The Twelve Labors of Hercules, a Series of Initiations

The twelve Labors of Hercules comprise a series of formal initiations that outline the soul's advance in its ascent to God. (Herakles is the original Greek spelling of the hero's name, with Hercules being the Latin version, immortalized by Ovid in his Metamorphoses.) Initiation is how you step from degree to degree by tests and trials. You face many sets of initiations on every principle, law, degree, virtue, taint and sin.

The ancients used the stories of the Labors of Hercules as parables to describe the initiations that a candidate must face while traveling one full round on the spiral Path of Ascension. They often associated the stories with the twelve signs of the zodiac, which they used as a mnemonic device, making the steps to the goal easier to remember.

The oldest texts of the story of Hercules are by Hesiod, 6th Century B.C., Diodorus Siculus, 1st Century A.D., and Apollodorus, 2nd Century A.D. You may wish to read these texts in translation, in addition to what we have said about them here. Another's interpretation of the legend may not yield the richness of your personal insight.

The order in which the Labors occurred differs at various places in the two accounts, by Diodorus Siculus and Apollodorus. We have used the order Diodorus Siculus set forth in his earlier document.

Perhaps the most important element in the legend of Hercules is that, having been accidentally poisoned by his wife Deianira, he chose to immolate himself on a funeral pyre to escape the pain. When his mortal portion (his body and appetitive soul) had been burned away in these fires of intiiation, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, arrived and claimed his immortal being and consciousness. At Zeus' command, she bore Hercules to Olympus to dwell with the gods eternally.

Of Hercules' apotheosis from mortal to immortal, the Roman poet Ovid wrote:

Now on all sides the potent flames aspire,
And crackle round those limbs that mock the fire
A sudden terror seiz'd th' immortal host,
Who thought the world's profess'd defender lost.
This when the Thund'rer saw, with smiles he cries,
'Tis from your fears, ye Gods, my pleasures rise;
Joy swells my breast, that my all-ruling hand
O'er such a grateful people boasts command,
That you my suff'ring progeny would aid;
Tho' to his deeds this just respect be paid,
Me you've oblig'd. Be all your fears forborn,
Th' Oetean fires do thou, great hero, scorn.
Who vanquish'd all things, shall subdue the flame.
That part alone of gross maternal frame
Fire shall devour; while what from me he drew
Shall live immortal, and its force subdue;
That, when he's dead, I'll raise to realms above;
May all the Pow'rs the righteous act approve.
If any God dissent, and judge too great
The sacred honours of the heav'nly seat,
Ev'n he shall own his deeds deserve the sky,
Ev'n he reluctant, shall at length comply.
Th' assembled Pow'rs assent. No frown 'till now
Had mark'd with passion vengeful Juno's brow,
Mean-while whate'er was in the pow'r of flame
Was all consum'd; his body's nervous frame
No more was known, of human form bereft,
Th' eternal part of Jove alone was left.
As an old serpent casts his scaly vest,
Wreathes in the sun, in youthful glory drest;
So when Alcides mortal mold resign'd,
His better part enlarg'd, and grew refin'd;
August his visage shone; almighty Jove
In his swift carr his honour'd offspring drove;
High o'er the hollow clouds the coursers fly,
And lodge the hero in the starry sky.
Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book IX

Edna Lister on the Twelve Labors of Hercules

Zeus fathered Hercules by the princess Alcmene, a descendant of Perseus. Hera, Zeus' wife, hated Hercules because of his paternity, but even more so because his name means "glorious gift of Hera." Hera caused him to go mad after his marriage to Megara, a Theban princess.

After he burned his house, wife and children, Hercules recovered his sanity and consulted the oracle at Delphi on how to make amends. She instructed him to serve his cousin Eurystheus, King of Argo, for twelve years, during which time, Hercules performed his twelve labors.

Hercules represents the soul, embodied in appetitive form, seeking to conquer the sensory appetites and violence of self. Each person and place mentioned is significant, symbolically. – Edna Lister, The Twelve Labors of Hercules, May 7, 1945.

