Twelve Near Impossible Feats of Strength and Bravery

Even those unfamiliar with Greek mythology will recognize the name Hercules and the twelve near-impossible feats of strength and bravery he was assigned to complete. But few know why Hercules labored on these tasks, and what the deeper lesson of the story is.

Questions or comments regarding the podcast?

#Alcmene #Apollo #Arcadia #Arete #Cerberus #Erytheia #Eurystheus #Geryon #Hera #Hercules #Hesperides #Hippolyta #Kakia #KingAugeas #KingDiomedes #Megara #Nemean #PeterHollins #TheArtandScienceofSelf-Growth #RussellNewton #NewtonMG #LegendarySelfDiscipline

Hercules and the Twelve Labors and embracing hardship

Even those unfamiliar with Greek mythology will recognize the name Hercules and the twelve near-impossible feats of strength and bravery he was assigned to complete. But few know why Hercules labored on these tasks, and what the deeper lesson of the story is.

Context matters here. Hercules was born of Zeus (as so many were—he was a busy deity); however, he was only a demi-god, since his mother was Alcmene, a mortal. Zeus was married to the goddess Hera at the time, who was so enraged that she vowed to destroy Hercules, the incarnation of her husband’s infidelity. To take revenge she sent snakes to the baby Hercules’ crib but the boy, showing incredible strength, simply killed the snakes. He grew to be a strong, successful man who later married and had three strong sons.

Jealous and angry at his success, Hera upped the ante and caused the adult Hercules to fall into an insanity that caused him to kill his own children and wife, Megara. Once the insanity lifted, Hercules was overcome with grief. He sought the counsel of wise Apollo who told him that to redeem himself, he must serve Eurystheus, the king of Tiryns.

Unfortunately, Hera found a way to sneakily suggest that the king assign impossible tasks that would surely kill Hercules. He had to slay a nine-headed Hydra monster. He had to kill the fierce Nemean lion, capture the Erymanthian boar and the Cretan bull, obtain the belt of Hippolyta and several other dangerous or near-impossible feats.

For posterity, the rest of the twelve labors of Hercules were as follows:

  • capture the stag of Arcadia
  • clean the cattle stables of King Augeas of Elis
  • shoot the carnivorous birds of the Stymphalian marshes
  • capture the mad bull of the island of Crete
  • capture the man-eating mares of King Diomedes of the Bistones
  • take the girdle of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons
  • steal the cattle of the three-bodied giant Geryon of the island of Erytheia
  • retrieve the golden apples at the world’s end guarded by Hesperides
  • fetch from the underworld the three-headed dog Cerberus, guardian of the gates of the underworld

No small feats. Astonishingly, Hercules achieved all the tasks, one by one, with his strength, determination and cunning (and a little help from others along the way). Hercules continued to have many escapades after completing his missions, and the ferocious Hera never quite stopped trying to trick, destroy or humiliate him. But eventually, the gods were so impressed with Hercules’ strength that they elevated him to a full god.

What can we learn from poor Hercules’ seemingly never-ending life troubles and dramas? Like other mythical figures (consider the biblical Job, who similarly has misfortune after misfortune thrown his way), he seems to embody the occasional human suspicion that there’s a vengeful god out there constantly trying to mess with us! Sometimes, it feels like life is just one difficulty after another. The myth of Hercules teaches us that we are all, in a way, demi-gods—we have a weaker, fearful and mortal human side but also a stronger, wiser, godlike aspect that can help us triumph over any adversity, if we can follow it rather than give in to the temptation to give up.

In fact, Hercules does face this very decision in a lesser-known story from his childhood. The story of Kakia and Arete tell us a lot about what the myth of Hercules is really all about. It goes like this: In Hercules’ youth he was confronted by two very different goddesses.

The first was beautiful, alluring Kakia, who offered Hercules a life of easy pleasure. Though she told him she was called “happiness,” her name actually means “vice.” Kakia promised a path that was free of pain and hard work, and was filled instead with pleasure and delight, i.e. “the easy way.”

You can guess how Arete compared: she was a humble, quiet goddess who told Hercules that her path was the only way to genuine happiness and achievement, but it would be long and difficult, even painful at times. Her message was simple: nothing worthwhile in the world was to be gained without hard work and effort.

Pleasure and wisdom had a price, which the wise man understood and paid willingly. Her promise was only that if Hercules wanted to achieve great things, he must learn to master those skills, and he must work for what he wanted—and in laboring for them, they would be worth so much more. Her name meant “virtue” and suggested a life path that was slower, more steadfast, but ultimately the best hope at a good, moral existence—i.e., real happiness. Arete’s path was “the hard way.”

By his conduct throughout his life, we already know which path Hercules ultimately chose. By going the way of virtue instead of vice, he set himself up for mountains of hard work, pain, suffering, discomfort, difficulty. But he also paved the way for himself as a hero and future god—none of which would have been possible if he had shrunk away from challenge or given up when faced with adversity.

So, in reading the story of Hercules, we needn’t feel sorry for him, and the constant attacks from Hera. Rather, these are trials that only strengthened the already-powerful Hercules. Rather than his adversity disrupting a life path that was “meant” to be easy and pleasurable, the struggle was the very cause of his later success and contentment. Hercules went along with his twelve labors willingly. That he did so can teach us a lot about ourselves, and our own (inner) demons.

