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THE MYTH MAN'S
MYTH OF THE MONTH
July
HERACLES
PART III
(The Twelve Labors)

Hercules - The Labors

by Nick Pontikis
(with apologies to grandpa Hessiod and uncle Homer)

Note: If you haven't read Part I or Part II yet, do so first,
or some material in Part III may be Greek to you

PROLOGUE

(When my nephew Hercules "awoke" from the madness inflicted upon him by spiteful Hera and discovered that he had slaughtered his own beloved wife and children, he was crushed. It was a sad, sad day.

Once he snapped out of his lengthy funk, Heracles journeyed to holy Mount Helicon, where he sought out and was purified by King Thespius. The good king was more than glad to do so, seeing as Herc at eighteen had fathered fifty-one sons with King Thespius's fifty daughters. Remember that? Oh my...

That seemed so long ago to Herc...So long ago...When Pythia the Pythoness, Apollo's Oracle at Delphi, made it clear to him that he would have to perform twelve labors for King Eurystheus before he found inner peace, not to mention immortality, my nephew set off on the greatest heroic Odyssey since, well... the Odyssey.

Grandpa Hesiod once told me that the Pythoness down at Delphi was having a particularly bad PMS day when Hercules dropped in, so she was in a rather foul mood. "That's all Herc needed, an Oracle with ESP and PMS - Talk about a know-it-all *itch!" he said.

Why don't you pull up a comfy chair and come along for the mythical ride? It promises to be a magical mystery tour, filled with horrible beasts, bad puns, heroic feats, hunks built like Greek gods and beautiful maidens galore...)

EURYSTHEUS, YOU'RE A PUNK!

King Eurystheus was so excited he nearly soiled his toga! A wimp and a coward at heart, he owed his throne to Hera, who had delayed the birth of the rightful heir, Heracles, until Eury had sprung forth, two months premature (see Part 1). Now here was Hercules, the greatest hero who ever lived, ready to serve at his beck and call for twelve years.

"Be still my heart!" cried Eurystheus, unable to contain his joy at this great fortune. Hey, those annual hefty political contributions to the Pythoness's Oracle of Delphi re-election fund sure paid off handsomely, he thought... I must remember to double it next year!

Deep down, Eury hoped to see Heracles fail miserably - In his eyes, that would legitimize his own puny existence. He couldn't wait to get rid of him. As a first labor, he charged Hercules with killing and flaying the Nemean Lion.

"Bring me back his pelt, Herc!" he smirked, "I just love wearing exotic fur, especially if it's from an endangered specie!" Ta-ta, I won't be seeing you again, he was ready to add; the endangered specie is you, Herc!

Jerk! I'm here to tell you, King Eurystheus was a royal punk! But Herc showed him! Boy, did he ever...

LABOR ONE
THE NEMEAN LION

The Nemean Lion was an enormous beast twice the size of a large bear, with huge jaws and razor-sharp teeth. Very ill-tempered.

That was the good news. The bad news was, its pelt was impenetrable. Neither iron, nor bronze, nor stone could pierce it. Very similar to hospital food, only not as tough.

Some say that the Nemean Lion was the offspring of Typhon, or of the Chimera and the Dog Orthrus; yet others claim that Selene bore it with a fearful shudder and dropped it on earth. You see, as punishment for a promised sacrifice that was not fulfilled, she set it to prey upon the people who dared dishonor her, the story goes.

(I can still hear the heated discussions, after hours late night down at Thanasi's Olympus Greek Restaurant:

Hesiod: "Hey, I wrote the book, so I should know whodunit. Python was responsible for the Nemean Lion. Vicki, more Ambrosia please."

Demodocus: "At Hera's request, Selene created the Lion from sea foam enclosed in a large ark. Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, binding it with her girdle, carried it to the Nemean mountains. Sorry Hes, I normally defer to you, but on this point you stand corrected."

Pindar: "It's two against one, Hes: The Nemean mountains were named after a daughter of Zeus and Selene, and the Lion's cave is still a must-visit tourist trap, located about two miles from the city of Nemea. My cousin is a tour guide there, perhaps I can arrange a complimentary visit for you."

And so it would go, until Eos, the goddess of the Dawn, would knock on the window and remind us to go home...)

At any rate, Hercules arrived at Cleonae, where he lodged at the house of a shepherd named Molorchus, whose son the Lion had killed. Molorchus was about to sacrifice a ram to Hera. Whoa, there! Hold on, pal! Hera, did you say? Heracles would have none of that!

He asked Molorchus to wait thirty days. "If I return safely, sacrifice to Savior Zeus; if I do not, sacrifice to me as a hero! Just don't sacrifice to Hera, she makes me mad!"