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The First Labor: Hercules Killed the Terrible Nemean Lion

The first Labour which he undertook was the slaying of the lion in Nemea. This was a beast of enormous size, which could not be wounded by iron or bronze or stone and required the compulsion of the human hand for his subduing. It passed the larger part of its time between Mycenae and Nemea, in the neighbourhood of a mountain which was called Tretus from a peculiarity which it possessed; for it had a cleft at its base which extended clean through it and in which the beast was accustomed to lurk. Heracles came to the region and attacked the lion, and when the beast retreated into the cleft, after closing up the other opening he followed in after it and grappled with it, and winding his arms about its neck choked it to death. The skin of the lion he put about himself, and since he could cover his whole body with it because of its great size, he had in it a protection against the perils which were to follow. – Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History

First, Eurystheus ordered him to bring the skin of the Nemean lion; now that was an invulnerable beast begotten by Typhon. On his way to attack the lion he came to Cleonae and lodged at the house of a day‑laborer, Molorchus; and when his host would have offered a victim in sacrifice, Hercules told him to wait for thirty days, and then, if he had returned safe from the hunt, to sacrifice to Saviour Zeus, but if he were dead, to sacrifice to him as to a hero. And having come to Nemea and tracked the lion, he first shot an arrow at him, but when he perceived that the beast was invulnerable, he heaved up his club and made after him. And when the lion took refuge in a cave with two mouths, Hercules built up the one entrance and came in upon the beast through the other, and putting his arm round its neck held it tight till he had choked it; so laying it on his shoulders he carried it to Cleonae. And finding Molorchus on the last of the thirty days about to sacrifice the victim to him as to a dead man, he sacrificed to Saviour Zeus and brought the lion to Mycenae. Amazed at his manhood, Eurystheus forbade him thenceforth to enter the city, but ordered him to exhibit the fruits of his labours before the gates. They say, too, that in his fear he had a bronze jar made for himself to hide in under the earth, and that he sent his commands for the labours through a herald, Copreus, son of Pelops the Elean. This Copreus had killed Iphitus and fled to Mycenae, where he was purified by Eurystheus and took up his abode. – Apollodorus, The Library

The ancient Greeks revered the Nemean Lion as the guardian of the portals to heaven. Entry and advance into heavenly realms expands as you become impervious to worldly influences of the self on the soul. Hera afterwards placed the lion among the stars as the constellation Leo.

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The Second Labor: Hercules Slew the Hydra at the Well of Amymone

The second Labour which he undertook was the slaying of the Lernaean hydra, springing from whose single body were fashioned a hundred necks, each bearing the head of a serpent. And when one head was cut off, the place where it was severed put forth two others; for this reason it was considered to be invincible, and with good reason, since the part of it which was subdued sent forth a two‑fold assistance in its place. Against a thing so difficult to manage as this Heracles devised an ingenious scheme and commanded Iolaus to sear with a burning brand the part which had been severed, in order to check the flow of the blood. So when he had subdued the animal by this means he dipped the heads of his arrows in the venom, in order that when the missile should be shot the wound which the point made might be incurable. – Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History

As a second labour he ordered him to kill the Lernaean hydra. That creature, bred in the swamp of Lerna, used to go forth into the plain and ravage both the cattle and the country. Now the hydra had a huge body, with nine heads, eight mortal, but the middle one immortal. So mounting a chariot driven by Iolaus, he came to Lerna, and having halted his horses, he discovered the hydra on a hill beside the springs of the Amymone, where was its den. By pelting it with fiery shafts he forced it to come out, and in the act of doing so he seized and held it fast. But the hydra wound itself about one of his feet and clung to him. Nor could he effect anything by smashing its heads with his club, for as fast as one head was smashed there grew up two. A huge crab also came to the help of the hydra by biting his foot. So he killed it, and in his turn called for help on Iolaus who, by setting fire to a piece of the neighboring wood and burning the roots of the heads with the brands, prevented them from sprouting. Having thus got the better of the sprouting heads, he chopped off the immortal head, and buried it, and put a heavy rock on it, beside the road that leads through Lerna to Elaeus. But the body of the hydra he slit up and dipped his arrows in the gall. However, Eurystheus said that this labour should not be reckoned among the ten because he had not got the better of the hydra by himself, but with the help of Iolaus. – Apollodorus, The Library

The Hydra, daughter of the Titans Typhon and Echidna, was a water serpent with nine venomous heads, the middle one being immortal. The eight heads represent the eight great powers of being that we may misuse.

Impulses arise from the subconscious, which the Hydra represents. You cut off the head, but two more of the same ilk regrow. You cannot use force to destroy them, but can only burn them out with the fire of love. Wisdom is hidden in the pineal gland, which is the rock covering the immortal head.

