One day about two decades after Creon’s fateful visit to Delphi, an extraordinary young man arrived in town. The people of Delphi had seen many a hulking warrior in their time, but this particular youth, who answered to the name of Alcides, was truly in a class of his own. He was half again the height of the average man and twice the width, with legs like oak-tree trunks and arms as bulbous as the most thickly gnarled olive-tree branch. And yet his personality was if anything even more outsized than his physique. His huge laugh filled the town whenever it came forth, which was often, for he drank and joked with enthusiasm. His boasting about his diverse feats and prowesses, as extravagant as it was endless, somehow wasn’t as grating as it ought to have been; on the contrary, it was oddly guileless, almost sweet in its naïveté.
Alcides’s most flabbergasting boast of all was his open claim of divine parentage. His nominal lineage, mind you, was already impressive enough: he was the son of one Amphitryon, who was himself a grandson of Perseus of Tiryns. As everyone in Delphi knew, Amphitryon had been exiled from his native city for accidentally killing his uncle Electryon, then the king of Tiryns, with an errant shot from his bow whilst the two were out hunting. He had made his way in his exile to Thebes, and it was here that Alcides had been born.
When King Oedipus had left Thebes in disgrace, the hope he had expressed in his parting words to Creon — for a peaceful life for his children and his city — had quickly been undone by those selfsame children’s own actions. No sooner had the plague caused by Oedipus’s presence been lifted by his departure than his headstrong sons had gone to war, first with one another and then with Creon as well, for control of the city. Amphitryon had fought on the side of Creon, the most just of the claimants to the throne, and had eventually won out with him, but only at great cost to everyone involved. Now, a generation after Oedipus’s departure, all four of Oedipus’s children, the offspring of his unholy union with his own mother, were dead, as were all of Creon’s children, with the exception of a single daughter. The city was a shadow of what it once had been: ruled by a tired and elderly monarch, haunted by the tragic shadows of the past. Even Tiresias, the blind prophet everyone had assumed to be immortal, who had guided Thebes through all of its history to date, had died after drinking the water from a poisoned spring; no one knew whether he had drunk accidentally or purposefully. Amphitryon, who had been instrumental in Creon’s victory against the children of Oedipus, was among the few strong leaders left in Thebes, but even he was getting old.
Almost anyone would have been proud to claim such a man as this for a father, but Alcides nevertheless insisted that Amphitryon wasn’t his real father at all. He claimed that Zeus had disguised himself as Amphitryon and in that form bedded his now-deceased mother, whose name was Alcmene; he claimed that he was the result of that union. It was preposterous on the face of it, yet the people of Delphi found themselves more inclined to believe it than otherwise. Not only was Alcides not struck down on the spot for making the claim, as he presumably would be if it was false, but everything about him fairly shouted that he was of more than mortal stock. Indeed, Alcides talked of the gods almost as equals, claiming to have met most of them many times. He boasted that his magnificent array of battle gear, all sized to suit his enormous frame, had come courtesy of them: Hermes had provided his sword, as strong as it was sharp; Apollo had provided his bow, which could be shot by his hands with dumbfounding range and accuracy; Hephaestus had provided his breastplate, which could turn aside virtually any blow that struck it; and Athena had provided the fine, loose robe which he wore when he wished to conceal it all.
Alcides said that the only one of the gods with whom he wasn’t on speaking terms was Hera, who was jealous as ever of her husband’s unceasing amours and the mortal children they continually begat. She had been trying fruitlessly to do him in since he was still in the womb, Alcides said with a wink, seeming to regard the threat the goddess’s ire posed as a trivial matter:
“Aye,when the time came for me to be born Hera managed to prevent my arrival for a full week, while my mother writhed and groaned with the weight that was trapped inside her. In the end, though, even the goddess couldn’t master my will to join the world!
“Then, when I was still in my cradle, Hera sent a pair of poisonous vipers to the chamber where I slept. But my father Zeus knew what she was about, and filled the chamber with light, awakening me and letting me see my attackers. Thanks to the light, I was able to grab each serpent just behind the throat as it struck — just there where snakes brew their poison. Then I held the two at arm’s length and strangled the life out of them.
“Let me tell you, Amphitryon and my mother got quite the shock when they burst into my sleeping chamber after they were awakened by the light of Zeus. I just laughed and threw the snakes at their feet. They went to the old prophet Tiresias the next morning — he was still alive at this time, you understand — who told them of the trick of Zeus which had led to my conception. Amphitryon was wise enough not to begrudge me my parentage. Instead he found me tutors who made me the best in Greece at racing a chariot, wrestling, fencing, and playing the lyre. In fact, shall I play a tune for you now?” And the people of Delphi, charmed despite themselves, listened enraptured while he demonstrated the truth of his last boast, cradling the delicate instrument in his huge hands and stroking its strings with deceptive tenderness.
