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Hercules on a coin of Gordianus III.
Brandenburg Gate with reliefs of the Hercules saga

Heracles or Hercules ( ancient Greek Ἡρακλῆς , Herakles, meaning "who gained fame in Hera"; Latin Hercules ) is a Greek hero who is famous for his strength , received divine honor and was accepted into Olympus .

Its attributes are the fur of the Nemean lion , club, bow and quiver.

According to the various legends surrounding Heracles, he was the son of Zeus and Alcmene , twin brother of Iphicles , first husband of Megara , second husband of Omphale , husband of Deïaneira and the eye and after his death husband of the goddess Hebe , also lover of Iole and Abderos and father of numerous children. Heracles was cousin and friend of Oionus , great-grandfather of Hippotes and Deiphontes and ancestor of Polyphontes . His foster father is Amphitryon . Through his mother's genealogy, he belongs to the Perseid family .

In addition to this main form, there was another conception of Herakles in antiquity, which saw in him the oldest of the brothers who were known under the name of the Cretan dactyls . This Herakles Idaios was the founder of the Olympic Games .

Life of Heracles


Heracles with a serpent, 2nd century work in the Capitoline Museums in Rome

Zeus once fell in love with the beautiful Alcmene. Her husband Amphitryon had fled Mycenae after killing his uncle and father-in-law Elektryon . Thereupon Zeus came to Alcmene in the form of her husband and begat Heracles with her. When Amphitryon returned from his journey, the deception was exposed. He forgave his ignorant wife and fathered Iphikles , Herakles' twin brother, with her . So Alkmene gave birth to two sons - Heracles, scion of a god and a mortal, and Iphicles, descendant of two mortals. This is how Heracles was born in Thebes . Hera , the wife of Zeus, became a lifelong persecutor of Heracles out of jealousy. When the birth of Heracles and his twin half-brother Iphicles was imminent, Zeus announced that the first-born child from the house of Perseus , the grandfather of Alcmene, was to become the master of Mycenae. That was what Hera had asked him to be able to outsmart him. She delayed the labor of Alcmene, so that first Eurystheus , son of Sthenelus , an uncle of Amphitryon, was born and only then Heracles, who was thus subject to him.

Alkmene abandoned the baby for fear of Hera's revenge. His half-sister Athena , who later played an important role as the patron goddess, took him and brought him to Hera. Herakles did not recognize this and nursed him out of pity. However, Heracles sucked so hard that he inflicted pain on Hera, which pushed him away. The milk splashed across the sky and formed the Milky Way there . But with the divine milk Heracles received supernatural powers. Athena brought the child back to his mother and Heracles grew up with his parents. He was just eight months old when Hera sent two huge snakes into the children's room. Iphicles wept with fear, but then his brother seized the two snakes and strangled them. The seer Teiresias , whom the astonished Amphitryon summoned, prophesied an unusual future for the child. He would defeat numerous monsters.


Heracles was trained in the arts of charioteers , archery , fencing , fistfighting and wrestling . He was also taught to sing and play the lyre . He was very docile, but irascible for life to the point of insanity . So he killed his music teacher Linos with the lyre when he wrongly reprimanded him. His foster father, King Amphitryon, then sent him to the Kithairon to his herds , probably out of fear of his untamed strength . Here he grew up into a youth among the shepherds.

The sophist Prodikos relocated the ingenious fable of “ Heracles at the Crossroads ” to this time . The young Heracles meets two women at a fork in the road. One wears precious garments and promises him a life full of pleasure and wealth. The other, simply dressed, warns him against it: "The gods give people nothing of the good and truly beautiful without effort and diligence." In a dispute, the two women debate happiness (Εὐδαιμονία, Eudaimonia ) and virtue (Ἀρετή, Arete ) represent the advantages and disadvantages of the two paths of life. Heracles finally decides to follow virtue.