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The Third Labor: Hercules Captured the Erymanthian Wild Boar Alive

The third Command which he received was the bringing back alive of the Erymanthian boar which lived on Mount Lampeia in Arcadia. This Command was thought to be exceedingly difficult, since it required of the man who fought such a beast that he possess such a superiority over it as to catch precisely the proper moment in the very heat of the encounter. For should he let it loose while it still retained its strength he would be in danger from its tushes, and should he attack it more violently than was proper, then he would have killed it and so the Labour would remain unfulfilled. However, when it came to the struggle he kept so careful an eye on the proper balance that he brought back the boar alive to Eurystheus; and when the king saw him carrying the boar on his shoulders, he was terrified and hid himself in a bronze vessel. – Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History

As a fourth labour he ordered him to bring the Erymanthian boar alive; now that animal ravaged Psophis, sallying from a mountain which they call Erymanthus . . . And when he had chased the boar with shouts from a certain thicket, he drove the exhausted animal into deep snow, trapped it, and brought it to Mycenae. – Apollodorus, The Library

The wild boar symbolizes power of the darkness of self in form. It is savage and strong. The mountain represents high consciousness. We can capture self on a mountain by all Power of Light from above. Once captured, we move on, remaining high in consciousness, soul ruling our life here below to rid us of this form.

The Atonement: "Lo, I come to do thy will, O God." – Hebrews 10:9.

To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious, ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. – 1 Peter 2:4‑5.

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The Fifth Labor: Hercules Drove Away the Birds at Lake Stymphalus

Heracles then received a Command to drive the birds out of the Stymphalian Lake, and he easily accomplished the Labour by means of a device of art and by ingenuity. The lake abounded, it would appear, with a multitude of birds without telling, which destroyed the fruits of the country roundabout. Now it was not possible to master the animals by force because of the exceptional multitude of them, and so the deed called for ingenuity in cleverly discovering some device. Consequently he fashioned a bronze rattle whereby he made a terrible noise and frightened the animals away, and furthermore, by maintaining a continual din, he easily forced them to abandon their siege of the place and cleansed the lake of them. – Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History

The [next] labour he enjoined on him was to chase away the Stymphalian birds. Now at the city of Stymphalus in Arcadia was the lake called Stymphalian, embosomed in a deep wood. To it countless birds had flocked for refuge, fearing to be preyed upon by the wolves. So when Hercules was at a loss how to drive the birds from the wood, Athena gave him brazen castanets, which she had received from Hephaestus. By clashing these on a certain mountain that overhung the lake, he scared the birds. They could not abide the sound, but fluttered up in a fright, and in that way Hercules shot them. – Apollodorus, The Library

The Stymphalian birds were predatory, with cruel beaks and sharp talons. They represent high thoughts used as lashes over another, as when you seek to make another live the Christ life as you do, as you think he should, giving him no freedom of action. The absolute calm of the silence (created by the brazen castanets) causes the thoughts of self to surface noisily until you lift them.

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The Sixth Labor: Hercules Cleared the Stables of King Augeas of Elis

Upon the performance of this Labour he received a Command from Eurystheus to cleanse the stables of Augeas, and to do this without the assistance of any other man. These stables contained an enormous mass of dung which had accumulated over a great period, and it was a spirit of insult which induced Eurystheus to lay upon him the command to clean out this dung. Heracles declined as unworthy of him to carry this out upon his shoulders, in order to avoid the disgrace which would follow upon the insulting command; and so, turning the course of the Alpheius river, as it is called, into the stables and cleansing them by means of the stream, he accomplished Labour in a single day, and without suffering any insult. Surely, then, we may well marvel at the ingenuity of Heracles; for he accomplished the ignoble task involved in the Command without incurring any disgrace or submitting to something which would render him unworthy of immortality. – Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History

The [next] labour he laid on him was to carry out the dung of the cattle of Augeas in a single day. Now Augeas was king of Elis; some say that he was a son of the Sun, others that he was a son of Poseidon, and others that he was a son of Phorbas; and he had many herds of cattle. Hercules accosted him, and without revealing the command of Eurystheus, said that he would carry out the dung in one day, if Augeas would give him the tithe of the cattle. Augeas was incredulous, but promised. Having taken Augeas's son Phyleus to witness, Hercules made a breach in the foundations of the cattle‑yard, and then, diverting the courses of the Alpheus and Peneus, which flowed near each other, he turned them into the yard, having first made an outlet for the water through another opening. When Augeas learned that this had been accomplished at the command of Eurystheus, he would not pay the reward; nay more, he denied that he had promised to pay it, and on that point he professed himself ready to submit to arbitration. The arbitrators having taken their seats, Phyleus was called by Hercules and bore witness against his father, affirming that he had agreed to give him a reward. In a rage Augeas, before the voting took place, ordered both Phyleus and Hercules to pack out of Elis. So Phyleus went to Dulichium and dwelt there, and Hercules repaired to Dexamenus at Olenus. He found Dexamenus on the point of betrothing perforce his daughter Mnesimache to the centaur Eurytion, and being called upon by him for help, he slew Eurytion when that centaur came to fetch his bride. But Eurystheus would not admit this labour either among the ten, alleging that it had been performed for hire. – Apollodorus, The Library

