The Twelve Labours of Hercules (Herakles)

Lerna (Region of the Lernaean Hydra) from Space

Lake Stymphalus from Space

The Twelve Labours (ἆθλοι) of Herakles are a series of stories connected by a continuous narrative, concerning a penance carried out by Herakles.

The narrative

Zeus, having made Alcmene pregnant with Herakles, proclaimed that the next son born of the house of Perseus would become king. Hera, Zeus' consort, hearing this, caused Eurystheus to be born two months early as he was of the house of Perseus, while Herakles, also of the house, was three months overdue. When he found out what had been done, Zeus was furious; however, his rash proclamation still stood.

In a fit of madness, induced by Hera, Herakles slew his wife and children; the fit then passed. Realising what he had done, he isolated himself, going into the wilderness and living alone. He was found (by his brother Iphicles) and convinced to visit the Oracle at Delphi. The Oracle told him that as a penance he would have to perform a series of ten tasks set by King Eurystheus, the man who had taken Herakles' birthright and the man he hated the most.

In his labours, Herakles was often accompanied by his boyfriend (an eromenos), according to some, Licymnius, or by others Iolaus, his nephew. Although he was only supposed to perform ten labours, this assistance led to him suffering two more. Eurystheus didn't count the Hydra, because Iolaus helped him, or the Augean stables, as he received payment for his work (in other versions it is because the rivers did the work).

The traditional order of the labours is:

Slay the Nemean Lion and bring back its skin.
Slay the Lernaean Hydra.
Capture the Ceryneian Hind.
Capture the Erymanthian Boar.
Clean the Augean stables in one day.
Slay the Stymphalian Birds.
Capture the Cretan Bull.
Steal the Mares of Diomedes.
Obtain the Girdle of Hippolyte.
Obtain the Cows of Geryon.
Steal the Apples of the Hesperides.
Capture Cerberus.

Inner meaning

Behind its outer meaning, Greek religion often hid an inner mystical tradition, and thus the labours could be interpreted as a symbolization of the spiritual path. This is particularly evident in an analysis of the eleventh, in which Hercules travels to a garden in which grows an apple tree with magical fruit, the tree of life, guarded by a dragon and some sisters—a parallel to the biblical legend of the garden of Eden where a snake encourages the use of an (unnamed) fruit tree, granting the knowledge of good and evil. The last three labours (10-12) of Herakles are generally considered metaphors about death.

Origin of the stories

Geographic locations

Pointing to a possible location for their origin, or at least their formalisation, is the fact that most of the geographic locations, are all located in, or on the borders of Arcadia, or connected with it significantly.

the town of Nemia, close by, and west of, Argo (the capital of Arcadia).
lake Lerna to the south (which is now dry).
the mountain Erymanthos, currently also called Olonos.
the town Ceryneia, in the far North West of the Peloponnese, 55 from Argo
lake Stymphalia, close by, and west of, Nemia. In ancient times it was marshy.
the river Alphaeus feeds the bay at Argo, and drains the north western mountains.
the city of Sparta to the south west. It features as the entrance to the underworld, which may be a satirical comment on Spartan culture.
the island of Crete, a sea trading nation, is located in the same direction as the long thin bay that Argo sits at the head of.
the nation of Thrace, is described as being the enemy of Argo during the Trojan War, and in that situation is associated with Diomedes.

Connection to the Zodiac

The labours also have a strong connection to the constellations encountered by the transit of the sun through the year, many being connected to the zodiac. most of them having an association with one constellation, and as a whole, representing the passage of the sun (personified as Herakles) through the year and the zodiac. Starting at the zodiac contellation of cancer, in which the sun's solstice occurs, and passing through each zodiac sign in the order the sun passes through them,

When the sun is in the sign of Cancer, a crab, the constellation Hydra has its head near it. The story of the Lernaean Hydra states that these constellations are put into the sky to commemorate the event. The Hydra's indefatigability, and association with Lerna, may be connected to archetypal serpent-metaphors which represent battlelines of enemies (possibly recollecting a battle between invading Danae, Herakles' cultural group, and natives).

The great lion of the constellation Leo was said by the Greeks to have been the Nemean Lion, placed in the sky after Herakles' slaying of it. The sun appears to pass through its mouth.

When the sun is in the sign of Virgo, it sits directly above the constellation Centaurus, considered to be the centaur Chiron. An asterism (now a separate constellation) of Centaurus was Lupus, which was originally a generic animal rather than specifically a wolf, and easily could have been a boar, such as the Erymanthian Boar, an animal of the woodland hunts just like centaurs. Centaurus appears to have fired Sagitta at Aquila, Prometheus' tormentor.

Directly above Libra is the constellation Ursa Minor, which the Greeks considered to be seven sisters—the Hesperides (it only became a bear in the 6th century BC). Also above Libra is Ursa Major, which was thought by early Greeks to be an apple tree, its 3 bright stars (in what is now considered a tail) being the apples. Draco lies between them, menacingly facing south. Above the ecliptic is Boötes, which was considered to be Atlas in early myth (due to its size and position—nearly holding up the pole star). Libra was considered part of Scorpio, and Boötes was the zodiac sign, its place on the ecliptic being vacant and taken by the sun as it passes. Thus the tale of the apples of the Hesperides.

When the sun is in the sign of Scorpio, the constellation Hercules, which was earlier considered to be a stag, rises. Next to the constellation is the arrow Sagitta (although it ends up facing away). The tale of the Cerynian Hind describes the situation where an arrow faces someone looking at a stag.

