Unit 3: Adventure and The Hero’s Journey
The Adventures of Hercules
adapted from The Age of Fable, or Stories of Gods and Heroes by Thomas Bulfinch,
Hercules was the son of Zeus and Alcmena. As Hera was always hostile to the offspring of her husband by mortal mothers, she declared war against Hercules from his birth. Knowing that Hera would forever hate her child, Alcmena left the poor child on a hill to die, fearing that life for him would be a more horrible fate. However, from the sky Athena saw a bright light and went down to Earth to see what it was. It was Alcmena’s infant. Athena felt that this baby was special, and as the patron of heroes, brought the baby up to Mount Olympus to raise. One day, Athena handed off the child to Hera to feed, but he bit so hard that Hera pulled away, and the milk went flying across the sky, and this is created what we call the “Milky Way.” After drinking divine milk, the baby became stronger and more god-like. A few months later, Athena found his mother Alcmena and returned the baby to her. Alcmena named the child “Heracles”, meaning “pride of Hera” in Greek, at another attempt to calm Hera. But he is more well-known by his Roman name, Hercules.
But this was not enough to keep Hera calm. She sent two serpents to destroy Hercules as he lay in his cradle, but the talented little infant strangled them with his own hands. Hera left little Hercules alone for a while after this. When he grew up, Hercules married the king of Thebes, King Creon’s daughter named Megara. After some years, Hera noticed that Hercules was having too successful of a life, and thus made Hercules go insane – insane enough to kill his own children. After he came back to his senses, he begged for a way to be forgiven. The gods decided he could only be redeemed by completing twelve impossible tasks.
The first was the fight with the Nemean lion. The valley of Nemea was attacked by a terrible lion. Eurystheus, the king of the land, supervisor of the twelve tasks, and Hercules’ worst enemy, ordered Hercules to bring him the skin of this monster. After using in vain his club and arrows against the lion, Hercules strangled the animal with his hands. He returned carrying the dead lion on his shoulders; but Eurystheus was so frightened at the sight of it and at this proof of the extraordinary strength of the hero, that he ordered him to deliver the proof of his tasks completed in the future outside the town.
His next labor was to kill the Hydra. This monster devastated the country of Argos and lived in a swamp. The Hydra had nine heads, of which the middle one was immortal. Hercules struck off its heads with his club, but in the place of the head knocked off, two new ones grew forth each time. Eventually, he burned away the heads of the Hydra and buried the ninth immortal one under a huge rock.
Another labor was the cleaning of the Augean stables. Augeas, king of Elis, had a herd of three thousand oxen whose barns had not been cleaned for 30 years. Hercules pulled two nearby rivers and ran the waters through the barns and cleaned them thoroughly in one day.
His next labor was of a more delicate kind. Admeta, the daughter of Eurystheus, had always wanted the jeweled belt of the queen of the Amazons, and so Eurystheus ordered Hercules to go and get it. The Amazons were a nation of women. They were very warlike and held several prosperous cities. It was their custom to bring up only the female children; the boys were either sent away to the neighboring nations or put to death. Hercules was accompanied by a number of volunteers, and after various adventures at last reached the country of the Amazons. Hippolyta, the queen, received him kindly, and agreed to give him her belt, but Hera did not like how easy this task had become, and taking the form of an Amazon, went and persuaded the rest that the strangers were carrying off their queen. They instantly armed and came in great numbers down to the ship. Hercules, thinking that Hippolyta had betrayed him, killed her and took the belt.
Another task was to bring to Eurystheus the oxen of Geryon, a monster with three bodies, who lived on the island Erytheia, near Spain, of which Geryon was king. After crossing various countries, Hercules reached the frontiers of Libya and Europe, where he raised the two mountains of Calpe and Abyla, as monuments of his progress, forming the straits of Gibraltar, the two mountains being called the Pillars of Hercules. The oxen were guarded by the giant Eurytion and his two-headed dog, but Hercules killed the giant and his dog and brought the oxen to Eurystheus.
The most difficult labor of all was getting the golden apples of the Hesperides, for Hercules did not know where to find them. These were the apples which Hera had received at her wedding from the goddess of the Earth, and which she had entrusted to the keeping of the daughters of Hesperus, assisted by a watchful dragon. After various adventures, Hercules arrived at Mount Atlas in Africa. Atlas was one of the Titans who had fought against the gods, and thus as his punishment, Atlas’ punishment was to bear on his shoulders the weight of the heavens. He was the father of the Hesperides, and Hercules wondered if anyone could find the apples and bring them to him. But how could he send Atlas away from his post, or who would hold up the heavens while he was gone? Hercules took the burden on his own shoulders and sent Atlas to seek the apples. Atlas returned with the apples but enjoyed his freedom. He did not want to trade places with Hercules and once again hold up the universe. But Hercules had more tasks to complete! Finally, he thought of a plan. Hercules told Atlas, “The buckle on my cape is hurting my neck. Could you hold this for a second while I adjust my cape?” Atlas reluctantly took back the universe, and Hercules cleverly ran away with the apples Atlas brought for him.
A celebrated accomplishment of Hercules was his victory over Antaeus. Antaeus, the son of Terra, the Earth, was a mighty giant and wrestler, whose strength was invincible as long as he remained in contact with his mother Earth. He forced all strangers who came to his country to wrestle with him, on condition that if defeated (as they all were), they should be put to death. Hercules challenged him, and finding that it was not possible to throw him, for he always rose with renewed strength from every fall, he lifted him up from the earth and strangled him in the air.
