The Twelve Labours of Herakles

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Recognizing he needed to take a different tack, Hercules cleverly cauterizes the decapitated wound, preventing any heads from regenerating, and finally defeats the dreadful Hydra. However, because the central head of the Hydra was immortal, Hercules could only bury it beneath an enormous stone in order to decommission the monster. Evil can never be completely or forever eradicated.

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Only controlled, contained, and constantly kept in check. Again, Hercules is further empowered by this victory: He dips his arrow tips in the Hydra's poisonous blood to help him face whatever comes next. In some versions of the myth, it is the slain serpent's gall or bile with which the arrows are tipped. The English words gall and bile are--like madness --closely linked to anger, rage, resentment or bitterness. See my previous post. By vanquishing the horrible Hydra, Hercules transforms its daimonic toxicity into a power he can use for good in his one-man war against evil.

We see this same mythological motif in the story of Perseus and the grotesque gorgon Medusa, whose blood gives birth to the beautiful winged white steed Pegasus, and whose petrifying visage is later employed by Perseus as a potent weapon against evil. Symbolically, the Hydra's blood, bile or gall can be likened to toxic anger: When consciously confronted, acknowledged, understood, mastered and controlled, pathological rage, resentment or embitterment can be alchemically transmuted and redirected into a positive force, in the form of healthy aggression, strength, power, resolve and perseverance, without which one cannot conquer life's sometimes hydra-like challenges.

Human existence and the individuation process itself demand such heroic strength, stamina and courage from each of us in various ways.

We all face at times seemingly impossible tasks, intimidating obstacles, serious stumbling blocks-- our own Herculean labors to reckon with in life. And, as we shall see in the following series of posts, that greatest and best loved of Greek heroes, Hercules, still has much to teach us about bravely meeting life's challenges, dealing with fate, and finding and fulfilling our destiny.

A wonderful article with much to think about - and I had forgotten why Hercules had to do the tasks. Taming our own impulses is key, even if Hera didn't make us do it or did she?

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Terrific article and a must read. Very interesting. Can you please explain what might be the real meaning behind the girdle of Hyppolita? Back Psychology Today. Back Find a Therapist. Back Get Help. Back Magazine. The Power of Boundaries Sharing personal information brings people closer together. Subscribe Issue Archive. Back Today. You're a Kid. Go Play! The College Payoff. Can Dogs Smell Time? Questioning a Classic: A Case for Nuance. Stephen A. Diamond Ph.


The Artemis principle had to be encountered, then tamed and brought back as a part of masculine consciousness. As his fourth labor Heracles had to capture the Erymanthian boar, the creature that killed Adonis and also Attis, the son and lover of the Great Mother Cybele. The boar can be thought of as the crude phallic power of the Great Mother that is still under control of the matriarchal psyche. To overcome the Erymanthian boar would involve the hero's coming into contact with a certain aspect of primordial feminine power and mastering it. Cleaning the Augean stables came next on Heracles' agenda and was accomplished by diverting a river through them.

They had accumulated vast quantities of manure, an image that has parallels in dreams of overflowing toilets with feces spilling out, and of long-neglected outhouses. Those are modern, individual versions of the Augean stables, indicating long neglect of the instinctive processes, and requiring Heraclean effort in attending to them and giving them their due. The sixth task was to dispose of the Stymphalian birds, huge creatures with brazen beaks and feathers and poisonous excrement who lived in a swamp that was neither land nor water.

They were scattered by the use of noisemakers like rattles and we can think of them as evil spirits, negative autonomous complexes that were exorcised by raising a counter-spirit against them.

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The image of the Stymphalian birds and the way Heracles dealt with them might come to mind when one encounters people who, unable to stand normal silence, chatter perpetually. Perhaps they are compelled to make noise in order to frighten their Stymphalian birds away. The hero's seventh labor, the capture of the Cretan bull that was ravaging the island, involves symbolism taken up again in the myth of Theseus. The bull, along with the lion, represents an aspect of masculine, instinctual energy and is one of the manifestations of Zeus, who carried away Europa as a bull.

It has a lengthy symbolism.

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The basic image of Mithraism was the sacrifice of the bull, and the bullfight ritual that still exists in Spanish cultures belongs to this same symbolism. In dreams the bull generally expresses the dangerous chthonic aspect of masculine power, the quality that Heracles is obliged to encounter and deal with. The next episode concerns the man-eating mares of Diomedes, who would feed his guests to them. The imagery here refers to coming to grips with the devouring aspects of the unconscious, which is not always hospitable.

The ninth labor is a little different. The hero was required to fetch the golden girdle of Ares worn by Hippolyte, the queen of the Amazons, a race of warlike females. At the same time, to be born male in the world of the Amazons was a disaster, because a male child's leg was broken at birth to ensure that it would grow up crippled. Here we have a picture of the matriarchal psyche, and to take the girdle of Ares from the queen of the Amazons meant redeeming the masculine principle, which was under subjection to the matriarchal aspect of the psyche.

