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The Twelve Labors of Hercules: Part 1

Reading time: 6'6"

While most people have heard of the twelve labors (Δωδέκαθλος) of Hercules – or Heracles to use the hero’s original Greek name – the details are less well known, and few people would be able to provide an exhaustive list of the labors in question.

To refresh your memory, here comes a quick review – illustrated of course with coins, as is only deserving.

In the beginning, there were only supposed to be ten labors, but after his sponsor, Eurystheus, deemed two not to have been completed (as we shall see below), there were actually twelve in the end. Part 1 of this review will explore our indomitable hero’s first six labors.

Please note: As in the case of all myths and legends, there are various versions from different authors and details may differ among sources.

 

Le lion de Némée

1 – The Nemean Lion


Your mission, should you choose to accept it: slay the Nemean Lion.

This fierce lion was terrorizing Argolis (an administrative unit in the region of the Peloponnese) and – a very important detail – had impenetrable skin, in other words: extremely thick leather.

Our hero’s first attempt to kill the beast, using arrows forged by Apollo, proved to be a bitter failure. The lion was not particularly impressed with this first exchange, a bit peeved even, and did not hesitate to charge Hercules.

Our hero finally got the upper hand over his formidable opponent thanks to his club and strangled the lion with his bare hands in the grand finale of this epic battle.

Coin Calabria

Tarentum, Diobol, 380-325 BC, EF(40-45), Silver, HN Italy:914

Coin Poblicia

Denarius, EF(40-45), Silver, Babelon:9

Lion 0 – Hercules 1.

 



2 – The Lernaean Hydra


It’s safe to say that the life was not always easy in Argolis back then.

Or, at the very least, it was not usual to encounter bad neighbors unfamiliar with the established good manners, for example: do not decimate your neighbor’s herd.

The Lernaean Hydra was one of these neighbors. Its name literally means “water snake”, but it was a bit more impressive than that with its multiple heads (the number varies according to the version of the tale, but sources generally settle on a total between 5 and 9, which is not bad at all), including one immortal one.

The latter is described as being made of gold and is the brains behind the whole operation. Nature has a wise head on its shoulders.

The monster had the body of a snake with foul breath (reputed to be poisonous), and each head had the luxury of growing back as soon as it was cut off.

The whole package.

The Twelve Labors of Hercules: Part 1

Coin San Marino

10 Lire, 1973, MS(65-70), Aluminum, KM:25

And so, our Hercules was sent to restore order to the situation and kill the inconvenient neighbor. This job almost wasn’t included in the twelve because he needed a little help to accomplish it – let’s be fair: it was hardly an everyday chore.

Hercules called his chauffeur to the rescue (meaning his chariot driver here), the Theban hero Iolaus. The duo then displayed tremendous teamwork: Hercules chopped off the heads one by one and Iolaus cauterized each to avoid its unexpected regrowth.

The last head was placed under a great rock, and that’s a wrap.

Great Britain Medal

Politics, Society, War, 1745, EF(40-45), Copper

Only 10 more to go.

 

Le sanglier d'Erymanthe

3 – The Erymanthian Boar

This time, we leave Argolis behind and head to its neighbor Arcadia, still in the Peloponnese, for what will turn out to be quite a “traditional” hunt in the end.

Indeed, even if this poor boar living in the glens near the vast marsh of Erymanthus, admittedly a magnificent specimen, impressed its human neighbors with its size, did it really deserve to be terrified, tracked, and hunted until it collapsed of exhaustion, with the sole purpose of being captured and then jointed by an anonymous butcher in the market of Mycenae ?

Coin Mysia

Kyzikos, Hemiobol, Kyzikos, AU(50-53), Silver

Whatever, the third quest was accomplished.

 

Biche de Cérynie

4 – The Ceryneian Hind

We continue our tour of Greece by heading to Thessaly, a region to the north of the Peloponnese and south of Macedonia on the banks of the river Anavros where the peaceful Ceryneian Hind, also known as the doe with the golden horns, grazed.

