The 12 Labors of Hercules – the Dawn of Civilization

The 12 labors of Hercules – echoes of a man who lived almost in the Stone Age
By Malena Lagerhorn.

There are a many stories about the hero Hercules and his twelve labors – and other (heinous) deeds – the one more fanciful than the other. However, beyond the monsters and godly adventures there are echoes of a real man who lived a very, very long time ago.

Bronze swords. 12 labors of Hercules, 12 labours of Hercules, twelve labors of Hercules, twelve labours of Hercules, Heracles
Photo by the author.

Those of you who are familiar with his labors, or have seen a movie about Hercules, might remember that he is often portrayed with a very primitive weapon – a club. And his adventures, when cleansed from the fanciful monster stuff, are in fact equally primitive.

The stories that tell about Hercules are all set a couple of generations before the battle of Troy. As the warriors in the battle of Troy use weapons of bronze and stone, and do not use any iron or steel, the war is supposed to have taken place in the Bronze Age. Depending on which theory you believe in, the battle of Troy occurred sometime from 3,200 to 3,600 years ago. In Northern Europe, the Neolithic Stone Age ended 3,800 years ago, which means that Hercules lived just on the brink of the Bronze Age. The reason why Northern Europe is interesting here is that Hercules traveled far, far up north, so far north in fact that he reached the lands of the midnight sun.

  • Slay the Stymphalian Birds (or cormorants)
  • Capture the Erymanthian Boar
  • Clean the Augean Stables (or pastureland)
  • Capture the Cretan Bull
  • Slay the Nemean Lion (or bear)
  • Capture the Ceryneian Hind (or reindeer)
  • Steal the Mares of Diomedes
  • Slay the Lernaean Hydra
  • Steal the Golden Apples of the Hesperides
  • Obtain the Cattle of Geryon
  • Capture the Monstrous Dog Cerberus
  • Obtain the Girdle of Hippolyta

But do the stories actually tell about a real man? The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, a rather factual man writing between 60 and 30 BCE about the history of the then known world, stated that monsters and bulls that are tamed by Hercules (and other heroes) are actually stories about the “taming” of floods or waves. And when you remove all the grandiose aspects of Hercules’ labors, you end up with stories about a ruthless, adventurous, hideous but also remarkable man who lived so far back, in such a primitive time of history, it is a wonder that any traces of his deeds remain. So why do they? Why do we still watch movies about this almost-Stone-Age-hero who is stealing horses, chasing wild boars and damming up rivers (see more below)?

Apart from his primitive labors – killing birds and steeling horses and the like – Hercules also traveled around and met, as well as raped, a lot of women (and probably also men and boys). The result was a lot of children and grandchildren who naturally had an interest in preserving and improving stories about their forefather. And so it continued century after century and as DNA testing did not exist until recently, anyone wanting an impressive background could claim to be related to Hercules. All these relatives even got a name – the Heracleidae.

But what about the real man, the Hercules who lived so long ago and gave rise to all these stories and relatives? What can we deduce from the glorious myths when removing the glamour? Who was this Stone Age man and what did he actually do? Here are the twelve non-fancy labors of the primitive Hercules, which still echo through ancient myths and legends.

Slay the Stymphalian Birds
According to legend, Hercules got his twelve labors, or job assignments, from his supposedly evil uncle Eurystheus. One of them was to slay the Stymphalian birds, fearsome birds with bronze beaks that had invaded a marsh, or lake, in Arcadia and destroyed the landscape or fruits in the surroundings. Hercules used a rattle to frighten the Stymphalian birds and make them fly up in the air so that he could slay them by shooting poisonous arrows at the birds.

There is in fact a bird that fits quite well with the description of the Stymphalian birds and that is cormorants. Not only do they have yellowish beaks (bronze beaks), their droppings also contain ammonia. When cormorants invade islets in the Baltic Sea, for example, the ammonia in the droppings kills off the vegetation and the islets become greyish-white and dead looking. Cormorants can also breed inland and this is what might have happened at the time of Hercules. No wonder then that he became a hero if he could slay the Stymphalian birds – or cormorants.

Animals that might at first seem harmless can be fearful in large quantities and get a scary reputation. This is for example the case here in Sweden with the “killer slug”, an invasive slug from Spain (Arion vulgaris) that is so disgusting that normal slug predators do not want to eat it. Anyone who would come up with an inventive method that could slay massive amounts of killer slugs in one go would become a hero, not only in Sweden but in the whole of Scandinavia. This is probably the case with the Stymphalian birds, really troublesome birds that had invaded a lake and, according to some scholars, had also destroyed the landscape.