First adventure

Apollodorus reports the following adventure about eighteen-year-old Heracles :

Heracles and the Nemean Lion, vase from 500–475 BC BC, Louvre
On the kithairon , on which the herds of Amphitryon and Thespios grazed, lived a lion, which Heracles undertook to fight. Meanwhile, Thespios gave the young hero one of his 50 daughters each night for 50 days, of whom 50 sons were born. After a long struggle, Heracles killed the lion and since then has worn the lion's skin instead of his usual robe and his head as a helmet.
Later the club made from an olive tree near Nemea was added; his Roman epithet Claviger can be derived from this episode.

On his return to Thebes, Heracles met the ambassadors of the orchomenic king Erginos , who wanted to get a tribute of 100 oxen wrested from the Thebans. Heracles cut off the envoys' noses and ears, sent them home tied up, and in the war that followed forced the Orchomenians to repay the tribute received twice. The battle between the Minyans and the Thebans broke out, which Heracles won for Thebes with extraordinary deeds. The fame of his deeds quickly spread . Creon , the king of Thebes, gave him his daughter Megara as a wife, with whom he fathered three sons.

The works (ἔργα / πόνοι)

Then Eurystheus, to whom Heracles was second-born, called him into his service, but Heracles refused to serve. Then the vengeful Hera overwhelmed him with madness. Trapped in it, Heracles killed his children conceived with Megara - according to the portrayal of Euripides in the tragedy Heracles, Megara herself.

When the attack had subsided and he saw his terrible deed before his eyes, he was gripped by deep sorrow. Finally he asked the Oracle of Delphi for advice. Then the Pythia replied : “You will only get atonement for your terrible murder if you put yourself in the service of Eurystheus for twelve years and fulfill the deeds required of him.” In that oracle he is said to have been named Heracles for the first time Hero who attained fame through the persecution of Hera, whereas previously he had been called Alcaios Alkeides or Alcides after Amphitryon's father . Heracles did as the oracle had told him. Armed with a club that he had carved himself, a sword given by Hermes , and a bow and arrow that he had received from Apollo , he went to Argos to see King Eurystheus.

This gave him a total of twelve tasks - called in Greek ἔργα érga "work" (plural for ἔργον érgon ). They were the outflow and consequence of the ponoi caused by the angry Hera (plural to πόνος pónos , also “work”, but especially the “laborious, exhausting work”): subordination to Eurystheus, madness and more. The Greek mythology knew with Ponos own Daimon for such phenomena. Heracles mastered all the tasks, although Hera exacerbated the ponoi by producing other monsters, such as a crab in the fight against the hydra . After their completion one usually speaks of the Twelve Deeds of Heracles.

In Greek literature from the Hellenistic period, the twelve deeds were summarized under the term dodecathlos (actually δωδεκάεθλος dodekáethlos, "having won twelve times"), which is common in the specialist sciences . The German word "Herkulesaufgabe" is derived from the immense scope of each of these twelve tasks.

