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Hercules and His Labours

Hercules and His Labours

Hercules (or Heracles) is the undisputed hero of Greek mythology, as befits his parentage, being the illegitimate offspring of the god Zeus and a mortal woman. Although he is thought of as the mythological personification of superhuman strength, in pagan Greece his name was principally invoked when men were  in need of protection and facing great danger. Medical powers were also attributed to him. Spiritual descendant of Gilgamesh and ancestor of Superman, Hercules is the most enduring Western-world hero. He is also one of the few anywhere who has a foot firmly planted in both myth and legend.

The fair Alcmena gazed lovingly on the face of her husband, a nobleman of Thebes. He had just returned from the war upon the people who had killed her brothers and, at last, she would give herself to him. Of course, they had been married for some time but she had refused him until her family was avenged. And here he was – more handsome than ever, full of news of the successful conclusion of the fighting; strong, tender and very, very eager.

Amphitryon took her in his arms and kissed her with an electrifying passion that thrilled and surprised her. There was something magical in that kiss and something enchanted about the night that followed. In a truly wonderful sense, it seemed to last for ages, or at least more like three glorious nights instead of only one.

In the morning, while he went to wash, and her attendants came into the chamber to help her, Alcmena dwelt with pleasure on her memory of their embrace, the ecstasy and the tenderness. She lived again the happy, satisfied look in her husband’s eyes moments ago, as he left her. 

Then, suddenly, Amphitryon was back, shouting impatiently for the attendants to leave the chamber. He was very different now. His clothes were dusty, he smelled of the sweat of horses and his hair was not clean. He pulled her to him roughly, kissed her hard and began excitedly to repeat the news of the night before, finally proclaiming that, having killed her brothers’ killers, he desired nothing more than to consummate their marriage without delay.

With that, he threw the confused Alcmena upon the bed and with unshaven cheeks and reeking armpits took her vigorously before falling fast asleep. Slipping out from under him and shakily getting out of bed, Alcmena left the room in search of her maids. From them she learned that Amphitryon and his men had only just returned from the wars. Only she, it appeared, had seen him the night before.

The prophet Tiresias, a mouthpiece of Zeus who lived nearby, soon clarified matters: Zeus, the king of the gods, had again succeeded in seducing a mortal woman. It was some consolation that the god had not taken the form of an animal this time, and she would not, as others surely must, go around feeling a flutter in her heart whenever she saw a white bull or a swan. In whatever form he chose to assume for his exploits, Zeus was a hard act to follow and after him the real Amphitryon had been more than a little disappointing. How many wives of mortal men have not experienced that?

The joy of finding that she was carrying twins soon expanded her thinking. She looked upon her seduction as just one of those things that happen, a compliment of sorts and perhaps a blessing. Amphitryon shared his wife’s attitude, and, cleaned up, rested and less anxious, he soon proved to be as good a man as a woman  could hope for.

On Olympus, as Alcmena’s time drew near, Zeus became excited by the coming birth of this new son. He went so far as to boast of it and swore a great oath about the future of the child.

“Today shall be born a man of the race of my blood, who shall rule all who live around him.” Zeus cried proudly, envisaging his son as a hero who would become a protector of both immortals and mortals.

This greatly displeased Hera, his wife and the principal Olympian goddess, who was very jealous of his dalliance with Alcmena and that she, his consort, was not intended to play any part in the creation of this super-hero. The goddess decided to use the imprecision of Zeus’s declaration to her advantage. She knew that elsewhere another mortal woman, whose husband was a son of Perseus, himself a product of one of Zeus’ innumerable affairs, was to give birth about the same time as Alcmena. With the help of Ilythia, goddess of childbearing, Hera caused this mother to be brought to term prematurely, while hastening unseen to the bedchamber of Alcmena, she left her lingering in labour for another day. Thus, the first child, called Eurystheus, fulfilled Zeus’ oath, and, chief god though he was, he could not go back on it. Eurystheus would be king of Greece, and Alcmena’s child by Zeus, Hercules, would spend his life fulfilling a series of arduous tasks set by his king.

