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This blog has often referenced the heroic deeds of Hercules, particularly since the demigod single-handedly killed a shocking number of the titanic monsters born of Echidna (not to mention the fact that he allegedly knew something of Echidna herself). Yet one of Hercules greatest deeds gets mentioned least often–even though it might have been the most remarkable. Additionally, according to myth, this prodigious feat was critical to the founding of the Olympic Games! With the summer Olympics coming up later this year in London, it is time to tell the amazing (and disgusting) tale.
In order to atone for murdering his family while under a divine curse, Hercules was sentenced to complete a list of mighty labors. Eurystheus, the sniveling king who chose the tasks, selected deeds presumed to be impossible (and fatal)–but Hercules completed the first four with ease. Eurystheus therefore decided to think of something demeaning and disgusting for Hercules’ fifth task. Augeas, king of Elis, had the greatest herds and flocks of livestock in all of Greece. By day his many horses, cows, goats, pigs, and sheep would graze and forage. At night herdsmen would round up the animals and return them to Augeas’ immense stables. All of these animals left quite a mess behind them and the stables had never been cleaned. Eurystheus decided that mucking out endless tons of dung would win no glory for Hercules. The petty king demanded that Hercules accomplish the task within a year–an impossibly short time for the horrible chore.
Hercules however had a plan. He presented himself to King Augeas and promised to clean the stables within a single day–provided the King would recompense him with one tenth of his livestock. Augeas laughingly acceded to the crazy offer knowing that no man could clean the stables in years. Hercules however was not merely a man. He punched giant holes in opposite walls of the stables and then diverted a mighty river through the breach. The ordure was rinsed from the stables in less than a day.
King Augeas was not rich because of his generosity or fairness. He proclaimed that the river had done the work and denied payment to Hercules. When Hercules returned to Eurystheus, the latter decreed that the labors were not meant for profit and Hercules would not receive credit for cleaning the Augean stables (there is probably a lesson about dealing with powerful people in there). The heroic labor was a wash–literally and figuratively. Hercules kept the incident in the back of his head though as he slogged his way to the edge of the Earth and down into the underworld. When the twelve labors were complete he returned to Augeas’ kingdom to make war on the greedy king. Hercules first killed Augeas’s twin nephews, Cteatus and Eurytus, demigods born of Molione (Augeas’ sister) and Poseidon. He dragged the warrior twins from a chariot and smashed them to death. Then Hercules’ soldiers (the Tirtynthians) sacked Augeas’s city and put the inhabitants to death. Finally Hercules ripped Augeas to pieces (there is probably another lesson about dealing with powerful people in that grim postscript).
To celebrate the victory and the completion of his labors, Hercules instituted a peaceful athletic contest which grew into the Olympic games (although some classical sources state the Olympics were started by Zeus after his victory over the titan Cronus). Irrespective, it is worth relating the story whenever the Olympics roll around (especially if you have already grown tired of the stupid London Olympics mascots). I also find myself envious of Hercules’ easy ability to clean up messes whenever I find myself facing a daunting pile of…tasks.
Anyway as a bonus for those who are inclined to literature, here is a section of Ode X of the ancient Greek poet Pindar’s Olympic Odes. Pindar here describes Hercule’s violent war on Augeas (the remainder of the ode can be read here).
Conquests by toil unearn’d to few belong:
Action’s the sovereign good, the light of life.
But me Jove’s Hallow’d Rites the athletic strife
And matchless Games in solemn song
Bid blazon; which the potent Hercules
Stablish’d by Pelops’ ancient tomb;
What time the godlike Cteatus to his doom
He sent, though sprung from him that rules the seas,
Him with bold Eurytus, the largess due
Thus from reluctant Augeas to compel.
Them on their journey in Cleones’s dell
Th’avenging chief from ambush slew.
Just retribution! His Tirtynthian host,
Surprised in Elis’ close defiles,
Molione’s o’erwheening sons by wiles
Had crush’d; and all of his choicest chiefs were lost.
