Hercules Labour VI: The Stymphalian Birds
The Stymphalian Birds are horrendously violent creatures and a task that would shake Hercules to the core. Removing them from their forest was near impossible if it were not for the help of the goddess Athena. Through the symbolism of the birds as servants of Ares, and through the help of Athena, we see a struggle between the blood lust of battle and the calm mind of strategy.
The sixth labour Eurystheus commanded Heracles to perform was to chase away the Symphalian Birds. There was the city of Stymphalos in Arcadia in a marsh called the Stymphalian Marsh, which was covered in thick woods. Countless birds took refuge in it out of fear of being eaten by the Wolves. When Heracles was at a loss how to drive the birds from the woods, Athena got bronze castanets from Hephaistos and gave them to him. By rattling these on a mountain situated near the marsh, he startled the birds. They could not stand the racket and took to wing in fright. In this way Heracles shot them.
Interpreting The Stymphalian Birds
To interpret this short episode we must look at the key details and how they interact with each other. Unfortunately for us, Apollodorus has neglected to give his readers a background in what they Stymphalian Birds are. In brief, they are violent man-eating birds, made of bronze, sacred to the god of war, Ares, and are laying waste to the land around them.
In this labour we see the classic contrast between Athena and Ares. Athena represents the ‘civilised’ approach to warfare, that where rationality and a cool head are employed, and Ares represents the bloody mayhem of battle.
Because Athena is helping Heracles, we might conclude that in this instance, she is trying to reinstate a civilised manner to a particle of warfare that has spiralled out of control. The Stymphalian Birds could represent soldiers who are out of control and thus sacred to Ares. Heracles becomes a vehicle for the attributes of Athena to try and pacify or rectify the problem.
He calls out the wrong doers using the brass clappers and they flee for fear of being prosecuted by the civilised law. Heracles manages to shoot some as they fly away, but the task in the end is ineffective because many escape back to the sacred island of Ares. This could easily be a commentary on the problems of a militaristic state showing the audience the ease in which a force can fall out of control and of how it is impossible to kill such an organisation once it has been birthed.
The true victory for Heracles, however, is in having gained the inner strength to call out against injustice and this is what the author is conveying to the audience in an attempt to keep a harmonious civilisation – the way in which Athena intended it. However, The Symphalian Birds do not only represent external injustice, but can equally symbolise the power for wrongdoing inside each of us. It is easy for an individual to become part of the raging mob – or flock – and it is only through developing our inner strength that we can break away from this. Heracles’ arrows can be seen as outward expressions of intellect used to strike down our own unjust thoughts and are essential to employ for his own spiritual and mental development.
Next week we will look at Labour VII: The Cretan Bull
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