Heracles (who was called Hercules by the Romans) was the most famous of the Greek mythological heroes. To make amends for a crime, Heracles was compelled to perform a series of heroic tasks, or Labors. Amongst these was slaying the many-headed Hydra, retrieving the Golden Apples of the Hesperides and bringing the hellhound Cerberus up from the Underworld (see below). Heracles was also an Argonaut.
Like most authentic heroes, Heracles had a god as one of his parents, being the son of Zeus and a mortal woman named Alcmene. Zeus's wife Hera was jealous of Heracles, and when he was still an infant she sent two snakes to kill him in his crib. Heracles was found prattling delighted baby talk, a strangled serpent in each hand.
When he had come of age and already proved himself an unerring marksman with bow and arrow, a champion wrestler and the possessor of superhuman strength, Heracles was driven mad by the goddess Hera. In a frenzy, he killed his own children. To atone for this crime, he was sentenced to perform a series of tasks, or "Labors", for his cousin Eurystheus, the king of Mycenae.
As his first Labor, Heracles killed the Nemean Lion. This was no easy feat, for the lion's skin was impenetrable by spears or arrows. Heracles blocked off the entrance to the lion's cave and throttled it to death with his bare hands. Ever afterwards he wore the lion's skin as a cloak and its gaping jaws as a helmet.
King Eurystheus was so afraid of his heroic cousin that he hid in a storage jar. From the safety of this hiding place he issued the order for another Labor. Heracles was to seek out and destroy the monstrous and many-headed Hydra.
The mythmakers agree that the Hydra lived in the swamps of Lerna, but they seem to have had trouble counting the monster's heads. Some said that the Hydra had eight or nine. Others counted between fifty and a hundred. And still others claimed as many as ten thousand. All agreed, however, that as soon as one head was beaten down or chopped off, two more grew in its place. Only one of the heads was immortal, but cutting it off was the challenge. To make matters worse, the Hydra's very breath was lethal. Even smelling its footprints was enough to bring death to an ordinary mortal. Fortunately, Heracles was no ordinary mortal.
The great hero sought out the monster in its lair and brought it out into the open with flaming arrows. Then he made sure to hold his breath while grappling with the beast. Heracles had the strength of ten, but the fight went in the Hydra's favor. The monster twined its many heads around the hero and tried to trip him up. It called on an ally, a huge crab which also lived in the swamp. The crab bit Heracles in the heel and further impeded his attack. Heracles was on the verge of failure when he remembered his nephew.
Heracles had a twin brother named Iphicles. Iphicles took part in a number of heroic exploits but generally remained in the shadow of his illustrious twin. Heracles employed Iphicles' son, Iolaus, as his charioteer. Iolaus had driven Heracles to the swamps of Lerna, and he looked on in anxiety as his uncle became entangled in the Hydra's snaky heads. Finally, Iolaus could no longer bear to stand aside. In response to his uncle's shouts, he grabbed a burning torch and dashed to the fray.
Now, as soon as Heracles cut off one of the Hydra's heads, Iolaus was there to sear the wounded neck with flame. This kept further heads from sprouting. In this fashion, Heracles cut off the heads one by one, with Iolaus cauterizing the wounds. Finally Heracles lopped off the immortal head and buried it deep beneath a rock.
This was not to be the hero's last experience of swamp warfare. A future Labor would pit him against the Stymphalian Birds, man-killers who inhabited a marsh near Stymphalus in Arcadia. Heracles could not approach the birds to fight them - the ground was too swampy to bear his weight and too mucky to wade through. Finally Heracles resorted to some castanets given to him by the goddess Athena. By making a racket with these, he caused the birds to take wing. And once they were in the air, he brought them down by the dozens with his arrows.
