HERACLES was the son of Zeus and Alcmene, the granddaughter of Perseus. His stepfather, Amphitryon, was also a grandson of Perseus. He was king of Tiryns, but had left that city to take up his dwelling in Thebes. Hera, the wife of Zeus, hated her rival Alcmene and begrudged her the son for whom Zeus himself had predicted a glorious future. And so when Alcmene had borne Heracles, she did not think that he would be safe in the palace, and fearing the jealousy of the mother of the gods, exposed him in a field, which even in later times was still called the Field of Heracles. Here the child would surely have perished, had not curious chance brought Athene and Hera, his enemy, along the very path where he lay. Athene looked at the beautifully formed child with wonder, had pity on him, and induced her companion to nurse him at her divine breast. There he sucked far more lustily than his tender age warranted, and he hurt Hera, who put the boy ungently back on the ground. But Athene lifted him up, carried him to the nearby city, brought him to Queen Alcmene as a poor foundling, and asked her to rear him. Thus while his real mother, for fear of Hera, had suppressed her love and had been willing to let the child perish, his stepmother, filled with hatred for him, had unwittingly saved her rival’s child from death. And she had done even more for him! Heracles had sucked at her breast only an instant, but those few drops of the goddess’ milk had made him immortal.

Alcmene had recognized the child at first glance, and joyfully she laid him in the cradle. But Hera too became aware who the child was that had lain at her breast and how carelessly she had let the moment for revenge slip by. Immediately she sent two horrible serpents, which crawled through the open doors of Alcmene’s bedchamber and, before the sleeping mother and her handmaids knew what was happening, writhed into the cradle and wound their coils around the boy’s throat. He woke screaming and lifted his head. The unaccustomed necklace was irksome to him. It was then he first proved his superhuman powers. With each hand he seized a serpent by the neck and strangled them both with a single clenching of his fists. His nurses had only just seen the serpents, but they were too frightened to go to the child’s aid. Alcmene had wakened at his scream. She leaped from her bed and ran toward him, calling for help, but found the serpents already dead in the boy’s hands. Startled by her cries, the lords of Thebes armed themselves and hastened to the bedchamber, and King Amphitryon, who loved his stepson and regarded him as a gift from Zeus, came brandishing his naked sword. When he saw and heard what had happened, he shuddered with terror and delight at the miraculous strength of his newborn son. This deed seemed to him a portent, and so he summoned Tiresias, whom Zeus had lent the gift of prophecy. The seer forecast the boy’s future to the king and queen and all those present: how he would slay many monsters on earth and in the sea; how he would strive with giants and defeat them; and how, when his toils in the world were over, he would share in the everlasting life of the gods and be given Hebe, the goddess of eternal youth, in marriage.


When Amphitryon heard of the noble destiny in store for the boy, he resolved to give him an education worthy of a hero and called upon great men from many lands to teach young Heracles all he should know. Amphitryon himself instructed him in the art of driving the chariot; Eurytus showed him how to bend the bow and aim his arrows. Harpalycus trained him in wrestling and boxing; Castor, one of the twin sons of Zeus, in fighting, fully armed, in field formation. And Linus, the aged son of Apollo, taught him to sing and pluck the strings of the lyre with sureness and grace. Heracles was an apt pupil, but he could not endure harshness, and old Linus was a fault-finding teacher. Once, when he struck the boy—unjustly it seemed to him—Heracles snatched up his instrument, flung it at his teacher’s head, and killed him on the instant, an act which filled him with remorse. He was summoned to court for murder. But the just and famous judge Rhadamanthys acquitted him and made a new law to the effect that if death occurred as a result of self-defense, blood-vengeance should not be sought.

But now Amphitryon feared that this over-strong son of his might become guilty of other similar offenses, and so he sent him to the country to tend his cattle. Here Heracles grew up, surpassing all men in strength and size. This offspring of Zeus was marvellous to behold. He was four ells tall, and fire flashed from his eyes. He never missed the mark, whether he shot with arrows or threw the javelin. At eighteen he was the handsomest and strongest man in Greece, and now the time had come when it was to be seen whether he would use his gifts for good or for evil.


Heracles left the shepherds and their beasts and went to a solitary region to consider what his course in life should be. Once, as he sat pondering, he saw two women of tall stature coming toward him. One was beautiful and noble, with modest mien, and her robe fell about her in folds of stainless white. The other was full-bosomed and seductive, and the whiteness of her skin was stressed by powder and tinctures. She carried herself so arrogantly that she seemed taller than she was, and her gown revealed as much of her charms as possible. Now she complacently regarded her own person with bright, vacant eyes, then again she looked around to see if others were watching her, and often she gazed admiringly at her own shadow. As they approached, the first did not quicken her step, but the other crowded past her and ran toward the youth, whom she at once addressed.

“Heracles, I see that you are undecided what course to take in life. If you choose me for your friend, I shall guide you along a path most smooth and easy. There is no pleasure you will not taste, no discomfort you shall not avoid! You will not be concerned with war or other hardship. You shall think of nothing but the enjoyment of exquisite foods and wines, of indulging your eyes, your ears, and your whole body with pleasant sensations, of sleeping on a soft couch—and all these joys will be yours without labor or effort. Should you ever run short of the means for leading this manner of life, do not fear I might urge you to bodily or mental toil. Quite the contrary! You will reap the fruits of another’s labors and refuse nothing that could bring you profit. For I accord my friends the right to use everyone and everything to their own advantage.”

When Heracles heard these seductive promises, he asked in astonishment: “What is your name?” Whereupon she replied: “My friends call me Happiness, but my foes, to humiliate me, have given me the name of Idle Pleasure.”

In the meantime the other woman had approached. “I too have come to you,” she said. “I know your parents, your gifts, and your upbringing. All this leads me to hope that, if you choose the path I show you, you will become a master in all that is good and great. But I have no slothful joys to bribe you with. I shall tell you the will of the gods for those on earth. Know then that the immortals grant nothing to men without effort and toil. If you would have the gods look upon you kindly, you must honor them. If you would have your friends love you, you must aid them. If you would be held in esteem by a city, you must render it services. Would you have all Greece admire you for your virtue, you must become the benefactor of all Greece. If you would harvest, you must sow, if you would wage war and win, you must learn the art of warfare. If you would have control of your body, you must work and sweat to harden it.”

Here Pleasure interrupted her. “Now you see, dear Heracles,” she said, “what a long and hard way to satisfaction this woman proposes, while I will guide you to happiness by the shortest and easiest of paths.”

“Miserable creature!” said Virtue to her. “You have nothing that is really good. How could you? You do not know true pleasures, for you are sated before you even approach them. You eat before you are hungry and drink before you thirst. To prick your desire for food, you seek out resourceful cooks; to sharpen your urge to drink, you purchase costly wines. In summer your whim is for snow. No bed is soft enough for you. You let your friends spend the night in carousing and the day in sleep. That is why in youth they go adorned on nimble carefree feet, but drag themselves through a sordid and painful old age, ashamed of what they have done and faltering under the load of what they have still to do. And you yourself, though you are immortal, are an outcast among gods and an object of derision among good men. You have never heard what sounds sweetest to the ear: true praise! You have never seen what gladdens the eyes more than all else: good works of your own! I, however, am welcome among the gods and all virtuous men. Artists hail me as their helper, fathers as a faithful watch, servingmen as kindly aid. I am an honest sharer in the pursuits of peace, a faithful ally in war, and a loyal companion in friendship. Food and drink and sleep have more savor for my friends than for idlers. The young are glad when the old commend them, the old when they are honored by the young. To recall what they have done is sweet, and they rejoice in what they are doing. Because of me, the gods cherish them, their friends love them, and their country respects them. And when the end has come, they do not fade into oblivion; their glory lives after them in the world, in the memory of times to come. Resolve, O Heracles, to choose this life, and yours will be a blessed lot.”


The apparitions vanished, and Heracles was alone. He determined to walk in the path of Virtue, and soon found an opportunity to do a good deed. At that time Greece was still covered with forests and swamps inhabited by savage lions, raging boars, and other dangerous beasts. To clear the country of these monsters and to free it from the robbers who lay in wait for the traveller in lonely places was one of the great goals of the heroes of old. Heracles was destined to continue this work.

When he returned to his people, he learned that a fierce lion had his lair on Mount Cithaeron, at whose foot the herds of King Amphitryon were pastured. The young hero—Virtue’s words still ringing in his ears—made a quick decision. He armed himself, scaled the wild wooded mountain, overcame the lion, flung the skin over his shoulder, and set the gaping jaws on his head as a helmet.

As he was returning from this quest, he met the herald of Erginus, king of the Minyans, who had come for the shameful and unjust yearly tribute exacted from the Thebans. Heracles, who now regarded himself as the champion of all the oppressed, made short work of the messengers, who were already guilty of many abuses, and sent them back to their king mutilated and with ropes around their necks. Erginus demanded that the culprit be delivered up to him, and Creon, king of Thebes, was inclined to obey for fear of his great power. But Heracles persuaded a number of brave youths to go against the enemy with him. In no dwelling, however, were arms to be found, for the Minyans had removed all weapons, lest the Thebans revolt. Then Athene summoned Heracles to her temple and fitted him out with armor of her own, while the youths took from the temples the weapons their fathers had won in conquest and dedicated to the gods. Thus equipped, the hero and his little group of men marched toward the Minyans until they reached a narrow pass, where the vast army of the foe was of no avail. Erginus himself fell in the fight, and his entire host was beaten and dispersed. But in the fray, valiant Amphitryon, the stepfather of Heracles, died of a fatal wound. After the battle was over, Heracles swiftly advanced toward Orchomenus, the capital of the Minyans, forced his way through the gates, burned the king’s palace, and destroyed the city.

All Greece admired his extraordinary courage, and Creon, king of Thebes, rewarded him by giving him his daughter Megara to wife, who later bore him three sons. His mother Alcmene married again, taking for her second husband the judge Rhadamanthys. Even the immortals showered gifts upon the victorious demigod: Hermes gave him a sword, Apollo arrows, Hephaestus a golden quiver, and Athene a brazen cuirass.


