We continue the adventures of the Greek Hero Heracles (Hercules to the Romans). In this part we hear about Labours 7 to 12 and a lesser known follow-up for poor Heracles – his imprisonment by Queen Omphale when he had to dress up as a girl!
Read by Richard, adapted for Storynory by Bertie.
Proofread by Claire Deakin.
The Labours of Heracles Part 2
The Cretan Bull
Eurystheus did not let up. He sent Heracles straight back to work on his sixth labour. For this one, he had to travel further afield than before. He set sail to the island of Crete, where king Minos was king. You may know the story of how Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, helped Theseus to defeat the half-man, half bull, known as the Minotaur. Now this was a different beast; It had come out of the sea, and the sea god Poseidon claimed it for his own. He demanded that King Minos make a sacrifice of the bull on the beach. When Minos saw how beautiful the bull was, he played a sneaky trick – he took a different bull down to the beach and sacrificed that one instead- but it is foolish to try and deceive the gods. Poseidon was angry, and he sent his bull trampling all over the island. Its hooves were so heavy that they made the ground shake and buildings fall down. Heracles wrestled the Cretan bull, tied it up, and brought it back as another living exhibit for Eurystheus. The king saw the beautiful bull from the top of his tower. He called down to Heracles and ordered him to set it free:
“Oh King, I advise against that!” called back Heracles. At this Eurystheus grew angry:
“Slave, do not disobey me, or I shall strike this labour off and it shall not count,” replied the King – and so Heracles did as he was told. The bull set off over the hills and trampled the fields, making the walls of the city tremble and the people were afraid that their roofs would fall in. The strongman impassively awaited his next order from the King.
The Mares of Diomedes
Heracles’ eighth labour took him to Thrace, which today would be the North of Greece, and the South of Bulgaria. The people of Thrace in those days were very warlike, and none more so than King Diomedes. Now this king had four horses known as the Mares of Diomedes. Their names were Podagros- the fast, Lampon- the shining, Xanthos the blond, and Deimos the terrible. They were totally mad and quite uncontrollable – quite the wildest horses that there ever were. In fact, if they had a particularly nasty trait – it was that they were man-eating horses. Nobody had ever succeeded in riding them – until one night. Heracles crept into their stables, tethered them together, and rode off on the back of Deimos while leading the others behind them. King Eurystheus was impressed to see Heracles riding on the back of a man-eating horse, but he did not want the horrid creatures for himself. He ordered the hero to set them free on Mount Olympus so that Zeus could decide what to do with them. I am glad to say that their fowls were much calmer, and some time later the Greeks took their descendants to fight in the Trojan War.
The Belt of Hippolyte
Heracles’ ninth labour was a more delicate mission. The daughter of King Eurystheus was going to be 18 years old, and he had promised her a very special birthday present – a particularly beautiful belt studded with precious stones. The only problem was that this belt belonged to Hippolyte, the Queen of the Amazons. The Amazons were a fierce tribe of women fighters who lived on the shores of the Black Sea. The belt had been given to Hippolyte by her own father, Ares the god of war. King Eurystheus would never have promised such a gift to his daughter if he did not have Heracles to fetch it for him. Now, Heracles might have been a strongman, but he was no bonehead. He understood that it is always better to try diplomacy before war. He met Queen Hippolyte on her royal barge, and he turned on all his charm. The warlike queen took a liking to the man of muscle, and she agreed to give him her belt. Hera, as always, was keen to cause trouble for Heracles, so she thought that this was all way too easy. She appeared amongst the Amazon guards and called out that Heracles was trying to kidnap their queen. They rushed in with their swords drawn and Heracles did not get away without a fight he had not wished for. He took the belt back to Eurystheus in time for his daughter’s birthday – and I am glad to say that she was very pleased with her present.
The Cattle of Geryon
Heracles’ labours were getting further and further away from home. For his next task, he had to cross the Libyan desert to get to the other side of Africa. His orders were to get the cattle of Geryon, a three-headed monster. Getting there was worse than the deed itself, for the rays of the sun were more irksome to our thick-skinned hero than a cloud of Amazonian arrows. He wasn’t used to taking punishment without giving as good as he got, and so Heracles fired one of his own arrows up into the sun. Apollo, the god of the sun, was so impressed that he appeared in his chariot and drove Heracles to the shore of the sea. There he gave him his golden cup which floated like a boat, and Heracles rowed out to the island where Geryon and his cattle lived. As he came onto the beach, a double-headed guard dog charged at him. He bopped the first one, and then the other head of the mutt with his club. Next three-headed Geryon came at him, with three swords and three shields, all growing out of one body. He did not bother Heracles much – our hero shot the triplicate monster with one of his poison arrows – and that was the end of him. He loaded the cattle onto a ship, and sailed them back to the mainland – but once on land, he had more trouble. Hera sent Gadfly to torment the cattle and they stampeded and got away from him. He spent an entire year rounding them up again before he could return to Mycenae with his prize.
“Now I have completed my ten labours, and you must set me free,” said Heracles to King Eurystheus.
