Hēraklēs was conceived by Zeus upon Alkmene, as He disguised Himself as her husband, returning early from war. Alkmene accepted Him in her bed gladly, as she was happy to see her husband again. When The real Amphitryon did return later that night, Alkmene realized what had happened, and told her husband. Amphitryon accepted her in his bed, regardless, and so she became pregnant with twins, one fathered by Zeus, and one by her mortal husband. In the words of Apollodorus:
"But before Amphitryon reached Thebes, Zeus came by night and prolonging the one night threefold he assumed the likeness of Amphitryon and bedded with Alcmena and related what had happened concerning the Teleboans. But when Amphitryon arrived and saw that he was not welcomed by his wife, he inquired the cause; and when she told him that he had come the night before and slept with her, he learned from Tiresias how Zeus had enjoyed her. And Alcmena bore two sons, to wit, Hercules, whom she had by Zeus and who was the elder by one night, and Iphicles, whom she had by Amphitryon." [2.4.8]
Hera, hearing of the affair, took an instant disliking to the unborn child. When it became time for Alkmene to give birth, Hera made Zeus swear a vow that a child born in the line of Perseus on this day would become King. Zeus agreed, and Hera hurried off to delay the birth of Hēraklēs and Iphikles, and hurry along the birth of Eurystheus (Εὐρυσθεύς), grandson of Perseus. The two had unknowingly become part of a contest of wills between Zeus and Hera, to decide who would be the hero to drive off the last of the great monsters and pave the way for the Olympians.
Eventually, Hera was tricked into allowing the children born, as She would have postponed their delivery indefinitely. Alkmene, aware of the divine spark in one of her sons, took her distance from him, but the young Hēraklēs was taken up by Athena and taken to Hera, who did no recognize the newborn nemesis of Her candidate, and took pity on him. She fed him from Her breast, but when he suckled so hard that he caused Her pain, She realized who he was, and cast him off. Athena rescued the infant and took him back to his mortal parents. Alkmene took him back and raised him with her husband.
What happens next is a famous bit, here in the words of Apollodorus again:
"When the child was eight months old, Hera desired the destruction of the babe and sent two huge serpents to the bed. Alcmena called Amphitryon to her help, but Hercules arose and killed the serpents by strangling them with both his hands. However, Pherecydes says that it was Amphitryon who put the serpents in the bed, because he would know which of the two children was his, and that when Iphicles fled, and Hercules stood his ground, he knew that Iphicles was begotten of his body." [2.4.8]
Hēraklēs was a strong child, so strong, in fact, that he inadvertently killed his music teacher Linos (Λῖνος) with a lyre, for which he was tried and found not guilty. He was still made to leave the city:
"Hercules was taught to drive a chariot by Amphitryon, to wrestle by Autolycus, to shoot with the bow by Eurytus, to fence by Castor, and to play the lyre by Linus.85 This Linus was a brother of Orpheus; he came to Thebes and became a Theban, but was killed by Hercules with a blow of the lyre; for being struck by him, Hercules flew into a rage and slew him.86 When he was tried for murder, Hercules quoted a law of Rhadamanthys, who laid it down that whoever defends himself against a wrongful aggressor shall go free, and so he was acquitted. But fearing he might do the like again, Amphitryon sent him to the cattle farm; and there he was nurtured and outdid all in stature and strength. Even by the look of him it was plain that he was a son of Zeus; for his body measured four cubits,87 and he flashed a gleam of fire from his eyes; and he did not miss, neither with the bow nor with the javelin." [2.4.9]
What happens next is an account that was added in the fourth century BC, by the sophist Pródikos (Pródikos) and reported in Xenophon's Memorabilia; Hēraklēs is visited by two women, representing two very different paths in life, and he must choose between them. The first names Herself Happiness, "but they that hate me have their own nicknames for me, Vice and Naughtiness". She explains the path in life she represents as follows:
"I see you, Heracles, in doubt and difficulty what path of life to choose; make me your friend, and I will lead you to the pleasantest road and easiest. This I promise you: you shall taste all of life's sweets and escape all bitters. In the first place, you shall not trouble your brain with war or business; other topics shall engage your mind; your only speculation, what meat or drink you shall find agreeable to your palate; what delight of ear or eye; what pleasure of smell or touch; what darling lover's intercourse shall most enrapture you; how you shall pillow your limbs in softest slumber; how cull each individual pleasure without alloy of pain; and if ever the suspicion steal upon you that the stream of joys will one day dwindle, trust me I will not lead you where you shall replenish the store by toil of body and trouble of soul. No! others shall labour, but you shall reap the fruit of their labours; you shall withhold your hand from nought which shall bring you gain. For to all my followers I give authority and power to help themselves freely from every side."