That guest-beguiling king the wrath of Heaven
Soon reach’d. He saw the sceptre of his sway,
To sword and flame his wealth and country given,
Saw his Epeian kingdom pass away,
Sunk in Destruction’s gulf! ‘Tis hard indeed
The conflict with a mightier foe to close;
And wit forsakes whom Fate hath doom’d to bleed.
Himself a captive thus, the last of those
Whose loyalty his fault and fortune shared,
‘Scaped not the dire revenge Herculean rage prepared.
Philoctetes is one of the great missing heroes of the classical world. Not only was there was an entire epic poem from the Homeric era about the quest to find him Aeschylus and Euripides are both known to have written entire plays about him, and the great Sophocles wrote two. Only one of the plays by Sophocles now survives.
Philoctetes was a great archer and a “companion” of Heracles. When through the treachery of Nessus, Heracles was poisoned with blood of the hydra, only Philoctetes has the courage to light his funeral pyre. This earned him tremendous esteem from the dying hero, who presented Philoctetes with his bow and poisoned arrows.
Philoctetes unsuccessfully sought the hand of Helen of Troy which meant that he was “called up” by Menelaus to win her back from Paris after she was abducted. It would seem Philoctetes also made some powerful enemies during his time with Heracles because as he hastened to the war he was stung by a poison snake while on the Island of Chryse. The wound suppurated and produced such a foul odor that Odysseus tricked the unhappy archer into being left behind in agony.
This proved to be a mistake. After years of war, an oracle (being tortured by the Greeks) revealed that the Greeks could not prevail in the Trojan War without the bow of Heracles. Odysseus and a group of soldiers including the hero Diomedes were dispatched to find the weapon. In doing so they found the still injured (still reeking) Philoctetes, and, only through intervention from the deified Heracles, were the angry group of men able to come to a satisfactory resolution.
For some reason, Philoctetes remained a favorite subject of painters for a long time. Something about the beautiful warrior’s agony, and the dramatic wound (to say nothing of the divinely sent snake which alternately came from Apollo, Hera, or the nymph Chryse) has kept artists from different eras returning to the story—even if the poetry, plays, and epics which truly explain the drama have vanished.
A few weeks ago, during Holi, I dedicated a week to blogging about color. The subject was so vivid and enjoyable that ferrebeekeeper is now adding a color category.
I’ll begin today’s color post with a myth about Hercules (or Heracles), the quintessential Greek hero, whose name appeared again and again when discussing the monsters born of Echidna. But how is it that the warrior and strongman belongs in a discussion concerning color? A myth attributes the founding of one of the classical world’s largest chemical industries to Hercules—or at least to his dog. According to Julius Pollux, Hercules was walking on the shore near the Phoenician city Tyre and paying court to a comely nymph. While he was thus distracted, his dog ran out and started consuming a rotten murex which was lying on the beach (a tale which will sound familiar to any dog owner). The mutt’s ghastly repast caused his muzzle to be stained a beautiful crimson purple, and the nymph promptly demanded a robe of the same color as a lover’s present from Hercules.
Rubens painted a sketch of this vivid scene on wood but, unfamiliar with marine biology, he drew some sort of gastropod other than a murex. The gist of the scene however is comprehensible and correct. Tyrean purple, the most expensive and sought after dye of classical antiquity was a mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of one of several predatory gastropods from the Murex family. Haustellum brandaris, Hexaplex trunculus, and Stramonita haemastoma seem to be the murexes which were most used for this purpose in the Mediterranean dye industry but many other murexes around the world produce the purple discharge when perturbed. Archaeological evidence suggests that the dye was being harvested from shellfish as early as 1600 BC on Crete as a luxury for the Minoan world.
