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Hercules Labour V: The Cattle of Augeias

Hercules Labour V: The Cattle of Augeias

Hercules’ order to clean the stables of the cattle of Augeias is perhaps the most disgusting job in all of mythology. But the clearing of an endless supply of bodily waste is symbolic for a spiritual cleansing that we all have to endure on the path to enlightenment. But how does Hercules tackle the task? How do you clean something that is perpetually dirtied? How does he remove the waste that is continually piling up quicker than he can clear it?

Augeian cattle
Hercules cleaning the Augean stables (mosaic from Roman Spain, 201–250 CE)

The fifth labour Eurystheus commanded Heracles to perform was to clear out the dung of the Cattle of Augeias in only a single day. Augeias was the king of Elis. According to some, he was the son of Helios, according to other, of Poseidon, and according to still others, of Phorbas. He had many herds of cattle. Heracles came to him and, without revealing Eurystheus’ command, told him he would clear out the dung in a single day if Augeias would give him one-tenth of the cattle. Augeias promised he would, but did not believe it was possible. Heracles called upon Augeias’ son Phyleus to act as witness. Then he made a hole in the foundation of the stable and diverted the rivers Alpheios and Peneios, which flowed near one another, and caused them to flow in after he made an outlet through another opening. When Augeias learned that this had been accomplished at Eurystheus’ command, he would not render payment and went as far as to deny ever having promised to do so in the first place, saying that he was ready to be brought to trial over the issue. When the judges had taken their seats, Phlyeus was called by Heracles as a witness against his father and said that he had agreed to make a payment. Augeias, enraged, ordered both Phyleus and Heracles to depart from Elis before the vote was cast. So Phyleus went to Doulichion and settled there, and Heracles came to Olenos to the house of Dexamenos to help, he killed Eurytion when he came for his bride. Eurystheus did not count the labour among the ten either, because he said that it was done for payment.

Interpreting The Cattle of Augeias

The clearing out the dung of the Cattle of Augeias is a metaphor for cleansing the mind of falsehood.

Imagine the literal task Heracles must perform. He comes to the stables and sees row after row of cattle in their stalls all eating fodder and defecating where they stand. With only a shovel in his hand, he could clean the barn one load at a time, but he would find that the waste is regenerated quicker than he removes it. This of course renders the task as impossible to complete.

The dung itself is representative of the lies that surround our life, these could be the lies told by others, but more importantly it is the lies we tell ourselves. If we tried to rationalise or argue each lie in turn, then this would be like using the shovel, more would generate as each is faced in an endless cycle. Our pre-enlightened mind is like the cattle stalls and so must be cleaned, but this must be done in a unified push, like the flooding rivers that washes away all the waste at once.

The Labour teaches that the dirtiest work can be performed without losing face and in a dignified manner and that to the spiritual man no activity is degrading. Considered in its analogical implications the Labour shows that the Holy Ghost alone is able to effect a cleaning up of Ahankaric dirt within the soul. No amount of “psychological shuffling” (which is only “spadework”) can bring the same result.

– Dr. G.H. Mees, The Revelation in the Wilderness

Hercules: Greek Mythology Explained
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What we are essentially seeing is that all the falsehood and all of the lies we believe must be swept away in one action of spiritual truth. This is given further meaning in Heracles order to clean the stables in one day – for to spend any longer would drag the task out and cause it to be impossible.

The two rivers used by Heracles, the Alpheios and Peneios, are named after two sons of Oceanos. They can be seen as symbolically representing involution and evolution, when they combine we see the mind moving inward and changing. This is essential for the internal purification of the mind.

Lastly, this labour was not accepted by Eurytheus because Heracles asked payment for the service. This is an important point because it tells us that spiritual development is not one that should involve incentives from the mundane world. Heracles has overlooked the rich rewards that are paid from the work itself.

Next week we will look at Labour VI: The Stymphalian Birds

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About Robert Jones

Robert Jones is a student of history, classics and languages and has been studying his whole life! Along with that he has a degree in earth sciences and shares his life with his beautiful fiance, step-daughter, the tiny minature pinscher Chico and the not as tiny english staffy Bear.

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