The hero soon had an opportunity to make the gods generous return for the precious gifts they had given him. The giants, creatures with frightful faces, long hair and beards, and scaly dragon tails instead of feet, were monsters whom Gaea, the Earth, had borne Uranus, the sky-god. Now their mother stirred them up against Zeus, the new ruler of the world, because he had banished her elder sons, the Titans, to Tartarus. And so they rushed forth from Erebus, the underworld, to the broad fields of Phlegra, in Thessaly. The very stars paled at sight of them, and Phoebus Apollo turned his sun-chariot in the other direction.

“Go and avenge me and the children of the older gods,” said Mother Earth. “An eagle is tearing at Prometheus, a vulture at Tityus; Atlas is sentenced to carry the sky, and the Titans languish in chains. Avenge them! Come to their rescue! Use my own limbs, the mountains, for rungs and weapons! Ascend to those starry halls! You, Typhoeus, snatch scepter and thunderbolt from the hands of Zeus. Enceladus, you shall conquer the sea and drive Poseidon from his stronghold. Rhoetus shall tear the reins from the hands of the sun-god, and Porphyrion take over the oracle of Delphi.”

At her words the giants burst into deafening applause, as though they had already won the victory and were leading Poseidon or Ares in the triumphal procession, or dragging Apollo away by his beautiful locks. One spoke as though Aphrodite were even now his wife, another planned to woo Artemis, a third Athene. Confident and rejoicing they went toward the mountains of Thessaly, from whence they intended to storm Olympus.

In the meantime, Iris, the messenger of the gods, called together all those in high heaven and those who dwell in rivers and springs. She even summoned the Fates from the underworld. Persephone left her realm of shadowy shapes, and her husband, the king of the silent dead, yoked his steeds that shun the light and drove them up to shining Olympus. As in a besieged city whose dwellers stream from all sides to defend the citadel, so the throng of immortals assembled at their father’s hearth.

“You, who have come together here,” so Zeus addressed them, “see how Gaea is conspiring against us with that new brood of hers. On with you, and see to it that for every one of her sons she sends against us, you send her back a dead body.”

When the father of the gods had ended, a great clap of thunder rang out from the sky, and Gaea answered with a mighty earthquake from below. Nature lapsed into chaos, and all things were as confused as when they were first created. For the giants tore one mountain after another out by the roots. They piled Ossa and Pelion, Oeta and Athos one on top of the other, plucked out Rhodope with half the source of the Hebrus, and when they had climbed this ponderous ladder to the very seat of the gods, they set out to storm Olympus with huge boulders and whole oaks for fire-brands.

An oracle had told the gods that they would not slay a single giant unless a mortal fought on their side. Gaea knew this, and so she cast about for a way to make her sons invulnerable to mortal men. And there was an herb which could have accomplished this, but Zeus stole a march on her. He forbade the dawn, the moon, and the sun to shine, and while Gaea groped about in darkness, he himself quickly cut the herbs and had Athene summon his son Heracles to take part in the fight.

On Olympus, the gods were already in the midst of the struggle. Ares had guided his war-chariot with its snorting steeds into the very thick of the onrushing foe. His golden shield burned brighter than flame, and the crest on his helmet streamed in the wind. He slew the giant Pelorus, whose feet were live serpents, and drove his wheels over the writhing limbs of his fallen adversary. But not until he beheld mortal Heracles, who had just mounted the last step to Olympus, did the monster yield up his three souls. Heracles glanced about the field and selected a mark for his bow. His arrow felled Alcyoneus, who plunged down from that great height but rose with fresh vigor the moment he touched the ground. At Athene’s advice, Heracles too descended and lifted the giant from the earth which had borne him. The instant he was suspended in an alien element he breathed his last.

Now the giant Porphyrion took a threatening step toward Heracles and Hera at once, in order to fight them one by one. But swiftly Zeus roused his desire to look upon the divine face of the goddess, and while he was still tugging at the veil with which she had covered herself, the father of the gods struck him with a thunderbolt, and Heracles finished the work with one of his arrows. Soon after this, the giant Ephialtes stepped out from the ranks of his brothers and looked ahead with enormous flashing eyes.

“What glittering goals for our arrows!” said Heracles to Phoebus Apollo, who was fighting at his side, and shot the right eye from the giant’s head, while the sun-god struck the left. Dionysus felled Eurytus with his thyrsus. A hailstorm of glowing iron from the hand of Hephaestus threw Clytius to the ground. Pallas Athene hurled the island of Sicily upon fleeing Enceladus. The giant Polybotes, whom Poseidon pursued across the sea, fled to Cos, but the sea-god tore off a piece of the island and covered him with it. Hermes, who wore Pluto’s helmet on his head, slew Hippolytus, and the Fates destroyed two others with their brazen clubs. The rest Zeus mowed down with lightning or Heracles shot with his arrows.

For these deeds, the immortals held the demigod in high favor. Those among the gods who had helped in the fight Zeus called Olympians, a term meant to distinguish the brave from the cowards. Two of his sons born of mortal women were also considered worthy to bear this name of honor: Dionysus and Heracles.


Before Heracles was born, Zeus had once declared in the council of the gods that the first grandson of Perseus should rule over all of Perseus’ other descendants. This distinction he intended for his and Alcmene’s son. But Hera, who begrudged the son of her rival this honor, had recourse to trickery and saw to it that Eurystheus, who was likewise a grandson of Perseus, was born sooner, although he was supposed to come into the world after Heracles. This made Eurystheus king of Mycenae in the land of the Argives, and the later-born Heracles his subject. With growing concern the ruler watched his young kinsman’s rise to fame and summoned him, as a king summons his subject, to impose various labors upon him. Since Heracles would not obey, Zeus himself, who did not wish to oppose his own decree, commanded his son to serve the king of the Argives. And still the demigod was reluctant to become the servant of a mortal. He went to Delphi to consult the oracle, which gave answer that the gods would make amends for the supremacy Eurystheus had got through Hera’s wiles: that Heracles would, indeed, have to perform twelve labors the king imposed upon him, but that thereafter he would become immortal.

This reply weighed on Heracles. To serve one beneath himself offended his pride and wounded his dignity, but he felt that it was unwise and not even possible to disobey Zeus, his father. Hera, who still hated Heracles in spite of the aid he had given the gods, took advantage of this moment and changed his sullen-ness to savage frenzy. He became so utterly mad that he tried to murder his cherished nephew Iolaus, and when the boy managed to escape, shot the children Megara had borne him, imagining that he was aiming his arrows at the giants. It was a long time before his madness left him. But when he realized his terrible mistake, he was bowed down with grief, locked himself into his house, and refused to have anything to do with his fellow men. When time at last lessened his sorrow, he resolved to accept the labors of Eurystheus, and went to him at Tiryns, which was part of his kingdom.


The first labor the king imposed on him was that Heracles should bring him the skin of the Nemean lion, who lived on the Peloponnesus, in the region of Argolis, in the forests between Cleonae and Nemea. This lion could not be harmed by the weapons of men. Some said he was the son of the giant Typhon and the serpent Echidna, others that he had dropped down to earth from the moon. Against this lion Heracles now set out, his quiver on his back, his bow in one hand, in the other a club made of the trunk of a wild olive tree he had found on Helicon and torn out by the roots. When he entered the woods of Nemea, Heracles looked sharply on all sides to discover the beast before it caught sight of him. It was noon, and nowhere could he find a trace of the lion nor ask the path leading to his lair, for he met no one, either with the herds in the fields or felling trees in the forest. All had fled to their houses, far from the haunts of the lion, and locked themselves in for fear.

Throughout the afternoon Heracles roved through the thickets, determined to prove his strength the instant he saw the lion. But it was evening before the beast came loping down a woodland trail, returning from the hunt to rest in a ravine. He had sated himself with flesh. His head, his mane, and his breast dripped with blood, and with his tongue he licked up the drops oozing from his jaws. Heracles, who saw him from afar, took refuge behind a wall of dense bushes, waited until he approached, and aimed an arrow at his flank between the ribs and the haunch. His dart did not pierce the flesh but rebounded, as though from a stone, and fell on the moss-covered ground. The animal raised his bloodstained head, turned his eyes questioningly in all directions, and bared his terrible teeth. And now he was facing toward the demigod, who launched a second arrow at his breast, at the very seat of his life breath. This time too the missile did not even prick the skin, but glanced off and fell at the lion’s feet. Heracles was just about to fit a third shaft to his string when the monster saw him. He drew his long tail forward to the hollows of his legs. His neck swelled with rage. His mane bristled, a roar rumbled in his throat, and his back arched like a bow. Intent on the kill he sprang at his enemy. Heracles let the arrows drop from his hand, cast off his lion’s skin, and with his right hand swung his club over the head of the beast and struck his neck so that he crashed to earth, his leap arrested in mid-air, and then rose on unsteady feet, his head rolling from the shock. Before he could catch his breath, Heracles rushed at him. But this time he flung aside his bow and his quiver to have his hands free, approached the lion from behind, wound his arms around his neck, and choked him to death, so that his hideous soul sped back to Hades. For a long time Heracles tried to skin his victim, but the hide resisted both iron and stone. Finally he hit on a method of skinning the beast with its own claws, and this proved successful. Later he made himself a cuirass out of the magnificent skin and used the jaws for a new helmet. But for the time being, he gathered up the hide and the arms with which he had come, slung the skin of the Nemean lion over his shoulder, and started back to Tiryns. When King Eurystheus saw him coming with the hide of the dreadful beast, he was so terrified at the divine strength of Heracles that he crawled into a brazen cauldron. From this time on he refused to see Heracles and had Copreus, a son of Pelops, communicate his commands to the demigod beyond the walls of the city.

