Hercules Labour VIII: The Mares of Diomedes
Hercules’ labour with the Mares of Diomedes seems to be a struggle between justice and the violence of warfare. This interpretation becomes apparent when considering the warlike reputation of the Thracians and they’re association with Ares. As Hercules is patroned by Zeus, we see him bring justice to the land, but is that all?
The eighth labour Eurystheus commanded Heracles to perform was to bring the Mares of Diomedes the Thracian to Mycenae. Diomedes was the son of Ares and Cyrene. He was king of the Bistones, a very warlike Thracian tribe, and owned man-eating mares. So Heracles sailed with his willing followers, overpowered the men in charge of the mares’ mangers, and drove them to the sea. When the Bistones came out under arms to rescue them, Heracles handed the mares over to Abderos to guard. Abderos, a son of Hermes, was a Locrian from Opous and Heracles’ boyfriend. The mares dragged him to death. Heracles fought the Bistones, and by killing Diomedes he forced the rest to flee. He founded a city, Abdera by the tomb of the slain Abderos, and then took the mares and gave them to Eurystheus. Eurystheus released them, and they went to the mountain called Olympos, where they were destroyed by the beasts.
Interpreting The Mares of Diomedes
To look into the meaning of this episode we are going to have to pick apart the meanings of the mares as well as that of Dimoedes. To begin, we have to look into what horses represent to humanity in general. It is common place to attribute strength, power, and wild freedom to them. Diomedes has these horses under his command, so we can infer that he exhibits the same traits or at least uses them as a vehicle. Diomedes himself is described as a the son of Ares – the god of war, and also the king of the very warlike Thracians. There is no doubt then that he is a violent, militaristic man who is obsessed with power.
As we have seen from the Creten Bull, an obsession with anything is dangerous to the individual – but an obsession with violence and power is deadly to everyone. This is obvious through the description of the mares as man-eating and leaves the audience with the impression that Diomedes bears the archetype of the power-mad monarch who has no concern for the welfare of his people.
The actions of Heracles in this labour truly reveal him as being the son of Zeus. One of Zeus’ most important attributes is justice, and Heracles now becomes the vehicle through which justice is distributed. In one broad sense we are seeing a righteous Zeus (justice) confronting an obsessive Ares (warfare). The result being that Diomedes is fed to his own horses and is symbolically destroyed by his own greed for power and strength. Having consumed their owner, the horse are then set free and naturally destroyed themselves showing us that without someone to drive them, these obsessions have no power on their own.
The episode with Abderos is most likely a later edition to the story as it appears to act as an explanation for the city of Abdera. This kind of addition is common place in mythology, especially with Heracles for the individual cities and towns strived to become part of his mythology in a way to advance their reputation in the Greek world.
Next week we will look at Labour IX: The War-Belt Of Hippolyte
If you like what you are reading then you may be interested in my new book Mythology Unveiled. You can find it on Amazon by clicking here. Otherwise, sign up with my list by clicking here and I will send you out a free copy of Hercules: Greek Mythology Explained.