Hercules, the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, was the greatest of the Greek heroes and the strongest man on earth. Three times as big as his fully mortal twin, and imbued with extraordinary courage and ingenuity, Hercules began his remarkable feats while still in the cradle. Zeus’s wife, the goddess Hera, jealously schemed to kill Hercules, but the resourceful half-man, half-god escaped her traps and accomplished seemingly impossible tasks. Renowned mythologist Bernard Evslin recounts the famous twelve labors of Hercules, as the warrior tries to break Hera’s curse by facing down the Nemean Lion, killing the many-headed Hydra, outwitting the giant Anteus, and more.
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By Bernard Evslin
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1984 Bernard Evslin
All rights reserved.
Those in the Book
HERCULES Prince of Thebes, strongest man in the world
AMPHITRYON His father
ALCMENE His mother
IPHICLES His twin brother
EURYSTHEUS A king and the hero's taskmaster
COPREUS Doer of dirty jobs for King Eurystheus
IOLE A brave girl
DIENERA A princess who smiles sweetly and weeps prettily
AUGEAS A fat and filthy cattle thief
NESSUS A horseman of Calydon
TYRESIAS A blind seer
CHIRON A centaur who tutored Hercules
NEREUS The other half was lobster
HERA Queen of the Gods, who hates Hercules
ZEUS King of the Gods
HADES Lord of the Dead
POSEIDON God of the Sea
ARES God of War
ATHENE Goddess of Wisdom
ATLAS A Titan, cousin to the gods
THE NEMEAN LION An elephant-sized beast with ivory teeth
THE HYDRA A hundred-headed reptile, very poisonous
GERYON A three-bodied ogre
SPEAR-BIRDS Huge winged birds with spear beaks and terrible appetites
RIVER-DEMON Also appearing as giant snapping turtle and horned fish
OCTOPUS OF NER Giant eight-armed sea creature that guards the island of Ner
LADON Enormous serpent, guardian of the golden apples
ANTEUS The earth-giantCHAPTER 2
One morning, long long ago, when the world was new, all the bells in Thebes rang at once. People rushed out of their houses, shouting and laughing, and began to dance in the streets of the marble city. For the bells were announcing that their tall beautiful princess had given birth to a boy. The old king and the prince and all the court paraded to the temple to thank Zeus for their new little prince.
Suddenly, the bells stopped ringing. People stopped dancing. A terrible whisper sped from mouth to ear. The princess was still in labor; another baby was coming.
Why was this such dreadful news? What's wrong with twins? Everything—if they're both heirs to a kingdom. This had happened before in another country close by. Both twins had claimed the crown, starting a bloody civil war.
So Prince Amphitryon stayed in the temple after the others had left. He stretched his arms to the altar and prayed that the second twin would be a girl.
A messenger rushed up the temple steps just as the prince was coming down. The man fell on his knees, stuttering, so frightened he could hardly speak. And the prince knew that his wife had given birth to a second son and that the messenger was afraid of being killed on the spot for bringing bad news.
But Amphitryon, who was very fierce in battle, was a kindly man at heart. He dismissed the messenger and walked slowly back to the castle. Since he was a real leader who did everything possible to drive fear from the hearts of his people, he forced himself to smile as he passed through the crowd. He waved cheerfully, as if he had received the best news in the world. Seeing him this way, the people cast off their gloom and milled about the streets again.
He was still trying his best to look cheerful when he entered the chamber of the princess—where he received another surprise. One baby was three times as big as his brother and different in other ways. He wasn't bald and squinched and squally like most infants, but had a nimbus of red-gold hair and huge gray eyes and lay there smiling to himself. The prince looked at him in wonder. The princess was radiant! She was brimming with joy. Seeing this, the prince stopped pretending; his joy became real. He swept Alcmene into his arms, and, since she was holding the twins, they were all in his arms, his wife and his two sons.
"We need another name!" cried Alcmene. "Hurry, think of one!"