The second labor of Heracles was to slay the Hydra, who was also a child of Typhon and Echidna. She had grown up in Argolis, in the swamps of Lerna, and it was her custom to crawl ashore to tear the cattle limb from limb and lay waste the fields. She was not only fierce, but vast in size, a water snake with nine heads, eight of which were mortal, while the ninth, the middle one, was deathless. For this venture, too, Heracles prepared with high courage. He mounted a chariot, took with him as charioteer Iolaus, his inseparable companion, the son of his half brother Iphicles, and flew over the ground to Lerna until they caught sight of the Hydra on a hill near the springs of Amymone. Here Iolaus stopped the horses. Heracles leaped from the chariot and with arrows routed the snake from her hiding-place. Hissing she lashed out and reared her nine heads, which swayed like the boughs of a tree in a storm. Heracles went up to her unafraid, seized her in his mighty grip, and held her fast. But she twined herself around one of his feet, without attempting to battle him more directly. Now he began to smash her heads with his club, but this was of no avail, for whenever he crushed one head, two new ones grew out in its stead. Besides, the Hydra had an ally, a giant crab, which hurt Heracles by clawing at his feet. He killed it with his club and then called to Iolaus for help. The boy was holding a torch in readiness. He set part of the nearby wood afire, and with the brands seared the new heads the instant they budded forth, so that they were thus prevented from attaining their full size. This freed the hero of these constant fresh menaces, and now he cut off the Hydra’s deathless head, buried it by the wayside, and rolled a heavy stone upon the grave. He split the trunk of the snake in two and dipped his arrows in her blood, which was full of venom. Ever thereafter he dealt wounds which would not heal.

The third labor imposed on him by Eurystheus was to take alive the hind of Mount Cerynea. This was a beautiful creature with golden horns and brazen hooves, who dwelt on one of the hills of Arcadia. She was one of the five hinds through which Artemis had first proved her skill in hunting, and the only one she had allowed to run free in the woods again, since Fate had decreed that one day Heracles should weary in the chase of her. For a whole year he pursued her, and in his wanderings came to the Hyperborei and to the source of the Ister. At last he caught up with the hind on the bank of the river Ladon not far from the city of Oenoe, near the mountain of Artemis. But the only way he could capture the animal was to lame her with a shaft and carry her through Arcadia on his shoulders. Here he met the goddess Artemis with Apollo, her brother. She upbraided him for planning to kill a creature sacred to her and even prepared to rob him of his quarry.

“Great goddess,” said Heracles to justify himself to her, “it was not idle sport which prompted me to do this, but sheer necessity. For how else could I fulfill the wish of Eurystheus?” These words calmed her anger, and he brought the hind alive to Mycenae.


Almost immediately he undertook his fourth quest. It consisted of delivering unharmed to the king a creature also sacred to Artemis, the Erymanthian Boar, who laid waste the region of the Erymanthus Mountains. On his journey to those mountains, he stopped with Pholus, the son of Silenus. He, like all centaurs half man and half horse, received his guest hospitably and set before him roast meat, while he ate his own share of it raw. But when Heracles asked for a good draught to accompany this tasty fare, Pholus said: “Dear guest, there is, indeed, a jar in my cellar, but it belongs to all of my people in common, and I hesitate to have it opened, since I know how little regard centaurs have for strangers.”

“Open it without misgivings,” Heracles answered. “I promise to defend you against any attack. I am thirsty.”

Now Dionysus, the god of wine, had himself given this jar to a centaur and ordered him not to open it until, after four generations had passed, Heracles should visit this region. Pholus then went into the cellar, but hardly had he opened the jar when the centaurs caught the fragrance of that strong old wine. They gathered and thronged around the cave of Pholus, armed with boulders and trunks of pine. The first who dared enter Heracles thrust back with firebrands. The rest he pursued with arrows even to the promontory of Malea, where his old friend Chiron lived. Chiron’s brother centaurs took refuge with him. Heracles aimed his bow at them and launched a shaft which grazed the arm of one of his foes, but unluckily it sped on and into Chiron’s knee, where it stuck fast. Only now did Heracles recognize one who had befriended him in his childhood. He ran to him in grave concern, drew out the arrow, and applied those remedies which Chiron, well versed in the art of medicine, had once given him. But the wound was drenched with the Hydra’s venom and could not be healed. So the centaur had them carry him to his cave where he wanted to die in the arms of his friend. Alas! how vain a wish! Poor Chiron had forgotten that he was immortal and that his agony would last forever. Heracles bade him farewell with many tears and promised to send Death, the liberator, to him, no matter at what cost. From the story of Prometheus we know that he kept his word. When Heracles returned to Pholus, he found his gentle host dead in his cave. He had drawn an arrow from the body of one of his brothers, and as he weighed it in his hand, marvelling that so small a thing could fell such mighty creatures, the poisoned dart had slipped from him, grazed his foot, and killed him on the instant. Sorrowfully Heracles gave him an honorable burial. He laid him under the mountain which from that time on was called Pholoe.

Then the hero continued on his way to the boar. With ringing shouts he drove him out of the thick underbrush, followed him up the snowy slopes, caught the weary animal with a noose, and brought it to Mycenae alive, as he had been bidden.

After this King Eurystheus sent him off to his fifth labor, which was, indeed, unworthy of a hero. He was to clean the stables of Augeas in a single day. Augeas was king of Elis and had countless herds of cattle. According to the custom of the ancients, he kept his beasts in a great enclosure in front of the palace. Three thousand cattle had been living there for a long time, and so, in the course of years, great piles of dung had accumulated. These Heracles was to clean out in a single day, a task which was humiliating for one thing, and almost impossible for another.

When the demigod stood in the presence of Augeas and offered to perform this service, without however mentioning that it was at the command of Eurystheus, the king measured this stalwart youth in his lion’s skin and could hardly suppress laughter at the thought that so noble a warrior could wish to do the task of a common servant. But he said to himself that the love of gain had already tempted many a brave man and that perhaps this one wanted to enrich himself at the king’s expense; that, moreover, it would not hurt to promise him a substantial reward for cleaning the stables in a day, since there was no doubt whatsoever that he could not accomplish this feat. Therefore he said confidently:

“Stranger, if you can, indeed, clear out all this dung in a day, I shall give you a tenth of all my cattle.”

Heracles accepted the conditions, and the king thought he would at once begin to ply the shovel. But after the hero had called Phyleus, the son of Augeas, to witness the agreement, he trenched the ground of the cattle yard on one side, and let the streams Alpheus and Peneus, which flowed close by, run in through a canal and out through another opening, bearing away with them the entire mass of filth. In this way he carried out a disgraceful order without degrading himself to a service which would have been unworthy of an immortal. When Augeas learned that Heracles had done this thing at the command of Eurystheus, he not only refused to pay the reward but denied ever having promised it. However, he agreed to let a court decide the matter. When the judges were assembled, Phyleus appeared at Heracles’ demand, bore witness against his own father, and declared that it was true he had promised Heracles a reward. Augeas did not wait to hear judgment. In high dudgeon he bade both the stranger and his son leave his kingdom on the instant.

After other adventures, Heracles returned to Eurystheus, who declared that the labor he had just performed did not count, because he had asked for payment. The king at once sent him forth on a sixth quest: to drive away the Stymphalian birds. These were birds of prey as large as cranes and armed with iron wings, beaks, and claws. They nested around Lake Stymphalus in Arcadia, and had the power of launching their feathers like shafts and piercing even a brazen cuirass with their beaks. Throughout that region they had destroyed countless men and beasts. It was they that had troubled the heroes on the Argo. After a short journey, Heracles reached the lake, which lay in the shadow of tall trees. A large flock of the birds had just fled to these woods for fear of becoming the prey of wolves. Heracles stood there helplessly, wondering how he could master a foe which appeared in such vast numbers, when suddenly he felt a light tap on his shoulder, and turning, saw the majestic form of Pallas Athene. She gave him two enormous rattles of bronze which Hephaestus had made for her, instructed him to use them against the Stymphalian birds, and vanished from his sight. Heracles climbed a hill near the lake and frightened the birds by shaking the giant rattles. Not for long could they endure the strident noise. Stricken with terror they flew out from the shelter of the trees, and Heracles gripped his bow and shot one after another in flight. The rest left that region, never to return.


Minos of Crete had promised Poseidon to sacrifice to him whatever first emerged from the depths of the sea, for the king had claimed that no creature in his possession was worthy to offer so great a deity. The god caused a beautiful bull to rise up through the waters. But the king was so enchanted by the splendid animal that he secretly mingled it with his herds and substituted another bull for the offering. This angered the sea-god, and as a penalty he afflicted the beast with madness, so that he wrought confusion and destruction on the island of Crete. Heracles’ seventh labor was to tame him and bring him to Eurystheus.

He travelled to Crete, and when he told Minos of his purpose the king was greatly pleased at the prospect of ridding his country of so dangerous a creature, and he even helped Heracles catch him. The demigod then tamed the raging bull so well that he was able to ride him to the shore, whence he was to depart for the Peloponnesus, and his gait was as easy as a ship sailing a smooth sea.

Eurystheus was satisfied with this achievement, but after he had looked over the captured animal with delight, set it free again. The moment the bull no longer felt the restraining hand of Heracles, his madness returned. He roamed through all of Laconia and Arcadia, crossed the isthmus to Marathon in Attica, and here laid waste the region, just as he had once ravaged Crete. It was not until much later that Theseus succeeded in mastering him.

Heracles’ eighth labor was to bring to Mycenae the mares of Diomedes of Thrace. Diomedes was the son of Ares and king of the warlike people of the Bistones. His mares were so strong and so savage that they had to be shackled to their brazen troughs with chains of iron. And they did not feed on oats! Any strangers who were so unfortunate as to seek out the city of Diomedes were cast into their mangers, that the mares might eat their flesh. When Heracles came, his first act was to capture the cruel king, overpower the guards in the stables, and serve Diomedes up to his own mares. After this meal the creatures grew gentle, and he drove them down to the shore of the sea. But the Bistones armed and pursued him, so that he had to turn back and fight them. He put the mares in charge of his dearest friend and constant companion, Abderus, the son of Hermes, but with Heracles gone, they were again seized with the lust for human flesh, and when he returned, after putting the Bistones to flight, he found that they had torn Abderus limb from limb. Heracles mourned his death deeply and in his honor founded the city of Abdera. Then he again tamed the mares and brought them safely to Eurystheus, who dedicated the horses to Hera. They bore young, and their race multiplied through the years. It is even said that Alexander of Macedon rode one of their descendants. When Heracles had accomplished this labor, he joined Jason and the Argonauts in their quest for the golden fleece. But the tale of this expedition to Colchis has already been told.

