As the greatest hero of Greek mythology, Heracles or Hercules (Roman version) can teach us a lot about life. Heracles was a demigod and son of Zeus, the king of the gods on Mount Olympus. Heracles, presumably tricked by his step-mother Hera (queen of Olympus), went into a rage fit and killed his family with his own hands and upon realizing his crime, earnestly sought atonement. His redemption was to come through completing 12 labors or tasks assigned by his estranged cousin, King Eurystheus of Tiryns. The myth of Heracles covers his attempts to achieve his life’s purpose and overcome the obstacles laying in his path. His journey, including the 12 labors, is in many ways every person’s life journey with several takeaways, 20 of which are as follows:
1. Hardships reveal character
Being Zeus’ son, Heracles, born as Alcides, had the qualities of extraordinary bravery and strength, but being Zeus’ son also made him the target of Hera’s jealousy, as she considered Heracles, Zeus’ illegitimate child. In order to appease Hera’s anger, Alcides’ name was even changed to Heracles, meaning glory of Hera but to no avail. Despite a change of name, Heracles could not change his identity, who he really was, i.e. a demigod known for bravery and strength. While Heracles’ awe inspiring and defining qualities came from Zeus, they were truly and comprehensively revealed through the enormous challenges Hera put him through.
Dealing with the ups and downs of life requires staying true to your identity and unveiling of a person’s real strength is only possible through formidable challenges. Growth, too, is a by product of facing and overcoming adversity.
2. Life is demanding regardless of privilege
Heracles was the son of Zeus and foster son of Amphitryon, who in turn was the son of King of Tiryns and a general of Thebes. Heracles grew up learning archery, wrestling, chariot racing, boxing and fencing from some of the best tutors in the land. He was also gifted with divine strength. Despite such an advantages and natural talents, Heracles suffered throughout his life, clashing mostly with his flawed nature.
Suffering is not a function of having less power, strength or wealth, it is largely a constant in everyone’s life, though to different extents.
3. Dig deeper as when it rains, it pours
Heracles was shattered upon realizing he murdered his own family. He was angry, confused and distraught and couldn’t figure out why he was in the situation he was in. To the world he was a cold blooded murderer. To make matters worse, when he decided to redeem himself, he had to deal with the whims and insecurities of King Eurystheus, someone who he considered inferior to himself as a man and a ruler. In addition to grappling with tremendous personal loss and guilt, he also had to find the courage to obey his archenemy’s orders.
We have all experienced at some level or the other the snowball effect in our lives when things go from worst to ‘you can’t be serious?!’ But like Heracles, in order to accomplish a definitive goal, one has to chin up and step up to the plate, mustering up unknown reserves of mental toughness and ego-containment hidden deep within us. Wholeheartedly believe in the saying, “This too shall pass.”
3. Be hands-on when needed (1st labor)
As his first labor, Heracles had to kill the ferocious Nemean Lion. Heracles was known to have killed a lion or two before as a shepherd but this time it was different. Heracles had to use all his strength to strangle the Nemean Lion with his bare hands, as arrows would bounce off his tough skin.
Sometimes we have to roll up our sleeves and deal with challenging situations using a hands-on approach. It can be draining and more time consuming but be ready to get dirty when all else fails.
4. Find success in failure, its always there (2nd labor)
Heracles’ second labor was to slay one of Hera’s monster called the Lernaean Hydra, a multi-headed serpent-like creature. Upon cutting one of the Hydra’s heads, two more would emerge in its place, making Heracles’ task exponentially harder and virtually impossible to be completed. Heracles, with some guidance from Athena (goddess of wisdom, strength and courage), sought help from Iolaus, his nephew. Now, every time Heracles would chop off one of the Hydra’s heads, Iolaus would sear the wound with burning branches. This prevented the blood from flowing to the wound and creating new heads. Heracles was eventually successful in killing the Hydra but Eurystheus disqualified his labor since Heracles recruited the help of Iolaus.