The "twelve labors" of Heracles
image No. did Remarks
Mosaico Trabajos Hércules (MAN Madrid) 01.jpg 01. Killing of the Nemean lion He tightened his throat until the lion suffocated. From now on he wore its fur - it made him almost invulnerable.
Mosaico Trabajos Hércules (MAN Madrid) 02.jpg 02. Killing the nine-headed hydra (Lernaean serpent) He burned out each of the decapitated necks so that no new heads could grow back. He split the hydra's hull in two; in its poison he dipped his arrows, which since then have struck incurable, fatal wounds.
Herakles Ceryneian Hind Louvre F 234bis.jpg 03. Capturing the Kerynite Doe He chased her for a whole year until he finally caught her - either with a net that he threw over the sleeping hind or by shooting an arrow through both of her forelegs, thus tying her up.
Berlin-Tiergarten Luetzowplatz Hercules 20050506 p1030068.jpg 04th Capturing the Erymanthian Boar He drove him out of the forest into a snowfield. The boar tired quickly.
Mosaico Trabajos Hércules (MAN Madrid) 05.jpg 05. Mucking out the cowsheds of the Augean Since this was a dishonorable work, Heracles had to choose a special route here, namely to lead two nearby rivers (Alpheios and Peneios) through the stable.
Mosaico Trabajos Hércules (MAN Madrid) 06.jpg 06th Expulsion of the stymphalic birds He received two large metal rattles from Athena. With their help he could scare away the birds and kill them one by one with his poisoned arrows.
Mosaico Trabajos Hércules (MAN Madrid) 07.jpg 07th Capturing the Cretan Bull Heracles tamed the bull and brought it to Eurystheus, showed it to him, and immediately released the bull.
Mosaico Trabajos Hércules (MAN Madrid) 08.jpg 08th. Taming of the man-eating steeds of Diomedes He first threw Diomedes himself to them to eat. After they ate their master, Heracles was able to lead them tamed towards the sea.
Herakles Amazons Louvre F218.jpg 09. Creation of the belt of the Amazon queen Hippolyte Hippolyte gave him the belt voluntarily. Due to an intrigue by Hera, the fight finally broke out, Heracles killed Hippolyte and returned to Greece.
Heracles Geryon Louvre F55.jpg 10. Rape of the herd of cattle of the giant Geryon Geryon challenged Heracles to battle. Heracles killed him with a poison arrow. Hera, who had come to support Geryon, was also wounded by Herakles and put to flight.
Mosaico Trabajos Hércules (MAN Madrid) 11.jpg 11. Picking the golden apples of the Hesperides For that he had to go to the pillars of Heracles . By a trick he persuaded Atlas , the father of the Hesperides, to pick his apples.
Mosaico Trabajos Hércules (MAN Madrid) 12.jpg 12. Bringing up the watchdog of the underworld, Kerberos , to the upper world Hades allows Heracles to temporarily remove the dog from the underworld. Heracles wrestles him down without arms and brings him to Eurystheus.

The motif of the tasks to be accomplished is the oldest known poetic work in Peisandros von Kameiros (7th / 6th century BC). In various traditions and records of the Heracles myth, the composition and order are sometimes given differently.

Another narrative shows how Heracles served the Lydian Queen Omphale as a slave for three years in penance for his irascible temper . During this time of bondage, Apollodor relocated Herakles 'participation in the Argonauts' procession together with his friend Hylas , as well as the legend of the hunt for the Calydonian boar and the punishment of the Syleus , Lytierses and the Kerkopen .

The ancillary work (πάρεργα)

Heracles had to stand up to numerous opponents who stood in his way on his travels to the twelve missions assigned by Eurystheus. These disputes were not directly related to the tasks of Eurystheus and were already referred to as secondary work ( πάρεργα párerga ) in antiquity ; nevertheless Heracles had to master this in order to be able to continue his journey. So it came about that the hero had to fight against centaurs and amazons and even supported Jason in the march of the Argonauts.

Returning from the journey to the Golden Fleece , he heard that Laomedon , King Troy, had promised his immortal horses to the one who would save his daughter Hesione . A year earlier, Zeus punished the gods Poseidon and Apollo for being bold. So it came about that the God of the Seas and the God of Music had to serve Laomedon for a whole year. Poseidon built the insurmountable walls of Troy and Apollo looked after the king's considerable flocks. After the year of repentance was over, the two gods asked Laomedon for their wages, but Laomedon refused to pay them. Apollo and Poseidon swore vengeance on Troy and Laomedon. The god of music brought the plague to the city's residents and Poseidon dispatched a sea monster, the Trojan Ketos , to terrorize them. In desperation, the residents turned to the Oracle of Delphi , who prophesied that only the sacrifice of Hesione could lift the curses of the gods. Hesione was chained to a rock and offered as a sacrifice to ketos. But Heracles managed to save Hesione by slaying the sea monster. The king also broke the promise to Heracles that he would give him the horses of Zeus. Heracles walked away in silence, but secretly he knew that his day of vengeance would soon come. When Heracles returned from his victory over the Amazons from Themiskyra , where one of the tasks of Eurystheus had commanded him, the day of retribution had come. Heracles and his companions forcibly entered Troy , killed King Laomedon and wiped out his entire family - with the exception of their daughter Hesione and, at her request, the youngest son Priam  . Years later, Priam took his father's throne.