Hera wasn’t through with Hercules, however. Not long after the birth of Hercules and his twin brother, Iphicles, she sent two snakes to kill them. Iphicles was  wholly Amphitryon’s son, although neither parent was as yet clear on this point, and the snakes were not minded to differentiate either. The two innocents were asleep in the big bronze shield used for their cradle when the attack was made.

The snakes slithered into the cradle and were not discovered until a nurse came to check on the children. She saw the tails extending from the cradle, writhing and wriggling horribly, and with a scream of terror ran bravely towards the bronze shield. The woman’s cry brought Alcmena quickly onto the scene, followed by other attendants and, moments later, Amphitryon and some men of the palace guard.

In one part of the cradle lay little Iphicles, helpless and howling with fear. The infant Hercules, though, was engaged in an almighty struggle against the deadly intruders. By the time help arrived he had throttled the life out of them with his tiny fists, which were wrapped around the snakes, an inch below their heads.

The bitter anxiety with which Amphitryon had been gripping his sword evaporated and his expression turned to joy. He could see the beasts were dead, although all round him the women were still screaming, pulling at the serpents’ tails, and Alcmena, pale and determined, was both weeping and furious. Amphitryon knew beyond doubt which of the two children was his son. The spirit and power of Hercules were the gifts of Zeus.

When everyone had recovered from their shock and the celebrations for the infants’ escape from danger were beginning, Tiresias arrived. He began to make prophesies about the life of Hercules. He told of how many monsters more he would kill on land and sea, how he would bring low men of wickedness and insolence. He foresaw the hero’s future battles with giants on the plain of Phlegra in the war to come, saw him beneath an onrush of missiles. But in the end, Hercules would achieve personal peace for eternity as a prize for his labours and would be awarded a place among the gods.

Naturally the proud parents of such a wonder-child could not lavish enough attention and education on him as he grew up. The best tutors were found in all suitable subjects. He learned chariot driving from his mortal father Amhitryon, wrestling from Autolycus, archery form Eurytus and music from Linus, a son of Apollo.

While the youthful Hercules was not a bad student of music, it was perhaps the least of his accomplishments. In any case, he found it frustrating, and, during a particularly tiresome lesson when still only an adolescent, he hit Linus with a lyre and killed him. As happened so often with this hot-headed man-god, he hardly knew his own strength.

As punishment for this deed, Hercules was sent away to the far Theban pastures on Mount Cithaeron to mind cattle. It was in this remote place that his adventures began, initially with minor activities such as chasing off thieves and frightening wolves away from the herd. When he was about eighteen, however, things hanged.

One day Hercules found himself looking at the mauled carcass of yet another calf, his emotions a mixture of anger and an unwarranted sense of failure. The fact that something was killing his charges the young man took personally. Unlike on previous occasions, this time there was a clear track to follow. The paw prints were those of a lion, and even this knowledge did not alter his determination to hunt the beast down.

Leaving the care of the herd to some servants, Hercules armed himself with a spear and set off alone. He hoped to track the beast to its lair and kill it while it slept off its meal, but the track continued for mile upon mile and as the hours went by it seemed the lion was headed for some far off point, with a purpose. After many hours on the move the young hero wished he had brought along some food of his own and perhaps men and dogs. Cornering the animal by himself would be difficult.

As the day drew to a close and he still seemed to be no closer to the lion, though the tracks remained easy enough to follow, Hercules began to wonder where he might find shelter. The lion kept on, however, not going farther into the hills but down now into a valley below. Darkness came before they reached it and though he was loath to stop, Hercules was forced to find somewhere to huddle out of the wind and light rain and try to sleep. In the night he heard the lion roaring not far off as if to signal that it too had stopped to rest.

