Padraic Colum > The Golden Fleece > Part III. The Heroes of the Quest > Chapter IV. The Life and Labors of Heracles > I
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Padraic Colum (1881–1972).  The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived before Achilles.  1921.

Part III. The Heroes of the Quest
 
Chapter IV. The Life and Labors of Heracles
 
I
 
HERACLES was the son of Zeus, but he was born into the family of a mortal king. When he was still a youth, being over-whelmed by a madness sent upon him by one of the goddesses, he slew the children of his brother Iphicles. Then, coming to know what he had done, sleep and rest went from him: he went to Delphi, to the shrine of Apollo, to be purified of his crime.   1
  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 thy name shall be, not Alcides, but Heracles. Thou shalt go to Eurystheus, thy cousin, in Mycenæ, and serve him in all things. When the labors he shall lay upon thee are accomplished, and when the rest of thy life is lived out, thou shalt become one of the immortals.” Heracles, on hearing these words, set out for Mycenæ.   2
  He stood before his cousin who hated him; he, a towering man, stood before a king who sat there weak and trembling. And Heracles said, “I have come to take up the labors that you will lay upon me; speak now, Eurystheus, and tell me what you would have me do.”   3
  Eurystheus, 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:   4
  “There is a lion in Nemea that is stronger and more fierce than any lion known before. Kill that lion, and bring the lion’s skin to me that I may know that you have truly performed your task.” So Eurystheus said, and Heracles, with neither shield nor arms, went forth from the king’s palace to seek and to combat the dread lion of Nemea.   5
  He went on until he came into a country where the fences were overthrown and the fields wasted and the houses empty and fallen. He went on until he came to the waste around that land: there he came on the trail of the lion; it led up the side of a mountain, and Heracles, without shield or arms, followed the trail.   6
  He heard the roar of the lion. Looking up he saw the beast standing at the mouth of a cavern, huge and dark against the sunset. The lion roared three times, and then it went within the cavern.   7
  Around the mouth were strewn the bones of creatures it had killed and carried there. Heracles looked upon them when he came to the cavern. He went within. Far into the cavern he went, and then he came to where he saw the lion. It was sleeping.   8
  Heracles viewed the terrible bulk of the lion, and then he looked upon his own knotted hands and arms. He remembered that it was told of him 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.   9
  So he stood, measuring his strength and the size of the lion. The breath from its mouth and nostrils came heavily to him as the beast slept, gorged with its prey. Then the lion yawned. Heracles sprang on it and put his great hands upon its throat. No growl came out of its mouth, but the great eyes blazed while the terrible paws tore at Heracles. Against the rock Heracles held the beast; strongly he held it, 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.   10
  Then Heracles stripped off that impenetrable skin from the lion’s body; he put it upon 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.   11
  The king, seeing coming toward him a towering man all covered with the hide of a monstrous lion, 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. And the servants told him that it was Heracles come back with the skin of the lion of Nemea. On hearing this Eurystheus hid himself again.   12
  He would not speak with Heracles nor have him come near him, so fearful was he. But Heracles was content to be left alone. He sat down in the palace and feasted himself.   13
  The servants came to the king; Eurystheus lifted the lid of the jar and they told him how Heracles was feasting and devouring all the goods in the palace. The king flew into a rage, but still he was fearful of having the hero before him. He issued commands through his heralds ordering Heracles to go forth at once and perform the second of his tasks.   14
  It was to slay the great water snake that made its lair in the swamps of Lerna. Heracles 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.   15
  Heracles and Iolaus went on until they came to the vast swamp of Lerna. Right in the middle of the swamp was the water snake that was called the Hydra. Nine heads it had, and it raised them up out of the water as the hero and his companion came near. They could not cross the swamp to come to the monster, for man or beast would sink and be lost in it.   16
  The Hydra remained in the middle of the swamp belching mud at the hero and his companion. Then Heracles 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. Heracles swung his club. As the Hydra came near he knocked head after head off its body.   17
