Hercules, known in Greek as Heracles or Herakles, is one of the most famous heroes in Greek and Roman mythology. Hercules’s father was Zeus, the ruler of gods on Mount Olympus and humans on earth, and his mother was Alcmene, the granddaughter of Perseus, who famously slayed Medusa (“Hercules”).
Hercules acquired foes even before his birth. Zeus’s wife Hera became extremely jealous upon hearing that her husband’s mistress was pregnant and used her powers to stop Hercules from becoming Mycenae’s ruler. Zeus had announced that Hercules would become the ruler of Mycenae, but Hera’s interference caused Eurystheus to inherit the kingdom instead (“Hercules”). Alcmene named her son Herakles, meaning “glorious gift of Hera,” which further infuriated Zeus’s wife ("The Life and Times of Hercules"). The enraged Hera sent two snakes to kill the baby in his crib, but infant Hercules was already strong and fearless, so he strangled the snakes (“Hercules”). However, Hera did not give up. She put a spell on Hercules when he was a young adult that made him temporarily crazy and caused him to kill his wife, Megara, and their two kids ("The Life and Times of Hercules"). This devastated Hercules, and through his guilt and depression, Hercules sought out Apollo and asked him to be punished for his crimes (“Hercules”).
Apollo, the god of truth and healing, was another of Zeus’s sons and knew that Hercules’s heinous actions were not his fault, though he insisted that Hercules make amends. Apollo told Hercules to perform 12 heroic labors for the Mycenaean king Eurystheus. Apollo said that after he completed the labors, Hercules would be cleared of his guilt and become immortal ("Hercules").
Hercules's 12 Heroic Labors
After the 12 Labors
Hercules went on to complete more heroic deeds, though none were as challenging or important as the 12 labors (“Hercules”). Examples of these adventures include when Hercules rescued the princess of Troy from a sea-monster and when he helped Zeus defeat the Giants battling for control of Olympus ("The Life and Times of Hercules").
Hercules's second marriage was to the beautiful woman Deianira. His wife acquired a magical balm from a centaur that told her anyone who put on the balm would always love her. Deianira wove Hercules a cloak and smeared the balm onto it. However, the centaur had lied and the balm actually contained a poison. When Deianira gave Hercules the cloak as a gift after his last adventure, he put it on and burned with unbearable pain. Hercules could not take off the cloak because it just made the pain worse, so instead, Hercules had his friends make him a funeral pyre because he thought death would be better than this pain. Hercules laid on the pyre and asked his friends to light it, burning him alive. Meanwhile, Zeus told Hera that Hercules had been through enough suffering, to which she agreed and stopped her anger. Zeus had Athena take Hercules from the pyre to Olympus on her chariot ("The Life and Times of Hercules"). Hercules spent the rest of eternity with the gods (“Hercules”).