Hercules Labour IX: The War-Belt of Hippolyte
When Hercules is ordered to bring back the War-Belt of Hippolyte, Queen of the Amazons, and interesting power play develops. Hercules is the ultimate model of Greek masculinity but must submit himself to a woman. How does this work for our hero? What path can he take in obtaining his prize if he can not use brute strength, and what does a more passive path mean for the overarching meaning of the mythology?
The ninth labour Eurystheus commanded Heracles to perform was to bring the war-belt of Hippolyte. She was the queen of the Amazons, who used to dwell near the river Thermodon, a tribe great in war. For they cultivated a manly spirit; whenever they had sex and gave birth, they raised the female children. They would constrict their right breasts so that these would not interfere with throwing a javelin but allowed their left breasts to grow so that they could breastfeed. Hippolyte had Ares’ war-belt, a symbol of her preeminence over all the Amazons. Heracles was sent to get this belt because Admete, Eurystheus’ daughter wanted to have it. Assembling some willing allies, he sailed with one ship and landed on the island of Paros, where the sons of Minos dwelled, Eurymedon, Chryses, Nephalion and Philolaos. It happened that those on the ship disembarked, and two of them were killed by the sons of Minos. Angry over their deaths, Heracles killed the sons of Minos on the spot, blockaded the rest of the population and besieged them until they sent ambassadors and appealed to him to take whichever two men he wanted in place of those who were killed.
So he ended the siege and took with him Alcaios and Sthenelos, the sons of Androgeos son of Minos. He came to Lycos son of Dascylos in Mysia and was his guest. When Lycos and the king of the Bebryces fought, Heracles aided Lycos and killed many Bebryces, inluding their king Mygdon, a brother of Amycos. He took away a large portion of the Bebryces’ territory and gave it to Lycos, who called the whole territory Heracleia.
Heracles sailed to the harbor in Themiscyra, and Hippolyte came to him. After she asked why he had come and promised to give him the war-belt, Hera made herself look like one of the Amazons and went among the populace saying that the strangers who had come were abducting the queen. Under arms they rode down on to the ship. When Heracles saw that they were armed, he thought that this was the result of some treachery. He killed Hippolyte and took the war-belt, and then he fought the rest, sailed away, and landed at Troy.
It happened at that time that the city was in difficulties because of the wrath of Apollo and Poseidon. For Apollo and Poseidon, desiring to test the insolence of Laomedon, made themselves look like mortals and promised to build walls around Pergamon for a fee. But after they built the walls, Laomedon would not pay them. For this reason Apollo sent a plague and Poseidon sent a sea monster that was carried up on shore by a tidal wave and made off with the people in the plain. The oracles said that there would be an end to the misfortunes if Laomedon set out his daughter Hesione as food for the sea monster, so he set her out and fastened her to the cliffs near the sea. When Heracles saw that she had been set out, he promised to save her if he would get from Laomedon the mares that Zeus had given as compensation for the kidnapping of Ganymedes. After Laomedon said that he would give them, Heracles killed the sea monster and saved Hesione. But Laomedon refused to pay up, so Heracles set sail threatening that he would make war against Troy.
He landed at Ainos, where he was the guest of Poltys. On the Ainian shore, when he was about to sail off, he shot and killed Sarpedon, Poseidon’s son and Poltys’ brother, because he was insolent. Coming to Thasos and conquering the Thracians who lived there, he gave the island to the sons of Androgeos to live in. He set out from Thasos to Torone, and after being challenged to wrestle by Polygonos and Telegonos, sons of Proteus son of Poseidon, he killed them in the course of the match. He brought the war-belt to Mycenae and gave it to Eurystheus.
Interpreting The War-Belt of Hippolyte
This labour pits the forces of love and honesty against hate and lies. Coming to the land of the warlike Amazons, Heracles knows that he would never be able to win a fight against them with the numbers he has on his side. So instead, he tries a new tactic which is telling of his internal evolution so far. He speaks with the queen, Hippolyte, with honesty and tells her why he has come. She appreciates his truth and freely gives up her war-belt to him. So the audience instantly see’s the power that passive truth has over active lies, and how love can easily out do violence as the quest is completed without bloodshed.
However, this point needs to be established, so the alternative must also be displayed. We see that Hera spreads rumor through the Amazons which they easily believe because they are so plausible. This is a commentary on political deceit and the problems of a ‘mob rules’ mindset that often besets a society.
Now we come to the spiritual pinnacle of this tale which is that of the war-belt. This can be seen as the psychological shield each person holds to protect them self from the judgment of society. It could be seen as an outward projection of ego that allows an individual to cope and defend itself from judgment. This construct of the mind is absolutely necessary in the development of a person, but at a certain stage of life it must be removed to allow for spiritual progression. What we are seeing then is Heracles acting as a catalyst, or as a spiritual teacher to Hippolyte who is at the stage of letting her defences down so she can progress. This is the deeper meaning of why Heracles acts with love instead of force. The tragedy of course comes when Hippolyte is killed by the mob which only happens after she lets her defences down, another kind of commentary on the ego shielding against society.
Heracles then takes the belt and returns to Eurystheus who give it to his daughter. A girl in youth who is need of this kind of mental protection. The question may rise of why one would want to remove their defences, especially considering the fate of Hippolyte. This could best be described through the likeness of a castle. By hiding inside its stone walls, the individual is indeed protected from the outside world, but the walls also act as a prison in which the person is trapped within. The castle should be seen as a tool for progression instead of a lifestyle choice. By developing strength within the walls, one can then leave its safety to experience the world around them.
Aside from the psychological importance of this story, there are some other facets we should look into. There is a beautiful description of the Amazons and their mythic culture which is probably a commentary on some of the tribes in eastern Europe and Turkey encountered by the ancient Greeks. Their society is maternal, centred on the feminine aspect, but in a surprising turn of events, they take on masculinity through deforming their own bodies. We are given a practical explanation of why the right breast is removed, but it could also be seen as a way that these warrior women could take on the dual roles of a nurturing mother and as a super masculine fighter.
We are also given some aetiological explanations for place names such as Heracleia, and a ritualistic story of human sacrifice at Troy. This latter explanation was probably a later addition to explain the outrageous custom or rumour of human sacrifice.
Next week we will look at Labour X: The Cattle Of Geryones
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