In his own good time — it was clear that such was the schedule by which he did all things — Alcides got round to the actual purpose of his visit to Delphi. Like so many who came to the town, he wished an audience with Apollo’s oracle. The town council duly granted him his wish.
But when he came to the temple of Apollo, he did so with none of the requisite humility. He strode proudly inside without bothering to cleanse himself at the Castalian Spring, and, having offered up nary a sacrifice nor a prayer, told the oracle matter-of-factly what he wished from her, speaking to her as he might a shopkeeper. “My stepfather Amphitryon has long been exiled from his home of Tiryns for an alleged crime which everyone can agree was the merest accident. He has been forced to dwell instead in Thebes, which has become a sad and downtrodden place since the time of the accursed King Oedipus. I’d like to know how my stepfather — and I — can be restored to our rightful positions in our real homeland, in the bosom of the royal lineage of the great Perseus. I’m afraid that I see Apollo personally only on rare occasions, so I’ve come to you to be my intermediary.” When the oracle, thoroughly taken aback by his brusque manner, made no immediate reply, he shooed her toward her inner sanctum as if she was a serving maid. “That’s all I require from you. Run along now please with my message.”
Needless to say, no suppliant had ever treated the oracle like this. Even as she wondered why Apollo himself hadn’t struck down the boorish youth already, she herself was in no mood to tolerate his disrespect. “Out!” she said to him, raising an imperious finger toward the doorway. “Come back when you have sacrificed and done penance for this outrage — assuming the god elects to spare you the punishment it deserves!”
But, much to her astonishment, Alcides didn’t meekly slink away in the face of her righteous fury. Instead he gave an impatient shrug and muttered something about serving himself if she couldn’t be bothered. Then he pushed past her into the inner sanctum where she communed with the god Apollo — the sacred space where no one but her was allowed to go. Waving at the vapors inside the space which tickled his nostrils and clouded his vision, he said that the close air in here didn’t suit him at all. “I’ll talk to the god myself outside,” he said. And, taking the omphalos stone in one of his huge paws, he marched right out of the temple with his booty, leaving her spluttering with indignation in his wake.
Apollo couldn’t possibly allow this outrage to stand, she thought — and at last she was correct. Just as Alcides reached the bottom of the temple’s steps, the god materialized in all his majesty. “What on earth are you doing?” he asked.
“I have a question for you, but your oracle wasn’t willing to ask it,” replied Alcides. “So, I decided I’d ask you myself.”
“This is no way to treat an oracle or a god!” shouted Apollo. “You have been shown much divine favor in your young life, but there are limits.” Then Apollo tried to take the stone away from Alcides — but the youth refused, grasping it all the tighter. The people of Delphi gathered in shock before the temple to watch the slightly ludicrous spectacle of these two imposing figures straining on either side of the stone, cursing one another all the while. The most bizarre thing of all was that the mortal’s strength seemed to be equal to the god’s. Pull though he might, Apollo couldn’t seem to wrest the stone from Alcides’s grasp.
Then, with a mighty clap of thunder, another figure materialized: that of Zeus himself, dimming his deadly majesty somewhat out of mercy toward the mortals of Delphi. “Stop this quarreling, my sons!” he demanded — for both were of course his progeny. When they failed to heed him, he fired a bolt of lightning from his fingertip; it struck the omphalos stone and sent it flying, sending its two would-be claimants sprawling ingloriously to the ground. “If you persist in acting like children, I shall have to treat you as children,” said Zeus. When the two regained their feet and made motions toward rejoining the battle, he raised again a threatening finger, which was sufficient to stop them this time. “Now, what is the cause of this squabbling?” asked their father sternly.
The answer unspooled itself as a tangle of accusations and recriminations. At last, though, Zeus came to believe that he had separated truth from invective and grasped the real situation. “It would be best if you left us now,” he said to Apollo, whereupon the god obediently winked out of existence. Then, turning to Alcides: “I myself shall answer the question you came here to ask — provided you first return the omphalos stone to its proper location, apologize to Apollo’s oracle for your behavior, and agree to sacrifice to the gods every evening for the next week for your impiety.” When Alcides had done the first two of these things with the shamed demeanor of a scolded adolescent, the god who was his father gathered himself to speak.
“Know this, first of all,” he said. “I have spared you from the consequences of your actions today because you, more so than any of my other mortal children, are prodigious — prodigious in every sense of the word. You contain within you all of the many facets of mortal man. You are kind and cruel, capable and incompetent, moral and immoral, wise and foolish, heroic and cowardly, selfless and selfish, loyal and disloyal, constant and mercurial. You are all of these things, and so many more, in greater measure than any other mortal who has ever lived. Because your prodigiousness comes complete with physical strength all but equal to that of a god — as you have just proved! — you have it in you to become the greatest hero Greece has ever known or will ever know. But your life will not be an easy one. It will be marked by as much tragedy as triumph.
