The Hero's Journey is a framework that scholar Joseph Campbell came up with that many myths and stories follow. Many storytellers and story-readers find it a useful way to look at tale. (That's actually putting it lightly. Some people are straight-up obsessed.) Chris Vogler adapted Campbell's 17 stages of a hero's journey, which many screenwriters use while making movies. Vogler condensed Campbell's 17 stages down to 12, which is what we're using. To read a general explanation of the 12 stages, click here.
The story of Heracles' Twelve Labors fits almost perfectly into this structure. Here's how we've diced up the story:
We begin in Heracles' hometown of Thebes. He's a total stud, a global hero, and the most popular mortal known to man.
For some reason, Heracles' hometown of Thebes has to pay homage every year to Erginus, the king of the Minyans. This really frosts Heracles' cookie. One day, he comes across some Minyans in the road, and he cuts off their ears, noses, and hands. Hearing of this, the King of the Minyans is enraged and declares war on Heracles and the people of Thebes. Heracles obliterates them. The King of Thebes is so happy that he lets Heracles marry his daughter, Megara. Everything is coming up roses for Heracles, the man of the hour.
Zeus' wife, Hera, hates Heracles with the passion of a thousand fires. She wants to ruin his life, because he is Zeus' illegitimate son (who he had with Alcmene). Hera decides to drive Heracles to insanity. This causes Heracles to behave in some seriously un-hero-like ways. He kills his own children. You could argue that he kind of refuses his role of "hero" by behaving in such a heinous way.
Heracles goes to the Oracle of Delphi. The Oracle tells him he can atone or make up for his horrible crimes by serving King Eurystheus of Argos.
Heracles offers to serve King Eurystheus of Argos in order to atone for the crimes he has committed. King Eurystheus tells him he must successfully complete ten labors. Heracles agrees.
Heracles tackles the ten labors perfectly. He does so with the help of certain gods and allies, and he encounters several enemies and foes along the way.
For his tenth and last labor, Heracles must go to Erytheia, literally the edge of the world. He must sail across the Atlantic Ocean to do this. The Greeks believed that there really was an edge of the world, and Heracles was totally not scared to travel there.
King Eurystheus tells Heracles that two of the labors weren't completed in a satisfactory way, because Heracles had help with them. So, King Eurystheus commands Heracles to complete two additional labors. Heracles says, "bring it." After successfully capturing the Golden Apples of Hesperides, Heracles' final task is the most difficult and terrifying one. He must venture to the underworld and bring Cerberus, the vicious three-headed guard dog, to the surface for King Eurystheus to see. Basically, Heracles has to go to the land of the dead and return alive. Oh, and he must bring a little souvenir back with him. He successfully does this, and this time, he really and truly proves himself a hero.
After completing these twelve labors, Heracles is finally able to atone for the murder of his children. His guilty conscience is wiped clean.
Heracles gives his wife to his friend/nephew Iolaus and goes on his merry way. Whaaa?
Some say that Heracles is made immortal after completing these twelve labors. Others say he is granted immortality a little later on.
Regardless of when he was made immortal, one thing is certain: Heracles eventually becomes a real god.