31. THE LIFE AND LABORS OF HERCULES
Hercules was the son of Zeus, but he was born into the family of a mortal king. When he was still a youth, he was overwhelmed by a madness sent upon him by one of the goddesses, and he killed the children of his brother Iphicles. Then realizing what he had done, he could no longer sleep or rest so he went to Delphi, to the shrine of Apollo, to be purified of his crime.
At Delphi, at the shrine of Apollo, the priestess purified him, and when she had purified him she uttered this prophecy: “From this day forth your name shall not be Alcides, but Hercules. You must go to Eurystheus, your cousin, in Mycenæ, and serve him. When the labors he gives you are accomplished, and when the rest of your life is finished, you shall become one of the immortals.” After hearing these words, Hercules set out for Mycenæ.
He stood before his cousin who hated him. Hercules, a towering man, stood before a king who sat there weak and trembling. Hercules said, “I have come to take on the labors that you give me. Tell me what you would have me do.”
That weak king, looking on the young man who stood as tall and as firm as one of the immortals, had a heart that was filled with hatred. He lifted up his head and he said with a frown, “There is a lion in Nemea that is stronger and fiercer than any lion known before. Kill that lion, and bring the lion’s skin to me that I will know that you have truly performed your task.” So Hercules, with neither shield nor arms, left the king’s palace to seek and fight the dreaded lion of Nemea.
He went on until he came to a country where the fences were fallen and the fields wasted and the houses empty and in ruins. He went on until he came to the trail of the lion. It led up the side of a mountain, and Hercules, without shield or arms, followed the trail.
He heard the roar of the lion. Looking up he saw the beast standing at the mouth of a cave, huge and dark against the sunset. The lion roared three times, and then it went inside the cave.
Around the mouth of the cave were scattered the bones of creatures it had killed and carried there. Hercules looked at them when he came to the cave. He entered. He went far into the cave, and then he came to where he saw the lion. It was sleeping.
Hercules viewed the terrible size of the lion, and then he looked at his own hands and arms. He remembered that, while still a child of eight months, he had strangled a great serpent that had come to his cradle to devour him. He had grown and his strength had grown too.
So he stood, measuring his strength and the size of the lion. The beast slept, gorged with its prey. Then the lion yawned. Hercules sprang on it and put his great hands around its throat. No growl came out of its mouth, but the great eyes blazed while the terrible paws tore at Hercules. Hercules held the beast strongly against the wall of the cave, choking it through the skin that was almost impenetrable. Terribly the lion struggled but the strong hands of the hero held around its throat until it struggled no more.
Then Hercules stripped off that impenetrable skin from the lion’s body and put it on himself for a cloak. Then, as he went through the forest, he pulled up a young oak tree and trimmed it and made a club for himself. With the lion’s skin over him—that skin that no spear or arrow could pierce—and carrying the club in his hand he journeyed on until he came to the palace of King Eurystheus.
When the king saw a towering man all covered with the hide of a monstrous lion approaching, he ran and hid himself in a great jar. He lifted the lid up to ask the servants what was the meaning of this terrible appearance. The servants told him that it was Hercules who had come back with the skin of the lion of Nemea. On hearing this Eurystheus hid himself again.
He was so fearful he would not speak with Hercules nor have him come near him, but Hercules was content to be left alone. He sat down in the palace and feasted by himself.
The servants came to the king. Eurystheus lifted the lid of the jar and they told him how Hercules was feasting and devouring all the food in the palace. The king flew into a rage, but still he was fearful of having the hero in front of him. He issued commands through his heralds ordering Hercules to leave at once and perform the second of his tasks.
It was to kill the great water snake that had its lair in the swamps of Lerna. Hercules stayed to feast another day, and then, with the lion’s skin across his shoulders and the great club in his hands, he started off. But this time he did not go alone. The boy Iolaus went with him.
Hercules and Iolaus went on until they came to the vast swamp of Lerna. Right in the middle of the swamp was the water snake called the Hydra. It had nine heads, and it raised them up out of the water as the hero and his companion came near. They could not cross the swamp to reach the monster, for they would sink and be lost in it.
The Hydra remained in the middle of the swamp belching mud at the hero and his companion. Then Hercules took up his bow and he shot flaming arrows at its heads. It grew into such a rage that it came through the swamp to attack him. Hercules swung his club as the Hydra came near and knocked head after head off its body.
But for every head knocked off another two grew on the Hydra. And as he struggled with the monster a huge crab came out of the swamp, and gripping Hercules by the foot tried to drag him in. Then Hercules cried out to the boy Iolaus who came and killed the crab that had come to the Hydra’s aid.