The name they had already chosen was Iphicles, after a great-grandfather. And this they gave to the smaller twin, who had been born first.
"Oh, let us think of something splendid for the other one," said Alcmene. "No ordinary name will do."
They thought and thought, and finally named the larger twin Hercules, which means "earth's glory."
When they went out on the balcony that sunset to face the cheering mob, and Amphitryon held first one boy, then the other, into the red light of the falling sun, the people thought the names had been well chosen. And another whisper began to pass from mouth to ear. "That big one—he looks like he's six months old. That's no mortal child. His father must be a god."
They meant to praise their new prince, but, as it happened, this was the worst thing they could have said. These words were to plunge young Hercules into dangers that no one had ever faced before, making him fight for his life against the most fearsome beasts and monsters and demons in that terrible magical world of long ago.CHAPTER 3
The ancient world was like ours in some ways; there were always plenty of busybodies ready to pass on gossip, especially if it might cause trouble. And word soon came to Hera, queen of the gods, about what was being whispered in Thebes. "That son of Princess Alcmene ... he's too big and beautiful for mortal child. He must be the son of a god."
And jealous Hera immediately decided that this wonderful child's father must be her own husband, Zeus. For, as king of the gods, he had always felt free to take as many wives as he liked. When she accused him of being Hercules' father, he denied it; but she didn't believe him. And as more and more tales came to her of how big and strong and brave the boy was growing, she decided to kill him.
"My brother Poseidon owes me a favor," she said to herself. "I'll get him to lend me a sea serpent or two."
As it happened, that afternoon, Alcmene had told the boys' nurse to take them into the castle garden to play. They crawled about the edge of the flower beds awhile and played with pebbles and pine cones, Iphicles always grabbing whatever his brother had. For he was a greedy, aggressive child, while Hercules, although so much bigger, was very gentle. He seemed to know that he had to be careful not to use his strength against his little twin.
The children were sleepy, and the nurse put them into their bull-hide cradles that were slung side by side between two trees. They slept. The cradles swung softly in the wind. Then something crawled into Hercules' sleep. He smiled. He didn't know what a dream was and thought everything he saw was real, sleeping or waking. And this worm was very handsome, not pink and slimy, but seeming to be made of hard smooth leather, blue and green, the colors melting into each other like water when the sun shines on it. What's more, the worm was growing very fast, sprouting out of itself. It was as big as he was and growing longer as he watched.
He opened his eyes. There, curled around the trunk of the tree, and stretching over the cradle to look down into his face, was a huge serpent. It unwrapped itself from the tree and slithered into the bull-hide cradle, rearing up from its own coils and dipping its wedge-shaped head to look at him out of flat black eyes.
Hercules smiled. He thought it was a big worm. He reached up to pat its face. The coils shifted and more snake came out and cast a loop about his waist. Hercules thought the snake was hugging him and gurgled with joy. The loop tightened. The snake was hugging him tightly, too tightly. He could hardly breathe.
Then he heard his brother screaming. Another serpent had come into the other cradle and was wrapping itself around his little twin.
Now, a child always finds it very hard to understand the first cruel thing that happens, and Hercules had been treated with great love and kindness by his mother, his father, his nurse, and everyone in the castle. So although his breath was being squeezed out of him, and his ribs were about to crack, he didn't understand that evil had come into his life, that someone's jealous hatred had taken the form of a serpent that was trying to kill him. He couldn't realize it; he was much too young. His breath was like fire in his lungs, and the loops were squeezing tighter and tighter.
Then his brother's scream pierced the fog.
That scream was pure fear. It was a cry of terrified pain, and, coming from someone else, it made the fighting blood boil up in little Hercules for the first time; powers that had been sleeping in him began to awaken.
He drew a big breath, deep, deep. At first, the pain grew worse, because deep breathing made the coils tighter. But he tried to ignore the pain and kept drawing more air into his lungs. He felt the coils loosen a bit, enough for him to slip his hand out and grasp the serpent under the head. Then he began to squeeze.