In more ways than one. Herc reached Nemea at midday but found nobody to direct him, since the Lion had de-populated the entire area. Presently he located the Lion as it returned to its lair, covered in blood from the day's slaughter. An expert marksman, Heracles unleashed a torrent of arrows at the beast.

The Lion licked its chops bemused, as the arrows rebounded harmlessly off its thick hide. It yawned as Hercules stabbed it with his frightful sword, given to him by Hermes. Incredibly, the weapon bent as if made of soft lead, and worst of all, the warranty had just expired. Herc hated when that happened!

Finally Heracles heaved up his club and delivered a stunning blow to the muzzle of the animal that would have done Babe Ruth proud. This had a tiny effect on the beast, for it got up and entered its cave. Herc, casting a rueful glance at his shattered Louisville Slugger, decided to take matters into his own hands.

He placed a net at one entrance to the Lion's cave and went in by the other. Knowing that weapons were useless against the Nemean Lion, he began wrestling with it. That's when the Lion bit off one of my nephew's fingers.

Bad, bad Lion! Naughty Lion! Now Herc was *issed! The world's strongest man squeezed with all his might until all life left the beast.

Hercules 2 - Lions 0, for those of you keeping score at home.

Heracles returned to Cleonae with the carcass slung over his shoulder, and found Molorchus about to offer him a heroic sacrifice, it being the thirtieth day. Instead, together they sacrificed to my godfather, Savior Zeus. My nephew then proceeded back to Mycanae, to present the carcass to that sissy, Eurystheus.

Even though the Lion was dead, Eury was terrified. After he changed his underwear, he ordered Hercules to immediately remove the nasty Lion and never again to enter the city with scary creatures, dead or alive. In the future he was to display the fruits of his Labors outside the gates.

Wimp! Still trying to control his bowels, Eurystheus had his smiths forge him a bronze jar, which he buried beneath the earth. He set his watchmen on the city walls and henceforth, whenever the approach of Herc was signaled, he hid in the urn, and sent his orders by a herald.

A hero dies only once, a coward a thousand times - Evidently, one thousand to one odds sounded real good to Eurystheus...

At first Herc was at a loss as to how to skin the Lion. All objects shattered next to the thick hide. But my nephew was a clever man - He used the beast's own razor-sharp claws to flay the animal, and in no time was wearing the invulnerable pelt as armour, and the head as a helmet. His exotic fashion statement became all the rage in Greece, and Olympian Dior wasted no time in prominently featuring its Nemean Lion line in its fall fashion show.

LABOR TWO
THE LERNEAN HYDRA

Eurystheus next ordered Heracles to destroy the Lernean Hydra, another monster born to Typhon and Echidna. The Hydra had been reared by thoughtful Hera simply as a menace to my nephew Herc.

Lerna, a fertile and holy district, was terrorized by the Hydra, which had a monstrous, dog-like body and nine snaky heads. It was so venomous that its very breath, or even the smell of its tracks, could kill.

That was the good news. The bad news was, one of the nine heads was immortal. Oh my...

In his honor, the Lerneans tossed a mega-party when Heracles arrived (hey, it's not every day that a demi-god comes to kick some Hydra butt! For free!) and the next morning Herc was still a tad hung over, so he asked Iolaus, his step-brother Iffy's boy, to drive the chariot.

"Give me a shout when you catch sight of the Hydra, I'm going to lay back and catch some z's, Iolaus," he told his nephew.

No need for Iolaus to shout - the stench woke up Herc a mile away. Whew! What died? Evidently, personal hygiene wasn't high on the Hydra's priority list. Truth be told, the killer smell made it impossible for the Hydra to get any dates or establish any meaningful relationships, which only tended to make it yet more crabby.

Did I mention that Athena, Hephaestus and Hermes helped Herc all along? Man, talk about guardian angels! Heracles had consulted Athena on the best way to dispose of the Hydra, and now he set her plan in motion.

He showered the Hydra with flaming arrows, forcing it to emerge from its lair. Its presence was literally breath-taking. Doing his best to keep from fainting from the stench, he grabbed hold of the monster. In turn, the Hydra wrapped itself around him, twining around his feet in an attempt to trip him. Herc rained down blows on its head with his new Louisville Slugger, but for naught! No sooner was one head crushed, than two more grew in its place.

Never was the cliche "two heads are better than one" more trite than in this particular instance. Just when it appeared that things couldn't get much worse, they did. Hearing the furious sounds of battle, an enormous crab raced over from the swamp to aid the Hydra, doing its damnedest to make lunch of Herc's leg. Bummer. Hate when that happens!

