Heracles (Hercules to the Romans) is a hero of ancient Greek mythology, and one of the most famous heroes of all time!
With superhuman strength and courage, he went on incredible adventures and completed many amazing feats.
In this article, we’ll dive into the incredible life of Heracles and explore some of his most famous feats and accomplishments. So buckle up and get ready to learn all about the legendary hero Heracles!
In this article, you will learn:
- Who Heracles was
- Why some pronounce it Hercules or Heracles
- The full story of Heracles’ life
- Many other tales of Heracles’ heroics
- How Heracles died
Be sure to visit our complete hub of Greek Mythology topics for more like this.
Who Was Heracles?
Hercules, also known as Heracles, is a beloved hero from Greek mythology. He is the son of Zeus and Alcmene and the half-brother of Dionysus, Perseus, and other gods of Mount Olympus, just to name a few.
Hercules is known for his twelve legendary labors, which include slaying monsters, rescuing damsels in distress, and displaying superhuman strength.
He is a champion of the Olympian gods and protects the world from evil forces.
Today, Hercules’ legacy lives on through modern stories, films, and video games. He is a symbol of strength, courage, and heroism and continues to inspire people all over the world.
Heracles or Hercules?
Both spellings, “Heracles” and “Hercules,” are correct and refer to the same hero of ancient Greek mythology. “Heracles” is the original Greek spelling of the name, while “Hercules” is the Romanized version of the name.
In ancient Greek, the hero’s name was spelled “Ἡρακλῆς” (Heraklēs), and it was later Latinized as “Hercules” when the Romans adopted the hero into their own mythology. This is due to the fact that the Latin form of the name is derived from the Greek word for glory or honor (ἡρακλής).
Both spellings are commonly used today and are widely recognized as referring to the same hero.
Common Attributes of Heracles
Heracles, also known as Hercules, was a hero of ancient Greek mythology renowned for multiple features including:
- His strength: Heracles’ strength was legendary, and he was able to accomplish incredible feats that would have been impossible for most mortals. This is probably his most well-known attribute.
- Courage and ingenuity: He was not afraid to take on any challenge, no matter how difficult, and he was always able to find creative solutions to problems that others might have thought insurmountable.
- A passionate lover: he had multiple consorts and a large number of children. His love life was as active as his heroics, and he seemed to have a particular talent for attracting the affections of both men and women.
- His cleverness: He was not always able to rely on his brute force to get out of tricky situations, and he often had to use his wit to outsmart his opponents. This was particularly true when he wrestled the giant Antaeus or tricked Atlas into taking the sky back onto his shoulders.
- His passion and emotion: Heracles was a good friend to those he cared about, and he was fiercely loyal to those he considered part of his inner circle. However, he was also extremely dangerous to anyone who crossed him, and he had a tendency to fly into catastrophic rages when he was pushed too far. These rages were often fueled by a kind of madness that seemed to come over him, and they could be devastating to those around him.
The Family of Heracles
Heracles was one of the most renowned heroes in Ancient Greece. As such, many claimed kinship with him. For this reason, many myths emerged of him consorting with various women (and men) through which later leaders would claim descent.
Let’s analyze the family of Heracles:
The parentage of Heracles is perhaps the most straight forward. Most of the myths agree on who Heracles’ parents were:
- Zeus: Zeus was the king of the gods in ancient Greek mythology and the father of many heroes, including Heracles. He was the god of the sky, lightning, thunder, and justice, and he was often depicted carrying a lightning bolt as a symbol of his power.
- Alcmene: Alcmene was the daughter of Electryon and was betrothed to Amphitryon, a Theban general, before conceiving Heracles with Zeus while Amphitryon was away avenging her brothers’ deaths.
Consorts and Children
Heracles had many children through dozens of relationships. Let’s start with the women Heracles was actually married to:
Wives of Heracles and Their Children
- Megara: Heracles married Megara, the daughter of Creon, the king of Thebes, after a victorious war against the kingdom of Orchomenus in Boeotia, but he killed their children in a fit of madness sent by Hera and was subsequently forced to become the servant of Eurystheus. They had four children:
- Omphale: Heracles’ second wife was Omphale, the queen of Lydia, to whom he was sold as a slave. They had two children:
- Deianira: Heracles’ third marriage was to Deianira, but he had to fight the river god Achelous to win her, and later, when she suspected he was fond of Iole, she soaked a shirt of his in the mixture of Nessus’ tainted blood and semen, causing him great agony and leading to his voluntary death and transformation into an immortal god.