Iphicles was still screaming. And that screaming, that terror, that pain, made Hercules' hand grow tighter and tighter. He felt the coils loosen as the snake began to strangle.
Still not quite knowing what he was doing, he climbed to his feet, balancing himself on the swinging cradle, and leaped into his brother's cradle. Iphicles' head was lolling now; the child had fainted. With his other hand, Hercules seized the serpent that was throttling his brother—caught it under the head in the same terrible grip—and began to squeeze. And thinking that his brother was badly hurt, a wild grief made his left hand tighten and tighten, squeezing the breath out of this second snake.
The loops fell away from Iphicles, and young Hercules crouched in the cradle holding both serpents. He didn't want to kill them; he had never killed anything. But they couldn't live either. They were too evil. So he braided them about each other and tossed them out of the cradle. They fell to the ground still wound around each other. And the braided serpents, trying to untangle themselves, choked each other to death.
When the nurse ran up, shrieking, followed by the gardeners, followed by other servants of the castle, they saw two huge dead sea serpents still wound about each other. A curious bellowing sound came down out of the tree. They looked up and there in the cradle they saw the young Hercules, holding his brother in his arms, sobbing, trying to wake him up.
Iphicles had three broken ribs. The best healers were called to the castle. And the child came of strong warrior stock. He slowly mended, although forever afterward, he was afraid of snakes. As for young Hercules, his body was blotched with black and purple bruises, but the springy keg of his ribs was unhurt.
However, the child had changed. He seemed to have grown another six inches since his battle with the serpents. He was less a baby now, more a little boy. Nor did he always smile now. Sometimes his face would grow solemn, and a tiny furrow would come between his gray eyes. And his mother knew the child was trying to understand the evil that had come crawling into his life, and that he couldn't do it. She was very proud of him and loved him more than ever, and so did his father. But they felt grief mixing with their pride. For dimly they knew that this child was truly different in some marvelous dangerous way, and that the difference was making him the target of some unknown wickedness—something more fearsome than a human enemy, something full of mysterious strength and surprise. They also knew that there was nothing much they could do to help their child except try to prepare him for what he would have to face.
Indeed, when Hera learned what had happened to the serpents she had sent, she was more certain than ever that the Theban gossip was true: that Hercules was the son of a god and that that god was Zeus. And her jealous fury grew and grew.
"How could a baby do that?" she said to herself. "Is Zeus shielding him in some magical way? Yes. He must be. But I've outwitted Zeus before, and I'll do it again. I'll get rid of that overgrown brat if it's the last thing I do."CHAPTER 4
The Gods go by a different time. Everything is larger for them. Their days are our years. So, while Hera did not forget Hercules, she had other grudges to settle. And when she turned her attention to him again a few weeks later—in her time—he was almost sixteen years old, an enormous youth, bigger and stronger than any man in Thebes and still growing.
He did not live at home with his parents and his brother but in the wild hills of Thessaly where he was being tutored by a very wise creature named Chiron, who was only half man, the other half being horse. That is, he had a horse's body up to the neck, but from that body sprouted the chest, head, and arms of a man. The tribe he belonged to was called the centaurs. They too were hated by Hera, who, indeed, had made them become the way they were.
Long before, Zeus had happened to admire a beautiful maiden of Thessaly and had been unwise enough to let Hera know. "Look at her," he said one day. "Down there in Thessaly—that girl running through the fields. Isn't she lovely? So long-legged and graceful, just like a filly ..."
Whereupon Hera cast a curse, saying, "Miserable girl, you shall become more like a filly than you wish." She said it under her breath so Zeus wouldn't hear. But curses, like prayers, don't have to be said loudly if you mean them, and as soon as Hera had said this, the girl found herself running through the fields more swiftly than ever because she now had the body of a filly. Later, she became the mother of the tribe called centaurs.
