Why did Heracles have to perform the Twelve Labors?

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Answered by: Jordan, An Expert in the Heroes Category
The often cited myth of the hero Heracles (Hercules) and the Twelve Labors has been misconstrued by popular culture a number of times. On account of this, the popular image of Heracles as an always do good, strapping young lad are slightly misplaced in their optimism.

There are numerous stories depicting Heracles as a brute and drunkard, including an instance when he drunkenly murders the good centaur, Chiron, by mistake.

Heracles was the product of an adulterous affair committed by the Olympian deity Zeus with a mortal woman, Alcmene. Having taken the form of Alcmene's husband, Amphitryon, Zeus misled Alcmene into sleeping with him, thereby impregnating her. Hera, the immortal wife of Zeus, discovered the scandal and vowed to destroy the offspring of the affair, giving Heracles a powerful enemy from the beginning. Many attempts were made by Hera to end the young hero's life, yet Heracles overcame each one in turn, adding to his list of impressive feats.

Heracles was by all accounts an incredibly and unnaturally courageous, strong and intelligent being, fitting of his immortal heritage. However, perhaps due to the conflicting nature of his parents, Hercules found himself the perpetrator of an horrific crime; having succumbed to a fit of rage, Heracles was unable to control himself and violently slayed his wife, Megara, and their children. Euripides, a Greek playwright from the 5th Cent.

BCE, spells out the murder in his tragedy, "Heracles." In Euripides' version of events, Heracles is overcome with madness and believes his own family to be that of King Eurystheus, thus prompting Heracles to murder them. Though Euripides' tragedy remains one of the few sources to detail the scene of the murder, his history of artistic license as well as the anachronistic references to the Hydra prove to be a suspect source. However, the oral tradition of the story likely saw various reasons as to the madness of Heracles, though the outcome is always the same.

As is usual with Greek heroes, the dual nature of Heracles as both man and god created a tension that eventually proved disastrous; a mortal, domestic setting is no place for a god. Having committed his crime, Heracles was forced to expatiate his sin by performing the Twelve Labors for King Eurystheus, each one designed to put an end to the young hero. There is some confusion among scholars whether King Eurystheus was directly manipulated by Hera into creating such dangerous tasks, yet the point is moot; each task was created to be impossible. The Twelve Labors included such well known tasks as slaying the Hydra and the Nimean Lion, attaining the belt of the Amazonian Queen and the Golden Hind, and defeating the three-headed dog, Cerberus.

In this sense, the Twelve Labors were a literal punishment for the domestic crimes committed by Heracles. However, in relation to Greek myth and lore, the Twelve Labors also served as a rhetorical device to illustrate the hero in his archetypal capacity as preserver of civilization and microcosm of Greek culture. Heracles' slaying of wild animals, such as the Nimean Lion, and the diversion of natural waters serve to assert Man's place as the master of the land; his victory over the Amazonian Queen signifies the male domination of Greek society; his journeys to the outer reaches of the world communicate the sailing prowess of the Greek people. Thus, it has been argued that the Twelve Labors represent a convenient tool for storytellers to express the heroic qualities of Heracles.

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