Of all the heroic legends the most numerous and the most important are those of the Herakleid. They appear on vases of all periods, though in the largest proportion on the black-figured varieties, and include every event in his life, from his birth to his deified life in Olympos. Of the visit of Zeus to his mother Alkmena we have already spoken, as also of her apotheosis. As an infant we see Herakles engaged in strangling the serpents sent by Hera, while his brother Iphikles recoils in terror; later on Hera appears to be reconciled to his existence, for she is actually seen suckling him at her breast. Next he is carried off by Hermes to Cheiron the Centaur for his education, and we see him undergoing instruction on the lyre from Linos, or on his way, accompanied by an old woman carrying his lyre. By the time when his series of labours begins he is usually represented as a full-grown bearded man, especially on the archaic vases; but he appears in a few instances as a quite youthful beardless figure.

Of all the achievements of Herakles the most famous are the Twelve Labours, to which he was subjected by Hera at the hands of Eurystheus. We find them all represented on vases, with the exception of the cleansing of the Augean stables, which may be presumed to have offered too many difficulties to the painter; it only occurs once in the whole history of Greek art, on a metope at Olympia. The horses of Diomede only occur once, the Keryneian stag thrice, and the Stymphalian birds five times; but the rest may be described as common. In all these scenes Herakles is usually accompanied by Athena; also, but less frequently, by Iolaos and Hermes.

I. The Nemean Lion.

Of this subject we find two “normal” types on B.F. vases, with one or two abnormal versions; on R.F. vases the treatment is less stereotyped.

B.F. (1) Standing type:—Herakles plunges sword into lion's neck (both upright): B.M. B 160, B 232, B 621 (Plate XXX.). H. strangles lion: Berlin 1720 = Wiener Vorl. 1888, 6, 3 (Exekias); Wiener Vorl. 1889, 6, 3 (Charitaios).

(2) Crouching type:—Herakles stoops and strangles lion: B.M. B 159, B 199, B 318 (Fig. 125); Petersburg 68 = Wiener Vorl. 1889, 4, 6 (Taleides).

(3) Abnormal:—Lion on its back; Herakles slays it with club: Reinach, ii. 52. Herakles pursues lion: Louvre F 108 = Wiener Vorl. 1890–91, pl. 1, 5 (Nikosthenes).

R.F. (1) Herakles with lion over shoulder about to hurl it on Eurystheus (type borrowed from Erymanthian Boar, see below): B.M. B 193 = Plate . (Andokides).

(2) Crouching type: Munich 415 = Reinach, i. 150 = Baumeister, i. p. 656, fig. 723; B.M. E 168;Röm. Mitth. v. (1890), pl. 12 = Wiener Vorl. 1890–91, 7, 2 (Nikosthenes, in Boston). See also B.M. E 104 (abnormal).


Besides the somewhat insignificant part that he plays in the Gigantomachia, Herakles had several independent combats of his own with gigantic monsters and such-like beings. Of these the most popular subjects are Antaios and Alkyoneus. The legend of Herakles' wrestling with the former is familiar from Pindar; on the vases Antaios is not characterised as a giant in size or otherwise, but his mother Gaia is generally present.

Alkyoneus, on the other hand, is represented as a being of gigantic size, lying asleep in a cave; a small winged figure which sometimes hovers over him has been interpreted by some as Hypnos (Sleep), but might also be a Κὴρ Θανάτοιο, or harbinger of death. Herakles generally attacks him with club or bow and arrow, but on one vase is depicted gouging out his eye; on another he is assisted by Telamon with a stone. Another giant with whom we find the hero contending is Cacus, whose oxen he carried off. This is a purely Roman myth, and belongs rather to the legends of the Roman Hercules, but curiously enough it finds a place on one Greek vase of Sicilian origin, which represents Cacus in a hut with the oxen and Herakles playing a lyre in triumph.

