Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Bird, Bull and Mare

Heracles was well on his way to proving himself more than just a man when he had completed his fifth gruelling task, his Fifth Labour. Desperate to earn forgiveness, he had slain the Nemean Lion, the Lernaean Hydra, captured the swift Ceryneian Hind and the fierce Erymanthian Boar, and cleaned the ghastly stables of King Augeias (for the previous episode, click here). But, to his anguish, the slaying of the Hydra and the cleaning of the stables had been rendered void by King Eurystheus, on account of the help and payment Heracles had received, though in reality an expression of Eurystheus' envy of the hero's prowess.

Lake Stymphalis
Photograph taken by Ulrich Tichy.
Heracles was furious, believing himself to be halfway to the Tenth Labour, finding he still had another seven to go. But there was little time to spare. Much needed to be done. Fresh reports reached the towering citadel of Tiryns of foul creatures of the abyss terrorising the peoples of Greece. King Eurystheus ordered the son of Zeus to set off for the Lake by the city of Stymphalos, not far away on Arcadia, and kill the birds which had taken up residence there. Believing this a strangely easy sounding task, Heracles set off from mighty Tiryns, soon arriving at Lake Stymphalis. Hearing reports that the birds lurked within a great forest by the water's edge, the hero made ready to slay them. However, these were no ordinary birds. For the Stymphalian Birds were sacred to Ares, the god of war, and were fierce creatures. Possessing beaks and talons made of solid bronze, the Stymphalian Birds were flesh eaters, and their droppings were also toxic to living things. The Birds had been terrorising the people of Stymphalos, decimating their cattle, and feasting on its citizens. Furthermore, the Birds roosted within a swamp, which Heracles soon discovered would not support his weight. Just as Heracles began to think the task impossible, the goddess Athena came before him, taking pity on his plight. Giving him a strange kind of rattle, forged by the god Hephaestus himself, the goddess of wisdom told the hero of another of the Birds' many features - they had extremely sensitive hearing. As the goddess departed, Heracles formed a daring plan. The next dawn, the hero climbed a mountain by the Lake and strung his bow. Taking up the castanet, Heracles rattled it with all his strength, creating a thunderous racket. Screeching in agony, the Stymphalian Birds took flight, right into Heracles' sights. Loosing his arrows, tainted as they were with the fiery poison of the Hydra, Heracles soon brought the Birds down. Delighted, Heracles returned to Tiryns, and was careful not to mention his divine assistance this time.

Heracles and the Cretan Bull
Mosaic in the National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid.
Irate once again that Heracles still lived, Eurystheus decided against ordering the hero to slay the next beast, but to drag it all the way to Tiryns before him. Sending Heracles to the domain of King Minos away on the Isle of Crete, Eurystheus commanded him to bring to him the monstrous Cretan Bull. Once again, Heracles set forth from Tiryns, crossing the Ocean to Crete. King Minos received Heracles eagerly, for the Cretan Bull was ravaging the countryside, laying waste to all in its path. The Bull, it transpired, was the divine retribution exacted upon the King for his blasphemy. Some time before, King Minos, thrilled with his domains and grateful to the gods for their blessings, vowed to sacrifice whatever creature should come from the sea to Poseidon, lord of the Oceans. Hearing this vow, Poseidon sent forth from the depths of the Ocean a mighty white Bull. Utterly bemused at the sight of the Bull breaking from the surf, Minos was stunned by the beauty and elegance of the docile and noble creature. So entranced was he, the King forgot his promise to Poseidon, and sent it to join the rest of his many herds on the island, sacrificing another, lesser beast in its place. But Poseidon was angered that Minos had broken his oath. Moving his hand over the Bull, the god sent a consuming madness into the mind of the Bull, causing it to thrash in a beserk rage. Pleading with Heracles to aid him, Minos offered all the support the hero might need. Heracles declined, vowing to take the Bull alone, lest he once again rail in failure on his return. Confronting the mighty Bull in the mountains of Crete, Heracles wrestled the monster. Man and beast struggling for an age, Heracles at last managed to get a hold on one of the Bull's horns, and its jaw. Grappling with the beast all the way to the shore, Minos looked on, rejoicing at the hero's great strength. Restraining the creature on his ship, Heracles herded the Cretan Bull all the way to the Palace at Tiryns, where Eurystheus capitulated and declared the Labour a success. The Labour complete, Heracles released the Bull, which charged off into the countryside, eventually coming to the land of Attica, terrorising its peoples around Marathon. But the arrogance of the Athenians was something all other Greeks gladly saw punished, and Eurystheus was content. Indeed the Cretan Bull would one day father the Minotaur, the bane of the Athenians...

The Mares devour Diomedes
Painting by Gustave Moreau.
For his next task, King Eurystheus bade Heracles go forth and bring to him the Mares of King Diomedes of the Bistones. Since the Bistones were a highly aggressive Thracian tribe, Eurystheus did allow Heracles to take a company of armed men with him this time, as long as the hero simply brought back the horses. Thinking this oddly reasonable, Heracles once again left mighty walled Tiryns, venturing north to the wild lands of Thrace. Ambushed almost immediately, Heracles and his warriors were caught unawares. Fierce though the Bistones were, the Mares they rode were towering creatures, powerful and strong. With the might of Heracles' strength, however, the hero and his companions managed to repel them, just. Coming across the mangers where the Mares were tethered, Heracles and his good friend Abderus overpowered the guards and led the Mares back toward the coast. The Bistones, however, soon discovered the theft, and set off in hot pursuit. Leaving Abderus to guard the Mares, Heracles charged the warriors, who were now led by their fearsome King, Diomedes, the son of Ares himself. Fierce though the Bistones were, the son of Zeus threw them back again and again, until only he and the towering King were left. After a titanic struggle, Heracles made a prisoner of Diomedes, deciding to lead him back to Eurystheus too, as an added gift. However, coming back to the Mares, he saw the animals standing there, but Abderus was nowhere to be seen. Spotting that the mouths of the Mares were spattered with blood, and a few crunched bones at their feet, however, Heracles suddenly realised a terrible truth of the Mares which Eurystheus had neglected to mention. The Mares were carnivorous. Driven into a rage with grief, Heracles hurled Diomedes at the Mares, who proceeded to devour their master. Only when sated with human flesh were the beasts calm once again. Seizing his chance, Heracles tied the strongest bonds around their jaws, binding them tightly shut.

Leading them all the way back to strong walled Tiryns, Heracles presented the beasts to Eurystheus. Impressed, Eurystheus agreed that Heracles had completed his Labour fairly, and offered the Mares as a sacrifice to Hera. Realising that Heracles was more than a man, the King, knowing he had only four Labours left to give, began to conceive ever more daring tasks for the son of Zeus...

United Kingdom

The Library of Greek Mythology:
The Library of Greek Mythology (Oxford World's Classics)
(A vast collection of stories from old Greece, written and compiled in ancient times)

United States

The Library of Greek Mythology:
(A vast collection of stories from old Greece, written and compiled in ancient times)

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