Since more than ten thousand murexes were needed to dye a single garment, the color remained one of the ultimate luxuries of the classical world for millennia to come. Tyrian purple was the color of aristocracy and the super elite. To produce the richest tyrian purple dye, manufacturers captured and crushed innumerable murexes, the remains of which were left to rot. The precious purple mucous oozed out of the corpses and was collected by unfortunate workers until enough was produced to dye a garment. Since this process was malodorous (at best), whole sections of coast were given over to the industry.
Only a handful of individuals could afford the immense costs for this material and sumptuary laws were passed proscribing the extent of to which it could be used. In later eras it was reserved for the exclusive use of emperors and senators. By Byzantine times, purple had become synonymous with imperial privilege. Emperors were born in porphyry rooms and swathed for life in crimson-purple robes.
The actual color is not what we would now consider purple, but rather a glorious rich burgundy with purple undertones. The industry was destroyed when French aristocrats of the misbegotten fourth crusade invaded and conquered Constantinople at the beginning of the 13th century. The brilliant scarlet/purple hue was still in demand for the regalia of European kings and queens (a recreation of the characteristic hue should be familiar to readers as the velvet used in many crowns). But these scarlet and purple dyes lacked the glorious richness and the famous colorfastness of tyrian purple. During the middle ages, after the fall of Constantinople, royal crimson was obtained from insects and lichen. It was not until the great chemical revolution of the 19th century that purple clothing became available to everyone.
Pride of place among the monsters born of Echidna has to go to Cerberus, the great three headed dog that guards the underworld. As a dutiful pet to Hades, ruler of the dead, Cerberus works hard to keep living beings out of the underworld and prevent deceased souls from returning to the world of life. Getting past Cerberus on the way into and out of the underworld was therefore a chief problem for the heroes who visited the land of the dead. Orpheus charmed his way past the dog with music. Aeneas pragmatically fed the creature drugged honey cakes. Psyche used sweet words and dog biscuits.
Hercules of course used brute strength. In fact the demigod was in the underworld specifically to borrow Cerberus as a twelfth and final bravura labor. Capturing the hellbeast of course required bravery and raw force, but Hercules had become rather savvier by the time of his last labor, and he did some other things right. Before going to the underworld he mastered the Eleusinian Mysteries so that, in case he never returned from the realm of the dead, he could at least enjoy a pleasant afterlife (the cult’s principal benefit). Once he had entered the underworld through the winding subterranean cave Taenarum in Laconia, Hercules sough out Hades and asked permission to borrow his dog. Hades granted it provided Hercules subdue the beast without using any weapons. When Hercules wrestled Cerberus to submission, he took the creature back to Eurystheus who was so frightened he hid in a jar (which is how he is always portrayed) and freed Hercules from any further obligations. Cleansed of his past sins, Hercules was free to pursue his own life.
Dante also described Cerberus. The Italian poet’s version of the monster seems to be having doggy fun. Virgil and Dante witness him tearing apart spirits and they feed him some dirt to play with in the following passage from Inferno:
In the third circle am I of the rain
Eternal, maledict, and cold, and heavy;
Its law and quality are never new.
Huge hail, and water sombre-hued, and snow,
Athwart the tenebrous air pour down amain;
Noisome the earth is, that receiveth this.
Cerberus, monster cruel and uncouth,
With his three gullets like a dog is barking
Over the people that are there submerged.
Red eyes he has, and unctuous beard and black,
And belly large, and armed with claws his hands;
He rends the spirits, flays, and quarters them.
Howl the rain maketh them like unto dogs;
One side they make a shelter for the other;
Oft turn themselves the wretched reprobates.
When Cerberus perceived us, the great worm!
His mouths he opened, and displayed his tusks;
Not a limb had he that was motionless.
And my Conductor, with his spans extended,
Took of the earth, and with his fists well filled,
He threw it into those rapacious gullets.