The Augean stables housed 3,000 oxen and had not been cleaned in thirty years. The stables represent the residue of self, and its 3,000 negative emotions and repressions. They had been left uncleaned for thirty years, symbolizing that the soul had not completed the 30 Via Christa Degrees.

Hercules turned the Light of intuition and illumination, the Alpheus and Peneus, upon the mess of self, looked up once and cleansed it with one surrender of self to soul. The parable of the Prodigal Son is parallel to this.

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The Seventh Labor: Hercules Captured the Savage Minotaur

The next Labour which Heracles undertook was to bring back from Crete the bull of which, they say, Pasiphae had been enamoured, and sailing to the island he secured the aid of Minos the king and brought it back to Peloponnesus, having voyaged upon its back over so wide an expanse of sea. – Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History

The seventh labour he enjoined on him was to bring the Cretan bull. Acusilaus says that this was the bull that ferried across Europa for Zeus; but some say it was the bull that Poseidon sent up from the sea when Minos promised to sacrifice to Poseidon what should appear out of the sea. And they say that when he saw the beauty of the bull he sent it away to the herds and sacrificed another to Poseidon; at which the god was angry and made the bull savage. To attack this bull Hercules came to Crete, and when, in reply to his request for aid, Minos told him to fight and catch the bull for himself, he caught it and brought it to Eurystheus, and having shown it to him he let it afterwards go free. But the bull roamed to Sparta and all Arcadia, and traversing the Isthmus arrived at Marathon in Attica and harried the inhabitants. – Apollodorus, The Library

King Minos of Crete housed the Minotaur in the center of the labyrinth at his court. This Labor illustrates the power of creative ability. You couldn't create or live without the creative fire (the power of the Minotaur), but it is absolutely destructive unless you conquer it. You must bring the creative fire from the base of the spine to the ruler, Oversoul, and command it from the head, the higher creative center.

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The Eighth Labor: Hercules Captured the Man‑eating Mares of Diomedes

The next Labour which Heracles undertook was the bringing back of the horses of Diomedes, the Thracian. The feeding‑troughs of these horses were of brass because the steeds were so savage, and they were fastened by iron chains because of their strength, and the food they ate was not the natural produce of the soil but they tore apart the limbs of strangers and so got their food from the ill lot of hapless men. Heracles, in order to control them, threw to them their master Diomedes, and when he had satisfied the hunger of the animals by means of the flesh of the man who had taught them to violate human law in this fashion, he had them under his control. And when the horses were brought to Eurystheus he consecrated them to Hera, and in fact their breed continued down to the reign of Alexander of Macedon. – Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History

The eighth labour he enjoined on him was to bring the mares of Diomedes the Thracian to Mycenae. Now this Diomedes was a son of Ares and Cyrene, and he was king of the Bistones, a very warlike Thracian people, and he owned man‑eating mares. So Hercules sailed with a band of volunteers, and having overpowered the grooms who were in charge of the mangers, he drove the mares to the sea. When the Bistones in arms came to the rescue, he committed the mares to the guardianship of Abderus, who was a son of Hermes, a native of Opus in Locris, and a minion of Hercules; but the mares killed him by dragging him after them. But Hercules fought against the Bistones, slew Diomedes and compelled the rest to flee. And he founded a city Abdera beside the grave of Abderus who had been done to death, and bringing the mares he gave them to Eurystheus. But Eurystheus let them go, and they came to Mount Olympus, as it is called, and there they were destroyed by the wild beasts. – Apollodorus, The Library

The man-eating horses symbolize the powers of darkness, the resentment and willful rebellion buried in your own subconscious self, which still wants to play around with the misuse of Power. The Oversoul must let the subconscious mind run away with the conscious mind until excess consumes the base desires, until the soul comes to repentance. The fire of desire finally burns itself out by its own excesses.