“Now, the answer to the specific question which brought you to Delphi is really rather obvious — so much so that you could have worked it out for yourself, if you made as good a use of your brains as you do of your brawn. You yourself are under no judgment of exile from Tiryns — only your stepfather. You ought simply to go there and ask the city’s king what you must do to restore your branch of the family to its rightful status.”
And with this, Zeus seemed about to leave. But then he turned back to the muscle-bound youth once again. “You should perhaps know a few things more. Because of your uniqueness, the gods will all accord you special treatment, as I and Apollo have done today. But know as well, my proud son, that even Apollo, much less myself, could have smote you down with his magic if he had so chosen rather than wrestling with you in the dirt. And know too that the special treatment of one god, or rather goddess, will run in a negative rather than a positive direction. Beware always of my wife Hera!” Here a mischievous gleam came into Zeus’s eyes, rather undermining the seriousness of the preceding declamations. “Just to remind her of who you are, I think we should give you a new name. From now on, you shall be known as Heracles, the most singular Greek of all!” And with an incongruous chuckle, he faded out of existence, leaving the people gathered around to shake their heads at the inscrutability of the gods.
As instructed, the newly renamed Heracles made his way to Tiryns to ask the king there how to return his stepfather’s branch of the family to the city’s good graces. Said king was named Eurystheus. A devious and ingenious man by nature, he was the brother-in-law of Electryon, the former king of Tiryns whom Amphitryon had killed with his errant arrow. Thus Eurystheus had little natural sympathy for Heracles’s cause. His heart was hardened still further by Hera, who, hearing of Heracles’s quest as well as this latest affront that was his new name, came to Eurystheus to offer her advice before the hero himself arrived. She noted that, while justice would not allow Eurystheus to reject Heracles’s entreaty outright, he could set such a high price on atonement that it would be all but impossible to pay even for one of Heracles’s abilities. Eurystheus and Hera then proceeded to employ all their natural cunning to decide what this price should be. For if Eurystheus succeeded in thwarting Heracles, Hera promised, she would bestow great favors upon him and his city.
So, when Heracles appeared, Eurystheus told him that redemption would require that he carry out ten labors — that is to say, ten quests, each of them daunting enough in its own right to secure him the title of one of Greece’s greatest heroes ever. Heracles could well recognize that Eurystheus intended for him to fail, but his pride was such that he couldn’t refuse the challenge. He merely nodded and asked what his first labor should be.
“You must visit the town of Nemea,” replied Eurystheus. “A fearsome lion has been terrorizing the countryside outside of the town, killing herdsmen along with their flocks. This lion is no ordinary beast, but rather a child of Typhon, begotten before that monster’s imprisonment in Tartarus. No natural creature can compare to its ferocity — not bear or boar or deadly wolf.” And then he added, almost as an afterthought: “No weapon can harm this Nemean Lion.” And with that he turned away, ignoring the questions with which a confused Heracles bombarded him. He slept well that night, confident he had seen the last of the young upstart.
But Heracles was undaunted. He pondered long and hard on Eurystheus’s final cryptic pronouncement, then went out to find the largest, most solid olive tree he could. He gripped its trunk between his enormous hands and wrenched it bodily from the earth, roots and all. Then he trimmed away its roots and branches to make himself a club longer than the height of the average man, and set off with it for Nemea.
It was easy enough for him to learn the location of the cave that served as the lion’s den; it was known and avoided by all around Nemea. He lay in wait outside, crouched amidst the trees on a hillock some distance from the cave with his club at his side and an arrow notched to his bow. After long hours of tense waiting, the lion appeared at sunset. It was indeed a more fearsome sight than Heracles had ever seen; it had recently gorged itself on some fresh kill, traces of which still dripped from its mane, shoulders, and face. Heracles aimed carefully and let fly his arrow. His aim was true — but the shaft, sufficient to split asunder any normal beast, merely glanced off the lion’s flank, its tip blunted as if it had rammed solid bronze.
The lion stopped in its tracks and looked about for its attacker. Raising its tawny head, it let forth a terrifying roar. Heracles hastily strung another arrow to his bow and fired again. This time the arrow struck the monster full in the chest — but, again, merely glanced off harmlessly.
The arrow did, however, reveal to the lion the location of its attacker. With another terrifying roar, it sprang toward Heracles, covering the distance between them in a matter of seconds. But Heracles was ready; he stood up tall with his shield raised in the one hand, with his tree-trunk club in the other. He met the lion’s charge with the shield, casting the monster momentarily aside. Then, before it could turn to attack him again, he brought his makeshift club down hard on the lion’s head, dazing it. Now Heracles jumped atop the lion from behind, avoiding thereby its deadly claws, and, wrapping his arms tightly around its neck, squeezed with all his immense strength. The monster bucked and strained in panic, but Heracles’s grip was relentless. At length its head slumped to the ground, lifeless. Heracles had killed it in the only way possible — without using a weapon.
