Hercules, a well-known Greek hero, was made temporarily insane by the jealous goddess Hera. In a fit of madness, he murdered his wife Megara, as well as their children. When Hercules' madness passed, he was appalled at what he had done. He vowed to seek forgiveness from the gods, and journeyed to Delphi, where he consulted the Oracle of Apollo.

Apollo, through the Oracle, told Hercules that as penance for his actions, he was to serve King Eurystheus for a period of twelve years. Eurystheus, a kinsman of Hercules, had received Hercules' birthright as King of Mycenae through a trick of Hera, and was known for being cowardly and ill-tempered. Furthermore, Hercules was instructed to perform ten heroic labors for Eurystheus within the twelve-year period.

Wait a second... ten heroic labors? I thought there were twelve! Well, Eurystheus decided not to count two of the labors, bringing the total to twelve. There is some disagreement about the order in which the labors were performed, but the most commonly accepted order is:

  1. Slaying the massive Nemean Lion, whose hide was impenetrable.
  2. Slaying the venemous, regenerating, nine-headed Lernaean Hydra.
  3. Capturing alive the golden-antlered hind of Ceryneia, sacred to Artemis.
  4. Capturing the unremarkable Erymanthian Boar.
  5. Cleaning the filthy stables of Augeas, King of Elis, in a single day.
  6. Removing the flock of dangerous Stymphalian Birds from Stymphalus.
  7. Capturing the untameable Cretan bull which was rampaging through Crete.
  8. Procuring the man-eating horses of Diomedes.
  9. Obtaining the golden girdle of Ares from the Amazon queen, Hippolyte.
  10. Capturing the cattle of Geryon, a bizarre monster, from the island of Erythia.
  11. Fetching the three Golden Apples of Hesperides, guarded by an immortal dragon.
  12. Bringing the three-headed hound Cerberus from Hades.

The twelve labors were each intended to be suicide missions. As Hercules completed the seemingly impossible tasks, the cowardly Eurystheus became afraid of him, and took to hiding in a large jar. After completing the first ten labors, Hercules thought he was free; however, Eurystheus refused to count two of the labors: the slaying of the Hydra, because Hercules had received help from his newphew, and the cleaning of the Augean stables, because he had received payment from King Augeas for the work. The last two labors were the hardest, because by then, Eurystheus desperately wanted Hercules to fail.


Sources:
Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece, A.R. Hope Moncrieff, Gramercy Books, Avanel, N.J. 1934
Hercules - Labors, N.S. Gill, 2001-2003; http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/weekly/aa032701a.htm
Hercules: Greece's Greatest Hero, Perseus Project, Tufts University, 2000; http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/Herakles/

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