This tale of Heracles' life comes primarily from Apollodorus.
Heracles is the single greatest of all the Greek heroes. He is the son of Zeus and the beautiful Alcmene. When he was born, Heracles was in fact named Alcaeus by his parents. He had a twin brother, Iphicles. While still in their infancy, Hera, jealous of Zeus' infidelities, sent down two serpents to kill the helpless babies. Iphicles screamed at the sight of the serpents, but Alcaeus clutched the serpents by their throats, strangling the great snakes. It was now clear that Alcaeus was a child of Zeus, and Iphicles a child of Amphitryon, the husband of Alcmene. On the advice of Tiresias, the child was renamed Heracles, 'the glory of Hera.'
With his true identity revealed, Amphitryon raised the young Heracles to be a great hero. Amphitryon himself trained Heracles to drive the chariot. Autolycus taught him to wrestle. The Eurytos taught him to use the bow. Heracles excelled in all of these subjects. Unfortunately, however, Heracles did not take to the more intellectual pursuits. His lyre teacher was Linus, the brother of the famous Orpheus. One day, when Linus corrected an error of Heracles by hitting him on the head, he hit Linus on the head with the lyre, killing him instantly. Heracles claimed self-defense, and was oddly acquitted of any wrongdoing (perhaps they feared his reaction to an unfavorable verdict).
Even though he was acquitted, Amphitryon decided to send Heracles away from civilization to guard his flocks in the country. While guarding the flocks, Heracles encountered a lion, which was preying upon his father's flocks. Before hunting down the lion, he visited the king Thespos, whose flocks were also preyed upon by the lion. Thespos had fifty daughters. When he saw the greatness of the young Heracles, he desired to have all fifty of his daughters bear a child with the young man. Thespos entertained Heracles for fifty days, each night sending a different daughter in to sleep with Heracles, who thought is was the same daughter every night. When he finally set out to hunt the lion, Heracles killed the beast and then skinned it. From that time on, he always wore this lion's skin as cloak and used its head as a helmet.
While returning from this hunt, Heracles met some men, who were sent by the king of the Minyans to exact a tribute of 100 cattle from Thebes. Heracles cut off their ears, noses and hands, and then sent them back with only their lost body parts as tribute. Enraged, the Minyans sent an army to destroy Thebes. Creon, the king of Thebes, wanted to hand Heracles over to them. Instead, Heracles raised an army and defeated the Minyans. During this battle, his father Amphitryon died. As a reward, Creon gave to Heracles his daughter Megara.
Megara and Heracles had three sons together. One night, in a fit of madness sent by Hera, Heracles threw his sons into their hearth fire. As punishment, Heracles imposed exile upon himself. Going to the Oracle at Delphi, he asked where he should now settle. The Pythia replied that he should go to Tiryns and serve the king Eurystheus for twelve years, accomplishing ten labors, which turned into the famous twelve labors. By doing this, she said that Heracles would become immortal.
Heracles did as he was told. Eurystheus, fearful of the power of Heracles, hoped to kill him by assigning the impossible. Heracles was able to do each of the twelve labors, however, and by doing so achieved immortality, in what is called his apotheosis.
The Twelve Labors
|1. The Nemean Lion||7. The Cretan Bull|
|2. The Lernaean Hydra||8. The Mares of Diomedes|
|3. The Cerynitian Hind||9. The Belt of Hippolyte|
|4. The Erymanthian Boar||10. The Cattle of Geryon|
|5. The Cattle of Augeias||11. The Apples of the Hesperides|
|6. The Stymphalian Birds||12. The Capture of Cerberus|
After completing the twelve labors, Heracles became an immortal, just as the oracle had said. He was not immediately taken to Olympus, but instead remained on the earth for some time as a mortal. With his service to Eurystheus completed, Heracles returned to his hometown of Thebes. There, he returned his wife Megara to her father.
Looking for a new wife, Heracles traveled to Oichalia, where the king Eurytos was holding an archery contest for the hand of his daughter, Iole, in marriage. Heracles won. Eurytos, however, refused to let his daughter be married to him. He feared another one of Heracles' fits of madness and his grandsons killed.