Heracles made the king's daughter Deïaneira his second wife. One day they both had to cross a river that was flooding. The centaur Nessos offered to carry the young woman on his back with dry feet, but then galloped off with her. Heracles shot him one of his deadly arrows. When Nessos, who had been hit, was dying, he gave the woman treacherous advice: “Catch a little of my blood and keep it. If you are afraid of losing the love of Heracles, soak his robe with it, and he will never look at any woman other than you. ”But his blood was poisoned by the death arrow.

Nessos shirt and death

Nessos amphora (approx. 620–610 BC): Heracles fights with the centaur Nessos ( National Archaeological Museum , Athens)

Years later, Heracles turned to the beautiful Iole he had captured . Then the jealous Deïaneira had the undergarment soaked by her blood (which has become the "Nessos shirt" or " Lichas shirt") brought to him by the servant Lichas , who had no idea that he would harm his master by this service. After Heracles threw it on, the heroes were in excruciating pain. He tried to take off the shirt, but it was firmly attached to his skin so that he tore off his flesh at the same time. Deïaneira killed herself out of desperation. To put an end to his unbearable torments, Heracles piled a pyre on Mount Oite and was burned alive on it by Philoctetes . Mount Oite was once proclaimed by the oracle of Delphi for the end of Heracles. In addition, the prophecy came true that he would die by someone who was no longer alive himself. But he was caught up from the flames to Olympus, there he achieved immortality. Hera's torments finally appeased, and Heracles was married to her daughter Hebe , the goddess of youth.

Roman mythology and cult

Temple of Hercules in Rome

His cult spread around the Mediterranean. The Romans worshiped Heracles under the Latin name Hercules (derived from the Etruscan Hercle and the Greek name by syncope ) like the Greeks as a god. However, this one differs from its Greek counterpart in a number of myths. At his temple in the Forum Boarium, businessmen promised him a tenth of their profit when they set out on their travels.

Cult among the Seleucids and Parthians

Statue of Heracles carved into the rock; the inscription dates it to 148 BC. Chr.

The cult of Heracles was also particularly popular in the Seleucian and Parthian empires. The temple of Masjid-i Solaiman in what is now Iran may have been dedicated to him. At least the remains of a Heracles statue were found there. However, the dating of the temple complex to the Seleucian period, as suggested by excavators, is uncertain. From the year 148 BC A rock relief comes from Bisutun , which shows Heracles lying down. The god is expressly named in the dedicatory inscription belonging to it. However, it is still not certain to what extent he was identified with Verethragna or other deities in the Near East . More than 30 reliefs and sculptures of Heracles come from Dura Europos . Here, too, it is not always certain whether Heracles was equated with an Asiatic god. However, there are indications that Heracles was worshiped as such.


Sources for the Heracles myth can be found in great numbers in Greek and Latin literature. The functionalization of the figure of Heracles (admirative, sympathetic, ironic or even negative identification ) is as different as the respective literary genres .

Greek sources include Homer : Iliad and Odyssey , Pseudo-Hesiod : Shield of Heracles , Pindar , Bakchylides , Sophocles : The women of Trachis , Euripides : Herakles, Aristophanes : birds , Theocrites : Idyll  13 and 24, Apollonios of Rhodes : Argonautica  I, Callimachos : Hekale, Aitia and Artemis-Hymnos, Diodor 4,8 ff., Library of Apollodor 2,4,8 ff.

Latin sources include Virgil : Aeneis VIII, Properz : Elegies  IV.9, Ovid : Metamorphoses  IX, Seneca : Hercules furens and Hercules Oetaeus , Silius Italicus : Punica, Hyginus : Fabulae 30

Heracles in ancient art

The Vulci amphora is an example of the reception of Heracles in ancient fine arts.