Capture the Erymanthian Boar
Another labor of Hercules was to capture the Erymanthian boar, a wild boar that lived on Mount Erymanthos. As with all tales of Hercules, this takes place at the dawn of civilization, when man and wild animals competed for the same habitats and pastureland. Also today, wild boars can wreak havoc in forests and gardens with their rooting behavior, where they seek for food underground. Hercules managed to capture the Erymanthian boar by chasing it into a thick snowdrift.

According to Diodorus Siculus, the factual Greek historian mentioned earlier, there were once two men called Hercules. In the earliest of times there was a Hercules who was a really good man. He helped chasing away wild animals and to clear land – he was a kind of “hero of civilization” who made life easier and safer for people. Then there was a latter Hercules, the violent man who we are more familiar with today. Siculus writes that the deeds of the early Hercules were transferred to the latter and that few know the true circumstances. The tales of the Erymanthian boar and the Stymphalian birds are likely tales of the first Hercules. Though these deeds might seem trivial, they probably meant a lot at his time, as would the slaying of killer slugs today for gardeners in many countries.

Clean the Augean Stables
One of the assignments, or labors, that Hercules got from Eurystheus was to clean the Augean stables. The myth tells that king Augeas had 1,000 cattle and the stables had not been cleaned in over thirty years. There is however another version of the Augean stables that is not about stables at all but about cleaning pastureland from dung. If this event took place as far back in time as the Late Neolithic Stone Age or Early Bronze Age, the second version is more plausible. Cattle most probably grazed outdoors all year round in the primitive agricultural societies of Europe without being stabled. For a king or chieftain who built his wealth on cattle breeding, destroyed pastureland must have been devastating. Or at least very bad for business.

The first version of the myth tells that Hercules cleaned the Augean stables in just one day by diverting a river into the stables and thereby cleaning them with the stream. The second version of the myth tells that Hercules diverted the flow of two rivers, that flowed near each other, into the cattle-yard and then made another outlet for the water. A more credible explanation is that a nearby stream had clogged up and had turned fertile pastureland into marshes. By trenching the stream, the water could flow freely again and the pastureland could dry out. In the version with two streams, a stream that flowed slowly and that often overflowed the pastureland may have been diverted into another swiftly flowing stream. In either case, the labor of cleaning the Augean stables, or pastureland, demonstrates some inventive thinking and engineering knowledge.

Capture the Cretan Bull
The labor of Hercules to capture the Cretan bull is likely another myth where the task is to tame water rather than animals. The legend tells that Minos, king of Crete, had been given a bull by Poseidon, god of sea and waters, on the premise that he sacrificed the same bull to the god. However, Minos thought the bull was too magnificent to kill and therefore sacrificed another bull instead. This angered Poseidon who decided to make the bull angry, whereupon the Cretan bull, which it was now called, started to destroy land and pastures.

Hercules managed to capture the Cretan bull and bring it to his uncle Eurystheus. However, the bull got loose and started to destroy crops and pastures there as well. Perhaps this is the tale of flooding, or perhaps about the spring flood. At that time, as well as today, the spring flood can cause problems at many places at the same time.

The myth about the Cretan bull can also be a myth about the capture of a very fine breed bull. Around the year 100 CE there lived a Greek geographer called Pausanias. He traveled around Greece and wrote about old shrines and their myths. His comment on all the old myths about bulls and cattle was: “In those days they must have been mad about assembling wealth of this kind – herds of horses and cattle”. And so it is also today in more primitive societies. When my father was working in Zimbabwe 30 years ago, children at a school that he and my mother visited asked him how many cows mother had cost him. Thus, cows and bulls were important, for king Minos as well as for Zimbabwean school children in the 1980s.

Photo by the author.

Slay the Nemean Lion
Some readers have probably noticed by now that the labors of Hercules are listed here in a different order than is the custom. This list begins with describing the deeds of Hercules as the civilization hero, where he kills fearful beasts and tames floods, then goes on to tell about the labors of Hercules that are stellar myths. In the Greek legends, the first labor that Hercules got from his uncle Eurystheus was to slay the Nemean lion.

The Nemean lion terrorized people in Nemea. It is said to have had impenetrable fur and was therefore hard to kill. Hercules managed to trap the Nemean lion in its cave and smack it in the head with his club. He could thereafter strangle the lion to death. Using the claw of the lion, as normal weapons could not penetrate the fur, he could skin the lion and is hence often portrayed with a lion’s skin.