When the sun is in the sign of Sagittarius, the constellations Lyra, Aquila, and Cygnus, rise. All of these are birds (Lyra was originally a vulture, although it gradually became a lyre, oddly including an intermediate vulture-lyre stage). At about this time of the year, the rain season in Greece starts, creating swampland from previously drier areas. An arrow (Sagitta) heads towards the birds, and Sagittarius (possibly earlier thought to resemble a rattle), Delphinus (the dolphin thought to have rescued a court musician), and Lyra itself (in the guise of the lyre), surround them. Suitably describing the story of the Stymphalian Birds

The constellation of Capricorn was earlier known as the Augean Stable, since the sun appears goes to rest (i.e. stable) there during winter. Such dark times lead to ideas about sin accumulating through the year (creating the darkness), and eventually being washed away by the new year. Aquarius follows Capricorn, flooding the sky with its waters.

When the sun is in the constellation of Aquarius, the 4 bright, fierce, stars of the Square of Pegasus rise. Pegasus itself appears to be grazing, eating Aquarius, a man, below it. Aquarius is the water pourer, pouring out a river. The central location of Herakles' tales, Argo, has a legend from the Trojan War, where a man called Diomedes steals the horses from the enemy King, but Herakles is the hero of the labours, and Diomedes now had the horses, the Mares of Diomedes.

The constellation of Pisces was not always associated with two fish, and resembles two people tied at a point in the underworld (i.e. under the ecliptic, one of whom escapes, one whom appears to be returning. The gates of the underworld itself may have been represented by an earlier understanding of Cetus as gates and gateposts rather than as a sea monster, behind which sits three stars, the gatekeeper, Cerberus. Alternately, earlier versions may have featured the escaping branch of Pisces as Cerberus on a leash, the non escaping branch either as Cerberus itself, or as Herakles' descent.

In the sign of Aries, the constellation Andromeda, a female with a pronounced three-stared belt (like Orion), and holding something like a sword or a straight chain, sets. Subsequent to Andromeda, the sun meets the Pleiades, whom Greeks considered seven sisters, a band of women. The tale of a woman's belt connected to facing a band of women matches the tale of Hippolyte's girdle.

The constellation of Taurus was generally identified in Greek mythology as being the bull which captured Europa (mythology) and fathered the Minotaur. The preceding area of sky, which the sun has crossed, was known as the sea due to the amount of sea-related constellations in it. The bull was on Minos (the early name for Crete), i.e. was a Cretan Bull.

In Gemini, is a large desert (now occupied by the constellation Camelopardalis), on the edge of which lies the constellation of Auriga which means chariot. The milky way (which some cultures once considered to be dairy cows, lies by Auriga, and is also bounded in this region of sky by Capella (known as the Shepherd's star), Canis Major (a dog, which if considered to face south, also has the dog star at its other end, i.e. two heads), and Orion (which in some depictions appears to have three arms and legs bound tightly at the belt). Auriga lies in the milky way itself, appearing to partly contain its stellar cattle. Gemini also lies in the milky way, and when leaning right, one of the twins lies within the stellar cattle, and the other observes. The area of Gemini describes the tale of the cows of Geryon well.

The order of the stories

As a representation of the sun's transit along the zodiac, the best place to start the journey would be at the summer solstice, which falls in Cancer. The order of the stories implied by the zodiac, starting at Cancer, is:

The Lernean Hydra
The Nemean Lion
The Erymanthian Boar
The Apples of the Hesperides
The Cerynian Hind
The Stymphalian Birds
The Stable of Augeas
The Mares of Diomedes
The Girdle of Hippolyte
The Cretan Bull
The Cows of Geryon

There are some locations that are necessary for the story to be possible—the Atlas mountains for Atlas, Thrace for Diomedes, Crete for the Minotaur's father, Libya for a desert. The others fill the blanks to create a continuous journey from south Arcadia towards the north west, then off across the sea to north west africa and back, return to Argo via from the north west of Arcadia, off to Thrace, then Sparta, Athens, Crete, and finally Libya.

Altering the story so that Herakles goes to Crete via the natural port of Argo, the town he centres on, the issue of there only being 10 tasks originally arises, due to his return to his home at this point. The arrangement of the story also means that, for most tasks, Herakles is obliged to carry the evidence of his prior ones with him. This burden implies that by the time he reaches home he is carrying an excessive amount of items, and thus Herakles was made to return after each task. By Herakles returning after each task, and implying that there were only meant to be 10, the connection to the Zodiac, and the continuity of the stories, is lost, and the stories are able to be moved around.

Since Herakles is said to wear the Nemean Lion's skin after his defeat, thus in most of the labours, depictions of him carrying out the labours mostly featured him in the skin, leading to a common idea of this as the starting point. Since the Nemean Lion then starts the sequence, and clearly has a connection to Leo, the other stories also with strong connections to the Zodiac (the Cretan bull with Taurus, and the Stable of Augeas, which is the early Greek name for Capricorn) needed to be moved back into their appropriate position relative to Leo.

As Greek religion became more esoteric towards the second centuries BC, emphasis on esoteric meaning in the stories became more important. Thus by moving the story concerning the Hesperides, taken to represent heaven, and Cerberus, to represent hell, to the end, produces the suggestion of teachings moving from the basic, to addressing more esoteric concerns, such as death, towards the end. In addition, the stories concerning war and treachery (the story of the Mares of Diomedes, and the nearby story of the Girdle of Hippolyte), made more sense together, and make more sense being placed next to the 3 stories concerning death, thus producing the traditional order.


Image Source Color Reconstruction from an Australian Museum

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