Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The Redemption of Heracles

With one last task standing between Heracles and his ascension to godhood, the mortal hours of the son of Zeus were numbered. Since the curse of Hera eight long years ago, the hero had toiled endlessly in the service of King Eurystheus, travelling far and wide, and facing some of the most terrible creatures which walked the earth (for the previous episode in this saga, please click here). Having thoroughly proved himself on the mortal plain, just one arena remained to be overcome...

Cape Taenarum today
Photograph taken by 'Eliasar'
Having travelled to the furthest boundaries of the Great Ocean, deceived the mighty Atlas and borne the divine Apples of the Hesperides to Tiryns, the contempt Heracles had all along received from Eurystheus was at last turning to reverence. The last enemy that remained to be conquered was death itself. For his final Labour, the King declared that Heracles must descend into the land of the dead, and bring the hound of Hades himself, Lord of the Dead, before him. The beast which guarded the gates to the inner sanctum of the Underworld was no ordinary dog, however. For Cerberus was another of the vile brood of the monster gods Typhon and Echidna (for their role in the Creation, please click here), and brother to such beings as the Hydra, the Lion of Nemea, the Chimaera and the hell hound Orthus. Gigantic in stature, triple headed (some tales speak of a hundred heads), dragon tailed and with serpentine heads bursting from its back, there was no more terrible doorman to the realm of the dead than Cerberus. Excited at the coming end, Heracles enthusiastically departed the mighty walled city of Tiryns on what he hoped would be his final quest. Rumours abound of several gateways on Earth through which one can enter the Underworld. One such one was a deep fissure in the Earth at Cape Taenarum - the most southerly point on Mainland Greece, a prominence which speared forth into the Mediterranean Sea. Southwards the son of Zeus journeyed, until the horizon was the unbroken line of the distant Sea. Finding an eerie silence, devoid of birdsong, the sound of the winds in the trees or the calls of other beasts, Heracles knew he was close. Coming to the pitch blackness of the mouth of a cavern, dauntless, the hero descended into its murky depths.

Painting by William Blake
Deeper and darker the path fell, as the son of Zeus became aware that he was being watched. The shades of the deceased began to stir, and relentlessly approached. With a start Heracles suddenly saw a grim sight before him. Slithering into the faint light, a woman's form, but for a reptilian tail and a head of hissing snakes for hair, the abomination gazed upon the hero. Medusa herself was looking him right in the eye. In a flash, Heracles drew his sword and advanced upon the creature. With a burst of sudden light, Hermes appeared before Heracles and stayed his hand. The messenger of the gods reassured him that this was the domain of the deceased, and Medusa was no more than a ghostly apparition of her former self. The only one of the Gorgons that was mortal, Medusa had been slain by the hero Perseus, and henceforth banished to this realm (for this story, please click here). Her murderous stare died with her. Continuing upon the dark road, Heracles began to see others he recognised. Many souls stumbled forth to embrace the hero, including the hero Theseus, hoping to be rescued from this grim land, but their ethereal hands simply passed through his flesh. Lacking corporeal form, the spirits of the dead were devoid of speech, requiring a sacrifice of blood to grant them awareness. Seeing a paddock of cattle nearby, Heracles started towards it, and slaughtered the largest bull he could find, eager to hear the words of the dead. Their herdsmen, however, was angered that Heracles had dared touch the cattle of Hades, and launched himself at the hero. The two wrestled frantically, the dead circling around them. Using his divine strength, Heracles clamped his arms around the herdsmen's chest, and wrenched with all his might. A sickening crack rent the air, heralding the shattering of the herdsman's ribs. Triumphant, Heracles turned to find himself with Hades himself, god of the dead, and Persephone, Queen of the Underworld.

Heracles and Cerberus
Image taken from a 6th century BC Etruscan Vase
Persephone scolded Heracles for his violence, as Hades demands the reason for his presence in this realm, a realm the living should not tread. The son of Zeus boldly told the god of his task, and asked Hades for permission to take Cerberus. Reluctantly, Hades agreed that he could take him, on the condition that he do so without harming the hound in any way, and that he use no weapons to overpower the beast. Agreeing to this, Heracles ventured deeper into the Halls of Erebus, coming ever close to the Gates of Tartarus. Coming to Acheron, the River of Pain, on the boundaries of the deepest parts of the Underworld (as it is in Dante's Inferno, see here), Heracles glimpsed the hell hound in the distance. Towering, and snarling, Cerberus stood guard over fiery Tartarus. Heracles watched for a moment as the souls of the damned appeared behind Cerberus. Fawning and docile toward any who approached his domain, Cerberus allowed readily any soul to enter Tartarus. But behind, any accursed shade that tried to escape their hellish prison was seized by the hound and brutally slashed. Remembering Hades' warning, Heracles sheathed his sword, but was careful to wrap the lion skin tightly around him. Approaching the Gate, Heracles was relieved to see that Cerberus was calm, expecting Heracles to enter Tartarus. Suddenly diving at the monster, Heracles grappled with its three heads. Like lightning, as though possessed, Cerberus thrashed against the hero. Thrown by the hound's sudden fury, Heracles grip loosened, and Cerberus slammed one of his many jaws shut on the hero's arm. Though in terrible agony from the savage bite, Heracles gritted his teeth and held on for dear life, as Cerberus, and the surrounding Gate, shuddered violently. For an age man and beast struggled, as Heracles began the long, agonisingly slow march back to Tiryns, wrestling the great dog the entire way. With his last reserves of strength, Heracles heaved Cerberus into the hall of King Eurystheus, who was so terrified of the hound he had hidden in a nearby jar. Shouting from within it, he pleaded with Heracles to return it to the Underworld, declaring his tasks and an end, and his oath fulfilled.