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The Ninth Labor: Hercules Took the Girdle of Hippolyta

Heracles then received a Command to bring back the girdle of Hippolytê the Amazon and so made the expedition against the Amazons. Accordingly he sailed into the Pontus, which was named by him Euxeinus, and continuing to the mouth of the Thermodon River he encamped near the city of Themiscyra, in which was situated the palace of the Amazons. And first of all he demanded of them the girdle which he had been commanded to get; but when they would pay no heed to him, he joined battle with them. Now the general mass of the Amazons were arrayed against the main body of the followers of Heracles, but the most honoured of the women were drawn up opposite Heracles himself and put up a stubborn battle. The first, for instance, to join battle with him was Aella, who had been given this name because of her swiftness, but she found her opponent more agile than herself. The second, Philippis, encountering a mortal blow at the very first conflict, was slain. Then he joined battle with Prothoe, who, they said, had been victorious seven times over the opponents whom she had challenged to battle. When she fell, the fourth whom he overcame was known as Eriboea. She had boasted that because of the manly bravery which she displayed in contests of war she had no need of anyone to help her, but she found her claim was false when she encountered her better. The next, Celaeno, Eurybia, and Phoebe, who were companions of Artemis in the hunt and whose spears found their mark invariably, did not even graze the single target, but in that fight they were one and all cut down as they stood shoulder to shoulder with each other. After them Deianeira, Asteria and Marpe, and Tecmessa and Alcippe were overcome. The last‑named had taken a vow to remain a maiden, and the vow she kept, but her life she could not preserve. The commander of the Amazons, Melanippe, who was also greatly admired for her manly courage, now lost her supremacy. And Heracles, after thus killing the most renowned of the Amazons, and forcing the remaining multitude to turn in flight, cut down the greater number of them, so that the race of them was utterly exterminated. As for the captives, he gave Antiope as a gift to Theseus and set Melanippe free, accepting her girdle as her ransom. – Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History

The ninth labour he enjoined on Hercules was to bring the belt of Hippolyte. She was queen of the Amazons, who dwelt about the river Thermodon, a people great in war; for they cultivated the manly virtues . . . Now Hippolyte had the belt of Ares in token of her superiority to all the rest. Hercules was sent to fetch this belt because Admete, daughter of Eurystheus, desired to get it. So taking with him a band of volunteer comrades in a single ship he set sail . . . Having put in at the harbor of Themiscyra, he received a visit from Hippolyte, who inquired why he was come, and promised to give him the belt. But Hera in the likeness of an Amazon went up and down the multitude saying that the strangers who had arrived were carrying off the queen. So the Amazons in arms charged on horseback down on the ship. But when Hercules saw them in arms, he suspected treachery, and killing Hippolyte stripped her of her belt. And after fighting the rest he sailed away and touched at Troy. – Apollodorus, The Library

The girdle of Hippolyta represents conquering love; it girds our loins, which support the abdominal cavity as conscious mind. Thus, the Labor symbolizes wresting love from what has been used as war and hate, returning it to reign in the higher creative center in the head.

Hera tricked the Amazons into attacking Hercules, who then slew Hippolyta and took the girdle. The use of treachery as a means to gain on the outer caused the slaying of strength. For a time, one has no strength for anything. You may feel impotent when you let go the past yet have no plan for the future. When you have lived by blaming others, you do not realize that you have founded your whole life on a misconception.

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The Tenth Labor: Hercules Captured the Cattle of the Monster, Geryon

Eurystheus then enjoined upon him as a tenth Labour the bringing back of the cattle of Geryones, which pastured in the parts of Iberia which slope towards the ocean. And Heracles, realizing that this task called for preparation on a large scale and involved great hardships, gathered a notable armament and a multitude of soldiers such as would be adequate for this expedition . . . After Heracles had visited a large part of Libya he arrived at the ocean near Gadeira, where he set up pillars on each of the two continents. His fleet accompanied him along the coast and on it he crossed over into Iberia. And finding there the sons of Chrysaor encamped at some distance from one another with three great armies, he challenged each of the leaders to single combat and slew them all, and then after subduing Iberia he drove off the celebrated herds of cattle. He then traversed the country of the Iberians, and since he had received honours at the hands of a certain king of the natives, a man who excelled in piety and justice, he left with the king a portion of the cattle as a present. The king accepted them, but dedicated them all to Heracles and made it his practice each year to sacrifice to Heracles the fairest bull of the herd; and it came to pass that the kine are still maintained in Iberia and continue to be sacred to Heracles down to our own time.And passing through Abderia he came to Liguria, where Ialebion and Dercynus, sons of Poseidon, attempted to rob him of the kine, but he killed them and went on his way through Tyrrhenia. But at Rhegium a bull broke away and hastily plunging into the sea swam across to Sicily, and having passed through the neighboring country since called Italy after it, for the Tyrrhenians called the bull Italus, came to the plain of Eryx, who reigned over the Elymi. Now Eryx was a son of Poseidon, and he mingled the bull with his own herds. So Hercules entrusted the kine to Hephaestus and hurried away in search of the bull. He found it in the herds of Eryx, and when the king refused to surrender it unless Hercules should beat him in a wrestling bout, Hercules beat him thrice, killed him in the wrestling, and taking the bull drove it with the rest of the herd to the Ionian Sea. But when he came to the creeks of the sea, Hera afflicted the cows with a gadfly, and they dispersed among the skirts of the mountains of Thrace. Hercules went in pursuit, and having caught some, drove them to the Hellespont; but the remainder were thenceforth wild. Having with difficulty collected the cows, Hercules blamed the river Strymon, and whereas it had been navigable before, he made it unnavigable by filling it with rocks; and he conveyed the kine and gave them to Eurystheus, who sacrificed them to Hera. – Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History