In the course of his Labors and afterwards, Heracles accomplished some amazing feats. He once forced the god Poseidon to give way in battle. He wounded Ares, god of war, in another encounter. And he wrestled the great god Zeus himself to a draw. The hero could move mountains that hindered the route of his cattle herd. He could and did toss boulders about like pebbles. He even relieved the Titan Atlas of the burden of holding up the heavens. This came about when Eurystheus challenged him to retrieve the Golden Apples of the Hesperides.
The Hesperides, or Daughters of Evening, were nymphs assigned by the goddess Hera to guard certain apples which she had received as a wedding present. These were kept in a grove surrounded by a high wall and guarded by a dragon named Ladon, whose many heads spoke simultaneously in a babel of tongues. The grove was located in some far western land in the mountains named for Atlas.
Atlas was a Titan, which is to say a member of the first generation of gods, born of Earth. One of his brothers was Cronus, father of Zeus. Atlas made the mistake of siding with Cronus in a war against Zeus. In punishment, he was compelled to support the weight of the heavens by means of a pillar on his shoulders.
Heracles had been told that he would never get the apples without the aid of Atlas. The Titan was only too happy to oblige, since it meant being relieved of his burden. He told the hero to hold the pillar while he went into the garden of the Hesperides to retrieve the fruit. But first, Heracles would have to do something about the noisily vigilant dragon, Ladon.
This was swiftly accomplished by means of an arrow over the garden wall. Then Heracles took the pillar while Atlas went to get the apples. He was successful and returned quickly enough, but in the meantime he had realized how pleasant it was not to have to strain for eternity keeping heaven and earth apart. So he told Heracles that he'd have to fill in for him for an indeterminate length of time. And the hero feigned agreement to this proposal. But he said that he needed a cushion for his shoulder, and he wondered if Atlas would mind taking back the pillar just long enough for him to fetch one. The Titan graciously obliged, and Heracles strolled off, omitting to return.
As his final Labor, Heracles was instructed to bring the hellhound Cerberus up from the infernal kingdom of Hades. Hades was god of the dead. His realm, to which all mortals eventually traveled, lay beneath the earth and was called the Underworld, or Hades, after its ruler. The first barrier to the deads' journey beyond the grave was the most famous river of Hades, the Styx. Here the newly dead congregated as insubstantial shades, mere wraiths of their former selves, awaiting passage in the ferryboat of Charon the Boatman.
The afterlife, as conceived by the early Greeks, was a grim and gloomy proposition. Although there was no religious dogma on the subject, most imagined that some part of a being lived on after death. What survived, however, was very insubstantial, a ghostly shadow - or shade - of the living being.
The surviving families did their best to provide for these wraiths, sending them off to the Underworld with a bribe for Charon the Boatman, to induce him to ferry them across the Styx to the kingdom of the dead. Here they would live on forever in soulless company - unless, that is, they had been guilty of some egregious sin, in which case they might be punished for eternity by the ruler of the Underworld. The only worse fate, perhaps, might be to lack the toll for Charon and be condemned to wander in lonely desolation on the near bank of the river Styx until the end of time.
The concept of the afterlife was vague and often contradictory. The blind poet Homer, who sang of the Heroic Age, said that the dead passed on to a gray and gloomy realm below the earth, ruled over by Hades. But Homer also spoke of the Islands of the Blessed, located somewhere at the far western edge of the world. Here the greatest heroes went when they died, to live on in comfort and pleasure. In time these two ideas were put together, so that entrance to the Underworld was situated in the west, near where the flat earth dropped off into nothingness. Later still, people began to speak of other entrances to the world of the dead below.
There were two ways to get to the Underworld. The first and simplest was to die. The other way was only open to gods or heroes, who could proceed with caution to Hades' realm via certain natural chasms and caves. The most popular of these seems have been Taenarum in Laconia. This was the portal chosen by Theseus and his companion Peirithous on their ill-fated venture to abduct Hades' queen Persephone. And some say that it was via Taenarum that Orpheus pursued his wife Eurydice when, bitten by a snake, she shared the common fate in journeying to the afterlife below. But others maintain that Orpheus's entrance was Aornum in Thesprotia.