- Hebe: Hebe was Hercules’ fourth and last wife.
Consorts of Heracles and Their Wives
Heracles had many consorts, and one notable episode of his female affairs occurred during his stay at the palace of Thespius, the king of Thespiae.
The king had asked Heracles to kill the Lion of Cithaeron, and as a reward, he offered him the chance to have sexual intercourse with all fifty of his daughters in one night.
Heracles accepted the offer and fulfilled the task, and all of the daughters became pregnant and gave birth to sons.
This episode is sometimes referred to as his Thirteenth Labour.
This is just one example of a story that local rulers would use to claim their descent to Heracles. The following are known consorts and their children.
- Astydameia, daughter of Ormenus or Amyntor
- Astyoche, daughter of Phylas
- Baletia, daughter of Baletus
- Chania, nymph
- The Scythian dracaena or Echidna
- Lavinia, daughter of Evander
- Malis, a slave of Omphale
- Melite (heroine)
- Melite (naiad)
- Possibly Hyllus
- Palantho of Hyperborea
- Parthenope, daughter of Stymphalus (son of Elatus)
- Rhea, Italian priestess
- Thebe (daughter of Adramys)
- Tinge, wife of Antaeus
- 50 daughters of Thespius
- 50 sons
- Unnamed Celtic woman
- Unnamed female slave of Iardanus
- Alcaeus / Cleodaeus
- Unnamed daughter of Syleus (perhaps Xenodoce?)
- Unnamed daughter of Aphra
- Unknown consorts
- Phaestus or Rhopalus
Male Consorts of Heracles
Heracles had several male lovers as well, even claimed as being “beyond counting” by Plutarch. Given the status of Heracles as a symbol of masculinity and warriorship, and Greek culture at the time, this is not surprising. Some of these lovers include:
Symbols of Heracles
There are three primary symbols of Heracles in classical literature:
- Wooden club: This club was a simple, yet powerful weapon that Heracles used to defeat his enemies and accomplish many of his heroic feats. It was often depicted as a symbol of Heracles’ masculinity and strength, and it was a symbol of his ability to conquer and overcome any obstacle that came his way.
- Lion skin: After completing one of his famous Twelve Labours, defeating the Nemean lion, Heracles took the lion’s skin, which acted like armor, and which he wore as a symbol of his victory and as a tribute to his own strength and courage.
- Masculine strength: Heracles’ own strength and muscles are often, in themselves, symbols. If you ever see a Greek hero that is overly muscular, there’s a good chance that hero is Heracles.
The Story of Heracles
Now we get to the meat of this article, the actual stories involving Heracles. Since Heracles is one of the most famous Greek heroes, there was a lot written about him.
So buckle up. I’ve done my best to make this as easy to follow as possible, but there’s a lot to cover.
Early Life of Heracles
The early life of Heracles was filled with intrigue and drama. It all started when the mortal woman Alcmene had an affair with Zeus.
Zeus, wanting to have more time with Alcmene, ordered Helios to make one night into three. This led to the conception and birth of Heracles, which made the goddess Hera extremely angry. She blamed Heracles for merely existing and was determined to get rid of him.
Heracles had a twin brother, Iphicles, who was fully mortal and the son of Amphitryon. In a sneaky move, Hera tricked Zeus into ensuring that Heracles would not be born first, which meant that he would not become king.
Alcmene, fearing for her baby’s safety, exposed Heracles to the elements (a sad but common practice at the time), but Athena brought him to Hera, who didn’t know who he was. In a twist of fate, Hera ended up nursing Heracles, which gave him godlike power.
Athena eventually brought Heracles back to his true mother.
Heracles was originally given the name “Alcides,” but it was only later that he became known as Heracles.
When he and his twin were only 8 months old, Hera sent two snakes to kill them. While Iphicles cried, Heracles was able to strangle the snakes with his bare hands.
Later, he was even found playing with the snakes like they were toys, which amazed Amphitryon. In response, Amphitryon sent for a seer who prophesied that Heracles would fight multiple monsters in the future.
