The name Hercules is famous the world over. He’s been a cartoon, an adhesive pitchman, a punchline to an Eddie Murphy joke. But what did he actually do? Well …
Before there were super-villains, the good guys fought monsters. Monsters are an integral part of the storytelling tradition, from the Kraken to the Big Bad Wolf. The ancient Greeks had a veritable storehouse of monsters, among them the Minotaur and Medusa, and the men who slew these monsters were hailed as saviors, the greatest heroes of their time.
Of all the Greek heroes, the most famous was probably Heracles (aka Hercules) who was strong, courageous, and intelligent. He was the son of Zeus and a mortal woman called Alcmene. Zeus was not only king of the gods, he was king of the adulterers, clocking up more than a few liaisons with mortal women resulting in plenty of fascinating children, but this particular child – Heracles – made Zeus’ wife so furious that she expended much of her energy on making his life as difficult as possible.
It’s important to know this because much of what happened to Heracles was the result of Hera’s rage. She was full of pent-up anger. One time, she induced in Heracles a fit of lunacy and, in that frenzied moment, he killed his wife and children. His punishment for this horrible crime, as decreed by the Oracle, was to serve his enemy Eurystheus for ten years. Eurystheus came up with the Twelve Labours, confident that Heracles wouldn’t be up to the task and would perish before completing them all. That was his cunning plan, anyway.
Two of these Labours involved slaying monsters and, being Greek mythology, these weren’t just any ordinary old monsters. No mucking around with pooncy dragons or savage bears – these babies were built to last.
The Nemean Lion
The first Labour asked of Heracles was to kill the notorious Nemean Lion, a huge ferocious beast whose parents were the monsters Typhon and Echidna. The Nemean Lion had the strength of ten regular lions; its teeth and claws could rip anything to shreds in mere seconds. Its thick skin couldn’t be penetrated by made-made weapons. This monster was pretty much indestructible.
The legends say that its preferred diet was human men and that it would lure an unsuspecting damsel into its lair to use as bait for its prey. When a man came along to rescue the terrified girl, the Nemean Lion attacked him quick smart and chomped on the poor chap’s bones. No one ever said what happened to the women – hopefully they had the wherewithal to run off while the lion was feasting on the ill-fated rescuer.
These weren’t just any ordinary old monsters. No mucking around with pooncy dragons or savage bears – these babies were built to last.
Being a strategic thinker, Heracles watched the Lion from a safe distance until he worked out its routine. He’d tried shooting arrows given to him from the god Apollo, but nothing was going to pierce that impenetrable hide, so he came up with an alternative plan. He followed the Lion into its den and sealed off the entrance. Using the element of surprise, he struck the monster on the head stunning it, then put his powerful hands around the beast’s neck and choked it to death.
Using the Nemean Lion’s own claws, Heracles then skinned the massive creature so he could take the pelt back as proof he’d completed this first Labour. He’s sometimes depicted as wearing the pelt as a kind of armor knowing it would keep him safe from arrows, swords, and other weapons. With the Nemean Lion slain, Heracles was ready to take on his next Labour.
Imagine being attacked by a giant snake. It’s the stuff of nightmares that’s for sure, but in this myth a giant snake would have been a piece of cake. How about the Hydra, an enormous serpentine creature with nine heads, one of which was immortal? The heads were at the ends of long snake-like necks that could twist and turn in every direction, making it pretty hard to sneak up on. If some brave soul did manage to cut off a head, two more would immediately grow back in its place.
Its noxious breath tended to keep people away. Just one whiff could be fatal to humans. The Hydra was every farmer’s worst nightmare – eating livestock, terrorizing the locals, polluting the air, dirtying the waterways. It had to go, but how?
Also on The Big Smoke
- Know who you’re Googling: Oedipus
- Know Who You’re Slaying: The Minotaur
- Medusa: The snake coiffed promiscuous hag who later lost her mind
The second of Heracles’ Twelve Labours was to kill the Hydra once and for all. This was a big challenge, no question, because Hera had raised the Hydra specifically to kill Heracles. She was always a girl for forward planning.
Fearlessness and chutzpah marked Heracles’ personality and he was clever enough to seek help when he needed it, so he secured the support of his nephew Iolaus to get the job done. Having covered his mouth and nose, Heracles lured the Hydra out into the open and set about chopping off the first head, then diverting the creature so that Iolaus could cauterize the wound with a hot iron. How this was actually achieved is never fully explained, but just go with it. Anyway, before they knew it, eight heads had been severed and cauterized until only the immortal head was left.
Using a powerful sword given to him by the goddess Athena, Heracles then hacked off the immortal head and quickly buried it, piling rocks on top of the makeshift grave. That old Hydra was deadibones and Heracles ticked off his second Labour as complete.
Heracles may have annoyed the hell out of Hera and Eurystheus by succeeding in these impossible quests, but the Greek people were jubilant. What a hero!
Ten further Labours awaited Heracles, but I think he needs to take a break for the moment. Slaying monsters is exhausting work.