Well, enough already! Visualizing Hera's beloved face on the crab's head, Hercules crushed its shell with a succession of blows. "Take that, Hera! And that!"

Poor crab had no chance. 'Why is he calling me Hera,' it wondered, in the throes of dying...

Herc shouted out to Iolaus that it was barbecue time. His nephew set a corner of the grove on fire and handed Heracles a burning branch. To prevent the Hydra from sprouting new heads, Hercules seared their roots with the blazing wood, stopping the flow of blood.

Using a golden sword given him by Hephaestus, Heracles severed the immortal head and buried it, still hissing, under a heavy rock. He cut the carcass into pieces and dipped his arrows in the gall. From that point on, a mere nick from these poisoned arrows was fatal.

Pain in the neck Hera rewarded the crab by setting its image among the twelve signs of the Zodiac. And to add injury to insult, that puny punk Eurystheus refused to count the Labor.

"Iolaus supplied the fire-brands, Herc. I'm afraid I can't count this one, you had help!" he shouted out from inside his subterranean jar...

Jerk. He even commissioned this real un-flattering portrait of the Labor, to rub it in yet further. Herc once told me that he loathed it, for it made him look like a real creep...

LABOR THREE
THE CERYNEIAN HIND

When Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, was still young she saw five hinds, which are female red deer. They were larger than bulls and the sun twinkled on their golden horns. Pursuing them, swift Artemis caught four bare handed and harnessed them to her chariot. Hera had arranged for the fifth one to escape to the Ceryneian Hills, in anticipation of Herc's third Labor. What a dear.

Eurystheus next charged Heracles with delivering him the Ceryneian Hind. "After we cut out its golden horns, we'll toss it on the fire and have us a real down-home mutton-fest, Herc!" he chortled. "We'll even invite your rowdy cousin Danny, he always brings you the absolute best wines!"

Good luck, he thought to himself. If fleet-footed Artemis can't catch the speedy little devil, you surely aren't about to! I won't be seeing you anytime soon, handsome... good riddance, you muscle-ridden stud!

I'm here to tell you that Eurystheus was an oaf. He even blew his one chance at greatness - He was one of the hunters at the storied Calydonian Boar Hunt, and had the initial point-blank shot at the beast. Needless to say, the coward in his fear managed to only graze the still animal, which became enraged and mauled a couple of heroic types, before gorgeous Atalanta and the gang demolished it.

Unfortunately, neither of the dead heroic types was named Eurystheus. More on that later...You'll just LOVE my second cousin Atalanta!

For one full year Heracles pursued the deer, tirelessly stalking it but taking great pains to capture it alive. He could have brought it down on numerous occasions but that would entail killing it. It's bad enough having Hera on his case, the last thing he wanted was to rouse the wrath of Artemis by hurting her favorite pet.

Exhausted at last, the Hind took refuge on Mount Artemisium. Afraid that the deer was going to escape across the river Ladon, dead-eye Herc let loose an arrow (making certain that it wasn't the "dipped in Hydra's blood" type) and pinned the deer's forelegs. The arrow passed between bone and sinew, drawing no blood. Laying the captured animal across his shoulders, Heracles hastened home.

That's when he ran into Artemis and her twin brother Apollo, the god of light, and let me tell you, Artemis was not happy. She was ready to take away the Hind and render punishment most severe upon Herc's own behind, when my nephew spoke up.

Fervently apologizing to the great goddess, he explained that he was only following the orders of Zeus and her bro Apollo's own Oracle, the Pythoness, who had instructed him to do the bidding of Eurystheus. If anyone should be punished, it should be that punk Eury, who had ordered the capture of her royal Hind. And he planned on eating it!

"I think Eury's motives regarding the Hind are somewhat less than palatable, Cynthia!" Herc told her. (She only permitted her closest friends to call her Cynthia! Oh my. My nephew had chutzpah, didn't he?)

"And you may want to have Helios keep an eye on him, if Eury ever emerges from his underground jar, Sunshine," he said to Apollo. (Good thing Herc didn't call him Cynthius, Apollo hated that name with a passion! Now, "Sunshine", he thought that was rather original...)

Artemis let go of her anger and healed the Hind's wound. One late night down at Thanasi's Olympus Apollo told me that in all honesty his sister was amazed that my nephew had managed to capture relatively unharmed the trophy which had eluded even herself.

"Let's just say sis was impressed, Myth Man dude," he grinned. "Besides, I wouldn't have let her harm Herc. Nobody had called me Sunshine before! Also, one of these days all us gods are going to have to call on your nephew to save us from the Giants. You don't think I just happened to be there by accident, do you?"

