Hercules, the hero of strength and courage, was the son of Jupiter and Alcmene. His life was one long series of wonders.
As soon as he was born, Juno, who hated Alcmene with an exceeding great hatred, went to the Fates and begged them to make the life of the newly-born babe hard and perilous.
The Fates were three, namely, Clotho who spun the thread of life, Lachesis who settled the lot of gods and mortals in life, and Atropos who cut the thread of life spun by Clotho.
When once the Fates had decided what the lot of any being, whether god or man, was to be, Jupiter himself could not alter their decision.
It was to these fateful three, then, that Juno made her prayer concerning the infant Hercules. She could not, however, prevent him from having an honorable career, since it was written that he should triumph over all dangers and difficulties that might beset him.
All that was conceded to her was that Hercules should be put under the dominion of Eurystheus, King of Thebes, his eldest brother, a harsh and pitiless man. This only half satisfied the hatred of Juno, but it made the life of Hercules exceedingly bitter.
In fact, Hercules was but a child, when Juno sent two enormous serpents against him. These serpents, gliding into his cradle, were on the point of biting the child when he, with his own hands, seized them and strangled the life out of their slimy bodies.
Having grown up to man's estate, Hercules did many mighty deeds of valor that need not be recounted here. But the hatred of Juno always pursued him. At length, when he had been married several years, she made him mad and impelled him in his madness to kill his own beloved children!
When he came again to his sober senses, and learnt that he was the murderer of his own offspring he was filled with horror, and betook himself into exile so that he might hide his face from his fellow men. After a time he went to the oracle at Delphi to ask what he should do in atonement for his dreadful deed.
He was ordered to serve his brother Eurystheus—who, by the help of Juno, had robbed him of his kingdom—for twelve years. After this he was to become one of the Immortals. Eurystheus feared that Hercules might use his great strength and courage against him, in punishment for the evil that he had done. He therefore resolved to banish him and to impose such tasks upon him as must certainly bring about his destruction. Hence arose the famous twelve labors of Hercules.
Eurystheus first set Hercules to keep his sheep at Nemea and to kill the lion that ofttimes carried off the sheep, and sometimes the shepherd also.
The man-eater lurked in a wood that was hard by the sheep-run. Hercules would not wait to be attacked by him. Arming himself with a heavy club and with a bow and arrows, he went in search of the lion's lair and soon found it.
Finding that arrows and club made no impression upon the thick skin of the lion, the hero was constrained to trust entirely to his own thews and sinews. Seizing the lion with both hands, he put forth all his mighty strength and strangled the beast just as he had strangled the serpents in his cradle. Then, having despoiled the dead man-eater of his skin, Hercules henceforth wore this trophy as a garment, and as a shield and buckler.
In those days, there was in Greece a monstrous serpent known as the Hydra of Lerna, because it haunted a marsh of that name whence it issued in search of prey. As his second labor, Hercules was sent to slay this creature.
This reptile had nine heads of which the midmost was immortal. When Hercules struck off one of these heads with his club, two others at once appeared in its place. By the help of his servant, Hercules burned off the nine heads, and buried the immortal one beneath a huge rock.
The blood of the Hydra was a poison so subtle that Hercules, by dipping the points of his arrows therein, made them so deadly that no mortal could hope to recover from a wound inflicted by them. We shall see later that Hercules himself died from the poison of one of these self-same arrows.
The third labor imposed upon Hercules by Eurystheus was the capture of the Arcadian Stag. This remarkable beast had brazen feet and antlers of solid gold. Hercules was to carry the stag alive to Eurystheus.
It proved no easy task to do this. The stag was so fleet of foot that no one had been able to approach it. For more than a year, over hill and dale, Hercules pursued the beast without ever finding a chance of capturing it without killing it.
At length he shot at it and wounded it with an arrow—not, you may be sure, with one of the poisoned ones—and, having caught it thus wounded, he carried it on his shoulder to his brother and thus completed the third of his labors.
In the neighborhood of Mount Erymanthus, in Arcadia, there lived, in those far-off days, a savage boar that was in the habit of sallying forth from his lair and laying waste the country round about, nor had any man been able to capture or restrain him. To free the country from the ravages of this monster was the fourth labor of Hercules.
Having tracked the animal to his lurking place after chasing him through the deep snow, Hercules caught him in a net and bore him away in triumph on his shoulders to the feet of the amazed Eurystheus.
