20 Life Lessons Heracles Taught Us
Timeless Wisdom From The Heroic Myth
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.
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