There are tons of stories about Heracles (Hercules is the Latin name, and I hate mixing languages), but we are focusing (mostly) on his Twelve Labors here. It's kind of funny how the whole thing started. To understand it, you have to know a couple of things. You have to know, for instance, that he was the son of Zeus and Alcmene, and you'd have to know that Hera was Zeus's very jealous wife. Without knowing that you couldn't possibly understand how this story all began (so it's a good thing I just explained it, huh?).
This guy named Alcides was a big bulky macho guy, the kind who is against gun control and likes to shoot animals and wear them. He went hunting a lot. This one day he had finished up his killing for the day, and was making his way home he heard some heralds from this dude Erginus (king of the Minyans) coming to Thebes to collect tribute. Unfortunately for the heralds, Alcides LIKED Thebes, so they never made it to Thebes. Instead Alcides killed them and sent the poor messengers' back to Erginus with their hands, ears and noses tied on ropes around their necks with a "hope you enjoy your tribute, love Thebes" note attached as well. Erginus was mighty pissed and immediately set out with his invasion army for Thebes, but Alcides was armed with Athena's weapons and was in charge of the Theban forces so they sent killed Erginus and sent the Minyans crying home to their families.
Thebes was so grateful to Alcides that King Creon offered his daughter Megara to the hero. He married her and they had three sons. Life looked pretty good for Alcides because Alcides was Zeus's illegitimate son, and Hera got pissed and drove him temporarily insane. In his madness he burned his children, his wife, and even his sister-in-law's children to death in a fire. When he recovered from his insanity and realized what he'd done, he exiled himself and went straight to the oracle at Delphi. Well, no, first this guy named Thespius (a king with fifty daughters who "tricked" the poor guy into sleeping with all of them) purified him of the crime, but THEN he went straight to Delphi. The oracle did a couple of things, but the first thing she did was call him "Heracles" - were you WONDERING how Alcides related to the story of the 12 Labors? Are you wondering how THIS relates to the 12 Labors? Just give it a second more. Anyway, so the oracle named him Heracles (ironic, because it means "Glory of Hera") and told him that in reparation for his crimes he must go and live in Tiryns and serve Eurystheus for twelve years and perform the 10 labors he would be required. (Huh? TEN? I thought you said twelve? Don't worry, it'll all turn out right.)
Heracles was suffering some major guilt right then, and agreed immediately. Besides, there was a definite upside to what the oracle said, she mentioned, at the end, that when his tasks were finished, he would become immortal. Woo-hoo! When he got to Tiryns he hadn't even unpacked his bags when King Eurystheus came up all sly and smirking and demanded that the hero fetch back the skin of the Nemean Lion. Now, you're probably thinking, hmmm, lion - that shouldn't be too hard for a hero - just shoot it, but it wasn't that easy: the lion's hide was invulnerable, nothing could penetrate it - it was a son of Typhon and Echidna. But did that slow down Heracles? No way, it only took him a month to track down the creature, and when he did, he didn't bother with arrows, he just strangled it. When Eurystheus heard Heracles was returning with the skin, he hid in a bronze jar until Heracles had left on his next mission: to kill the Lernaean Hydra.
The hydra was huge - it had an enormous body and nine heads - eight were mortal, but the middle one was immortal (of course, up to then, people didn't know that). When Heracles found it he drew it out of its cave by pelting it with fiery arrows, when it came out, he tried to deal with it the way he had with the lion, but the Hydra wound itself around the hero's feet and took him off balance. Heracles tried bashing its heads with his club, but when he took off one, there sprang up two! Then a CRAB came and bit him on the foot (clearly Hera was enjoying this spectacle, and thought she'd just make it a little more interesting). But Heracles ended that nuisance quickly, he killed the crab without turning around, and then called for his chariot driver, Iolaus. Iolaus lit a torch and when Heracles knocked off a head, Iolaus branded it really quickly so that none could grow back. At last, Heracles managed to club off the immortal head. When he did, he carefully buried it under a big rock. But the body Heracles split open and used it's gall as poison for his arrows' tips. Then he went back home. He told the grand story to Eurystheus - but the king, being a brat and a minion of Hera's, said that it didn't count because Iolaus had helped him.