But Zeus, pitying her and angry at what Hera had done, tried to turn the curse into a blessing. He gave the centaurs happy reckless natures, filling them with a love of wild places, and a special wisdom about trees and plants and animals.
And it was Chiron, wisest of all the centaurs, who became tutor to the young Hercules. The boy spent happy years with him in the hills of Thessaly.
Chiron taught him the ways of birds and beasts and of all the creatures who dwell in the mountain lakes and the swift little rivers. Taught him to read the weather in the dance of leaves and the flight of birds, and how to sniff the wind for rain. Taught him how to take honey from the hive without offending the bees, where to find nuts and berries, and which mushrooms were good to eat and which were poison. Wandering the woods and fields with Chiron, young Hercules learned how certain herbs cure fever and how to crush wild oregano leaves to make a paste that will stop bleeding. And how to pack a wound with spider web and moldy bread to make it heal clean. All very useful lore for someone who is going to have to do a great deal of fighting.
For sport, Hercules raced and wrestled the young centaurs. He lost the races, for they could run more swiftly than horses, but he always won the wrestling matches and finally had to give them up because he had become too strong even for the powerful young centaurs. But he loved to wrestle and roamed the woods looking for bears. He grew very fond of the big furry animals because they enjoyed wrestling as much as he did, and he didn't have to worry about hurting them. But he kept growing and got stronger every day; he realized that the time was coming when he wouldn't even be able to wrestle bears. He had no way of knowing that this magically happy time in the hills of Thessaly was to end so suddenly.
For Hera had been thinking again about Hercules and was planning what to do. But this time, she planned more carefully.CHAPTER 5
"I'll have to go slowly," said Hera to herself. "Zeus has made me promise not to harm any of his sons or daughters. I mean to break that promise, of course, but I don't want to be caught. So, I can't simply kill Hercules—who's very hard to kill, anyway. I'll have to trick him into arranging his own doom. Yes-ss ... I'll make him use his powers against himself. He's warmhearted, hot-tempered, blazing with energy. And if I can't use his own heat to burn him out, my name's not Hera."
One hot afternoon in May, Hercules lay in a field of flowering clover. The clover smell hung sweet as honey, and bees were among the blossoms; their humming made the world's drowsiest sound. Hera appeared. She stood looking down at him. She seemed tall as a tree and was clad in purple, a golden crown on her head.
"Are you a goddess?" he murmured.
"I am Hera, queen of the gods."
"Am I dreaming?"
"It doesn't matter. I am real."
He stared at her.
She faded, and a picture branded itself on the golden air where she had stood. The people in the picture moved and had voices, and everything they did and said was terribly important. If it was a dream, it was the kind that seems realer than life. Hercules saw himself standing. He was a man now, with a golden beard. He wore a lion skin and carried a club and was much bigger than the youth lying on the grass. And this man, whom Hercules recognized as himself grown-up, was waiting for someone.
A woman walked toward him; it was his wife, and she held the hands of two children, a boy and a girl. Hercules knew that they were his children because they looked like him. Then the youth on the grass was horrified to see the man lift his club and smash it down on the woman's head. She fell. The children screamed and ran away. The man caught them in two strides, dropped his club, lifted a child in each hand, and knocked their heads together. The heads split like eggs. He dropped the dead children on their dead mother, raised his face to the sky, and howled like a wolf. Then he rushed off among the trees.
The bodies disappeared. Hera stood there looking down at him. There was such a tearing grief in the youth's heart that he couldn't look at the goddess. He knelt on the grass covering his face with his hands.
Excerpted from Hercules by Bernard Evslin. Copyright © 1984 Bernard Evslin. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsThose in the Book,
The Nemean Lion,
The Augean Stables,
The Blind Man,
The Triple Terror,
The Spear-Birds Of The Marsh,
The Old Man Of The Sea,
Hades Asks For Help,
The Golden Apples,
Zeus Looks Down,
The Earth Giant,
The Shirt Of Nessus,