Hercules teaches us first that a bad start in life doesn’t have to be the end of the world. He truly had the cards stacked against him—he was the child of an affair and had someone out to kill him from the day of his birth. But he had other things in his favor, which he capitalized on: he was still a demi-god, and was raised to develop and strengthen his talents, despite his origins and difficulties. In Hercules’ very nature we see the two potential paths: the option for the easier, more mediocre life or the chance at greatness, at godlike achievement and all the heroic deeds it would demand of him.

Hercules teaches us another lesson that is perhaps less common in modern times than it was in ancient Greece: life is hard. Even when you’re a half god, life is still difficult, and dangerous, and uncomfortable, and chaotic. It doesn’t matter that Hercules has superhuman strength—even he is tested to the limits of his abilities. So it doesn’t really make a difference what gifts or advantages we possess; life will always push us to those limits, and demand we step up and be even better. These lessons, however, will never be easy. They will take grit and dedication, since they’ll come in the form of struggle, disappointment, and challenge.

It’s a matter of attitude. If we expect that life should be easy, we will be dismayed when it inevitably isn’t. We will see the challenges that come our way as mistakes, or unwanted barriers in our path that should lead us directly and easily to the finish line. It’s a perspective, in other words, that guarantees we will give up, lose faith, or resort to blame when we cannot achieve the things we want for ourselves. But if we acknowledge that life is not easy and never will be (and perhaps, that it shouldn’t be!) then we can adopt the attitude of finding ways through and around troubles, with us coming out the other end strengthened and ennobled.

Nothing that is truly valuable is given for free. And in life, the best things of all are often those things that you’ve won and earned for yourself with blood, sweat and tears. There is never an easy way out. But knowing this, we can not only endure hardships but actually embrace them, grateful for the opportunity to test and prove ourselves, to dig deep and show ourselves what we’re made of. Anyone can succeed in easy times. But it takes character and active effort to prove yourself in the hard times.

The success won in these hard times will be infinitely more valuable than reaching the end of an easy life with nothing much to show for it.

It’s also important to remember that life’s struggles never really go away. Hera never stops pursuing Hercules. She is taken as a fact of life. But, just like iron can be strengthened and made sharper in a forge of fire, or by being run along an even sharper sword, our adversities can sometimes be our training partners, the very force in life that challenges us to be better.

This force will always be there: we are on our path and suddenly, things don’t go to plan. There’s an obstacle in the road, an enemy, a misfortune or accident. And after that, there’s another one! It is not the presence of these obstacles, but how we respond to them that will determine the quality of our success.

The easy path of avoiding troubles and seeking only pleasure may feel good in the moment, but it weakens a person. Willpower can be thought of as a muscle—when it’s not exercised, it withers. The promise of a good, easy life is ultimately an illusion, because nothing is for free, and one way or another we pay for it. In forfeiting the challenge, in running away, avoiding hardship, blaming others or failing to rise to the challenge, we actually impoverish ourselves, and pass up a golden opportunity to become more than what we currently are.

The goddess Arete is the perfect personification of this idea—discipline, sacrifice, humble hard work and a virtuous life can seem plain and unexciting in the moment, but reap massive rewards later on. The flashy goddess Kakia promises a lot but is all talk—when it comes down to it, she is only offering a life of shame and pointlessness.

The easy life is nothing to be proud of, because it doesn’t teach us anything, it doesn’t inspire the best from us… in other words, it’s “cheap” because it costs us nothing.

Sometimes we can look at amazing and accomplished figures and not see them for what they really are. We can envy those who are smarter, wealthier, more attractive or more talented, and want their life perhaps because we imagine that it’s so much easier to be them!

But the truth is, nobody is spared hard work and difficulty in life, and in fact those that do well in life often experience more adversity, because they welcome it into their lives as a teacher. Hercules was naturally very strong—but his feats were never easy, never any less frightening or difficult than they would be for anyone else. In fact, we can be grateful that in comparison, our challenges are so much less daunting than poor Hercules’!

Many of the individuals in our book have faced difficulties that actually go beyond the normal lot of human suffering. These are the people who preach inner strength, commitment, hard work, discipline and all the rest—isn’t it curious that those we consider most successful in these areas often actually faced more challenge and adversity than the average person? It makes you wonder how much this average person could achieve with their relatively small portion of troubles if they only adopted the attitude of Viktor Frankl, Thomas Edison, or Hercules.

Heroes (or “gods” of all kinds, both modern and ancient) have all the same fears and weaknesses, but the difference is that they don’t allow their fear and weakness to be in the driving seat. The path is taken willingly. The feeling of valor, pride and satisfaction at the end of life is directly proportional to how much one was able to achieve in the face of hardship. There are no accolades awarded for taking the easy path, i.e. “big monsters, big prizes”! Each of us is half human, half god, since we have free will and possess the potentiality to be either exceptional or ordinary. Adversity is the arena where we prove to ourselves which aspect we will develop, which path we will go down.

Each of us is confronted by Kakia and Arete, by the choice to take the easy or the difficult route—sometimes several times a day! But instead of imagining that life has thrown you a curveball and been “unfair,” look at your struggles for what they really are: invitations to be better.