Hercules is probably the most well-known hero in Greek mythology. Born to a mortal mother and fathered by the King of the Gods, Hercules was famous for his superhuman strength and the many labors he performed. But life wasn't easy for Hercules, since his vengeful stepmother vowed to make him miserable as retribution for her husband's infidelity.

The Conception and Birth of Hercules

Zeus was attracted to a mortal woman called Alcmene. He disguised himself as her husband, Amphitryon, who had gone off to war, and had an affair with her. When Amphitryon returned home, Alcmene realized what had happened. However, she also conceived a son with her husband, and bore Iphicles to Amphitryon and Hercules to Zeus. Hera, the wife of Zeus, was jealous and furious over her husband's infidelity. She sent two serpents to kill the infant, but Hercules grabbed the snakes and strangled them.

Hera's Revenge

Hercules grew into a strong, muscular man. He married Megara, daughter of the King of Thebes, and had children. Although it seemed that Hercules would be able to settle down for a happy family life, Hera had other plans. His vengeful stepmother caused a fit of rage to overtake him, and Hercules killed his wife and children. When he regained his senses, Hercules was distraught and overcome with grief over the horrible act he had committed.

The Labors of Hercules

Hercules went to the oracle at Delphi and asked how he might atone for the sins of killing his wife and children. He was told to serve King Eurystheus of Argos, and the king gave him 12 great labors to perform. The first task was to kill the Nemean lion that was terrorizing the Nemean people. The second task was to slay a venomous serpent with multiple heads, known as the Lernaean hydra. The third labor was to capture the Cerynean Stag, which was a deer sacred to the goddess Artemis. Next, Hercules had to capture the Erymanthian boar. In the fifth labor, Hercules was instructed to clean out the stables of Augeas. Hercules completed the task by redirecting the course of a nearby river to wash away the manure. The sixth labor involved slaying birds made of metal, known as the Stymphalian birds.

More Labors

The seventh labor was to capture the Cretan bull, which Hercules easily accomplished. Next Hercules defeated the wicked King Diomedes, who kept a team of man-eating horses. Hercules fed him to his horses. The ninth labor was to retrieve the girdle of Hippolyta. She was the leader of the Amazons, a tribe of female warriors. Although Hercules intended to solve the matter peacefully, Hera interfered and Hippolyta was killed. The tenth labor took Hercules to the distant west where he had to retrieve the cattle of a giant with three heads and three sets of legs. Next, Hercules had to obtain the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, a group of goddesses that lived in a mystical garden. The apples, however, were guarded by a monstrous serpent. The final labor was to kidnap the vicious, three-headed dog, Cerberus, who guarded the underworld.

Deianeira and the Centaur Nessus

Hercules had many more adventures, but he also settled into matrimony once again. He married the beautiful Deianeira, and the couple were happy. While traveling, Hercules and his wife encountered a wide river that would be difficult for Deianeira to cross. A centaur, (half man, half horse) named Nessus offered to take her across the water on his back. She accepted, and Hercules started across the river first. As he looked back, he saw his wife trying to escape from Nessus, as he attempted to run away with her. Hercules shot Nessus with a poisoned arrow. Before he died, Nessus told Deianeira that his blood would make a powerful love potion that would keep Hercules faithful to her.

The Death of Hercules

Later, the time did come when Deianeira suspected that her husband was in love with another. She used the centaur's blood on a shirt (some versions of the story say a cloak), and when Hercules put the garment on, it burst into flames and began to consume him. Hercules knew he was dying and ordered a funeral pyre to be built. However, no one wanted to light it. A boy who was passing by lit the fire, and Hercules gave him his bow and arrow out of gratitude. Hercules had been promised immortality for completing the 12 labors, and Zeus fulfilled that promise by taking his son to Olympus to live among the other gods.