Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The Labours Continue

Today we return to the story of Heracles, who, desperate for salvation, embarked on a grueling series of tasks to prove himself worthy of immortality - the Labours of Heracles. King Eurystheus, acting by the will of Hera, determined that Heracles should never complete his task, and concocted the Labours as impossible for a mortal man to achieve (for the beginning of this sage, please click here). But, defying belief, Heracles had slain the Lion of Nemea, and the Hydra of Lernaea, both fearsome monsters descended from Typhon himself.


Heracles captures the Ceryneian Hind
Painting in the New Museum, Berlin.
Returned to the mighty walled city of Tiryns, Heracles shouted with frustration when Eurystheus declared the slaying of the Hydra void, since Heracles had achieved it with help. Secretly, the King was afraid that Heracles might prove successful in the tasks he had planned, and crafted ever more daring ones to come. Having conquered two of Typhon's brood (for more about Typhon, the greatest monster in Greek Mythology, please click here), Heracles had proved himself as a warrior, but now it was to be his endurance which would undergo trial. For his Third Labour, Eurystheus commanded Heracles to trap and bring to him the Hind of Ceryneia, without inflicting any injury on the creature. This was no ordinary deer however. The Hind was sacred to the goddess Artemis, Lady of the Hunt. It was said that the Hind bore horns of purest gold, and was as swift as the winds, able to outrun even an arrow in flight. Heracles accepted the challenge, and set forth from strong walled Tiryns, entering the forests of Greece in search of the creature. Awoken one morning by a strong reflection in the forest, Heracles peered through the bushes and saw the magnificent beast. Light shining off its gilded antlers, the Hind charged off through the scrub, as the hero looked on in dismay at the cloud of dust left behind. Undeterred nonetheless, Heracles set off in pursuit. Another sighting, another failed attempt, the Hind bounded off once more. Again, and again, Heracles got only a glimpse of a flash of gold, and the creature was gone. This would not be an easy, or quick, affair. For a whole year man and beast played cat and mouse through the forests of Greece. What Heracles lacked in speed, however, he made up for in sheer endurance. The Hind, exhausted, came close to Mount Artemision, beginning to falter. As it approached the River Ladon, Heracles took a desperate shot with his bow. The arrow struck the ground just before the Hind, and the creature's forelegs stumbled. Sprinting over before it could recover, Heracles heaved the Hind over his shoulders, triumphant. On his return journey, an angered Artemis appeared before Heracles, chastising him for his desecration of her sacred property. Pleading that he caught the Hind not for himself, but for another, however, allayed the goddess' anger. Eurystheus, knowing that the Hind was the goddess' property, secretly hoped Artemis would strike Heracles down, but was foiled again.


Heracles and the Erymanthian Boar
Sculpture in the L├╝tzowplatz, Berlin.
Carrying the majestic Hind back to Tiryns, Heracles proudly displayed his quarry to Eurystheus. Impressed that Heracles had chased - on foot - the swiftest creature that lived on the Earth, the King ordered the hero to acquire another beast of game. Rumours had reached Tiryns that the land of the city of Psophis was being devastated by a monstrous Boar, whose lair lay high on Mount Erymanthos. Eurystheus ordered Heracles to capture the Boar alive and bring it before him. Whereas the Ceryneian Hind was renowned for its speed, the Erymanthian Boar was notoriously ill tempered, having gored to death the last man who was unfortunate enough to cross its path. Setting forth once again, Heracles went on the hunt. Coming across his old friend, the Centaur Pholos, Heracles asked the wise and kindly being his advice. Brute strength and endurance alone would not prevail, came the reply, but wits would conquer the beast. Feasting together, Heracles asked his host for wine, and reluctantly, Pholos opened a jar. The intoxicating smell wafted out of the cave, and filled the nostrils of the other Centaurs. Centaurs, usually docile (and descendants of the condemned Ixion, see here), were particularly susceptible to savagery when inebriated, and the smell alone was enough to achieve this. Mad and drunk, the Centaurs stormed the cave, but Heracles fended them off with burning branches, and arrows. Emerging from the cave, Pholos saw the bodies of so many of his kin and pondered how Heracles could have slain so many. Picking up one of the arrows from a body, he marvelled at how something so small could bring down so large a beast. Distracted by his musings, however, the arrow slipped from his grip and grazed his foot, killing him instantly. What Pholos had not realised was that Heracles' arrows were coated in the lethal poison of the Hydra, which spelled instant death for any mortal. Grieving at his friend's demise, Heracles buried the Centaur, and set off alone in pursuit of the Boar, conscious that he could not use arrows to stop it, as his orders were to capture it alive. High in the mountains, the snows began to fall, as Heracles stalked the Boar. Approaching near from behind a bush, Heracles let out a great shout, and the Boar, startled, fled into the peaks. In its eagerness to flee, the Boar charged straight into a vast snowdrift, and became stranded in its icy prison. Seizing his chance, Heracles bound the exhausted beast in strong chains of iron, and bore it back to Tiryns.


Heracles diverts the rivers
Mosaic in the National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid.
Entering the palace of Eurystheus, Heracles carried the Boar upon his shoulders, hurrying to show the King his catch. The King, however, terrified by the beast, hid inside a jar, and assured Heracles he would accept the task as complete if he just got rid of it. This Heracles obediently did. Humiliated by Heracles glorious achievements, Eurystheus decided that for his next task, Heracles would embark upon something much less glamorous. The King ordered the hero, for his next Labour, that he must clean the stables of Augeias, King of Elis, in a single day without assistance. This was a far more grim prospect than it sounds. The largest stables in Greece, Augeias owned over a thousand cattle, and his stables had never been cleaned. The cattle were no ordinary livestock either. Divinely blessed with good health, they produced exceptional amounts of dung. The squalor and stench of the stables was legendary. Undaunted, Heracles set forth once again from mighty Tiryns. Coming to Elis, Heracles proudly came before Aegeias and his son Phyleus, and vowed to clean the stables in a single day, in return for a tenth of the cattle (cattle, then as much as today, were extremely valuable). Disbelieving, Augeias agreed. Seeing before him the unholy and nauseating sight of the stables, and loathe to perform such a mundane task as cleaning it by hand, Heracles once again turned to wit over weapons. Walking to the boundaries of the stables, the hero made a breach in the outer wall surrounding the cattle herds. Seeing the Alpheios and Peneios rivers flowing nearby, Heracles dug a fresh channel and diverted both rivers through the stables. The roaring torrents of the river carried off over thirty year's worth of filth, and the stables were sparkling. Returning proudly to Augeias, Heracles found the King irate. Never believing it possible, Augeias denied the deal had ever existed, and offered to submit to arbitration. In the court, the casting vote was won when Phyleus, an honourable man, testified to the deal having been made before the King. Furious, Augeias watched as Heracles departed triumphant, with a tenth of his cattle.

Back in Tiryns, King Eurystheus, too, was furious. Seeing Heracles untainted by the filth of the stables, and marching with pristine cattle, the King declared the Labour void, on the grounds that Heracles had undertaken it for payment. Enraged, Heracles for the second time witnessed all his hard work go to waste, bound as he was to Eurystheus word, at the command of the Oracle. But more was yet to come...

United Kingdom

The Library of Mythology:
The Library of Greek Mythology (Oxford World's Classics)
(A vast collection of stories of old Greece, written and compiled in ancient times)

United States

The Library of Mythology:
The Library of Greek Mythology (Oxford World's Classics)
(A vast collection of stories of old Greece, written and compiled in ancient times)

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