  But for every head knocked off two grew upon the Hydra. And as he struggled with the monster a huge crab came out of the swamp, and gripping Heracles by the foot tried to draw him in. Then Heracles cried out. The boy Iolaus came; he killed the crab that had come to the Hydra’s aid.   18
  Then Heracles laid hands upon the Hydra and drew it out of the swamp. With his club he knocked off a head and he had Iolaus put fire to where it had been, so that two heads might not grow in that place. The life of the Hydra was in its middle head; that head 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 into life again. The Hydra’s life was now destroyed. Heracles dipped his arrows into the gall of the monster, making his arrows deadly; no thing that was struck by these arrows afterward could keep its life.   19
  Again he came to Eurystheus’s palace, and Eurystheus, seeing him, ran again and hid himself in the jar. Heracles ordered the servants to tell the king that he had returned and that the second labor was accomplished.   20
  Eurystheus, hearing from the servants that Heracles was mild in his ways, came out of the jar. Insolently he spoke. “Twelve labors you have to accomplish for me,” said he to Heracles, “and eleven yet remain to be accomplished.”   21
  “How?” said Heracles. “Have I not performed two of the labors? Have I not slain the lion of Nemea and the great water snake of Lerna?”   22
  “In the killing of the water snake you were helped by Iolaus,” said the king, snapping out his words and looking at Heracles with shifting eyes. “That labor cannot be allowed you.”   23
  Heracles would have struck him to the ground. But then he remembered that the crime that he had committed in his madness would have to be expiated by labors performed at the order of this man. He looked full upon Eurystheus and he said, “Tell me of the other labors, and I will go forth from Mycenæ and accomplish them.”   24
  Then Eurystheus bade him go and make clean the stables of King Augeias. Heracles came into 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 uncleanness and the smell that came from it the crops were withered all around. Heracles told the king that he would clean the stables if he were given one tenth of the cattle and the goats for a reward.   25
  The king agreed to this reward. Then Heracles drove the cattle and the goats out of the stables; 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 uncleanness was washed away. Then Heracles turned the rivers back into their own courses.   26
  He was not given the reward he had bargained for, however.   27
  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.   28
  “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?”   29
  Then while Heracles stood still, holding himself back from striking him, Eurystheus ran away and hid himself in the jar. Through his heralds he sent word to Heracles, telling him what the other labors would be.   30
  He was to clear the marshes of Stymphalus of the man-eating birds that gathered there; he was to capture and bring to the king the golden-horned deer of Coryneia; he was also to capture and bring alive to Mycenæ the boar of Erymanthus.   31
  Heracles came 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 upon low bushes within the jungle, gorging themselves upon the flesh they had carried there.   32
  For days Heracles 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 upon the ground in despair.   33
  It was then that one of the immortals appeared to him; for the first and only time he was given help from the gods.   34
  It was Athena who came to him. She stood apart from Heracles, holding in her hands brazen cymbals. These she clashed together. At the sound of this clashing the Stymphalean birds rose up from the low bushes behind the jungle. Heracles shot at them with those unerring arrows of his. The man-eating birds fell, one after the other, into the marsh.   35
  Then Heracles went north to where the Coryneian deer took her pasture. So swift of foot was she that no hound nor hunter had ever been able to overtake her. For the whole of a year Heracles kept Golden Horns in chase, and at last, on the side of the Mountain Artemision, he caught her. Artemis, the goddess of the wild things, would have punished Heracles 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. And Artemis took charge of Golden Horns while Heracles went off to capture the Erymanthean boar.   36
  He came to the city of Psophis, the inhabitants of which were in deadly fear because of the ravages of the boar. Heracles 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 fostered by Chiron, welcomed Heracles. One of them, Pholus, took Heracles to the great house where the centaurs had their wine stored.   37
