Mythology Mondays: A hero’s welcome

Okay, I was doing so well at this blogging daily thing for awhile. But then Fable 2 got in the way. And episodes of Gossip Girl. But don’t worry, pets, I have posts planned out for the rest of the week!

Another Mythology Monday on a Tuesday but it’s technically still Monday as I type this so it counts. Right?

I’m going to put the next three of Heracles’ labours together because they were supposed to be his last. Originally the deal was that Heracles would perform ten labours of Eurystheus’ choosing and then be absolved of his guilt. But as you know, it’s the twelve labours of Heracles, not ten. Let me explain.

Labour number eight was similar to a number of the earlier ones: to round up the mares of Diomedes, the king of Thrace. The Mares were uncontrollable man-eating horses that belong to Diomedes (not the Trojan War hero, but the son of Ares.) Diomedes would feed the Mares unsuspecting passersby and travellers.

In Ancient Greek culture there is a principal called xenia - hospitality. It was the foundation of interstate and interpersonal relationships. Under the law of xenia a traveller was guaranteed safe passage and lodging at the homes along the way. In return, the traveller would provide a gift to his host and the subsequent generations of each family would have an alliance bonded by xenia. This was so important to the Greeks that xenia was protected by none other than the King of the Gods himself, Zeus. If a traveller’s right to xenia was violated, Zeus would be pissed. The Odyssey is the best example of xenia. Telemachus is hosted by Nestor and Menelaus. Xenia keeps Penelope from kicking out the suitors. Odysseus is rescued several times by the relationship between host and suppliant. Those who violate xenia are barbaric at best.

From the Greek word “xenia” we get our word genial, though the term is more often translated as “guest-friendship” since we have no equivalent idea in our culture (and a shame, too.)

Diomedes was breaking the rules of xenia by feeding visitors to his horses. Thus, Diomedes was as much a monster as the Mares.

Because of this, Heracles was bound as a hero to deliver justice. When he arrived in Thrace, he marched right up to the palace and took Diomedes prisoner. He dragged the king down to where the Mares were tethered to a bronze manger, and threw Diomedes into the manger. The Mares devoured him. When they were full, the Mares were far more subdued. This allowed Heracles to round them up and drive them back to show Eurystheus. They were dedicated to Hera and allowed to roam free in Argos. It’s mythologized that Bucephalus, the famous horse of Alexander the Great, is descendant from the Mares of Diomedes.

The ninth of Heracles’ labours was to obtain the girdle of Hippolyta. Hippolyta was the Queen of the Amazons, who eventually married Theseus and bore him a son, Hippolytus. The girdle (a waist belt) was given to her by Ares and signified her as the Queen. Eurystheus wanted to give it to his daughter Admeda as a present. This is a case where Heracles’ brawn was a good thing. Hippolyta supposedly took one look at him and was so impressed by his physique that she gave up the girdle without a fight.

The tenth labour was to herd the cattle of Geryon. Geryon was the grandson of Medusa, a monster with one head and three bodies (opposite of the Hydra?) He had a two headed dog, Orthrus, the brother of Cerberus who guarded the gate to the underworld, and a herd of magnificent red cattle.

As soon as Heracles reached Erytheia, where Geryon lived, he was attacked by Orthrus. He killed the dog with one mighty blow of his club. Next, Geryon himself attacked, wearing three helmets and three shields and carrying three spears. Heracles shot him with an arrow covered with poisonous Hydra blood. The arrow pierced through all three helmets and came out the other side, such was Heracles’ strength.

All Heracles had left to do after that was to herd the cattle back to Eurystheus and happily move on with his life, having completed all ten seemingly impossible labours.

But when he returned to Eurystheus, the man had other plans. Eurystheus claimed that Heracles could not be absolved of his guilt because he had broken the rules on two of the labours. For the Hydra, Heracles had accepted the help of his cousin Iolaus when he was meant to complete all of the tasks on his own. For the Augean Stables, Heracles violated the rules in agreeing to accept payment from Augeas for the task.

And so, Heracles would have to do two more labours, possibly two of his most famous. And that, my pets, is a story for next Monday.


  • By Sebastian, June 9, 2009 @ 11:11 am

    More famous?! More impressive? I can’t wait to hear what they were (I probably already know, I just haven’t associated them with Heracles!)

    Interesting derivation on genial (and xenophobia, of course). The other one I’m curious about is ‘Amazon’, because obviously our modern-day of Amazonian women is tinted by our knowledge of the South American Amazon — but back then, Amazonian would have simply meant ‘big, muscly women’?

    What’s the derivation on ‘amazon’ I wonder — and I assume the river was named after it?

  • By Faebala, June 9, 2009 @ 3:27 pm

    I’ve always wondered if you really know all of this off by heart, or if you also use a lot of researching for your posts? Either way, it’s devotion. <3

  • By Hezabelle, June 9, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

    Xenophobia is actually from the word xenos, which means stranger. But it’s obviously the same root as xenia. (My Greek teacher would be so proud!)

    The Amazons were a race of all female warriors and a matriarchy. Traditionally, they “borrowed” men for their purposes, and they either exposed or sent away all male children after they were weaned.

    While no one’s certain of the origin of the word, some people think that Amazon comes from the Greek “a mazos” which means “without breast”. Due to the fact that the Amazons supposedly cut off one of their breasts to be able to fire a bow and arrow without it getting in the way! It’s probably not true though, one of those convenient explanations.

    The word has also be traced back to the word “Amazigh” which is the singular form of a tribe living in North Africa. Since the word means “free men” in various Berber languages, it’s possible that this has something to do with where the name for the Amazon River came from, but I won’t pretend to know much about linguistics.

  • By Hezabelle, June 9, 2009 @ 5:15 pm

    Dearest Faebala - I don’t know it by heart, at least not the stories of the labours. I did memorize the list for my Classical Mythology class, but knowing the names and knowing the stories are very different. Some of them I know very well - Hydra, Augean Stables, and the next two (one of them’s from Weight!) but the others are a bit obscure. So I usually look it up in one of my books or on Wikipedia to jog my memory. :) It’s a lot about me re-learning them too, along the way!

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