The Apotheosis of Heracles
Painting by Franรงois Lemoyne
A wave of euphoria gripped Heracles. At last. At long last he was free. Nearly ten years had passed since he first set out for the Lion of Nemea, and now so much had changed. Now the heroic wanderings of Heracles began, as the son of Zeus travelled far across the known world, revered as a living god by his fellow men. Countless wars were ended by his club, cities were founded in his name, and other fell creatures were hurled to the House of Death by his hand. He fought the first war with Troy, conquered the Giants, travelled with the Argonauts to the Golden Fleece and founded the Olympic Games. It was at the climax of this Golden Age that his final fate unfolded. One day, mighty Heracles arrived in the Kingdom of Calydon, eager to win the hand of the King's daughter, Deianeira, in marriage. Though humbled by the presence of so mighty a man, King Oineus resolved to hold a contest of worthiness. Heracles and the River God Acheloos stepped forward to compete, as the issue would be settled by a wrestling match. Even though Acheloos was a shape shifter, and became the form of a bull, Heracles won with little difficulty, after enduring all he had in his Labours. Delighted, King Oineus gave Deianeira to Heracles for a bride. The two departed happily for new lands, coming to the banks of the River Evenos. By the fast flowing river stood a Centaur, astride a small boat. The Centaur introduced himself as Nessus, and offered to ferry the two across. Seeing that the craft was not big enough for all of them, Heracles bade Deianeira take the ferry, whilst he would swim across. Just as they were halfway across, Heracles heard screaming. True to the debauched nature of Centaurs, Nessus had seized hold of Deianeira, and attempted to steal her away. The Centaur had not forgotten Heracles' slaying of many of his brethren many years ago when he sought the Erymanthian Boar (see here), and determined to take revenge. Furious, Heracles took up his bow and fired an arrow through the Centaurs hind leg. Since the arrows of Heracles were impregnated with the Hydra's poison (see here), Nessus' fate was sealed, as he began to die an agonising death. Seeing one last opportunity to take vengeance, Nessus gave his bloodsoaked tunic to Deianeira, telling her secretly that the blood of Centaurs was a powerful love potion.

Some years later, Heracles prepared to give his final sacrifice to Zeus. Ordering his servant Lichas to bring to him some fine clothing so he could conduct the ritual, Heracles began his preparations. Lichas came before Deianeira with Heracles request. Rumour, however, had reached her ears that Heracles had fallen for a foreign princess. Fearing he would leave her forever, Deianeira took a linen shirt and smeared some of Nessus' blood upon it, confident it would restore her husband's fidelity. Lichas bore the tunic back to his master, who immediately put it on and stood before the sacrificial fire. As the shirt grew warm, suddenly Heracles was struck with blinding agony.

His very skin was as though alight, as white hot pain spread across his body. Unknown to the hero, the tunic was drenched in the blood of Nessus, which in turn was saturated in the Hydra's poison. Heracles, who had used the monster's poison to slay some of the mightiest beasts on Earth, now knew their pain. In desperation, Heracles tried to rip the tunic from him, but his skin was torn with it, so potent was the Hydra's poison. Knowing that his death was at hand, Heracles was struck mad by the intense agony, and hurled Lichas from a cliff, believing him to have done this. When word reached Deianeira of what had happened, she hanged herself in shame. Resolving not to die like this, Heracles built his own pyre, as his strength rapidly dwindled. Climbing on to it, Heracles desperately called for someone to set it alight and end his suffering. Poias, a faithful Argonaut, moved to tears at what he saw, was the only one willing to do so. In return, Heracles bequeathed his great bow to him, as the flames began to lick his body.

The fire blazed, and with mighty tremor and roar of thunder, Heaven suddenly opened in the sky, and the clouds parted. In a glorious flash of lightning, Zeus himself came down to Earth to claim Heracles. The fire had burned away the hero's mortal side, but his immortal spirit was untouched. The Thunderer bore his son up to Mount Olympus, and at last, Heracles entered the light. Moved by his suffering, Hera at last took pity on Heracles, and declared her feud at an end. Welcomed in Heaven, Heracles had earned his place in the company of gods...

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

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