As the myth goes, Heracles dipped his arrows with Hydra blood, which comes in handy at a later stage in his story.
Life is full of disappointments and failures but one must always seek out the positives in every venture. Despite getting denied for his labor, Heracles still accomplished three things: he gained confidence by creative problem-solving instead of simply relying on his brute force, he built credibility with Athena, someone who plays a critical role in his progression, and he was able to get powerful and useful poison from Hydra’s blood that helps him in the future. Seek and acquire smaller successes even if the overarching success is not attained. You never walk away with nothing!
5. You snooze, you lose (3rd labor)
Eurystheus, guided by Hera, set up a trap in the third labor and ordered Heracles to capture the Ceryneian Hind, which was not just about about capturing a creature who runs faster than a shot arrow but was also a sacred animal of Artemis (goddess of hunt, moon and chastity). The idea here was to create a lose-lose situation for Heracles. If he doesn’t capture the elusive hind, he fails the labor and if does capture it, he would face Artemis’ wrath.
Heracles, after a long struggle, caught the hind and also pleaded to Artemis for her forgiveness, promising to return the hind upon completion of the labor. Heracles then went on to convince Eurystheus that he could have the hind as long as the king himself took it from Heracles. Given the speed of the hind, the expected happened, it escaped from Eurystheus. Heracles kept his promise to Artemis and Eurystheus had to reluctantly accept the completion of the labor.
In addition to brute force and creativity, one must value speed of actions. If you are too slow in taking advantage of an opportunity, like Eurystheus, the only one to blame is yourself.
6. Plan accordingly and adapt effectively (4th labor)
Heracles’ fourth labor was to catch the Erymanthian Boar, a huge and dangerous animal and carry him back to Eurystheus alive. This labor was in some ways more challenging than the third labor because Heracles not only was not allowed to kill the dangerous monster but also had to keep it tamed throughout as evidence for task completion.
Heracles solicited the advice of a centaur, who suggested to trap the boar in thick snow. Heracles had to plan his labor in winter time and was finally able to get hold of the boar and carry it back to Eurystheus as proof.
One must always prepare according to the task’s complexity. Developing a mindset to adapt to new situations is key to one’s progress in life since no two days are alike.
7. Remain steadfast even when wronged (5th labor)
The fifth labor required Heracles to clean the stables of King Augeas, that had not been cleaned in over 30 years and had thousands of cattle. Heracles made a deal with King Augeas for 10% of the cattle should Heracles successfully clean the stables in one day. The king agreed earlier but later reneged on his agreement after Heracles creatively diverted Alpheus and Peneus rivers through the stables cleaning them up in a short time.
Heracles was clearly taken advantage of by the king but he later returned, slaying Augeas and claimed his reward under Augeas’ son, the new king. Heracles’ fifth labor was successful but like the second labor, still discounted by Eurystheus as he argued Heracles did not clean the stables himself but through directing waters and was also paid for the task.
Creativity and persistence are solid traits that may result in desired outcomes but we should know that life is not always fair. Sometimes, despite facing exploitation and prejudicial treatment, the best response is to stay focused on the end-goal and keep moving forward.
8. Build on past experiences (6th labor)
The sixth labor required Heracles to get rid of man-eating Stymphalian birds in the swamps of Arcadia. Heracles was unable to access the birds nest in the deep swamp. Athena gave Heracles a special rattle made by Hephaestus (god of metalworking, fire and forges), to scare the birds away from Arcadia. As the birds flew, Heracles shot many of them with his arrows dipped in Hydra blood and brought back to Eurystheus a handful of these slain birds as proof.
Building up from the second labor, Heracles benefited from credibility already established with Athena and the poison from Hydra’s blood. Without either, the sixth labor would have been virtually impossible to complete.
No skill or experience goes to waste if one is mindful and purposeful. We never know what a failure today may teach us, through which, we may achieve success in something else in the future.