I kept forgetting that Apollo knew everything, even the future. Neat skill, came in useful on more than one occasion, but it was rather disconcerting at times.

To fulfill the directive of Pythia the Pythoness, Artemis permitted Heracles to carry the deer alive to Mycanae, but warned that if Eurystheus even thought of turning her pet into dinner, she would personally seal him tight inside his jar, or words to that effect.

"Tell the creep that if he touches a hair on my Hind, I will roast his behind!" she told Hercules as they parted.

Oh dear. Needless to say, coward Eury treated the Hind like one of his own children. What a revolting turn of events for him. How he wished that he had never dreamed up this particular labor.

Ah, hindsight...Too late, Eury, you have a tough roe to hoe...

LABOR FOUR
THE ERYMANTHIAN BOAR

Eurystheus was determined that Herc's next labor would be his last. He wanted my nephew dead and out of the way, this wasn't fun any more. Dispatching his scouts throughout the land, he ordered them to seek a task so difficult that even the greatest hero who ever lived couldn't complete it.

The scouts returned with sordid stories of a fierce and enormous beast which haunted the slopes of Mount Erymanthus. Uncle Homer once told me that the mountain was named after Erymanthus, a son of Apollo. This unfortunate soul one day chanced to walk by a spring and had observed my cousin Aphrodite bathing her fair body.

Now, cousin Aphro is no prude, but instead of revealing himself, Erymanthus hid behind the cypress trees and peeped to his heart's content. Realizing that she was being watched, Aphrodite decided to teach the pervert a lesson - Emerging naked from the water, other than the sun gleaming off her golden girdle, her incredible beauty in its totality was enough to blind poor Erymanthus.

(At least the last thing he saw left a lasting impression...Oh my...I had often seen cousin Aphro in her "totality", but I always remembered to first put on my Helios glasses...)

Uncle Homer claimed that to avenge his son Apollo turned himself into a boar and killed Aphro's lover Adonis, but grandpa Hesiod insists that "it was that creep Ares who did-in lover-boy, Homey. And the bathing beauty was Artemis, not Aphrodite."

Regardless. While they fight it out, down at Thanasi's Olympus, why don't we just carry on with our story.

The Erymanthian Boar was one of the most feared beasts in Greece. It was rumored that even Medusa was petrified of it. A huge wild pig with terrific tusks growing out of its mouth, it was real ornery, to boot.

Every day the monster would come crashing down from its lair on the mountain, impaling and stomping any human and animal in its path, leaving a scene of devastation in its wake - rather akin to a visit by a famished football team to an all-you-can-eat buffet down at Thanasi's Olympus...

That was the good news. The bad news was that Heracles couldn't kill it, but had to capture this unholy terror and bring it back alive.

Perfect, thought Eurystheus. Ciao, Herc! Won't be seeing you again!

Wrong again, chump! Eury, you're such a bore!

a centaur for your thoughts...

On his way to Erymanthus to capture the porker, Herc stopped by to visit an old friend, Pholus the Centaur, who, like all Centaurs, was man from the torso up and the rest horse. Now, Centaurs in general had a bad reputation, especially after their drunken rampage at the wedding of Pirithous.

Remember that vile incident? The Centaurs, devoted followers of my popular cousin Dionysus, had been invited to a wedding feast and had paid too much homage to their patron, abusing the open bar. In a drunken frenzy they had attempted to violate the bride and they managed to molest a number of female guests. A fierce battle ensued, leaving many Centaurs dead. The survivors in disgrace were exiled from Thesally, their home.

Hey, that'll teach them to horse around at weddings.

Of course, there were exceptions to the rule: Chiron the Centaur, famous teacher of super dudes like Achilles and Jason, was a wise and respected mentor, as was the aforementioned Pholus. The perfect host, he proceeded to set roast meat before Heracles, even though he ate his raw. Not wanting to appear ungrateful, but thirsting following his long journey, Herc asked Pholus for a glass of the famous Centaur wine.

Pholus pretended not to hear. He was reluctant to open the communal wine jar without permission from his kinsmen, their quick temper was legendary. When Hercules repeated his request, he explained his dilemma. That's when my nephew reminded Pholus that it was the very jar which Dionysus had left in the cave just for this occasion. Pholus knew this, but was amazed that Herc remembered, for Danny had dropped off the wine four generation earlier.

Now there's some fine aged wine. Pholus reluctantly poured it.

Sure enough the other Centaurs soon caught whiff of the strong wine and galloped to the scene of the crime, enraged that they were neither consulted nor invited. True to their horrid rep, they attacked my nephew armed with great rocks, up-rooted fir trees, butchers' axes, wine corkscrews and firebrands. Poor Pholus scurried for cover underneath the table (quite a feat for a centaur!) while the world ended around him.