Lions live in flocks on the savannah or on open grasslands. The Nemean lion shows quite peculiar characteristics living alone in a cave. As will be evident further down in this article, many aspects of Hercules’ labors and other tales of his deeds point to the fact that many of his adventures took place in the far north. But a good story is a good story and is retold again and again and travels wide and far. Just think about the many remakes of a successful movie, which is adapted for different audiences and countries! The tales of Stone-Age-Hercules were thus probably retold and changed during the thousands of yeas that they traveled from bard to bard. Eventually the stories settled in Greece, the most civilized place in Europe some hundreds of years BCE, where they were written down and preserved so that we can make all those movies and remakes.

The Nemean lion, living alone in a cave, is actually a quite good description of a bear – but a not so good description of a lion. It could therefore be the case that the real man Hercules once managed to kill a huge and scary bear. But once the story made it to Greece the bear was transformed into a lion, as lions where part of the Greek fauna until 100 BCE when they became extinct.

Capture the Ceryneian Hind
The Ceryneian hind is also called the Golden Hind of Artemis or Cerynitis. Hercules had to capture the Ceryneian hind as his third labor (a hind is a female deer). The Ceryneian hind had golden antlers and was so swift it could outrun an arrow. Hercules managed to find the hind and not kill it, eventually giving it back to the goddess Artemis.

The Ceryneian hind is yet another myth that most likely has its origin far up north. Of all species of deer in Europe, only reindeer have females with antlers. Reindeer is also the only deer that has been domesticated, or at least somewhat domesticated, and that can be harnessed. That is why they can pull Santa Claus’ sleigh as well as form the means of livelihood of the Sámi people, who live in the northern regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.

During the Neolithic Stone Age and later in the Bronze Age, Earth was about 2°C warmer than today due to a higher solar irradiance. More people lived in the most northern regions of the Scandinavian Peninsula than are widely known today. The largest rock carving area in Scandinavia can thus be found in Alta in Norway, north of the polar circle. Many of the rock carvings in Alta depict reindeer and moose. The peoples who made these carvings were however not the Sámi people. The Sámi migrated much later to the area, during the Iron Age in Northern Europe (500 BCE – 800 CE). The myth about the Ceryneian hind could originate from the early populations living in this most northern region in Scandinavia, or Russia, during a time when the climate was much more hospitable there than it is today.

Steal the Mares of Diomedes
Slaying monsters and taming wild animals seem to have occupied a lot of Hercules’ time. The labor of Hercules where he steals the mares of Diomedes is likely another story of the first Hercules that stems from the dawn of civilization.

The mares of Diomedes were man-eating, fierce and wild. Some legends also tell that they breathed fire. It was the king himself, King Diomedes of Thrace, who had trained the mares to eat human flesh. Hercules went to Thrace and, using some smart tricks or helpers, the stories vary on this part, managed to steal the mares of Diomedes. Once they could graze freely again in Argos, where Hercules’ uncle lived, the mares became calm and stopped eating humans. A much more likely horse theft is told in Homer’s Odyssey. According to Homer, Hercules stole twelve mares from a chieftain called Eurytus.

Horses were domesticated about 6,000 years ago and then, as well as now, they were valuable animals. Perhaps the mares of Diomedes is the tale of stealing some very fine, but wild, horses or about the breaking of horses.

Slay the Lernaean Hydra

Photo by the author.

There are many versions of the myth about the Lernaean hydra. The Lernaean hydra is said to have been a water monster, or dragon, with nine heads that terrorized the area around the lake of Lerna. In some myths, the heads of the hydra grow out again once they are chopped off. With the use of various ingenious methods, Hercules manages to slay the hydra. In some versions of the myth the goddess Hera has bred the Lernaean hydra in order to kill Hercules. After its death, Hera placed the monster in the sky as the Constellation of Hydra.

Exactly what this myth described originally is hard to tell; maybe we once again have an example of floods and waves that are likened to monsters and bulls (see the introduction as well as the Cretan bull). Controlling the flow of rivers is difficult; with crude tools maybe you have to try again and again to succeed, which would explain the many heads of the Lernaean hydra.

Many of Hercules’ labors are stellar myths. Old myths and archeological finds often tell us that our forefathers and foremothers had extensive knowledge about the sky and the movements of the stars. Today when we look at the sky we cannot see what they once saw due to light pollution. The greatest scenery that exists is hardly visible at all for the growing urban population – and for rural people as well. Truly dark places hardly exists any longer on Earth. When Galileo Galilei in 1601 put his self-made telescope to the sky he had almost perfect visibility, close to 8 on the Bortle scale, which is a scale of astronomical observability.

It is not strange then, that the sky has given rise to so many myths, and astronomical discoveries, when our forefathers and foremothers so easily could observe the greatest show ever, on a screen spanning the entire universe, every cloudless night.