  Seldom did the centaurs drink wine; a draft of it made them wild, and so they stored it away, leaving it in the charge of one of their band. Heracles begged Pholus to give him a draft of wine; after he had begged again and again the centaur opened one of his great jars.   38
  Heracles drank wine and spilled it. Then the centaurs that were without smelt the wine and came hammering at the door, demanding the drafts that would make them wild. Heracles came forth to drive them away. They attacked him. Then he shot at them with his unerring arrows and he drove them away. Up the mountain and away to far rivers the centaurs raced, pursued by Heracles with his bow.   39
  One was slain, Pholus, the centaur who had entertained him. By accident Heracles 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.   40
  Upon his shoulders he carried the boar to Mycenæ and he led the deer by her golden horns. When Eurystheus had looked upon them the boar was slain, but the deer was loosed and she fled back to the Mountain Artemision.   41
  King Eurystheus sat hidden in the great jar, and he thought of more terrible labors he would make Heracles engage in. Now he would send him oversea and make him strive with fierce tribes and more dread monsters. When he had it all thought out he had Heracles brought before him and he told him of these other labors.   42
  He was to go to savage Thrace and there destroy the man-eating horses of King Diomedes; afterward he was to go amongst the dread 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 the keeping of 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, 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—where the Garden of the Hesperides was no mortal knew.   43
  So Heracles 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. Heracles 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 Heracles. He left the horses in charge of Abderus while he fought the Thracians and their savage king. Heracles shot his deadly arrows amongst 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.   44
  They had thrown Abderus upon the ground, and they were trampling upon him. Heracles drew his bow and he shot the horses with the unerring arrows that were dipped with the gall of the Hydra he had slain. Screaming, the horses of King Diomedes raced toward the sea, but one fell and another fell, and then, as it came to the line of the foam, the third of the fierce horses fell. They were all slain with the unerring arrows.   45
  Then Heracles took up the body of his companion and he buried it with proper rights, and over it he raised a column. Afterward, around that column a city that bore the name of Heracles’s friend was built.   46
  Then toward the Euxine Sea he went. There, where the River Themiscyra flows into the sea he saw the abodes of the Amazons. And upon the rocks and the steep place he saw the warrior women standing with drawn bows in their hands. Most dangerous did they seem to Heracles. He did not know how to approach them; he might shoot at them with his unerring arrows, but when his arrows were all shot away, the Amazons, from their steep places, might be able to kill him with the arrows from their bows.   47
  While he stood at a distance, wondering what he might do, a horn was sounded and an Amazon mounted upon a white stallion rode toward him. When the warrior-woman came near she cried out, “Heracles, 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.”   48
  Heracles came to the tent of the queen. There stood tall Hippolyte with an iron crown upon her head and with a beautiful girdle of bronze and iridescent glass around her waist. Proud and fierce as a mountain eagle looked the queen of the Amazons: Heracles did not know in what way he might conquer her. Outside the tent the Amazons stood; they struck their shields with their spears, keeping up a continuous savage din.   49
  “For what has Heracles come to the country of the Amazons?” Queen Hippolyte asked.   50
  “For the girdle you wear,” said Heracles, and he held his hands ready for the struggle.   51
  “Is it for the girdle given me by Ares, the god of war, that you have come, braving the Amazons, Heracles?” asked the queen.   52
  “For that,” said Heracles.   53
  “I would not have you enter into strife with the Amazons,” said Queen Hippolyte. And so saying she drew off the girdle of bronze and iridescent glass, and she gave it into his hands.   54
  Heracles took the beautiful girdle into his hands. Fearful he was that some piece of guile was being played upon him, but then he looked into the open eyes of the queen and he saw that she meant no guile. He took the girdle and he put it around his great brows; then he thanked Hippolyte and he went from the tent. He saw the Amazons standing on the rocks and the steep places with bows bent; unchallenged he went on, and he came to his ship and he sailed away from that country with one more labor accomplished.   55
