Hercules was the son of Jupiter by Alcmena, wife of Amphitryon, king of Thebes, and is said to have been born in that city about 1280 years before the Christian era. During his infancy Juno sent two serpents to kill him in his cradle, but the undaunted child grasping one in either hand, immediately strangled them both. As he grew up, he discovered an uncommon degree of vigor both of body and of mind. Nor were his extraordinary endowments neglected; for his education was intrusted to the greatest masters. The tasks imposed on him by Eurystheus, on account of the danger and difficulty which attended their execution, received the name of the Labors of Hercules, and are commonly reckoned, (at least the most material of them) to have been twelve.
The first was his engagement with Cleonæan lion, which furious animal, it is said, fell from the orb of the moon by Juno's direction, and was invunerable. It infested the woods between Phlius and Cleōne, and committed uncommon ravages. The hero attacked it both with his arrows and club, but in vain, till, perceiving his error, he tore asunder its jaws with his hands.
The second labor was his conquest of the Lernæan hydra, a formidable serpent or monster which harbored in the fens of Lerna, and infected the region of Argos with his poisonous exhalations. This seems to have been one of the most difficult tasks in which Hercules was ever engaged. The number of heads assigned the hydra is various; some give him seven, some nine, others fifty, and Ovid an hundred; but all authors agree that when one was cut off, another sprung forth in its place, unless the wound was immediately cauterized. Hercules, not discouraged, attacked him, and having ordered Iŏlas, his friend and companion, to cut down wood sufficient for fire-brands, he no sooner had cut off a head than he applied these brands to the wounds; by which means searing them up, he obtained a complete victory.
The third labor was to bring alive to Eurystheus an enormous wild boar which ravaged the forest of Erymanthus in Arcadia, and had been sent to Phocis by Diāna to punish Ænēas, for neglecting her sacrifices. Hercules brought him bound to Eurystheus. There is nothing descriptive of this exploit in any of the Roman poets.
The fourth labor was the capture of the Mænalæan stag. Eurystheus, after repeated proofs of the strength and valor of Hercules, resolved to try his agility, and commanded him to take a wild stag that frequented mount Mænălus, which had brazen feet and golden horns. As this animal was sacred to Diāna, Hercules durst not wound him; but though it were no easy matter to run him down, yet this, after pursuing him on foot for a year, the hero at last effected.
The fifth labor of Hercules consisted in killing the Stymphalĭdes, birds so called from frequenting the lake Stymphālis in Arcadia, which preyed upon human flesh, having wings, beaks, and talons of iron. Some say Hercules destroyed these birds with his arrows, others that Pallas sent him brazen rattles, made by Vulcan, the sound of which so terrified them, that they took shelter in the island of Aretia. There are authors who suppose these birds called Stymphalĭdes, to have been a gang of desperate banditti who had their haunts near the lake Stymphālis.
The sixth labor was his cleansing the stable of Augeas. This Augeas, king of Elis, had a stable intolerable from the stench occasioned by the filth it contained, which may be readily imagined from the fact that it sheltered three thousand oxen, and had not been cleansed for thirty years. This place Eurystheus ordered Hercules to clear in one day, and Augeas promised, if he performed the task, to give him a tenth part of the cattle. Hercules, by turning the course of the river Alphēus through the stable, executed his design, which Augeas seeing, refused to fulfil his promise. The hero, to punish his perfidy, slew Augeas with his arrows, and gave his kingdom to his son Phyleus, who abhorred his father's treachery.
The seventh labor was the capture of the Cretan bull. Minos, king of Crete, having acquired the dominion of the Grecian seas, paid no greater honor to Neptune than to the other gods, wherefore the deity, in resentment of this ingratitude, sent a bull, which breathed fire from his nostrils, to destroy the people of Crete. Hercules took this furious animal, and brought him to Eurystheus, who, because the bull was sacred, let him loose into the country of Marathon, where he was afterwards slain by Theseus.
The eighth labor of Hercules, was the killing of Diomēdes and his horses. That infamous tyrant was king of Thrace, and son of Mars and Cyrēne. Among other things he is said to have driven in his war-chariot four furious horses, which, to render the more impetuous, he used to feed on the flesh and blood of his subjects. Hercules is said to have freed the world from this barbarous prince, and to have killed both him and his horses, as is signified in some drawings, and said expressly by some of the poets. Some report that the tyrant was given by Hercules as a prey to his own horses.
The ninth labor of Hercules was his combat with Geryon, king of Spain. Geryon is generally represented with three bodies agreeable to the expressions used of him by the poets, and sometimes with three heads. He had a breed of oxen of a purple color, (which devoured all strangers cast to them) guarded by a dog with two heads, a dragon with seven, besides a very watchful and severe keeper. Hercules, however, killed the monarch and all his guards, and carried the oxen to Gades, whence he brought them to Eurystheus. Some mythologists explain this fable by saying that Geryon was king of three islands, now called Majorca, Minorca, and Ivica, on which account he was fabled to be triple bodied and headed.
The tenth labor of Hercules was his conquest of Hippolyte queen of the Amazons. His eleventh labor consisted in dragging Cerebus from the infernal regions into day. The twelfth and last was killing the serpent, and gaining the golden fruit in the gardens of the Hesperides.
Hercules, after his conquests in Spain, having made himself famous in the country of the Celtæ or Gauls, is said to have there founded a large and populous city, which he called Alesia. His favorite wife was Dejanira, whose jealousy most fatally occasioned his death. Hercules having subdued Œchalia and killed Eurytus the king, carried off the fair Iŏle, his daughter, with whom Dejanira suspecting him to be in love, sent him the garment of Nessus, the Centaur, as a remedy to recover his affections; this garment, however, having been pierced with an arrow dipped in the blood of the Lernæan hydra, whilst worn by Nessus, contracted a poison from his blood incurable by art. No sooner, therefore, was it put on by Hercules than he was seized with a delirious fever, attended with the most excruciating torments. Unable to support his pains, he retired to mount Œta, where, raising a pile, and setting it on fire, he threw himself upon it, and was consumed in the flames, after having killed in his phrenzy Lycus his friend. His arrows he bequeathed to Philoctētes, who interred his remains.
After his death he was deified by his father Jupiter. Diōdorus Siculus relates that he was no sooner ranked amongst the gods than Juno, who had so violently persecuted him whilst on earth, adopted him for her son, and loved him with the tenderness of a mother. Hercules was afterwards married to Hebe, goddess of youth, his half sister, with all the splendor of a celestial wedding; but he refused the honor which Jupiter designed him, of being ranked with the twelve gods, alleging there was no vacancy; and that it would be unreasonable to degrade any other god for the purpose of admitting him.
Both the Greeks and Romans honored him as a god, and as such erected to him temples. His victims were bulls and lambs, on account of his preserving the flocks from wolves; that is, delivering men from tyrants and robbers. He was worshipped by the ancient Latins under the name of Dius, or Divus Fidius, that is, the guarantee or protector of faith promised or sworn. They had a custom of calling this deity to witness by a sort of oath expressed in these terms, Me Dius Fidius! that is, so help me the god Fidius! or Hercules.