While Heracles was still in the town, the famous thief Autolycus stole some cattle of Eurytos, which was blamed upon Heracles. Iphitos, the son of Eurytos, did not believe that Heracles was responsible. He went to Heracles, and asked his help in finding the cattle. Heracles agreed, but soon, in another fit of madness, he hurled Iphitos from the walls of the city, killing him.
Heracles sought purification for the murder from Neleus, who refused. He then went to Deiphobus, who purified him. Still, he was effected by a disease as a result of his crimes. He went to the Oracle at Delphi to ask its advice. The Pythia refused to answer. Enraged, Heracles decided to destroy the temple. Seeing his intentions, Apollo came down to protect his oracle. The two began a battle, but were separated by a thunderbolt sent from Zeus. After the battle, the Pythia decided to answer. She said he should sell himself into slavery for three years, with the money paid to Eurytos.
Heracles was bought by Omphale, the queen of Lydia. Eurytos, however, refused to accept the money. During the time he was under her command, Heracles performed several great feats, as well as participating in the voyage of the Argonauts and the Calydonian Boar Hunt.
After he was released from Omphale's servitude, Heracles decided to fulfill his vow to destroy Troy, which he made during his ninth labor. He gathered an army of heroes, and set sail for Asia in eighteen ships. After landing, the heroes stormed the great walls and took the city (notice how men only one generation later fared in the Trojan War). Laomedon was killed along with all of his sons, except for Priam, who became the next, and last, king of Troy.
Next, Heracles marched against Augeias, who had not paid him for the cleaning of his land. When Augeias heard of this, he hired the Moliones to fight for him. These two great men fought well against Heracles' army. They even killed Iphicles, Heracles' twin brother. Heracles himself was ill, and could not fight. He, therefore, resorted to treachery. While the Moliones were traveling to the Isthmian Games to compete (a truce was declared during all games), he ambushed and killed the two brothers. Then, his army marched to Elis and killed Augeias. He placed Augeias' son Phyleus on the throne.
Then, Heracles marched on Pylus and killed Neleus, in revenge for his refusal of purification. During this battle, Heracles wounded Hades, who was fighting for the Pylians.
Later, Heracles arrived in Calydon, and there he sought to win the hand of Deianeira, the daughter of Oeneus. To win her, he engaged in a wrestling match with the river god Achelous, who also desired Deianeira. Achelous was able to change his shape, and so he changed into a bull. Heracles broke his horns off and won Deianeira.
While dining with Oeneus, Heracles accidentally killed a boy, who was washing Heracles' hands. This was an accident, and Oeneus forgave him. Still, Heracles exiled himself as punishment. While traveling from Calydon, he met the Centaur Nessos, who was acting as a ferryman across a certain river. Heracles crossed on his own, but paid Nessos to take Deianeira across. While crossing, Nessos tried to rape Deianeira. Heracles heard her cries, and shot the Centaur from the shore. While Nessos was dying, he gave to Deianeira a potion of his blood and semen, which he claimed would insure that Heracles love her.
After many more battles, Heracles returned to Oichalia, to seek his revenge upon Eurytos, who had refused to marry his daughter Iole. He attacked the town, killed Eurytos, and took Iole as his concubine. Deianeira became jealous of this new concubine. Remembering the words of Nessos, she took out the potion, thinking it to be a love potion, and spread it on Heracles' tunic.
When Heracles put on the tunic, he was poisoned. The fabric became burned onto his flesh, so that when he took off the tunic, he ripped off his skin as well. When Deianeira found out what had happened, she hung herself. In terrible agony, Heracles had a pyre built, and then climbed atop. None of his men, however, could bring themselves to light it. In search of his sheep, Poias happened to wander by, and he agreed to light the pyre. In return, Heracles gave to him his bow an arrows.
As the pyre burned, a cloud lifted up Heracles to Olympus. There, Zeus married his son to Hebe, the only daughter of Zeus and Hera, who before then had been his cupbearer.