The Labors of Hercules

The account of the tenth labor, the return of the cattle of the giant Geryon, who was located somewhere at the limits of the known world, takes us on a long, meandering journey in which Heracles travels all the way out beyond the Rock of Gibraltar and back, his main activity consisting of civilizing whatever he comes to.

He tames wild beasts, founds cities, and colonizes various places he passes throughthis is a portrait of Heracles as a culture hero civilizing the barbarians, foreshadowing what the Greeks in fact would eventually carry out in the Mediterranean basin. As his penultimate task Heracles was to fetch the golden apples in the garden of the Hesperides, which were protected by a dragon that lay coiled around the treea setting, of course, reminiscent of the Garden of Eden.

Heracles had to call upon the Titan Atlas to locate the garden and agreed to hold up the world while Atlas plucked the golden apples for him. Atlas saw a chance to get rid of his heavy burden, and would have left Heracles holding the world, but Heracles tricked him into reassuming the burden by asking him to take it back for just a minute while he placed a pad on his shoulder.

There is something analogous here to the story of Saint Christopher, the giant ferryman who carried across a stream an infant who got heavier and heavier until finally he was struggling under the weight of the whole world, after which he learned he had been bearing the infant Jesus. Here we have a similar idea. It tells us that the apples of the Hesperides and the whole image of paradise are expressions of wholeness, which cannot be reached unless one can carry the weight of wholeness, the weight of the world, on one's shoulders.

This is not a permanent taskit should not be thatbut it has to be taken on for a moment. Then there is the problem of getting it off again.

Heracles (Hercules): The Twelve Labors

On Heracles' return with the golden apples, he met the giant Alcyoneus, who forced him into a wrestling match. The giant was constantly rejuvenated by contact with the earth, so that every time in the wrestling match that he suffered a fall, he was reinvigorated. Things went badly for Heracles until he realized what to do; he killed the giant while holding him aloft and not allowing him to touch the earth.

Here again is the image of bearing a weight rather than letting it fall, which corresponds psychologically to what is required at a certain point in coming to terms with an unconscious complex. At last Heracles ended his servitude with the capture of Cerberus, the dog of hell. This seems to be the negative version of a previous task. There, he blocked one of the two entrances to the cave and entered through the other. Fumbling in the dark, Heracles managed to find the lion; he stun it with his club and then he strangled it with his bare hands. After he had killed it, he thought of taking the impenetrable skin of the lion and use it as an armour.

So, he managed to skin it with the help of the goddess Athena , who advised him to use the lion's claw to remove the pelt. Wearing the lion skin, Heracles entered the city on the thirtieth day. It had been specifically raised by Hera to kill Heracles. The Hydra had nine heads, one of which was immortal and the rest were mortal.

The swamp was covered in a poisonous mist, so upon his arrival, Heracles put a cloth on his mouth and nose. To lure the Hydra out of its lair, the hero shot flaming arrows, achieving his intent. However, when he chopped one of the Hydra's heads, he realised in horror that two new heads would spring back.

At that point, the hero felt hopeless, so he asked for the help of his nephew, Iolaus. Iolaus, probably advised by the goddess Athena who favoured the hero , thought of an idea and put it in action; as soon as Heracles would chop one of the monster's heads, Iolaus would cauterise the stump with a firebrand. The plan was successful; no more heads would appear. Hera , angry that her side was losing the battle, sent a huge crab to distract Heracles , which he simply squashed under his foot. When it was time for the immortal head to be cut off, Heracles took a golden sword that Athena gave him, and using the same technique, the two heroes managed to kill the monster.

Before Heracles left, he dipped his arrows in the poisonous blood of the Hydra, one of which he later used to kill the centaur Nessus ; this would later become Heracles ' doom, as the hero died due to the Shirt of Nessus which was smeared in the centaur 's blood containing some of Hydra's poison. This was a sacred deer belonging to the goddess Artemis , and had golden antlers and hooves of bronze.

It was believed that it was so fast that it could outrun a flying arrow. Heracles made a real effort to track the animal. When he saw it, he followed it for a whole year through the lands of Greece, Thrace, Istria and the land of Hyperboreans. According to one version of the myth, he managed to capture the hind while it was sleeping. On his way back, Artemis and her twin brother Apollo appeared in front of Heracles.

This task was given by Eurystheus , thinking that Heracles would cause the anger of the goddess and that she would punish him. However, when she appeared in front of him, Heracles asked for forgiveness, explaining to her that this was part of his penance for killing his wife and children. He also told her he would return the hind to her as soon as he showed it to Eurystheus.

Artemis accepted his apology and let him go. When Eurystheus came out to take the deer, the hero let it go and the animal ran back to Artemis. Heracles set forth on his journey to the mountain, but decided to stop by his friend's place, Pholus, a kind centaur.

The Twelve Labours of Herakles The Twelve Labours of Herakles
The Twelve Labours of Herakles The Twelve Labours of Herakles
The Twelve Labours of Herakles The Twelve Labours of Herakles
The Twelve Labours of Herakles The Twelve Labours of Herakles
The Twelve Labours of Herakles The Twelve Labours of Herakles
The Twelve Labours of Herakles The Twelve Labours of Herakles
The Twelve Labours of Herakles The Twelve Labours of Herakles
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