SI Vault
Alexander Eliot
December 25, 1961
The Water Tamer," which begins on the next page, is Alexander Eliot's interpretation of the myth of Heracles (or Hercules), the strong man of the ancient Greeks, the greatest athlete of the age of legend. Eliot, who lives in Greece, has done extensive research into the art and literature of the ancients. His version of the Heracles legend is a startling departure from the standard tradition; he sees each of the strange, wildly imaginative adventures as having a solid basis in reality.
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December 25, 1961

The Water Tamer

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When evening fell upon the blood-soaked shore, Hydra lay hissing and frothing still—but she also had gone down in defeat, safely pinned and imprisoned "beneath a stone."

What sort of stone? Who knows? They say that it was very large, and that is all. But here's an interesting clue: Lerna, the site of the struggle, changed its name to Miloi, which is Greek for "the mills," and Miloi it remains today. This suggests that Heracles succeeded in confining the raging waters to a single channel, and that he, so to speak, squeezed Hydra into a millrace. In which case the mysterious stone above the deathless monster's prison must have been and still remains a millstone, forever grinding as she groans to make man's bread.

It must be confessed that before leaving Hydra to her new career of service Heracles knelt and delicately dipped his stock of arrows into her—to poison them. Although he was to prove himself as generous-hearted as any man in history, Heracles was obviously no saint. Before going on with his adventures it may be well to take a closer look at this contradictory hero. Some chroniclers, notably the Greek poet Pindar, say that he was physically smaller than average. That is most unlikely. However, an extremely well-knit man will always seem less than his actual size and weight because he is so concentrated, so pulled together. According to the more common and reasonable accounts, Heracles was a big man, heavyset but hard, the fullback type. His feet were slender, quick and sure; he went barefoot the year round. His hands were finely formed, and yet the handshake of Heracles was something to avoid at all costs. This, too, involved a danger: if he thought himself snubbed, Heracles' jovial expression became rocklike, while his curly beard seemed about to crackle into flame.

For clothing, Heracles had a lion pelt, the relic of a fearsome beast that he had encountered on his way to Delphi and strangled in his bare arms. To flay the lion for his purpose, Heracles had used its own sharp claws. He wore the pelt—a kind of cape, with what had been the forelegs loosely knotted across his chest, and the snarling muzzle pulled up over his brow like a helmet. Just above his fierce blue eyes, the lion's eyes of inlaid jasper shone.

If Heracles' physical appearance was both admirable and frightening, so was his inner nature. He was passionately loyal, yet only a handful of heroes dared to call him friend. He was seldom chivalrous, yet women could never help falling for him. The general run of Heracles' contemporaries looked upon him with mingled fear, gratitude and awe. Their feeling is summed up in a line from the Greek playwright Aristophanes: "Best not to rear a lion in the state, but, once he's reared, it's best to humor him."

Just like a lion, Heracles moved often, slept in the open and feasted heavily. Men laughed at his gluttony (behind his back, of course) and yet, strangely enough, the only contest he ever lost was an ox-eating match at a country fair. Heracles laughed a lot himself, and cried too, as well and freely as a child. He boozed, bragged, bellowed and bawled. Meanwhile, to cross him was to die, for mortal men. Heracles violently obeyed the not-so-golden rule of his age: "Do unto others as they would like to do unto you."

Consider for example his handling of Diomedes. This ruler was lavishly hospitable but easily bored. Whenever a guest offended or began to pall, Diomedes would take the man out back and feed him to the horses. In fact, he kept a stableful of man-eating mares for just that purpose. To stop the practice, Heracles now traveled on from Lerna to Diomedes' country. It was evening when he topped a rise of land and saw the palace half a mile ahead, all atwinkle with welcoming lights. Heracles said goodby to his brave charioteer and strolled on alone through the gathering gloom. Soon afterward he was shaking the dread gates, roaring for admission.

Diomedes, who was at dinner, smiled, licked his fingertips and ordered that the loud stranger be welcomed at once to the feast. Within the next few hours Heracles ate and drank far more than was proper, boasted some, sang a couple of bawdy songs and—went to sleep where he sat. Diomedes, beaming now, detailed six of his strongest men to carry Heracles up to the main guest room. It looked as if this large buffoon would give the horses something to chew on for quite a while. But he wanted the man conscious.

At about the witching hour Heracles awakened, much refreshed. He slipped downstairs to finish off the wine jar in the dark, yawned and made his leisurely way out to the stable. The mares whinnied hungrily. Stepping light and fast now he opened their stall and swung up onto the leader's back. As she reared he kicked his heels hard against her ribs, twined a hank of her mane in his fist and brought her out from the barn at a gallop. The others followed, snorting, manes tossing silver in the moonlight, through the yard, over the fence and away for the starry horizon before the guards could so much as draw breath to cry, "Thief!"

By dawn Heracles had reached the shore, and his mares were played out. He galloped them across a tidal basin, which was dry at that hour, and tethered them on the high, forested point of a sandbar some distance from shore. The pearly light turned pink as the sun rose; ruby rivulets meandered through the sandbar toward shore. Meanwhile, as Heracles had expected, a cavalry pursuit led by Diomedes appeared on shore and made straight for him over the shell-strewn basin of sand. But Heracles ignored them; he had found an old timber from a wreck and he was using it to dig a channel through the sandbar, really putting his back into the work, lost from sight within a purple cloud of flying sand. Now the sea started thrusting through the channel, its mounting tide shouldering even Heracles to one side. He scrambled for the bank and stood still, shading his eyes to see his pursuers tumbled and drowned amid the oncoming waves. There was only one man whom he cared to rescue: Diomedes. After some time Heracles waded out to collar the king, dragged him from the brine and flung him as a breakfast to the ravening mares. It seemed to quiet them.

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