Augeas, King of Elis, in Greece, not far from Mount Olympus, owned a herd of oxen 3,000 in number. They were stabled in stables that had not been cleaned out for thirty years. The stench was terrible and greatly troubled the health of the land. Eurystheus set Hercules the task of cleaning out these Augean stables in a single day!
But the wit of the hero was equal to the occasion. With his great strength he diverted the flow of two rivers that ran their courses near the stables and made them flow right through the stables themselves, and lo! the nuisance that had been growing for thirty years was no more! Such was the fifth labor of Hercules.
On an island in a lake near Stymphalus, in Arcadia, there nested in those days some remarkable and terrible birds—remarkable because their claws, wings and beaks were brazen, and terrible because they fed on human flesh and attacked with their terrible beaks and claws all who came near the lake. To kill these dreadful birds was the sixth labor.
Minerva supplied Hercules with a brazen rattle with which he roused the birds from their nests, and then slew them with his poisoned arrows while they were on the wing.
This victory made Hercules popular throughout the whole of Greece, and Eurystheus saw that nothing he could devise was too hard for the hero to accomplish.
The seventh labor was to capture a mad bull that the Sea-god Neptune had let loose in the island of Crete, of which island Minos was at that time King.
This ferocious creature breathed out from his nostrils a whirlwind of flaming fire. But Hercules was, as you no doubt have guessed, too much for the brazen bull.
He not only caught the monster, but tamed him, and bore him aloft on his shoulders, into the presence of the affrighted Eurystheus, who was at a loss to find a task impossible for Hercules to perform.
The taking of the mares of Diomedes was the eighth labor. These horses were not ordinary horses, living on corn. They were flesh eaters, and moreover, they devoured human beings, and so were hateful to mankind.
On this occasion Hercules was not alone. He organised a hunt and, by the help of a few friends, caught the horses and led them to Eurystheus. The scene of this labor was Thrace, an extensive region lying between the Ægean Sea, the Euxine or Black Sea, and the Danube.
Seizing the girdle of Hippolyte was the next feat set for the hero. This labor was due to the desire of the daughter of Eurystheus for the girdle of Hippolyte, Queen of the Amazons—a tribe of female warriors. It is said that the girls had their right breasts cut off in order that they might use the bow with greater ease in battle! This, indeed, is the meaning of the term Amazon, which signifies "breastless."
After a troublesome journey Hercules arrived safely at the Court of Hippolyte, who received him kindly; and this labor might, perchance, have been a bloodless one had not his old enemy Juno stirred up the female warriors against him.
In the fight that followed, Hercules killed Hippolyte—a feat scarcely to be proud of—and carried off her girdle, and thus the vanity of the daughter of Eurystheus was gratified.
To capture the oxen of Geryon was the tenth labor of Hercules. In the person of Geryon we meet another of those strange beings in which the makers of myths and fairy tales seem to revel. Geryon was a three-bodied monster whose cattle were kept by a giant and a two-headed dog!
It is said that Hercules, on his way to the performance of this tenth labor, formed the Pillars of Hercules—those two rocky steeps that guard the entrance to the Straits of Gibraltar, i.e., Calpa (Gibraltar) and Abyla (Ceuta)—by rending asunder the one mountain these two rocks are said to have formed, although now they are eighteen miles apart.
Hercules slew the giant, the two-headed dog and Geryon himself, and in due course brought the oxen to Eurystheus.
Sometime afterwards, Eurystheus, having heard rumors of a wonderful tree which, in some unknown land, yielded golden apples, was moved with great greed to have some of this remarkable fruit. Hence he commanded Hercules to make the quest of this tree his eleventh labor. The hero had no notion where the tree grew, but he was bound by his bond to obey the King, so he set out and after a time reached the kingdom of Atlas, King of Africa. He had been told that Atlas could give him news of the tree.
I must tell you that King Atlas, having in the olden time helped the Titans in their wars against the gods, was undergoing punishment for this offence, his penance being to hold up the starry vault of heaven upon his shoulders. This means, perhaps, that in the kingdom of Atlas there were some mountains so high that their summits seemed to touch the sky.
Hercules offered to relieve Atlas of his load for a time, if he would but tell him where the famous tree was, upon which grew the golden fruit. Atlas consented, and for some days Hercules supported the earth and the starry vault of heaven upon his shoulders.
Then Atlas opened the gate of the Garden of the Hesperides to Hercules. These Hesperides were none other than the three daughters of Atlas, and it was their duty, in which they were helped by a dragon, to guard the golden apples.
