Classical Mythology: The Far Corners of the Earth: The Final Four Labors

The Far Corners of the Earth: The Final Four Labors

For his ninth labor, Heracles was dispatched even farther northeast than Thrace. He set sail for the Thermodon River, which flowed through northeastern Asia Minor and emptied into the Black Sea. Eurystheus sent him there to obtain the golden girdle (a belt used to carry a sword) worn by Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons.

After meeting with Heracles, Hippolyta seemed more than willing to give him the girdle, perhaps as a love token. But Hera appeared in the guise of an Amazon and warned the others that Heracles planned to abduct their queen. When the women warriors attacked the ship, Heracles, thinking Hippolyta had betrayed him, killed her and took the girdle. He and his handful of companions then defeated the Amazon armies and headed back home with the prize.

What a Life!

The Amazons were a society ruled by women warriors, the daughters of Ares. Some say that to keep their men devoted to household chores, the Amazons broke the arms and legs of male infants, making them ill suited for either war or travel. Others insist that the Amazons killed all male infants. The Amazons may also have cut off their right breasts to eliminate any possible hindrance to drawing a bow or hurling a spear.

On his return voyage, Heracles stopped in Troy, where he found King Laomedon's daughter Hesione naked and chained to a rock, an offering intended to appease a sea monster that had ravaged the kingdom. After agreeing on a price for rescuing Hesione (her hand in marriage and some magnificent mares that Zeus had given to Laomedon), Heracles leapt into the belly of the beast and after three days vanquished the monster. When Laomedon refused to honor his agreement, Heracles left, but vowed vengeance.

After Eurystheus presented the girdle to his daughter Admete, he sent Heracles to Spain, where the hero was directed to fetch the cattle of Geryon, a monster who had three upper bodies. Geryon owned a herd of beautiful red cattle, kept under the watchful eyes of Eurytion, a son of Ares, and the two-headed dog Orthrus, yet another monstrous child of Typhon and Echidna.

When Heracles reached the Strait of Gibraltar, he erected pillars on both sides (one in Europe, one in Africa) to mark the great distance he had traveled. Those pillars, still standing, are today called the Rock of Gibraltar (or Mount Calpe) and Morocco's Jebel Musa (or Mount Abyla).

Mythed by a Mile

Some storytellers insist that Heracles himself cut the channel that separates the continents of Europe and Africa in order to gain access to the ocean. Others contend he narrowed the channel to prevent sea monsters from entering the Mediterranean.

Although both Orthrus and Eurytion attacked him as he approached the herds of cattle, Heracles killed both of them with his club. As he drove the cattle toward his ship—an enormous golden cup that Helius had lent him—Geryon tried to stop him, too. But Heracles shot a single arrow through all three of his bodies and made off with the herds.

Hampered in his travels by the cattle, Heracles endured a long return trip to Tiryns. In Liguria (near present-day Marseilles), Heracles killed two thieves who tried to steal the cattle. To avenge these deaths, the Ligurians mounted an attack so numerous that Heracles ran out of arrows and, left defenseless, was wounded. But Zeus sent a shower of stones and Heracles used them to defend himself and force the Ligurians to retreat.

Soon after, Heracles arrived at the site of the future city of Rome (though it was nothing but wilderness then). While Heracles slept, a cave-dwelling, three-headed giant named Cacus—a son of Hephaestus and Medusa—stole some of Geryon's cattle. Undaunted by the flames spewing from the giant's mouth, Heracles entered his cave the next morning and killed the giant with his bare hands. Heracles thanked the gods for his victory over Cacus by sacrificing some of his cattle on an altar that the Romans would later call the Ara Maxima (“Greatest Altar”). In Roman times, this altar stood in the middle of the great city, not far from the Forum.

Several days later, Geryon's finest bull broke away from the herd and swam from Italy to Sicily. Heracles pursued the beast and found it mingled among the herds of Eryx, a formidable boxer and wrestler. Eryx, who killed those he outfought, challenged Heracles to a match, wagering his island kingdom against the herd of cattle. Heracles killed Eryx by smashing him to the ground during their wrestling match.

After turning over the cattle to Eurystheus, Heracles had completed 10 labors. But denied credit for the second and fifth labors, he still had two more chores to perform. Eurystheus sent him to the westernmost part of the world, the Garden of the Hesperides, where he was to obtain three Golden Apples from the tree that Gaia had given her granddaughter on Hera's wedding day. The golden-fruited tree was tended by nymphs known as Hesperides and guarded by a vicious hundred-headed dragon, Ladon, the monstrous offspring of Typhon and Echidna. Over the garden towered the Titan Atlas, who bore the heavy burden of holding up the sky.

Heracles first had to find the garden. He seized the sea god Nereus, an oracle, and forced him to reveal the location of the garden—and how he might obtain the Golden Apples. Nereus urged Heracles to talk Atlas into plucking the fruit for him. So when Heracles arrived at Mount Atlas, he offered to relieve Atlas in return for this small favor. After Heracles shot an arrow over the garden walls and killed Ladon, Atlas eagerly accepted this chance to unload his burden.

When Atlas returned with the apples, however, he seemed most unwilling to resume his responsibility. Instead, he offered to take the apples to Eurystheus himself. Heracles agreed that this was a fine plan, but complained that his head ached under the weight of the heavens. He asked Atlas to hold up the sky for just one minute longer so that Heracles might place a cushion of some kind on his head. The gullible Titan agreed. But as soon as Atlas had the sky back on his shoulders, Heracles picked up the apples and walked off.

Again, Heracles had many adventures on the way home. In Libya, he met a giant named Antaeus, the son of Gaia and Poseidon, who liked to wrestle his guests to exhaustion and then kill them. As they fought, Heracles realized that every time Antaeus was thrown to the ground, he grew stronger, as his Mother Earth restored and revitalized him. Heracles therefore held the giant high in the air and crushed him to death in his arms.

Arriving at the Caucasus Mountains, Heracles found the Titan Prometheus, who had been chained to a cliff for 30,000 years. Heracles shot and killed the eagle that had daily feasted on Prometheus's liver. He then arranged for the wounded Centaur Cheiron—who begged for escape from the pain caused by Heracles' poisonous arrow—to take the Titan's place in the Underworld, and freed Prometheus from his chains.

When Heracles finally presented the Golden Apples to Eurystheus, the king immediately handed the fruit back to him. Since the sacred fruit belonged to Hera, they could not remain out of the garden. Heracles therefore turned them over to Athena, who returned the apples to the Hesperides.

Heracles had just one labor left. But Eurystheus had saved the most dangerous task for last: bringing Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of Hades, up from the Underworld. While in the Underworld, Heracles freed his friend Theseus from the Chair of Forgetfulness (see Lucky in War, Unlucky in Love: Theseus). He also freed Ascalaphus, the gardener of Hades who had told of seeing Persephone eat the pomegranate seeds (see What the Hell? Adventures in the Underworld) and was imprisoned under a rock by Demeter.

When he told Hades why he had come, the God of the Underworld gave Heracles leave to take Cerberus—provided he use no weapons to do so. By wrapping his mighty hands around the Hell-hound's throat, Heracles subdued Cerberus and dragged the beast to Eurystheus. The king quickly told him to return the monster to Hades. With this, Heracles completed his service to Eurystheus—and ensured his own immortality.

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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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