After long wanderings, the hero set out against the Amazons, in order to achieve his ninth labor: to bring the girdle of Hippolyte, their queen, to Eurystheus. The Amazons lived in the region around the river Thermodon in Pontus. They were a nation of women who plied the trades of men and reared only those of their children who were girls. Often they marched to wars with all their forces. In token of her majesty, their queen Hippolyte wore the girdle Ares himself had given her.

Heracles asked for volunteers to aid him in this quest and assembled them on a ship. After many adventures he entered the Black Sea, came to the mouth of the Thermodon, and rowed into the harbor of Themiscyra, the city of the Amazons. Hippolyte met the strangers and was struck by the strength and beauty of the demigod. When she learned the cause of his coming, she promised to give him her girdle. But Hera, who persisted in her hatred of Heracles, assumed the shape of an Amazon, mingled with the others, and spread the rumor that an alien and savage man was about to abduct their queen. Instantly all mounted their horses and attacked Heracles outside the city, where he had pitched camp. The common Amazons fought his men, but the noblest confronted the hero himself. The first to fight him was Aella, the tempest, so named because she could run with the speed of a gale. But Heracles was swifter of foot than she. Aella was forced to retreat, and though she raced like the wind, he overtook and slew her. A second Amazon fell at the first stroke, and after her a third, Prothoë, who seven times had won in single combat. After her, he brought down eight others, three of whom were chosen companions in the chase of Artemis and had always cast their spears straight at the mark. But this time they missed and though they tried to take cover under their shields the darts of Heracles found them out. Alcippe, who had sworn to remain unwed all her days, also fell. Her oath was indeed kept, but her days were cut short. When Melanippe, the dauntless leader of the Amazons, was taken captive, the rest fled wildly in all directions, and Hippolyte surrendered the girdle she had promised even before there was any thought of battle. Heracles accepted it as a ransom for Melanippe, to whom he gave back her liberty.

On the homeward journey a new adventure awaited him on the coast of Troy, for here he found Hesione, the daughter of Laomedon, fettered to a rock, waiting in speechless terror for the monster which was to devour her. Poseidon had built the walls of Troy for her father, but the king had withheld the reward he had pledged. In revenge the god sent a sea-monster which ravaged the region of Troy, until Laomedon, in despair, agreed to offer up his own daughter to save his land. As Heracles was passing, the unhappy father called to him and asked his help, promising to give him in return for his daughter’s rescue the splendid horses Zeus had given his father. Heracles made fast his ship and waited for the monster. When it came with jaws gaping to consume the maiden, he leaped down its throat, slashed its entrails, and clambered forth as though he were coming up from the pit of death. But again Laomedon broke his word. He did not give Heracles the horses, and the hero went on his way uttering furious threats.


When the hero laid Queen Hippolyte’s girdle at the feet of Eurystheus, the king did not yet allow him to rest from his toils but sent him immediately to fetch the oxen of Geryon. This was a giant who dwelt on the island of Erythia, in the gulf of Gadeira. He owned a herd of fine chestnut-colored cattle, which a fellow giant guarded for him with the help of a two-headed dog. Geryon himself was unimaginably huge and had three bodies, three heads, six arms, and six feet. No man of mortal birth had ever dared brave him, and Heracles realized very well what careful preparations would be necessary for this difficult undertaking. All the world knew that Chrysaor, Geryon’s father, who had been given the name of Goldsword because of his great riches, was king of all Iberia and that, in addition to Geryon, he had three other valiant sons of vast size who fought for him, and that each of these three commanded a host of strong and warlike followers. It was for this very reason that Eurystheus had enjoined this task upon Heracles. He hoped that on such an expedition and in such a country the demigod would at last lose the life so hateful to his taskmaster. But Heracles was no more afraid of these new perils in store for him than of all the dangers of his earlier quests. He assembled his armies on the island of Crete, which he had freed from wild beasts, set sail, and chose Libya for his first landing. Here he wrestled with the giant Antaeus, whose strength was renewed whenever he touched the earth, his mother. Heracles, observing this, held him up in the empty air, where he was helpless, and strangled him in his grip. Then he cleared Libya of beasts of prey, for he hated savage animals and wicked people, because these reminded him of the unjust ruler he was compelled to serve for so many years.

After a long journey through desert regions, he came to a fertile valley watered by broad rivers. Here he founded a city of great size and called it Hecatompylos, the city of the hundred gates. At length he found himself opposite Gadeira, on the Atlantic Ocean, and set up two pillars, known and famed as the Pillars of Heracles. The sun burned down upon him with intolerable heat, until he could endure it no longer. Lifting his eyes to heaven and pointing his bow upward, he threatened to shoot down the god of the sun. Apollo admired his intrepid courage and aided him on his way by lending him the golden bowl in which he himself journeyed by night, from the setting to the rising of the sun. In this Heracles floated to Iberia, his fleet sailing along beside him. Here he found the three sons of Chrysaor, with three vast armies, camped close to one another. But Heracles did not have to fight the hosts. He challenged the leaders to single combat, killed them one and all, and conquered their country.

After this he went to Erythia, where Geryon dwelt with his herds. As soon as the two-headed dog scented the new arrival he rushed at him, but Heracles gripped his club more firmly and crushed him. When he had also killed the giant herdsmen who came to the aid of the dog, he hurried off with the oxen. Geryon however overtook him, and a grim battle followed. Hera herself came to the giant’s aid, but Heracles wounded her breast with a shaft, so that the goddess was forced to flee. A second dart pierced the giant in the region of his stomach where his three bodies joined, and he fell dead.

Heracles’ homeward course through Iberia and Italy—for he took the land route, driving the cattle before him—was beset with glorious adventures. Near Rhegium, in lower Italy, one of the oxen got away, swam the strait, and so escaped to Sicily. Heracles at once drove the other oxen into the water and swam across to Sicily, holding one of them by the horn. After many other exploits, the hero left Italy and returned to Greece and the isthmus over Illyria and Thrace.

Now he had completed ten labors, but because Eurystheus refused to hold two of them valid, he had to do two others in their place.

Very long ago, at the wedding of Zeus and Hera, when all the gods came with gifts for the bridal pair, Gaea too did not want to be remiss in generosity. On the western shore of the ocean she brought forth a tree with many boughs, all laden down with golden apples. Four virgins, the Hesperides, daughters of Night, were set to watch the sacred garden in which the tree grew, and they were aided in their task by Ladon, the hundred-headed dragon, who had sprung from Phorcys, the father of all manner of monsters, and Ceto, a daughter of Gaea. The dragon never slept, and a deafening chorus of hisses betrayed his presence, for each of his hundred throats uttered a different sound. And it was from this monster—so ran the orders of Eurystheus—that Heracles was to snatch the golden apples.

The demigod set out on his long and arduous journey. He chose the road haphazardly, for he did not know where the Hesperides were to be found. First he came to Thessaly, the land of the giant Termerus, who killed all the travellers he met by running at them with his forehead, which was hard as rock. But when the giant’s head touched the brow of divine Heracles it was dashed to pieces. Farther on, near the river Echedorus, the hero met with another monster, Cycnus, son of Ares and Pyrene. When Heracles asked him the way to the Garden of the Hesperides, he refused him a civil answer and challenged him to single combat. But he was slain by the demigod. At that Ares himself appeared to avenge the death of his son, and Heracles was compelled to fight him. Since Zeus, however, did not wish his sons to spill each other’s blood, he hurled a bolt of lightning to separate them. After this Heracles wandered through Illyria, crossed the Eridanus, and came to the nymphs, the daughters of Zeus and Themis, who dwelt on the banks of this river. Of these too he inquired the way to the Hesperides. “Go to Nereus, the old river-god,” they replied. “He is a seer and knows all things. Overwhelm him in his sleep and bind him, and then he will be forced to point you the right direction.” Heracles followed this counsel and mastered Nereus, even though he changed himself into many and various shapes according to his custom. But the son of Zeus and Alcmene did not loose his hold on him until he had learned in what part of the world he would find the golden apples. Then he went on through Libya and Egypt.

Busiris, the son of Poseidon and Lysianassa, was the king of that country. After nine years, during which the land had been afflicted with barrenness and drought, a soothsayer from Cyprus had issued the cruel oracle that the earth would grow fertile if a stranger were sacrificed to Zeus every year. Busiris showed his gratitude for this utterance by offering up the soothsayer himself first of all. Gradually the barbarous king developed so great a liking for the yearly tribute that he took to slaying all strangers who came to Egypt. Heracles too was seized and dragged to the altar of Zeus. But he rent his fetters and killed Busiris, along with his son and the priest who had acted as a herald for the king.

In the course of his further journey, Heracles freed Prometheus from his bondage in the Caucasus and, following the directions the liberated Titan gave him, came to that part of the world where Atlas stood, bearing the broad sky on his shoulders. Near him the tree with the golden apples spread its boughs under the watchful eyes of the Hesperides. Prometheus had counselled the demigod not to attempt the theft of the apples in his own person, but to send Atlas on this mission. Heracles offered to assume his burden while he was gone, and bore the weight of the sky on his mighty shoulders. In the meantime, Atlas entered the garden, lulled to sleep the dragon who encircled the tree with his coils, slew him, outwitted the watchful maids, and returned safely with the three apples he had plucked for Heracles. But he had tasted freedom! “My shoulders have felt what it is to have nothing resting upon them,” he said. “I shall not strain them again!” And with this he tossed the apples on the grass at the feet of Heracles and left him bearing the intolerable load. But quickly the hero thought of a ruse to rid himself of it.

