The twelve labors of Hercules (Greek: Άθλοι του Ηρακλή; romaniz.: Labor of Heracles) is a series of archaic episodes linked together by a continuous narrative, concerning a penance that would have been accomplished by one of the greatest Greek heroes, Heracles.
The ancient Greeks attributed the establishment of a fixed cycle of twelve labors to a now lost epic poem, the Heracleia, written by Peisander of Rhodes, which would date from 600 B.C.
In the way they are known today, the works of Hercules are not told in one place; they were gathered from different sources. According to the mythologists Carl A. P. Ruck and Blaise Daniel Staples, there is no specific way to interpret the labors; one can only infer that six of them are set in the Peloponnese, and culminated with the rededication of Olympia.
Another six took the hero to more distant lands, almost always places related to the goddess Hera, as well as entrances to Hades, the lower world, inhabited by the dead. All the works followed the same pattern: Hercules was sent to kill, subdue or fetch a magic plant or animal for Eurystheus, Hera's representative.
A famous depiction of the works in Greek art is found in the metopes of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, which dates from the 5th century BCE.
Zeus, the king of the Olympian gods, who had impregnated his mistress, Alcmene, proclaimed that the next son born of Perseus' house would be crowned king of Mycenae.
Hera, his wife, upon discovering the fact, caused Eurystheus to be born seven months premature, before Alcmene's son, Heracles. Zeus was enraged to learn of what she had done, but could do nothing about it; his proclamation remained in force.
Later, as an adult, Heracles murdered his wife, Megara, daughter of Creon, and their three children in a fit of madness provoked by Hera. When he realized what he had done, the hero isolated himself, fleeing to the countryside and living alone.
He was found by his cousin Theseus, and was convinced to visit the oracle at Delphi, to recover his honor. The oracle told him that, as penance, Hercules should perform a series of twelve tasks, or labors, and serve twelve years to Eurystheus, and at the end of the labors he would become immortal.
Eurystheus was the man he hated the most, for having inherited his birthright. It was the Pythoness who first called the hero Heracles, until then he was known by the name Alcides.
In his labors, Hercules often had the company of a young companion (an eromenos) - according to Lycimnius and other ancient authors - such as Iolau, his nephew.
Although he was initially supposed to perform only ten labors, this assistance meant that he had to perform two more, as Eurystheus did not count the work of the Hydra, because Iolau had helped him, or the stables of Augias, for which he received payment for the work, and which was performed by the waters of a river.
The order found in Pseudo-Apolodorus is as follows:
1. In the Peloponnese, he strangled the Lion of Nemeia - the largest lion in the world, son of the monsters Ortros and Echidna - the local inhabitants could not kill, because the only thing that could pierce the hide was the Lion's own claw.
On the second attempt to kill him, the first having been unsuccessful, he strangled him, after wrestling with him. When the fight was over, he ripped off the Lion's claw and removed the Lion's hide to use as a garment. The creature became the Lion constellation.
2. He killed the Hydra of Lerna, the monstrous daughter of two grotesque creatures, Echidna and Typhon. It was a serpent with the body of a dragon, which had nine heads (one of them partially made of gold and immortal, which regenerated itself), were barely cut off, and exhaled a vapor that killed whoever was nearby.
Hercules killed it by cutting off its heads while his nephew Iolaeus prevented its reproduction by burning its wounds with red-hot firebrands. The goddess Hera sent help to the serpent - a huge crab, but Hercules stepped on it and the animal became the constellation Cancer (from the Latin cancer, "crab"). Finally, the hero bathed his arrows with the serpent's blood so that they would be poisoned.
3. He reached by running the Doe of Cerineia, a legendary animal, with horns of gold and feet of bronze. The doe, which ran with amazing speed and never tired, was Taígete, a nymph who, to escape Zeus' persecution, was transformed into the animal by Artemis.
Since she had insurmountable speed, Hercules pursued her tirelessly for a year until, exhausted, she was hit by an arrow shot by the hero. Slightly wounded, she was carried on the hero's shoulders to the kingdom of Eurystheus.