The last task we shall record was bringing Cerberus from the lower world. Hercules descended into Hades, accompanied by Hermes and Athena. He obtained permission from Hades to carry Cerberus to the upper air, provided he could do it without the use of weapons; and in spite of the monster’s struggling, he captured him, held him fast, and carried him to Eurystheus, and afterward brought him back again.
But Hera was furious that Hercules survived all twelve tasks and was not ready to forgive him, so once again she made Hercules go insane, and he killed his friend Iphitus and was sentenced for this offense to become the slave of Queen Omphale for three years. While in this service, the hero’s nature seemed changed. He lived effeminately, wearing at times the dress of a woman, and spinning wool with the female servants of Omphale, while the queen wore his lion’s skin. When this punishment ended, he married Dejanira and lived in peace with her three years.
On one occasion as he was traveling with his wife, they came to a river, across which the Centaur Nessus carried travelers for a fee. Hercules himself crossed the river but gave Dejanira to Nessus to be carried across. Nessus attempted to run away with her, but Hercules heard her cries and shot an arrow into the heart of Nessus. The dying Centaur gave Dejanira a small bottle and told her to take some of his blood and keep it, as it might be used as a charm to preserve the love of her husband.
Dejanira did so and before long had a reason to use it. Hercules in one of his conquests had taken a pretty woman as prisoner, named Iole, of whom he seemed more interested in than Dejanira approved. When Hercules was about to offer sacrifices to the gods in honor of his victory, he asked his wife for a white robe to wear for this special occasion. Dejanira, thinking it was a good opportunity to try her love spell, soaked the robe in the blood of Nessus. She gave him the robe, and as soon as he put it on, the garment became warm on the body of Hercules, and a poison penetrated into all his limbs, causing him the most intense agony. He tried to remove the robe, but it stuck to his skin, and with it he tore away whole pieces of his body. Dejanira, on seeing what she had done, hung herself. Hercules, prepared to die, climbed Mount Oeta, where he built a funeral pyre of trees, gave away his prized bow and arrows, and laid himself down on the pyre, his head resting on his club, and his lion’s skin spread over him. With his expression as peaceful as if he were about to take a nap, he commanded one of his followers to apply the torch. The flames spread and soon overwhelmed the whole pyre.
The gods themselves felt troubled at seeing the champion of the earth brought to an end like this. But Zeus with a smile addressed them: ” I say to you, fear not. He who conquered all else is not to be conquered by those flames which you see blazing on Mount Oeta. Only his mother’s share in him can die; what he got from me is immortal. I will take him, dead to earth, to the heavenly shores, and I require of you all to receive him kindly. No one can deny that he has deserved it.” The gods all gave their approval. So when the flames had consumed the mother’s share of Hercules, the diviner part, instead of being injured, seemed to start forth with new life. Zeus enveloped him in a cloud and took him up in a four-horse chariot to live among the stars. As he took his place in heaven, Atlas felt the added weight.
Hera finally felt sorry for all the pain she caused him and gave him her daughter Hebe in marriage.
Answer the following questions according to the story.
- What did Hera do to try to kill baby Hercules and why?
- Why did Hercules have to do difficult tasks?
- This story describes 7 of Hercules’ 12 labors. List them here:
- Why was killing the Hydra difficult?
- How did Hercules complete the task of cleaning the Augean stables?
- Who is Hippolyta?
- How did Hera interfere with the task of getting Hippolyta’s belt? What was the consequence?
- How did Hercules get the Spanish oxen back to the king of Argos?
- How did Hercules get the golden apples?
- How did Hercules defeat Antaeus?
- What happened to Hercules when he completed all his tasks?
- What was his punishment?
- What happened to his wife after he completed his last task? What did the centaur tell her to do?
- What did Hercules’ wife do with his robe and why?
- What happened to Hercules and his wife after this?
- Who are the characters in the pictures below from the story of Hercules? Which event from the story is happening in each picture?
As usual, we get some interesting words and phrases from this story.
We get the adjective “herculean” from the story of Hercules. What do you think this word means? Use a dictionary if you need to. How is this word related to Hercules?
- In English we often use the phrases “a herculean task” and “a herculean effort.” What do these two phrases mean? Give examples using the phrases in a sentence.
- (a) a herculean task
- (b) a herculean effort
- The word “galaxy” comes from Greek, and in Greek “gala” means “milk.” What part of the story is this word referencing?
- According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, hydra can mean “a multifarious evil not to be overcome by a single effort”. How is this related to the Hydra in this story?
- We can also say a problem is “hydra-headed”. What do you think that means?
- What is an “atlas”, and how is it related to Atlas from this story?
- We also get the idiom “carry the weight of the world on one’s shoulders” from Atlas. What do you think this idiom means? Use a dictionary if you need to.
What is a situation you can describe using this phrase?
We also get the phrase “Shirt of Nessus”, which means “a source of misfortune from which there is no escape; a fatal present; or a “destructive force or influence.” How does this relate to the story of Hercules? Give an example of how it could be used.
- The Greek play author Euripides wrote a play about Eurystheus’ fear that Hercules’ children will seek revenge and kill him after the death of their father. Thus, Eurystheus plans to kill Hercules’ children. They run away to Athens and Eurystheus declares war on the city and demands the soldiers “leave no stone unturned” to find and kill his children. From this version of Hercules’ story we get the idiom “leave no stone unturned” in English. Use a dictionary to find the meaning of this phrase and use it in a sentence.
CEFR Level: CEF Level B2
- A and B: Illustration by Willy Pogany for the book Exercise image credits: A and B: The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles", by Padraic Colum, 1921, . C: by Diego López el Mudo, 17th Century, . D: by Francisco de Zurbarán, 1634, . E: by Guercino, 1646, . F: by John Singer Sargent, 1921, . ↵