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Saturday, August 04, 2007

Hercules and His Twelve Tasks

Labours of Hercules - Mythopedia
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"Hercules and the hydra" by Antonio Pollaiuolo
The Twelve Labours (Greek: dodekathlos) of Heracles (Latin: Hercules) are a series of archaic episodes connected by a later continuous narrative, concerning a penance carried out by Heracles, the greatest of the Greek heroes. The establishment of a fixed cycle of twelve labours was attributed by the Greeks to an epic poem, now lost, written by Peisandros of Rhodes, dated about 600 BC (Burkert).
As they survive, the Labours of Heracles are not told in any single place, but must be reassembled from many sources. Ruck and Staples (pp 169–170) assert that there is no one way to interpret the labours, but that six were located in the Peloponnese, culminating with the rededication of Olympia. Six others took the hero farther afield. In each case, the pattern was the same: Heracles was sent to kill or subdue, or to fetch back for Hera's representative Eurystheus a magical animal or plant. "The sites selected were all previously strongholds of Hera or the 'Goddess' and were Entrances to the Netherworld" (p 169).
A famous depiction of the labours in Greek sculpture is found on the metopes of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, which date to the 450s BC; in the Archaic period, it may actually have been the labours' display on the twelve available metopes on temples which led to their being counted as twelve in number.
1 The framing narrative
2 The labours
3 Inner meaning
3.1 Geographic locations
4 Modern popular culture
5 See also
6 References
7 External links

[edit] The framing narrative
Zeus, having made Alcmene pregnant with Heracles, proclaimed that the next son born of the house of Perseus would become king. Hera, Zeus' wife, hearing this, caused Eurystheus to be born two months early as he was of the house of Perseus, while Heracles, also of the house, was three months overdue. When he found out what had been done, Zeus was furious; however, his rash proclamation still stood.
In a fit of madness, induced by Hera, Heracles slew his wife and children; the fit then passed. Realizing what he had done, he isolated himself, going into the wilderness and living alone. He was found (by his cousin Theseus) and convinced to visit the Oracle at Delphi. The Oracle told him that as a penance he would have to perform a series of twelve tasks, or labours, set by King Eurystheus, the man who had taken Heracles' birthright and the man he hated the most.

(See Wikipedia to view picture) The picture is reproduced from Baumeister's Denkmäler des klassichen Alterthums, volume I., figure 730 (text on p. 663). It is on a vase and describes one of the twelve heroic deeds of Heracles. The latter, holding aloft his club, drags two-headed Cerberus out of Hades by a chain drawn through the jaw of one of his heads. He is just about to pass Cerberus through a portal indicated by an Ionic pillar. To the right Persephone, stepping out of her palace, seems to forbid the rape. Heracles in his turn seems to threaten the goddess, while Hermes, to the left, holds a protecting or restraining arm over him. Athene, with averted face, ready to depart with her protégé, stands in front of four horses hitched to her chariot. Upon her shield the eagle augurs the success of the entire undertaking.

[edit] The labours
In his labours, Heracles was often accompanied by a male companion (an eromenos), according to some Licymnius, or by others Iolaus, his nephew. Although he was only supposed to perform ten labours, this assistance led to him suffering two more. Eurystheus didn't count the Hydra, because Iolaus helped him, or the Augean stables, as he received payment for his work (in other versions it is because the rivers did the work). In other versions both did count as his part of the 12 labours.
A traditional order of the labours found in Apollodorus (2.5.1-2.5.12) is:
Slay the Nemean Lion and bring back its hide.
Slay the Lernaean Hydra.
Capture the Ceryneian Hind.
Capture the Erymanthian Boar.
Clean the Augean stables in a single day.
Slay the Stymphalian Birds.
Capture the Cretan Bull.
Steal the Mares of Diomedes.
Obtain the Girdle of Hippolyte.
Obtain the Cows of Geryon.
Steal the Apples of the Hesperides.
Capture Cerberus, the guardian dog of Hades, and bring him back.

