones) the infant Hercules strangling two snakes was an oft used design. Hercules was particularly esteemed in Athens, which is reflected in his frequent depiction on Attic black- and red-figure pottery in a multitude of mythological scenes, but his presence on potteryfrom all over Greece is evidence of the wide-ranging popularity of this Greek hero par excellence.

The Life of Hercules in Myth & Legend › Antique Origins

Ancient Civilizations

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 23 July 2014

Hercules is the Roman name for the Greek hero Herakles, the most popular figure from ancient Greek mythology.Hercules was the son of Zeus, king of the gods, and the mortal woman Alcmene. Zeus, who was always chasing one woman or another, took on the form of Alcmene's husband, Amphitryon, and visited Alcmene one night in her bed, and so Hercules was born a demi-god with incredible strength and stamina. He performed amazing feats, including wrestling death and traveling twice to the underworld, and his stories were told throughout Greece and later in Rome, yet his life was far from easy from the moment of his birth, and his relationships with others were often disastrous. This was because Hera, the wife of Zeus, knew that Hercules was her husband's illegitimate son and sought to destroy him. In fact, he was born with the name Alcaeus and later took the name Herakles, meaning "Glory of Hera", signifying that he would become famous through his difficulties with the goddess.
Gilded Bronze Hercules

Gilded Bronze Hercules

The demi-god, who suffered like mortals and who could make a mess of things in life just as easily as any man or woman but perform deeds no mortal could, had great appeal for the people of Greece and Rome. Hercules was a kind of super-powered everyman who suffered disappointments, had bad days - even bad years - and eventually died due to another's trickery. These stories, besides simply being entertaining, would have served an ancient audience by letting them know that, if bad things could happen to a hero like Hercules, they had nothing to complain about regarding the disappointments and tragedies in their own lives. Hercules served as a symbol of the human condition where, to use Hemingway's phrase, "a man may be destroyed, but not defeated." An interesting aspect of Hercules' character is that, because of his divine strength and abilities, he did not have to willingly submit to any of the labors or punishments imposed upon him. He chose to suffer indignities such as his famous Twelve Labors or his servitude to the queen Omphale and did so willingly. His inner strength and ability to endure hardships made him an inspirational figure to the people and a symbol of stability in the midst of chaos, even if it was a chaos he himself had caused. The historian Thomas R. Martin writes:
The only hero to whom cults were established internationally, all over the Greek world, was the strongman Herakles (Hercules). His superhuman feats in overcoming monsters and generally doing the impossible gave him an appeal as a protector in many city -states (129).

EARLY LIFE

Although he was seen as the champion of the weak and a great protector, Hercules' personal problems started literally at birth.Hera sent two witches to prevent the birth, but they were tricked by one of Alcmene's servants and sent to another room. Hera then sent serpents to kill him in his cradle, but Hercules strangled them both. In one version of the myth, Alcmene abandoned her baby in the woods in order to protect him from Hera's wrath, but he was found by the goddess Athena who brought him to Hera, claiming he was an orphan child left in the woods who needed nourishment. Hera suckled Hercules at her own breast until the infant bit her nipple, at which point she pushed him away, spilling her milk across the night sky and so forming the Milky Way. She then gave the infant back to Athena and told her to take care of the baby herself. In feeding the child from her own breast, the goddess inadvertently imbued him with further strength and power.
The Infant Hercules

The Infant Hercules

He was brought up at the court of his supposed-father Amphitryon, where he had the best tutors in the land who taught him wrestling, horseback riding, fencing, archery, how to drive a chariot, play the lyre, and sing. Hercules did not know his own strength, however, and killed his music teacher, Linus, by hitting him with a lyre one day during an argument. He was then sent to tend the flocks to keep him out of trouble. This seems to have been an impossibility for Hercules, however, as he heard that the Theban army had been defeated by a band of Minyans and, feeling this was unjust, he led a band of Theban warriors to defeat the Minyans and restore order to Thebes. King Creon of Thebes gave Hercules his daughter, Megara, in marriage as a sign of his gratitude.

