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In Greek mythology, Heracles, or Heraklês ("glory of Hera") was the demigod son of Zeus and Alcmene, the grand-daughter of Perseus and the wife of Amphitryon. In Roman mythology he was called Hercules. He was, arguably, the greatest of the mythical Greek heroes, best known for his superhuman strength and many stories are told of his life. The most famous group of stories tell of The Twelve Labors of Hercules. His Etruscan equivalent was Hercle, a son of Tinia and Uni. He was also identified with Heryshaf (Egyptian mythology).
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Birth and childhood
Heracles was a son of Zeus and Alcmene. A major factor in the tragedies surrounding Heracles stem from Hera's hatred of him; as the wife of Zeus she often hated his mortal offspring, especially so in Heracles' case. While Alcmene was pregnant with Heracles, Hera tried to prevent her from giving birth. She was foiled by Galanthis, her servant, who told Hera that she had already delivered the baby. Hera turned her into a weasel. Heracles was named in an unsuccessful attempt to mollify Hera. A few months after he was born, Hera sent two serpents to kill him as a he lay in his cot. Heracles throttled a single snake in each hand and was found by his nurse playing with their limp bodies as if they were child's toys. One account of the origin of the Milky Way is that Zeus had tricked Hera into nursing the infant Heracles: discovering who he was, she had pulled him from her breast, and a spurt of her milk formed the smear across the sky that can be seen to this day.
According to Greek tradition, probably based on Libanius, "Oration" XII, 99, or on the Epitome of the Library of Apollodorus, Heracles was conceived in the womb when Cronos, god of time, extended the night during his parents' nuptial. That miraculous event may have been a solar eclipse near daybreak, which took place on September 7, 1251 BCE. It lasted from 6:51 to 9:41 in the morning at Sparta, with 75.9% magnitude. The Legend has it that Heracles was born in Thebes, Greece, where Alcmene and Amphitryon lived. The eclipse could well be visible there also.
He continued to perform such feats, such as slaying a lion that was preying on the local flocks and defending Thebes against a neighbouring army. For the latter he was awarded the King of Thebes' (Creon) daughter, Megara. However, in a fit of madness, induced by Hera, Heracles slew his wife and children; the fit then passed. Realising what he had done, he isolated himself, going into the wilderness and living alone. He was found (by his brother Iphicles) and convinced to visit the Oracle at Delphi.
The Oracle told him that as a penance he would have to perform a series of ten tasks set by the man he hated the most, King Eurystheus. There was enmity between Eurystheus and Heracles as by right Heracles should have been king but Eurystheus's birth was induced early by Hera, and Heracles' delayed, so that Heracles would not be king. This came to be when Zeus, having impregnated Alcmene, proclaimed that the next son born of the house of Perseus would become king; Hera, hearing this caused Eurystheus to be born two months early as he was of the house of Perseus, while Heracles was three months overdue. When he found out what had been done Zeus was furious; however, his rash proclamation still stood.
The Twelve Labors
Behind its outer meaning, Greek religion often hid an inner mystical tradition, and thus the labors could be interpreted as a symbolization of the spiritual path. This is particularly evident in an analysis of the eleventh labor, in which Hercules travels to a garden in which grows an apple tree with magical fruit, guarded by a snake - a clear parallel to the legend of Genesis and the tree of knowledge, with its "forbidden fruit."
In his labors, Heracles was often accompanied by his friend, according to some, Licymnius, or by Iolaus, his nephew and eromenos, according to others.
Omphale was the Queen of Lydia. As penalty for a murder, Heracles was her slave. He was forced to do women's work and wear women's clothes, while she wore the skin of the Nemean Lion and carried his olive-wood club. Some sources mention a son fathered on Omphale who is variously named. For further details see Omphale.
It was at that time that the cercopes, mischievous wood spirits, stole Heracles' weapons. He punished them by tying them to a stick with their faces pointing downward.
While walking through the wilderness, Heracles was set upon by the Dryopians. He killed their king, Theiodamas, and the others gave up and offered him Prince Hylas. He took the young man on as his weapons bearer, and the two soon fell in love and were together "morning, noon and night." Heracles took the young man with him on the Argo, making Hylas and Heracles two of the Argonauts. On this trip, Hylas was kidnapped by a nymph. Heracles, heartbroken, searched for a long time along with Polyphemus, but Hylas had fallen in love with the nymphs and never showed up again. The ship set sail without them.
Before the Trojan War, Poseidon sent a sea monster to attack Troy.
Laomedon planned on sacrificing Hesione to Poseidon in the hope of appeasing him. Heracles happened to arrive (along with Telamon and Oicles) and agreed to kill the monster if Laomedon would give him the horses received from Zeus as compensation for Zeus' kidnapping Ganymede. Laomedon agreed.
Heracles killed both the monster but Laomedon went back on his word.
Accordingly in a later expedition Heracles and his followers attacked Troy and sacked it and slew all Laomedon's sons present there save Podarces, who saved his own life by giving Heracles a golden veil Hesione had made. Telamon took Hesione as a war prize and she gave birth to Teucer by him.
Marriage, sex and death
Heracles had countless affairs, with men as well as with women. He naturally had a great many children from various women, collectively referred to as the Heracleidae (most notable: Macaria). One event that stands out was his stay at the palace of King Thespios, who liked his build and encouraged Heracles to make love to his daughters, all fifty of them in one night. They all got pregnant and all bore sons. Many of the kings of ancient Greece traced their lines to one or another of these, notably the kings of Sparta and Macedon.
During the course of his life, Heracles married twice. His first marriage was to Megara, whose two children he murdered in a fit of madness and whom he later gave in marriage to his ex-boyfriend Iolaus, because the sight of her was too painful. He then married Deianira, for whom he had to fight the river god Achelous. (Upon Achelous' death, Heracles removed one of his horns and gave it to some nymphs who turned it into the cornucopia.) Soon after they wed, Heracles and Deianira had to cross a river, and a centaur named Nessus offered to help Deianeira across but then attempted to rape her. Enraged, Heracles shot the centaur from the opposite shore with a poisoned arrow (from the Lernean Hydra) and killed him. As he lay dying, Nessus told Deianira that if she ever wanted to make sure of Heracles' love, she should gather up his blood and spilled semen and save them. Later, when Deianira suspected that Heracles was preferring the company of Iole, she soaked a shirt of his in the mixture. Heracles' servant, Lichas, brought him the shirt and he put it on. Instantly he was in agony, as the shirt burned into his flesh and ripped it from his bones. Heracles died a voluntary death, asking that a pyre be built for him to end his suffering. After his death on the pyre the gods transformed Heracles into an immortal. He then married Hebe.
No one but Heracles' friend Philoctetes (in some versions: Iole or Poeas) would light his funeral pyre. For this action, Philoctetes (or Poeas) received Heracles' bow and arrows, which were later necessary for the Greeks to defeat Troy in the Trojan War.
Links of Interest
- The 12 Labors of Heracles (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hercules/labors.html)
- Heracles, Greek Mythology Link (http://homepage.mac.com/cparada/GML/Heracles1.html)
Large portions of this text was originally taken from: Wikipedia. (2004). Heracles (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heracles). Retrieved Sept. 23, 2004.