Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Girdle, Giant and Garden

Having conquered some of the mightiest beasts to walk the earth, and weary from years of toil, it was with bewilderment that Heracles pondered what could possibly come next, on his long journey to immortality. Slaying the Lion of Nemea, the Hydra of Lernaea, the Birds of Stymphalos, capturing the Hind of Cerynaia, the Boar of Erymanthos, the Bull of Crete and the carnivorous Mares of Diomedes, and cleaning the vile stables of King Augeias, the list of Heracles' achievements was already impressive (for the previous episode in this sage, please click here). Eight down, just four more tasks stood between the son of Zeus and his place on Mount Olympus itself.

The Amazons
Painting by Theodor Baierl.
Free of the diabolical horses that had slain his friend, Heracles came before King Eurystheus once again in his strong walled citadel of Tiryns. Growing desperate, Eurystheus agonised to discover some feat that would beyond even the son of Zeus. Deciding to begin sending the hero far beyond the borderlands of Greece, the King began to grow ever more ambitious in his schemes. For his next Labour, Eurystheus charged Heracles to seek out the Girdle of Hippolyta, and bring it to him. But neither Girdle nor lady was ordinary. For Hippolyta was the Queen of the Amazons, a feared race from the distant steppes of Sarmatia. The Amazons, a tribe of entirely women, could not have been more different from the women of Greece. Largely hidden from public view, and guardians of the household, the women of Greece contrasted violently with the fierce warrior women that were the Amazons. Training constantly in the arts of war, women of the Amazon tribe were forbidden to marry until they had slain a man in war. It was even rumoured that Amazon women ritually severed their right breast so as not to hinder their use of the javelin and the bow. Hippolyta had been presented with her magic Girdle by Ares, the war god himself. It was with a large company of armed men that Heracles set forth from mighty Tiryns this time. After a long voyage across the Oceans, sailing beyond the Aegean to the farthest reaches of the Black Sea, the son of Zeus made landfall upon the beaches of Themiscyra. The Amazons were already there, along with their Queen. The legend of Heracles defeat of so many beasts however, appeared to have spread. Respectful of the hero's prowess, Hippolyta received Heracles kindly, approaching him directly on the beach. Charmed by his might, Hippolyta even agreed to hand over her Girdle, much to Heracles delight. The rest of the Amazons, however, further up the beach, watched intently, unsure of what was transpiring. Far away, on the heights of Mount Olympus, Hera, Queen of the Gods, looked on in fury that Heracles had succeeded so easily. Soaring down to the Earth, the goddess took the form of an Amazon maiden. Walking amongst the fierce women, she suddenly cried out that Heracles had come to abduct their Queen, and brought only death. Confusion rippled through both sides. The Amazons remembered all too well how another Greek hero had once abducted their Queen, and seized their arms and hurled themselves upon Heracles and his kin. Heracles, utterly confused, believed Hippolyta's approach to have been a ruse all along, violently turned upon the Queen. Delighted at the chaos she had caused, Hera returned to the Heavens to watch events unfold. Taken aback by the ferocity of the Amazons, Greeks began to fall one by one. In his rage, Heracles turned his arms upon the Amazon Queen, brutally slaying her, and tearing the Girdle from her lifeless form. Raising his war cry, the son of Zeus slammed into the Amazon ranks. Cowed by such a formidable opponent, the Amazons fled before his rampage. Seizing their chance, the battered and bloodied surviving Greeks desperately pushed away from the shore.

Heracles and Geryon
Image from a 6th century BC Etruscan vase.
Limping back to Tiryns, the Greek party returned to Eurystheus, and Heracles handed over the Girdle. Relieved to see that the hero was not completely invincible yet, the King at once issued forth a new challenge. Eurystheus commanded Heracles to bring to him the cattle of Geryon from the island of Erytheia. Far away at the mouth of edges of the Ocean, Erytheia lay off the coast of the Southern tip of Iberia. Travelling across Europe, and crossing to Africa, Heracles began the long journey through the deserts of Libya. Beaten down by the burning heat of the Sun, in frustration, the son of Zeus fired an arrow at the Sun itself. So impressed at his audacity, the Sun god himself came before Heracles and offered to speed him on his way, granting him a special vessel. Eventually reaching the boundaries of the known world, Heracles marked this achievement by raising two monumental pillars, one on the most southerly plateau in Iberia, and the other on the most northerly plateau in Africa. The 'Pillars of Hercules' still stand today, guarding the pass from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Coming to Geryon's domain, the hero's presence was at once detected by Orthus, the guardian of Geryon's cattle. Being a monstrous, two headed dog, and one of the dread offspring of Typhon and Echidna (for more on these, the most fearsome monsters on Greek Mythology, please click here), Orthus was no ordinary shepherding dog. A demonic hound, Orthus charged Heracles down on sight. Drawing his mighty club, Heracles managed to bring Orthus down with a mighty strike to the beast's two skulls. More herdsmen came, attracted by the din of fighting. Slaying them all, Heracles found the cattle and seized them, herding them towards his ship. Distracted by the cattle, Heracles was unaware that he had been spotted by Geryon himself. Hearing a shout of rage from behind him that would break the spirit of lesser men, the hero turned at the last moment to a terrifying sight. Geryon was no normal, mortal man. A monster, triple bodied and triple headed, and fully armed and armoured, Geryon was a formidable opponent. With three spears and three shields flurrying, Geryon engaged Heracles in a fierce struggle. Unable to land a blow upon the monster, Heracles struggled to defend himself. Casting aside his club in desperation, Heracles took out his bow. As Geryon charged forward, Heracles ripped back his bowstring with all the strength his divine sinews could muster, and loosed an arrow. Flying with overpowering momentum, Heracles fired the arrow with such force that the tip bore straight through the metal, skin, bone and brain of one of Geryon's three heads. Even this alone would not have brought mighty Geryon down, but the lethal venom of the Hydra which impregnated the iron tip of Heracles' arrow coursed through Geryon's body, strangling the life out of him. Shaken by his ever closer brush with death, Heracles embarked upon the long voyage back to Tiryns.