THE MADNESS OF HERA & THE TWELVE LABORS

At this point in the story, Hercules was a young, successful hero, married and, in time, with three strong sons. Hera could not tolerate the situation and so sent upon him a madness in which he killed his children (and, in some versions, Megara as well).He continued in his rage until Athena knocked him out with a stone and, when he came to, he was overwhelmed with grief at what he had done. He would have killed himself but his cousin Theseus convinced him that would be cowardly and that he must find a way to atone for his sins. Hercules consulted the Oracle at Delphi who told him he must attach himself to his cousin Eurystheus, King of Tiryns and Mycenae, who would devise labors to expiate his sins. These labors originally numbered only ten but later grew to twelve. After Delphi he was no longer known as Alcaeus and took the name Herakles.
The Twelve Labors of Hercules were:
1. To kill the Nemean Lion who was impervious to all weapons. He trapped the lion in a cave and strangled it with his bare hands. He then skinned it and ever after wore the skin as his cloak.
Hercules and the Nemean Lion

Hercules and the Nemean Lion

2. To kill the monster known as the Hydra who had nine venemous heads and, when one was cut off, two more would grow in its place. With his nephew Iolaus, Hercules cut off the heads and Iolaus then seared the necks with a torch to prevent them growing back. Hercules then dipped his arrows in the Hydra's blood for future use; since it was so venomous, it killed quickly.Because he had help in this labor, Eurystheus would not count it as one of the ten and assigned another.
Hercules and the Hydra

Hercules and the Hydra

3. To capture the Cerynitian Hind who was sacred to the goddess Artemis. Hercules spent over a year trying to catch the deer with the golden antlers alive and finally brought it down with an arrow to the hoof. Even so, Artemis refused to allow him to take the deer - and would have killed him for hunting it - until she heard the story of his labors and let him go.
4. To capture the Erymanthian Boar. This labor took Hercules to the land of the Centaurs, and the wine he had been given to attract the boar drew the centaurs to him. They attacked him and he had to kill many of them but brought the boar back alive to Eurystheus. It was during this labor that he took part in the adventure with the hero Jason and his Argonauts.
5. Cleaning the Stables of Augeius in a day. Eurystheus felt this side-adventure with the Argonauts was an unnecessary luxury on Hercules' part and so devised an impossible task for his next labor. The stables of King Augeius were immense and his herd vast, and there seemed to be no way for anyone to clean them in a month, let alone a day. Hercules said he would do it but made Augeius promise him a tenth of the herd if he succeeded. Augeius agreed since he knew he could not lose, but Hercules diverted two rivers to flow through the stables and clean them completely. Augeius then refused to honor the deal he had made. Hercules felt cheated and swore he would return and kill Augeius once he had completed his labors for Eurystheus.Eurystheus, however, told him he could receive no payment for his labors and that, by trying to profit, he had disqualified that labor and would have to do another to make up for it.
6. To drive away the Stymphalian Birds who were ravaging the countryside. He accomplished this with a rattle given to him by Athena. The rattle startled the birds who flew away, and Hercules shot them down with his arrows in flight.
7. To bring back the Cretan Bull from Knossos. The bull belonged to King Minos of Crete and was sacred to the god of the seas, Poseidon ; accordingly, it could walk on water. Minos no longer wanted the bull because his wife had fallen in love with it and, in fact, had become pregnant by it (giving birth to the Minotaur ), and so Minos happily gave the bull to Hercules who rode it across the sea from Crete to Athens and brought it to Eurystheus. The bull was then released and would cause further trouble throughout Attica until it was finally killed by Theseus.
Hercules & The Cretan Bull

