You may have heard the name Hercules before. Hercules is the Roman name for the greatest hero in Greek mythology. His name in Greece was Heracles.
Heracles was the son of the supreme god, Zeus. His mother was an ordinary woman on earth (Alcmene ). Zeus had a queen called Hera, and she was very jealous of the young baby, Heracles. In fact, she wanted to see him dead. One of the stories we have been told about Heracles is that when he was still a baby, Hera sent two snakes to bite and kill the boy. But imagine her surprise when the baby was found sitting in his cot with a snake in each hand- and both snakes have been strangled!
Heracles grew up to become a strong and brave youth. He became an expert marksman with a bow and arrow, and a champion wrestler. He was not only very skillful, but powerful as well. Some thought he had superhuman strength.
Unfortunately, as time passed., Hera caused him alot of distress. She worried him so much that he was almost driven completely mad by her. And one day, when he was not in his true sense, he got into a real frenzy and killed his own children.
Now, some time before this, Heracles cousin Eurystheus had become the king of the land. Heracles should have been the king himself, but Hera tricked her husband Zeus and had Eurystheus crowned instead.
It was now a good opportunity for the new king to try and cause Heracles even more trouble!
Heracles was sentenced to perform a series of difficult tasks or ‘labours’. And it is the way he tackled these labours that made him a famous figure throughout the ancient world.
Labour one: The Nemean Lion
‘For your first labor’ , announced Eurystheus one day, ‘you will have to go and slay the Nemean lion.’
So Heracles set off to complete this difficult task. The Nemean lion was no ordinary lion; it was supernatural , and more of a monster than a lion.
The lion’s skin was so tough that it could not be penetrated by spears or arrows . Heracles journeyed to the lion’s cave, where nobody ever went for they were too frightened of this fearsome beast.
Cleverly, Heracles used stones to block off the entrances to the lion’s cave. He then crawled inside the cave through a small opening. He and the lion would have to face each other , and if either one was injured or frightened off, they would not be able to escape. How confident Heracles was of himself.
Heracles searched through the cave and then saw the lion. There was no room in the cave for Heracles is bow and arrow or his spear, so he fought the lion with his bare hands . A terrible fight followed, and at last,the lion was throttled to death. Heracles did this with his bare hands! Later, he skinned the lion and wore the skin as a cloak.
The gaping jaws of the lion formed a helmet over his head. Now Heracles looked as fearsome as the lion he had killed, and when people saw him, they were reminded that he was a great warrior.
Labour Two: The Lernean Hydra
At the source of the Amymone grows a plane tree, beneath which, they say, the hydra (water-snake) grew. I am ready to believe that this beast was superior in size to other water-snakes, and that its poison had something in it so deadly that Heracles treated the points of his arrows with its gall. It had, however, in my opinion, one head, and not several. It was Peisander of Camirus who, in order that the beast might appear more frightful and his poetry might be more remarkable, represented the hydra with its many heads.
Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.37.4
After slaying the Nemean lion , Heracles returned home.King Eurystheus had heard what Heracles had done, and about the way in which he had killed the lion. So when his heroic cousin , wearing the lion’s skin, went to see Eurystheus, the king was so frightened, he hid in a large storage jar! Even when Heracles was in the same room the king did not come out of his hiding place.
Heracles waited to hear what the king had to say. ‘Now go and destroy the Hydra,’ shouted Eurystheus from the jar . Heracles smiled to himself, and left the palace.
Over the next few days, Heracles thought about the Hydra. The slaying of the Nemean lion would be considered a simple task compared to this! It was well known that the Hydra was a monstrous beast, The Hydra lived in the swamps around a place called Lerna. Some said that the beast had eight or nine heads; others claimed that it had thousands of heads. But all agreed that when the Hydra lost one of its heads ,another would grow in its place. So how could this monster be killed? It would not be so easy to chop off the beast’s head. And to make matters worse, the Hydra’s breath was lethal. It gave off a powerful odour ; and anybody who took of whiff of this would instantly.
Luckily for Heracles, he was not an ordinary human being. He would be protected by his superhuman strength.
Heracles traveled in a chariot to the swamp of Lerna. Driving the chariot was his nephew, lolaus the son of his twin brother, Iphicles. When the two men arrived at the swamp, Iphicles stayed in the chariot while Heracles got down. Heracles waded through the swamp in search of the Hydra. He came across many strangeand foul creatures there, but the Hydra was nowhere to be found. At last Heracles came tothe Hydras lair.
‘It will be too dangerous for me to go in there.’ thought Heracles to himself, ‘I must bring the Hydra outside. I will have a better chance of defeating it if I fight it in the open’
Heracles crouched low and went closer to the lair. Then, with great difficulty, he lit a fire. he began to shoot flaming arrows into the dark lair.
After some time the Hydra came out of its lair and slithered and crawled at a great speed towards Heracles. Its heads reared high above the ground and its many eyes flashed like lightning in the darkness of the swamp.
The Hydra drew so close to Heracles that he could feel and small its foul breath.
Heracles dodged from one side to the other, as the Hydra tried to entwine him with its heads.
The fight continued, and just as Heracles was wriggling free, he felt a shrp pain in his heel. Heracles looked down to see a large crab.
The Hydra had brought the crab along to help in the fight.
Heracles fell to the ground, and the Hydra’a heads wrapped themselves round his waist and began to squeeze very tightly. As Heracles lay on the wet ground, almost defeated , he thought of his nepheew, Iolaus. ‘ Iolaus!’ shouted Heracles, ‘I need your help!’
Iolaus heard the shouts for help. He grabbed a flaming torch and leapt from the chariot. He stumbled and staggered through the swamp towards Heracles and the Hydra.
Heracles managed to free one arm an pick up his sword which had fallen on the ground. He swung the heavy weapon through the air and chopped off one of the Hydra’s heads. The Hydra writhed and let out a piercing cry, but almost instantly, another head grew in place of the one that had been chopped off.
‘Iolaus!You must do something!’shouted Heracles
Iolaus came closer with the flaming torch. ‘Cut off another head,’ he shouted.
Heracles swung his sword again, and another head flew int the air and landed close by with a dull thud. This time, Iolaus sprang forward and thrust the torch onto the gaping hole where the Hydra’s head had been. There was a loud hissing noise, as the skin around the hole was seared and turned black.
Heracles cut off another head; and Iolaus seared the hole with his flaming torch.One by one, all the Hydra’s heads fell to the ground, and each time the wound was seared so that another head could not grow in its place.
The Hydra became weaker and weaker, tillfnally Heracles lopped off the last and the biggest head of all.
The Hydra fell heavily but silently to the ground.
When Heracles ad rested for a while, he rose and dragged the Hydra’s body to some nearby rocks. He buried the body deep in the swamp and rolled the rocks over the grave.
Heracles and Iolaus lest the swamp. Heracles had survived the second labour there were many more labours in store for him.
Heracles is said to have performed 12 labours in total according to Greek mythology :
- Labor 1: The Nemean Lion
- Labor 2: The Lernean Hydra
- Labor 3: The Hind of Ceryneia
- Labor 4: The Erymanthean Boar
- Labor 5: The Augean Stables
- Labor 6: The Stymphalian Birds
- Labor 7: The Cretan Bull
- Labor 8: The Horses of Diomedes
- Labor 9: The Belt of Hippolyte
- Labor 10: Geryon’s Cattle
- Labor 11: The Apples of the Hesperides
- Labor 12: Cerberus
Nicholas Horsburgh — Oxford reading circle book 4