Classical Mythology: Even More Beastly Chores: The Second Four Labors

Even More Beastly Chores: The Second Four Labors

Heracles once again returned to Tiryns. The fifth labor that Eurystheus assigned was to rid Lake Stymphalus in Arcadia of its vast flocks of man-eating birds. The crane-sized Stymphalian birds had claws, beaks, and wings of bronze. The voracious birds killed both men and beasts by showering them with bronze feathers and poisonous excrement.

With the assistance of Athena, who lent him a pair of bronze castanets forged by Hephaestus, Heracles drove the birds far away from Arcadia. The noise of the clattering castanets frightened the birds, who flew as one into the air. Heracles shot a great many of them, while the others quickly fled the scene.

The More Things Change ...

American tall tales featuring such frontier heroes as Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill recall Heracles' heroic feats of strength. Just as Heracles changed the course of two rivers to clean Augeas's stables, the giant Paul Bunyan—with the help of his enormous blue ox, Babe—stretched and straightened the rivers of Minnesota to make it easier to send felled trees downstream. Similarly, some storytellers claim that Pecos Bill used a lasso to straighten out the Rio Grande. Such myths often help explain natural features of a region's geographical landscape.

Perhaps to humiliate Heracles, Eurystheus assigned as his sixth labor the noxious task of cleaning the stables of Augeas, king of Elis. The stables, which housed thousands of head of cattle, had not been cleaned for 30 years. The dung from these beasts had created a pestilence and made the pastures of the Peloponnesus infertile.

Heracles agreed to clean all the dung off the land in a single day. But first he arranged with Augeas for a payment of one tenth of his herd for doing the dirty job. He completed the task without soiling himself a bit by diverting the course of two rivers, Alpheus and Peneus, to wash away the filth of nearly 100,000 cattle-years. The rivers not only swept away the dung from Augeas's stables, but cleaned the outlying pastures as well.

Unfortunately, Heracles found himself in a double-bind. Augeas refused to pay what he had promised, insisting that Heracles already had a duty to perform this labor for Eurystheus. To make matters worse, Eurystheus refused to credit Heracles for this labor, contending that he had done it as a job for hire.

Perhaps tiring of how quickly Heracles had completed his first six labors, all of which had been confined to the Peloponnesus, Eurystheus began assigning him tasks that would send him far away from Tiryns.

Mythed by a Mile

Some storytellers insist that Eurystheus withheld credit—and that Augeas refused payment—because the river gods Alpheus and Peneus, rather than Heracles himself, had actually completed the task.

The seventh labor sent Heracles to Crete to capture the Cretan bull, the father of the Minotaur by Pasipha, wife of King Minos (see Lucky in War, Unlucky in Love: Theseus). A beautiful yet terrifying beast, the Cretan bull spit flames and was ravaging the crops and orchards of Crete.

Read All About It

The story of Admetus and Alcestis—and the heroic intervention of Heracles—can be found in Alcestis, a drama by Euripides. The play paints a vivid portrait of Heracles' buffoonish side. What the big hero liked to do best was eat, drink, and make merry. But when he realized that he had been “living large” in a house of mourning, his shame motivated him to rescue Alcestis.

Heracles captured the beast after a lengthy struggle. He brought it all the way back across the sea to Tiryns. After allowing Eurystheus to see it, Heracles set the magnificent beast free. The beast roamed to Marathon, where Theseus later captured it and sacrificed it to Athena (see Lucky in War, Unlucky in Love: Theseus).

Eurystheus next sent Heracles to Thrace, to capture the four man-eating mares of King Diomedes. The son of Ares, Diomedes fed his savage mares on the living human flesh of his naive guests. On his way to Thrace, Heracles enjoyed the hospitality of Admetus, king of Pherae in northeastern Greece. The perfect host, Admetus entertained his guest while hiding the fact that he was in mourning for his wife, Alcestis. When Heracles discovered his host's secret, he rushed to Alcestis's tomb and attacked Thanatos (Death) before he could carry her off.

After rescuing Alcestis, Heracles continued on to Thrace. There he stole the king's horses and drove them to the sea. When Diomedes and his subjects pursued him, Heracles drove the bulk of them away, clubbed Diomedes, and fed him to his own horses.

Heracles then harnessed the untamed mares to Diomedes' chariot and drove them all the way back to Tiryns. Eurystheus consecrated the mares to Hera and set them free to roam on Mount Olympus, but wild beasts eventually tore the mares to pieces.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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