  The labor that followed was not dangerous. He sailed over sea and he came to Crete, to the land that King Minos ruled over. And there he found, grazing in a special pasture, the bull that Poseidon had given King Minos. He laid his hands upon the bull’s horns and he struggled with him and he over-threw him. Then he drove the bull down to the seashore.   56
  His next labor was to take away the herd of red cattle that was owned by the monster Geryoneus. In the Island of Erytheia, in the middle of the Stream of Ocean, lived the monster, his heard guarded by the two-headed hound Orthus—that hound was the brother of Cerberus, the three-headed hound that kept guard in the Underworld.   57
  Mounted upon the bull given Minos by Poseidon, Heracles fared across the sea. He came even to the straits that divide Europe from Africa, and there he set up two pillars as a memorial of his journey—the Pillars of Heracles that stand to this day. He and the bull rested there. Beyond him stretched the Stream of Ocean; the Island of Erytheia was there, but Heracles thought that the bull would not be able to bear him so far.   58
  And there the sun beat upon him, and drew all strength away from him, and he was dazed and dazzled by the rays of the sun. He shouted out against the sun, and in his anger he wanted to strive against the sun. Then he drew his bow and shot arrows upward. Far, far out of sight the arrows of Heracles went. And the sun god, Helios, was filled with admiration for Heracles, the man who would attempt the impossible by shooting arrows at him; then did Helios fling down to Heracles his great golden cup.   59
  Down, and into the Stream of Ocean fell the great golden cup of Helios. It floated there wide enough to hold all the men who might be in a ship. Heracles put the bull of Minos into the cup of Helios, and the cup bore them away, toward the west, and across the Stream of Ocean.   60
  Thus Heracles came to the Island of Erytheia. All over the island straggled the red cattle of Geryoneus, grazing upon the rich pastures. Heracles, leaving the bull of Minos in the cup, went upon the island; he made a club for himself out of a tree and he went toward the cattle.   61
  The hound Orthus bayed and ran toward him; the two-headed hound that was the brother of Cerberus sprang at Heracles with poisonous foam upon his jaws. Heracles swung his club and struck the two heads off the hound. And where the foam of the hound’s jaws dropped down a poisonous plant sprang up. Heracles took up the body of the hound, and swung it around and flung it far out into the Ocean.   62
  Then the monster Geryoneus came upon him. Three bodies he had instead of one; he attacked Heracles by hurling great stones at him. Heracles was hurt by the stones. And then the monster beheld the cup of Helios, and he began to hurl stones at the golden thing, and it seemed that he might sink it in the sea, and leave Heracles without a way of getting from the island. Heracles took up his bow and he shot arrow after arrow at the monster, and he left him dead in the deep grass of the pastures.   63
  Then he rounded up the red cattle, the bulls and the cows, and he drove them down to the shore and into the golden cup of Helios where the bull of Minos stayed. Then back across the Stream of Ocean the cup floated, and the bull of Crete and the cattle of Geryoneus were brought past Sicily and through the straits called the Hellespont. To Thrace, that savage land, they came. Then Heracles took the cattle out, and the cup of Helios sank in the sea. Through the wild lands of Thrace he drove the herd of Geryoneus and the bull of Minos, and he came into Mycenæ once more.   64
  But he did not stay to speak with Eurystheus. He started off to find the Garden of the Hesperides, the Daughters of the Evening Land. Long did he search, but he found no one who could tell him where the garden was. And at last he went to Chiron on the Mountain Pelion, and Chiron told Heracles what journey he would have to make to come to the Hesperides, the Daughters of the Evening Land.   65
  Far did Heracles journey; weary he was when he came to where Atlas stood, bearing the sky upon his weary shoulders. As he came near he felt an undreamt-of perfume being wafted toward him. So weary was he with his journey and all his toils that he would fain sink down and dream away in that evening land. But he roused himself, and he journeyed on toward where the perfume came from. Over that place a star seemed always about to rise.   66
  He came to where a silver lattice fenced a garden that was full of the quiet of evening. Golden bees hummed through the air, and there was the sound of quiet waters. How wild and laborious was the world he had come from, Heracles thought! He felt that it would be hard for him to return to that world.   67