Then Hercules seized the Hydra and drew it out of the swamp. With his club he knocked off a head and he had Iolaus burn to where it had been, so that two heads could not grow in that place. The life of the Hydra was in its middle head which he had not been able to knock off with his club. Now, with his hands he tore it off, and he placed this head under a great stone so that it could not rise to life again. The Hydra’s life was now destroyed. Hercules dipped his arrows into the gall of the monster, making his arrows deadly so that nothing struck by these arrows afterward could live.
He returned to Eurystheus’s palace again, and Eurystheus, seeing him, ran again and hid himself in the jar. Hercules ordered the servants to tell the king that he had returned and that the second labor had been accomplished.
Eurystheus, came out of the jar. He spoke rudely, “You have to accomplish twelve labors for me and eleven yet remain to be accomplished.”
“What?” said Hercules. “Haven’t I performed two of the labors? Haven’t I killed the lion of Nemea and the great water snake of Lerna?”
“When you killed the water snake you were helped by Iolaus,” said the king, snapping out his words and looking at Hercules with shifting eyes. “That labor cannot be counted.”
Hercules would have knocked him to the ground but then he remembered that he would have to make amends for the crime that he had committed in his madness by labors performed at the order of this man. He looked at Eurystheus and said, “Tell me of the other labors, and I will go and accomplish them.”
Then Eurystheus told him go and clean the stables of King Augeias. Hercules entered that king’s country. The smell from the stables was felt for miles around. Countless herds of cattle and goats had been in the stables for years, and because of the filth and the smell that came from it the crops were withered all around. Hercules told the king that he would clean the stables if he were given one tenth of the cattle and the goats as a reward.
The king agreed to this reward. Then Hercules drove the cattle and the goats out of the stables. Then he broke through the foundations and he made channels for the two rivers, Alpheus and Peneius. The waters flowed through the stables, and in a day all the filth was washed away. Then Hercules turned the rivers back to their own courses.
He was not given the reward he had bargained for, however.
He went back to Mycenæ with the tale of how he had cleaned the stables. “Ten labors remain for me to do now,” he said.
“Eleven,” said Eurystheus. “How can I allow the cleaning of King Augeias’s stables to you when you bargained for a reward for doing it?”
Then while Hercules stood still, holding himself back from striking him, Eurystheus ran away and hid himself in the jar. Through his heralds he sent word to Hercules, telling him what the other labors would be.
He was to clear the marshes of Stymphalus of the man-eating birds that gathered there. Next he was to capture and bring to the king the golden-horned deer of Coryneia.After that he was also to capture and bring alive to Myceaæ the boar of Erymanthus.
Hercules went to the marshes of Stymphalus. The growth of jungle was so dense that he could not cut his way through to where the man-eating birds were. They sat on low bushes within the jungle, gorging themselves on the flesh they had carried there.
For days Hercules tried to hack his way through. He could not get to where the birds were. Then, thinking he might not be able to accomplish this labor, he sat on the ground in despair.
It was then that one of the immortals appeared to him and for the first and only time he was given help from the gods.
It was Athena who came to him. She stood holding cymbals in her hands. These she clashed together. At the sound of this clashing the Stymphalean birds rose up from the low bushes behind the jungle. Hercules shot at them with his arrows. The man-eating birds fell, one after the other, into the marsh.
Then Hercules went north to where the Coryneian deer grazed. She ran so swiftly that no hound or hunter had ever been able to catch her. For a whole year Hercules chased Golden Horns and at last, on the side of Mount Artemision, he caught her. Artemis, the goddess of wild things, would have punished Hercules for capturing the deer, but the hero pleaded with her, and she relented and agreed to let him bring the deer to Mycenæ and show her to King Eurystheus. Artemis took charge of Golden Horns while Hercules went off to capture the Erymanthean boar.
He came to the city of Psophis, where the inhabitants were in deadly fear because of the ravages of the boar. Hercules made his way up the mountain to hunt it. Now on this mountain a band of centaurs lived, and they, knowing him since the time he had been brought up by Chiron, welcomed Hercules. One of them, Pholus, took Hercules to the great house where the centaurs had their wine stored.
The centaurs seldom drank wine because it made them wild, so they stored it away, leaving it in the charge of one of their band. Hercules begged Pholus to give him a cup of wine and after he had begged again and again the centaur opened one of his great jars.