He wished to take the lion’s skin as a trophy, but found it proof against the sharpest knife. Finally, he discovered that he could rend it using the monster’s own claws. And so he fashioned a fine new cloak for himself, capable of turning aside the most deadly of blows, supplementing the protection afforded by the breastplate of Hephaestus. He wrapped even his wrists and ankles in the skin.
Word of Heracles’s feat and the new cloak of protection it had won for him reached Tiryns before the hero himself did. When the latter arrived back at the town, he found the gates barred to him. He was informed that henceforward he would be delivered his quests here, outside the city, and that they would come from a messenger rather than from Eurystheus himself. In this nervously impersonal fashion, then, Heracles’s labors continued.
In fact, they continued for the next eight years. As Heracles successfully carried out task after task and steadily built his reputation as the greatest hero Greece had ever known, Eurystheus and his advisor Hera grew ever more nervous, and devised ever more absurdly difficult quests for him that took him farther and farther afield. So, over the course of the eight years, Heracles slew a many-headed monster known as a hydra which lived near the town of Lerna; captured a golden hind which roamed the forest outside the town of Ceryneia; captured a rampaging boar which prowled the wilds around Mount Erymanthos; cleaned out some filthy stables in the region of Elis (this labor had been devised by Hera as a deliberate humiliation, but Heracles carried it out without complaint); drove away a flock of vicious birds of prey which nested around the town of Stymphalus; captured a bull which was terrorizing the island of Crete; journeyed all the way to Thrace to capture a herd of man-eating mares there; journeyed still farther to the east, beyond the boundaries of any maps, to steal a magical girdle from the Amazons, a tribe of fierce women warriors; journeyed just as far westward to the cradle of the setting sun, to steal the strange red cattle of a monstrous herdsman named Geryon.
Far from begrudging Heracles his true parentage, Amphitryon actually came to celebrate the fact that his stepson was the natural son of the most powerful of all the gods. Certainly the knowledge of their lack of blood relations led to no weakening of the love and respect that bound stepfather and stepson; after each of his labors, Heracles faithfully visited Amphitryon back in Thebes. On one of his visits, he found the city under siege from a tribe of warlike nomads known as the Minyans. Charging into battle from their rear, he broke the siege single-handedly, driving the Minyans from the city gates. A grateful King Creon rewarded Heracles with the hand of his last surviving daughter, whose name was Megara. The two came to love one another deeply, such that Heracles never looked twice at any other woman, despite meeting many would-be seductresses over the course of his remaining labors. He had three sons by Megara while his labors continued.
When he returned to Tiryns with the red cattle of Geryon, marking the completion of his tenth labor, Heracles believed the end of his and his stepfather’s exile was at hand. But Eurystheus and Hera, wily as they were, devised perfidious excuses to invalidate two of his earlier labors. His killing of the hydra didn’t count, they said, because a cousin had joined him in the battle, while his cleaning of the stables was rendered null and void by a side deal he had made with the owner to accept payment for the work. So, the proud hero was forced to set wearily forth again on the first of yet two more quests.
For his eleventh labor, Heracles must steal some golden apples belonging to the Hesperides, mysterious nymphs of the evening who lived in those uncharted westerly lands whence he had just returned. Heracles roamed far and wide in these realms in search of his goal, having many adventures. At one point, he came upon the Titan Prometheus, chained to his rock, still suffering the torment Zeus had inflicted upon him for giving mankind the gifts of fire and knowledge and for humiliating the god of thunder himself at that infamous feast so long ago. Every day an eagle still came to eat Prometheus’s liver while he lived and looked on, and every night Zeus still restored his liver for the next day’s torture. Occasionally brave mortals came up to his perch to collect some of the blood which dripped down from the hole in his belly, for it was known to possess great magic. Yet none of them was brave enough to risk the wrath of Zeus by attempting to free him.
But now Heracles, upon observing the plight of the piteous Titan firsthand and learning from him his story, decided to intervene. He prayed for an audience with his father Zeus. Thanks to the beneficent spirit with which even this greatest of the gods regarded him, his request was soon granted. After much fraught discussion, Zeus finally agreed that Prometheus had suffered enough; the god released the old Titan from his chains, and Heracles shot down with bow and arrow the eagle which had tormented him for so many long centuries. By way of thanking Heracles for his deliverance, Prometheus told the hero that his brother Atlas, the Titan condemned by Zeus to hold up the sky for all eternity following the great war between the old and young gods, knew the location of the apple orchard of the Hesperides.
So, Heracles sought and found Atlas at that point where the sky almost meets the earth, on a high western mountaintop in the distant northerly land of Hyperborea. Atlas told Heracles that he did indeed know where the apples of the Hesperides could be found, but that they were guarded by a fierce serpent which no mortal could possibly defeat. He offered to fetch the apples for Heracles if the latter would but hold up the sky in his absence, and this the hero agreed to do. But when Atlas returned with the apples, he suggested that Heracles continue to hold up the sky for a while longer; he himself would deliver the prize to Tiryns in the hero’s stead. Smelling the Titan’s bad faith, Heracles acted as if he agreed, but asked Atlas to take the burden upon himself again just momentarily while he fetched some padding for his shoulders. Atlas, whose cunning was rather limited in effectiveness by his stupidity, agreed — whereupon Heracles took up the apples and scampered away, leaving the Titan behind to curse him ineffectually.
