Study Guide

Heracles (Hercules): The Twelve Labors Characters

  • Heracles (Hercules)

    Think of the biggest, hunkiest dude that you've ever laid eyes on. Now multiply that by the biggest number you can imagine. There you go: Heracles. He wasn't just a hero to the ancient Greeks, he was a god... literally. In this section of his story, we hear all about his most famous adventures: the Twelve Labors.

    Heracles Goes to Crazytown

    We know how angry Hera can get when she hears about her husband Zeus' affairs. Unfortunately for Heracles, he is Zeus' illegitimate son. Rarely does Hera act as violently as she does with Heracles. Hera. Hates. Heracles.

    When Hera drives Hercules insane because she hates him so much, she causes him to murder his own children in cold blood. Now, here's a little debate you might have with yourself about the circumstances of this tragedy:

    Perspective 1: Poor dude.

    Perspective 2: Poor dude? He murdered his own kids. What's poor about him? He deserves to suffer in Tartarus forevermore.

    Perspective 1: Yeah, but he didn't kill his kids on purpose. Hera drove him insane. It's her fault. Even knowing this, Heracles wants to be punished.

    Perspective 2: You don't think Heracles had some degree of control over his actions? It seems like a very convenient excuse: "Um, the gods made me do it." In fact, I should remember that excuse in the future. "Sorry, teacher, I couldn't finish my homework. The gods made me watch TV all evening."

    Perspective 1: Well, why else would Heracles have killed his own children? What other evidence do we have?

    Perspective 2: There could be a million pieces of evidence that have disappeared over time that prove that Heracles killed his kids without any help from Hera. It was widely known that they were archenemies, so who knows what kind of stories people have invented about her over time.

    Perspective 1: Yeah, but that's the whole point of mythology. These stories are handed down to us, generation by generation. The only "facts" we have are the stories that survive.

    Perspective 2: I still think Heracles is to blame. There's no excuse for murder. Do you really think Hera, the goddess of women and marriage, would want innocent little mortals to die? Besides, if he really was so innocent, why did he want to punish himself so badly?

    Perspective 1: Let's agree to disagree, shall we?

    Perspective 2: Fine.

    Heracles Atones

    We think it's fascinating that Heracles feels so guilty about murdering his kids. Imagine the most powerful mortal in the entire world – he's like Michael Jordan and Brad Pitt all rolled into one. Everyone knows who he is and worships him. His dad is not merely a god but the king of the gods. Heracles probably can get away with murder.

    But this superhero doesn't want to "get away" with anything. He wants to be punished for his actions, even though he was probably tricked by Hera into murdering his kids. He wants to be treated like a normal human being and not like a god. We think this demonstrates some interesting things about Heracles:

    • He liked his kids
    • He didn't want to be treated like a god all the time.
    • He had a sense of morality, of right and wrong.

    Of course, you may disagree with us. Why do you think Heracles wants to be punished so intensely for his crimes, even when he suspects that Hera might have tricked him?

    Brawn AND Brains (and a Dash of Charm)

    Yes, you are right. It is thanks to Heracles' big muscles and athletic ability that he's able to complete the Twelve Labors so well. However, we think it's also important to note the fact that Heracles has a pretty juicy brain too. He's able to outsmart the likes of Atlas and King Diomedes, and he enlists Mother Nature to clean out the Augean Stables.

    Let's also not forget Heracles' charm. How else could he have convinced the queen of the Amazons to happily hand over her sacred girdle? How else could he have persuaded Atlas to do all of his dirty work and to steal the Golden Apples of the Hesperides? Charm, friends. Heracles has mad charm.

    Help from the Gods

    We also think it's worth noting how much help Heracles gets from the gods. The sun god Helios lends Heracles a magical golden cup to help him sail across the ocean to the edge of the world. Hades allows Heracles to wrestle his guard dog Cerberus into submission, as long as he promises not to wound the pooch too badly. Why would the Olympians want to help a murderer? Well, they probably know that Hera had a hand in causing Heracles to kill his own children. And they probably respect Heracles too.

    Dying to get more details on ancient Greece's most famous mortal? Click here.

  • Hera (Juno)

    The queen of the gods absolutely despises Heracles, because he is yet another reminder of her husband Zeus' cheating, philandering ways. Though she gave most of Zeus' illegitimate kids a hard time, she seems to have a special kind of hatred for Heracles. Maybe she hates him because he's the shining star of all of Zeus' illegitimate children. Perhaps she's jealous of all of the attention he gets?

    Hera is the goddess of marriage, women, and birth. We wonder how it must have felt for her to watch Heracles kill his own children. Did she intend for him to commit this horrible crime? Or do you think she merely intended him to go a little bit crazy? One thing's for sure: she's a very interesting goddess. There's a lot going on in that noggin of hers.

    Want to know more about the vengeful queen of the gods? Click here.