“Just let me twist a coil of rope around my head,” he said to the bearer of the sky, “otherwise the weight will crush me.” Atlas considered this a fair request and assumed the burden for what he thought was a few moments. But if he was waiting for Heracles to relieve him, he would have to wait through all eternity, for the cheat had been cheated. The demigod picked up the apples and went his way. He carried them to Eurystheus, who, since Heracles had not lost his life in the getting of them, as he had hoped, gave them back to him as a gift. Heracles, in turn, placed them on the altar of Athene, but the goddess, who knew that these divine fruits must not be kept elsewhere, took them back to the Garden of the Hesperides.

Instead of destroying his hated rival, Eurystheus had up to this time only succeeded in helping Heracles to greater glory in the course decreed for him by Fate. His mastery of the labors enjoined on him had made him appear the true champion of mortals, the avenger of all inhumanity on earth. But his final quest—so the crafty king planned—was to take place in a region where heroic strength would be of no avail. He was to battle with the sinister powers of the underworld, to bring out of Hades Cerberus, the watchdog of Hell. This monster had three dog-heads with gaping jaws always slobbering venom, his body ended in a dragon’s tail, and the hairs on his heads and his back were writhing snakes.

To prepare himself for this terrible quest, Heracles went to the city of Eleusis in Attica, where wise priests headed a secret cult concerning divine matters both in the upper and in the underworld. In this holy place the priest Eumolpus initiated him into mystic teachings, after he had first purified him of the murder of the centaurs. Thus girded with the knowledge of secret things and prepared to face the terrors of the lower world, he journeyed to the Peloponnesus, to the city of Taenarum in Laconia, where there was an entrance to Hades. Hermes, shadowy conductor of souls, accompanied him down the deep cleft in the earth, and they came to the city of King Pluto. The shades who were hovering joylessly about the gates—for in the underworld life is not merry as it is in the light of the sun—took flight when they beheld men of flesh and blood. Only the spirit of Meleager and the Gorgon Medusa remained steadfast in the face of life. Heracles brandished his sword and made as if to slay the Gorgon, but Hermes held him by the arm and explained that the spirits of the dead are nothing but empty shadows, which cannot be harmed by the sharpest blade. But with the soul of Meleager Heracles conversed tenderly and promised to carry his greetings to his sister Deianira on earth.

When he was close to the gates of Hades, he saw Pirithous, who had come to the underworld accompanied by Theseus in order to woo Persephone. Pluto, angered by this insolent design, had fettered both to the stone on which they had sat down to rest. When they caught sight of the demigod who was their friend, they stretched imploring hands toward him and trembled with the hope of regaining the golden light of day. And Heracles did indeed take Theseus by the hand and cut his bonds, but when he tried to free Pirithous as well he failed, for the earth began to quake under his feet. Going forward, Heracles recognized Ascalaphus, who had once betrayed Persephone by telling that she had eaten of the pomegranates of Hades, and this hindered her return to earth. He rolled from him the stone with which Demeter, in despair at the loss of her daughter, had all but crushed him. Then he fell upon Pluto’s herds and slaughtered one of the oxen, in order to quench the thirst of the souls of the dead with blood. But Menoetius, the herdsman, would not allow this and challenged the hero to a wrestling match. Heracles at once gripped him around the body and broke his ribs, nor would he have released him had not Persephone herself come between them. At the gates of the city of the dead stood King Pluto and blocked the entrance. But the arrow of Heracles pierced the god’s shoulder and he endured the agonies of mortals, so that when Heracles modestly asked his permission to take with him the hound of hell, he no longer refused, but imposed the condition that the demigod master the dog without using the weapons he carried with him. So the hero stripped himself of everything but his breastplate and lion’s skin and went to look for the monster. He found him crouched at the mouth of the Acheron, and ignoring his triple bark, which sounded like dull thunder multiplied a hundredfold, he clamped the heads between his legs, twined his arms around the necks, and did not loosen his hold, though the creature’s tail—in itself a dragon—lashed out at him and bit him in the flank with its teeth. He held fast and choked the monster’s throats until he had gained the upper hand. Then he lifted up the dog and, issuing from Hades through another entrance near Troezen in Argolis, returned safely to the upper world. When the hellhound Cerberus saw the light of day, he grew mad with fear and began to spew venom on all sides. This caused the poisonous aconite, a plant which still abounds in that region, to spring from the ground. Heracles at once went to Tiryns and showed the shackled monster to Eurystheus, who could scarcely believe his eyes. And now the king despaired of ever ridding himself of this powerful son of Zeus. He resigned himself to his fate and discharged the hero, who took the dog back to his owner in the underworld.


After all his toil and effort, Heracles was at last free from the service of Eurystheus and returned to Thebes. He could not remain with Megara, his wife, whose children he had killed in a fit of madness, and so with her own consent he gave her to his beloved nephew Iolaus and began to look for a new wife for himself. His fancy turned to lovely Iole, the daughter of Eurytus, King of Oechalia in Euboea, who, when Heracles was a boy, had instructed him in the art of shooting with the bow. This king had promised his daughter to that man who, in a contest with the arrows, could outdo him and his sons. When this was proclaimed Heracles hastened to Oechalia, mingled with the throng of contestants, and soon proved that he was a not unworthy pupil of old Eurytus, for he carried off the victory. The king gave his guese due honors, but in his heart he was sorry that Heracles had won, for he remembered Megara’s lot and feared his daughter might suffer a like fate. Because of this he put off Heracles day after day and said he needed time to consider this marriage. In the meantime, Iphitus, the eldest son of Eurytus, who was of the same age as Heracles and admired his strength and courage generously, without envy, had become the hero’s friend, and he used every trick of persuasion to influence his father in favor of the noble stranger. But Eurytus persisted in his refusal.

Deeply offended, Heracles left the palace and was for a long time a wanderer in foreign lands. While he was away, a messenger came to Eurytus to report that a robber had stolen cattle from the royal herds. The culprit was knavish Autolycus, whose thieving was known far and wide. But in his vexation the king said: “No one but Heracles has done this thing! This is his ignoble revenge because I refused to give my daughter to him, the murderer of his own children!” Iphitus defended his friend with warmth and eloquence and offered to seek out the hero, so that with his aid he might find the stolen cattle. Heracles received the king’s son hospitably and was willing to join him in his search. But they were unsuccessful, and when they had climbed the walls of Tiryns to try to discover the herd from this lofty lookout, Heracles was again overcome by his madness, for angry Hera darkened his mind. Taking his faithful friend Iphitus for one of Eurytus’ conspiring allies, he hurled him down from the ramparts of Tiryns.


After Heracles had sullenly left the palace of the king of Oechalia and wandered far and wide, a curious thing happened. In the city of Pherae, in Thessaly, lived King Admetus with his young and beautiful wife Alcestis. These two had several beautiful children and were surrounded by the affection and loyalty of happy subjects. Long ago, when Apollo had slain the Cyclopes and had fled Olympus and been compelled to serve a mortal, Admetus, the son of Pheres, had welcomed him kindly and made him shepherd over his flocks. After Zeus had restored the sun-god to favor, he became the king’s patron, and ever since had bestowed his favors upon him. When the span of Admetus’ life was drawing to a close, Apollo, being a god, knew of this and wrung from the Fates a promise that the king should escape Hades, even now threatening him, provided another mortal consented to die and go down to the underworld in his stead. Apollo, therefore, left Olympus and sought out his former host to warn him of his approaching death and at the same time to reveal the secret of the means whereby he might evade it. Admetus was an honest man, but he loved life. And not only he, but all his family and his subjects were greatly alarmed to learn that the pillar of the royal house, the husband and father, the kind ruler of his people, was to be taken from them. So the king went about and looked for a friend who would die for him. But there was not a single one who was willing to do this. Although they all had broken into loud lament when they heard of the loss they were to suffer so soon, they grew silent and cold when they were told of the condition by which the king’s life could be prolonged. Even his old father Pheres and his aged mother, both of whom knew they must die at any moment, did not want to give up the few hours of life left to them, to save their son. Only Alcestis, in the fullness of her bloom, only his wife, the mother of his children, in the lovely spring of her life, was moved by such pure and unselfish love for her husband that she declared she would give up the light of the sun for his sake. Scarcely had the words left her lips when Thanatos, the dark god of death, approached the palace to claim his victim and lead her down to the realm of shades. For he knew exactly the day and the hour the Fates had decreed for the death of Admetus. When Apollo saw Death coming, he swiftly left the king’s house, lest he, a god of life, be defiled by that sinister presence.

When devout Alcestis felt that her time was come, she purified herself in flowing water, as befitted an offering to Death, took festive raiment and strings of jewels out of a chest carved of cedar, and went thus adorned to the household shrine to pray to the goddess of the underworld. Then she clasped her husband and her children in her arms. Day by day she wasted more and more, until at last, at the appointed hour, she entered the chamber where she was to receive the messenger from the lower world. Her family and servingwomen accompanied her. She bade them a solemn farewell. “Let me tell you what is in my heart,” she said to her husband. “Because your life is dearer to me than my own, I am about to die for you before death was decreed for me, even though I could have taken a second husband, a noble from Thessaly, and had a long and perhaps even happy life. But I did not want to live without you and look upon my orphaned children. Your father and mother have failed you, though it would have been better for them to die, for then you would not have to be lonely and bring up children without their mother. But since the gods have willed it so, I only beg you to remember what I have done, and not to give these little ones, whom you love as I, another mother who out of envy might be cruel to them.” With many tears her husband swore that just as she had been his in life, so in death too only she and none other should be his wife. Then Alcestis led the crying little ones toward him and fell fainting to the ground.