As a tenth labour he was ordered to fetch the kine of Geryon from Erythia. Now Erythia was an island near the ocean; it is now called Gadira. This island was inhabited by Geryon, son of Chrysaor by Callirrhoe, daughter of Ocean. He had the body of three men grown together and joined in one at the waist, but parted in three from the flanks and thighs. He owned red kine, of which Eurytion was the herdsman and Orthus, the two‑headed hound, begotten by Typhon on Echidna, was the watchdog. So journeying through Europe to fetch the kine of Geryon he destroyed many wild beasts and set foot in Libya, and proceeding to Tartessus he erected as tokens of his journey two pillars over against each other at the boundaries of Europe and Libya. But being heated by the Sun on his journey, he bent his bow at the god, who in admiration of his hardihood, gave him a golden goblet in which he crossed the ocean. And having reached Erythia he lodged on Mount Abas. However the dog, perceiving him, rushed at him; but he smote it with his club, and when the herdsman Eurytion came to the help of the dog, Hercules killed him also. But Menoetes, who was there pasturing the kine of Hades, reported to Geryon what had occurred, and he, coming up with Hercules beside the river Anthemus, as he was driving away the kine, joined battle with him and was shot dead. And Hercules, embarking the kine in the goblet and sailing across to Tartessus, gave back the goblet to the Sun. – Apollodorus, The Library

Geryon, who dwelt on the island of Erythema (the red), west of the Pillars of Hercules (Straits of Gibraltar) was a monster with three bodies. Control of three bodies, physical, desire and mental, represents lifting the outer physical body with its five senses, the desire body and the mental body. The Labor, as a whole, represents the separation of the soul from the Land of Egypt, or freedom from bondage to the senses.

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The Eleventh Labor: Hercules Won the Apples of the Hesperides

The last Labour which Heracles undertook was the bringing back of the golden apples of the Hesperides, and so he again sailed to Libya. With regard to these apples there is disagreement among the writers of myths, and some say that there were golden apples in certain gardens of the Hesperides in Libya, where they were guarded without ceasing by a most formidable dragon, whereas others assert that the Hesperides possessed flocks of sheep which excelled in beauty and were therefore called for their beauty, as the poets might do, "golden apples," just as Aphroditê is called "golden" because of her loveliness. There are some, however, who say that it was because the sheep had a peculiar colour like gold that they got this designation, and that Dracon ("dragon") was the name of the shepherd of the sheep, a man who excelled in strength of body and courage, who guarded the sheep and slew any who might dare to carry them off. But with regard to such matters it will be every man's privilege to form such opinions as accord with his own belief. At any rate Heracles slew the guardian of the apples, and after he had duly brought them to Eurystheus and had in this wise finished his Labours he waited to receive the gift of immortality, even as Apollo had prophesied to him. But we must not fail to mention what the myths relate about Atlas and about the race of the Hesperides. The account runs like this: In the country known as Hesperitis there were two brothers whose fame was known abroad, Hesperus and Atlas. These brothers possessed flocks of sheep which excelled in beauty and were in colour of a golden yellow, this being the reason why the poets, in speaking of these sheep as mela, called them golden mela. Now Hesperus begat a daughter named Hesperis, whom he gave in marriage to his brother and after whom the land was given the name Hesperitis; and Atlas begat by her seven daughters, who were named after their father Atlantides, and after their mother, Hesperides. And since these Atlantides excelled in beauty and chastity, Busiris the king of the Egyptians, the account says, was seized with desire to get the maidens into his power; and consequently he dispatched pirates by sea with orders to seize the girls and deliver them into his hands.

