Monday, August 22, 2011

The 12 Labors of Hercules

If there’s one thing you learn from the lovers of Zeus, it’s that the Greeks knew no bounds of… yuck! Yet at the same time, the common man believed his life and fate was controlled by the gods. Something had to give. History has shown us that people cannot live in sick and twisted societies for long sustained periods of time.
The soul has a voice.
It climbs out of the mire and achieves.
For the Greeks, the bridge between succumbing to the sludge or ascending to the sublime, was found in the hero, and no greater hero existed, than Hercules.
Once again, Zeus plays a prominent role, spying the lovely Alcmena while her husband is away at war and taking on the guise of Amphitryon, pretends to be the returning husband just for a night of passion, impregnating the young woman with the demigod Hercules. Yet on the very next night Amphitryon returns, also impregnating Alcmena again with the weak and helpless mortal, Iphicles.
Hera, naturally, is furious, and sends a two headed snake to the boy’s crib to weed out this young heir, but Hercules, even in his infant state, strangles the snake and saves his brother’s life.
Hera flies into rage and vows to destroy the child at all costs.
Hercules is raised like any other boy, he plays, he competes, he learns, but he cannot control his mind or body, and in one instance, in a fit of madness, throws a chair at his teacher. His earthly father, Amphitryon, frustrated by his lack of control over the son, kicks him out of the house and tells him to wander the earth until he learns self-control. This quells his nature, for a season.
Hercules marries, but Hera’s revenge comes swift. Again, she sends the wild man into a fit of drunken madness, Hercules kills his wife and child and awakes covered in his own blood.
Convinced he is completely to blame, he sets out to the Oracle of Delphi, where he is told to go to King Eurystheus, who will present him with 12 challenges or labors upon which to make his redemption.
Hercules, of course, agrees.
Labor One: The Nemean Lion
In the first labor, Hercules is to battle and kill the impenetrable Nemean Lion, who has been running amuck. The battle is fierce. Tussling and clawing and scraping. Yet no spear or sword could pierce the skin of the beast, and Hercules looks like a gonner, but then he leaps upon the head and crushes it with his strength. Hercules then takes a claw form the lion’s own paw and cuts off the skin to wear as a trophy hood, returning to Eurystheus’s court to everyone’s surprise.
Labor Two: The Hydra of Lerna
The Hydra is a thirteen headed snake-beast that pulverizes passing ships in the sea. Hercules sails out to do battle with the beast, yet every time he slices off a head, another grows back. In a rare display of need, Hercules enlists the assistance of his nephew, Iphicles’s son, who cauterizes the severed neck with fire after each mighty lop of Hercules’s sword. The beast is finished, and Hercules returns to Eurystheus’s court to the delight of the people, but to the king’s dismay.
Labor Three & Four: The Erymanthean Boar and the Cerynian Hind
Things begin to get a little testy between Eurystheus and the showboating Hercules, especially after the next two challenges. The Erymanthean Boar in particular, with its razor sharp tusks, but Hercules chases the pig into the snow where its legs slip, ties the beast, and brings it back to Eurthysetheus court for a barbeque, frightening and enraging the king.
He then sets Hercules on a fool’s errand, chasing one of Artemis’s deer through the forest. Hercules runs after the fleet-footed Cerynian Hind for over a year before catching the exhausted stag, returning again to Eurystheus court victorious.
Labor Five: The Birds of Lake Symphalus
With armored wings and dagger-like feathers, the Birds of Lake Symphalus were a nuisance and danger to all the people. Eurystheus attempted to gain favor with his subjects by sending Hercules to destroy them in a win-win situation. If Hercules is successful, the people will praise his decision-making. If Hercules perishes, finally Hera might reward him.
But Athena intervenes, clashing her shield to cause all the birds to take flight at once, allowing Hercules to shoot them down one by one with his bow.
Labor Six: The Augean Stables
Realizing the he cannot kill Hercules, Eurystheus wishes to at least humiliate him, citing his next challenge to clean the putrid Augean Stables. But even the king of the thousand horse ranch states this is impossible, not in a day, not in ten-thousand days.
But Hercules, a true Greek hero of mind and body, thinks his way out, diverting a river to wash through the barn, cleaning out the stables and running the muck out to fertilize the neighboring farms.
Labor Seven & Eight: The Cretan Bull and The Mares of Diomedes
The Cretan Bull was the father of the Minotaur, an angry beast that Hercules roped rodeo style and rode bareback into Eurystheus’s court, causing the frightened king to hide in a wine vase.
The man-eating Mares of Diomedes were a loathsome task, for many years King Diomedes ruled his realm by sending the flesh-guzzling herd out against opposing armies. Hercules quietly slipped into their stables and punched the horses in the face until they were tamed, then he led them into the desert where he starved them for weeks. Enraged, Diomedes led his personal army out into wilderness to reclaim his prize possessions playing right into Hercules’s hands. He set the mares back onto their master, who ripped Diomedes to shreds before being led back to the inflamed and shamed Eurystheus.
Labor Nine: Hippolyta’s Belt, Queen of the Amazons
With this next task, Eurystheus thought he was truly sending Hercules to his death, listening to his own daughter’s appeals for the girdle of the Amazon Queen. The Amazons were a fierce group of women warriors. But of course, they were no match for Hercules, who saw in him a kindred soul of fearless blood, and to whom Queen, Hippolyta fell madly in love.
It was only when Hera again interceded, sending Hercules into a rage and killing all of the Amazon women, awaking to see such terror that he’d done, that no joy was taken when he returned to Eurystheus’s court.
Labor Ten & Eleven: Geryon’s Oxen and The Golden Apples from the Garden of the Hesperides
Hercules battled the three-headed giant Geryon, beating the monster with his fists, but so tired he was in return, that instead of driving the booty-cattle through the sea, he split the mighty mountain of Gibraltar with his feasts, and walked the oxen home.
The mystical Garden of the Hesperides was too far away for Hercules to conceivably travel, thus, he enlisted the help of the great Titan, Atlas, who he tricked into recovering the apples for him by taking the world on his shoulders. Atlas was more than happy to give up this job, but was tricked again upon his return, and Hercules carried the apples back into Eurystheus’s court to the amazement of all.
Labor Twelve: The Cerberus, the Guardian of Hades
For the final challenge, Hercules had to travel, where else, but the gates of hades, battling the ferocious three-headed dog Cerberus. Who he bound and chained and dragged back to Eurystheus’s throne.
The king had nothing more to say. He bowed to Hercules’s greatness and set the hero free. Hercules then spends the rest of his life having adventures and redeeming himself by saving people and performing good, albeit self-serving, heroic deeds.
There are many stories different versions of his actual death, but due to his extraordinary life, he is allowed the greatest honor, to serve as cub bearer to the gods at his father Zeus’s side, at Mt. Olympus.
What I’ve always loved about the story of Hercules, is that it shows we are all born into some kind of tragedy, a hidden shame, a family secret, that we must overcome. No one is clean and the world is no place of purity and goodness. Yet it is our job to rise above. There is evil against us. There are enemies who plot and conspire for our ruin, yet through struggle and suffering we achieve something great: Virtue.
It’s what the Greeks were striving for in their art, stories, politics, language, architecture, and legacy, this achievement. So good luck, heroes and heroines… may the search go on.

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