Hercules & The Cretan Bull

8. To bring back the Mares of Diomedes. Diomedes was a Thracian king who fed his horses on a steady diet of human flesh so that no one could come near them. Hercules fed Diomedes to the horses and, when they were full, brought them back to Eurystheus. It was during this labor, either going to or coming from Diomedes' palace, that Hercules stopped to visit his old friend Admetus whose wife Alcestis had recently died. Hercules wrestled death for the soul of Alcestis and returned her to her husband.
9. To bring back Hippolyte's Girdle. Hippolyte was the queen of the Amazons, and her belt (girdle) was a symbol of her right to rule. The Amazons originally welcomed Hercules but Hera, disguised as one of them, spread a rumor that Hercules had come to kidnap the queen and enslave them. The women attacked Hercules and Hippolyte was killed in the fight; Hercules then took her belt and left. In another version of this labor, however, no one dies; Hercules kidnaps Hippolyte's sister and ransoms her for the belt and then leaves peacefully. On his return voyage he has many other side-adventures, which further enrage Eurystheus, but he accepts the girdle as a legitimate labor.
10. To bring back the cattle of Geryon, king of Cadiz. Hercules had many side-adventures on this labor, including inadvertently building the Pillars of Hercules at Gibraltar and threatening to shoot the sun with his arrows for making him too hot. When he finally reached Cadiz (Spain), he had many problems rounding up the cattle, including having to chase down a bull (the herd had to be complete in order to be accepted for the labor). Bringing the cattle back to Greece, Hera sent gadflies to sting the beasts and scattered them, so Hercules had to round them up again. Then the princess Celtine saw Hercules and fell in love with him. She hid the cattle and would not divulge their whereabouts unless he had sex with her. This he did and so became the father of Celtus, progenitor of the Celts. He finally brought the cattle back to Eurystheus who accepted the labor as legitimate.
11. To bring back the Golden Apples of Hesperides. En route to the sacred grove where the apples grew, Hercules found Prometheus bound to his rock and set him free. Prometheus was grateful and told him that the apples were guarded by a dragon named Ladon who could not be conquered, and so Hercules should try to get the titan Atlas, who held up the earth and heavens on his shoulders, to get the apples for him. When Hercules reached the grove, Atlas agreed to help, but Hercules would have to shoulder the weight of the world while Atlas went to get the apples. Hercules accepted the load and Atlas got the apples. When he returned, however, Atlas did not want to take the weight back and was going to leave Hercules in his place. Hercules cheerfully agreed to stay and hold up the universe but asked Atlas if he could take the weight again for just one moment so that he could adjust his cloak to cushion his shoulders. Atlas took back the universe and Hercules picked up the apples and left.
Hercules

Hercules

12. To bring back Cerberus, the guard dog of the underworld. For the last labor, Eurystheus decided on something he knew would be impossible: to bring back, alive, the three-headed dog who guarded the entrance to Hades. Before he could enter the underworld, Hercules had to become initiated in the Eleusinian Mysteries at the sacred city of Eleusis. He then journeyed to Hades, where he had further adventures in the underworld such as freeing his cousin Theseus from the Chair of Forgetfulness where he had been bound. He also spoke with the hero Meleager, with whom he had journeyed with the Argonauts, who told him that, when he returned to earth, he should marry Meleager's sister Deianira. Hercules was allowed by Hades to take Cerberus provided he did not hurt the dog. He wrestled Cerberus into submission and brought him back to Eurystheus who was so terrified of the animal that he told Hercules all the labors were done and to bring the dog back to where he'd found it.

FURTHER ADVENTURES & SLAVERY

Hercules was now free to do as he pleased with his life and, after all he had accomplished, it might be thought that he would now be able to enjoy his days in peace; this would not be so. Whether through the trickeries of Hera or his own temper and lack of restraint, Hercules would endure further troubles. Struck again by Hera with madness, Hercules killed the prince Iphitus of Oechalia and was told by the oracle that he must sell himself as a slave to atone for his sin. He became the property of Queen Omphale of Lydia who made the hero dress in women's clothing and do needlework with the other ladies of the court.Omphale eventually took him as her lover and then set him free.
He then went on an expedition to Troy which, with the help of other heroes, he conquered (long before the Trojan War ) and then became involved in a war with the Titans of Sicily. The Titans had been defeated centuries before by Zeus but had risen again and, according to prophecy, the gods could only win this time with the help of a mortal hero. Hercules helped to defeat the Titans and rescued the world from chaos and the gods from imprisonment. He then sailed back to Greece to get revenge on Augeius for refusing to honor his agreement when he cleaned out the stables. Hercules was defeated in this battlebecause he was still weakened from the war with the Titans. He left Augeius' land and, after further adventures, landed in Calydon where he met and fell in love with the princess Deianira, the sister of Meleager. He had to wrestle the river-god Achelous for her hand and won, and so was married.