It chanced that while they were preparing for the burial, Heracles in his wanderings reached Pherae and came to the palace gates. The servants admitted him, and while he was talking to them Admetus himself appeared. Hiding his sorrow he extended a warm welcome to him. And when Heracles, struck by his robe of mourning, questioned him, he did not want to sadden or perhaps even drive him away, and answered so vaguely that his guest was given the impression that a distant relative had died in the course of a visit to the palace. So Heracles’ merry mood was unmarred, and he had one of the slaves conduct him to the guestchamber and serve him with wine. When he noticed the man’s downcast air, he reproached him with it. “Why do you look so serious and solemn?” he asked. “It is a servant’s duty to be obliging to strangers. And if some alien woman died in this house—what of it? Dying is, after all, the common lot of mortals. The gloomy-hearted have a sad time of life. Go, set a wreath on your brows, as I have done, and drink with me. I know very well that a brimming cup will soon smooth the lines from your forehead.”

But the slave turned away in distress. “We have suffered a blow,” he replied, “which drives away all thought of laughter and feasting. The son of Pheres is, indeed, most hospitable, perhaps too hospitable, to admit a lighthearted stranger to his house of mourning.”

“Why should I not be light of heart?” asked Heracles. “Because an unknown woman has died?”

“Unknown woman!” cried the servant in amazement. “She may have been unknown to you, but not to us!”

“Then Admetus did not tell me the whole truth about this matter,” Heracles observed thoughtfully.

And the servant said: “Be as merry as your soul desires. The ruler’s bereavement concerns only his friends and those who serve him.”

But now Heracles gave him no peace until he had found out what had happened. “Is it possible!” he cried. “Admetus lost his fair and noble wife and yet received a stranger with such perfect hospitality! I felt some secret reluctance about entering these gates, and now I have wreathed my head in a house of mourning and drunk and made merry! Tell me, where is Alcestis buried?”

“If you take the road that leads to Larissa,” answered the slave, “you will see a splendid monument which has already been put up on her grave.” And as he uttered these words he began to weep and left the room.

When Heracles found himself alone, he did not break into lamentation but made a quick resolve. “I must save this woman who has died,” he said to himself. “I must bring her back to her husband. In no other way can I repay his courtesy. I shall go to her grave and wait for Thanatos, the ruler of the dead. I shall see him coming to drink the sacrificial blood, poured for him over the monument. Then I shall leap out of hiding and catch hold of him. No power on earth shall wrest him from me until he agrees to give up his prey.” And having made his decision, he left the palace secretly and silently.

Admetus had returned to his solitary house and lonely children. He mourned his wife deeply, and no faithful servant could comfort him in his despair. But suddenly Heracles crossed his threshold, holding a veiled woman by the hand. “It was not well done, O king, to conceal from me the death of your wife,” he said. “You received me as though you were mourning a mere stranger. And so, unknowingly, I did great wrong, and made libations in a house bereaved of its mistress. But I shall not disturb you any longer in your sorrow. I only returned for one thing: this girl I have here is mine, a reward I received for victory in a contest. Now I am going to win fresh combats, and while I am away, you shall have her for your handmaid. Guard her as the possession of a friend.”

Admetus was appalled at Heracles’ words. “I did not conceal my wife’s death from you because I scorned or underestimated a friend,” he said, “but only because I did not wish to add to my sorrow by having you leave and go to another’s house. As for this woman, I beg you to give her to some other man in Pherae, not to me, who have borne so much. You must have many friends in the city! How could I look upon this girl in my house without weeping? Besides, she cannot live in the men’s quarters, and neither can I install her in the rooms of my dead wife! Far be it from me! I should fear the gossip of the people of Pherae and the reproaches of her who is gone.”

But although the king had rejected her, a curious longing drew his eyes to the veiled shape before him. “Whoever you may be,” he said to her, “you strangely resemble my Alcestis in stature. By the gods, Heracles, I implore you to take this woman away, and not add to the torment of one who is already suffering too greatly. Whenever I saw her, I should feel as though I were seeing my wife. I should burst into tears, and my sorrow would be renewed again and again.”

Heracles hid his true thoughts and answered sadly: “O that Zeus had given me the strength to rescue your noble wife from the realm of shades, to lead her back to the light, and so repay you for your great kindness!”

“I know you would do it if you could,” replied Admetus. “But when has one dead ever returned from the underworld?”

“Well,” Heracles continued in a livelier manner, “since this, indeed, cannot be, let time ease your sorrow. For the dead take no pleasure in the grief of the living. Do not entirely close your mind to the hope that a second wife may some day bring cheer into your life. And finally, for my sake, receive this girl I have brought you into your house. At least try it! The moment you find that she annoys you, she shall leave again.”

So Heracles pressed Admetus, who did not wish to offend his guest. Reluctantly he commanded a servant to conduct her to the inner apartments, but Heracles would not hear of this. “Do not entrust this priceless gem of mine to the hands of slaves,” he said. “You yourself, if it so pleases you, my friend, shall lead her in.”

“No,” said Admetus. “I shall not lay a finger on her. Even the lightest touch would seem to me a violation of the pledge I gave her who is dead.”

But Heracles gave him no peace until he took the veiled woman by the hand. “And now cherish her,” he said. “And look at her closely to make sure that she really resembles your wife, and end your grieving.” With this he parted her veils, and the king, incredulous and amazed, beheld his own wife! Almost fainting with emotion, he held her, who had returned to life, and feasted his eyes on her in gladness and fear, while the demigod described his encounter with Thanatos: how he had seized him at the burial mound and wrestled with him for his prize. When the king knew, at last, that it was really Alcestis, he clasped her in his arms, but she remained silent and could not reply to his loving words. “You will not hear her voice,” explained Heracles, “until the dawn of the third day, when the bonds of death will be severed. But do not hesitate to take her into your chamber and rejoice in her possession. She is yours in return for your noble hospitality to strangers. And now you must let me go where Fate calls me.”

“Go in peace, then, Heracles!” Admetus called after him. “You have guided me back to a better life, for now I am not only happy, but thankfully aware of my bliss. All my people shall celebrate with choruses and dances. The fragrant smoke of sacrifice will rise from the altars. And in all this, we shall think of you, O mighty son of Zeus, with gratitude and love.”


Although Heracles had been mad when he killed Iphitus, the murder weighed upon his spirit. He wandered from one priestking to another in search of purification; first to Neleus of Pylos, then to Hippocoon, king of Sparta, both of whom refused to do him the service he asked. But the third, Deiphobus, king of Amyclae, consented to purify him of his crime. Nonetheless the gods punished him by afflicting him with a grave illness. The hero, used to lusty health and splendid strength, could not endure the wasting disease they sent upon him. He went to Delphi in the hope that the Pythian oracle might heal him. But the priestess withheld her utterance from the murderer; this angered him so that he stole her tripod, carried it out into the field, and set up his own oracle. Infuriated by this bold infringement of his rights, Apollo appeared and challenged the hero to single combat. But this time, too, Zeus did not want brother to shed brother’s blood, and he put an end to the bout by flinging a bolt of thunder between them. And now, at last, Heracles was told that he would be freed from affliction if he were sold into slavery for a period of three years, and, in atonement for his crime, gave the price he brought to the father whose son he had slain. Heracles was so weak from his illness that he had to submit to this harsh decree. With a number of his friends he sailed to Asia, and there one of them, with his consent, sold him to Omphale, daughter of Iardanus, the queen of a country which at that time was known as Maeonia, and later as Lydia. In obedience to the oracle, the seller sent the price he had received for Heracles to Eurytus, and when he refused it, gave it to the children of slain Iphitus. Immediately Heracles was healed.

In the first flush of recovered strength, he began to act the hero, even though he was Omphale’s slave, and resumed his role of benefactor of mankind. He punished all the robbers who were troubling the domains of his mistress and her neighbors. He slew part of the Cercopes, who lived in the region around Ephesus and did great damage by plundering the countryside, and some he brought to Omphale in chains. King Syleus in Aulis, a son of Poseidon, who captured travellers and forced them to work in his vineyards, he struck down with a spade and dug out his vines by the roots. He razed to the ground the city of the Itones, who time after time had invaded Omphale’s territories, and enslaved all the inhabitants. In Phrygia, Lityerses, a natural son of Midas, was playing malicious pranks. He was a man of great possessions and courteously invited all strangers who passed through his estates to be his guests. After the evening meal, he compelled them to work at his harvest and, if they failed to surpass him, cut off their heads. Heracles killed this evildoer and flung him into the river Maeander.

On one of his expeditions, he came to the island Doliche and saw a lifeless form that had been washed ashore by the waves. It was the body of Icarus who, on his flight from the labyrinth of Crete, had come too close to the sun with the wings his father had made for him and had fallen into the sea. Filled with compassion, Heracles buried the boy and, in his honor, named the island Icaria. In return for this, the artist Daedalus, father of Icarus, erected a statue of Heracles, a marvellous likeness, in Pisa. Once, when the hero arrived there at nightfall, the statue seemed alive to him in the dim light. His own heroic pose looked to him like the threatening gesture of a foe. He picked up a stone and shattered the beautiful monument which his friend had reared to commemorate his kindness. The chase of the Calydonian Boar also took place during the time Heracles was Omphale’s slave.

The queen admired the valor of her servant and divined that she had in her household a hero of world-wide fame. After she had learned that he was Heracles, the son of Zeus, she not only restored his liberty, in recognition of his merit, but made him her husband. In the sumptuous life of the Orient, Heracles forgot the teachings Virtue had once given him at the crossroads. He became voluptuous and effeminate, and Omphale took delight in humiliating him. She draped herself in his lion’s skin, but had him robed in the soft garments the women of Lydia wear, and so great was his blind passion for her that he obeyed when she bade him sit at her feet and spin wool. The neck which had once supported the burden of Atlas and found it light, now bore a woman’s necklace of gold; bracelets set with jewels clasped his sinewy arms. His uncut locks flowed over his shoulders from under a Lydian headdress, and long and dainty folds veiled his splendid limbs. He sat among the Ionian maids with the distaff before him, spinning the frail thread with his lean and muscular fingers, and feared the reproof of his mistress when he failed to finish the work set for the day. But when she was in good humor, this man in woman’s attire had to tell her and her handmaids the exploits of his glorious youth: how he had strangled serpents with his childish hands; how, as a stripling, he had slain the giant Geryon and struck off the deathless head of the Hydra, and how he had wrested the hound of hell from the very depths of the underworld. The women delighted in the tale of his deeds, as children take pleasure in the stories their nurses tell them.

