Fragments: The Labors of the Mighty Hercules

Back in the dawn of written history, I had it in mind to write a book about sword and sandal films. I had an outline, some finished chapters, all that jazz. But no publishers were interested in such an endeavor. I can’t say I blame them. Maybe someday I’ll revive that project, because lord knows I need another project. I lost a lot of what I’d typed up, though the notebooks of painstaking research and outlines remain. I did find this, however: my summary circa 2004 or so of the Labors of Hercules. I present it here, in all it’s glory. Perhaps I should abandon the sword and sandal film book and write a history textbook for middle schoolers.

Hercules. Heracles if you’re nasty. The name conjure up myriad different mental images. Some of us picture a beefy, bearded Mediterranean in an itty bitty loin cloth. Others might think of the luscious flowing locks of TV’s Kevin Sorbo doing kungfu on Aries, the God of War. And still others reach further back into the dusty annals of history and picture a bulked-up, unnaturally red-faced man in bikini briefs manhandling Hulk Hogan in the 1980s. Of the many names from ancient Greece, few are better known than that of the mighty Hercules. Ask someone to name a Greek hero, and they’re probably going to blurt out Hercules unless they are some know-it-all Poindexter who delights in dropping names no one else remembers because there was never a movie made about them featuring Ray Harryhausen special effects.

Hercules was the son of Zeus—the womanizing king of gods—and a mortal woman who Zeus picked up after doing his usual bit of transforming into some shimmering golden mist or a silver-furred pygmy marmoset waving its arms in the air and squealing, “I’m king of the gods, baby!”—which is what he used to say, though it sounds much better in the original Greek. Zeus’ wife, Hera, was rightfully perturbed by her husband’s philandering ways, which ironically made her the villain in many stories. Not being able to best her husband, who had that whole “king of the gods” thing going for him, Hera did the next best thing and endlessly tormented her hubbie’s many illegitimate offspring.

Hercules was a real pain in Hera’s ass, what with his tendency to laugh loudly with his arms akimbo whilst standing atop a craggy peak overlooking the tumultuous sea. Among the sundry tortures Hera visited upon the mighty demigod was a lunacy that caused him to accidentally murder his own wife and children. Overcome with guilt when the madness wore off, Hercules visited the Oracle at Delphi. The Oracle, no doubt sick and tired of every Greek in the history of all Greek civilization coming and asking her for advice for even the most trifling of hardships, simply told Hercules to go visit King Eurytheus and do whatever he said to do. After that, Hercules could be freed from his guilt, atone for his murders, and become a god, never having to pester the Oracle again.

Not being an overly imaginative fellow, Eurytheus came up with the mythological equivalent of, “Eat this bug. Now go wash my car.” Thus, though Herc may have been a demigod with the strength of a hundred men and a big, burly laugh, did he become a working stiff just like the rest of us. In an attempt to pretty up his resume, Hercules often refers to his string of short-lived part-time jobs as “The Labors of Hercules.” Try putting that header on your next resume in place of “Employment History.”

These days, the kids don’t have to learn too much about mythology, but back in my day we had to not only memorize, but also perform each of the Labors in front of the class. The slightest foul-up meant our knuckles would be rapped soundly by a ruler-brandishing Jesuit priest, his thin, trembling, blue-vein-covered hand packing a surprising amount of power for a man who seems so feeble. It is thanks to these men that I can now impart unto you a record of Hercules’ twelve labors, though only ten of them counted.

The Nemean Lion

So this lion was causing a lot of trouble, what with the killing and the late night parties with his buddy Aslan. Hercules solved the problem by relying on the solution that would come to work pretty well for him most of the time: killing. He killed the lion, which then ascended to the heavens and became the constellation Leo. Hercules took the lion’s skin and made himself a big-ass lion-head robe. When Herc came all a-struttin’ up with this sweet new garb, it scared Eurystheus so bad that the chump ran and hid in an empty wine jar, the whole time insisting loudly, “No, I’m not afraid of Hercules. I just needed to look in here for something.” 

The Hydra of Lerna

The hydra was the half-sister of the Nemean Lion, so this was one family that really could have done without Hercules coming around. The hydra’s best friend was a crab. To kill the hydra, Herc enlisted the aid of a cohort to distract the beast while Herc himself hacked away the heads and cauterized the wounds with a torch before a new head could spring up in its place. Just to be an ass, Hercules also went ahead and killed the crab. The crab got to become the constellation Cancer, and Hercules was feeling pretty good about himself until Eurystheus found out Hercules had some help. He refused to count the slaying of the hydra as a completed labor. 

The Cerynitian Deer

Hercules was actually pretty cool about this one. He just caught the deer and let it go. The lion, the hydra, and the crab were probably annoyed that he wasn’t as much of a sport with them. 

The Erymanthian Boar

This is another one where Hercules just caught the animal then let it go after giving a little speech, sort of like an ancient Crocodile Hunter. When Hercules came bounding up the stairs with a squealing boar draped across his shoulders, Eurystheus once again fucked off to his jar to to “totally not hide, bro. I didn’t even know Hercules was here. I just happen to be in the jar.” This is why Hercules turned to Eurystheus and shouted, “Hey buddy, you’re an Erymanthian BORE!” as recorded in the writings of Aristophanes.

While on this quest, Hercules went drinking with some minotaurs, got drunk, and ended up killing a bunch of them. When he came out of his stupor, Herc felt really bad about the whole thing. 

