What were the 12 Labors of Hercules?

Hercules was also a son of Jupiter and of a princess of Argos. Before the birth of Hercules, Jupiter decreed that a descendant of Perseus born that day should be king over all the Greeks. So Juno, who presided over births, and who was from the first an enemy of Hercules, delayed his birth and hurried that of another child of the kingly line of Argos. Thus the latter, a cousin of Hercules, became king. Jupiter then decreed that if Hercules should achieve twelve great "labors," to be imposed upon him by the king his cousin, he should, after his death, be made immortal and become one of the gods themselves.

We can scarce pause to tell of all the wonderful deeds of Hercules, but, briefly stated, his twelve labors were: First, he must kill the lion which haunted the forests of Nemea, and could not be hurt by the arrows of a mortal. Hercules boldly attacked the beast with a club, but his terrific blows produced no effect, whereupon he flung aside his weapon, and with his naked hands strangled it to death. From that time Hercules wore the skin of the lion as his armor.

The second labor was to destroy the Lernaean hydra, a monster whose many heads immediately grew again when they were cut off. Each head had a mouth which discharged a subtle and deadly venom. This monster was killed by Hercules with the help of his friend, Iolaus, who, with a hot iron, seared each neck as its head was cut.

The third labor was to catch the stag of Diana, famous for its fleetness, its golden horns, and brazen feet. The fourth was to bring alive to his cousin a wild boar, which ravaged the neighborhood of Erymanthus. The fifth was to cleanse the stables of Augeas, king of Elis, where three thousand cattle had been confined for many years. This was accomplished by turning the rivers Alpheus and Peneus into the stables. Since, however, Hercules had gone to the king and offered to perform the task for one-tenth of the cattle, keeping secret the fact that the labor had been imposed upon him by his cousin, the latter refused to count it among his labors.

The sixth labor was to destroy the carnivorous birds with brazen wings, beaks, and claws, which ravaged a district in Arcadia; the seventh was to bring alive to Peloponnesus a bull famous for its beauty and strength, which Neptune, at the prayer of Minos, king of Crete, had given to him in order that he might sacrifice it; but Minos refusing to do this, Neptune made the bull mad, and it ravaged the island. Hercules brought the bull on his shoulders to the king, his cousin, who set it free. This was the monster which was afterward known as the Minotaur.

The eighth labor was to obtain the mares of Diomedes, king of the Bistones, in Thrace, which fed upon human flesh. The ninth was to bring the girdle of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. The Amazons were a nation of warlike women, very famous in Greek legend. They killed or sent to other lands almost all their male children, and the women had everything their own way. They were the laborers, the hunters, the soldiers of their country; and a very fierce and strong race they proved themselves. Their queen received Hercules kindly and promised him the girdle; but Juno roused the Amazons against him, and a desperate struggle followed, in which Hercules took the girdle, slew Hippolyta, and made sail homeward.

The tenth labor was to kill the monster Geryon and bring his herds to Argos. The eleventh labor was to obtain the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides. These were sisters who, assisted by a dragon, guarded the golden apples which Juno had received on her marriage with Jupiter from the old Mother goddess. Hercules slew the dragon and stole the apples, which were afterward restored to Juno. Another account, however, says that Hercules was aided by Atlas in this adventure. Atlas, whom Perseus had turned to stone, must have resumed his human shape. For he offered to get the apples if Hercules would hold up the sky while he was gone. The hero agreed and actually supported the vast burden for a moment; but, fearing Atlas might leave him there forever, he bade the giant resume the load for a moment while Hercules adjusted a shoulder pad for himself. When Atlas thus took back his task, Hercules sped away. Because of this legend, the name of Atlas was introduced into geography. A geographer in the sixteenth century gave the name atlas to a collection of maps, probably because the figure of Atlas supporting the heavens had been shown on the title-pages of many such works.

The twelfth labor was the most dangerous of all, being that of bringing the three-headed dog Cerberus from the infernal regions, where he kept guard over the entrance. Pluto, ruler of that dismal place, told Hercules that he might have Cerberus, provided he used no weapons to master him, but employed simply his own strength. Hercules made the monster captive and brought him to Argos, to his cousin, who was so terrified by the sight that he ordered the monster removed, whereupon Cerberus sank out of sight into the earth.

Hercules had now freed himself from his servitude, but he added many exploits to his "Twelve Labors," such as his battles with the Centaurs, and with the giants; his aid of the expedition of the Argonauts, his liberation of Prometheus, and his victorious wrestling-match with Death. After many amazing adventures, Hercules, overtaken by misfortune, placed himself upon a funeral pile on Mount CEta and commanded that it should be set on fire. Suddenly the burning pile was surrounded by a dark cloud, in which, amid thunder and lightning, Hercules was carried up to heaven, where he became reconciled to Juno and married Hebe, the cup-bearer of the gods.

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