  • Eurystheus

    Eurystheus is the wimpy king of Argos, who is in charge of assigning all twelve of Heracles' labors. Heracles was actually supposed to be the king of Argos instead of Eurystheus, but Hera interfered and caused Heracles to be born a few hours too late. (More on this story here.) Both Eurystheus and Heracles are great-grandsons of the hero Perseus. Only Heracles really lives up to the name of their great grandfather, though; Eurystheus has a tendency to do wussy things like hide in a big jar whenever Heracles shows up with a scary monster. Oh, Eurystheus.

  • Megara

    The future must've looked rosy for Megara when she first married Heracles. Her hubby was already a famous hero and was sure to take over the throne of Thebes from her father, Creon. When Hera makes Heracles go crazy and kill their kids, though, Megara's pretty little life totally falls apart. Her husband goes off to perform his Twelve Labors and when he returns, triumphant, Heracles marries her off to his nephew/lover Iolaus. Wow, Greek mythology is kind of messed up sometimes. Can you really just give a spouse away like that?

  • Iolaus

    Iolaus was Heracles' nephew, constant companion, and eromenos or boy-lover. (This sort of relationship between an older male and a teenage boy was common in ancient Greek culture.) Iolaus is most famous for helping Heracles defeat the Hydra, by cauterizing the neck-stubs of the beast as Heracles chopped off each of its many heads. In the ancient city of Thebes, there was a shrine Iolaus right beside the one for Heracles, and there was a festival named in his honor. He's even a major character in the Hercules: The Legendary Journeys TV series.

  • The Nemean Lion

    Heracles kills this creature as his first labor. The beast is said to be gigantic, and it has a hide so thick that no spears or swords can penetrate it. This is no big deal for Heracles, who just squeezes the thing to death. After he kills it, Heracles wears its hide as a cape. This lion skin cape is Heracles' signature look for the rest of his days. It's said that the constellation Leo (which means lion) is named after the Nemean Lion.

  • The Lernean Hydra

    The Hydra is a huge venomous snake with anywhere from nine to a hundred heads, depending on which version of the myth you're reading. With the help of Iolaus, Heracles kills this awful beast as his second labor. It is pretty tough because every time you chop off one head, two more sprout in its place. However, Iolaus cauterizes the stubs after Heracles chops the head, and eventually the monster is destroyed. Heracles dips his arrows in the venom of the dead snake to use as deadly weapons.

  • The Erymanthian Boar

    A giant tusked boar that Heracles has to capture alive as his third labor. When he brings the Boar back to Eurystheus, the king is so afraid he hides in a jar.

  • The Cerynitian Hind

    A super fast deer with golden antlers that Heracles captures as his fourth labor.

  • Augeus and His Cattle

    A lazy king with a herd of immortal cattle that he never once bothered to clean up after. For Heracles' fifth labor, he has to clean the mountain of horse poop from dirty old Augeas' stable.

  • The Stymphalian Birds

    Yikes! Man-eating birds that plagued the Stymphalian lake. Heracles gets rid of these birds as his sixth labor. Some say he does this by creating a bronze rattle, which he shakes to scare them off. Others say that he uses his Hydra-poisoned arrow to shoot them all.

  • The Cretan Bull

    This bull is said to be the father of the Minotaur, which the hero Theseus defeats. As his seventh labor, Heracles captures this giant bull on the island of Crete and rides on its back across the sea to Greece.

  • Diomedes and His Horses

    Diomedes is a king who was in the habit of feeding humans to his horses. For his eighth labor, Heracles turns the tables on Diomedes and feeds him to his own man-hungry mares.

  • Hippolyte (Hippolyta)

    Hippolyte was the Queen of the Amazons, a race of warrior women. As his ninth labor, Heracles has to fetch her belt. According to some, Hippolyte is totally cool about it, but then Hera disguises herself as an Amazon and rallies them against Heracles. Heracles gets away with the belt, but kills Hippolyte, thinking she has betrayed him.

  • Geryon and His Cattle

    Geryon is a giant with three upper bodies and three sets of legs all connected at the hip. He has a heard of cattle colored red by the sunset, which Heracles captures as his tenth labor.

  • The Hesperides

    The Hesperides are nymphs that are considered the goddesses of the sunset. It is their job to guard the golden apples that Gaia gave to Hera as a wedding present. It's sometimes said that the sunset itself is a celebration of Hera's marriage to Zeus. For his eleventh labor, Heracles has to steal the golden apples from the sunset goddesses. According to some he does this with the help of their father, Atlas, but according to others Heracles slays the hundred-headed dragon Ladon in order to take the golden apples.

  • Atlas

    Atlas is a Titan, the race of gods that ruled the universe before Zeus and his Olympians. After the War of the Titans, in which Zeus lead a rebellion against the older gods, Zeus doomed Atlas to forever hold up the heavens on his back. According to some, Heracles temporarily takes on Atlas' job in exchange for Atlas helping him gain the golden apples of the Hesperides.

  • Cerberus

    Cerberus is the three-headed hound that guarded the gates of the underworld. He has three heads, a main of snakes, and lion's claws. (Yeah, so you probably won't find a pooch like him in your local pet store.) For his twelfth labor, Heracles has to wrestle the hellhound and bring him back to show Eurystheus.