Heracles: Road To Redemption


Written by Lauren Sin, Greek This Week

We all need redemption. Everyone makes mistakes, some more costly than others, sometimes of our own doing but sometimes not. But we will nonetheless have to live with the consequences of our actions or inactions, and the lingering turmoil of our emotions. Just as we all make our fair share of mistakes, we are all also given a fair share of chances to redeem ourselves. In almost all cases, suffering and sacrifice are a part and parcel of the journey on which we need to embark in order to gain atonement. Everyone is flawed and susceptible to making mistakes, both mankind and godkind alike. This is no different for Heracles the demigod, son of Zeus and Alcmene, who had to undergo twelve dramatic and superhuman tasks in an attempt to earn his deliverance. 

Many views abound on Heracles’ attempt to redeem himself. Some schools of thought posit that perfect redemption is never possible for an imperfect being. Heracles is, after all, half-human. Some would view his sin so heinous that it is beyond the redemption available for lesser sins. At the other end, is the belief that genuine repentance and earnest hard labour can provide compensation for one’s wrongdoing, and absolve one of guilt. It is my view that there is no easy road to redemption, but that pathway is available to all, as clearly demonstrated through Heracles’ experience.

But what had Heracles done to require such redemption? Under the influence of a spell cast by the jealous Hera, Heracles murdered his wife and children in a fit of madness, awakening from his raging lunacy to the bitter realisation of what he had done. Despite being fully aware of the fact that he had no control over the situation given that Hera was the one who cast the spell on him, Heracles still blamed himself for the death of his wife and children. 

The Game Of Self-blame

Visibly shaken and on the verge of tears at the memory of the tragic moment, Heracles expressed devastating grief over the murder of his wife and children, “I would never be able to forgive myself for the horrific things that I have done to my family if I do not make amends. What I did was absolutely unjustifiable and there is no excuse for my terrible actions. Although I was under the influence of Hera’s spell and had no control over my actions, I still should bear full responsibility for my terrible acts, which led to the death of my beloved wife and children. I have committed a despicable sin, and as a good husband and father, it is my duty to ensure that I am duly punished for my actions. I am willing to do anything to the best of my abilities in order to atone for my outrageous actions.” 

Distraught, heartbroken and overcome with guilt, Heracles had fled to the Oracle of Delphi in search of a way to expiate his sins and redeem himself, and so began his journey, the dawn of Twelve Labours for the Mycenaen king Eurystheus, ordered by Appollo as the atonement for the murder of his own family. Only upon completion of every single Labour was Heracles declared free of his guilt and considered himself forgiven. 

Redemption: Is It For All? 

Does the severity of one’s actions affect their ability to be redeemed? What makes one mistake more “costly” than another, and should this be a factor in the acts of atonement required? Heracles was not aware of the fact that he was being made to murder his own family, yet he still agreed to pay the full price of his actions without complaint. Such is the piety of this passionate demigod to the idea of atonement. And so the superhuman tasks of the Twelve Labours were bestowed upon him to enable him to work out his guilt. 

The slaying of the Lernaean Hydra was the second of the Twelve Labours Heracles had been ordered to complete. The offspring of Typhon and Echidna, this terrifying nine-headed monster resembled a giant sea serpent with nine heads, one of which being immortal and therefore indestructible.

Heracles killing the Hydra | Francisco de Zurbarán

Many of these tasks involved treacherous journeys to far-flung parts of the unknown world to rid the land of troubling monstrous beasts. These Labours included useful tasks which benefited humanity and acted as tests of Hercales’ strength and ability. Despite each Labour being more arduous than the next, Heracles performed each with equal effort and determination, keeping the main reason for completing his sentence in mind: the expiation of his guilt.

 Perhaps the Twelve Labours was decreed by the Oracle at Delphi as an outlet for Heracles to work off his extreme shock and crippling grief. But was it purely the passionate need to assuage his grief that fueled Heracles’ impetus to complete the tasks? Was Heracles’s sole reason for completing the Twelve Labours to make amends for his actions?

What Drives Him?

Perhaps we may glean a clue from observing the incident of the killing of the Nemean lion. The Nemean lion had skin so tough no weapon could ever pierce. Heracles’ arrows and clubs failed to pierce its thick skin, angering it with each attempt. Eventually, Heracles had to wrestle the mighty lion and strangle it to death with his bare hands. When asked about his experience with the Nemean lion, Heracles replied, “My motivation was what really drove me forward. I am well aware that I have done terrible things, and it is my duty to account for my mistakes and right my wrongs. With every physical exertion that I push myself through, in the face of every danger I encounter, I feel the wrath towards myself release as I subdue each beast.” Indeed, his sense of absolution is very real.

 Heracles strangling the Nemean lion | Peter Paul Rubens

When asked about her son, Alcmene said with a tinge of pride and much more relief that her son was finally free of the burden of his guilt, “He was always a strong child, physically strong, with strong emotions, and very strong-willed too. Nothing fazed him. Always full of determination.” So perhaps it was truly his sheer determination and willpower to correct his wrongdoings that drove Heracles to complete the Twelve Labours, compensating for the loss of his beloved family, exhibiting great resolve whilst ridding the land of fearsome beasts. And through it all, making up for his dishonourable ways, ultimately earning himself a place amongst the gods, and the redemption he was after right from the start. 


Works Cited 

History.com Editors. “Hercules.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 7 Feb. 2011, www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/hercules. 

Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/topic/Labours-of-Heracles. 

Lauren Sin (Class of 2025) is a writer who finds inspiration in the books she reads and the people around her. She likes mystery novels and dislikes sad dog stories. She enjoys reading with her black Labrador mix, Coke curled up beside her.