Ancius and Agrius, Herc's first two assailants, were repelled by a torrid volley of firebrands. Suddenly a shower of rain loosened Herc's bow-string and made the ground slippery. It was Nephele, the Centaur's grandmother up in the clouds, aiding her grandchildren.

Right, as if that was going to stop Herc! A crushing blow to the skull with his trusty Louisville Slugger stopped Oreus dead in his tracks and Hylaeus, evidently not a quick study, next followed suit. Dead Centaurs littered the room and the ones who escaped fled as far as Malea. Some, the smarter ones, are still galloping.

Sadly a parting arrow from Heracles's bow passed through Elatus's arm and pierced Chiron's knee, who had just arrived to restore calm. Devastated by the accident to his old friend, who lay howling in pain at the Hydra-dipped arrow wound, Herc tried to comfort his buddy. Chiron's agony was great but he could not die because he was immortal. Prometheus later offered to accept immortality in his stead, permitting Chiron to die. In tribute Zeus placed him in the sky as the constellation Sagittarius. More on that when Herc meets Pro...

Herc set off to capture the Erymanthian Boar and Pholus buried his dead kinsmen. While examining the wounds he drew out one of Herc's arrows and wondered how something so small could flatten a robust and charging Centaur. The arrow slipped from his hand and struck him on the foot, drawing blood.

Within seconds, Pholus had his answer, as he lay dying. It was the Hydra blood which rendered the arrows so deadly, stupid. Heracles cut short his hunt and returned to render proper burial to his friend, placing him with unusual honors at the foot of the mountain which has taken his name.

Bummer. Pholus was a decent man. Horse. Man. Horse. Whatever...

But nephew Herc was now enraged. He had lost two good riding buddies and all for naught - there was enough wine for everyone. Woe be to the Boar! An irate Hercules was a fearsome sight.

Soon Heracles heard the beast as it stomped and snorted in search of fresh meat. He turned the tables on the Boar and the hunter became the hunted. Shouting as loud as he could, Herc chased the startled behemoth around and round the mountain, until the exhausted and terrified Boar sought refuge in a thicket. Poking it with his spear, Heracles drove the huge animal into a snow drift and sprang upon its back.

Yee-haw! Ride'em boar-boy! Try as it might, the pig was unable to shake Herc off his back. It bucked and gyrated as my delighted nephew hooted and hollered at it. The earth shook and in faraway villages the peasants thought Zeus was hurling thunderbolts at some unfortunate mortal. Little did the villagers know that they were hearing the world's first rodeo competition.

Busted and suddenly docile, the feared Erymanthian Boar finally collapsed in a heap, having met its master. Binding it with chains, Herc carried it alive on his shoulders to Mycenae.

(Years later I inquired why he didn't just ride the Boar into town. He replied that he had considered it, but he needed the workout.)

I was anxiously waiting for my nephew outside the marketplace to tell him that I was splitting with Jason and the Argonauts on the Quest for the Golden Fleece. Hearing this, Hercules hurriedly dropped the boar and didn't even wait for further orders from that sissy Eurystheus, who naturally was hiding in his bronze jar, having heard Herc was back in town.

You see, if there's one thing that my nephew can't handle, it's missing out on an adventure. And the Quest held out such great promise! The other eight Labors could wait. Hercules was going on a cruise!

"Tell Jay and the 'Nauts to wait up while I run get my pal Hylas, unc!" he said excitedly. Herc wasn't about to voyage halfway around the world without his best friend Hylas, the two were inseparable. The homophobes were having a field day with it, fueled by that jerk Eury, who liked to brag that Hercules really was infatuated with him and was only performing the deeds to show how much he loved Eurystheus.

Give your head a vigorous shake, Eury! Herc's got far better taste than that! Don't flatter yourself, you ass.

Yes, the eight remaining Labors could well wait - there were exotic places to see, evil monsters to slay and beautiful maidens to ravish. The Quest for the Golden Fleece beckoned, and it was a wonderful time to be a Greek hero!

A marvelous time to be a Greek hero! Who will make it back home? Who shall perish?

Who cares! We are the Argonauts, and we have a date with history!

Won't you cruise along with us on the good ship Argo? I promise it will be a mythical voyage that you'll not soon forget, filled with mysterious and enchanting ports of call.

All aboard the Argo? May Poseidon calm the waters and the Four Winds fill our sails...It's the Golden Fleece or bust!

Come along!

NEXT:
THE QUEST FOR
THE GOLDEN FLEECE

 

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