What Were the Labors of Hercules?

Mary McMahon

In Greek mythology, the labors of Hercules were 12 tasks assigned to this famous mythological character as a penance for killing his wife and family. In the process of completing these tasks, Hercules became a hero, and his accomplishments are celebrated in many Greek writings. The labors of Hercules are also sometimes referenced in modern culture; in some films and books, for example, a character must be redeemed for a terribly deed by completing a series of tasks which often numbers 12.

Atlas fetched the golden apples for Hercules while Hercules held up in the sky in his place.
Atlas fetched the golden apples for Hercules while Hercules held up in the sky in his place.

According to the story, Hercules was the child of Zeus and Alcmene, the daughter of the king of Mycenae. When Hera, Zeus' wife, found out about this particular dalliance, she took revenge on poor Alcmene by trapping Hercules inside of her, causing him to be born three months overdue. By ensuring that Hercules was born late, she set the stage for a relative, Eurystheus, to become king of Mycenae. Hera apparently wasn't satisfied with her revenge, because she also caused Hercules to go insane, and during his period of madness, he killed his family.

In Greek myth, Zeus and Alcmene had a son named Hercules.
In Greek myth, Zeus and Alcmene had a son named Hercules.

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When Hercules came to and realized what he had done, he prayed to the god Apollo for guidance. Apollo decreed that Hercules could absolve himself by serving his rival Eurystheus for a period of 12 years, and it was Eurystheus who set the various labors of Hercules. By proving himself as a warrior, Hercules made himself into a popular hero, and as a result he was welcomed among the gods after his death on Earth.

In order, the labors of Hercules were as follows: slay the Nemean lion, kill the Lernean Hydra, capture the Ceryneian hind, apprehend the Erymanthian boar, cleanse the Augean stables, defeat the Stymphalian birds, capture the Cretan bull, steal the man-eating mares of Diomedes, obtain the girdle of Hippolyta, steal the cattle of Geryon, capture the golden apples of Hesperides, and capture Cerberus, the three headed dog which guarded the underworld. As if this wasn't enough, Hercules went on to defeat an assortment of tyrants and mythical monsters after the successful completion of these tasks.

The labors of Hercules brought the hero all over the Ancient World, and introduced fans of mythology to a wide range of people, gods, monsters, and other characters. Ultimately, it would seem that this test of character made Hercules into a strong, compassionate man, who ultimately went on to become an ideal of Ancient Greek virtues and values.

In his 11th labor, Hercules is sent to steal golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides.
In his 11th labor, Hercules is sent to steal golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides.

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Discussion Comments


I really never knew too much about Hercules, besides that he was a Greek god in Greek mythology, until I read this article.

I think it is kind of cool that Hercules' battles were kind of repetitious and really didn't always require much outer strength.

It was more about his bravery, and inner strength that was portrayed to be the reason for his victories, which I think is more heroic than just brute strength alone. Also, the repetition shows that Hercules wasn't doing these labors just to show off and be liked.


@drtroubles - The Stymphalian birds from the Sixth Labor are probably the most underrated monster in all of Greek mythology and my favorite. They ate human flesh and could pierce their victims by firing razor-sharp feathers. At first it seemed anticlimactic to me that Hercules defeats them by scaring them away with noisemakers and shooting them down with arrows, but maybe it shows that there are more ways to victory than just using pure muscle.

The story of the Labors of Hercules was so popular that it figures into the legend of another Greek hero and so we have the Six Labors of Theseus - I have to say Theseus' labors aren't quite as exciting because he repetitively fights humans instead of monsters, though.


I mostly know Hercules from old movies but I really don't recall the Labors being a major part of them. Cleaning stables does not exactly lend itself to very compelling cinema, after all. Also, almost half the list is comprised of catching ferocious animals, which is kind of repetitive to read about.

Bits and pieces have become famous in their own right, though.

The most exciting labor is probably fighting the hydra, that awesome multi-headed monster that grew two new heads for every one that Hercules cut off. The final labor, capturing the legendary dog Cerberus - alive - is a pretty epic climax to the story as well. What is everyone's favorite monster from Greek mythology?


I'm a big fan of Agatha Christie and other "cozy" mysteries. My favorite detective of hers is Hercule Poirot, who is as non-Herculean as it's possible to me. (He is small and round, with an egg-shaped head, and he deeply distrusts the out-of-doors.)

She did a short story collection called "The Labours of Hercules" in which Poirot decides to select cases that call to mind the labors. The "Nemean lion" is a Pekinese dog; the hydra is gossip (cut off one head and three more spring up in its place); the stables are a big scandal; etc. They're a lot of fun!

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