This early brush with danger was just a hint of the epic adventures that were in store for the mighty Heracles.
The early adventures of Heracles were marked by violence and strife. As a young man, he was known for his quick temper and physical strength, which often led him into conflict with those around him.
One of the most famous stories from this period of his life involves the killing of his music tutor, Linus, with a lyre. This act of violence caused Heracles to be exiled from his home and sent to tend cattle on a mountain, where he was visited by the allegorical figures of Vice and Virtue.
This is known as the Choice of Heracles (or Hercules), and I actually have a full short story that I wrote on that incident. Check it out!
This is a short story that takes place in Greek Mythology (and is part of my shared universe of mythic stories).
It’s a faithful adaptation of a little-known myth that is perhaps my favorite about Hercules. Check it out!
Despite this troubled start, Heracles was eventually able to turn his life around and become a hero. After marrying King Creon’s daughter, Megara, he settled down in Thebes and began a family.
However, he was plagued by the jealousy of the goddess Hera, who sought to ruin his life at every turn. In one of her most notorious plots, she drove Heracles mad, causing him to kill his own children and Megara.
Overwhelmed with grief and guilt, Heracles fled to the Oracle of Delphi in search of guidance.
Unknowingly guided by Hera, he was told to serve King Eurystheus and perform any tasks required of him. Eurystheus, seeking to prove his own superiority, assigned Heracles ten labors, which he completed with great difficulty.
However, Eurystheus was not satisfied and added two more tasks, resulting in the famous Twelve Labors of Heracles.
Let’s talk about those next…
Twelve Labors of Heracles
The twelve labors of Heracles were a series of nearly impossible tasks assigned to him as punishment for killing his family in a fit of madness. Here is a list of the twelve labors, in order, along with a brief description of each one:
- Slay the Nemean Lion: The Nemean Lion was a fearsome beast with skin that was impervious to weapons. Heracles was able to defeat it by strangling it to death.
- Slay the Lernaean Hydra: The Lernaean Hydra was a serpent with multiple heads, one of which was immortal. Heracles was able to defeat it by cutting off its heads and cauterizing the wounds to prevent new heads from growing back.
- Capture the Ceryneian Hind: The Ceryneian Hind was a sacred deer with golden antlers and bronze hooves. It was said to be fleet of foot and difficult to catch, but Heracles was able to capture it by tracking it down and using his superior strength to overpower it.
- Capture the Erymanthian Boar: The Erymanthian Boar was a fierce wild pig that terrorized the countryside. Heracles was able to capture it by chasing it into deep snow and pinning it down.
- Clean the Augean Stables: The Augean Stables were home to thousands of cattle, and they had not been cleaned in over 30 years. Heracles was able to clean them in a single day by diverting a river to flow through them.
- Slay the Stymphalian Birds: The Stymphalian Birds were a flock of man-eating birds with beaks of bronze and wings of iron. Heracles was able to defeat them by using a rattle to scare them into flight and shooting them down with his arrows.
- Capture the Cretan Bull: The Cretan Bull was a wild beast that terrorized the island of Crete. Heracles was able to capture it by lassoing it and dragging it back to Greece.
- Steal the Mares of Diomedes: The Mares of Diomedes were a herd of wild horses that were kept by a man named Diomedes, who fed them on human flesh. Heracles was able to steal them by killing Diomedes and driving the horses back to Greece.
- Obtain the Belt of Hippolyta: The Belt of Hippolyta was a magical belt belonging to the queen of the Amazons. Heracles was able to obtain it by tricking Hippolyta into giving it to him, or, in some versions of the myth, by defeating her in combat.
- Obtain the Cattle of Geryon: The Cattle of Geryon were a herd of red cattle that were guarded by a three-headed monster named Geryon. Heracles was able to obtain them by defeating Geryon in combat and driving the cattle back to Greece.
- Steal the Apples of the Hesperides: The Apples of the Hesperides were a golden apple tree guarded by a dragon. Heracles was able to steal the apples with the help of Atlas, who held up the sky while Heracles picked the apples.
- Capture and bring back Cerberus: Cerberus was a three-headed dog that guarded the entrance to the underworld. Heracles was able to capture it by wrestling it and bringing it back to the land of the living as proof of his labors.