The other, Virtue, offers Hēraklēs a far different path:
"Heracles, I too am come to you, seeing that your parents are well known to me, and in your nurture I have gauged your nature; wherefore I entertain good hope that if you choose the path which leads to me, you shall greatly bestir yourself to be the doer of many a doughty deed of noble emprise; and that I too shall be held in even higher honour for your sake, lit with the lustre shed by valorous deeds. I will not cheat you with preludings of pleasure, but I will relate to you the things that are according to the ordinances of God in very truth. Know then that among things that are lovely and of good report, not one have the gods bestowed upon mortal men apart from toil and pains. Would you obtain the favour of the gods, then must you pay these same gods service; would you be loved by your friends, you must benefit these friends; do you desire to be honoured by the state, you must give the state your aid; do you claim admiration for your virtue from all Hellas, you must strive to do some good to Hellas; do you wish earth to yield her fruits to you abundantly, to earth must you pay your court; do you seek to amass riches from your flocks and herds, on them must you bestow your labour; or is it your ambition to be potent as a warrior, able to save your friends and to subdue your foes, then must you learn the arts of war from those who have the knowledge, and practise their application in the field when learned; or would you e'en be powerful of limb and body, then must you habituate limbs and body to obey the mind, and exercise yourself with toil and sweat."
Hēraklēs accepts the latter offer. Having taken up his mantle as future-hero, Hēraklēs sets out to perform feats of strength, starting by defeating the lion of Kithairon, which had been a bane to his stepfather for far too long. Thespios, King of Thespiae, housed Hēraklēs for fifty days as he hunted for the lion, and every night Thespios placed one of his fifty daughters in his bed, although Hēraklēs thought he was only sleeping with one. Hēraklēs eventually vanquished the lion. He dressed himself in the skin, and wore the scalp as a helmet. The Gods lavished him with gifts: a sword from Hermes, bow and arrows from Apollon, a golden breastplate from Hēphaistos, and a robe from Athena. His famous club he made himself at Nemea.
Next, Hēraklēs was drawn into a war between the Thebans and the Minyans. He happened upon heralds from King Klymenos, who had won a previous battle with Thebes and now demanded tribute from them. Hēraklēs, who had been living in Thebes, cut the ears, noses and hands off of all but one of the heralds and told the last remaining one to take them back to his king as tribute. In the battle that followed, Hēraklēs fought bravely with the king's army, and his side eventually won, earning him his wife Megara, eldest daughter of King Kreōn of Thebes.
Due to Hera's jealousy, was stricken mad and killed the five sons he had by his wife. When he was released from his madness by a hellebore potion--provided by Antikyreus--and realized what he had done, he cried out in anguish, and went on a long journey to cleanse himself of the miasma caused by these killings. First, he visited the oracle at Delphi, who, unbeknownst to him, was whispered to by Hera. The Oracle told Hēraklēs to serve the king of Tiryns, Eurystheus, for ten years and do everything Eurystheus told him to do. Eurystheus gladly provided Hēraklēs with these labors--ten of them, one for each year--and eventually ended up adding two more, resulting in the Twelve Labors of Hēraklēs. Hēraklēs was told to:
- Slay the Nemean Lion
- Slay the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra
- Capture the Golden Hind of Artemis
- 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 Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons
- Obtain the cattle of the monster Geryon
- Steal the apples of the Hesperides,
- Capture and bring back Kerberos.
All of these tasks were incredibly hard, and required every ounce of strength Hēraklēs possessed. In the continuation of this series, we will discuss each of them in turn.
Image source: Encyclopædia Iranica
Image source: Encyclopædia Iranica