About this time Heracles, while engaged in the performance of his last Labour, slew in Libya Antaeus, who was compelling all strangers to wrestle with him, and upon Busiris in Egypt, who was sacrificing to Zeus the strangers who visited his country, he inflicted the punishment which he deserved. After this Heracles sailed up the Nile into Ethiopia, where he slew Emathion, the king of the Ethiopians, who made battle with him unprovoked, and then returned to the completion of his last Labour. Meanwhile the pirates had seized the girls while they were playing in a certain garden and carried them off, and fleeing swiftly to their ships had sailed away with them. Heracles came upon the pirates as they were taking their meal on a certain strand, and learning from the maidens what had taken place he slew the pirates to a man and brought the girls back to Atlas their father; and in return Atlas was so grateful to Heracles for his kindly deed that he not only gladly gave him such assistance as his Labour called for, but he also instructed him quite freely in the knowledge of astrology. For Atlas had worked out the science of astrology to a degree surpassing others and had ingeniously discovered the spherical nature of the stars, and for that reason was generally believed to be bearing the entire firmament upon his shoulders. Similarly in the case of Heracles, when he had brought to the Greeks the doctrine of the sphere, he gained great fame, as if he had taken over the burden of the firmament which Atlas had borne, since men intimated in this enigmatic way what had actually taken place. – Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History

When the labours had been performed in eight years and a month, Eurystheus ordered Hercules, as an eleventh labour, to fetch golden apples from the Hesperides, for he did not acknowledge the labour of the cattle of Augeas nor that of the hydra. These apples were not, as some have said, in Libya, but on Atlas among the Hyperboreans. They were presented (by Earth) to Zeus after his marriage with Hera, and guarded by an immortal dragon with a hundred heads, offspring of Typhon and Echidna, which spoke with many and divers sorts of voices. With it the Hesperides also were on guard, to wit, Aegle, Erythia, Hesperia, and Arethusa . . . journeying through Libya to the outer sea he received the goblet from the Sun. And having crossed to the opposite mainland he shot on the Caucasus the eagle, offspring of Echidna and Typhon, that was devouring the liver of Prometheus, and he released Prometheus, after choosing for himself the bond of olive, and to Zeus he presented Chiron, who, though immortal, consented to die in his stead. Now Prometheus had told Hercules not to go himself after the apples but to send Atlas, first relieving him of the burden of the sphere; so when he was come to Atlas in the land of the Hyperboreans, he took the advice and relieved Atlas. But when Atlas had received three apples from the Hesperides, he came to Hercules, and not wishing to support the sphere (he said that he would himself carry the apples to Eurystheus, and bade Hercules hold up the sky in his stead. Hercules promised to do so, but succeeded by craft in putting it on Atlas instead. For at the advice of Prometheus he begged Atlas to hold up the sky till he should) put a pad on his head. When Atlas heard that, he laid the apples down on the ground and took the sphere from Hercules. And so Hercules picked up the apples and departed. But some say that he did not get them from Atlas, but that he plucked the apples himself after killing the guardian snake. And having brought the apples he gave them to Eurystheus. But he, on receiving them, bestowed them on Hercules, from whom Athena got them and conveyed them back again; for it was not lawful that they should be laid down anywhere. – Apollodorus, The Library

The golden apples were a gift of the goddess of the earth to Hera at her wedding. Their location was a secret. Hercules enlisted Atlas, the Titan who bore the weight of the heavens on his shoulders (and was the father of the Hesperides), to help him find the apples. Hercules took the heavenly burden on his shoulders while Atlas found the apples for him.

The gold and silver apples represent the fluid [hormones] of the pineal and pituitary glands. The Titan, Atlas, holding the world, represents the spinal fluid upholding our world [the head]. Hercules represents the conscious mind pursuing spiritual intuition and illumination.