Herakles-like representation of the Buddhist protective deity Vajrapani , to the right of Buddha , Gandhara (now Pakistan) 2nd century, British Museum

Physical characteristics of the Germanic thunderstorm god Thor (hair color, beard) as well as his confrontation with the Midgard serpent show analogies both to Heracles (who was raptured to Olympus with lightning and thunder) and to Indra , the Vedic god of thunder, to which Hermann Oldenberg already referred. Leopold von Schroeder worked out the common features of the myths of Heracles and Indra even more clearly. The two young, uncontrolled heroes, endowed with superhuman strength, perform similar heroic deeds (freeing the cows from the giant's cave, fighting the Centaurs, fighting the Lernean hydra). Walter Burkert considers the Herakles myth to be a pre-Greek ( Thracian ?) Shepherd myth that has similarities with the Indra myth; it contains shamanistic elements.

In the Hellenistic context, Heracles was sometimes equated with the Babylonian Nergal . The cult of Nergal-Heracles is documented from Hatra and Palmyra . In Hatra, the dog seems to have been assigned to the Herakles-Nergal as a symbolic animal. As in earlier times, he was also the protector of the city gates. In the Cilician Tarsus there is an equation with the god Sandan . The oldest representations of the Buddhist protective deity Vajrapani from Gandhara (today West Pakistan) resemble Heracles so strikingly that the worship of Vajrapani could go back to the Heracles cult. Images that clearly represent Heracles are known from Gandhara.


Significance for the history of art after antiquity

In the culture of the European Middle Ages , Heracles was seen as a model for virtuous behavior and exemplary warfare. Depictions of the heroic deeds of Heracles and, above all, the motif of Heracles at the crossroads can therefore be found throughout the Middle Ages and were also created in large numbers during the Renaissance and Baroque periods .

Hercules scenes were often chosen for the interest in the human body and its moving representation, especially Hercules and Antaeus , Cacus and the battles with Centaurs. The Italian Antonio Pollaiuolo captured this vividly. Print graphics ensured supra-regional distribution; u. a. Gian Giacomo Caraglio (after Rosso Fiorentino) in Italy or Hans Sebald Beham in Germany.

There are famous representations by Leonardo da Vinci , Baccio Bandinelli , Peter Paul Rubens and Hans Baldung .

Hevelius: Constellation of Hercules, 1690

Significance for the history of literature in ancient and post-ancient times

Also writers and poets from Pindar , Ovid , Giovanni Boccaccio , William Shakespeare to Christoph Martin Wieland , Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Hölderlin to authors of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as Frank Wedekind , Robert Walser , Friedrich Dürrenmatt , Heiner Müller and Peter Huchel , were inspired by the myth.

The role of Hercules in the French Revolution

In the Ancien Régime still valid as a symbol of the power of the king, Hercules became a figure who allegorically stood for the power of the common people. Especially during the time of the Jacobin rule , the figure served as a threat against so-called enemies of the people who opposed the progress of the revolution, which degenerated into the reign of terror of the welfare committee from 1793-94 .

Hercules in pop culture

The figure of Hercules was used in numerous feature films, television series and comics over the course of the 20th century. In Italy in particular, a separate subgenre of the sandal film about the hero emerged from the 1960s to the 1980s . The best-known adaptations in this tradition today include a version by Mario Bava ( Vampires against Heracles , 1961; leading role: Reg Park ) and two films by Luigi Cozzi ( Hercules and The Adventures of Hercules 2nd Part from 1983 and 1985; actors was Lou Ferrigno ). Well-known American film adaptations of the character are Hercules in New York (1969) with the young Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role, the cartoon Hercules from 1997 from Disney and the adaptation from 2014 with the wrestler and action actor Dwayne Johnson (based on a cartoon character from the US -Verlag Radical Comics ). A 1990s TV series starring Kevin Sorbo was also popular . Almost all modern adaptations of pop culture have in common that they combine the traditional acts of the Herakles saga with motifs from other myths, historical set pieces and newly conceived fantasy elements .