One of the commonest subjects connected with Herakles is his combat with Kyknos, the son of Ares, described at length in the Hesiodic Scutum Herculis . It is mostly found on B.F. vases, the usual “type” showing the two combatants supported by Athena and Ares respectively in their chariots, while Zeus appears in the midst to interrupt them. One late R.F. vase seems to show the preparations for the combat, in the presence of an Amazon, a Fury, and other personages; another vase, the subsequent attack made on Athena by Ares.

We find him in combat with Acheloös, the river-god, represented as a bull with the face of a bearded man, or occasionally, by confusion with a sea-deity, with the body and tail of a fish. This latter form is assumed by Triton, with whom also the hero contends, though the myth is unknown in literature. Of similar import is his combat with Nereus, the old man of the sea (Ἁλιος Γέρων), who appears in human form as an aged man; the “type” employed on B.F. vases is similar to that of Peleus wrestling with Thetis, with similar indications of the sea-god's transformation into animals. In one case an air of humour is imparted to the scene, and Herakles is represented smashing the furniture in Nereus' house.

Another important group of subjects is concerned with Herakles' adventures with the Centaurs, which fall under several headings. Allusion has already been made to his early education by Cheiron, and again we see him paying a visit of a peaceful nature to the aged Pholos, who entertains him by opening a jar of wine. The smell therefrom attracted the other Centaurs and led to a combat, which we see vividly depicted on many early B.F. vases, on which it was a favourite subject, as also on later ones. We also find him in combat with particular Centaurs, from whom he rescues a woman carried off by them. Thus we see Hippolyta delivered from Eurytion, and Deianeira from Nessos or Dexamenos(the latter appears on later vases only, and there seems to be no distinction between them in the myth).

Other adventures in which he engages include the freeing of Prometheus from the vulture, which he slays with his bow; the bringing back of Alkestis from Hades; the seizure of the Kerkopes, a pair of brigands, whom he carries off head downwards over his shoulders; and his capture by Busiris in Egypt, with his escape after slaying the king's negro attendants. Among rarer myths may be mentioned the destruction of the vines of Syleus; a possible representation of his contest in drawing water with Lepreos; and his combat with Erginos, the king of Orchomenos, and the capture of his heralds. A vase in Athens, on which he is depicted dragging two Satyrs in a leash, depicts an unknown myth; as do those which represent him contending with Geras, a personification of Old Age, and beating a winged Ker with his club. In company with Athena he attacks an unknown man, and he is also seen leading a Sphinx.

Next we turn to the relations between the hero and the Olympian or other deities, which often take the form of disputes or combats. Of these the most famous and important is his capture of the Delphic tripod, for which he fights with Apollo, generally in the presence of Athena and Artemis; in one instance Herakles is seen in Athena's chariot, carrying the tripod off with him; other vases represent the final reconciliation with Apollo. There is a curious representation of a combat between Herakles and Hera (depicted as the Roman Juno Sospita, wearing a goatskin on her head), with Athena and Poseidon assisting on either side. Another rare and interesting subject is that of his attack on Helios, whom he interrupts at sunrise to prevent his journey after Geryon's cattle from becoming known. Herakles is shown waiting for the chariot of the sun-god as it rises from the waves, and preparing to discharge his arrows. A later stage of the story is illustrated by a fine R.F. vase, where he voyages over the sea in the golden bowl given him by Helios. Lastly, he defends Hera and Iris against the attacks of a troop of Seileni. In other scenes where he is associated with the gods, it is in his divine capacity after his apotheosis.

His relations with women are not so frequently depicted but we have at least one representation of his visit to Omphale; or, again, of his entertainment by Eurytos, the carrying off of his daughter Iole, and the subsequent fight with Eurytos. His rescue of Deianeira from the Centaur has already been alluded to, and there may also be a reference to his carrying her off from her father Oineus. Hesione is not found with him on vases, but he is seen carrying off Auge; he is also associated with a Nymph, who may be Nemea. On one vase he pursues, with amorous intention, a woman, who may possibly be intended for Athena.