Hercules killed the dragon and carried off the apples, but they were afterwards restored to their place by Minerva.
Cerberus, as perhaps you know, was the triple-headed dog that guarded the entrance to the nether world. To bring up this three-headed monster from the land of the dead was the last of the twelve labors. It was also the hardest.
Pluto, the god of the nether world, told Hercules he might carry off the dog if he could take him without using club or spear—never dreaming that the hero could perform such a difficult feat.
Hercules penetrated to the entrance of Pluto's gloomy regions, and, putting forth his strength succeeded, not only in seizing Cerberus, but also in carrying him to Eurystheus, and so brought the twelve labors to an end, and was released from his servitude to his cruel brother.
These exploits of strength and endurance do not by any means complete the tale of the wonderful doings of the great Greek hero. He continued his deeds of daring to the end of his life.
One of the last of his exploits was to kill the eagle that daily devoured the liver of Prometheus, whose story is both curious and interesting.
He is said to have been the great friend of mankind, and was chained to a rock on Mount Caucasus because he stole fire from heaven and gave it as a gift to the sons of man.
While in chains an eagle was sent by Jupiter daily to feed on Prometheus's liver, which Jupiter made to grow again each night. From this continuous torture he was released by Hercules, who slew the eagle and burst asunder the bonds of this friend of man.
Theseus and Pirithous were two Athenians, who, after having been at enmity for a long time at last became the very best of friends. They, like Hercules, had passed their youth in doing doughty deeds for the benefit of mankind, and their fame had spread abroad throughout the land of Greece. This did not prevent them from forming a very foolish project. They actually planned to go down to Hades and carry off Pluto's wife, Proserpina, whom Pirithous himself wished to marry.
This rashness brought about their ruin, for they were seized by Pluto and chained to a rock. All this Hercules, who was the friend of Theseus, learnt while on one of his journeys, and he resolved to rescue Theseus from his eternal punishment.
As for Pirithous, the prime mover in the attempted outrage, him Hercules meant to leave to his fate.
Hercules had been warned to take a black dog to sacrifice to Hecate and a cake to mollify Cerberus, as was usual; but he would not listen to such tales and meant to force his way to Theseus. When he found himself face to face with Cerberus he seized him, threw him down and chained him with strong chains.
The next difficulty in the way was black and muddy Acheron, the first of the seven rivers that ran round Hades, and formed a barrier between the living and the departed.
This river had not always run under the vaults of Hades. Formerly its course was upon the earth. But when the Titans attempted to scale the heaven, this river had the ill luck to quench their thirst, and Jupiter to punish even the waters of the river for abetting his enemies, turned its course aside into the under world where its waves, slow-moving and filthy, lost themselves in Styx, the largest of all the rivers of Hades, which ran round Pluto's gloomy kingdom no less than nine times.
On reaching the banks of Styx, Hercules was surprised to see flying around him a crowd of disconsolate spirits, whom Charon the Ferryman refused to row across Styx, because they could not pay him his fee of an obol, a Greek coin worth about three cents of our money, which the Greeks were accustomed to place in the mouths of their dead for the purpose, as they thought, of paying Charon his ferry fee.
Fierce Charon frowned when he beheld Hercules for he feared his light boat of bark would sink under his weight, it being only adapted for the light and airy spirits of the dead; but when the son of Jupiter told him his name he was mollified and allowed the hero to take his place at his side.
As soon as the boat had touched the shore, Hercules went towards the gloomy palace of Pluto where he with difficulty, on account of the darkness, saw Pluto seated upon an ebony throne by the side of his beloved Proserpina.
Pluto was not at all pleased to see the hero, as he hated the living and had interest only in the shades of the dead. When Hercules announced himself, however, he gave him a permit to go round his kingdom and, in addition, acceded to his prayer for the release of Theseus.
At the foot of Pluto's throne Hercules saw Death the Reaper. He was clothed in a black robe spotted with stars and his fleshless hand held the sharp sickle with which he is said to cut down mortals as the reaper cuts down corn.
Our hero was glad to escape from this dismal palace and as he did not know exactly where to find Theseus he began to make the circuit of Hades. During his progress he saw the shades of many people of whom, on earth, he had heard much talk.
He had been wandering about some time when, in a gloomy chamber, he saw three old sisters, wan and worn, spinning by the feeble light of a lamp. They were the Fates, deities whose duty it was to thread the days of all mortals who appeared on earth, were it but for an instant.