Before becoming a fully fledged member of the godly council on Mount Olympus, the wine-god Dionysus brought his mother up from Hades. She was the heroine Semele, who had been consumed by lightning when she asked Zeus to reveal to her his true nature as storm god. To retrieve her from the Underworld, Dionysus went to Lerna and dove into the Alcyonian Lake, which has no bottom.
In being challenged to bring back Cerberus to the land of the living, Heracles was faced with one of his most difficult Labors. Descending to Hades via Laconian Taenarum, the first problem he encountered was a glowering Charon the Boatman. Charon wasn't about to ferry anyone across in his rickety craft unless they met two conditions. Firstly, they had to pay a fare or bribe. And secondly, they had to be dead. Heracles met neither condition, a circumstance which aggravated Charon's natural grouchiness and caused him to glower more fiercely than usual.
But Heracles simply glowered in return, and such is the perseverance of a proper hero - at least one of Herculean magnitude - that once having set about a task, said hero will not fail to achieve and excel. The task in this instance being glowering, Heracles accomplished it with such gusto that Charon let out a whimper and meekly conveyed the hero across the Styx.
The next and greater challenge was Cerberus himself. The dog had teeth of a razor's sharpness, three (or maybe fifty) heads, a venomous snake for a tail and for good measure another swarm of snakes growing out of his back. When Heracles closed and began to grapple with the hound, these snakes lashed at him from the rear, while Cerberus's multiple canines lunged for a purchase on the hero's throat. Fortunately, Heracles was wearing his trusty lion's skin, which had the magic property of being impenetrable by anything short of one of Zeus's thunderbolts. After a titanic struggle, Heracles got Cerberus by the throat and choked the dog into submission.
Taking care to secure the permission of Hades and his queen Persephone, the hero then slung Cerberus over his shoulder and carted him off to Mycenae, where he received due credit for the Labor. In its grueling nature, the entire adventure was so at variance with the experience of Orpheus that it bears noting.
When Orpheus' wife Eurydice was claimed by Hades for his kingdom of the dead, Orpheus determined to get her back. Journeying to the Underworld by the entrance chasm at Taenarum, he too fetched up on the banks of the Styx. But instead of out-glowering Charon, Orpheus won him over by song. Such was the sweetness of his singing and his strumming of the lyre that not only did Charon willingly submit to ferrying Orpheus across the River of Darkness, but Cerberus, beguiled by the melody, lay down, crossed his paws under his chin and listened entranced.
The mortal status of Greek mythological heroes was subject to varying interpretations. Most heroes were sons of gods, and as such at least semi-divine. But this by no means meant that they automatically got to go to heavenly Mount Olympus when they died. Perseus achieved immortality of a sort by being made into a starry constellation. The Dioscuri, or Hero Twins, were originally accorded a mixed blessing. Polydeuces (Pollux to the Romans) was deemed godly enough to be admitted to Olympus, while his brother Castor was dispatched to Hades as a mere mortal. But Polydeuces interceded on his twin's behalf, on the plea that he could not bear eternal separation. The gods relented to the extent that the two were allowed to remain together forever, spending half the year deep in the earth beneath their shrine in Sparta and the other half on the airy heights of Olympus.
Heracles was the only hero to become a full-fledged god upon his demise, but even in his case there was his mortal aspect to be dealt with. He received special consideration because he had aided the Olympians in their epic battle against the Giants. These titanic sons of Earth had stormed the godly citadel in a hail of flaming oaks and rocks. And the deities of Olympus would never have prevailed without Heracles and his bow. By virtue of his spectacular achievements, even by heroic standards, Heracles was given a home on Mount Olympus and a goddess for a wife. But part of him had come not from his father Zeus but from his mortal mother Alcmene, and that part was sent to the Underworld. As a phantasm it eternally roams the Elysian Fields in the company of other heroes.