Coin Salonina

Antoninianus, AU(50-53), Billon, Cohen:70

This specimen, the fifth of the herd, was the only one not to have been yoked to the golden chariot of the goddess Artemis, yet it remained under her protection.

So, what was Heracles’ tricky mission? To capture this flighty and difficult beast of the size of a bull and armed with golden antlers and (thus) bronze hooves. All without hurting or killing the animal, protected by its hunter goddess.

It took Hercules a year to reach it and he succeeded in immobilizing it with an arrow between the tendon and the bone of one of the legs, without spilling any blood. Artemis was nevertheless offended by this act but, after discussion, agreed to let him prove the accomplishment of his task on the condition that he released the beast unhurt once this was done.

And that is precisely what happened.

Coin Thessaly

Larissa, Apollo, Tetrachalkon, Larissa, EF(40-45), Bronze

And that makes four!

 

Ecuries du roi Augias

5 – The Augean stables


It is strange to note that one of Hercules’ most famous feats not only concerns a cowherd’s job but also contains an abuse of language, since it is actually about cowsheds

Coin Elis

Stater, 336 BC, Olympia, Very rare, VF(30-35), Silver

Whatever, let’s move on. In the kingdom of Elis (back to the Peloponnese again) ruled by King Augeas, said king was not one for chores, and the stables had not been mucked out for 30 years (!), leaving them impracticable.

So much so that his 1,000+ cattle (or anyone else for that matter) could no longer enter them.

Hercules was thus promoted to cleaning technician and had just one day to accomplish his mammoth task. That was obviously a bit tight to clean away thirty years of filth.

However, our hero was smart. He knocked down one of the walls, diverted two rivers, and let the waters wash everything away. Once his task was complete, he returned the rivers to their original courses and launched a “masonry” session to rebuild the wall while everything dried.

Coin Lucania

Drachm, 550-510 BC, Sybaris, Pedigree, AU(55-58), Silver

The result was a stable as shiny as a new penny!

Ask and you shall receive.

However, Augeas refused to pay the promised fee on the one hand and, on the other, Eurystheus, the sponsor of the labors, refused to count the accomplished feat as Hercules had demanded payment for the cleanup.

While the Lernaean Hydra was debatable, this case is purely dishonest.

That makes 5/5.

 

Les oiseaux du lac Stymphale

6 – The Stymphalian birds

We remain in the Northeast of the Peloponnese peninsula, in the region of Corinth, for a charming bucolic trip to Lake Stymphalia.

Its banks were home to some equally charming and particularly pleasant birds.

At least from Ares’ perspective, for it was he who raised them.

Armed with sharp steel feathers, these friendly flutterers were partial to human flesh for breakfast.

Germany Medal

Arts & Culture, AU(50-53), Bronze

Totally charming.

Once again, it fell to Hercules to tidy up the situation.

To do so, he used a precious musical accessory obligingly provided by Athena: a bronze rattle forged by Hephaestus. There was nothing for babies here, though. In fact, the idiophone was made of two shells which produced a noise when shaken in the hand like castanets.

Our plucky but flighty birds were apparently startled by the rattles when Hercules shook them on a nearby mountain. They took flight, and the hero seized his opportunity to shoot them with his arrows (who said cowardly?).

And one more takes our total to 6.

Thus, we have reached the halfway point on our journey.

To be continued…

P.S.: So? How many of these first six labors did you get?

 

Translation: Michael Wright


Iconography :

  • "Hercules" by Charles Le Brun (between 1658 and 1661)
  • "Heracles and the Nemea Lion" by Peter Paul Rubens (17th century)
  • "Engraving about the second labour of Heracles: slay the Lernaean Hydra" by Cornelis Cort (circa 1565)
  • "Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra" by Gustave Moreau (1876)
  • "Hercules and the Boar of Erymanthus" by Antonio Tempesta (1608)
  • "Hercules and the Hind of Mount Cerynea" by Antonio Tempesta (1608)
  • "Hercules and the Agean stables" by Francisco de Zurbarán (1634)
  • "Hercules at Lake Stymphalos" by Gustave Moreau (circa 1875-1880)

Sources :

Selection published on 16/11/2022