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The Twelve Labours (Greek: dodekathlos) of Heracles (Latin: Hercules) are a series of archaic episodes connected by a later continuous narrative, concerning a penance carried out by Heracles, the greatest of the Greek heroes. The establishment of a fixed cycle of twelve labours was attributed by the Greeks to an epic poem, now lost, written by Peisandros of Rhodes, dated about 600 BC (Burkert).
As they survive, the Labours of Heracles are not told in any single place, but must be reassembled from many sources. Ruck and Staples (pp 169–170) assert that there is no one way to interpret the labours, but that six were located in the Peloponnese, culminating with the rededication of Olympia. Six others took the hero farther afield. In each case, the pattern was the same: Heracles was sent to kill or subdue, or to fetch back for Hera's representative Eurystheus a magical animal or plant. "The sites selected were all previously strongholds of Hera or the 'Goddess' and were Entrances to the Netherworld" (p 169).
A famous depiction of the labours in Greek sculpture is found on the metopes of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, which date to the 450s BC; in the Archaic period, it may actually have been the labours' display on the twelve available metopes on temples which led to their being counted as twelve in number.
 The framing narrative
Zeus, having made Alcmene pregnant with Heracles, proclaimed that the next son born of the house of Perseus would become king. Hera, Zeus' wife, hearing this, caused Eurystheus to be born two months early as he was of the house of Perseus, while Heracles, also of the house, was three months overdue. When he found out what had been done, Zeus was furious; however, his rash proclamation still stood.
In a fit of madness, induced by Hera, Heracles slew his wife and children; the fit then passed. Realizing what he had done, he isolated himself, going into the wilderness and living alone. He was found (by his cousin Theseus) and convinced to visit the Oracle at Delphi. The Oracle told him that as a penance he would have to perform a series of ten tasks, or labors, set by King Eurystheus, the man who had taken Heracles' birthright and the man he hated the most.
 The Labours
In his labours, Heracles was often accompanied by a male companion (an eromenos), according to some Licymnius, or by others Iolaus, his nephew. Although he was only supposed to perform ten labours, this assistance led to him suffering two more. Eurystheus didn't count the Hydra, because Iolaus helped him, or the Augean stables, as he received payment for his work (in other versions it is because the rivers did the work).
A traditional order of the labours found in Apollodorus (2.5.1-2.5.12) is:
- Slay the Nemean Lion and bring back its fur.
- Slay the Lernaean Hydra.
- Capture the Ceryneian Hind.
- Capture the Erymanthian Boar.
- Clean the Augean stables in a single day.
- Slay the Stymphalian Birds.
- Capture the Cretan Bull.
- Steal the Mares of Diomedes.
- Obtain the Girdle of Hippolyte.
- Obtain the Cows of Geryon.
- Steal the Apples of the Hesperides.
- Capture Cerberus, the guardian dog of Hades.
 Inner meaning
Walter Burkert has called the labours and other myths of Heracles "a conglomerate of popular tales which was exploited only secondarily by the high art of poetry", and it was not until the fifth century that poets of the Classic age could draw the myth into "a tragic, heroic, and human atmosphere and away from its natural thrust outwards to a carefree realm beyond the human" (Burkert 1985:208). As philosophical, moral, and eventually allegorical overlays came to be applied to his death-cheating superhuman exploits, behind their outer, literal meaning, the Heracles figure came to represent an inner mystical tradition, and thus the labours could be interpreted in terms of the spiritual path. The last three labours (10-12) of Heracles are generally considered metaphors about death. Heracles was unique among Greek heroes in that no tomb of Heracles was ever localized, and the Olympian sacrifices and chthonic libations werte offered simultaneously to him everywhere.
 Geographic locations
Pointing to a possible location for their origin, or at least their formalisation, is the fact that most of the geographic locations, are all located in, or on the borders of Arcadia, or connected with it significantly.
- the town of Nemea, northwest of Argos
- lake Lerna to the south (which is now dry).
- the mountain Erymanthos, currently also called Olonos.
- the town Ceryneia, in the far North West of the Peloponnese
- lake Stymphalia, close by, and west of, Nemea. In ancient times it was marshy.
- the river Alphaeus feeds the bay of Elis, and drains the north western mountains.
- the city of Sparta to the south. It features as the entrance to the Underworld.
- the island of Crete, a sea trading nation
- the nation of Thrace, is described as being the enemy of Argos during the Trojan War, and in that situation is associated with Diomedes.
 Modern popular culture
The Twelve Labours have been spoofed a number of times in comic books:
- Asterix starred his own Twelve Tasks, since the original were "outdated"
- Monica, a popular Brazilian character, fought the "original" 12 labours, with a few changes
- In a French comic strip of the 1960s, a time-travelling Mickey Mouse assisted Hercules, often employing modern techniques such as a music-playing pocket radio to subdue Cerberus.
- In a 1970s story arc, Wonder Woman underwent her own twelve labours to demonstrate her fitness to rejoin the Justice League of America. Each of these tasks was monitored by an incumbent member of the League.
- In a 1995 Marvel comics mini-series, Heracles undertook modernized versions of his twelve labours, often with comedic results.
Agatha Christie used the twelve labours as allegories for the last twelve cases that her detective Hercule Poirot would solve before his retirement in the 1947 short story collection The Labours of Hercules. (He didn't retire until Curtain in 1975.)
The alternate reality game Perplex City involves a puzzle card entitled The Thirteenth Labour, which is likely a reference to the Twelve Labours of Heracles (as this puzzle is one of the few still unsolved by any participant, the allusion to a "herculean effort" may well be appropriate).
In the Japanese anime Fate stay night, the antagonist Illyasviel von Einzbern's servent Berserker, whose true name is Hercules, can not die until he is killed twelve times. When explaining this, Illyasviel makes a direct reference to The Twelve Labours of Hercules.
 See also
- Burkert, Walter, Greek Religion 1985 (Cambridge, Massachusetts:Harvard University Press)
- Ruck, Carl A.P., and Danny Staples, 1994. The World of Classical Myth (Durham:Carolina Academic Press)
 External links
-  - Livius Picture Archive: Labors of Heracles
-  - The Labors of Hercules at  - the Perseus Digital Libraryca:Els dotze treballs d'Hèracles
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