At dawn Hercules cast around for the tracks again. The misery of the wet night was made up for by the fresh, clear tracks he soon found. The big cat was again on the move, making steadily for the lush valley in plain view as the sun came up higher into the sky. Pausing only to nibble a few berries, Hercules trailed it relentlessly all that morning.

This was strange country to the Theban lad and he did not know the people who lived there, but he was not going to stop to find out until he had killed the lion or it had killed him. Around noon he heard the sound of lowing cattle. He came upon a herd and shortly afterwards discovered the remains of a half-eaten bullock. The tracks of the lion were much fresher now and Hercules reckoned the beast could not be far ahead.

Just as he sensed he was on the very heels of his quarry, the tracks  disappeared, the earth hardened and Hercules surmised the lion must have made for higher ground among the rocks above. As he was contemplating his next move some herdsmen asked him what business he had in their country. When he told them, they conducted him to the nearby town of Thespiae, where he was welcomed and given food and shelter in the king’s palace.

Thespius, the king, was overjoyed to see Hercules, especially on learning of his mission. Expert trackers would be put at his disposal the next morning, if he wished them, the king said.

“Indeed,” Thespius said as they dined that evening. “We know where the lion has its den, if it has not moved again. We can find the new one if it has, but …”

“Why then, Sire,” Hercules asked, “do you not kill it?”

The king shrugged. “As you see, I am growing old.”

“But your younger men?”

“Have you not noticed how few of them there are in Thespiae? We have recently had a war. Though we won it, we lost many, many men. The lion has killed two of our heroes already and lest we lose more, I have banned all our men from hunting it. We can only track it and hope to frighten it away from our cattle and sheep. If a few are taken it is a small price to pay.”

“After tomorrow,” the young man swore, “you will pay it no more.”

However, unbeknown to Hercules, Thespius had conceived other plans, so impressed was he with the fine figure this young man of Thebes cut. A hero, obviously, through and through, and not to be lightly wasted on any lion. Of course, there was little hope that Hercules could be persuaded to stay on in Thespiae; he took his responsibilities to his homeland too seriously for that. Surely, though, some other, longer-term benefit could be realized from his stay among them.

That night one of Thespius’ many daughters showed Hercules to his room, turned down his bed for him and did not leave until morning.

Enchanted, the young man hardly noticed the next day when, try as they might, the Thespiaen trackers could not find the lion. Excitedly he ate his dinner that night with the king and went to bed early, only to discover another of the king’s daughters escorting him thence. His disappointment was short lived. She too stayed the night and the hero enjoyed her embraces immensely.

Again the next day the trail was cold, though the trackers insisted the lion had not gone back to the high Theban pastures to hunt, or anywhere else. Hercules was not inclined to argue with them. That night yet another daughter of the king shared his bed. Only now did he learn with interest that Thespius had fifty daughters, all of them pretty. Some were widows, others virgins and all had begun to despair of having children to continue the king’s line and secure their future.

With such sport at night and the odd return engagement with favourites in the day time, between futile lion hunts, Hercules was in the sort of heaven a man of not yet twenty dreams of. With his heroic stamina, he was able to take full advantage of the opportunity. His divine daddy would have been justly proud of him.

As the days ran into one another and nearly all the daughters had been his bed partners, even such a beguiling situation began to pale. There was never enough time with the ones he really liked. Equal attention among them all was sought after the first carefully regulated night. Some were not as attractive or interesting as others, one or two dropped out of the game early, complaining of fainting fits and upset stomachs in the mornings.

The jealous, whimsical, disparaging looks of some of the old veterans around the court also took their toll. Hercules had yet to prove himself properly in a man’s world. Yet out of some strange sense of duty and service, and determined to finish a task he had begun, the young man carried on regardless, until the night the last of the daughters of Thespius had been bedded. Luckily, the final few, rather shy, daughters who were his own age or a bit younger had been far less diverting, and

he was left with no great desire to dally with them again. His thoughts now turned once more to the lion.

