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Hercules Labour X: The Cattle of Geryones

Hercules Labour X: The Cattle of Geryones

Hercules’ labour against Geryones is highly symbolic and appears to have been developed later in the construction of his mythic cycle. There are many telling signs of numerology in play including early ideas of the trinity and duality. There are more earthly teachings in this episode that may hint at the virtue of persistence.
The tenth labour Eurystheus commanded Heracles to perform was to bring back the Cattle of Geryones from Erytheia. Erytheia (now called Gadeira) was an island lying near Oceanos. Geryones, the son of Chrysaor and Callirrhoe daughter of Oceonos, lived here. He had a body that was three men grown together, joined into one at the belly but separated into three from the waist down. He had red cattle, which were herded by Eurytion and guarded by Orthos, the two-headed dog that was the offspring of Echidna and Typhon. So traveling across Europe in quest of the cattle of Geryones, he killed many wild beasts before arriving in Libya. Going to Tartessos, he set up as tokens of his journey two facing pillars at, the limits of Europe and Libya. When he was made hot by Helios during his journey, he pulled his bow back and took aim at the god. Helios marveled at his courage and gave him a golden cup in which he traveled across Oceanos. Arriving in Erytheia, he camped on Mount Abas. The dog sensed his presence and charged him, but Heracles hit it with his club and killed the cowherd Eurytion when he tried to help the dog. Menoites, who was there pasturing Hades’ cattle, reported what had happened to Geryones, who caught up as he was driving the cattle along the Anthernous River. He joined battle with Heracles, was shot by an arrow, and died. Heracles put the cattle into the cup and sailed over to Tartessos, where he gave the cup back to Helios.

The monstrous Geryon whom Heracles dispatched is found in Dante's inferno where he is described as the monster of fraud. Here the monster is depicted in Gustave Dore's famous wood engravings.
The monstrous Geryon whom Heracles dispatched is found in Dante’s inferno where he is described as the monster of fraud. Here the monster is depicted in Gustave Dore’s famous wood engravings.

He went through Abderia and arrived at Ligystine, where Ialebion and Dercynos, the sons of Poseidon, stole the cows. But Heracles killed them and went through Tyrrhenia. One of the bulls broke loose at Rhegion, swiftly plunged into the sea and swam to Sicily. Traveling through the nearby  territory, the bull came to the plain of Eryx, who was king of the Elymoi. Eryx, the son of Poseidon, incorporated the bull into his own herds. So Heracles handed the cattle over to Hephaistos and hurried off in search of the bull. He discovered it among the herds of Eryx who said that he would not give it back unless Heracles wrestled and beat him. Heracles beat him three times and killed him during the match. He took the bull and drove it along with the others to the Ionian Sea. When he reached the top of the Adriatic Sea, Hera sent a gadfly against the cattle, and they were scattered throughout the foothills of Thrace. Heracles chased after them; he captured some and took them to the Hellespont, but others were left behind and afterward were wild. Because he had such a hard time collecting the cows, he blamed the Strymon River and, whereas in the old days its streams used to be navigable, he filled it with rocks and rendered it unnavigable. He brought the cows and gave them to Eurystheus, who sacrificed them to Hera.

Interpreting The Cattle of Geryones

Heracles labour in obtaining the cattle was relatively easy, it was the journey to them and the journey home which was troublesome. If we look at this mythic task as if it were any normal, mundane project of some length then we can view the story as saying it is always the unexpected events which will draw out and complicate things. Like a long road trip, it is the unexpected break downs, booked out motels, or gas stations just out of reach that lead to the complications of the journey. Yet Heracles pushes on through all the hold ups and overcomes each issue as it comes, the trip takes longer than expected but through enduring persistence he does complete what he sets out to do.

This is an outer layer interpretation of the myth and to delve deeper into it is to dive into the world of the occult and ancient mysteries. Three is a sacred number, it represents completeness, perhaps a symbioses of mind-body-spirit all working in harmony. We actually see this number come up a lot in mythology, the earth is divided into three continents (Europe-Asia-Africa), the universe into three spheres (heaven-earth-hades) and the mind into three partitions (rational-emotional-animal). When the three are balanced then spiritual enlightenment is near, and this is why we see the number become prevalent in the last three labours of Heracles. We see the three headed giant Geryon (labour ten), next is the three Hesperides (labour eleven), and lastly the three headed dog Cerberus (labour twelve).

The interpretation that Heracles is now reaching the final stages of obtaining godhood and enlightenment is strengthened by the geographical location of each of these last tasks. Eurystheus is now literally sending him to the ends of the earth, and more importantly, he is sending Heracles to the west – the place of death where the sun sets each day. If we look at a map of how the ancient Greeks saw their world, the heroes descent into the underworld in the final labour is like crossing the veil and finally obtaining that spiritual completion. These last labours have been journeying to the ends of the earth, where his ego slowly dies, until he can slip through to the underworld and truly achieve completion. However we are not there yet. Let’s look at the Cattle of Geryones closer before we go on.

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We see on his journey to the cattle, that Heracles is barred by the two-headed dog Orthos. In mythology, this dog is actually the brother to the three-headed Cerberus which we will encounter later. Now the two heads of this dog are symbolic of duality, and specifically the duality within the mind. What we are observing in Heracles mythic cycle is the distillation of the mind until it reaches enlightenment, and at this advanced stage, Heracles must now face the negative attributes of duality. This duality presents itself in contradictions of thought which gives birth to self doubt. Heracles very quickly and swiftly deals the death blow to Orthos and literally crushes that doubt. And this is how it is to be dealt with, and we see that it has to be destroyed outright because it allows Heracles to move forward and the doubt does not return to disturb him. So the author is telling his audience that when you are on the journey, destroy any inclinations of doubt outright lest it hold you up and plague you.

The issue with duality continues though as Heracles encounters the triple headed giant Geryones. Heracles shoots the giant in the stomach, the place where all three aspects of the monster join into one. Symbolically this represents reducing plurality back to unity, which is the goal of the spiritual path in all occult systems. To remove the idea that you are one of many and to replace it with the understanding that all are one is the crowning achievement of enlightenment.

It may be worth mentioning now that the two pillars of Heracles at the ends of the earth may be symbolic of unifying this duality. Perhaps by sailing between them one can be seen as finding the middle path between polar opposites. This aspect of the story may have been taken as literal later on and the Rock of Gibraltar given as the locale in an attempt for aetiological reasoning.

Now, on his return home, we see Heracles being plagues by Hera once again. She sends down a gadfly to disperse his cattle which takes him a great amount of time and effort to recover. This episode works in a similar fashion as that of The Tower card in the tarot. The great tower Heracles has built up to this point, symbolised by the herd of cattle (where each is representative of a different aspect of his hard earned beliefs), is destroyed and scattered by Hera. This destruction is devestating, but it allows Heracles to build a new dynamic belief system so he can freshly incorporate the knowledge of unity.

The episode with Eryx may be a ritual explanation which Frazer would describe as a year-king, similar to what we see in the Theseus mythic cycle when he wrestles Cercyon and has most likely been added to explain the customs of that land. Heracles anger at the Strymon River is an aetiological addition to explain why the rivers waters are poor for boats to navigate.

Next week we will look at Labour XI: The Apples Of The Hesperides

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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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