Such as that dog is, who by barking craves,
And quiet grows soon as his food he gnaws,
For to devour it he but thinks and struggles,
The like became those muzzles filth-begrimed
Of Cerberus the demon, who so thunders
Over the souls that they would fain be deaf.
It is good that there is a family member of Echidna that did not suffer extinction at the hands of some hero. It is pleasant to imagine the three-headed dog enjoying a vigorous and rousing eternity with his master in the halls of hell.
Here is gallery of some images both ancient and modern, high art and low art, of the great monster. Also I would like to give a hearty thanks to all of the creative people whose work is available on the internet. You all are truly the best.
Sorcier (David Teniers)
I wrote yesterday that this would end my series on Echidna’s monstrous offspring–but it occurs to me I forgot the Colchian Dragon. So tune in tomorrow for a special bonus monster!
To celebrate the spooky season, we have been recounting the various fates of the brood of monsters descended from Echidna. While doing so, one aspect of the story has become glaringly apparent: more than half of the family of monsters was defeated by Hercules. Cerberus, Ladon, Orthrus, the Nemean Lion, the Hydra, the great Caucasian Eagle…the demigod bested them all as he bludgeoned and ripped his shining path through the world. (I haven’t told the tale of Orthrus, the two headed dog who was best friend to the three-headed monster Geryon: suffice to say, during his tenth labor, Hercules killed the poor pooch.) One would expect a devoted mother to be enraged and thirst for vengeance. However there is a story about Hercules and Echidna meeting, and it seems the mother of monsters desired something very different from revenge. I’ll turn the storytelling over to Herodotus. It is worth remembering that while people call Herodotus “the father of history”, historians call him “the father of lies”. He tells a great many thrilling stories but he probably made them up while he was binge drinking in his library…. Anyway, here is the passage from Book IV of the Histories of Herodotus (translated by George Rawlinson):
Hercules came from thence into the region now called Scythia, and, being overtaken by storm and frost, drew his lion’s skin about him, and fell fast asleep. While he slept, his mares, which he had loosed from his chariot to graze, by some wonderful chance disappeared. On waking, he went in quest of them, and, after wandering over the whole country, came at last to the district called “the Woodland,” where he found in a cave a strange being, between a maiden and a serpent, whose form from the waist upwards was like that of a woman, while all below was like a snake. He looked at her wonderingly; but nevertheless inquired, whether she had chanced to see his strayed mares anywhere. She answered him, “Yes, and they were now in her keeping; but never would she consent to give them back, unless he took her for his mistress.” So Hercules, to get his mares back, agreed; but afterwards she put him off and delayed restoring the mares, since she wished to keep him with her as long as possible. He, on the other hand, was only anxious to secure them and to get away. At last, when she gave them up, she said to him, “When thy mares strayed hither, it was I who saved them for thee: now thou hast paid their salvage; for lo! I bear in my womb three sons of thine. Tell me therefore when thy sons grow up, what must I do with them? Wouldst thou wish that I should settle them here in this land, whereof I am mistress, or shall I send them to thee?” Thus questioned, they say, Hercules answered, “When the lads have grown to manhood, do thus, and assuredly thou wilt not err. Watch them, and when thou seest one of them bend this bow as I now bend it, and gird himself with this girdle thus, choose him to remain in the land. Those who fail in the trial, send away. Thus wilt thou at once please thyself and obey me.”
Two of Echidna’s human children by Hercules proved to be disappointments and were sent away, but Skythes, the youngest son was indeed capable of wielding Hercules’ bow. Skythes stayed in the land, became its king, and fathered the race of the Scythians, a (real) tribe of people whom the ancient Greeks regarded as being descended from union of the the greatest Greek hero and a primordial monster! People who are familiar with the Scythians will be yelling and punching the air right now (because Scythians are just completely awesome), however, to quickly summarize; the fearsome Scythians were nomads of the Pontic-Caspian steppe. They were renowned for their formidable prowess at mounted warfare and for being general badasses. Roman historians described the Goths as Scythians. The Scottish even called themselves Scythians! in the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath, an open letter to the pope, the elite aristocrats of Scotland claim Scythia as their former homeland. It goes without saying they were binge-drinking in a library when they wrote that puppy.
