Heracles (glory of Hera) In Greek and Roman mythology, hero noted for his immense strength. The Roman spelling of his name, Hercules, is frequently encountered in English literature. He was the son of Zeus and Alcmena. Alcmena had been seduced by Zeus when he assumed the form of her husband, Amphitryon. Heracles was loved by his father, Zeus, but Hera, Zeus’s ever-jealous wife, constantly sought Heracles’ destruction. She sent two serpents to kill Heracles, but the child strangled them with his bare hands. When he was a youth, Heracles killed the Thespian lion that had been ravaging Amphitryon’s flocks. He then wore its skin as a cloak, with the lion’s head forming a hood. At one point Hera caused Heracles to go mad, leading him to kill his wife, Megara, and their children. As penance he had to submit to 12 labors under Eurystheus. The first labor was to slay the Nemean lion. He drove it into a cave, strangled it, and then skinned it. The second labor was to slay the Lernaenan Hydra, a many-headed monster that grew a new head to replace each one decapitated. Heracles cut off each head while his charioteer, Iolaus, seared the stump with pitch so that another head could not grow. The third labor was to capture the Erymanthian boar alive. Heracles captured it and returned with it to Eurystheus, who jumped into a jar out of fright at the sight of it. The fourth labor was to capture alive the golden-horned Cerynean hind. He pursued it for a year and finally captured it at a stream as it was drinking. The fifth labor was to drive off the bronze-beaked, arrow-feathered birds infesting the Stymphalian marsh. Athena gave Heracles a bronze rattle that when shaken startled the birds. They rose in flight, and Heracles killed many with arrows. The rest fled to the Black Sea. The sixth labor was to clean, in one day, the dung of 3,000 cattle from the stables of King Augeas of Elis. The hero diverted the rivers Peneus and Alpheus from their regular courses and sent them to clean the stables. When Augeas refused to pay Heracles one-tenth of the herd, Heracles killed him. The seventh labor was to capture the mad Cretan bull. Heracles brought it back to Eurystheus, who let it loose to ravage the land. It was later killed by Theseus. The eighth labor was to kill the man-eating mares of King Diomedes of Thrace. Heracles caught the king and fed him to the mares. The ninth labor was to capture the girdle of the Amazons. Heracles went to Queen Hippolyta, who possessed the girdle and was willing to give it to him. Hera, still jealous, convinced the Amazons that their queen was going to be killed. They attacked Heracles; he defeated them and killed Hippolyta. He took the girdle along with Antiope, sister of Hippolyta, as captive. The girdle was given to Admente, and Antiope was married to Theseus. The tenth labor was to fetch the red cattle of Geryon. The monster Geryon, who had three bodies, lived at Gades. His cattle were guarded by the two-headed dog Orthus and a shepherd, both of whom were slain by Heracles. The eleventh labor was to gather the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. The Golden Apples were guarded by a dragon, which Heracles slew, but the apples were later returned by Athena to the garden because they were sacred and could not survive except in the garden. The twelfth labor was to fetch the dog Cerberus from the underworld. Purifying himself at the mysteries of Eleusis, Heracles, guided by Hermes and Athena, descended to Hades and captured the monster, which was later returned to the underworld. Other adventures in Heracles’ life were his joining of the Argonaut expedition for a short time under Jason, his madness when he killed his male lover Iphitus, and his return to the Oracle at Delphi to seek a cure. When the priestess refused an answer, Heracles seized the sacred tripod, saying he would set up another oracle. Apollo rushed in, and Heracles fought the god, only to be stopped by a thunderbolt hurled by Zeus. The priestess then gave Heracles the oracle he wished. Heracles assisted the gods in their battle against the giants. He married Deianira, Meleager’s sister, who bore him five children. Believing it would restore his love for her, she sent her husband a poisoned robe that burned his flesh. While the flames arose, a cloud descended, and Heracles was welcomed in heaven. Hera was then reconciled to the hero, who later married Hebe, goddess of youth and spring. Heracles was popular in Greek cult, where he was a demigod, and among the Romans as a hero who fought against evil. Heracles appears in Sophocles’ Trachinian Women and Philoctetes, Euripides’ Alcestis and The Madness of Heracles, and Seneca’s Hercules Furens. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Heracles’ myth inspired Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale and part of the incomplete Canterbury Tales, which gives a sumMary of his life and deeds. In art perhaps the most famous image of the hero is the Farnese Heracles, discovered in 1540 in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. It portrays the hero leaning on a club after his 12 labors, and it is ascribed to the Athenian sculptor Glycon (first century b.c.e.). The myth of the Choice of Heracles, first written down by Xenophon in his Memoirs of Socrates, tells how the hero was approached by two beautiful women before his 12 labors. One woman offered Heracles pleasure and a life of ease, and the other offered him a life of duty and labor for humankind. Obviously, the hero chose duty, as portrayed in two cantatas called The Choice of Heracles, one by Bach and one by Handel.


Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow – Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante


Heracles’ origins are mysterious. His name means “Hera’s Glory” but until his deification, she is his mortal enemy. Alternative myth suggests she may really have been his mother, but classical Greek mythology identifies him as the son of Zeus and Alkmene, a mortal princess. Hera does all she can to prevent the birth; later sending snakes to assassinate the baby. Heracles, already incomparably strong, even in the cradle, strangles the snakes instead. Hera periodically strikes Heracles with violent madness so that he harms innocent people and those he loves. (Or at least Hera is blamed.) Heracles’ saga is a cycle of heroic acts and acts of expiation for the most terrible crimes.

Heracles is a hero, the strongest man on Earth, capable of holding the entire Earth on his shoulders, the subject of numerous legends and entertainments. That’s one way of looking at him. He is also a ruthless killer and assassin; champion of the Olympian order; a contract killer whose assorted labours involve eliminating sacred beings of earlier or alternative pantheons. Scholars have interpreted his labours as indicating the victory of terrestrial spirits over an older, more aquatic pantheon.

Heracles is an ancestral spirit. Many royal lineages traced their descent from him. (He once lay with a king’s fifty daughters, all in one night, impregnating each one.) Although Heracles was mortal, after his death, Zeus deified him and brought him to Olympus, where he reconciled with Hera and married her daughter, Hebe.

Heracles was venerated differently in different places and by different spiritual traditions:

• In Greece, he was venerated alongside Zeus and the Nymphs, invoked for prosperity, victory, healing, and good health. Heracles was associated with healing springs and thermal spas. During life, he was a fan of hot springs and thermal baths. As a spirit, he presides over them. The Greek term Herculean baths indicated naturally hot or artificially heated waters.

• Heracles evolved into Hercules, men’s deity in Rome venerated by merchants, traders, travellers, soldiers, and military personnel. He provides protection, success, and good fortune; offering blessings of vigour, good health, stamina, physical strength, and endurance. Hercules was the male counterpart of the Bona Dea, who refused to accept males into her presence. Hercules similarly rejected female devotees.

• The Romans carried his veneration or at least his name throughout Europe. In Celtic regions, Hercules evolved into a spirit of healing. Some theorize that Celtic Hercules is really a Roman name for Celtic deities like the Dagda, Ogmios, and Borvo. Little bronze statues identifiable as Hercules were offered at Borvo’s shrine at Aix-les-Bains. It’s theorized that heroic Hercules was considered a fighter against disease or disease Demons.

• In Phoenician-ruled areas, Hercules is likely to be Melkart, whom the Greeks called Tyrian Heracles.


Herakles; Hercules (Roman)




A huge, muscled bearded man draped in a lion’s pelt (and usually nothing else)


Club, lyre. (Chiron taught him how to play; he clunked another music tutor over the head with it, killing him.)


Hebe, Hera’s daughter, whom he marries after his death and deification; while alive, he had several wives and countless lovers, male and female.

Sacred dates:

• 30 June, dedication day of the Roman temple of Hercules and the Muses in 179 BCE

• 12 August, men offer sacrifices to Hercules Invictus (“Invincible Hercules”) at the great altar near the Circus Maximus. (Women are excluded.)


He had shrines along the entire Mediterranean coast. Among the most significant were those in Cadiz (now Spain) and the ancient Phoenician city of Lixus (now Larache,
Morocco), allegedly the site of the Garden of the Hesperides. He also had a mountain shrine atop Mount Oite in Greece, scene of his death and funeral pyre.

The Via Herculea, or Herculean Way, is the ancient road that ran from Rome to Cadizhr, now in southwestern Spain.


Heracles likes to drink. (He once lost a drinking contest with Dionysus. As payment, he spent time dancing in Dionysus’ processions.) He prefers wine but will not rebuff anything stronger. He likes extreme drinks such as over-proof liquors, if only because of his excessive machismo, but be careful not to serve him too much. Even as a spirit, he’s not a good drunk: too much liquor and he becomes unreliable.

According to Roman tradition, Hercules accepts any food or drink offerings but only from men. True devotees usually tithe or offer him a percentage. Merchants offer percentages of proceeds earned. Soldiers of all ranks offered a percentage of booty won. Money may be spent on public feasts in Hercules’ honour. Animal sacrifices to Hercules had to be shared and eaten in their entirety. Lavish dinners were typically held in his honour with food shared by all attendees.

The High Priest of his Roman temple used to gamble with Hercules. If the priest won, Hercules granted him favours. If Hercules won, the priest procured courtesans for the deity.

Heracles is not quite so exclusively associated with men in the other regions where he was worshipped, although they were his primary devotees.


  • Acca Larentia
  • Ares
  • Bona Dea
  • Chiron
  • Dagda, the
  • Dionysus
  • Hera
  • Hesperides
  • Hydra
  • Ladon
  • Melkart
  • Nymph
  • Ogma
  • Zeus


Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses– Written by :Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.