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The Twelve Labors of Hercules
By Robert Newman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1972 Robert Newman
All rights reserved.
THE BIRTH OF HERCULES
Zeus, supreme ruler of the gods, sat on his throne on Mount Olympus waiting for the birth of another of his earthly children. He had been the father of many sons and many daughters, both in heaven and on earth. But this son—born not of an immortal but of an earthly mother—was to be the greatest of them all, the strongest and bravest of men and the greatest hero of his time.
Zeus waved his hand, and the clouds that shrouded Olympus parted so that he could look down on the city of Thebes where Alcmene, wife of exiled King Amphitryon, was beginning her labor. Some nine months before, shortly after Amphitryon had been banished from Mycenae, he had left his wife briefly to lead his army in battle. While he was away Zeus had assumed his shape and come to Alcmene during the night so that neither she nor her husband realized that the child she was about to have was more than human.
It was at this moment, while Zeus watched the comings and goings in the palace at Thebes, that his wife, Hera, approached him.
"I gather that another child of yours is about to be born down there on earth," she said.
"A son. His name will be Hercules."
"Since he is your son, I suspect that you have great plans for him."
"He will be a great hero," said Zeus, "whose fame will echo throughout Greece. Not only that, but although he will be born in exile he will rule the House of Perseus and be the High King of Mycenae."
"Will he be born soon?"
"In other words, the prince of the House of Perseus who is born before nightfall will be the High King."
Zeus, distracted by a sudden earthquake in Crete—the work of his brother Poseidon, the Earth-shaker—nodded.
"That is what I said."
"And what you say is fixed and unchangeable," said Hera. "Thank you, noble Zeus."
Now Hera had always been jealous of any of Zeus' children who were not hers, and she was determined, in this case at least, to bring his plans to naught. It happened that at that same time the wife of the High King of Mycenae was also carrying a child. Though it was not due to be born for another two months, Hera brought on the queen's labor early. Then, assuming the form of a witch, she hurried to Thebes and squatted cross-legged before Alcmene's door with her clothing tied in knots and her fingers locked together. By this magic she delayed the birth of Hercules until after the sun had set.
Thus it was that when the gods gathered in the great hall of Olympus shortly after dusk, Hermes, the messenger of the gods, appeared and said, "I bring news, mighty Zeus. A royal son has been born to the House of Perseus."
"Hercules," said Zeus.
"No," said Hermes, somewhat awkwardly. "He was born to Nicippe, wife of the King of Mycenae, and his name is Eurystheus."
"What?" roared Zeus. Again he looked down at Thebes, where, by the light of flaring torches, Alcmene was at last giving birth to Hercules. "This is your doing!" he said furiously to Hera.
"Mine?" said Hera, with pretended meekness. "What is my power compared to yours, noble Zeus?"
"Your power is as nothing, but your spite and deceit are boundless! But hear this. Though you have tricked me and denied my son his birthright, there is that which you cannot deny him. While Eurystheus shall be the High King, his name will be forgotten in time to come. But Hercules will perform deeds so glorious that his name will be remembered forever. And when his work on earth is done, he shall join us here on Olympus and become a god like us."
"Zeus has spoken," said Hermes. "Hear him, O white-robed Fates, spinners of the lives of men. Hear and obey!"CHAPTER 2
THE YOUTH OF HERCULES
Amphitryon, Alcmene's husband, was overjoyed that his firstborn child was a son. And not realizing that Hera was the child's sworn enemy, he named him in her honor, calling him Heracles, or Hercules, which means Glory of Hera. His joy was soon doubled, for shortly after midnight Alcmene gave birth to a second son, Hercules' twin, whom they named Iphicles.
Both Hercules and Iphicles were strong, healthy babies. And though, from the time he was born, Hercules was always the larger and stronger, no one realized just how extraordinary he was until both children were a year old. Hera had been watching Hercules jealously, and one night, when Zeus was feasting in the great hall with the other gods, she sent two enormous serpents to destroy this son of her husband.
The huge snakes, with sky-blue scales and flaming eyes, approached the gates of the palace. At Hera's command the gates opened and the serpents glided through the corridors to the room where the twins lay sleeping. They both awoke. Iphicles, seeing the two great serpents writhing above them, screamed in terror and rolled off the shield that was their cradle. But without a sound Hercules reached up and seized the serpents by the throat, one with his right hand and one with his left.
Roused by Iphicles' frightened cries, Amphitryon ran into the room with a torch and a drawn sword. Raising the torch high, he paused in astonishment. Hercules, smiling, was holding out to him the limp bodies of the two serpents—the serpents he had strangled, one with each hand.