Speaking of puppies, tomorrow, we wrap up this series with everyone’s favorite child of Echidna…
In the Greek view of the world, there was a tranquil garden of perpetual rosy twilight which was found at the sunset edge of all lands–so far west that the west came to an end. The garden was inhabited by three nymphs of peerless beauty whose special task was to tend an apple tree in the middle of the garden. The golden fruit of the tree would confer immortality upon anyone who ate one. But of course there was a catch.
This was the penultimate labor of Hercules: to bring back three of the apples of the Hesperides. The tree was in the private garden of Hera herself and the apple tree was a wedding gift from Mother Earth to the queen of the gods. Plucking the apples from the tree would bring instant death to any mortal, but the biggest problem of all was the garden’s true guardian, the dragon Ladon who was coiled around the apple tree. As you might imagine, Ladon was one of Echidna’s offspring. He is sometimes shown as a great python, other times as a more traditional dragon, and occasionally as a hundred-headed uber-dragon.
Although dragons abound in Greek mythology, the snake-dragon curled around a sacred tree, seems to have arrived in Greek mythology from another canon altogether. Scholars believe Ladon’s original form was the Semitic serpent god Lotan, or the Hurrian/Hittite serpent Illuyanka. In fact, serpents/dragons wound around fruit trees are well-known in the three great monotheistic faiths of the present. In Greek mythology, Ladon only plays an active role in the story of Hercules 11th labor (and even then, the dragon’s role is curiously ambiguous).
Hercules traveled through the Greek world having adventures, killing giants, and seeking the garden’s location. It was during his search for the Garden of the Hesperides that he slew the Caucasian Eagle and freed Prometheus (who, in gratitude, told him what to expect at the garden of the Hesperides). In order to obtain the apples, Hercules solicited the aid of the titan Atlas, who holds up the firmament. Hercules assumed the burden of the heavens while immortal Atlas collected the apples. When Atlas betrayed Hercules and left the strongman holding the heavens, Hercules pretended to accept his fate–but he asked to adjust his lionskin first. Once Atlas was holding the heavens again, Hercules picked up the apples and took them back to Eurystheus (who was rightly afraid of them, and gave them to Athena). The fate of the dragon is a bit unclear. In some versions Hercules kills him for good measure. For example, in the story of Jason and the golden fleece, Ladon’s corpse is spotted by the Argonauts—the creature’s body is still heaving and trembling years after death while the heartbroken nymphs sob. In other stories the dragon survives and, together with the nymphs, continues to look after the tree of life.
Because I can not resist, here are links to a very short and delightful comic strip consisting of a first, second, and third panel. The drawings contain mild nudity (which differs from that found in Lord Leighton’s painting above only in that the strip is contemporary). The creator, M.L. Peters, tried to add a feeling of fin de siècle illustration so as to give the comic punchline a deeper resonance, and I feel he succeeded admirably. Additionally I love anchovies.
According to myth, the Lernaean hydra was a nine headed chthonic water monster which guarded the entrance to the underworld which lay beneath the waters of Lake Lerna. The creature was so profoundly poisonous that even its footprints were toxic–to say nothing of its blood, bite, and breath. When one of the hydra’s heads was cut off, two more would sprout in its place. The hydra did have a weakness of sorts—only one of its heads was immortal.
Hercules’ second labor was to kill this fearsome monster. After the trouble the Nemean Lion had given the hero, Hercules adhered more closely to the Boy Scout motto before facing the hydra: he prepared thoroughly for the confrontation by covering his face and eyes against the monster’s poison. He donned his impervious lionskin and took with him his club, a golden sickle-sword given to him by Athena, and, most importantly, an ally–his nephew (and lover), Iolaus.