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The Twelfth Labor: Hercules Captured Cerberus, the Watchdog of Hades

And now that he had performed the tenth Labour he received a Command from Eurystheus to bring Cerberus up from Hades to the light of day. And assuming that it would be to his advantage for the accomplishment of this Labour, he went to Athens and took part in the Eleusinian Mysteries, Musaeus, the son of Orpheus, being at that time in charge of the initiatory rites . . . Heracles, then, according to the myths which have come down to us, descended into the realm of Hades, and being welcomed like a brother by Persephone brought Theseus and Peirithous back to the upper world after freeing them from their bonds. This he accomplished by the favour of Persephone, and receiving the dog Cerberus in chains he carried him away to the amazement of all and exhibited him to men. – Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History

A twelfth labour imposed on Hercules was to bring Cerberus from Hades. Now this Cerberus had three heads of dogs, the tail of a dragon, and on his back the heads of all sorts of snakes. When Hercules was about to depart to fetch him, he went to Eumolpus at Eleusis, wishing to be initiated. However it was not then lawful for foreigners to be initiated: since he proposed to be initiated as the adoptive son of Pylius. But not being able to see the mysteries because he had not been cleansed of the slaughter of the centaurs, he was cleansed by Eumolpus and then initiated. And having come to Taenarum in Laconia, where is the mouth of the descent to Hades, he descended through it. But when the souls saw him, they fled, save Meleager and the Gorgon Medusa. And Hercules drew his sword against the Gorgon, as if she were alive, but he learned from Hermes that she was an empty phantom. And being come near to the gates of Hades he found Theseus and Pirithous, him who wooed Persephone in wedlock and was therefore bound fast. And when they beheld Hercules, they stretched out their hands as if they should be raised from the dead by his might. And Theseus, indeed, he took by the hand and raised up, but when he would have brought up Pirithous, the earth quaked and he let go. And he rolled away also the stone of Ascalaphus. And wishing to provide the souls with blood, he slaughtered one of the kine of Hades. But Menoetes, son of Ceuthonymus, who tended the king, challenged Hercules to wrestle, and, being seized round the middle, had his ribs broken; howbeit, he was let off at the request of Persephone. When Hercules asked Pluto for Cerberus, Pluto ordered him to take the animal provided he mastered him without the use of the weapons which he carried. Hercules found him at the gates of Acheron, and, cased in his cuirass and covered by the lion's skin, he flung his arms round the head of the brute, and though the dragon in its tail bit him, he never relaxed his grip and pressure till it yielded. So he carried it off and ascended through Troezen. But Demeter turned Ascalaphus into a short‑eared owl, and Hercules, after showing Cerberus to Eurystheus, carried him back to Hades. – Apollodorus, The Library

Hercules descended into the Underworld, helped by Hermes and Pallas Athena. He gained permission from Pluto to carry the three‑headed dog to the upper air, provided he could do so without weapons. Hercules wrestled the dog and carried him forth.

Cerberus was the guard of the underworld who prevented the dead from returning to earth. It represents the faithful guardian of self who guards the secrets of subconscious until we forget they are there. Hercules returned Cerberus to the Oversoul for the cleaning of self.

The last three Labors are considered ways of winning immortality. Geryon and Cerberus represent death, and the golden apples of the Hesperides are the fruits of the Tree of Life. At his funeral pyre atop Mount Eta, the gods were troubled by the end of the champion of earth.

According to Ovid, Zeus said, "I am pleased to see your concern, my princes, and I am gratified to perceive that I am the ruler of a loyal people, and that my son enjoys your favor. For although your interest in him arises from his noble deeds, yet it is not the less gratifying to me. But now I say to you, Fear not. He who conquered all else is not to be conquered by those flames which you see blazing on Mount Eta. Only his mother's share in him can perish; what he derived from me is immortal. I shall take him, dead to earth, to the heavenly shores, and I require of you all to receive him kindly. If any of you feel grieved at his attaining this honor, yet no one can deny that he deserved it."

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The Labors of Hercules comprise a series of formal initiations.

In the eyes of many men the very early age and astonishing nature of the facts which are related make the myths incredible, a writer is under the necessity either of omitting the greatest deeds and so detracting somewhat from the fame of the god, or of recounting them all and in so doing making the history of them incredible. For some readers set up an unfair standard and require in the accounts of the ancient myths the same exactness as in the events of our own time, and using their own life as a standard they pass judgment on those deeds the magnitude of which throw them open to doubt, and estimate the might of Heracles by the weakness of the men of our day, with the result that the exceeding magnitude of his deeds makes the account of them incredible. – Diodorus Siculus,The Library of History


Apollodorus. The Library, Loeb Classical Library, Volumes 121-122. Sir James George Frazer, translator. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1921.

Hesiod. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica, Loeb Classical Library, Volumes 121-122. Hugh G. Evelyn-White, editor and translator. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1914.

Ovid. Metamorphoses, Book IX. Sir Samuel Garth, John Dryden, et. al., translators. London: 1717.

Siculus, Diodorus, Library of History, Loeb Classical Library, Volume 2. C.H. Oldfather, translator. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963

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