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Hercules Labour XI: The Apples of the Hesperides

Hercules Labour XI: The Apples of the Hesperides

Collecting the Apples of the Hesperides is an incredibly important text in Greek mythology. We see many theories on mythic interpretation come into play from the ritualistic theory of human sacrifice to the psychological journey of obtaining self-realisation. Hercules is forced to journey to the ends of the earth to accomplish an impossible task and in doing so we see a road map of the spiritual journey.
Although the labours were finished in eight years and one month, Eurystheus, who would not count the Cattle of Augeias or the Hydra, ordered Heracles as an eleventh labour to bring back the Golden Apples from the Hesperides. These apples were not in Libya, as some have said, but on Mount Atlas in the land of the Hyperboreans. Ge had given them as a gift to Zeus when he married Hera. They were guarded by an immortal serpent, the offspring of Typhon and Echidna, which had a hundred heads and used to talk with all sorts of various voices. Alongside the serpent, the Hesperides named Aigle, Erytheia Hesperia and Arethousa, stood guard. So Heracles traveled to the Echedoros River. Cycnos, the son of Ares and Pyrene, challenged him to single combat. When Ares tried to avenge Cycnos and met Heracles in a duel, a thunderbolt was thrown inbetween the two and broke up the fight. Traveling through Illyria and hurrying to the Eridanos River, Heracles came to some Nymphs, daughter of Zeus and Themis. These Nymphs pointed out Nereus to him. Taking hold of him as he slept, Heracles tied Nereus up though he turned into all sorts of shapes. He did not release him until he learned where the apples and the Hesperides were. After he got this information, he passed through Libya. Poseidon’s son Antaios, who used to kill strangers by forcing them to wrestle, was king of this land. When Heracles was forced to wrestle with him, he lifted him off the ground in a bear hug, broke his back, and killed him. He did this because it happened that Antaios grew stronger when he touched the earth. This is why some said that he was the son of Ge.

Hercules stealing the apples of the Hesperides (mosaic from Roman Spain, 3rd century CE)
Hercules stealing the apples of the Hesperides (mosaic from Roman Spain, 3rd century CE)

He passed through Egypt after Libya. Bousiris, the son of Poseidon and Lysianassa daughter of Epaphos, was king there. He had to sacrifice foreigners on an altar of Zeus in accordance with a prophecy. For nine years barrenness befell Egypt when Phraisios, a seer by profession, arrived from Cyprus and said that the barrenness would end if a foreigner were sacrificed every year to Zeus. Bousiris sacrificed the seer first and then went on to sacrifice those foreigners who landed on his shores. Heracles too was seized and brought to the altars. He broke the chains and killed both Bousiris and his son, Amphidamas.

Passing through Asia, he came to Thermydrai, the harbor of the Lindians. He loosed one of the bulls from a cart-drivers wagon, sacrificed it, and feasted. The driver was unable to protect himself, so he stood on a certain mountain and called down curses. For this reason even today when they sacrifice to Heracles, they do so with curses.

Skirting Arabia, he killed Tithonos’ son Emathion, and, traveling across Libya to the outer sea, he received the cup from Helios. Crossing over to the continent on the other side, on Mount Caucasus he shot down the eagle that ate Prometheus’ liver and that was the offspring of Echidna and Typhon. He freed Prometheus after taking the bond of the olive for himself, and to Zeus he offered up Cheiron, who was willing to die in Prometheus’ place despite being immortal.