In the United States, Hercules was introduced as a character in the comics for Wonder Woman ( DC Comics ) in 1941 and as a character in Thor Comics ( Marvel Comics ) in 1965 . At Marvel he is portrayed as a frivolous daredevil and thus became a rival of the prudent Thor. At DC, however, he is generally considered a supporter of the title heroine.

The Franco-Belgian comic hero Asterix , in the 1976 film Asterix conquered Rome , based on Herakles, also had to fulfill twelve tasks in order to take over the rule of the Roman Empire for the Gauls . This story appeared in 1977 as 12 exams for Asterix, also in comic form.


The constellation Hercules was named after Heracles , as well as the asteroid (5143) Heracles , the lunar crater Hercules , Mount Hercules in East Antarctica and the statue and building complex Hercules in the Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe .

See also


Web links

Commons : Heracles  - Collection of Images
Wikisource: Heracles  - Sources and full texts
Heracles the Newborn | The education of Heracles | Heracles at the crossroads | Heracles' first deeds | Heracles in the gigantic fight | Heracles and Eurystheus | The first three labors of Heracles | The fourth labor of Heracles up to the sixth | The seventh, eighth and ninth labors of Heracles | The three last labors of Heracles | Heracles and Eurytus | Heracles at Admetus | Heracles in the service of Omphale | The later exploits of Heracles | Heracles and Deïanira | Heracles and Nessus | Heracles, Iole and Deïanira. His end

Individual evidence

  1. Homer , Iliad 19: 96-99
  2. Xenophon , Memorabilia 2, 1, 21–34.
  3. Libraries of Apollodor 2,4,9,5-2,4,10,2
  4. ^ Wilhelm Pape : Concise dictionary of the Greek language. Edited by Max Sengebusch, 3rd edition, 6th impression. Volume 1: Α – Κ. Vieweg & Sohn, Braunschweig 1914, column 693 ; Henry George Liddell , Robert Scott : A Greek-English Lexicon. Revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie. Clarendon Press, Oxford 1940, sv δωδεκάεθλος
  5. ^ DT Potts: The Archeology of Elam , Cambridge World Archeology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1999, ISBN 0-521-564964 , pp. 371-372
  6. ^ Susan B. Downey: The Heracles Sculpture (Excavations at Dura-Europos, Final Report III), New Haven 1969, especially p. 46
  7. ^ Karl Galinsky : The Herakles theme. The adaption of the hero in literature from Homer to the 20th century. 1972.
  8. ^ Hermann Oldenberg: The religion of the Veda. Berlin 1894; 2nd edition Stuttgart / Berlin 1917, p. 134.
  9. ^ Leopold von Schroeder: Herakles und Indra. A myth-comparing investigation. 2 volumes, Vienna 1914.
  10. ^ Walter Burkert: Greek Religion. Archaic and Classical. London 1985, p. 86 f .; see. also EJ Michael Witzel : The Origins of the World's Mythologies. Oxford / New York 2012, p. 143.
  11. ^ Wathiq Al-Salihi: Hercules-Nergal at Hatra. In: Iraq. 33/2, 1971, 113-115.
  12. ^ Wathiq Al-Salihi: Hercules-Nergal at Hatra (II). In: Iraq. 35/1, 1973, 69.
  13. ^ Justine Nagler: Twelve Deeds of Hercules (1542-1548) by Sebald Beham. In: Karl Möseneder (ed.): Between Dürer and Raffael. Graphic series Nürnberger Kleinmeister. Imhof, Petersberg 2010, pp. 85–114.
  14. See Lynn Hunt: Symbols of Power - Power of Symbols. The French Revolution and the Draft of a Political Culture. Fischer, Frankfurt a. M. 1989, pp. 132-134.