Clotho, the spinner of the thread of life, was the eldest of the three. She held in her hand a distaff, wound with black and white woollen yarn, with which were sparingly intermixed strands of silk and gold. The wool stood for the humdrum everyday life of man: the silk and gold marked the days of mirth and gladness, always, alas! too few in number.
Lachesis, the second of the Fates, was quickly turning with her left hand a spindle, while her right hand was leading a fine thread which the third sister, Atropos by name, used to cut with a pair of sharp shears at the death of each mortal.
You may imagine how hard these three sisters worked when you remember that the thread of life of every mortal had to pass through their fateful fingers. Hercules would have liked them to tell him how long they had yet to spin for him, but they had no time to answer questions and so the hero passed on.
Some steps farther he stopped before three venerable looking old men, seated upon a judgment seat, judging, as it seemed, a man newly come to Pluto's kingdom.
They were Minos, Æacus and Rhadamanthus, the three judges of Hades, whose duty it was to punish the guilty by casting them into a dismal gulf, Tartarus, whence none might ever emerge, and to reward the innocent by transporting them to the Elysian Fields where delight followed delight in endless pleasure.
These judges could never be mistaken because Themis, the Goddess of Justice, held in front of them a pair of scales in which she weighed the actions of men. Their decrees were instantly carried out by a pitiless goddess, Nemesis, or Vengeance by name, armed with a whip red with the gore of her sinful victims.
Immediately on quitting the presence of the three judges, Hercules saw them open out before him an immense gulf whence arose thick clouds of black smoke. This smoke hid from view a river of fire that rolled its fiery waves onwards with a deafening din.
Not far remote from this rolled Cocytus, another endless stream, fed by the tears of the wretches doomed to Black Tartarus, in which place of eternal torment Hercules now found himself.
The rulers of these mournful regions were the Furies who, with unkempt hair and armed with whips, tormented the condemned without mercy by showing them continually in mirrors the images of their former crimes.
Into Tartarus were thrown, never to come out again, the shades or manes of traitors, ingrates, perjurers, unnatural children, murderers and hypocrites who had during their lives pretended to be upright and honorable in order to deceive the just.
But these wretches were not the only denizens of Black Tartarus. There were to be seen great scoundrels who had startled the world with their frightful crimes. For these Pluto and the Furies had invented special tortures.
Among the criminals so justly overtaken by the divine vengeance Hercules noticed Salmoneus, whom he had formerly met upon earth. This madman, whose pride had overturned his reason, thought himself to be a god equal to the Thunderer himself.
In order to imitate remotely the rolling of thunder, he used to be driven at night, over a brazen bridge, in a chariot, whence he hurled lighted torches upon his unhappy slaves who were crowded on the bridge and whom his guards knocked down in imitation of Jove's thunder-bolts.
Indignant at the pride and cruelty of the tyrant, Jupiter struck him with lightning in deadly earnest and then cast him into the outer darkness of Tartarus, where he was for ever burning without being consumed.
Sisyphus, the brother of Salmoneus, was no better than he. When on earth, he had been the terror of Attica, where, as a brigand, he had robbed and murdered with relentless cruelty.
Theseus, whom Hercules was bent on freeing from his torment, had met and killed this robber-assassin, and Jupiter, for his sins, decreed that the malefactor should continually be rolling up a hill in Tartarus a heavy stone which, when with incredible pains he had brought nearly to the top, always rolled back again, and he had to begin over and over again the heart-breaking ascent.
Some distance from Sisyphus Hercules came upon Tantalus, who, in the flesh, had been King of Phrygia, but who now, weak from hunger and parched with thirst, was made to stand to his chin in water with branches of tempting luscious fruit hanging ripe over his head. When he essayed to drink the water it always went from him, and when he stretched out his hand to pluck the fruit, back the branches sprang out of reach.
In addition an immense rock, hung over his head, threatened every moment to crush him.
It is said that Tantalus, when in the flesh, had betrayed the secrets of the gods and also committed other great crimes. For this he was "tantalized" with food and drink, which, seeming always to be within his reach, ever mocked his hopes by eluding his grasp.
The groans of a crowd of disheveled women next attracted the affrighted attention of Hercules. They were forty-nine of the fifty daughters of Danaus, King of Argos, who, at the instigation of their father, had killed their husbands because Danaus thought they were conspiring to depose him.
One only of the fifty, to wit Hypermnestra, had the courage to disobey this unlawful command and so saved the life of Lynceus, her husband, with whom she fled. Later on Lynceus returned and slew the cruel King in battle.