DEIANIRA & MARRIAGE

Deianira and Hercules lived happily for a time in Calydon until he accidentally killed his father-in-law's cupbearer. Although it was an accident, and he was forgiven by the king, Hercules could not forgive himself and so decided to leave the city with Deianira. They reached the river Evenus, and there met the centaur Nessus who offered to carry Deianira across on his back.Upon reaching the other side, however, he tried to rape her and Hercules shot him with one of his arrows. These were the same arrows Hercules had dipped in the blood of the Hydra, and the centaur was dying quickly when he told Deianira that his blood possessed a special quality as a love potion and that she should take some of it in a vial. If ever she felt that Hercules was losing interest in her, he said, she should sprinkle the blood on his shirt and he would be in love with her forever. Nessus understood, of course, that the blood would be deadly to any mortal and this was his revenge for Hercules' arrow.
Hercules Fighting the Centaur Nessos

Hercules Fighting the Centaur Nessos

Hercules and Deianira settled in the city of Trachis, started a family, and, again, were happy for a time until Hercules went to war against Eurytus who, like Augeius, had insulted him earlier in life. He killed Eurytus and took his daughter Iole (whom he had won before in an archery contest but been refused) as his concubine. Another version of the myth relates how he helped Artemis kill a boar which was ravaging the kingdom and was given Iole as a gift. Hercules then prepared a victory feast and sent word to Deianira to send him his best shirt to wear at the festival. Deianira, fearing that Hercules was fonder of Iole now than of her, soaked the shirt in the blood of Nessus and then washed away the stains, leaving only the poison. As soon as Hercules put the shirt on, he was seized with agony and began to burn. He tore the shirt from his body but the poison was already grafted to his skin. Since he was a demi-god, he could not die quickly and so suffered as the poison penetrated his body and he became weaker and weaker. Deianira, realizing she had been tricked by Nessus and had killed her husband, hanged herself.

THE DEATH OF HERCULES

Hercules climbed Mount Etna where he built his own funeral pyre in a clearing, gave away his possessions, and then lay down with his head resting on his club and the Nemean lion's skin covering him; then the torches were lit and the pyre took flames.Thomas Bullfinch, the famous mythologist, writes:
The gods themselves felt troubled at seeing the champion of the earth so brought to his end. But Zeus, with cheerful countenance, thus addressed them: "I am pleased to see your concern, my princes, and am gratified to perceive that I am the ruler of a loyal people, and that my son enjoys your favour. For although your interest in him arises from his noble deeds, yet it is not the less gratifying to me. But now I say to you, Fear not. He who conquered all else is not to be conquered by those flames which you see blazing on Mount Etna. Only his mother's share in him can perish; what he derived from me is immortal. I shall take him, dead to earth, to the heavenly shores, and I require of you all to receive him kindly. If any of you feel grieved at his attaining this honour, yet no one can deny that he has deserved it." The gods all gave their assent; Hera only heard the closing words with some displeasure that she should be so particularly pointed at, yet not enough to make her regret the determination of her husband. So when the flames had consumed the mother's share of Hercules, the diviner part, instead of being injured thereby, seemed to start forth with new vigour, to assume a more lofty port and a more awful dignity. Zeus enveloped him in a cloud, and took him up in a four-horse chariot to dwell among the stars (143).

LEGACY

And so Hercules left the earth to live eternally among the gods and, through the stories of his adventures, to enjoy immortality down through the ages. His life was not always a happy one, even though he had a god for a father, and his daily struggles and relationships were not made any easier by his strength. Even though he was able to accomplish great deeds, this did not make him immune to those disappointments and dark times that are a part of the human experience. The historian Sir RW Livingstone writes, "The Greeks were fascinated by the spectacle of man and the world, and their fascination is seen not only in their formal philosophy. Of their poets too it may be said that they were born to see the world and human life - not to moralize or indulge in sentiment or rhetoric or mysticism about it, but to see it" (270).
The myths of Hercules show the world as it is: everyone has monsters they need to conquer and seemingly impossible tasks they are faced with and tragedies that seem too hard to bear. As it was in ancient Greece when people would sit and listen to the tales of the hero, so it has been ever since and, even in the modern day, comic books, graphic novels, books, television shows, and Hollywood films featuring Hercules continue to be popular. He remains a hero anyone can relate to, precisely because his life was so far from perfect and his character was less than ideal. When faced with some difficult situation in life, one can take comfort in the thought that, if Hercules could endure his sufferings, one can survive one's own.

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