Mythology Mondays: Absolution of guilt

Today, pets, I bring you the last installment of the labours of Heracles. Don’t worry - Mythology Mondays will continue and I may even mention Heracles again (he had a lot more going on than just his labours.)

As mentioned last week, Heracles was originally only supposed to perform 10 labours, but Eurystheus, the man in charge of assigning these tasks, had disqualified two. That left Heracles with two more.

The elventh labour of Heracles was to retrieve the Apples of the Hesperides. The Hesperides were three minor goddesses of the sunset. They were the daughters of Atlas. Atlas was a Titan, one the generation of gods before the Olympians who had been overthrown by Zeus. Atlas’ punishment for his role in the battle was to spend eternity holding up the world.

The Hesperides themselves were charged with a special task - Hera had entrusted to them a tree which grew golden apples. The Apples were said to give immortality.

Now, we must remember that the reason that Heracles was performing these seemingly foolish tasks was to appease the Furies - creatures who tormented those guilty of blood crimes - for the accidental killing of his wife and children. The murders had been committed when Heracles had been driven mad by Hera. Hera despised Heracles for being yet another illegitimate offspring of her husband (and brother) Zeus.

Needless to say, stealing is not the best way to win over the affection of your jealous stepmother.

Nevertheless, Heracles was bound to perform the tasks set to him by Eurystheus, and he set off to find the garden of the Hesperides. Such wealth is always kept secret, and so Heracles’ journey was long. Along the way, Heracles ran into yet another monster, the giant Antaeus. Antaeus was the son of Gaia, the earth itself. He was invincible. So it seemed.

For once, Heracles figured this one out on his own. He discovered that Antaeus himself was not invincible, but that he drew his strength from his mother. And so, as long as he was touching the earth, he could not be defeated. Heracles walked right up to Antaeus, lifted him off the ground and crushed him to death in a bear hug.

Heracles continued his journey to find the Garden. He captured a shape shifting sea god, Nereus, and made him tell him the location of the Garden. It was deep in the Atlas mountains in Libya. The Apples were guarded not only by the goddesses, but also by a massive dragon. Heracles was growing wise to the ways of the gods, and he knew that while he might be able to defeat the dragon, he could not risk incurring the wrath of either the Hesperides or Hera herself.

Heracles had a solution. He traveled to the ends of the earth to find Atlas. The Titan, holding the world on his shoulders, could watch the comings and goings of life on its surface but never participate. Always boundaries and desires.*

Heracles offered Atlas a deal. He would hold the world for a while while Atlas went to fetch the Apples guarded by his daughters. Atlas, stiff in ways you can’t imagine from holding the world for Ages, readily agreed. Gently he slipped the world off of his shoulders and lowered it to Heracles. Heracles was the strongest man in the world, but he groaned under the weight of the world. Atlas stretched a bit, thanked Heracles, and went off to the Garden.

It wasn’t hard for Atlas to get the Apples. He merely walked into the Garden, hugged his daughters, took a few Apples and set off on his merry way. No one seemed to wonder who was holding the world.

Atlas took his time getting back through the mountains and travelling to the ends of the earth. Heracles shouldered the burden of Atlas’ meandering and waited impatiently for his return. Finally, Atlas returned. He looked at Heracles, sweat on his brow, his shoulders hunched with the weight of the world. And he decided he wasn’t quite ready to hold up the world yet. He asked Heracles if he might hold it for a while longer, and Atlas would deliver to the Apples to Eurystheus himself. Heracles wearily agreed, but he gave the Titan one condition. He was getting a blister, he said, from the weight. Would Atlas take the world back for a moment while Heracles arranged his cloak as padding? Atlas, who thought he had won himself a few more months of freedom, agreed and took the world from Heracles. Heracles bent and retrieved the Apples from the ground and walked away forever.

atlas

When Heracles returned to Eurystheus with the Apples, he was given his final task.

The Greek underworld, known as Hades, was guarded by the three-headed dog, Cerberus. Cerberus was mean as anything, meant to keep the live ones out and the dead ones in. Hades was a difficult place to get to for a living human. You had to find away down the river Styx (the dead would pay Charon for their passage, but he was not supposed to ferry the living,) past Cerberus and down into the depths of the land of the dead. But many people accomplish this in Greek mythology: Orpheus in search of Eurydice, Psyche to win back Eros, Aeneas to speak to the ghosts of the Trojan War.

Heracles was to capture the vicious Cerberus and bring him back to Eurystheus. This final task was meant to kill the hero, for even someone half immortal would have difficulty escaping the land of the dead.

With some assistance from his godly family members (most notably Athena and Hestia,) Heracles found his way down through the depths of the underworld, until he was standing in front of Hades and Persephone, King and Queen of the underworld. He asked his uncle (for Hades is Zeus’ brother) for permission to borrow Cerberus in order to complete his final labour. Hades agreed, as long as Heracles used no weapons against the dog.

Heracles went back up to Cerberus, grabbed him and threw him over his shoulder like he was just a puppy. He carried the dog back to Eurystheus. Eurystheus was so terrified of the dog that he jumped into a pithos (a large pottery storage container) and refused to come out until Heracles had returned Cerberus to Hades. In his fear, he finally agreed to accept the twelve labours and release Heracles from his penance.

Ancient Greek law was an eye for an eye. Justice was simple: if you killed, you paid the price. In this case, Heracles had to perform these 12 labours for his greatest enemy in order to balance out the accidental murder of his family. The ties of family and honour in Ancient Greece were strong. If a father was killed, his son was honour bound to avenge him. Thus Greek tragedy likes to focus on the what happens when these lines are blurred. What happens when mother kills father, like Agamemnon and Clytemnestra? Or when son kills father and causes the death of mother, like Oedipus? Heracles was honour bound to make his family’s murderer suffer, and therefore to self suffering. Justice may not be as simple as it seems. Only the Gods could absolve that sort of guilt.

In true heroic fashion, after killing a few monsters and gathering a few treasures, Heracles was able to walk away from his past, free of any further guilt or retribution. Free to wander Greece with more fame than ever, to sail the seas with Jason and the other Argonauts. Either unable to control his impulses or genuinely driven mad by Hera, Heracles repeats this pattern several times throughout his life - killing those who love him and serving penance for a few years. As one of Greece’s greatest heroes, was he really a “hero” or just a brute? Either way, when his mortal body died he was quickly deified and joined the ranks of his half siblings.

*from Jeanette Winterson’s Weight

3 Comments

  • By Sebastian, June 16, 2009 @ 9:54 am

    Wow, an epic finale for a truly epic hero! I’d totally forgotten about his little run-in with Atlas — Heracles had certainly got a little more wily after completing the first 10 trials :)

    I love how the myth just… totally glosses over the whole… earth-carrying thing… I mean… did he run down to South Africa, or something? *scratches head*

    How can it possibly get any more epic after finishing Heracles’ adventures…?

  • By Hezabelle, June 16, 2009 @ 6:56 pm

    Especially since the Greeks thought the world was flat, so it’s a very awkward thing to hold up. Although many times it’s translated as Atlas holding up the Heavens, so he could very well just be holding up the sky? Still, where does he do this? I don’t think they ever really thought about it.

    The Greeks tended to think the end of the world was just past India. A lot of the great heroes go East - Heracles, Theseus, Jason…. Alexander follows them on his search for the edge of the earth too.

    And as for something more epic… I think I might tackle Odysseus. It’s been a long time since I read the Odyssey!

  • By Erik, October 29, 2012 @ 6:25 pm

    Could you tell me please the source of the painting that you are using.. I mean, the artist that painted it.
    Thanks.

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