9. Strive for self-reliance (7th labor)
Heracles’ seventh labor was to capture the Cretan Bull alive. This was again a dangerous undertaking and despite offer to help from King Minos, the ruler of Crete, Heracles took on this labor alone. After a long struggle, Heracles was finally able to control the bull and bring it back to Eurystheus as evidence.
Heracles knew if he had received help from King Minos, similar to the help he received from his cousin Iolaus in slaying the Hydra, his labor may once again be discounted. He believed in his abilities and went about completing the task in the typical Heracles fashion — with planning, focus and grit.
Doing things on your own can at times take longer and can be more challenging but the lessons one learns and the confidence one builds without seeking the easy way out is unmatched.
10. Your habits make you (8th labor)
Heracles was tasked with bringing back the four Mares of Diomedes, a ruthless king of Thrace and son of Ares (god of war). It is said that the horses were just as savage as Diomedes as the king would feed them unnatural diet of human flesh. Heracles defeated Diomedes in a fight and fed him to the horses, calming them as a result. He then harnessed these horses to a chariot and rode them back to Tiryns thereby completing his labor. Freed from Diomedes, the horses returned to their natural state and were no longer violent.
Ill-disciplined lifestyles and unhealthy habits lead us towards chaos and keep us there. Replacing one or two major counterproductive habits with constructive routines can help restore order in our lives and of those affected by us.
11. Be prepared for anything (9th labor)
Heracles had to retrieve the Belt of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, as his ninth labor. Hippolyta was impressed with Heracles’ accomplishments and agreed to give him her belt. This seemed like a fairly straightforward task with a quick resolution on the horizon. However, Hera intervened and tricked the other Amazons into attacking Heracles and in a consequential fight, he killed Hippolyta and returned to Eurystheus with her belt.
It is usually fairly calm before the storm. In life, we often encounter situations that seem too comfortable or problems surface with seemingly easy fixes, only to be caught off-guard at the last moment when Murphy’s Law kicks in! Hope for the best but always be prepared for the worst.
12. Patience is a virtue (10th labor)
The tenth labor had Heracles travel to distant lands in order to fetch the cattle of Geryon, the three-bodied giant, guarded by herdsmen and a monstrous dog. Heracles overcame the long journey and the battles, finally retrieving the cattle but on the way back home, had to deal with more setbacks orchestrated by Hera, including dispersing of the cattle and sending of the flood. Heracles still persevered. According to the myth, he undertook the 12 labors over a period of 12 years by remaining committed and patient.
It is not uncommon to pour our sweat, blood and tears into something valuable, a business or a relationship and then struggle to keep what we created. Fatigue sets in. Random stresses pile up catalyzing our burnout. Develop patience to see things through to their desired end. Stay focused on the job at-hand and see to its completion despite distractions and unexpected twists and turns — always expect delays from factors outside your control and always remind yourself why you started your journey in the first place.
13. Don’t take on the burdens of others (11th labor)
Since Eurystheus discounted two of Heracles’ labors, he gave Heracles two additional labors. The eleventh labor required Heracles to retrieve three golden apples from the garden of Hesperides, guarded by Ladon, a hundred-headed dragon. To successfully complete this task Heracles decided to convince the titan Atlas (who held up the sky as punishment) to retrieve these apples them for him. Heracles held up the sky for a while till Atlas brought back the apples and then tricked a reluctant Atlas into taking back the duty of putting the sky on his shoulders. While Atlas received temporary relief from carrying the sky, it was still his load to bear and not Heracles’.
Have empathy and help others where and when you can but avoid taking on their responsibilities for them. Everyone should be accountable for their actions and is obligated to their duties. Otherwise it doesn't take very long before pandemonium ensues.
14. Face your greatest fear to elevate (12th labor)
The twelfth and final labor required Heracles to capture Cerberus, the three-headed dog of the underworld. Heracles was accompanied by Athena and Hermes (messenger god of travelers and trade) to undertake this most dangerous of missions as he descended into the world of the dead. As he struggled through the underworld he finally reached Hades (god of the underworld), who upon hearing Heracles’ plea, allowed him to take Cerberus to Eurystheus as long as Heracles could capture Cerberus with his own hands and return him after completion of the twelfth labor. Heracles did just that and therein completed the final labor.