To punish the forty-nine Danaides, Jupiter cast them into the outer darkness of Black Tartarus, where they were ever engaged in the hopeless task of pouring water into a sieve. Hypermnestra, on the contrary, was honored while alive, and also after her death, for loving goodness even more than she loved her father.
Glutted with horror Hercules at length quitted gloomy Tartarus and beheld in front of him still another river. This was Lethe. Whoso drank the waters of this river, which separated the place of torment from the abode of the blest, lost memory of all that had been aforetime in his mind, and so was no longer troubled by even the remembrance of human misery.
Across Lethe stretched the Elysian Fields where the shades of the blest dwelt in bliss without alloy. An enchanting greenness made the sweet-smelling groves as pleasant to the eye as they were to the sense of smell. Sunlit, yet never parched with torrid heat, everywhere their verdure charmed the delighted eye, and all things conspired to make the shades of the good and wise, who were privileged to dwell in these Elysian Fields, delightfully happy.
Hercules saw, in these shady regions of the blest, a crowd of kings, heroes and men and women of lower degree who, while on earth, had loved and served their fellow men.
Having at length found and released Theseus, Hercules set out with him for the upper world. The two left Hades by an ivory door, the key of which Pluto had confided to their care.
What awesome tales they had to recount to their wondering friends of the marvels of Black Tartarus and of Radiant Elysium!
There abode in Thessaly, in the days of Hercules, a strange race of men who had the head and arms of a man together with the body of a horse. They were called Centaurs, or Bull-Slayers.
One of them named Cheiron, famous for his knowledge of medicine, music and botany, had been the teacher of Hercules. But many of them, although learned, were not good. Hercules and Theseus had waged war on them and had killed many, so that their numbers were greatly lessened.
Having married Deianira, the daughter of a powerful King of Calydon, in Greece, Hercules was traveling home with her when he came to the banks of a river and was at a loss how to cross it. Seeing his perplexity, Nessus, one of the Centaurs, offered to take Deianira on his back and carry her over the stream. This offer Hercules gladly accepted.
No sooner, however, did the crafty Centaur obtain possession of Deianira than he made off with her, intending to have her as his own wife. You can easily imagine how angry this outrage made Hercules. He shot one of his poisoned arrows with so much force that it went right through the traitor Centaur, and wounded him even unto death.
But, before dying, Nessus had time to tell Deianira that if she wanted to keep Hercules always true to her she had but to take his shirt, and, when her husband's love was waning, prevail on him to wear it.
Deianira took the shirt, and shortly afterwards, being afraid that her husband was ceasing to love her, she sent it to him as a present.
Now, you will remember that Hercules had shot through the shirt of Nessus one of his poisoned arrows, and you will not be surprised to hear that some of the poison had remained in the shirt. So when Hercules put it on, which he did immediately upon receiving it, he was seized with frenzy and, in his madness, he uttered terrible cries and did dreadful deeds.
With his powerful hands he broke off huge pieces of rock, tore up pine-trees by their roots and hurled them with resounding din into the valley.
He could not take off the fatal shirt, and as he tore off portions of it he tore, at the same time, his quivering flesh.
The servant of Deianira who had carried him the fatal shirt, and who wished to solace him in his pain, he seized as she approached him and flung headlong into the sea, where she was changed into a rock that long, so runs the legend, kept its human form.
But at length the majesty and the courage of the hero asserted themselves, and, although still in agony, his madness left him.
Calling to his side his friend Philoctetes, he wished to embrace him once more before dying; but fearful lest he should, in so doing, infect his friend with the deadly poison that was consuming him, he cried in his agony: "Alas, I am not even permitted to embrace thee!"
Then he gathered together the trees he had uprooted and made a huge funeral pyre, such as was used by the ancients in burning their dead. Climbing to the top of the heap, he spread out the skin of the Nemean lion, and, supporting himself upon his club, gave the signal for Philoctetes to kindle the fire that was to reduce him to ashes.
In return for this service he gave Philoctetes a quiver full of those deadly arrows that had been dipped in the blood of the Hydra of Lerna.
He further enjoined his friend to let no man know of his departure from life, to the intent that the fear of his approach might prevent fresh monsters and new robbers from ravaging the earth.
Thus died Hercules, and after his death he was received as a god amongst the Immortals on Mount Olympus, where he married Hebe, Jove's cupbearer. In his honor mortals were commanded to build altars and to raise temples.