And so Heracles returned to Tiryns having completed his eleventh labor, much to the chagrin of Eurystheus and Hera. With but one chance left to eliminate their troublesome pest, these two now proffered the most impossible quest yet. Heracles, they said, must go down to Hades, that underworld inhabited only by the souls of the dead and other infernal beings, presided over by the god of the same name, whose power was almost equal to that of Zeus but whose reputation was far less benign than that of even the lustful, moody god of thunder. Heracles must steal and bring back to the surface the titular lord of the realm’s personal pet, a monster known as Cerberus. It was yet another child of Typhon, but a much more fearsome one than the Nemean Lion; it combined the heads of a horde of rabid dogs with the tail and body of a dragon, with deadly snakes clustered all across its back.
But needs must, thought Heracles; he had made it this far, after all. He briefly visited his stepfather, wife, and children in Thebes. Then he made his way to Cape Taenarum, the southernmost tip of mainland Greece, where a cave exists which offers access to the underworld. And so he disappeared into the depths.
Nothing more was heard from him thereafter. One year passed, then two. Never before had Heracles been away so long on one of his labors. Finally, Eurystheus issued a proclamation mourning Greece’s greatest hero, presumably lost forever to the underworld, while he and Hera congratulated one another in secret.
Soon after, yet more misfortune came to Thebes. A warlord named Lycus from the island of Euboea, observing the city’s weakness, seeing that its defender Heracles was apparently gone forever, raised an army and attacked it. The people of Thebes, exhausted from the string of wars and tragedies that had been their recent history, surrendered almost immediately. Lycus had promised them mercy, but his promise proved not to apply to their king. He murdered King Creon — a sad fate indeed for a man who had always behaved with compassion and justice — and usurped his throne.
As the army of Lycus rampaged through the city, Amphitryon, Megara, and her three sons huddled in a dank hiding space beneath the floorboards of their house, bereft of food, water, or bedding. “Tell me now if you have any plan, or if you have resigned yourself to death,” whispered Megara to her father-in-law in the dark and cold.
“My child,” he said, “we are weak, and weakness can only wait.”
“Wait for what? For worse? Do you love life so much?”
“I love it even now,” answered the old man, although his words’ sanguinity was belied by the tremor in his voice. “I love its hopes.”
“And I. But hope requires possibility.”
“A cure may come if we but wait out the time.”
“It is time which tortures me!” lamented Megara.
But the old man still refused to give up on hope. “Even now, out of our very evils, a better wind may blow. My son, your husband, still may come. Be calm! Dry your children’s eyes! Console them with stories, with that sweet thief of misery that is make-believe. There is no wind that always blows a storm. Just as great good fortune comes to failure in the end, misfortune too must somewhere have a stop. All is change; all yields its place and goes; to persevere is courage in a man. The coward despairs.”
Yet just as he finished saying these brave words, the family heard the front door of their house being broken down, followed by the noise of heavy boots tramping to and fro just above their heads. The men above bore torches whose light shined down between the cracks in the floorboards, sending its shadows flickering over the frightened faces of those below. Soon, behind the impatient toing-and-froing of these soldiers’ boots, came a still more menacing sound: the slower tread of their apparent leader. “Search thoroughly,” the hidden ones heard an imperious voice order. “They must be in here somewhere.” This other tread too moved from place to place, but more calmly. At last it stopped directly over their hiding place. They heard the creak of leather as the man knelt above them, saw his shadow through the cracks, felt more so than heard the movements of keen fingers across the floorboards themselves. “Here!” came his sudden shout. “They must be under here. Raise these boards at once.” Seconds later, light streamed in upon them as the floorboards came away. The first sight to reveal itself to their blinking eyes was the cruel face of Lycus himself, gleaming with mocking triumph.
“How shabby you appear now!” he said to Amphitryon. “You who filled all Greece with your hollow boasts that Zeus was partner in your son’s conception. And you” — turning now to Megara — “that you were wife of the noblest man in the world. What was so prodigious in your husband’s deeds? He killed a hydra in a marsh? Or the Nemean Lion? I’d wager it was trapped in a net, not strangled, as he claims, with his bare hands. He made his reputation fighting beasts. He never buckled a shield upon his arm, never came near a spear, but used a bow, the coward’s weapon. A real man stands firm in the ranks and dares to face the gash a spear may make.”