Heracles and Omphale
Heracles’ association with Omphale, the queen or princess of Lydia, was one of the most controversial episodes in his legendary career.
As punishment for a murder he had committed, Heracles was ordered by the Delphic Oracle to serve as Omphale’s slave for a year. During this time, he was forced to perform women’s work and wear women’s clothing, while Omphale donned the skin of the Nemean Lion and carried Heracles’ olive-wood club.
Despite the humiliation of this arrangement, Heracles and Omphale eventually fell in love and were married.
Some sources even mention a son born to the couple, though his name varies in different accounts. It was during this period that the cercopes, mischievous wood spirits, stole Heracles’ weapons. In retaliation, he punished them by tying them to a stick with their faces pointing downward.
Heracles Rescues Prometheus
One of the most memorable feats of Heracles’ legendary career was the rescue of Prometheus, the Titan who had been punished by Zeus for giving fire to mortals.
According to the Theogony and Prometheus Unbound, Heracles shot and killed the eagle that had been sent to torture Prometheus as punishment for his transgression. He then freed the Titan from his chains and ended his suffering.
Prometheus, grateful for his rescue, made predictions to Heracles regarding further deeds that he would accomplish in the future. This episode serves as a testament to the hero’s compassion and willingness to stand up for those in need, even if it means going against the will of the gods.
Heracles vs Troy
Heracles’ expedition to Troy was a significant event in the hero’s legendary career, and one that would have far-reaching consequences for the city and its people.
The Iliad contains several references to this expedition in the form of digressions, and it is also mentioned in the Bibliotheke.
According to the myth, Poseidon had sent a sea monster to attack Troy, and the city’s ruler, Laomedon, had planned to sacrifice his daughter Hesione to appease the god.
Heracles, accompanied by Telamon and Oicles, arrived on the scene and offered to kill the monster in exchange for the horses that Laomedon had received from Zeus as compensation for Zeus’ kidnapping of Ganymede.
Laomedon agreed to the deal, and Heracles was able to defeat the monster. However, Laomedon went back on his word and refused to give up the horses as promised.
In response, Heracles and his followers attacked Troy and sacked the city. They slaughtered all of Laomedon’s sons, except for Priam (formerly known as Podarces), who managed to save his own life by giving Heracles a golden veil that Hesione had made.
Telamon took Hesione as a war prize and the couple had a son, Teucer. The Eastern pediment of the Temple of Aphaea depicts this expedition as a central theme.
Heracles, Hylas, and the Argonauts
Heracles’ relationship with Hylas, a prince of the Dryopes, was one of close friendship and loyalty. According to some accounts, Heracles and Hylas met while the hero was wandering through the wilderness and was set upon by the Dryopes.
In the Argonautica, Heracles had previously slain their king, Theiodamas, over a dispute involving one of the king’s bulls, and had waged war on the Dryopes in retaliation for their perceived injustice.
In the end, the Dryopes were forced to surrender Hylas to Heracles, who took the young man on as his weapons bearer.
Years later, Heracles and Hylas joined the crew of the Argo as Argonauts, taking part in the legendary voyage to retrieve the Golden Fleece. However, their journey was cut short when Hylas was kidnapped by the nymphs of a local spring in Mysia.
Heracles searched for him for a long time, but Hylas had fallen in love with the nymphs and never returned. In other versions of the story, Hylas simply drowned.
Regardless of the circumstances, the Argo set sail without them, leaving Heracles to grieve the loss of his beloved companion.
Other Adventures of Heracles
Heracles was a national hero in Greece, so naturally he shows up in a TON of stories from all over the region, and not just in Greece, but in other regions as well, notably Rome. Here is just a sampling of some of the other adventures he had:
- When Hippocoon overthrew his brother, Tyndareus, as King of Sparta, Heracles reinstated the rightful ruler and killed Hippocoon and his sons.
- The Egyptian King Busiris and his followers tried to sacrifice Heracles to the gods, but Heracles killed them instead.
- Heracles killed King Amyntor of Ormenium for not allowing him into his kingdom, and also killed King Emathion of Arabia.
- Heracles killed the robber Termerus.