[edit] Inner meaning
Walter Burkert has called the labours and other myths of Heracles "a conglomerate of popular tales which was exploited only secondarily by the high art of poetry", and it was not until the fifth century that poets of the Classic age could draw the myth into "a tragic, heroic, and human atmosphere and away from its natural thrust outwards to a carefree realm beyond the human" (Burkert 1985:208). As philosophical, moral, and eventually allegorical overlays came to be applied to his death-cheating superhuman exploits, behind their outer, literal meaning, the Heracles figure came to represent an inner mystical tradition, and thus the labours could be interpreted in terms of the spiritual path. The last three labours (10-12) of Heracles are generally considered metaphors about death. Heracles was unique among Greek heroes in that no tomb of Heracles was ever localized, and the Olympian sacrifices and chthonic libations were offered simultaneously to him everywhere.

[edit] Geographic locations
Pointing to a possible location for their origin, or at least their formalisation, is the fact that most of the geographic locations are in, or on the borders of, Arcadia, or connected with it significantly.
The Town of Nemea, northwest of Argos
Lake Lerna to the south (which is now dry).
The Mountain Erymanthos, currently also called Olonos.
The Town Ceryneia, in the far North West of the Peloponnese
Lake Stymphalia, close by, and west of, Nemea. In ancient times it was marshy.
The River Alphaeus feeds the bay of Elis, and drains the north western mountains.
The City of Sparta to the south. It features as the entrance to the Underworld.
The Island of Crete, a sea trading nation
The Nation of Thrace, is described as being the enemy of Argos during the Trojan War, and in that situation is associated with Diomedes. Many Roman gods and goddesses were involved in the wars.

[edit] Modern popular culture
The Twelve Labours have been spoofed a number of times in comic books:
Asterix starred his own Twelve Tasks, since the original were "outdated"
Monica, a popular Brazilian character, fought the "original" 12 labours, with a few changes[1]
In a French comic strip of the 1960s, a time-travelling Mickey Mouse assisted Hercules, often employing modern techniques such as a music-playing pocket radio to subdue Cerberus.
In a 1970s story arc, Wonder Woman underwent her own twelve labours to demonstrate her fitness to rejoin the Justice League of America. Each of these tasks was monitored by an incumbent member of the League.
In a 1995 Marvel Comics mini-series, Heracles undertook modernized versions of his twelve labours, often with comedic results.
Howard Waldrop also reset the Twelve Labours to the Depression-era American South in his novella A Dozen Tough Jobs.
Agatha Christie used the twelve labours as allegories for the last twelve cases that her detective Hercule Poirot would solve before his retirement in the 1947 short story collection The Labours of Hercules. (He didn't retire until Curtain in 1975.)
The alternate reality game Perplex City involves a puzzle card entitled The Thirteenth Labour, which is likely a reference to the Twelve Labours of Heracles (as this puzzle is one of the few still unsolved by any participant, the allusion to a "herculean effort" may well be appropriate).
In the Japanese anime Fate/stay night, the antagonist Illyasviel von Einzbern's servant Berserker, whose true name is Hercules, can not die until he is killed twelve times. When explaining this, Illyasviel makes a direct reference to The Twelve Labours of Hercules.
In the Japanese anime Heroic Age (anime), the savior of humanity is a boy named Age who is a Nodos, or a being merged with one of the Heroic Tribe. The Heroic Bellcross must complete Twelve Labors for humanity (aka the Iron Tribe) by decree of the Golden Tribe, the galaxy's previous elder race. Age's superhuman strength, as well as Bellcross' inhuman strength (on a solar flare scale), is a direct parallel to Hercules.
Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely 's "All Star Superman" series revolves around the 12 Labours Of Superman -- a progression that may or may not (as of this writing) lead to the hero's death.
Michael E. Arth, in The Labors of Hercules: Modern Solutions to 12 Herculean Problems, compares the Twelve Labors to twelve modern problems that humans must solve.
The storyline for the video game God of War is largely similar to the story of Hercules and the 12 Labours.

[edit] See also
List of constellations

[edit] References
Burkert, Walter, Greek Religion 1985 (Cambridge, Massachusetts:Harvard University Press)
Ruck, Carl A.P., and Danny Staples, 1994. The World of Classical Myth (Durham:Carolina Academic Press)
Arth, Michael E. The Labors of Hercules: Modern Solutions to 12 Herculean Problems (online edition) link to site

[edit] External links

Wikimedia Commons has media related to:
Twelve Labours
[2] - Livius Picture Archive: Labors of Heracles
[3] - The Labors of Hercules at [4] - the Perseus Digital Library

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