Hercules Labour IV: The Erymanthian Boar
The Erymanthian Boar is a battle of rage where Hercules must face his inner temper and learn to ‘cool’ it. This labour introduces us for the first time to centaurs where we see a contrast between civilisation and the wild. There is an interesting commentary on alcohol and warfare and the virtue of self-control.
The fourth labour Eurystheus commanded Heracles to perform was to bring the Erymanthian Boar alive. This beast was causing destruction in Psophis by making attacks from a mountain they call Erymanthos. Traveling through Pholoe, Heracles stayed as a guest with the Centaur Pholos, the son of Seilenos and an ash-tree Nymph. This Centaur offered Heracles meat that was roasted, but he himself ate his raw. When Heracles asked for wine, Pholos said that he was afraid to open the Centaurs’ communal storage jar. Heracles told him not to worry and opened the jar. Not much later the Centaurs scented the odor and came armed with rocks and fir trees to Pholos’ cave. Heracles repelled Anchios and Agrios, the first to grow bold enough to enter, by hitting them with burning firewood, and he shot the rest with his bow, pursuing them all the way to Malea. From there they fled to the home of Cheiron, who had settled at Malea after being driven from Mount Pelion by the Lapiths. Heracles shot an arrow from his bow at the Centaurs, who had surrounded Cheiron. The arrow went through Elatos’ arm and lodged in Cheiron’s knee. Distressed by this, Heracles ran, pulled out the arrow, and applied a drug that Cheiron gave him. Cheiron, with his wound unable to be cured, left to return to his cave. He wanted to die there but was unable to do so because he was immortal. Prometheus offered himself to Zeus to become immortal in Cheiron’s place, and that is how Cheiron died. The rest of the Centaurs fled, each to a differant place: some came to Mount Malea; Eurytion went to Pholoe; and Nessos went to the river Euenos. Poseidon took in the rest at Eleusis and concealed them within a mountain. As for Pholos, he pulled an arrow out of a corpse and marveled that such a small thing could kill such a large foes. The arrow slipped out of his hand and fell on his foot, killing him instantly. When Heracles returned to Pholoe and saw that Pholos was dead, he buried him and went to hunt the boar. He chased it from a thicket by shouting, and when it tired out, he forced it into deep snow, lassoed it, and brought it to Mycenae.
Interpreting The Erymanthian Boar
We see now for the first time Centaurs in mythology. You will note some of the characteristics we have already discussed, that they are civilized to a point but still have quirks of the wild displayed in their eating of raw meat and their use of primitive weapons such as stones and sticks. This is displaying the luminal characteristics of the Centaurs and shows the encroaching dangers that exist on the borders of the wild and civilized worlds.
There is also a commentary on the effects of alcohol here and how it can lead to damaging outcomes. This is shown through the Centaurs inability to restrain themselves from the drink and their violent obsession in gaining it for themselves. Of course this occurs through Heracles own ignorance which in itself shows the reader that pride begets the fall. It is clear that should Heracles have listened to Phobos and not opened the wine, then this tragedy would not have occurred in the first place.
The episode where Pholos admires the devastating effect of Heracles arrows is a commentary on the brutality of warfare. But as the arrows are dipped in the blood of the Hydra, it is also suggesting the Centaur’s amazement at the effects of Heracles transformation so far, and how so much strength is gained through overcoming hardships and successfully learning the lessons they bring.
This episode with the Centaurs foreshadows the meaning of the Erymanthian Boar. The boar is symbolic of over-indulgence, of earthly desires and addiction. This is synonymous in our society when you refer to someone as a gluttonous pig. This aspect of the psyche must be tempered, controlled, and removed for someone looking to achieve spiritual enlightenment.
Heracles drives the boar into the deep snow, symbolic of ‘cooling down’ these passions, and then captures and ties it up so that it cannot continue to devastate the landscape – symbolic for the destruction of the mental faculties resulted from unrestrained desire. Heracles uses a mix of force and intelligence in navigating the labour suggesting that such a task of self control necessitates both active and passive action from the individual. He then offers is up to Eurystheus who is horrified that such an accomplishment could be possible.
Next week we will look at Labour V: The Cattle Of Augeias
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