Hercules drank the wine and spilled some. Then the centaurs that were outside smelt the wine and came hammering at the door, demanding the wine that would make them wild. Hercules came out to drive them away. They attacked him. Then he shot at them with his unerring arrows and he drove them away. The centaurs raced up the mountain and away to far rivers, pursued by Hercules with his bow.
Pholus, the centaur who had entertained him was killed. By accident Hercules dropped a poisoned arrow on his foot. He took the body of Pholus up to the top of the mountain and buried the centaur there. Afterward, on the snows of Erymanthus, he set a snare for the boar and caught him there.
He carried the boar to Myceaæ on his shoulders and led the deer by her golden horns. When Eurystheus had seen them the boar was killed, but the deer was released and she fled back to Mount Artemision.
King Eurystheus sat hidden in the great jar, and he thought of more terrible labors he would make Hercules engage in. Now he would send him overseas and make him struggle against fierce tribes and more dreadful monsters. When he had it all thought out he had Hercules brought before him and he told him of these other labors.
He was to go to savage Thrace and there destroy the man-eating horses of King Diomedes. Afterward he was to go to the dreaded women, the Amazons, daughters of Ares, the god of war, and take from their queen, Hippolyte, the girdle that Ares had given her. Then he was to go to Crete and take from King Minos the beautiful bull that Poseidon had given him. Afterward he was to go to the Island of Erytheia and take away from Geryoneus, the monster that had three bodies instead of one, and the herd of red cattle that the two-headed hound Orthus kept guard over. Then he was to go to the Garden of the Hesperides, and from that garden he was to take the golden apples that Zeus had given to Hera for a marriage gift.
So Hercules set out on a long and perilous quest. First he went to Thrace, that savage land that was ruled over by Diomedes, son of Ares, the war god. Hercules broke into the stable where the horses were. He caught three of them by their heads, and although they kicked and bit and trampled he forced them out of the stable and down to the seashore, where his companion, Abderus, waited for him. The screams of the fierce horses were heard by the men of Thrace, and they, with their king, came after Hercules. He left the horses in charge of Abderus while he fought the Thracians and their savage king.
Hercules shot his deadly arrows at them, and then he fought with their king. He drove them from the seashore, and then he came back to where he had left Abderus with the fierce horses.
They had knocked Abderus to the ground, and were trampling him. Hercules drew his bow and he shot the horses with the unerring arrows that were dipped with the gall of the Hydra he had killed. Screaming, the horses of King Diomedes raced toward the sea, but one fell and another fell, and then, as it came to the water’s edge, the third of the fierce horses fell. They were all killed with the unerring arrows. Then Hercules picked up the body of his companion and he buried it, and over it he raised a column. Afterward, around that column a city that bore the name of Hercules’s friend was built.
Then he went toward the Euxine Sea. There, where the River Themiscyra flows into the sea he saw the homes of the Amazons. On the rocks he saw the warrior women standing with drawn bows in their hands. They appeared extremely dangerous to Hercules. He did not know how to approach them .He could shoot at them with his unerring arrows, but when his arrows were all gone, the Amazons, from their steep places, could kill him with the arrows from their bows.
While he stood at a distance, wondering what he could do, a horn was sounded and an Amazon mounted on a white stallion rode toward him. When the warrior-woman came near she cried out, “Hercules, the Queen Hippolyte permits you to come amongst the Amazons. Enter her tent and declare to the queen what has brought you amongst the never conquered Amazons.”
Hercules came to the tent of the queen. There stood tall Hippolyte with an iron crown on her head and with a beautiful girdle of bronze and shimmering glass around her waist. The queen of the Amazons looked proud and fierce as a mountain eagle. Hercules did not know how he could conquer her. The Amazons stood outside the tent striking their shields with their spears, keeping up a continuous savage din.
“What has Hercules come to the country of the Amazons for?” Queen Hippolyte asked.
“For the girdle you wear,” said Hercules, and he stood ready to fight.
“Is it for the girdle given to me by Ares, the god of war, that you have come, Hercules?” asked the queen.
“For that,” said Hercules.
“I don’t wish to see you fight with the Amazons,” said Queen Hippolyte. Having said this she took off the girdle of bronze and shimmering glass, and put it in his hands.
Hercules took the beautiful girdle. He was afraid some trick was being played on him, but then he looked into the open eyes of the queen and he saw that she meant no harm. He took the girdle and then he thanked Hippolyte and left the tent. He saw the Amazons standing on the rocks and the steep places with bows bent. Unchallenged he went on, and reached his ship and sailed away from that country with one more labor accomplished.