These slanders were too much for Amphitryon. Cowering no more, he rose in defense of his stepson. For a moment, he was the proud leader he once had been rather than an enfeebled elderly man. “You, who have never done one brave deed, sneer at that wise invention, the bow? Listen to me and learn what wisdom is. Your spearman is the slave of circumstances. If his comrades in the ranks fail to fight well, he is killed by their cowardice. And once his spear, his sole defense, is smashed, he has no means of warding death away. But the man whose hands know how to aim the bow holds the one best weapon. He stands far off, shooting at foes who see only the wound the unseen arrow plows, while he himself, his body unexposed, lies screened and safe. This is best in war: to preserve yourself and to hurt your foe.”
But then the energy left him as quickly as it had come, and he slumped once more before his adversary. “I know what you intend for us,” he sighed, “so you might as well be about it.” He turned his gaze sadly to his grandsons, who were striving to stifle their tears, and his voice grew bitter. “Poor children, both Thebes and all of Greece fail you, the sons of the greatest Greek hero of all. And so you turn to me, a weak old man, nothing more now than a jawing of words, forsaken by the strength I used to have, left only with this trembling husk of age. But if my youth and strength could come again” — he looked at Lycus once more with fire in his eyes — “I’d take my spear and bloody your brown hair, coward!”
“Enough of this ranting!” said Lycus, turning away. “My actions rather than my words shall answer your abuse.” He spoke to his soldiers. “Bring them outside the house. We shall execute them right there, and so be done with them.”
But when the soldiers reached down to seize the family, Megara, who had been silent up to now, comforting her sons as best she could, threw herself at the feet of Lycus. “I beg you, grant me this one last request. Give us some time to prepare ourselves for death. Just 24 hours, I beg of you!”
Lycus hesitated. The laws of war were harsh, but not so harsh as to render her request unreasonable. To deny it outright would make him look needlessly petty in front of the soldiers who must become the nucleus of his new kingdom’s standing army. “I grant you only until dawn,” he said as he left the house, gesturing for his soldiers to accompany him. “Then you shall die.”
The family spent the night in prayer to all the gods, but most especially to Zeus, grandfather of the three blameless young boys who would die at dawn. As the hours passed without an answer, Amphitryon’s prayers grew more and more petulant. “For nothing, then, you shared my wife! In vain we called you partner to my son! Your love is even less than you pretended, and I, a mere man, am nobler than you, a great god. For I did not betray the sons of Heracles. You knew well enough how to creep into my bed and take what was not yours. But what do you know of saving those you supposedly love? You are a callous, unjust god!” The reply was… silence.
When dawn drew near, the adults clad themselves and the children in the traditional gray robes of death. Just as the first rays of light touched the sky, the soldiers burst into the house again and hustled the family outside. It was not to be an easy death; wood had been piled up before the house. Megara and even crusty old Amphitryon nearly collapsed at the sight. They were to be burned alive.
Megara knelt down next to her boys, who stood there quietly, only half understanding what was happening. “There are three of you, and with three kingdoms your heroic father would have raised you up. And I would have chosen each of you a bride, from Athens, Thebes, and Sparta, binding our houses by marriage. Having such strong anchors, you might in happiness have ridden out your lives. Now all is gone, and fortune, veering round, gives each of you your death instead of a bride.” Weeping, she pulled the three boys to her chest, then offered up a final prayer — not to a god, but to her husband. “Oh, dearest Heracles, hear me now! Help us! Come! These cowards will destroy your sons!”
As old men so frequently do at the ultimate extremity, Amphitryon was communing with friends of long ago, most of them long gone now. His clouded old eyes saw only the past as the soldiers led him over to his place on the pyre. “Our lives, old friends, are but a little while, so let them run as sweetly as you can, and give no thought to grief from day to day. For time is not concerned to keep up our hopes, but hurries on its business and is gone. You see in me a man who once had fame, who did great deeds — but fortune in one day has snatched it from me as though a feather. Great wealth, great reputation! I know no man with whom they stay. Friends of my youth, farewell. You look your last on him you loved well.”
But suddenly the voice of Megara pierced his reverie. “Look, father! Can it be?”
He looked. “I cannot say. I dare not say, my child.”
Yet Megara’s younger eyes were now certain. “It is he! He comes to rescue us!”
And it was indeed Heracles she saw striding up the road, resplendent in his lion’s hide, with the bow of Apollo slung across his back and the sword of Hermes on his belt. The soldiers of Lycus, who had represented implacable death to his family just an instant before, looked puny — pathetic — beside his splendor. They slunk away into the shadows while the hero, looking confusedly at his family standing amid the paraphernalia of execution, barely registered either their existence or their departure. The sighs and exclamations of relief with which his family greeted him only increased his bafflement. “What has happened?” he asked. “What does this mean?”
“We are being put to death!” answered Megara.
“My father Creon is dead.”
“What? How did he die? Who killed him?”
“Murdered by Lycus, the upstart tyrant,” said Megara levelly. “He attacked our city when you were away. Now he controls it. Next he planned to kill your sons, your father, and me.”