The Garden of the Hesperides
Painting by Frederic Leighton.
Handing the cattle over to Eurystheus, the son of Zeus stood eagerly to hear his penultimate task. Having served Eurystheus for eight long years now, the end was in sight. Ten incredible tasks had been completed, but Eurystheus had rendered the slaying of the Hydra and the cleaning of the Augeian stables void, and as punishment, had conceived two special tasks as the final tests of the hero. It was time for the son of Zeus to rise above the tasks of mortals now, and prove himself in the immortal plain. For the first of these two Labours, King Eurystheus ordered Heracles to bring him the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. The tree on which the Apples grew lay far away in the Garden of the Hesperides, a tranquil land ruled over by the Hesperides, nymphs who were the daughters of the Atlas, one of the Titans who had fought against Zeus in the War of the Titans (for this climactic struggle, please click here).The Golden Apples had been presented by Gaia, Mother Earth herself, at the marriage of Zeus and Hera untold milennia ago. To pick the Apples would truly demonstrate immortal favour. Venturing forth from Tiryns, Heracles travelled far and wide, yearning for the knowledge of the Garden's whereabouts. Guided by the nymphs, Heracles came across Nereus, the Old Man of the Sea, a shapeshifting Titan, and a son of Gaia. Seizing Nereus, Heracles held on tight whilst the Titan changed forms repeatedly, becoming all manner of nightmarish creatures. Binding him tightly, Heracles refused to release him until he revealed the Garden's location. Impressed at Heracles endurance, Nereus revealed that the daughters of Atlas tended the Garden of the Hesperides in the far West (Hence the name of the mountain range in North West Africa). Eventually coming to the garden, Heracles saw the magnificent tree in the distance of the serene paradise. However, tightly coiled around the trunk was a large and monstrous dragon, Ladon, immortal, invulnerable, never sleeping and always watchful from each of its one hundred heads. Ladon, another of the vile brood of Typhon and Echidna, had been placed in the Garden by Hera to ensure that none could ever steal the Apples. Realising for the first time that he had encountered a creature he could not stand against, Heracles began a long search for some other way.

In his frustrated wanderings, Heracles came to a great mountain, upon which was bound one of the Titans, one tortured by an eagle which gnawed at his liver - Prometheus (for his story, please click here). Pitying towering Prometheus, Heracles slew the eagle with one of his poisoned arrows, and released the Titan from his shackles. The greatful Titan, ever striving to assist mankind, advised Heracles to seek out his brother Atlas to obtain the Apples for him. Journeying into the very boundaries of existence, Heracles came before Atlas. The Titan, who had sided against Zeus in the war for the mastery of the Heavens, was punished to bear the weight of Heaven upon his shoulders for all eternity. Heracles asked Atlas permission to take the Apples from his daughters' Garden. The Titan agreed, and offered to pick them himself, in return for Heracles taking the weight of the Heavens for a short time. This he did, and towering Atlas set forth, whilst Heracles struggled under the mighty weight of Heaven upon his shoulders. Atlas soon returned with the Apples. Having no intention of enduring his punishment any longer, Atlas declared he would take the Apples to Eurystheus himself. Panicking, Heracles quickly conceived a desperate plan. Pretending to agree, Heracles asked if Atlas would take the weight briefly so as to allow him to prepare a pad to ease his shoulder when he took it back again. This seemed reasonable to the Titan, and he agreed. As the mighty Titan took up his colossal burden once more, Heracles quickly seized the Apples and made his escape, to the fury of Atlas.

Returning all the way to the powerful citadel of Tiryns, Heracles presented the shining Apples to Eurystheus. The King was overwhelmed by the sight of the gift, returning them to Heracles, worthy of the prize was he. No sooner had he done so, however, than Athena came down from Olympus, and retrieved the Apples, for they were too pure to reside anywhere than in the tranquil Garden. His resentment turning to reverence, Eurystheus turned to his final request, the last and most dangerous Labour of Hercules. If the hero completed this, then he would fulfil his ultimate desire, and earn his place among the gods...

United Kingdom

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

United States

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

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