Prometheus told Heracles not to go after the apples himself, but to take over holding up the sky from Atlas and send him instead. So when he came to Atlas in the land of the Hyperboreans Heracles followed this advice and took over holding up the sky. After getting three apples from the Hesperides, Atlas came back to Heracles. Atlas, not wanting to hold the sky said that he would himself carry the apples to Eurystheus and bade Heracles hold up the sky in his stead. Heracles promised to do so, but succeeded by craft in putting it on Atlas instead. For at the advice of Prometheus he begged Atlas to hold up the sky because he wanted to put a pad on his head. When he heard this, Atlas put the apples down on the ground and took over holding up the sky, so Heracles picked them up and left. But some say that he did not get them from Atlas, but that he himself picked the apples after killing the guardian serpent. He brought the apples and gave them to Eurystheus. After he got them, he gave them to Heracles as a gift. Athena received them from him and took them back, for it was not holy for them to be put just anywhere.

Interpreting The Apples of the Hesperides

The reader should not overlook that the details from the events in the Garden of Eden in the Biblical Genesis are uncannily similar to those in this story. We have sacred apples guarded by a serpent that are linked to the first primordial man and woman – Zeus and Hera. It should be of interest to us then of what these apples represent as they are the focal point of the episode. In his work On Heracles, Herodorus writes about these apples and their relation to Heracles,

These are the apples the myth says he took away after killing the serpent with his club, that is to say, after overcoming the worthless and difficult argument inspired by his keen desire, using the club of philosophy while wearing noble purpose wrapped around him like a lion’s skin. Thus he took possession of the three apples, i.e., three virtues: to not grow angry, to not love money, and to not love pleasure.

– Herodorus, On Heracles

So we see an ancient interpretation is in line with our idea that Heracles is journeying toward enlightenment.

There are three events in this episode that can be interpreted through Frazer’s ideas of ritualistic interpretation. They are; wrestling with Antaios, the sacrifices of Bousiris, and cursing Heracles during sacrifice. Each of these appears to describe, and thus explain, the certain customs of certain people. I believe this is the case for the third event, but the first two I believe are linked with Heracles journey to enlightenment.

The giant Antaios is a son of the earth goddess Ge and grew stronger when he touched the ground. This could be symbolic of materialism, where Antaios represents the aspect of the psyche that desires for material wealth which grows stronger when it is surrounded by such. Heracles overcomes Antaios by lifting him into the air, for the soul this is removing itself from the material world and placing itself in the realm of the spirit – the air. So Heracles is raising his perception of the world from the mundane to the spiritual.

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Now Heracles did not know where to find these apples, so he sought out Nereus who could answer his question. He wrestled Nereus as the sea god changed into every different shape and substance imaginable but held on until he received his answer. This appears to be a commentary on the ego and the way in which it behaves when it fears the inevitable ‘ego-death’ which occurs during enlightenment. Heracles holds onto Nereus and does not let the shape-shifters illusions distract him from his goal. He gains the knowledge of the location of the apples, in the land of the Hyperboreans – or paradise, which is symbolic of gaining insight into attaining his godhood.

Heracles in his travels toward the land of the Hyperboreans comes across Prometheus and frees him from his daily torture. This is important, we have talked about Prometheus before but now we will pull the threads of his meaning out a bit more. Prometheus’ name means forethought and is telling of the aspect of the mind which is always thinking, always curious, looking for answers and ways to progress. However, he is chained to a rock and has his liver eaten every day by an eagle. This is telling us that his goals will never be fulfilled, he will never know everything. Yet the liver regenerates and the next day is eaten again. This side of the psyche will never rest of its own accord. It will never stop, yet it will never succeed. So Heracles frees it and in doing so releases himself from the need to know everything, it is the psychological acceptance that humanity and the individual will not find all the answers to life and that this is okay.

Heracles’ last encounter is that with Atlas. It is at this time that Heracles must take on the role of the Titan and hold up the sky himself for a while. This may be symbolic of Heracles obtaining a direct link to the divine and for a period sharing in the knowledge of the gods. This kind of interpretation can be met as the sky is symbolic of the heavens. This task is not easy, nor is it enjoyable, being described as taking the weight of the world as we see often in portrayals of Atlas. However, it does allow Heracles to secure the apples, and these he can take away with him.

Next week we will look at Labour XII: Cerberos

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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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