In the morning Amphitryon called in the most famous soothsayer in Greece. He was old and blind, and his name was Teiresias. The soothsayer listened to the tale of what had happened during the night and advised Amphitryon to burn the bodies of the serpents on the high altar as a sacrifice to Zeus. It was clear, he said, that Zeus had been the child's protector.
"It is also clear," he said, "that he is no ordinary child but is destined to be a hero. In fact, I prophesy that he will be the greatest hero Greece has ever known."
When the twins were old enough, Amphitryon began training them in the arts of war, calling in the most famous warriors of Greece to help him. The two boys learned to wrestle and box, to drive a chariot, and to use the sword, the javelin, and the bow. And though Iphicles soon became very skillful in all these, Hercules not only surpassed him, but, by the time he was eighteen, surpassed even his masters in all the warlike arts, even as he surpassed them and all other men in strength and courage.
Now that Hercules was full-grown he was anxious to prove himself in some sort of adventure. In spite of Teiresias' prophecy, Alcmene had a mother's fears about this. But Amphitryon, a famous warrior himself, gave him leave to go and do what he would.
There was a savage lion that lived in the hills to the south. The lion had been attacking the Theban cattle and those belonging to King Thespius, ruler of the neighboring kingdom. Hercules tracked it to its lair, and scorning to use his bow, sword, or javelin on a mere beast, killed it with a club he had cut from a wild-olive tree. He brought the lion's skin to King Thespius, telling him the beast would trouble him no more, and the king thanked him, saying Hercules should call on him if he ever needed a friend.
As Hercules was returning to Thebes, striding up the middle of the road with his club over his shoulder, he was overtaken by a group of chariots, each driven by a warrior—the armed guard of a richly dressed herald. The driver of the leading chariot arrogantly ordered Hercules out of the way, but leaning on his club, Hercules asked who he was and where the party was going.
"If you live in these parts and don't know, you must be even more dull-witted than you look," said the warrior. "We are from Orchomenus and we are on our way to Thebes to collect our yearly tribute."
Hercules knew about the tribute and had always resented it. When he was only a small boy, he had heard about the ill-fated chariot race in which the son of King Creon of Thebes had fatally injured the King of Orchomenus. Before he died, the king made his son, Erginus, swear to avenge him. Erginus had immediately marched on Thebes, conquered it, and forced Creon to agree to pay a yearly tribute of a hundred cattle.
"I may be dull-witted," said Hercules, "but I am not as lily-livered as the Thebans for continuing to pay you tribute. If it were up to me, I would pay you in a very different way."
"Ride him down," ordered the herald.
Lashing his horses, the driver of the leading chariot came thundering down on Hercules. But Hercules was able to seize the horses by their reins and check them. Then, knocking the charioteer unconscious with his club, he turned the horses and sent them careening back the way they had come. He served several of the other chariots in the same way, and the rest of the drivers fled.
Hercules continued on his way to Thebes, where he was warmly greeted by his parents. He told them of his adventure with the lion, but said nothing about his meeting with the herald and warriors of King Erginus. A few days later, however, Erginus sent another herald to Thebes, demanding that—in addition to the tribute—King Creon surrender for punishment the youth who had attacked and insulted his emissaries.
Creon knew that this must have been Hercules, and when he sent for him, Hercules freely admitted that he had been responsible.
"Then," said Creon, "much as I dislike it, I must send you to Erginus along with the tribute, and I can only hope that he will not be too hard on you."
"Why?" asked Hercules. "And why do you continue to pay tribute instead of fighting Erginus?"
"Though you are not a Theban," said Creon, "you were born here and you should know the answer to that. When Erginus conquered us he seized all our arms and forbade our young men to learn to use them. This did not apply to you and your brother since you were strangers living among us. But you and he are the only youths who could strike a blow against Erginus."
"I believe that the young men of Thebes know more about the use of arms than you think," said Hercules. "As for weapons, I have seen many of them in the temples."
He was talking about the spoils of earlier and more successful wars, which had been dedicated to the gods.
"But we cannot touch them," said Creon. "They belong to the gods."
"I don't think the gods would mind our using them if we used them well," said Hercules. "When must you send me to Erginus?"
"He said if you and the tribute were not in Orchomenus in thirty days, he would come and get you—and it."
"Will you let me give him Thebes' answer?" asked Hercules. "And will you let me give it where and when I think best?"
Creon thought about this, studying the tall, strong, still beardless youth who stood before him. Then, remembering Teiresias' prophecy, he nodded.
"Yes, Hercules," he said.
"Good," said Hercules. "You will not be sorry."
He had already talked to all the young men of Thebes, and now, leaving Creon's palace, he led them into the temple of Zeus. The walls of the temple were covered with armor and weapons—swords, spears, shields, and breastplates—that had been captured in wars long past and placed there as offerings.
