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Twelve Labors

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The Twelve Labours of Herakles are a series of stories connected by a continuous narrative, concerning a penance carried out by Herakles.

Table of contents

The narrative

Zeus, having made Alcmene pregnant with Herakles, proclaimed that the next son born of the house of Perseus would become king. Hera, Zeus' consort, hearing this, caused Eurystheus to be born two months early as he was of the house of Perseus, while Herakles, also of the house, was three months overdue. When he found out what had been done, Zeus was furious; however, his rash proclamation still stood.

In a fit of madness, induced by Hera, Herakles slew his wife and children; the fit then passed. Realising what he had done, he isolated himself, going into the wilderness and living alone. He was found (by his brother Iphicles) and convinced to visit the Oracle at Delphi. The Oracle told him that as a penance he would have to perform a series of ten tasks set by King Eurystheus, the man who had taken Herakles' birthright and the man he hated the most.

In his labours, Herakles was often accompanied by an eromenos. According to some, this was Licymnius, or to others Iolaus, his nephew. Although he was only supposed to perform ten labours, this assistance led to him suffering two more. Eurystheus didn't count the Hydra, because Iolaus helped him, or the Augean stables, as he received payment for his work (in other versions it is because the rivers did the work).

The traditional order of the labours is:

  1. Slay the Nemean Lion and bring back its skin.
  2. Slay the Lernaean Hydra.
  3. Capture the Erymanthian Boar.
  4. Capture the Cerynian Hind.
  5. Clean the Augean stables in one day.
  6. Slay the Stymphalian Birds.
  7. Capture the Cretan Bull.
  8. Steal the Mares of Diomedes.
  9. Obtain the Girdle of Hippolyte.
  10. Obtain the Cows of Geryon.
  11. Steal the Apples of the Hesperides.
  12. Capture Cerberus.

Inner meaning

Behind its outer meaning, Greek religion often hid an inner mystical tradition, and thus the labours could be interpreted as a symbolization of the spiritual path. This is particularly evident in an analysis of the eleventh, in which Hercules travels to a garden in which grows an apple tree with magical fruit, the tree of life, guarded by a dragon and some sisters—a parallel to the biblical legend of the garden of Eden where a snake encourages the use of an (unnamed) fruit tree, granting the knowledge of good and evil. The last three labours (10-12) of Herakles are generally considered metaphors about death.

Origin of the stories

Geographic locations

Pointing to a possible location for their origin, or at least their formalisation, is the fact that most of the geographic locations, are all located in, or on the borders of Arcadia, or connected with it significantly.

Connection to the Zodiac

The labours also have a strong connection to the constellations encountered by the transit of the sun through the year, many being connected to the zodiac. most of them having an association with one constellation, and as a whole, representing the passage of the sun (personified as Herakles) through the year and the zodiac.

Starting at the zodiac contellation of cancer, in which the sun's solstice occurs, and passing through each zodiac sign in the order the sun passes through them:

The order of the stories

As a representation of the sun's transit along the zodiac, the best place to start the journey would be at the summer solstice, which falls in Cancer. The order of the stories implied by the zodiac, starting at Cancer, is:

  1. The Lernean Hydra
  2. The Nemean Lion
  3. The Erymanthian Boar
  4. The Apples of the Hesperides
  5. The Cerynian Hind
  6. The Stymphalian Birds
  7. The Stable of Augeas
  8. The Mares of Diomedes
  9. Cerberus
  10. The Girdle of Hippolyte
  11. The Cretan Bull
  12. The Cows of Geryon

There are some locations that are necessary for the story to be possible—the Atlas mountains for Atlas, Thrace for Diomedes, Crete for the Minotaur's father, Libya for a desert. The others fill the blanks to create a continuous journey from south Arcadia towards the north west, then off across the sea to north west africa and back, return to Argo via from the north west of Arcadia, off to Thrace, then Sparta, Athens, Crete, and finally Libya.

Altering the story so that Herakles goes to Crete via the natural port of Argo, the town he centres on, the issue of there only being 10 tasks originally arises, due to his return to his home at this point. The arrangement of the story also means that, for most tasks, Herakles is obliged to carry the evidence of his prior ones with him. This burden implies that by the time he reaches home he is carrying an excessive amount of items, and thus Herakles was made to return after each task. By Herakles returning after each task, and implying that there were only meant to be 10, the connection to the Zodiac, and the continuity of the stories, is lost, and the stories are able to be moved around.

Since Herakles is said to wear the Nemean Lion's skin after his defeat, thus in most of the labours, depictions of him carrying out the labours mostly featured him in the skin, leading to a common idea of this as the starting point. Since the Nemean Lion then starts the sequence, and clearly has a connection to Leo, the other stories also with strong connections to the Zodiac (the Cretan bull with Taurus, and the Stable of Augeas, which is the early Greek name for Capricorn) needed to be moved back into their appropriate position relative to Leo.

As Greek religion became more esoteric towards the second centuries BC, emphasis on esoteric meaning in the stories became more important. Thus by moving the story concerning the Hesperides, taken to represent heaven, and Cerberus, to represent hell, to the end, produces the suggestion of teachings moving from the basic, to addressing more esoteric concerns, such as death, towards the end. In addition, the stories concerning war and treachery (the story of the Mares of Diomedes, and the nearby story of the Girdle of Hippolyte), made more sense together, and make more sense being placed next to the 3 stories concerning death, thus producing the traditional order.

See also

External links


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