- As an Argonaut, Heracles killed Alastor and his brothers.
- Heracles defeated King Mygdon and his Bebryces, and gave their land to Prince Lycus of Mysia, son of Dascylus.
- Augeias denied Heracles a promised reward for clearing his stables, so Heracles declared war on him. Augeias’s generals, the Molionides, kept him undefeated, but after Heracles fell ill, his army was defeated. Later, however, Heracles ambushed and killed the Molionides, and then marched into Elis, sacked it, and killed Augeias and his sons.
- The Pygmies, brothers of Antaeus, sought revenge for Antaeus’s death by trying to kill Heracles.
- Heracles and Antor went on a visit to Evander, where Antor decided to stay in Italy.
- Lityerses and Heracles had a harvesting contest, and Heracles emerged victorious by killing Lityerses.
- Periclymenus met their demise at the hands of Heracles in Pylos.
- Heracles killed Antaeus the giant, who was immortal while touching the earth, by picking them up and holding them in the air while strangling them.
- Syleus made the mistake of forcing strangers to hoe his vineyard, and paid for it with their life at the hands of Heracles.
- On the day that Admetus’s wife, Alcestis, agreed to die in his place, Heracles visited the house of Admetus. Admetus welcomed him and instructed the servants not to tell Heracles about the situation, so Heracles enjoyed the hospitality of the house, drinking and partying. The servants were angry and wished to mourn, and one scolded Heracles. Ashamed, Heracles hid by Alcestis’s grave and surprised Death when he came to collect her. Heracles squeezed Death until he relented and returned Alcestis to her husband.
- Lepreus and Heracles were rivals, and in the end, Heracles came out on top by killing Lepreus.
- Heracles killed Cycnus, the son of Ares, on an expedition with Iolaus. This adventure is the theme of a short epic by Hesiod called Shield of Heracles.
- Linus (and Eumolpus) taught Heracles music, but after Linus corrected Heracles’s mistakes, Heracles killed them. Heracles learned how to wrestle from Autolycus. He also killed the famous boxer Eryx of Sicily in a match.
- Heracles founded the city of Tarentum (modern-day Taranto) in Italy.
- Heracles took down the Giants Alcyoneus and Porphyrion.
- Heracles challenged Dionysus, the wine god, to a drinking contest and lost, which resulted in him joining the Thiasus for a while.
- In Aristophanes’s The Frogs, Dionysus seeks out Heracles to find a way to the underworld. Heracles is greatly amused by Dionysus’s appearance and jokingly offers several ways to commit
How Did Heracles Die?
Heracles’ death is a tragic event that has been described in several different myths and legends. In the Trachiniae by Sophocles and the Metamorphoses Book IX by Ovid, Heracles is portrayed as a mighty hero who is betrayed by those closest to him.
After defeating the god Achelous and taking Deianira as his wife, Heracles is approached by Nessus, a mischievous centaur who offers to help Deianira cross a fast-flowing river while Heracles swims across. However, Nessus attempts to steal Deianira away, and a furious Heracles shoots him with arrows dipped in the poisonous blood of the Lernaean Hydra.
As he lay dying, Nessus tells Deianira that his blood-soaked tunic will “excite the love” of her husband.
Years later, Deianira hears rumors that she has a rival for Heracles’ love and decides to give him the tunic in an effort to win him back. However, the tunic is still coated with the Hydra’s poison, and when Heracles puts it on, it tears his skin and exposes his bones.
Before he dies, he throws Lichas, the messenger who delivered the tunic, into the sea, believing him to be the one who had poisoned him.
Side note: In some versions of the myth, Lichas is transformed into a rock standing in the sea, named for him.
Heracles’ death is a poignant moment in mythological history, as it marks the end of a great hero’s life and the beginning of his immortal legacy. Through the intervention of Zeus, Heracles is able to ascend to Olympus as he dies, and his memory is revered by those who came after him.
The Heracles Constellation
The Heracles constellation, also known as Engonasin or “The Kneeler,” is a celestial grouping of stars that is said to be named after the legendary hero.
According to myth, Heracles was returning to Mycenae from Iberia after completing his tenth labor, the capture of the Cattle of Geryon, when he came across two giants, Albion and Bergion or Dercynus, who were sons of Poseidon.