Weeping tears of joy now, Megara embraced him. “Oh, my beloved husband! The heralds of Eurystheus proclaimed you dead!”
But Heracles was still trying to understand what was happening right here. “What of my friends here in the army of Thebes?”
“In misfortune,” answered Megara quietly, “what friend remains a friend?”
“They did nothing to aid my family after all I did for them against the Minyans?”
“Again I say, misfortune has no friends.”
It was good for the would-be executioners that they had departed when they had, for now Heracles abandoned himself to wrath. It was terrible to behold; his figure seemed to grow yet more in stature and to shine with his anger’s burning light. “I shall go and raze this upstart tyrant’s house and give it to the dogs to paw. This bow shall slaughter him and all his minions. What should I defend if not my wife and sons and my dear old father? Farewell, my labors! Wrongly I preferred you over them. Was this bravery, to do Eurystheus’s bidding and contend with lions and hydras, and not to protect my children?”
But Amphitryon, who until now had enjoyed the reunion in serene silence, reached out a hand to restrain him. “My son, it is like you to love your family and hate your foes. But do not act too fast.”
“How do I act faster than I should?”
“Your enemy is strong in numbers, you are only one. Even the mightiest stag can be overcome by a sufficient number of jackals, if they catch him in the open.”
Heracles looked at him quizzically. “What do you suggest, then?”
“Wait here, in the house. When he receives no confirmation of our execution from the henchmen he left here — I am quite certain they are now well outside the city walls, the cowards! — Lycus will come to the house to see what the problem is. We should meet him that way — on our own ground.”
Heracles nodded. “You advise me well.” And he gently led his wife and children by the hand into the house.
Amphitryon, following behind, mused how in this respect all mankind was alike: rich or poor, all loved their children. But once inside, he left off from such musings to ask Heracles about his adventures in the underworld. “You subdued Cerberus?”
“At long last, yes, I did.” Amphitryon began to ask more questions, but Heracles stopped him. “I do not wish to relive my time in that land below,” he said.
Amphitryon looked at the hero he had raised as his son appraisingly. The happy-go-lucky youth who had charged off rashly to win him back his place in Tiryns had been impressive in his own right — but the man before him now bore upon his face the marks not only of adventure but of suffering. “So, your labors are finally complete. The monster is delivered to Eurystheus?”
“Not yet,” came the reply. “I left it tied up in the countryside. Some premonition prompted me to rush here directly.” At this news, Amphitryon realized that he would have to spend many days and many nights asking forgiveness of Zeus for his blasphemous words of the night before. No matter. He would gladly do so.
When Lycus and his guards arrived outside the house a few minutes later, just as Amphitryon had predicted they would, they found it still shut up tight, the execution pyre still unburned, the soldiers detailed to the task nowhere to be found. Cursing their incompetence under his breath, Lycus moved to enter the house. But just at this instant, Amphitryon stepped through the door, dressed still in his gray robes of death. “None too soon have you appeared,” said Lycus. “A long time now you’ve spent dallying. Go now, call your daughter-in-law and grandsons forth. I gave you time to contemplate your fate and let you clothe yourself for death. But now the time has come for your execution.”
For his part, Amphitryon was determined to savor this moment. “Lycus, you persecute an innocent family,” he said, leaning almost casually against the door frame.
Lycus blinked at him, baffled by his demeanor but not about to be diverted from the cruel task at hand. “Where is Megara? Where are the children?”
“Where do you think?” And Amphitryon actually smiled. “Perhaps they are still saying their prayers.”
“If they ask for life, their prayers are pointless.”
“Perhaps they ask for Heracles to come…”
“He will not come.”
“Not unless some god restores him to us.”
What was the matter with the man? Lycus believed the fate that awaited him must have caused him to take leave of his senses. “Go inside and fetch them from the house!” he demanded.
“But then I should be an accomplice in their death,” said Amphitryon lightly.
“Very well, then. Since your scruples forbid, I shall go and fetch the mother and sons. Attend me, guards, and help me make good riddance of this chore.”
As Lycus and the guards stormed past him, Amphitryon mused that he could add imbecility to the warlord’s list of sins. For Amphitryon, Lycus’s prisoner destined for execution, had been left standing here unguarded. He shrugged. He might as well go in behind the execution party and watch their bodies fall. Then he heard a cry of, “Help, help,” from Lycus. Ah, well. Too late.
In this fashion, then, Heracles rescued Thebes for the second time just after he had completed his twelfth and final labor. He was offered the kingship of the city, but elected to pass it instead to one Laodamas, a grandson of Oedipus now grown old enough to assume the throne. Still disgusted with the Thebans’ failure to protect his family from the likes of Lycus, Heracles took his father, wife, and children with him to Tiryns. There Eurystheus, who had run out of labors and also run out of excuses for demanding new ones, grudgingly accepted that he wouldn’t be enjoying the lifetime of Hera’s divine favor he had hoped for and welcomed the hero’s family into the royal palace. Thus Amphitryon got to die peacefully in the land of his birth instead of violently in exile. Of course, Hera wasn’t pleased by these events — but then, she never was pleased, was she?
