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Herakles in a Greek vase painting, ca. 460–450 BC
Keeper of the Gates on Mount Olympus|
God of heroes, athletes, and divine protector of humankind
|Abode||Greece, later Mount Olympus|
Bow and arrows
|Consort||Hebe, goddess of youth|
|Parents||Zeus and Alkmene|
|Siblings||Iphikles (mortal brother)|
Therimachus, Creontiades, and Deicoon (by Megara)|
Hyllas (by Deianira)
Alexiares and Anicetus (by Hebe)
Herakles (Latin: Hercules) was a divine hero in Greek mythology. He was the greatest of the Greek heroes. He was the son of the god Zeus and the mortal woman Alkmene. Herakles was strong and courageous—even as a baby. When he was a young man, he dressed in a lion's skin, carried a club of olive wood, and was an expert with the bow and arrow.
Hera, the Queen of the Gods, hated Herakles because he was the son of her husband and a mortal. She designed some difficult tasks for Herakles to do and hoped they would kill him. These tasks are called The Labors of Herakles. He finished them all with success and Zeus gave him immortality. He had many adventures. When he died, he went to live with the gods on Mount Olympus.
Herakles was worshipped throughout the Greek world. He was popular among athletes because he was the god of gymnasiums and wrestling schools. He started the Ancient Olympic Games and marked out the length of the Olympic stadium. The Romans called him Hercules. He was the subject of much ancient and modern art, and even of movies like Walt Disney's Hercules.
Birth and childhood
Zeus was the greatest of all Greek gods. He lusted after a beautiful mortal woman named Alkmene. Ten months later, she gave birth to a son and named him Alkides. He would one day be called Herakles. They lived in Thebes.
Zeus' wife Hera was angry with her husband because he had become the father of a child outside their marriage. She hated Herakles and looked for ways to hurt him. The goddess Athena felt sorry for the baby. This was one step on the road to immortality. Hera hated Herakles more than ever. She sent two snakes to kill him, but the baby Herakles killed the snakes with his hands. This was his first great act of courage and physical strength.
Herakles became a strong teenager. He learned to use weapons and to drive a chariot. One day he killed his music teacher Linus because the man had tried to whip him. Herakles was charged with murder, but said he had acted in self defense. He was freed. People feared him though, so he was sent far out of town to work on a farm. Herakles became stronger with the hard work. He was seven feet tall. He was eighteen when he left the farm.
Lion of Kithaeron
Herakles was eighteen when he hunted the large and powerful Lion of Kithaeron. This lion was killing cows in a land near Thebes. The hunt lasted fifty days and ended when Herakles smashed the lion's skull with a club of olive wood. This club is seen in pictures of Herakles. He dressed in the lion's skin.
Herakles slept in King Thespius' palace while the hunt progressed. She became a priestess in his shrine.
Herakles was going back to Thebes when he met the heralds of King Erginus. They were on their way to Thebes to collect tribute. They treated Herakles with contempt. Herakles cut off their ears, noses, and hands. Erginus made war on Thebes, but was defeated and killed by Herakles. For saving Thebes, King Kreon gave his daughter Megara in marriage to Herakles.
Madness, murder, and The Labors of Herakles
Hera could not rest easily because Herakles was becoming more and more famous. He was loved by everyone. Her anger and hatred made her look foolish. She tricked Herakles into thinking his sons were his enemies and, insane with anger, he murdered them.
When he came to his senses, he was overcome with grief. He ran from other people and lived for a time in exile. He looked for advice from the Oracle of Delphi. The priestess sent him to serve King Eurystheus, King of Tyrins in Mycenae. In this way, she said, he would be washed clean of his crimes.
Eurystheus was a dull and bad man. Herakles hated him. Eurystheus set some tasks for Herakles to do. These tasks came to be called "The Labors of Herakles". It was said that Hera designed them. She hoped the tasks would kill him. Zeus would grant Herakles immortality with the successful completion of the Labors.
Herakles was married to a beautiful woman named Deianeira. They lived in Trachis and had a son named Hyllus. In a war with a neighboring city, Herakles made the king's daughter Iole his captive. Herakles had met her sometime in the past and had fallen in love with her. Deianeira was jealous, and used a mix of blood and semen from the centaur Nessus to get her husband back. She put the mix on a shirt and sent it to Herakles. He put the shirt on. Unknown to Deianeira, the mix was really a poison and burned Herakles' skin and flesh. Deianeira learned of this and killed herself. Herakles died in great pain. Before he died, he ordered Hyllus to marry Iole. Herakles' body was set on fire at the funeral ceremonies. His ghost fell to the underworld while his immortal part rose to Mount Olympus. The gods welcomed him, even Hera. He married Hebe, his fourth wife, and became the father of two sons. According to Homer's Odyssey, Herakles became the porter (keeper of the gates) on Mount Olympus.
- Graves, Robert (1955, 1960), The Greek Myths, London; New York: Penguin Books,
- Kerényi, C (1959), The Heroes of the Greeks, London: Thames and Hudson,
- Moroz, Georges (1997), Hercules, New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell,