The Labours of Herakles (Hercules) - Part 1, in the Peloponnese

Throughout antiquity the Greek hero Herakles (Roman: Hercules) was the subject of numerous stories and countless works of art. According to mythology he was the son of Zeus, king of the gods, and the mortal woman Alkmene. Herakles succeeded in his exploits in spite of being opposed by Hera, the jealous wife of Zeus. He was a precocious child: while still in his cradle he strangled two snakes sent by Hera to attack him with his bare hands. To the Greeks he was a larger-than-life character: both Superman and Everyman. Though he heroically fought and killed monsters he also had many human failings: he was quick-tempered, not terribly bright and fond of wine, food and women.

The deeds and adventures of Herakles were many and various, but the 'Twelve Labours of Herakles' are perhaps retold most often. The twelve tasks were performed at the behest of Eurystheus, King of Argos or Mycenae. Herakles was supported in his efforts by the goddess Athena, and sometimes helped by his nephew Iolaos. The first six labours took place in the Peloponnese, the second six took the hero to the fringes of the Greek world and beyond.

Herakles' first labour in the Peloponnese was the killing of the Nemean lion, a huge beast invulnerable to weapons. Herakles strangled it with his bare hands, and ever afterwards wore its skin as a cloak. Next the hero despatched the many-headed water-snake known as the Hydra of Lerna, and the Erymanthian boar, a fierce wild boar rampaging on Mount Erymanthos. It took him a year to capture the Keryneian hind, a shy creature sacred to Artemis. The goddess allowed him to take it to Eurystheus on the understanding that he later let it go free. The Stymphalian birds, deadly creatures who shot out their feathers like arrows, were his next victims, while his final task in the Peloponnese was the cleansing of the Augean stables. The cattle of King Augeias had fouled the stables over many years, but the resourceful hero simply diverted the course of a river to wash them clean.

For the final six labours of Herakles see 'Part 2 - beyond the Greek world'.

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