Steal the Golden Apples of the Hesperides
Another labor of Hercules was to steal the golden apples of the Hesperides. The Hesperides were a number of nymphs who lived far away to the west and the apples were guarded by a dragon. Another version of the myth claims however that the golden apples of the Hesperides were in the land of the Hyperboreans. Hyperborea means “above north” or “beyond north”. The apples were the source of immortality. After some trouble, Hercules kills the dragon and fetches the apples.

The golden apples of the Hesperides is most probably a stellar myth that explains the movements of the stars in the sky. Today, when we look at the sky, the Earth’s axis points toward the pole star called Polaris that lies straight north. A few thousand years ago we would have seen a slightly different panorama. The Earth wobbles around on its axis and this wobbling is called “precession”. Hercules is supposed to have lived almost 4,000 years ago and during the period 4,000-6,000 years ago, the Earth’s axis pointed toward a star in the constellation of Draco. The dragon. So, in those days it was probably the dragon that symbolized the north, darkness, cold and death. The golden apples of the Hesperides could be a myth that describes a hero (the constellation of Orion or Hercules) who slays “winter” or “darkness” so that the sun and the warmth and spring can return to the land of mortals.

The myth also tells that the Hesperides had golden sheep. Sheep, or cattle, have a very specific symbolism in the Indo-European tradition that is also connected to the vault of heaven. More about that in the next labor about the cattle of Geryon.

Obtain the Cattle of Geryon
Geryon was a monstrous man who lived far away on an island among the Hesperides in the west and had cattle that were red in color. Some however claim that he lived on the slopes of Iberia next to the ocean. Others claim that the cattle of Geryon grazed on an island beyond the River Ocean. There is only one candidate in Europe that fits the ancient descriptions of the River Ocean, or Oceanus, and that is the Gulf Stream. Eurystheus gives Hercules the assignment to obtain the cattle of Geryon. Like the former stellar myth about the golden apples of the Hesperides, the cattle of Geryon is about a monster who has something of value – this time cattle.

About a hundred years ago, a controversial Indian politician and author called Bal Gangadhar Tilak put forth a theory stating that the Vedas could only have originated north of the polar circle. The Vedas are the oldest scriptures of Hinduism and contain myths from the Indo-European tradition. Tilak claimed that there are phenomena described in the Vedas that you can only observe in the far north. For example, there are passages that describe rituals were people are supposed sing hymns at dawn until the sun disc appears in the sky. They have to sing and sing and sing, and if the sun disc is still not visible, the have to sing some more. And some more. This does not make sense in India where dawn only lasts for a short while.

North of the polar circle, however, it is a different matter. After the polar night, which may last for a number of days or weeks, depending on exactly how far north you are, you will not see the sun disc immediately. For some days, you will only see the red light of dawn. Here it makes sense that people have to sing and sing and sing to welcome back the sun after the long polar night.

Another passage in the Vedas states that if someone dies during the night you should wait with burying the dead until dawn. Again, this does not make sense if you live south of the polar circle. You would naturally not wake up your neighbors in the middle of the night and dig a grave and have a funeral feast. However, it makes sense if the night is the polar night that may last for days or weeks. There may have been a tradition where people waited to bury their dead until the sun appeared again after the long darkness of the polar night.

Tilak claimed that cattle, for example a cow or sheep, symbolized ordinary days. In the Vedas and in Greek myths, which like many other European myths originate from the Indo-European tradition, cattle are stolen from the sun god. This is actually what happens north of the polar circle during the polar night: a number of ordinary days (cattle) disappear and the Earth is shrouded in darkness. The labor where Hercules obtains the cattle of Geryon could hence symbolize a hero (the constellation Orion or Hercules in the sky) who brings back the sun and the warmth from the cold “monsters” of winter.

Capture the Monstrous Dog Cerberus
Another labor of Hercules was to fetch the monstrous dog Cerberus from Hades, the ruler of the underworld. In order to enter the underworld and bring Cerberus to the light of day, Hercules takes part in a mysterious shamanistic rite, indicating that the story could in fact be about a soul journey. Shamanism has strong roots in Europe so the legend carries traces of a very ancient tradition. When Hercules is in the underworld trying to capture Cerberus he also meets two men, Theseus and Peirithous, who are bound in the underworld. He tries to save both of them but only manages to save Theseus.

In the ancient legends, Theseus and Peirithous are two adventurous and reckless men – the type of men who end up in drunken brawls at parties where people get killed. Theseus is the same Theseus who gets help from Ariadne to kill the Minotaur, the mythological monster in the labyrinth with the lower body of a man and the upper body of a bull. On the voyage back home however, Ariadne falls in love with a guy named Dionysos and dumps Theseus. Or if Dionysos kidnaps her, it is not very clear what happens. The most probable version is perhaps the one in the Odyssey, namely that Ariadne is killed by the goddess Artemis (which means that she probably died of a disease of some kind, as Artemis shoots “arrows of disease”).