But for all of his physical preparations, Hercules attacked the monster with a characteristic lack of tactics. First he fired flaming arrows into the hydra’s favorite lair, the unquenchable well of Amymone until the creature emerged. Then Hercules started lopping off heads and bashing away with his club. Soon a veritable forest of poisonous serpentine monster heads was striking at him, and all seemed lost until Athena stole up beside Iolaus and gifted him with a flaming brand and the idea of cauterizing each neck before new heads could sprout. With the combined efforts of Iolaus, the ever-victorious goddess Athena, brute strength, the golden sickle-sword, and good ol’ fire, Hercules gradually cut and cauterized his way through the beast. But, the Hydra was not lacking for allies either: Hera sent a great crab to reinforce the wounded creature. Using superhuman strength Hercules crushed the crab with a mighty foot and at last faced only the Hydra’s immortal head. With one mighty slice he finished decapitating the monster and he placed the still living head beneath an immense rock on the sacred roadway between Lerna and Elaius. Hercules then dipped his arrows in the Hydra’s blood so that they would be lethal to all mortal things –a cruel stroke of genius which was to ultimately prove his downfall. Hera placed her defeated hydra and crab in the night sky.
Of all of Echidna’s offspring, the hydra seems to have the most resonance with contemporary artists. Painters, sculptors, and draftspeople are attracted to a theme which so elegantly exemplifies the hopelessness of struggling against a multi-headed entity capable of renewing itself exponentially. The hydra is emblematic of viruses, invasive animals, crabgrass, terrorists, crooked politicians, and corporations. Such a contest clearly presents the fundamental nature of individual striving. Hercules’ victory thus resounds as the ultimate triumph of the individual over the many…except…well, he had Iolaus, a magic weapon, magic armor, and the goddess Athena (as well as a sanction from his omnipotent father). In fact, his great accomplishment was deemed unacceptable as a “labor” because he utilized so much help.
I’ll leave you to contemplate the fact that even great Hercules needed a support team. In the mean time, enjoy this crazy gallery of amazing contemporary artworks depicting the hydra:
Classical mythology ascribes no particular order of birth to the offspring of Echidna and Typhon. I’m going to just jump in and start big with the Nemean Lion. This immense mythical lion possessed an invulnerable hide and claws sharp enough to cut through any substance. He seemed happiest when terrorizing the hills around Nemea, a lovely village in Corinth.
At the same time, elsewhere, the greatest of classical heroes, Heracles was living contentedly with his wife Megara and their children. Alas, it was not to be: Hera, the ever-envious queen of the gods, afflicted Heracles with madness and, in benighted fury, the strongman dashed his wife and children to death. Awaking from his lunacy, Heracles desperately petitioned the gods for help. His half-brother, the god Apollo intervened and sent Heracles to perform penance by serving the weak and venal King Eurystheus of Mycenae. Afraid for his throne and person, Eurystheus chose a task he was sure Heracles would not return from and set the hero out to kill the Nemean Lion.
Heracles was unable to pierce the lion’s skin with his great bow, but he trapped the beast in a cave, stunned it with his club and strangled it with brute force. Thus did Heracles accomplish the first of his twelve labors and he wore the lion’s impenetrable hide thereafter (somewhat pathetically, he was at first unable to skin the beast with his knives or swords, and he made no headway until Athena reminded him that the lion’s claws could cut through anything). Above is my favorite painting of the fight, by Peter Paul Ruben. In addition to liking big robust figures, Rubens had a zest for hunting. In Rubens’ painting, Heracles has apparently killed a leopard bystander in order to warm up for the great lion.
I always rather pitied the Nemean Lion, who seemed like a victim of circumstance more than anyone else in the story (except for Megara and her children and maybe the leopard up there in the Rubens’ painting). Apparently others have felt the same way, because the lion takes an important position in the summer sky whereas Heracles is rather hard to find.