Was Hercules a God?
Hercules was not a god but was born a mortal, although, like many mythical heroes, he had a complicated family tree. According to legend, her father was Zeus, ruler of all the Greek gods of Mount Olympus and all mortals on earth, and her mother was Alcmene, the granddaughter of the hero Perseus. (Perseus, who was also considered one of the sons of Zeus, beheaded the Gorgon Medusa with snake hair.)
Then, after Hercules was born, Hera sent two serpents to kill him in his cradle. However, the child Hercules was exceptionally strong and fearless, and he strangled the snakes before they could strangle him.
But Hera continued her dirty tricks. When her stepson was a young adult, she cast a sort of spell on him that drove him temporarily insane and caused him to murder his beloved wife and their two children.
Guilty and heartbroken, Hercules tracked down Apollo, the god of truth and healing (and another son of Zeus), and demanded punishment for what he had done.
The 12 Labors of Hercules
Apollo understood that Hercules’ crime was not his fault – Hera’s vengeful actions were no secret – but he nevertheless insisted that the young man make amends. He ordered Hercules to perform 12 labors for the Mycenaean king Eurystheus. Once Hercules completed each of his labors, Apollo said, he would be absolved of his guilt and achieve immortality.
The Nemean Lion
First, Apollo sent Hercules to the Nemean hills to kill a lion that was terrorizing the people of the region. (Some storytellers say that Zeus was also the father of this magical beast.) Hercules trapped the lion in his cave and strangled him. For the rest of his life, he wore the animal’s skin as a coat.
The Lernaean Hydra
Second, Hercules traveled to the city of Lerna to kill the Nine-Headed Hydra, a venomous snake-like creature that lived underwater and guarded the entrance to the Underworld. For this task, Hercules had the help of his nephew Iolaus. He cut off each of the monster’s heads while Iolaus burned each wound with a torch. In this way, the couple prevented the heads from growing back.
The golden doe
Then, Hercules went to capture the sacred animal of the goddess Diana: a red deer, or doe, with golden antlers and bronze hooves. Eurystheus had chosen this task for his rival because he believed that Diana would kill anyone she caught trying to steal his pet; however, once Hercules explained his situation to the goddess, she allowed him to continue on his way without punishment.
The Erymanthian wild boar
Fourth, Hercules used a giant net to trap the terrifying man-eating boar of Mount Erymanthus.
The Augean stables
Hercules’ fifth task was supposed to be both humiliating and impossible: cleaning out all the manure from King Augeas’ enormous stables in a single day. However, Hercules accomplished the job easily, flooding the barn by diverting two nearby rivers.
The birds of Stymphlaea
Hercules’ sixth task was simple: go to the city of Stymphalos and hunt the enormous flock of carnivorous birds that had taken up residence in its trees. This time, it was the goddess Athena who came to the hero’s aid: she offered him a pair of krotala, or magical bronze noise makers, forged by the god Hephaestus. Hercules used these tools to scare away birds.
The Cretan bull
Next, Hercules traveled to Crete to capture a raging bull who had impregnated the wife of the island’s king. (She later gave birth to the Minotaur, a creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull.) Hercules brought the bull back to Eurystheus, who released it into the streets of Marathon.
Hercules’ eighth challenge was to capture the four man-eating horses of the Thracian king Diomedes. He brought them to Eurystheus, who dedicated the horses to Hera and set them free.
The ninth job was complicated: stealing an armored belt belonging to the Amazon Queen Hippolyte. At first, the queen welcomed Hercules and agreed to give him the belt without a fight. However, the troublemaker Hera disguised herself as an Amazonian warrior and spread a rumor that Hercules intended to kidnap the queen. To protect their leader, the women attacked the hero’s fleet; then, fearing for his safety, Hercules killed Hippolyte and tore the belt from his body.
For his tenth labor, Hercules was sent almost to Africa to steal the cattle of the three-headed, six-legged monster Geryon. Once again, Hera did everything she could to prevent the hero from succeeding, but in the end, he returned to Mycenae with the cows.
The apples of the Hesperides
Next, Eurystheus sent Hercules to steal Hera’s wedding gift from Zeus: a set of golden apples guarded by a group of nymphs known as the Hesperides. This task was difficult – Hercules needed the help of the titan Prometheus and the god Atlas to achieve it – but the hero eventually managed to escape with the apples. After showing them to the king, he brought them back to the garden of the gods where they belonged.
For his final challenge, Hercules traveled to Hades to kidnap Cerberus, the vicious three-headed dog who guarded its gates. Hercules managed to capture Cerberus by using his superhuman strength to push the monster to the ground. Subsequently, the dog returned unharmed to his post at the entrance to the Underworld.
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How did Hercules die?
After completing his 12 labors, Hercules had a number of other adventures – saving the princess of Troy and fighting for control of Mount Olympus – but none were as grueling or as important as these labors.
Later in his life, Hercules married his second wife, Deianira. When a centaur (half-man, half-horse) tries to take her away, Hercules shoots him with an arrow that he had dipped in the Hydra’s poison. As he died, the centaur, realizing that his own blood was now also venomous, gave his blood-stained tunic to Deianira, lying to her that this would bind Hercules to her forever.
Years later, when Deianira hears a rumor that Hercules is having an affair, she gives him the bloodstained tunic, hoping it will bring him back to her. However, the poisoned blood on the tunic burns Hercules’ flesh, causing intense pain. Realizing he has been poisoned, Hercules builds his own funeral pyre and burns himself alive in it.
After his death, Athena transported him in her chariot to Olympus. According to legend, he will spend the rest of eternity with the gods.