  He saw three maidens. They stood with wreaths upon their heads and blossoming branches in their hands. When the maidens saw him they came toward him crying out: “O man who has come into the Garden of the Hesperides, go not near the tree that the sleepless dragon guards!” Then they went and stood by a tree as if to keep guard over it. All around were trees that bore flowers and fruit, but this tree had golden apples amongst its bright green leaves.   68
  Then he saw the guardian of the tree. Beside its trunk a dragon lay, and as Heracles came near the dragon showed its glittering scales and its deadly claws.   69
  The apples were within reach, but the dragon, with its glittering scales and claws, stood in the way. Heracles shot an arrow; then a tremor went through Ladon, the sleepless dragon; it screamed and then lay stark. The maidens cried in their grief; Heracles went to the tree, and he plucked the golden apples and he put them into the pouch he carried. Down on the ground sank the Hesperides, the Daughters of the Evening Land, and he heard their laments as he went from the enchanted garden they had guarded.   70
  Back from the ends of the earth came Heracles, back from the place where Atlas stood holding the sky upon his weary shoulders. He went back through Asia and Libya and Egypt, and he came again to Mycenæ and to the palace of Eurystheus.   71
  He brought to the king the herd of Geryoneus; he brought to the king the bull of Minos; he brought to the king the girdle of Hippolyte; he brought to the king the golden apples of the Hesperides. And King Eurystheus, with his thin white face, sat upon his royal throne and he looked over all the wonderful things that the hero had brought him. Not pleased was Eurystheus; rather was he angry that one he hated could win such wonderful things.   72
  He took into his hands the golden apples of the Hesperides. But this fruit was not for such as he. An eagle snatched the branch from his hand, and the eagle flew and flew until it came to where the Daughters of the Evening Land wept in their garden. There the eagle let fall the branch with the golden apples, and the maidens set it back upon the tree, and behold! it grew as it had been growing before Heracles plucked it.   73
  The next day the heralds of Eurystheus came to Heracles and they told him of the last labor that he would have to set out to accomplish—this time he would have to go down into the Underworld, and bring up from King Aidoneus’s realm Cerberus, the three-headed hound.   74
  Heracles put upon him the impenetrable lion’s skin and set forth once more. This might indeed be the last of his life’s labors: Cerberus was not an earthly monster, and he who would struggle with Cerberus in the Underworld would have the gods of the dead against him.   75
  But Heracles went on. He journeyed to the cave Tainaron, which was an entrance to the Underworld. Far into that dismal cave he went, and then down, down, until he came to Acheron, that dim river that has beyond it only the people of the dead. Cerberus bayed at him from the place where the dead cross the river. Knowing that he was no shade, the hound sprang at Heracles, but he could neither bite nor tear through that impenetrable lion’s skin. Heracles held him by the neck of his middle head so that Cerberus was neither able to bite nor tear nor bellow.   76
  Then to the brink of Acheron came Persephone, queen of the Underworld. She declared to Heracles that the gods of the dead would not strive against him if he promised to bring Cerberus back to the Underworld, carrying the hound downward again as he carried him upward.   77
  This Heracles promised. He turned around and he carried Cerberus, his hands around the monster’s neck while foam dripped from his jaws. He carried him on and upward toward the world of men. Out through a cave that was in the land of Trœzen Heracles came, still carrying Cerberus by the neck of his middle head.   78
  From Trœzen to Mycenæ the hero went and men fled before him at the sight of the monster that he carried. On he went toward the king’s palace. Eurystheus was seated outside his palace that day, looking at the great jar that he had often hidden in, and thinking to himself that Heracles would never appear to affright him again. Then Heracles appeared. He called to Eurystheus, and when the king looked up he held the hound toward him. The three heads grinned at Eurystheus; he gave a cry and scrambled into the jar. But before his feet touched the bottom of it Eurystheus was dead of fear. The jar rolled over, and Heracles looked upon the body that was all twisted with fright. Then he turned around and made his way back to the Underworld. On the brink of Acheron he loosed Cerberus, and the bellow of the three-headed hound was heard again.   79

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