A remarkable vase-painting by Assteas of Paestum depicts Herakles in a fit of madness destroying his children by hurling them on a fire, on which he has already thrown the household furniture; his mother and others look on, expressing various emotions. In more peaceful mood he is seen grouped with his wife Deianeira and their son Hyllos, or with Oineus, his father-in-law.

We now proceed to note a few subjects which do not admit of more exact classification. Herakles is initiated into the lesser mysteries at Agra, together with Kastor and Polydeukes, and is conducted by Hermes to the revels of the Scythian Agathyrsi. He is also sometimes seen carrying Hades on his back, the latter bearing a large cornucopia; but the signification of this subject is unknown. He accompanies the Argonauts on their wanderings, and appears as a single figure shooting from a bow. He is often represented performing an act of sacrifice, either as a single figure or in groups, sacrificing a ram or other animal. Some of these scenes, where he sacrifices to the xoanon  of Chryse, a local Lemnian goddess, must refer to the story of Philoktetes, with which he was connected. Or, again, conversely, we see a statue of Herakles made the subject of offerings from others. A scene from the story of Antigone is represented as taking place before a shrine, in which stands the deified hero interceding with Kreon for her life. He also appears as protecting god of Attica, and also of the palaestra, with reference to his traditional founding of the Olympian games. Finally, there is a series of subjects which (as in the case with most of the preceding section) may be concerned with Herakles either before or after his apotheosis.

Among these are the numerous vases (especially B.F.) where he is represented as being greeted by Athena or conversing with her, or receiving a libation from her. These may either refer to his receiving visits of encouragement from her in the intervals between his labours, or to his reception by her in Olympos (see below). Many vases represent him banqueting, usually in company with Dionysos and other deities. With Hermes and Iolaos he takes part in a procession accompanied by music; and he is also represented overcome with wine and forming a subject for mockery, while Satyrs steal his weapons (this subject being probably taken from a Satyric drama). Or he is represented bathing at a fountain; and in one case fishing with Hermes and Poseidon. He also takes part in the Gigantomachia, and is present at the birth of Athena, in both cases by a curious anticipation of his deified character. Exceedingly common are his appearances with a lyre, as Kitharoidos.

The last scenes of Herakles' earthly life are his last sacrifice on Mount Kenaion, the wearing of the poisoned robe which led to his death, and the subsequent burning of his body on the funeral pyre. The last scene is occasionally combined with his apotheosis; the Hyades quench the flames among which his body is consuming, while the deified hero ascends in the chariot of Athena or Nike to Olympos.

The vases relating exclusively to his apotheosis fall into two main classes, which admit of more than one sub-division: (1) his ascent into heaven in the chariot of Athena or Nike; (2) his reception in Olympos. The ascent in the chariot of Athena is almost confined to B.F. vases; on those of the R.F. period it rarely occurs; and on the Italian vases her place is usually taken by Nike, who is also represented crowning him with a wreath. On the B.F. vases the “type” is almost invariable (see Plate XXIX.): Herakles mounts the four-horse chariot in which the goddess stands ready; on the farther side of it stand various deities, the commonest being Apollo, Dionysos, and Hebe, with Hermes at the horses' heads; more rarely Zeus, Hera, and Artemis are seen. In one or two cases Iolaos acts as charioteer, Athena standing at the side; or, again, Hebe performs the same office. On the late red-figured vases the attendant deities are almost limited to Hermes and Eros; the chariot is here usually represented as on its way.

From Arch. Zeit.

The first stage of the hero's introduction into Olympos is his introduction to Zeus by Athena, a scene common on both B.F. and R.F. vases (Fig. 127). The attendant deities vary very greatly: Hermes, Apollo, Hebe, and Artemis are most often seen; also Hera, Poseidon, Ares, and Dionysos. Besides these there are numerous scenes in which he is grouped with various deities, usually Athena and Hermes, but also Poseidon, Ares, Dionysos, and Hebe, apparently in the enjoyment of his new life among the welcoming gods; and to this group may be added the scenes in which he is crowned by Nike. The completion of his bliss is the marriage with Hebe, found on two or three fine R.F. vases, with a numerous company of attendant deities.