In Greek mythology, Heracles or Herakles ("glory of Hera", or "Glorious through Hera") Alcides or Alcaeus (original name) "Ἥρα + κλέος, Ἡρακλῆς)" was a divine hero, the son of Zeus and Alcmene, foster son of Amphitryon and great-grandson (and half-brother) of Perseus. He was the greatest of the Greek heroes, a paragon of masculinity, the ancestor of royal clans who claimed to be Heracleidae and a champion of the Olympian order against chthonic monsters. In Rome and the modern West, he is known as Hercules, with whom the later Roman Emperors, in particular Commodus and Maximian, often identified themselves. The Romans adopted the Greek version of his life and works essentially unchanged, but added anecdotal detail of their own, some of it linking the hero with the geography of the Central Mediterranean. Details of his cult were adapted to Rome as well.
Extraordinary strength, courage, ingenuity, and sexual prowess with both males and females were among his characteristic attributes. Although he was not as clever as the likes of Odysseus or Nestor, Heracles used his wits on several occasions when his strength did not suffice, such as when laboring for the king Augeas of Elis, wrestling the giant Antaeus, or tricking Atlas into taking the sky back onto his shoulders. Together with Hermes he was the patron and protector of gymnasia and palaestrae. His iconographic attributes are the lion skin and the club. These qualities did not prevent him from being regarded as a playful figure who used games to relax from his labors and played a great deal with children. By conquering dangerous archaic forces he is said to have "made the world safe for mankind" and to be its benefactor. Heracles was an extremely passionate and emotional individual, capable of doing both great deeds for his friends (such as wrestling with Thanatos on behalf of Prince Admetus, who had regaled Heracles with his hospitality, or restoring his friend Tyndareus to the throne of Sparta after he was overthrown) and being a terrible enemy who would wreak horrible vengeance on those who crossed him, as Augeas, Neleus and Laomedon all found out to their cost.
Heracles was the greatest of Hellenic chthonic heroes, but unlike other Greek heroes, no tomb was identified as his. Heracles was both hero and god, as Pindar says heroes theos; at the same festival sacrifice was made to him, first as a hero, with a chthonic libation, and then as a god, upon an altar: thus he embodies the closest Greek approach to a "demi-god". The core of the story of Heracles has been identified by Walter Burkert as originating in Neolithic hunter culture and traditions of shamanistic crossings into the netherworld.
Ancient critics were aware of the problem of the aside that interrupts the vivid and complete description, in which Heracles recognizes Odysseus and hails him, and modern critics find very good reasons for denying that the verses beginning, in Fagles' translation His ghost I mean... were part of the original composition: "once people knew of Heracles' admission to Olympus," they would not tolerate his presence in the underworld," remarks Friedrich Solmsen, noting that the interpolated verses represent a compromise between conflicting representations of Heracles.
Readers with a literalist bent, following Clement's reasoning, have asserted from this remark that, since Heracles ruled over Tiryns in Argos at the same time that Eurystheus ruled over Mycenae, and since at about this time Linus was Heracles' teacher, one can conclude, based on Jerome's date—in his universal history, his Chronicon—given to Linus' notoriety in teaching Heracles in 1264 BC, that Heracles' death and detification occurred 38 years later, in approximately 1226 BC.
On the night the twins sharing the same mother were to be born, Hera, knowing of her husband Zeus' adultery, persuaded Zeus to swear an oath that the child born that night to a member of the House of Perseus would be High King. Once the oath was sworn, Hera hurried to Alcmene's dwelling and slowed the birth by forcing Ilithyia, goddess of childbirth, to sit crosslegged with her clothing tied in knots, thereby causing Heracles to be trapped in the womb. Meanwhile, Hera caused Eurystheus to be born prematurely, making him High King in place of Heracles. She would have permanently delayed Heracles' birth had she not been fooled by Galanthis, Alcmene's servant, who lied to Ilithyia, saying that Alcmene had already delivered the baby. Upon hearing this, she jumped in surprise, untying the knots and inadvertently allowing Alcmene to give birth.
The child was originally given the name Alcides by his parents; it was only later that he became known as Heracles. He was renamed Heracles in an unsuccessful attempt to mollify Hera. A few months after he was born, Hera sent two serpents to kill him as he lay in his cot. Heracles throttled a snake in each hand and was found by his nurse playing with their limp bodies as if they were child's toys.
Later in Thebes, Heracles married King Creon's daughter, Megara. In a fit of madness, induced by Hera, Heracles killed his children by Megara. After his madness had been cured with hellebore by Antikyreus, the founder of Antikyra, he realized what he had done and fled to the Oracle of Delphi. Unbeknownst to him, the Oracle was guided by Hera. He was directed to serve King Eurystheus for 12 years and perform any task which he required, resulting in the Twelve Labors of Heracles.
Driven mad by Hera, Heracles slew his own children. To expiate the crime, Heracles was required to carry out ten labors set by his arch-enemy, Eurystheus, who had become king in Heracles' place. Heracles accomplished these tasks, but Eurystheus claimed that the cleansing of the Augean stables and the killing of the Lernaean Hydra were not done by himself, and therefore set two further tasks, which Heracles performed successfully, thus bringing the total number of tasks up to twelve.
Not all writers gave the labors in the same order. Apollodorus (2.5.1-2.5.12) gives the following order:
His third marriage was to Deianira, for whom he had to fight the river god Achelous. (Upon Achelous' death, Heracles removed one of his horns and gave it to some nymphs who turned it into the cornucopia.) Soon after they wed, Heracles and Deianira had to cross a river, and a centaur named Nessus offered to help Deianira across but then attempted to rape her. Enraged, Heracles shot the centaur from the opposite shore with a poisoned arrow (tipped with the Lernaean Hydra's blood) and killed him. As he lay dying, Nessus plotted revenge and told Deianira to gather up his blood and spilled semen and, if she ever wanted to prevent Heracles from having affairs with other women, she should apply them to his vestments. Nessus knew that his blood had become tainted by the poisonous blood of the Hydra, and would burn through the skin of anyone it touched.
Later, when Deianira suspected that Heracles was fond of Iole, she soaked a shirt of his in the mixture. Heracles' servant, Lichas, brought him the shirt and he put it on. Instantly he was in agony, the cloth burning into him. As he tried to remove it, the flesh ripped from his bones. Heracles chose a voluntary death, asking that a pyre be built for him to end his suffering. After death the gods transformed him into an immortal, or alternatively, the fire burned away the mortal part of the demi-god, so that only the god remained. Because his mortal parts had been incinerated, he could now become a full god and join his father and the other Olympians on Mount Olympus. He then married Hebe.
Another episode of his female affairs that stands out was his stay at the palace of Thespius king of Thespiae, who wished him to kill the Lion of Cithaeron. As a reward, the king offered him the chance to make love to his daughters, all fifty of them, in one night. Heracles complied and they all became pregnant and all bore sons. This is sometimes referred to as his 13th Labour. Many of the kings of ancient Greece traced their lines to one or another of these, notably the kings of Sparta and Macedon.
As symbol of masculinity and warriorship, Heracles also had a number of pederastic male beloveds. Plutarch, in his Eroticos, maintains that Heracles' eromenoi (male lovers) were beyond counting. Of these, the one most closely linked to Heracles is the Theban Iolaus. Their story, an initiatory myth thought to be of ancient origin, contains many of the elements of the Greek pederastic apprenticeship in which the older warrior is the educator and the younger his helper in battle. Thus, Iolaus is Heracles' charioteer and squire. In a notable testament to the closeness between the two heroes, Iolaus is also Heracles' symbomos, (altar-sharer). Unlike all other heroes and gods, each of whom had his or her own altar, sacrifices to either hero could be offered at one and the same altar.
Also in keeping with the initiatory pattern of the relationship, Heracles in the end gave his pupil a wife, symbolizing his entry into adulthood. Iolaus's ritual functions paralleled his relationship with Heracles. He was a patron of male love—Plutarch reports that down to his own time, male couples would go to Iolaus's tomb in Thebes to swear an oath of loyalty to the hero and to each other—and he presided over initiations in the historical era, such as the one at Agyrion in central Sicily. The tomb of Iolaus is also mentioned by Pindar.
One of Heracles' best-known love affairs, and one frequently represented in ancient as well as modern art, is the one with Hylas. Though it is of more recent vintage (dated to the third century) than that with Iolaus, it too exemplifies in detail the normal cycle of a youth's initiatory process, consisting of education through service to a warrior, including sexual relations, and concluding with promotion to adult status and marriage.
