Hercules Labour III: The Cerynitian Deer
The Cerynitian Deer, or hind, is an interesting symbol in the mythic cycle of Hercules. What we are seeing is a feminine deer bearing the antlers of its masculine counterpart which might be interpreted as the coming together of the masculine and feminine. There is something of interest in its ability to never be caught too, as if it’s hunter is fated to forever chase an unobtainable goal. Let’s read on and discover the meaning of the Cerynitian Deer.
The third labour Eurystheus commanded Heracles to perform was to bring the Cerynitian Deer alive to Mycenae. This deer was in Oinoe. It had golden horns and was sacred to Artemis. Because of this Heracles did not want to kill or wound it, so he pursued it for an entire year. When the beast was wearied by the chase, it fled to a mountain known as Artemisios and then to the Ladon River. When it was about to cross this river, Heracles shot the deer with his bow and captured it. Putting it on his shoulders, he hurried through Arcadia. But Artemis, with Apollo, met up with him and was ready to take the deer away. She reproached him because he was killing her sacred animal, but he made the excuse that he was being forced to do it and said that the guilty party was Eurystheus. This soothed the goddess’ anger, and Heracles brought the beast alive to Mycenae.
Interpreting The Cerynitian Deer
Heracles third labour looks at his challenges in a new light. Though we are working through Apollodorus’ version of the tale, I am referring to a broader telling which you can access by looking into the works of other classical authors. After Heracles had overcome the Nemean Lion and Lernaean Hydra, it was clear that physical conflict was going to be relatively easy for him to gain victory
It is at this point in the mythic cycle that we see Hera and Eurystheus come together to scheme a new plan that that could put a stop to Heracles. They decided they must attempt a new approach where the hero is not allowed to harm the creature he pursues. They then chose a creature with astonishing speed, reputed to be able to outrun an arrow in flight. But on top of all this, the Cerynitian Deer was sacred to Artemis and in this way, Hera and Eurystheus secretly hoped to incite the goddess’ anger against the hero.
Heracles completes the labour using a new set of characteristics that have not really come to the foreground yet. Firstly, we see patience in his determination, spending an entire year on the chase. We see intelligence being employed when sheer strength cannot be. This is related to waiting until the deer has been slowed down in the river and thus can no longer be faster than an arrow in flight. Then we are shown Heracles piety, and how he approached the goddess with honesty rather than deceit.
An interpretation of the meaning behind the Cerynitian Deer can become quite complex. It has been stated that the deer, a doe, may have been influenced by reindeer – as the females of that species bear horns, whereas deer in Greece do not. This also links to Heracles tracking it through Hyperborea which is a northern land. This could be the source of the mythic animal but does not help us progress in understanding the meaning behind it. Rather, we should look at what the deer is symbolising.
In spirituality, enlightenment can be likened to deification, a process which Heracles labours are forcing him to undergo. A perfect being holds in equal proportions all aspects of the psyche including both masculine and feminine qualities. The Cerynitian Deer may be representing this, as the doe is feminine but bears horns like its male counterparts. These horns are further emphasized by being golden and therefore pure. This could be further implied by Heracles being confronted by both Artemis and Apollo. Twin gods that display the male-female dichotomy in balance.
This episode then could be seen as Heracles pursuing the deer to awaken his feminine aspect as it is essential in his progress toward becoming a god.
In other accounts of the myth, Heracles promises Artemis to return her deer safely. He takes the doe to Mycenae and demands that Eurystheus come and take the deer from him himself. As Eurystheus approaches, Heracles puts the deer down in front of him and it springs away. Eurystheus is outraged and Heracles laughs saying, “You have to be quick.” This is a minor detail, and quite humorous, but it is essentially saying that everyone who is on the path to deification must catch their own Cerynitian Deer and that it cannot be achieved until the individual is at a stage of progression where they are ready to do so.
Next week we will look at Labour IV: The Erymanthian Boar
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