The Labours of Heracles Part 1

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Heracles and the Nemean Lion by Bertie of Storynory
Picture by Bertie for Storynory

Heracles was a favourite hero of both the Greeks and the Romans (the Romans called him Hercules). The goddess Hera (wife of Zeus) hated him, and made him perform 12 impossible tasks - impossible for anyone but Hercules.

As Hercules has such an action packed life, we are presenting his biography in two parts. Here we bring you the first six labours. You will also hear about his early life.

Listen to Part 2 here.

Read by Richard. Adapted by Bertie (mostly following Apollodorus). Proofread by Claire Deakin.
Main picture by Bertie for Storynry

Hello, this is Richard, and I’m here to tell you about a hero from ancient times. I’m pretty sure you will have heard of him before. The Greeks called him Heracles, and the Romans changed his name slightly to Hercules. He is most famous for performing 12 impossible labours on behalf of mankind. He had so many adventures, that his story is a long one – and for that reason, I’m going to tell it to you in several parts. This is the first:

Heracles' Youth

Long ago, two twin baby boys were asleep in a nursery. The door was open onto the veranda to let the cool breeze waft into the room. However it was not just the air that could enter the room. First one, and then a second snake slithered in through the gap. They had been sent by the goddess Hera, Queen of Heaven. It’s hard to understand how anyone, even a goddess, could hold anything against innocent children, but her immortal heart was filled with hatred for the twins. Their mother was a human woman, but their father was none other than Zeus, Lord of Heaven, and husband of Hera. In short, she was jealous. The snakes slid towards the bed. The larger of the two children stretched and yawned. The viper who was out in front stuck out his tongue and hissed. It reared its head to see if it could reach the top of the mattress. That was the last thing it did, because the boy shot out his hand and grabbed it by the neck. The other snake slid swiftly across the floor towards him, but the child grabbed that one too and began to shake it violently. The nurse heard the commotion came rushing into the nursery, but it was too late – for the snakes. The boy, whose name was Heracles, had killed them both.

The boy grew into a teenager, and he was without doubt the strongest human who had ever walked on the face of the Earth. Still young, he was a formidable sight, with his towering height and his rippling muscles. Oh how the Theban girls loved him! And how he loved the girls of Thebes. When other Greeks attacked the City of Thebes, Heracles sent the enemies packing. As a reward, Kreon, King of Thebes, married Heracles to his daughter, Megara.

Though he had every reason to be happy, Heracles was miserable, and strangely fearful. He spent most of his days asleep in his room. Megara consulted the Oracle of Delphi, and she explained that Hera had planted the seeds of madness inside the mind of her husband. To free himself of the curse, he must perform ten impossible labours in the service of mankind. Some people say that Heracles became insaner still, before he undertook his heroic cure – that he was hot-tempered and cruel to his family. I am not sure that those rumours are true, but I will mention a famous saying about Heracles at this time of his life. It comes from the Greek playwright Euripides and it goes:

“He whom the gods wish to destroy, they first drive mad.”

What is clear, is that Heracles took the cure that was prescribed by the Oracle. He presented himself to Eurystheus, king of Tiryns in Mycenae, who was to set his ten impossible tasks. The sharp-eared among you will have noticed that earlier I said Heracles performed twelve tasks – I didn’t make a mistake – he was supposed to do ten, but he ended up doing twelve. You’ll hear about that later.

The Nemean Lion

Eurystheus told Heracles about a lion that was the cause of suffering in the land of Nemea. It was attacking not only animals, but people. Heracles' first task was to hunt and kill the Nemean Lion.

The strongman travelled to Nemea, and the local shepherds soon pointed him in the direction of the lion’s cave. He hid behind a boulder, and waited for it to come out. Towards evening the lion emerged. It was indeed a tremendous beast that would strike fear into most mens’ hearts. Heracles pulled an arrow from his quiver, and set it in his bow. It was a powerful weapon, and it took immense strength just to pull back the string and flex it ready to fire. Heracles took aim and let loose the arrow. It flew towards the lion and caught it in the chest – but instead of piercing his skin, the arrow merely bounced off. Heracles quickly shot another arrow, and it was just as useless as the one before. Now he understood why the task was all but impossible. The hide of the Nemean Lion was impervious to weapons. The lion looked with curiosity at his bold attacker. Who was this fellow? No ordinary human for sure. Seeing that Heracles was as strong and fierce as himself, he decided to err on the side of caution. He retreated into his cave.

The Nemean lion was not only strong, but he was cunning as well. His vast cave had many tunnels and two openings. If anyone ever pursued him through one entrance, he could always escape out of the other. Heracles had been warned of this by the shepherds. He walked around the mountain and found the lion’s escape hole. He uprooted a tree, and used its trunk to lever a vast boulder into the opening- now it was sealed. Heracles went back to the first entrance, and crept into the lion’s cave. Inside, he caught sight of its green, gleaming eyes. The lion did not expect a human to pounce on him, but that’s what Heracles did. He grappled and wrestled with the man-eating beast and finally defeated it, killing it with his bare hands.

If you have ever seen a picture of Heracles, you will know that he liked to wear a lion skin over his shoulders, and that its mane was a kind of hood over his head. The ancient world was full of pictures of Heracles, most of them on vases. The lion skin that he wore was, of course, that of the Nemean Lion. When he reported back to Eurystheus, he was wearing his new uniform. He was such a terrifying site that the king hid inside a giant jug, and spoke to the hero from within it. After that, he forbade him to ever come into the city again. In future, he must stand outside the walls to display his trophies.