"Father Zeus," said Hercules, standing before the high altar, "you know our need. Is it your will that we use these weapons? If it is, give us a sign."
Though the sky was cloudless, there was a sudden, distant rumble of thunder that shook the temple, and a great spear hanging over the altar fell from its place into Hercules' hand.
"Thank you, Father Zeus," said Hercules, raising the spear in salute. He nodded to the young men and they immediately began arming themselves with the weapons of all the temples in Thebes.
During the days that followed, Hercules and his twin brother, Iphicles, trained the young Thebans in the use of arms and taught them to fight in formation. On the thirtieth day, Hercules led them to a narrow pass a few miles from Thebes and hid them on the high ground on either side of it. About noon Erginus and his army appeared, driving their chariots toward Thebes. Hercules waited until they were well into the pass; then, rising to his feet, he called, "Stay, Erginus. Where are you going?"
"Are you from Thebes?" asked Erginus.
"I have waited for thirty days for Creon to send me the insolent young upstart who attacked my emissaries. Since he has not done so, I have come for him myself."
"Then I can save you at least part of your journey," said Hercules. "I am the man you want."
"Take him," ordered Erginus. As he spoke, Hercules cast his spear. It flew straight and with such force that it not only slew Erginus, but also killed the captain who drove his chariot. Then with a shout, Hercules ran down the hill with his warriors behind him.
The battle did not last long. Taken by surprise, and with their king and captain slain, the men of Orchomenus broke and fled. Hercules and his band followed hard on their heels, battered down the city gates, and forced the people of Orchomenus not only to surrender, but to pay back to Thebes the entire amount of the tribute that Thebes had paid to the city.CHAPTER 3
THE MADNESS OF HERCULES
Hercules and his brother, Iphicles, returned in triumph to Thebes. They were met at the gates by Creon, who praised and thanked them and in reward for what they had done offered them his daughters in marriage. Now Hercules had long been in love with Megara, Creon's oldest daughter, a tall, golden-haired maiden. But he told Creon he would not marry her until Thebes was truly safe. For he suspected that the people of Orchomenus would not accept their unexpected defeat but would attack Thebes again. So, when Iphicles married Creon's younger daughter a few days later, Hercules and Megara attended the ceremony as guests rather than as a second bridal couple.
During the next year Hercules continued to train the Theban army and also cleared the land of bandits and evildoers. Near the end of that time a son was born to Iphicles, and whenever Hercules returned to Thebes from one of his expeditions, he would play with his infant nephew and dream of the time when he and Megara would have sons like him.
Finally, as Hercules had expected, the people of Orchomenus sent another army against Thebes. This time they were joined by their allies, the Euboeans, and they far outnumbered the Thebans. But led by Hercules and Iphicles, the Thebans routed them completely, and this time Hercules made the Kings of Orchomenus and Euboea swear solemn oaths that they would never attack Thebes again.
Now preparations were made for the marriage of Hercules and Megara. Guests began pouring into Thebes for this joyous occasion, for young though he was, Hercules was already a famous hero. But Hera, who was more jealous of Hercules than ever because of this fame, was determined to prevent his marriage. The night before it was to take place, she sent a madness to Hercules in the form of a high fever.
Awakened at midnight by the arrival of more guests, and believing, in his delirium, that Thebes was again being attacked, Hercules ran out into the courtyard and began laying about him with his sword. The madness left as suddenly as it had come. Looking down at the bodies of those he had slain, Hercules moaned in horror, dropped his sword, and fled from the city.
For months he roamed the hills and forests, living on nuts and berries and avoiding all who sought him. One morning, however, he awoke to see his brother, Iphicles, standing before him.
"Come no closer," said Hercules. "Do not touch me. My hands are covered with blood."
"We have shared everything before this," said his brother. "Why should I not share your guilt?"
"Because I will not have it," said Hercules. "I have committed one of the greatest of all crimes—I have slain guests within my own house."
"It was not you who slew them," said Iphicles. "It was a madman who did not know what he was doing. I am not a king or a priest, so I cannot purify you. But there is one not far from here who can."
"Who is that?" asked Hercules.
"Your friend, King Thespius, for whom you slew the lion. Come there with me."
"I do not believe any mortal can purify me. But I will go with you."
Together they went to King Thespius, who performed the rites of purification. "But," he told Hercules, "I cannot give you the penance that will cleanse you completely of your guilt. The gods must do that."
"That is my thought also," said Hercules. "What, then, shall I do?"
"Go to Delphi and consult the Pythoness, for she speaks with the voice of Apollo."
Excerpted from The Twelve Labors of Hercules by Robert Newman. Copyright © 1972 Robert Newman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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