Well, Heracles wasn't exactly ecstatic about that, but what could he do? So, he (for maybe the only time in his life) swallowed his anger and went on to his next labor. His next labor, as a matter of fact, was to capture the Erymanthian boar. Off went Heracles, but on his way to Arcadia, Heracles stopped and chilled with some Centaurs. Pholus, who was the leader, offered some of the communal wine to Heracles, but when the Centaurs smelled the strong wine they went nuts. Like really nuts. They started attacking Heracles, who fought back and killed a bunch of 'em before he drove the rest to Mount Malea to their king Cheiron. Now Cheiron was also Heracles' teacher and his good friend. Sad story that, because Heracles was shooting one of the Centaurs who was attacking him - but his arrow went straight through the Centaur and hit Cheiron. Now Cheiron was immortal - but the arrow was poisoned with the Hydra's blood, and he was in such pain that he just wanted to die (later Prometheus took pity on him and "assumed the burden" of his immortality so he could die). After that, Heracles made straight for Mount Erymanthus with no more stops. He caught the boar in deep snow and chained it and brought it back alive. When he got back with it, Eurystheus hid in a big urn.
Moving right along, the next thing on the list was for Heracles to bring back the Cerynitian hind and bring it back to Mycenae. This hind had golden horns, and it was very sacred to the Goddess Artemis, so Heracles tried to be very careful not to kill her or wound her. He tracked and chased the deer for a year until he finally caught up with her right before she crossed the river Ladon. He shot her (not killing her) put her on his shoulders and tried to get out of Acadia as fast as he could - but Artemis and Apollo saw and stopped him. They took the deer from him and rebuked him for trying to kill her sacred animal. He explained the situation about Eurystheus, and Artemis forgave him and let him take the hind CAREFULLY back to Mycenae.
After that, Heracles took a break to join Jason and the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece, but he didn't stay for the whole adventure and was soon back in Tiryns. There, Eurystheus told him to go get rid of these annoying man-eating birds called the Stymphalian birds. Now see, no big deal, birds, right? Except for the whole thing about their real danger wasn't in the whole flying-people-eater thing - it was that their feathers and claws and beaks were made of bronze. The most common way they killed people was dropping feather on them and pooping on them (their poop was poisonous, dontcha know). Anyway, it wasn't that hard for Heracles because Athena helped him out by giving him a pair of bronze castanets. The castanets loud noise wigged out the likkle birdies, and they took to the air, where Heracles promptly killed them.
Now, at this point, Eurystheus was getting a little annoyed at the whole not-getting-killed thing Heracles was pulling, and he switched tactics. The next task he assigned was for Heracles to clean out the stables. But not just any stables, these stables housed thousands of cattle and hadn't been cleaned in 30 years. They were so awful they had made the pastures of the Peloponnesus infertile. So, bad. But Heracles was unfazed. He even agreed to do the whole thing in one day! First, however, he talked with Augeas about giving him 1/10 of the cattle as payment for the job. Thinking he was sitting pretty, Heracles didn't even bother to get his hands dirty, he just diverted two rivers to wash through the stables and even through the outlying pastures. Pretty pleased with himself, he went to Augeas and asked for his payment - but Augeas had been talking to Eurystheus, and refused payment on the grounds that he had to do it anyway. Heracles was pissed, but at least he had finished another labor. So back he went to Eurystheus. But Eurystheus had been talking to Augeas and knew how Heracles had done it. Claiming that using the rivers was cheating, he didn't count the labor.
Now, we've already explained that Heracles had serious anger management issues, and Eurystheus was kind of puny, and Heracles was pretty intimidating. So, after that, Eurystheus just sent Heracles very far away. The seventh labor was in Crete - a fair distance from Tiryns. Now, personally, I would have been a little weirded out by this next one - but Heracles didn't seem to care. The task was to capture the Cretan bull, which in addition to being fire-breathing and crop-ravaging and all that, also had this whole freaky-deaky "relationship" thing going on with the Queen of Crete which resulted in the Minotaur. That's not actually important to this story, but let's all take a moment of yuck. Okay, back to the story. After some trouble, Heracles caught the boar and brought it back to Tiryns as well. Again with hiding in the urn for Eurystheus until Heracles set the boar free farther away.
From the urn, Eurystheus squeaked that the next labor was to capture the mares of the king of Thrace. This wasn't just a bitterness thing between kings - it was also a scary job, cuz those four mares belonged to the Diomedes, who was a son of Ares, and he fed his mares on the living flesh of his unlucky guests who didn't know any better. One the way, Heracles stopped and saved Alcestis (the dying wife of his friend King Admetus) from Death. Then, continuing on his journey, he stole the horses - Diomedes chased him however - which sucked for him, cuz Heracles grabbed him and in a moment of poetic justice, fed him to his horses. Then he harnessed the horses (who had never before been harnessed) and drove them back to Tiryns. There Eurystheus dedicated them to Hera - because he was, like, the biggest suck-up ever - and let the horses go roam Mt. Olympus.