When his years of service to Omphale were over at last, Heracles awoke from his infatuation. Full of disgust, he stripped himself of women’s gear, and it cost him only a brief effort to be himself again, the strong son of Zeus, filled with heroic resolves. In his new freedom he decided to take revenge on his enemies.


Before all else, he set out to punish King Laomedon, the insolent and willful ruler who had built the walls of Troy. For when on his way back from battling with the Amazons Heracles had freed Hesione, Laomedon’s daughter, from the dragon which was threatening her, the king had not only broken his word and withheld the swift horses of Zeus he had promised the hero in reward, but dismissed him with scornful words. Now Heracles took with him six ships and only a small number of warriors, but among them the foremost heroes of Greece: Peleus, Oileus, and Telamon. Heracles, clad in his lion’s skin, had come to Telamon while he was seated at his board. Telamon had risen, made welcome his guest, and offered him wine in a golden cup. Heracles, joyfully moved by this warm hospitality, had lifted his hands to heaven and prayed: “Father Zeus, if ever you have listened graciously to my pleas, hear me now: I implore you to give childless Telamon a bold son, an heir, who shall be as invulnerable as I in this lion’s skin of mine. Let him always be quickened with noble courage!”

Hardly had Heracles ceased speaking, when the god caused an eagle, the king of birds, to fly over his head. At this the hero exulted in his heart, and he began to speak like a soothsayer, in a voice resonant with power and ecstasy. “Yes, Telamon, you shall have the son you desire, and he will be as majestic as this imperial bird. Ajax shall be his name, and he will be great in the service of the god of war.”

When he had said this, he seated himself at the board. A short time after, he and Telamon, together with the other heroes, set out for the war against Troy.

When they had landed, Heracles made Oileus watchman over their ships, while he with the others advanced toward the city. Laomedon hastily marshalled his forces, fell upon the ships, and slew Oileus in combat. But when he went to return, he found himself encircled by Heracles’ companions. In the meantime the heroes besieged Troy. Telamon broke through the wall and was the first to invade the city. Heracles came after him. It was the first time in his life that the demigod had been second to anyone. Black envy clouded his soul, and an evil design swelled in his heart. He raised his sword and was about to strike down his friend, who strode on before, when Telamon looked back and guessed his intention by his gesture. With great presence of mind he began to collect the stones lying nearest him, and when his rival asked what he was doing, replied: “I am building an altar to Heracles, the victor!” At these words envy and anger melted away. Again the two fought side by side, and Heracles killed Laomedon and all his sons but one with his arrows. When the city was conquered, he gave Hesione, King Laomedon’s daughter, to his friend Telamon, as the prize of victory. But he permitted her to select one captive whom she wished liberated. She chose Podarces, her brother. “It is well,” said Heracles. “He shall be yours, but first he must suffer disgrace and be another’s servant. Then you may have him for the price you offer.” When the boy was sold as a slave, Hesione snatched the diadem from her head and gave it to ransom her brother, who ever after was called Priam: he who was sold.

Hera begrudged the demigod his triumph. On his homeward journey she beset him with savage winds, but Zeus was angered and soon put an end to her plotting. After various adventures, Heracles decided that the second victim of his revenge should be King Augeas, who had also failed to give him a promised reward. He invaded his country and slew him and his sons. The kingdom of Elis he gave to Phyleus, who had been driven into exile for the friendship he bore Heracles.

After this victory, Heracles restored the Olympic games and dedicated an altar to Pelops, who had initiated them, and six altars to the twelve gods, one for every two. It is said that at that time Zeus assumed the guise of a mortal, wrestled with Heracles, suffered defeat, and wished his son happiness in his divine strength. Then Heracles set out against Pylos and King Neleus, who had once refused to purify him of his crime. He fell on his city and slew him and ten of his sons. Only young Nestor was spared, since he was far away in the land of the Gerenians, where he was being educated. In this battle, Heracles wounded even Hades, the god of the underworld, who had come to the aid of the Pylians.

The only one left to punish was Hippocoon of Sparta, the other king who had refused to purify Heracles of the murder of Iphitus. Hippocoon’s sons, moreover, had added fuel to the flame of the demigod’s hatred, for when he had come to Sparta with Oeonus, his uncle and friend, a large Molossian shepherd dog attacked his kinsman while he was looking at the palace. Oeonus threw a stone at the animal, whereupon the sons of the king rushed toward the stranger and killed him with cudgels. So now, to avenge his friend’s death along with his own grievance, Heracles assembled a host to go against Sparta. When they were marching through Arcadia, he invited King Cepheus and his twenty sons to join the expedition, but at first he refused, for he feared an invasion from his neighbors, the Argives. Now Athene had given Heracles a lock of the Medusa’s hair, enclosed in a brazen urn. This he gave to Sterope, the daughter of King Cepheus, saying to her: “When the Argive armies approach, all you need to do is raise this lock three times above the walls of the city, without looking at it yourself, and your enemies will take to flight.” When Cepheus heard this, he let himself be persuaded to take part in the campaign, but though the Argives were indeed forced to flee, he himself suffered disaster after disaster, and was finally slain with all his sons. Iphicles, the brother of Heracles, also fell, but Heracles himself conquered Sparta, killed Hippocoon and his sons, brought Tyndareus, the father of Castor and Polydeuces, back to that city, and reinstated him as king. But he retained the right to have his own descendants inherit the realm he had handed over to Tyndareus.


After the hero had done many bold deeds in the Peloponnesus, he came to Calydon, in Aetolia, to King Oeneus, who had a beautiful daughter, Deianira. She, more than any other woman in Aetolia, was much annoyed by the attentions of a most unwelcome suitor. Before coming to Calydon, she had lived in Pleuron, another city in her father’s realm, and there a river, called Achelous, had come to woo her in three different shapes. First he appeared in the form of a bull, then as a dragon with glittering coils, and lastly in human form, but with the head of a bull, from whose shaggy jowls fresh streams broke forth. Deianira could not but look upon this strange suitor with great distress! And she prayed the gods that she might die. For a long time she persisted in her rejection of him, but he grew more and more wild and insistent, and her father did not seem disinclined to marry her to the deity of the river, who was descended from an ancient line of gods.

But now, though late, a second wooer arrived upon the scene, and fortunately he was still in time. It was Heracles, to whom his friend Meleager had described the loveliness of the king’s daughter. The hero had divined that this fair girl would not be lightly won, and he had come equipped for battle. As he walked toward the palace, the wind fluttered the lion’s skin on his back, his quiver clanged with arrows, and he swung his club in the air. When the river-god saw him coming, the veins swelled in his bull’s head, and he tried out his horns for the thrust. King Oeneus saw these two, in their great strength and lust for battle, and not wishing to offend either of them, promised his daughter to the one who would overcome the other in combat.

The furious contest began, with the king, the queen, and their daughter as spectators. Heracles’ fists dealt sounding blows, arrows whirred from his bow, but through it all the huge bull’s head of the river-god emerged again and again and sought out its opponent with deadly lunging horns. In the end the combat turned into a wrestling match. Arm was locked in arm, foot twined with foot. The brows and limbs of the wrestlers glistened with sweat, and both groaned aloud while they strove with panting breath. Then the son of Zeus gained the upper hand and hurled the strong god to earth. He at once changed himself into a serpent. Heracles, however, was well versed in the handling of snakes and would have crushed him had not Achelous suddenly assumed the shape of a bull. But even this did not find Heracles at a loss. He gripped the monster by the horn and forced him down with such might that one horn broke off in his hand. The river-god declared himself defeated, and Deianira became the victor’s prize. As for Achelous’ horn: long ago the nymph Amalthea had given him a horn of plenty, spilling over with fruits of every kind, with pomegranates and grapes. Now he gave this horn to Heracles in exchange for his own.

The marriage of Heracles changed nothing in his way of life. Just as before he roamed from quest to quest. Once when he returned to the palace of Oeneus, he had the misfortune to kill a boy about to hand him a bowl of water to wash his hands at the board, and again he was forced to flee. His young wife and Hyllus, the son she had borne him, accompanied him on his wanderings.


Their journey took them from Calydon to his friend Ceyx in Trachis. It was the most perilous Heracles had ever undertaken, for when he reached the river Euenus, he came upon Nessus, the centaur, who for a stated fee carried travellers across on his shoulders. He claimed that the gods themselves had assigned this post to him in recognition of his honesty. Now Heracles himself had no need of such a service, for he could stride through the swirling waters with great and powerful steps. But Deianira he left to Nessus, who took her upon his shoulder and bore her sturdily through the river. Midway across, however, he was so beguiled by her delicate beauty that he began to embrace her. Heracles, on the opposite shore, heard her cry for help and quickly turned to go back. When he saw her in the power of this shaggy half-man, he did not stop to consider but snatched a winged arrow from his quiver and shot Nessus, just coming ashore, in the back, and the dart came out through his breast. Deianira had escaped from the arms of the centaur and was about to run to her husband when Nessus, burning for revenge even on the threshold of death, called her back, and tricked her with lying words.

“Hear me, daughter of Oeneus! Since you are the last to be carried on my back, you shall have some profit from my service, provided you do as I say. Collect the fresh blood which flows from the wound of which I am dying. At the very spot where the arrow, poisoned with the venom of the Lernean Hydra, entered my body, you will find it clotted and easy to take up. Use it as magic to yoke the fancy of your husband. If you dye his tunic with it, he will never love any woman more than yourself.” As soon as he had uttered this treacherous counsel, he died of the poisoned wound. And Deianira, though she had no doubt of her husband’s love for her, did as she was told, collected the clotted blood in a vial she carried with her, and preserved it without the knowledge of Heracles, who was too far away to see what she was doing. After other adventures, they reached Trachis and made their home with the king, and with them were the men from Arcadia, who followed Heracles wherever he went.