“You are forgetting,” replied the King, “Two of them didn’t count. You broke the rules. You had help slaying the Lernaean Hydra and you were paid for cleaning out the Augean stables. You still owe me two more tasks. Now you must steal the apples of the Hesperides. Off you go!”
And off he went, although he did not like it much.
The Apples of the Hesperides
The task was tougher than it seemed. Heracles did not even know where to begin looking for the garden. He set off wondering the world in search of the apples. Fortunately, as he was crossing a river, a nymph gave him a good tip. She told him to capture Nereus, the old man of the sea, because he knew the secret of the apples. Heracles found Nereus sleeping on a rock by the beach. He caught him by the foot, and the old man immediately changed shape, first into a giant fish, then a massive piece of seaweed, into a dolphin, and finally a crab with pincers – but Heracles held tightly on to him. The old man relented and said,
“So what do you want from me?”
Heracles explained that he needed information about the the Apples of the Hesperides.
“Well,” said the old man, “Hera gave them to Zeus on their wedding day. They grow on trees in a blissful garden in North Africa. The garden is tended to by three nymphs, the Hesperides. The walls are patrolled by an immortal dragon with 100 heads. Even you should not attempt to fight the dragon, Heracles. The only person who can get those apples is Atlas, for he is the father of the Hesperides. They will surely give them to him without a fight.”
And so instead of going directly to the garden, Heracles dropped by to see Atlas, a giant of a god whose feet stood on the bottom of the universe, and whose shoulders carried the weight of the world. Heracles offered to change places with him, and to hold up the world while Atlas went to fetch the apples. As you can imagine, Atlas, who had been holding up the world for millions of years, was pleased to be offered a break. He gladly let Heracles take the world on his shoulders while he visited his daughters. Some weeks later he returned with the three divine apples… But he did not want to take back his old job.
“Stay there, Heracles,” he said, “I’ll take these apples to Eurystheus for you.”
Heracles understood that he would be holding up the world for the rest of all time. That was one labour too far, so he said slyly to Atlas,
“Sure, but before you go, just take the world for a moment while I adjust my cloak. It’s ruffled up onto my shoulder.” Atlas naively did as Heracles suggested. As soon as he was free from the world, Heracles picked up the apples and ran off. This episode shows that our hero was more than just a muscle man – he had brains too.
And so, when he had presented the three divine apples to Eurystheus, Heracles had only one more task remaining. He hoped it would be one he could get done swiftly.
“Well done, you are almost there,” said Eurystheus. “Your last task is a simple matter for a man like you. All you have to do is pop down to the Underworld and fetch me Cerberus.”
“What?” said Heracles, “No mortal can visit the realm of the dead and return back to the light.”
“Well you must, if you want to be free,” replied the king.
Cerberus, the Guard Dog of the Underworld
Heracles, muttering to himself that there were different degrees of “impossible”, set off to look for advice on what he could do. He visited Eleusis, where the priests specialised in the cult of the dead and the underworld. There he was initiated in the mysteries of Hades, and he learned where the river Styx flows down into the Underworld. Not far from there was the opening of a cave where he must begin his descent. In this way, Heracles was the first living mortal to travel down to Hades. After him Orpheus and Odysseus made the same journey, but they had not yet been born. There he met Theseus, who had been imprisoned for trying to kidnap Persephone, the queen of the Underworld. His leg was tied to a table by a snake that had turned to stone. Heracles broke his serpentine chain and set his fellow hero free. Then Heracles had an audience with Hades, the pale faced king of the Underworld. He agreed to let him borrow Cerberus providing that he could overpower the three headed dog without using weapons. This was the sort of work Heracles was used to doing. He soon had the fierce guard dog of the dead trussed up and whimpering like a puppy.
When he brought him to display to Eurystheus, I have to say that for once, the task-master was truly impressed. He told Heracles he could be free once he had returned Cerberus to his owner, and so Heracles had to go down to the Underworld a second time. When he emerged back up to the light of the world, he rejoiced in his heart, for now he had his liberty.
But wait – don’t go – for this is no the end of the tale. Cruel Hera managed to enslave him a second time. She persuaded Zeus and the other gods that Heracles had not yet been punished enough. She said,
“This mortal man has done the impossible not just once, but twelve times. If we let him grow arrogant, he will become a threat even to us gods up on Mount Olympus. We must humble him before it is too late.”
And so the gods gave poor Heracles one more year of punishment. He was made a slave to Omphale, queen of Lydia. She was delighted to have such a strong and handsome man in her power. She loved to tease, and she made him exchange clothes with her. The Queen sat on her throne wearing the hero’s lion cloak, and holding his club. She ordered him to put on her clothes. His giant feet split her shoes, and her belt burst when he tried to fasten it round his great waist. She chided him for being so clumsy. Then she made him sit at her feet, dressed as a girl, and recount his great labours to her. Instead of being impressed, she laughed all the way through. For Heracles, the enslavement to Omphale was far worse than his twelve labours put together for Eurystheus.