Did you enjoy this chapter? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. Pledge any amount you like on Patreon.
(This series's cover art is by Dorte Lassen, who hereby releases it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)
15 Comments for "Chapter 6: The Labors of Heracles"
I’ve always been curious and never gotten a satisfying explanation for why almost all english-language renderings use the Roman form of this particular hero’s name while using the Greek names for everything else in the story.
It’s something I’ve wondered about as well. Even Edith Hamilton uses “Hercules” instead of “Heracles” in Mythology — the only case where she chooses the Roman name.
I think it must just be a concession to how iconic the name “Hercules” is in popular culture. Any child of even five years can immediately conjure an image when you say the name. There are really only a handful of characters like him.
It is odd, though, that the Latinized name became so prominent in the first place rather than the Greek original. With most other mythological names, the opposite is true; planets aside, one certainly hears “Zeus” more than “Jupiter.” If I had to guess, I’d say there was probably some movie, cartoon, or comic book that got the Hercules ball rolling, and it’s been unstoppable ever since.
Right; it wouldn’t be as weird if it were “Hercules, son of Jupiter,” but you never hear it that way; it’s always “Hercules, son of Zeus.” But for that, I’d assume that that Hercules had just remained popular in folktales during the Roman period and thus it was the latin forms of the stories that became widespread in Europe first.
I suppose Cupid is another example of a god with the Latin name preferred. I guess in this case the simplest explanation is that Eros sounds a bit too close to “erotic” for the more prudish ears.
Yes, good point. That one didn’t spring to my mind before — but he’s another character every child knows.
I cannot answer your question PRECISELY, but I can tell you what the likely origin is: the poetry of Ovid.
Hercules plays a prominent role in Ovid’s book Metamorphoses (esp Book 9). In the Middle Ages and beyond, Ovid was the standard text for anyone studying Latin as the gateway to knowledge (as opposed to a normal language used in conversation).
Secondly, some of Hercules’ tales were very popular in the Middle Ages for a variety of reasons (morality tales). Chaucer references him several times. In Spain (where Christians first gained access to older Greek writings via the Moors), Hercules was a popular topic in medieval times as well, especially in the 13th-15th centuries, but was likewise always referred to by his Latin name.
By the Victorian Era, “Hercules” was a synonym for strength, and a number of brands began using it that way, thus cementing it forevermore in the Latin version (for English speakers). Finally, by the 1930s, the Soviet Union had embraced Hercules well enough that the most popular line of breakfast porridges was named “Hercules” (it still exists, btw) because it gave people “strength” to work a full day.
Long story short, several prominent Latin writers (including most prominently Ovid) became the foundation of literature and academia in Europe, and this continued right up through the Victorian period wherein the Latin version of the name was always used. Only the hoariest of scholars use the Greek name these days.
Note: for bonus points, a similar thing happened with “Oedipus Rex” (Rex being Latin, not Greek) thanks to the play about the myth/story of Oedipus that was covered in the last chapter of this outstanding history of Delphi.
Hey, now! Who you calling “hoary?” 😉
I notice that all your versions of the stories (except Oedipus)have happier endings than the ones I am familiar with. Is this because you are choosing particular regional variants? To be fair, I am only really familiar with Hamilton, (a little)Ovid and Hesiod, and Sophocles.
There are several versions of many myths, and I do, like those before me, pick and choose a bit to suit my own narrative arc. A constant diet of tragedy would get numbing I think, and fail to capture the full range of Greek myth, which encompasses everything from tragedy to farce. (Hera was, one might say, the original shrewish housewife, that staple of a thousand sitcoms in our own age…)
This variant of the Heracles story is admittedly the less common one. It’s drawn from Euripides, whom I’m very high on in general. Still, our story of Heracles isn’t yet over. As Creon mused in the last chapter, “Count no man happy until he has crossed life’s boundary free of pain.” 😉
I‘ve found a few minor things and, as usual, enjoyed the post a lot. While Giza came together like a puzzle, Delphi feels like visiting old (or rather ancient?) friends every two weeks.
herdsmen -> herdsman?
rampaged threw the city -> through
boys who would would die at dawn -> would
I’m enjoying your adaptations of the Greek myths. I grew up on the illustrated “D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths” and it’s interesting to see the differences between that interpretation and yours.
One minor issue:
“it combined the heads of a hoard of rabid dogs”
hoard -> horde
An enjoyable and vivid retelling of these ancient myths – eagerly looking forward to more!
Having said that, one minor nitpick…
“I’d like to know how my stepfather — and me — can be restored …”
me -> I
(or maybe loose adherence to the rules of grammar was part of his brashness?)
He wasn’t really the intellectual type, but still… 🙂 Thanks!