Now Theseus and Peirithous have this crazy idea: they want to marry “daughters of Zeus” (think of Zeus as an ancestor who lived some generations earlier). Instead of dating, they start off with kidnapping Helen when she is only 12 years old. Helen is the very same Helen who many years later is kidnapped by Paris, an act that sparks off the battle of Troy (if you count the generations and do the puzzle with all people and events in the ancient works, Helen is about 40 years old when she is kidnapped by Paris).

Anyhow, Helen is too young to marry when Theseus and Peirithous kidnap her so Theseus leaves her with his mother until she is older. Helen is however rescued by her brothers Castor and Polydeuces. Now Theseus and Peirithous have to find a woman for Peirithous. He decides that he wants to marry Persephone, the wife of Hades. They fail however and this is why they are trapped in the underworld. There is a more realistic version where the chieftain of the Thesprotians is called Aidoneus and is married to a woman called Persephone. They have a daughter called Cora and a dog called Cerberus, which he sets to worry his daughter’s suitors. When Theseus and Peirithous try to kidnap his daughter, they are instead captured and the dog Cerberus kills Peirithous.

Obtain the Girdle of Hippolyta
One of the labors that Hercules got from Eurstheus was to obtain the girdle of Hippolyta, who was queen of the Amazons. Hippolyta is supposed to have received the girdle, or belt, from her “father” Ares, god of war. Exactly where the original Amazons lived and what their culture looked like is shrouded in the fog of history, but the name Amazons has come to be used for peoples where men and women are more equal and where women are trained in handling weapons.

According to one version of the myth, Hercules first demands the girdle and when the Amazons refuse to give it to him he joins battle with them and several Amazons are killed. Hippolyta’s sister Melanippe is captured but Hercules sets her free after accepting her girdle, or belt, as ransom. According to another, less violent version, Hercules captures Hippolyta’s sister Melanippe and Hippolyta gives him her girdle as ransom. There is also a version where the Amazons attack Hercules and his men when they come to take the girdle and Hercules kills Hippolyta.

Irrespective of version, the myth is about Hercules using deadly violence or threat to obtain something that is not his. There are no hints in the different versions of the myth that the Amazons had posed a threat to Eurystheus or Hercules before the attack. The labor of obtaining the girdle of Hippolyta is instead reminiscent of many other legends about Hercules, fairly realistic legends about a ruthless man who steals, rapes and kills.

Less Reputable Labors of Hercules
Most legends of Hercules do not in fact depict a good man, a civilization hero or the like. Sometimes Hercules’ heinous crimes have been romanticized, for example Hercules’ supposed love affair with his slave Hylas. As the story goes, Hercules first killed Hylas’ father Theiodamas and then took Hylas as a slave and lover.

If you do the math (which no one seems to have bothered with) and try to map a chronological order of Hercules’ more realistic deeds, counting the years between the events and sorting them by using the accounts of Hercules’ children and grandchildren, it turns out that Hercules must have been about 35 years old when kidnapping Hylas. It is highly unlikely that there was any mutual attraction between Hylas and Hercules. The myths then tell that Hylas is lured into a lake by a water nymph and drowns. A more likely story is that Hylas commits suicide after having been kidnapped and raped by Hercules.

The reason why no one has bothered to make a realistic chronology of Hercules’ life is that he is mainly seen as a literary character. Few have been interested in finding out who the real man Hercules actually was. It is also hard to bring any order to the whimsical stories about Hercules without a key, or reliable method. And the key to revealing the real man Hercules is to place the events in the far north.

In 1995, Italian nuclear scientist Felice Vinci published his book The Baltic Origins of Homer’s Epic Tales, where he places the events in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in the Baltic Sea and North Atlantic. Instead of using literary studies, Vinci has relied on geography, astronomy, archaeology and etymology, amongst other sciences, to find out where the events in the ancient eposes most likely have their origin.

As regards Hercules, when his adventures are placed in the far north, many of the fantastical aspects get a natural explanation. When removing all the accounts of the civilization hero, as well as the stellar myths, there remains the story of a brutal and ruthless man living in a primitive society at the beginning of the Bronze Age. His life has very little to do with Hercules’ labors. So what was he like? What is his story? Find out in the book Heracles – A Psychopath’s Tale.

(The title of the book uses the name Heracles, which is the older Greek version of the name.)

Copyright Malena Lagerhorn.


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