The last venture which Heracles undertook was an expedition against Eurytus, king of Oechalia, for whom he cherished an ancient grudge for having refused him his daughter Iole. He assembled a mighty host of Greeks and marched to Euboea to besiege Eurytus and his sons in their city. And he was victorious. The lofty palace was shattered and lay in the dust, the king and his three sons slain, and the entire city destroyed. Iole, who was still young and fair, was the captive of Heracles.

Deianira had anxiously been awaiting news of her husband. At last a joyful clamor broke out in the palace. A messenger had come at full speed and gave his news to eager listeners. “Your husband lives, O princess,” he cried. “He will return in all the glory of conquest, and even now is bringing the first fruits of the battle to his native gods. His servant Lichas, whom he sent to follow me, is proclaiming the victory to the people out on the open plain. He himself delayed only because he is making offerings of thanks to Zeus on the promontory of Cenaeum in Euboea.”

Soon after, Lichas, the attendant of Heracles, arrived, and with him the captives. “Hail to you, wife of my lord,” he addressed Deianira. “The immortals abhor wrongdoing. They have prospered the just cause of Heracles. They who lived sumptuously and boasted with an evil tongue have all been speeded to Hades. But these prisoners whom we have brought with us your husband commends to your mercy, above all this unhappy girl, who has thrown herself at your feet.”

Deianira gazed compassionately on the lovely young creature, radiant with beauty, raised her from the ground, and said: “I have always ached with pity whenever I saw luckless people who had lost their homes dragged through alien lands, and the free-born suffering the lot of slaves. O Zeus, O conqueror, may you never lift your arm to inflict such sorrow upon my house! But who are you, poor girl? You are still a virgin, it seems, and the child of a noble house. Tell me, Lichas, who are her parents?”

“How should I know? Why do you ask?” he replied evasively, but his face betrayed that he was harboring a secret. After a brief pause he continued: “She certainly does not come from one of the humble homes in Oechalia.”

Since the girl herself only sighed and kept silence, Deianira refrained from further questioning and had her taken into the house and treated with courtesy and kindness. While Lichas carried out her commands, the messenger who had been first to arrive approached his mistress, and when he thought himself unobserved, whispered: “Do not trust the man your husband sent, Deianira. He is concealing the truth from you. I, in the middle of the market place of Trachis, in the presence of countless witnesses, heard him say that your husband Heracles destroyed the lofty palace of Oechalia solely because of this girl. She whom you have welcomed into your house is Iole, the daughter of Eurytus, Iole, for whom Heracles burned with love before he ever knew you. Now she is come, not as your slave, but as your rival and his concubine.”

When Deianira heard this she broke into loud lament, but quickly composed herself and sent for Lichas, her husband’s servant. At first he swore by Zeus, the king of all the gods, that he had told her the truth, that he did not know who the girl’s parents were. For a long time he obstinately clung to his lie. But—by that same Zeus—Deianira implored him not to mock her any longer. “Even if it were possible for me to resent my husband’s faithlessness,” she told him tearfully, “I am not so ignoble as to cherish hatred for this girl, who has never done me any harm. For her I have nothing but compassion, for her beauty has not only wrought havoc with her own happiness but has even caused her country to become enslaved.”

When Lichas heard her express such kindly feelings, he confessed everything. Deianira dismissed him with no hint of reproach and only told him to wait until she had prepared a gift for her husband as a gracious return for the train of captives he had sent her.

Far from any ray of light, in strict obedience to the centaur’s directions, Deianira had hidden the clotted blood she had collected from around his poisonous wound. Now for the first time since she had so carefully concealed it in a secret place did the princess, in her torment of jealousy, think of the magic ointment. Ignorant of the snare spun by the vengeful Nessus, she thought it a mere love-charm that would effect nothing but the regaining of her husband’s heart. She must act at once! Softly she crept to that chamber and with a tuft of white lamb’s wool, which she had dipped in the salve, she secretly dyed a gorgeous tunic to be sent to Heracles. While she busied herself with this work she scrupulously shielded from the sun both the wool and the stuff she was dying, laid the crimson garment in fair folds, and locked it in a box. When all was done, she threw the tuft of wool, which was of no further use, on the floor, summoned Lichas, and put in his hands the gift for Heracles. “Take this to my husband,” she said. “It is a garment I wove with my own hands. None shall wear it but he; nor shall he expose the stuff to fire or the light of the sun before the day of offerings, when he shall solemnly adorn himself in it for the gods. For I made a vow that all this should be so, if he returned to me a victor. And that this is really my wish and message, he shall see by this signet which I entrust to you.”

Lichas promised to do as his mistress had bidden him. Not an instant longer did he remain in the palace, but he hurried to Euboea, so that his lord, who was performing the rites of offering, might receive the greetings from home as soon as possible. A few days passed, and Hyllus, the eldest son of Heracles and Deianira, went to join his father, to describe to him his mother’s impatience, and urge him to hasten his return. In the meantime Deianira happened to enter the chamber where she had dyed the tunic with the magic ointment. She found the tuft she had carelessly tossed aside lying on the floor in the full light of the sun and warmed by its beams. But she recoiled at the sight of it, for the wool had crumbled to dusty fragments, and from these brittle shreds a poisonous foam bubbled forth with a hissing sound. Weighed down by a dim premonition of what she had done, the wretched woman wandered through the rooms of her palace in an agony of unrest.

At last Hyllus returned, but he came alone. “O mother,” he called to her, and his voice was harsh with hatred, “I wish you had never lived, that you were not my mother, or that the gods had imbued you with another spirit!” The queen, who was already troubled by vague forebodings, started at the words of her son. “What is there so hateful about me, child?” she asked.

“I come from the promontory of Cenaeum, mother,” her son answered and paused because he was shaken with sobs. “It is you who have robbed me of my father!”

Deianira grew pale as death, but she collected her strength sufficiently to ask: “And who tells you this, my son? Who dares accuse me of so terrible a crime?”

“No one,” said her son. “No one told me. There was no need, for with my own eyes I saw my father’s pitiful end. I reached him on Cenaeum just as he was about to rear an altar to conquering Zeus and slaughter victims for thank-offerings. Then Lichas, his attendant, came bearing your gift, the death-bringing tunic. Obedient to your wish, my father at once put it on, and thus adorned, began the sacrifice of twelve stately bullocks. At first, pleased with the beautiful garment you sent, he prayed joyfully and serenely. But when the flames at the altars leaped heavenward, he broke into sweat. The tunic seemed welded to his body as though by a smith, and tremors shook him from head to foot. As if an adder were feeding on his flesh, he called aloud for Lichas, the guiltless bearer of the poisoned tunic. He came, and innocently repeated what you had bidden him say. My father seized him by the foot, dashed him to death on the cliffs near the sea, and hurled his shattered limbs into the beating waves. All the people were horror-stricken at this mad deed, but no one dared approach raving Heracles. Now he rolled on the ground, now he sprang up, screaming with pain, and the rocks and wooded mountains echoed his cries. He cursed you and the marriage which was now to end in his death. Finally he turned to me and said: ‘My son, if you feel pity for your father, carry me aboard at once, so that I need not die on alien soil.’ Thereupon we bore him into the ship and now, writhing with pain, he has reached his own land. Soon you will see him—perhaps alive, perhaps dead. And all this is your work, mother! You have shamefully done to death the most glorious hero of all time.”

Deianira made no reply to his bitter charge. She did not try to clear herself but left her son Hyllus in silent despair. Then some of the house servants, to whom she had once confided the secret of how the magic ointment given her by Nessus would insure her husband’s faithfulness, told the boy that his rage toward his mother was unjust. He ran after her, but he came too late. She lay in her chamber, stretched dead on her husband’s bed, a double-edged sword in her breast. Hyllus threw his arms about her and flung himself across the bed, regretting his impetuous words. His father’s coming interrupted his self-reproaches. “Son,” he cried, “where are you? Unsheathe your sword; use it against your father! Sever my neck from my body and heal the frenzy with which your godless mother has stricken me. Do not delay! Have pity on me, a hero crying like a girl!” Then he turned to those around him, stretched out his arms in agony, and moaned: “Do you still recognize these, though the strength has been taken from them? They are the same that slew the terror of shepherds, the Nemean Lion, that strangled the Lernean Hydra, that helped put an end to the Erymanthian Boar, and carried Cerberus out of Hades. No spear, no wild beast of the forest, no host of giants could overwhelm me; but now I am destroyed by a woman’s hand. My son, kill me, and punish your mother.”

But when Hyllus told his father—swearing to the truth of his words—that his mother had never intended disaster for her husband, and that she had atoned for her thoughtless act by inflicting death upon herself, the wrath of Heracles ebbed and turned to sorrow. He betrothed his son Hyllus to Iole, his captive, whom he himself had once loved, and since an oracle had been issued from Delphi that he was to end his life on Mount Oeta, in the region of Trachis, he had himself carried up to the peak, in spite of the intensity of his pain. At his command, his people heaped a funeral pyre on which he had himself laid. And now he bade them light the woodpile from below, but no one was willing to obey him. Desperate with pain, the hero urged his request until his friend Philoctetes agreed to do what he asked. In gratitude, Heracles handed him his ever-victorious bow and the arrows which no one could withstand. The instant the pyre was lit, lightning flashed from heaven and quickened the flames. Then a cloud floated down, encircled the pyre, and bore the immortal hero to Olympus, while the air shook with thunder. When the pyre had burned to the ground, Iolaus and other friends approached to gather the remains of the hero out of the ashes, but they found not a single bone. No longer could they doubt that, true to the decree of the gods, Heracles had been taken from the bounds of earth and set among the immortals. They prepared the sacrifice and tendered him the honors due to a god. All of Greece worshipped him as a deity.

In heaven, Athene received the immortal hero and led him into the circle of the gods. Now that his earthly course was run, even Hera became reconciled with him. She gave him her daughter Hebe to wife, the goddess of everlasting youth, who on the shining peak of Olympus bore him children, beautiful and deathless.

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