Despite his great strength and skill, Heracles found himself in a difficult position against these formidable opponents, and he prayed to his father Zeus for help.
With the aid of Zeus, Heracles was able to overcome the giants and emerge victorious. It was during this battle that he was depicted as kneeling in prayer, and it is this kneeling position that gave rise to the name of the constellation.
The myths surrounding the legendary hero Heracles, or Hercules as he is sometimes known, have a complex and varied history. These myths were passed down through an oral tradition, with different authors, times, and places contributing to the overall narrative.
As a result, it can be difficult to trace the exact origins of these myths, or to identify a single “canonical” source for them.
One of the earliest sources for the Heracles myths may be the metopes, or decorative panels, of the Temple of Zeus at Olympus, which depict his twelve labors.
Other sources for the Heracles myths include epic poems such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, which make reference to the hero and his legendary deeds, as well as a number of plays and other works that feature Heracles as a central or peripheral character.
Heracles is also mentioned in Appolodorus’ Library, an ancient encyclopedia of Greek myth that gathers together a wide range of stories and legends from different sources.
Additionally, Heracles appears as a character in the Argonautica, a Greek epic poem that tells the story of the voyage of the Argonauts and their quest to find the Golden Fleece.
FAQ About Heracle
In addition to all the above, here are a few additional questions that people often have of Heracles.
Is Heracles the god of anything?
Heracles is not a god in Greek mythology (although he does eventually attain immortality in some versions). He is a mortal hero, son of Zeus and Alcmene, known for his strength and bravery. He is not associated with any particular divine domain, but rather his adventures and exploits focus on his role as a hero and his relationships with other gods and mortals.
Where did Heracles live?
Heracles is known to have lived all over Greece, including Thebes where he was born. As a god, he also spent time living on Mount Olympus with the other gods. He was also known to have traveled widely, visiting many different lands and completing heroic feats in a number of different locations.
Why is the story of Heracles famous?
The story of Heracles is famous for its depiction of a mortal hero who performs a series of remarkable feats and adventures, known as the Twelve Labors of Heracles. These feats have been retold and celebrated in literature and art throughout the centuries, and the enduring popularity of the Heracles myths is likely due in part to the hero’s enduring appeal as a symbol of strength, bravery, and perseverance.
Why did Disney change Heracles to Hercules?
Disney likely changed the spelling of the name “Heracles” to “Hercules” in order to make it more recognizable and familiar to English-speaking audiences. “Hercules” is the more common English spelling of the name, and it may have been felt that using this spelling would make the character more relatable and easier for audiences to identify with.
Why did Heracles leave the Argonauts?
Heracles left the Argonauts because he went in search of a young boy named Hylas but was unsuccessful and refused to accompany the rest of the men on their quest. Despite some wanting to leave him behind, most of the Argonauts respected his decision and so Heracles was left behind in Mysia. As a result, the Argonauts had to sail without him and continued their journey without Heracles.
Who was Heracles wife?
Heracles had four wives throughout his life or in different versions of his myth: Megara, Omphale, Deianira, and Hebe. Hercules married Megara as a reward for his prowess in defeating the Minyans at Orchomenos. Later in life, Hercules married Deianira, who, In a fit of sadness and vengeance, coated her husband’s clothing with a deadly poison, ultimately killing Heracles.
Who trained Heracles?
There were several mentors of Heracles throughout his life, including:
- Chiron: Chiron was a centaur who was known for his wisdom and knowledge. He is said to have taught Heracles many valuable lessons, including the art of healing and the use of herbs.
- Linus: Linus was a musician and poet who served as a tutor to Heracles. However, their relationship was tumultuous, and Heracles is said to have killed Linus in a fit of rage.
- Amphitryon: Amphitryon was a king and the foster father of Heracles. He taught Heracles to drive a chariot.
- Autolycus: Autolycus, Odysseus’ grandfather, taught Heracles wrestling.
- Eurytus: Eurytus, the king of Oechalia, instructed Heracles in archery.
- Castor: Castor, the mortal Dioscuri twin, trained Heracles in fencing.
- Harpalycus of Phanotè: Harpalycus, a son of Hermes, taught Heracles boxing.
- Eumolpus: Eumolpus may have taught Heracles the lyre.