His mind was set on killing the thing and going home. Both the king and his trackers could sense this. They led him, with an audience of men and women, straight to the creature’s lair, where it had just dragged in a new victim. The lamb, not quite dead, could still be heard bleating from inside the cavern, though this was cut short as the royal party approached.

“Wait until the animal has fed and is full and slow, or even sleeping,” the guide whispered to Hercules.

“No,” Hercules shook his head. “I will take it now. Its anger and agility make no difference to me.”

As he strode towards the cave, out of which growling and ripping sounds could be heard clearly, the eldest daughter of Thespius remarked: ‘And he was such a nice boy.’ Others in the group insisted he had something special about him and that he ‘just might stand a chance’. They were actually taking bets by the time he entered the mouth of the cave.

The ceiling was low and got progressively lower the farther in he went, eventually forcing him to crawl on his hands and knees. All the while he could hear the lion, who smelled and heard him too, its growling growing more fierce by the second. The light was bad and getting worse as Hercules reached the back of the cave, where he could just about make out the shape of the lion crouching beside the torn body of the dead lamb. It was a large male with teeth like daggers, blood

dripping from its jaws as it roared at him and inched nearer, ready to spring.

Wisdom said let the lion charge and use the animal’s strength and forward movement to drive the spear home. But Hercules was not wise; he was young and angry and a storm of ferocious aggression rose in him at the sight of his long-sought prey. Emitting a terrible growl of his own, he charged, as best he could in so small a space. The lion fell back in shock, turned and attempted to leap round him but Hercules was too nimble and drove his spear through the creature’s body just behind its heart. This manoeuvre brought Hercules face-to-face with his prey, which, despite its wound, was still very much alive, snapping and clawing at him as it writhed on the spear shaft.

Hercules grasped the shaft and with all his might lifted the lion and slammed it against the wall of the cave, then swung it around and drove its head into the other wall before lifting it again and this time batting it against the ceiling. The lion though was immensely strong and throughout this onslaught dug into Hercules’ flesh with the lethally sharp claws of its hind legs, tearing at his arm, left leg and side. Hercules redoubled his efforts and bludgeoned the lion even more ferociously until the beast’s grip began to weaken and finally went limp. The ferocious struggle now over, Hercules dragged the dead beast to the mouth of the cave, where he hefted it onto his shoulder before emerging into daylight.

The loud gasp which greeted his appearance was followed by a silence as the group outside the cave stared at him in wonder and horror. His clothes were in tatters, and he was covered in blood – both his own and that of the vanquished beast. With his numerous injuries, Hercules looked almost as bad as the lion. Then the spell broke and everyone ran up to congratulate him and to tend his wounds. The women were solicitous and the men deeply impressed. The young hero instantly recognized the utter sincerity of the gratitude and respect these people showed him. This victory was a turning point for Hercules, who took from it the knowledge that this kind of action was what he was born for. He had discovered his true destiny.

One of the scratches was high up on his thigh and only great consideration would have made it possible for the hero to continue his pleasuring of any of the king’s daughters. The ones who might have been careful enough were too shy to try it and the others were certain to become too rambunctious if allowed, so in the end he limited the amount of nursing he received at their hands. In any case, by this time he was more than anxious to go home.

Word was sent to the herdsman in the high pastures of his father when Hercules set off from Thespiae for Thebes. With fine new clothes, a chariot and horses – all gifts from Thespius – Hercules neared his home. Word of his exploit had gone ahead of him and he was looking forward to his triumphant return with mounting excitement.

He had only a few miles left to journey when he stopped to rest his horses in a little glade. There was good grazing and a brook beside it where he could water his animals and freshen up. As he sat in the shade of a tree, another chariot, headed out of Thebes, arrived and behind it a loaded cart. The man in the chariot jumped down and harshly ordered his servants about their tasks.

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