The next labor was the farthest and most depressing labor yet. Eurystheus sent Heracles that he was to bring back the golden sword belt (called a girdle - but don't think whale bone and no air - think I'm gonna kick your ass if you get in my face) of the Ares, which happened to be owned by the Amazon Queen. So, off Heracles went through Asia Minor and the Black Sea and arrived in Amazon country. There he met Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons. Now, Heracles was totally ripped and all macho and stuff, and Hippolyta was totally ripped and all macho and stuff, too! It was like a match made in heaven. Hippolyta really dug him (especially because all the guys around there were total wusses). She liked him so much she had no problem giving him the girdle as a "love-gift." But Hera, who hadn't been to happy with the way that Heracles was speedin' through the labors, came down among the other Amazons in the guise of one of them and told them that Heracles was planning to abduct Hippolyta. The Amazons flipped out and attacked Heracles and his ship. Heracles, thinking that Hippolyta had betrayed him, killed the queen and stole the girdle. Then he killed the Amazons and headed home. This story depresses me and makes me really really really hate Hera. If you feel as bad as I do about it, you should go to the Amazons page and pay tribute to the brave women by reading their names and their stories. Okay. I'm a dork. Back to the story.
Eurystheus gave the girdle to his daughter, Admeta, and then directed Heracles to Spain to steal the cattle of Geryon. Geryon was pretty chill, despite his scary appearance (he had three upper bodies), but he was NOT down with people messing with his cattle. Well, off Heracles went, stopping only to erect pillars on each side of the Strait of Gibraltar (which is now called the Rock of Gibraltar) in a really random, yet memorable, gesture. When he got to Geryon's place, Eurytion (the servant of Geryon and the son of Ares) attacked him along with Geryon's two-headed dog Orthrus. They didn't last long enough for Orthrus to bark. Heracles was taking them back to his ship (which was this big golden cup that Helios, the Sun God) lent him, when Geryon attacked. Heracles turned around and shot an arrow through all three of his bodies, then turned back and continued leading the cattle. The ship trip home kinda sucked. It was long and annoying - but he did have some nice shore-leave during which he single-handedly defeated a nation in battle, killed a giant, and founded Rome. Then the best bull swam away, and he had to chase it and steal it again and kill this king who was the best boxer and wrestler in the world until Heracles killed him in a wrestling match.
Back home again, Eurystheus demanded two more labors (because of the two that were "discounted"). For the eleventh labor, Eurystheus sent our hero to the West of the world to steal three Golden Apples from the tree that Gaia had given to Hera as a wedding present. Off Heracles went, but before he could get the apples, he had to find the Garden. Heracles went to the sea and grabbed Nereus (the sea god that came before Poseidon) and demanded that he give him directions (hey, at least he asked). Nereus told him to get Atlas to do it for him. So off he went and he found Atlas holding the dome of the sky on his shoulders. Poor guy. Anyway, so Heracles asked and Atlas agreed so long as Heracles shot the dragon (Ladon) protecting the Garden. He did so, and Atlas walked right past the three Hesperides guarding it and walked back. But Atlas didn't want to take back the sky, and thinking to trick Heracles, he offered to take the apples back to Eurystheus for him. Heracles agreed amiably, but complained that the sky was chafing, and could he just hold it for a moment while he got a pillow? Of course, the second Atlas had it back on his shoulders, Heracles was gone with his apples. Poor Atlas. Anyways, so on the way home, Heracles met a giant and killed him, and then he saved the Titan Prometheus from eternal suffering (he'd already suffered for 30,000 years). Then, back home, he gave the apples to Eurystheus - but Eurystheus didn't want them, because they were Hera's and could only exist in the Garden. So Heracles turned them over to Athena who got them back to the Garden of the Hesperides.
There was only one task left - but it was the most dangerous (and unnecessary) of them all. Eurystheus demanded the three-headed dog of Hades, Cerberus. Down Heracles went, forcing his way in and past the dog. While he was there, he freed Theseus (his old pal) from the Chair of Forgetfulness. He also freed Ascalaphus from under the rock that Demeter imprisoned him under (he was the one who ratted on Persephone about the pomegranet seeds). Then Heracles explained his mission to Hades, who told responded that he should feel free to take the dog - as long as he didn't use any weapons. This may suprise you - but he did it! Anyway. It was the last of the labors, and with the last finished, so was his penance finished - not to mention the gaining of his immortality. Yay for Heracles!