The Lernaean Hydra

Heracles’ next task was to fight another terrible creature. This one lurked in the swamps of Lerna, and it was known as the Lernaean Hydra. It was giant snake with multiple heads. If you cut off one of its heads, two more would grow in its place. It was indeed a fierce opponent. Even Heracles did not think he could fight this monster on his own. He enlisted the help of his nephew, Iolaus. Heracles fought the Hydra with his sword, and each time he lopped off one of its heads, Iolaus jumped in with a torch and burned the stump before it sprout a couple of new heads. Hera looked down on this struggle to the death, and thought, “Two humans against one monster! That’s hardly fair!” and she sent a giant crab to join in the fight. Heracles and Iolaus stood back to back and fought off both these supernatural beasts. After defeating them in battle, Heracles collected some of the Hydra’s blood to use as poison on his arrows.

He returned to Eurystheus with news of his victory, but the king was not satisfied. “You did not fight the Hydra on your own,” he said, “And so the labour does not count.” Heracles shook his giant fist at the king, but Eurystheus, who was feeling safe at the top of his tower, shouted down: “It’s no use arguing. You’ve still got nine more labours to do, Heracles. Your next task is to bring me the sacred dear of Artemis – you’ll find it roaming the hills of Ceryneia. You will know it when you see it. It has little horns, made of gold.”

The Ceryneian Hind

The deer was elusive and swift on its feet. Heracles was strong, but not so fast. He spent a year tracking the graceful creature over the hills of Ceryneia. Artemis, the goddess of hunting, did not approve of humans tracking her dear. When Heracles fired an arrow at her sacred dear, she was angry. Even though she was a goddess, she feared the strength in the arms of the son of Zeus. She brought Apollo along for moral support. The golden god of light appeared before Heracles and said,

“What’s all this? Shooting the sacred dear of Artemis is not allowed. It’s a good thing you did not kill the Ceryneian Hind with your arrow just now.”

“Well,” said Heracles unfazed, “I am commanded by Heaven to perform these deeds, so although you are god, you must let me do it.”

Apollo knew very well that Heracles was no ordinary man, but the son of Zeus. He consulted with Artemis and they agreed on a compromise. He could take the sacred dear to Eurystheus alive, but then he must let it go. That was how Heracles completed his third labour and reported back to the king of Tiryns.

The Erymanthian Boar

“That was an easy one,” said Eurystheus, “The dear wasn’t a threat to anyone. Now you must take on a more dangerous foe. A wild boar is terrorising the people of Erymanthia. Your fourth task is to defeat the Erymanthian Boar. Since you are going a bit soft and don’t like killing animals anymore, you must bring back the bad piggy to me alive.”

And so Heracles set off once more across the part of Greece that is called the Peloponnese. It is the land where the wonderful civilisation of the Mycenaeans was based. Later on, the people of the Peloponnese were called the Spartans, but in the time of heroes, there were many more small city states. Heracles’ journey took him through Pholoe, which was home to the centaurs. Centaurs were strange hybrids, half horse and half human. There he was entertained by a centaur called Pholus. His host offered him raw meat, but Heracles was a fussy eater and said he preferred it cooked on the fire. Then he called for wine. Pholus was afraid to open the wine jar, because it was owned by all the centaurs in common. Heracles laughed and told him not to be so timid. So the two opened the jar and drank the wine. When the other centaurs smelled roast meat, they came to see which human was visiting their land. They found Heracles and Pholus drinking their favourite wine and they were angry. Soon a mob of centaurs were hurling rocks and Fir trees at the pair. Heracles easily fought them off, and chased the hooligan horses as far as Malea, before letting them go. After the little diversion with the centaurs and the wine, he resumed his labour. He found the Erymanthian Boar, and backed it into a hollow. The cornered creature tried to charge Heracles with its tusks, but that was a mistake. The hero bopped it on the head with a rock and knocked it out. He then trussed up the unconscious pig, and carried it back to Mycenae.

The Augean Stables

While Heracles was away, King Eurystheus was busy searching for more impossible tasks. Next, he came up with something that made him smile. It was not so very dangerous, but it was delightfully disgusting. Heracles must clean out the Augean Stables and do it in just one day. Augeas was king of Elis, and he had many herds of cattle. They were famous for the volume and the stink of their dung. When Heracles was given this smelly job, he was furious – cleaning out stables was not work fit for a son of Zeus. When he came before Augeas, he demanded to be paid for the task. The king agreed to give him a herd of cattle. Heracles managed to get the job done without dirtying his big hands; he diverted two rivers to run through the stables and flush them out.

When King Eurystheus heard from his spies that Heracles had been paid for cleaning out the stables, he ruled that the labour would not count. He angrily told Heracles that his orders were to work for free. That was how hero ended up doing twelve instead of ten labours.

The Stymphalian Birds

For his sixth task, Heracles had to rid the lake of Stymphalos of some very nasty birds. A strange feathered flock that were eating the other birds and all the fish in the lake. The local people, who made their living from the water, were going hungry. Heracles’ problem was that the birds were all hidden in the reeds. How could he hunt down an entire flock? The goddess Athena came to his rescue. She leant him her castanets, which he clacked in his hands to make a divine din. The noise terrified the birds and they took flight. Once they were in the air, Heracles could shoot them down with his quick firing arrows.

And so Heracles completed his sixth great labour. There were six more tasks remaining to him before his troubled mind could be free of turmoil. But I think six great adventures are enough for one story. I shall tell you the rest next time, here on Storynory.com

Listen to Part 2 here.