In another version of the myth, Heracles had to capture the doe, but without hurting her; he chased her for a year, until he managed to catch her with a net, but she ended up getting hurt. The hero then put the blame on Eurystheus, so that Artemis would be angry with him. In a third version, Hercules took a year to do the next job, which was to capture the doe that inhabited Mount Cerinthus.
This animal seemed to be more timid than dangerous, and sacred to Artemis; Hercules finally trapped it and was taking it to Eurystheus when he met with Artemis, who was very angry and threatened to kill him for daring to capture his animal; but when he learned about the work, he agreed to let Hercules take the animal, on the condition that Eurystheus would release it as soon as he had seen it.
4. He captured alive the Boar of Erimanthus, which was devastating the surroundings, by fatiguing it after chasing it for hours. When Eurystheus saw the animal on the hero's shoulder, he was so afraid that he hid himself inside a bronze cauldron. The animal's tusks were displayed in Apollo's temple at Cumas.
5. In one day he cleaned the pens of King Augias, which contained three thousand oxen and had not been cleaned for thirty years. They were so stinking that they exhaled a deadly gas. To do this, Hercules diverted two rivers.
6. 6. At Lake Stymphus, he killed with his poisoned arrows monsters whose wings, head and beak were made of iron, and which, because of their gigantic size, intercepted the sun's rays in flight. With his bow, he managed to kill some of them, and the others he expelled to other countries.
7. Hercules' seventh task was to bring the Bull of Crete alive to Eurystheus, who in turn would deliver it to Hera. The bull was raging and terrified the people of the Greek island of Crete, for Poseidon, the god of the seas, had offered it to Minos, the local king, in sacrifice, and the king didn't have the courage to sacrifice such a beautiful and strong animal. Hercules not only captured the animal, but mounted it and brought it to Eurystheus.
8. He punished Diomedes (king of Thrace), son of Ares, possessor of horses that vomited smoke and fire, and to which he fed the foreigners that the storms brought to his coast. The hero delivered him to the voracity of his own beasts.
9. He defeated the Amazons, took from them Queen Hippolyta, taking possession of the magic belt she wore.
10. He killed the giant Geryon, a monster with three bodies, six arms and six wings, and took his oxen, which were guarded by a two-headed dog, and a seven-headed dragon.
11. His eleventh job was to gather the golden nuts from the Garden of the Hesperides, after killing the hundred-headed dragon guarding them. The dragon was killed by Atlas at his request, and during the work, he held heaven on his shoulders in place of the titan.
12. The last work consisted in bringing his guardian, the dog Cerberus, from the world of the dead. Hades authorized him to bring Cerberus up to earth on the condition that he could overpower him without using his weapons. Hercules fought him with just the strength of his arms, almost choking him, overpowering him. Then he took him to Eurystheus, who, in fear, ordered him to return him.
Note however that there are different ordinations for Hercules' works. For example, Pierre Grimal in his work "Dictionary of Greco-Roman Mythology" lists them as follows:
The Lion of Nemeia The Hydra of Lerna The Doe of Cerineia The Boar of Erimanto The Birds of Lake Stymphalus The Stables of King Augias
The Bull of Crete The Mares of Diomedes The Belt of Queen Hippolyta The Bulls of Gérion The Golden Apples of the Hesperides The Cerberus Dog
German scholar Walter Burkert called the works, along with the other myths about Hercules, "a conglomeration of folk tales that have been explored only in a secondary way by the great art of poetry," and claimed that it was not until the end of the fifth century that poets of the classical era were able to bring the myth into "a more tragic, heroic, and human atmosphere, moving it away from its natural impulse toward an uncompromising realm beyond the human."
As Hercules' superhuman feats, always defeating death, began to acquire symbolism [philosophical, moral, and eventually allegorical, behind their literal meanings], the figure of the hero came to represent an inner mystical tradition, and the works were interpreted in terms of a spiritual journey.
The last three works, in particular, would be considered metaphors about death. Hercules was unique among Greek heroes in that the location of his grave was not known, and therefore sacrifices and libations were offered to him everywhere.