By facing our greatest challenges we become heroes in our own right, we elevate ourselves beyond our imagination and of those around us. Heracles returned from the underworld because he was determined and had built credibility with actions of valor and virtue. He was willing to lay it all on the line for his cause. We too should attempt seeking a noble cause in our life that inspires us to such end.
15. Do what you say, always
Heracles shows again and again that integrity and turstworthiness is built by doing what you say you will do. Negotiating with powerful kings and gods requires the currency of credibility and he built this asset by being brave and true to his mission and completing each labor.
Always plan a series of actions behind your commitment and show others from time to time where you stand. Reputation is a potent asset acquired gradually and without short-cuts.
16. Take responsibility, preferably all of it
Heracles could have blamed the murders of his family members on Hera but he decided to take complete ownership for his actions, regardless of who was pulling his strings! He took responsibility for his horrific deeds and his heroic ones, his dishonorable ones and his noble ones. Heracles owned it all.
Never wait for others to do your work and never point fingers to evade a blame; it only diminishes one’s personal stature. Greatness and responsibility go hand in hand. Taking responsibility truly frees the mind and allows one to envision a future that can be created all over again with deliberate design.
17. When pain finds purpose, it is no longer just pain
Heracles felt genuine pain for killing his family. What he needed was to find a genuine purpose to channel the pain. Once he defined his purpose in atonement, more pain came his way but he was never discouraged. With every labor, his purpose became clearer and more achievable.
By giving life purpose we humans transcend pain in so many ways. Hunger can be viewed as worship in a fast. Isolation and restrain can be purifying for the soul. Giving to others frees one from material binds. A purpose or a calling should be inherently inspiring and scary at the same time and never feel like a job or a labor. Perhaps, that is why Heracles succeeded past his trials.
18. Find mentors by becoming worthy of one
Athena was a consistent support to Heracles throughout his life offsetting Hera’s barrage of attacks and obstacles. But at no point did Athena perform Heracles work for him. It is highly unlikely that Athena would have supported Heracles had he not shown sincerity and dedication in his actions.
We must seek advisers and mentors in life who can offer constructive perspective and flag landmines we may overlook. But in order to connect with such individuals we also must prove our intent and reflect our desire through actions and achievements of milestones. Before someone jumps onboard your ship, make sure the ship is sturdy and journey-ready. Remember, no one will champion your cause if you don’t believe in it and in the end, your work is still yours to be done.
19. You decide what defines you
Heracles realized he was being defined as a raging murderer and he was not going to let this label his legacy. He knew his path to hero-hood and later god-hood would demand the best of his qualities to the fullest of his capacities. Once he decided on how history would define him, he put his will to work and eventually overcame all the labels he detested.
There is a cost of being defined one way or the other. If an unfortunate event in life labels you, it can define you for the rest of your life — that is a price to pay. Alternatively, you can choose to take authorship of your story. That too has a cost as reflected in Heracles’ labors. You decide what you are willing to pay. Writing your own story is not cheap but well worth it!
20. Bring order to the world by bringing order to yourself
With virtually every labor, Heracles made the world a better place. He took on monsters and ruthless rulers. He inspired others to do the same. The labors were assigned to Heracles in order to keep him away from Eurystheus and his rule on Tiryns. Regardless of the reason for the labors, Heracles progressed onward and upward in his redemption journey and changed everything on the roadmap for the better.
If Heracles never felt the remorse of killing his family, never took on the extreme responsibility for all his actions, never contained his rage or his ego, he would most likely be remembered as an ill-tempered, egotistic, cold-blooded murderer and not as a flawed demigod who struggled and suffered to become a true hero and then earn the right to become an Olympian god.
When we think about making a difference and delivering impact in the world, we must never forget that it all starts with us. Only the positive change in us triggers positive changes around us.
May you too find your way to the stars like Heracles. Wishing you grit and success in your labors!