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Weary Hecules (Roman, Imperial Period, mid‑ to late 2nd century A.D. Marble)

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.

Ancient Roman Mosaic of Hercules cleaning the Augean Stables (Apologies for the graphic nudity)

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.

Ancient Greek Amphora depicting a foot race.

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.

Hercules Strangling the Nemean lion (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1639, Fogg Art Museum)

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.

Hercules and the Nemean Lion (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1615, private collection, Brussels)

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.

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