Round ’bout here, Herc took a few personal days to head out with Jason and his crew of Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece and get over the minotaur thing. When Hercules’ buddy Hylas was killed in some sordid business the gossips of Thebes (who try to better their image by insisting that people refer to them as “The Chorus”) claim involved some nymphs, Hercules ditched the Argonauts and left to cradle the body of his fallen comrade, stare up at the heavens, and shout, “Noooo!” 

The Stable of Augeas

After his little escapade with the Argonauts, it was back to the grind. For this labor, Hercules had to clean some stables that housed hundreds of giant oxen and hadn’t been cleaned since the last ice age. This is probably the most popular of the Labors, much like the saucy “Midwife’s Story” from The Canterbury Tales. To accomplish his Herculean task, Hercules diverted a river, causing it to rush through the stables and whisk everything away, which was probably not appreciated by the people living downstream. Having deemed this labor “thoroughly gross,” Hercules was more than willing to accept a small cash compensation for his work. 

Because Herc took payment for the job, Eurystheus refused to count it as a labor. Hercules was getting pretty fed up with this cowardly Eurystheus character, all hiding in his jar and claiming he was just looking for his contact lens. So at this point, Hercules invented the “made ya flinch” joke where you make a little lunge at your opponent like you’re going to hit them, when in reality you just want to see them jump in fright. You can then walk off, chuckling to yourself and muttering “fuckin’ chump” just loud enough for them to hear you as you leave to go fight some cannibalistic birds or something. 

The Stymphalian Birds

These were man-eating birds that caused a lot of problems for everyone. They left droppings all over freshly-cleaned chariots, and when the chariot owners came out to wipe the droppings off, the birds would eat them. Hercules just ran at them shouting and waving his arms, then shot them dead with arrows he had dipped in poisonous hydra blood, following it up by flipping Eurystheus a Stympahlian bird of his own design. 

The Cretan Bull

This is another one where Hercules was just doing a little rough-housin’. He captured the bull and then let it go. 

The Horses of Diomedes

Diomedes was this grade-A jerk who would invite people over for a meal and then feed them to his man-eating horses. Why people kept going to his house for dinner is a mystery. You’d think word would get around town not to go to Diomedes’ place for a feast. He was likely the first guy to use that “I would love to have you for dinner” line. Never one to pass up a chance for sweet irony, Hercules fed Diomedes to the very horses that had been such a source of amusement for the evildoer.

The Belt of Hippolyte

Hippolyte was the queen of the Amazons, and Eurystheus’ daughter wanted Hippolyte’s Amazonian girdle. Hercules gathered up a crew of manly men to steal the belt, but when they got there Hippolyte thought the whole thing was no big deal. She just gave a girdle to Hercules who kept insisting to his men, “It’s for Eurystheus’ daughter…I swear!” Everyone was happy except for Hera, who still carried a grudge against the bearded man-god. She stirred up some rumors and lies about the Greeks kidnapping Hippolyte, which angered the Amazons. Unfortunately, one of Herc’s men figured that if he was going to be blamed for kidnapping the queen of the Amazons, he might as well go ahead and do it. 

The Cattle of Geryon

When he first heard about this one, Hercules was probably afraid it was going to be another one of those stable-cleaning jobs, but it turned out to be nothing more than a herding job. Herding cattle may not seem like it’s Herc’s line of work, but since the cattle weren’t his to be herding, he got to kill the rightful owner, so it wasn’t a total loss for him. 

The Apples of Hesperides

This sounded like a pretty sweet gig at first. Hercules had to steal some sacred apples from a bunch of lithesome nymphs. Unfortunately, he soon found out the nymphs had a pet dragon helping them keep an eye on things. Hercules decided it might be a good idea to enlist the aid of his old lifting buddy, Atlas, who was stuck in a dead-end job holding the heavens on his shoulders. According to the plan, Hercules would wrestle the dragon, and then Atlas would take on the sexy young nymphs. It is likely that Atlas was the one who came up with this plan. 

Herc overcame the dragon, and then in order to facilitate Atlas’ leaving for the rough task of confronting a bunch of nubile nymphs, agreed to temporarily bear the burden of the universe upon his own shoulders. Atlas skipped off, got the apples, and then surprised Hercules by yelling “Sucker!” and refusing to resume holding up the world. He even ate one of the magic apples right in front of Hercules, just to be a dick. Herc sighed and admitted he had been outsmarted. He said if Atlas could just spot him for a sec, Herc could grab a pillow for his shoulders and would inherit Atlas’ curse. Atlas agreed, and no sooner did he pick up the world than Hercules let loose with a mighty laugh, did that thing where you bounce a piece of fruit off your bicep and then catch it, and bit into an apple himself, and yelled, “Who’s the sucker now, baby?” 

The Capture of Cerberus

Herc had had about enough of these stupid labors and wasn’t at all happy to hear the final labor was to capture Cerberus, the multi-headed hound that guarded the gates of Hades. Anxious to just have this whole Labor business over and done with, Hercules bullied Charon, the Boatman of the Dead, to ferry him across the River Styx and deliver him to the gates of Hades. Charon expected the traditional tip in return, and Hercules instead invented the joke, “Here’s a tip: get a better job.” It wasn’t that Hercules was always a jerk to skeletal boatmen; he was just in a bad mood because of Eurystheus. I’m sure he called Charon up afterward and apologized.

Hercules succeeded in capturing Cerberus. He showed the poor mutt to Eurystheus, thus ending the long series of labors and winning himself his freedom. Cerberus was set free, as was Hercules, though there were other stories about Hercules getting tricked into performing even more Labors at the bequest of someone named Omphale. Most of these labors apparently involved Hercules dressing up in drag.

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