Sparta, as a warrior city where pederastic pedagogy—ostensibly of a chaste nature—was enshrined in the laws given by Lycurgus, the legendary legislator, also provided Heracles with an eromenos—Elacatas, who was honored there with a sanctuary and yearly games. The myth of their love is an ancient one. Abdera's eponymous hero, Abderus, was another of Heracles' beloveds. In what is considered to be initiatory myth, he was said to have been entrusted with—and slain by—the carnivorous mares of Thracian Diomedes. Heracles founded the city of Abdera in Thrace in his memory, where he was honored with athletic games. The topos of death in such stories is thought to symbolize the passage from one stage of life to another.
Among the lesser-known myths is that of Iphitus. Heracles' subsequent murder of Iphitus is held to be evocative of an initiatory ritual. Another such story is the one of his love for Nireus, who was "the most beautiful man who came beneath Ilion" (Iliad, 673). Ptolemy adds that certain authors made Nireus out to be a son of Heracles, a fact thought to authenticate this tradition. The last in this category—despite the fact that Greek literature preserves no mention of this role—is the story of Philoctetes. He is also heir to the hero—and thus surely his disciple—and is the one who lights his pyre. Later he is the initiator of Neoptolemus, son of Achilles.
There is also a series of lovers who are either later inventions or purely literary conceits. Among these are Admetus, who assisted in the hunt for the Calydonian Boar; Adonis; Corythus; and Nestor, who was said to have been loved for his wisdom. His role as eromenos was perhaps to explain why he was the only son of Neleus to be spared by the hero.
Several years later, rumor tells Deianeira that she has a rival for the love of Heracles. Deianeira, remembering Nessus' words, gives Heracles the blood-stained shirt. Lichas, the herald, delivers the shirt to Heracles. However, it is still covered in the Hydra's blood from Heracles' arrows, and this poisons him, tearing his skin and exposing his bones. Before he dies, Heracles throws Lichas into the sea, thinking he was the one who poisoned him (according to several versions, Lichas turns to stone, becoming a rock standing in the sea, named for him). Heracles then uproots several trees and builds a funeral pyre, which Poeas, father of Philoctetes, lights. As his body burns, only his immortal side is left. Through Zeus' apotheosis, Heracles rises to Olympus as he dies.
No one but Heracles' friend Philoctetes (Poeas in some versions) would light his funeral pyre (in an alternate version, it is Iolaus who lights the pyre). For this action, Philoctetes (or Poeas) received Heracles' bow and arrows, which were later needed by the Greeks to defeat Troy in the Trojan War. Philoctetes confronted Paris and shot a poisoned arrow at him. The Hydra poison would subsequently lead to the death of Paris. The Trojan War, however, would continue until the Trojan Horse was used to defeat Troy.
The gateway to the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic ocean, where the southernmost tip of Spain and the northernmost of Morocco face each other, is, classically speaking, referred to as the Pillars of Hercules/Heracles, owing to the story that he set up two massive spires of stone to stabilise the area and ensure the safety of ships sailing between the two landmasses.
Organisations named after Heracles include the Greek football team Iraklis F.C..
Heracles appeared as an enemy of the Amazons in the pages of Wonder Woman. He would later reconcile with them, though. There is also a Marvel Comics superhero named Hercules, that is a member of the superhero team The Avengers. He claims to be the god of strength himself, descended from Olympus.
Hercules has appeared in several movies, such as a Disney animated movie that was loosely based on his myths, and the 1963 cult classic Jason and the Argonauts, where he appeared as a member of crew of the Argo, searching for the golden fleece. In television, Hercules is the mentor and ancestor of Herry Hercules from Class of the Titans.
Hercules has also appeared in a TV show in Toon Disney in India.
Bibliography of reconstruction: Homer, Odyssey, 12.072 (7th c. BC); Theocritus, Idylls, 13 (350–310 BC); Callimachus, Aetia (Causes), 24. Thiodamas the Dryopian, Fragments, 160. Hymn to Artemis (310–250? BC); Apollonios Rhodios, Argonautika, I. 1175 - 1280 (c. 250 BC); Apollodorus, Library and Epitome 1.9.19, 2.7.7 (140 BC); Sextus Propertius, Elegies, i.20.17ff (50–15 BC); Ovid, Ibis, 488 (AD 8 –18); Gaius Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica, I.110, III.535, 560, IV.1-57 (1st century); Hyginus, Fables, 14. Argonauts Assembled (1st century); Philostratus the Elder, Images, ii.24 Thiodamas (170–245); First Vatican Mythographer, 49. Hercules et Hylas