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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As former instruments of human sacrifice the mares were considered sacred and inviolable. So instead of slaughtering them, Heracles finally loosed the creatures in a mountain fastness, empty of mankind, where they learned to like grass.

The age of Heracles was very like our own Wild West, only wilder, with no sheriffs and no schoolteachers—pretty or otherwise. Cattle country then included all of southern Europe and most of the Middle East besides. Throughout this vast territory, cattle were the normal medium of exchange, borderlines were fluid, and hostile tribes battled for pasturage or for their ancient hunting grounds. Killing, burning, lynching, raping, raiding and rustling were the order of the day. Cattle barons passed for kings, and any horseman was a noble. Crooks were crooks, of course, and they were everywhere. Heroes were comparatively few in number, then as now. Heroes need elbowroom. But about the only western refinements they lacked were sombreros and six-shooters. Heracles, the greatest of them all, made do with his club, a powerful ram's-horn bow and, of course, the Hydra-poisoned arrows.

But Diomedes he defeated without weapons, only with water; the Red Sea drowning of Pharaoh's forces, when they pursued Moses, is an obvious parallel.

Seldom did Heracles make actual warfare his concern. The oracle had said that he would be renowned for service, not for conquest, so he campaigned only when his personal honor seemed at stake. He was provoked, however, by the Minyans: a very ancient tribe of fierce horsemen and the terror of central Greece. They occupied a high grassy pocket of land, a seemingly impregnable fortress from which their chariot-mounted war parties ranged far and wide, raiding almost at will. That is, until they stumbled over Heracles one night. Indignantly, he beat the raiders off. Then secretly and alone he spied out their land, discovering in time that their stronghold happened to be drained by just two narrow gorges down through the mountains to the sea. Accordingly, he waited for a night of downpour and then blocked the gorges with boulders, suddenly flooding the enemy out. Their cavalry came looking for him over the narrow mountain trails, only to be picked off by Heracles' arrows, one after another, until not a single warrior was left.

This grim story has a happy ending, although long delayed. Archaeologists have identified the channels that Heracles blocked, and engineers recently cleared the boulders that dammed them up. So after its long punishment the Minyan land lies fair and open to the sunshine once again.

Heracles' next mission was to Augeias, King of Elis and the biggest cattle baron in all Greece. Something had to be done about the king's stableyards, which had never once been cleaned. Their deep steaming filth spread a pestilence throughout the countryside, so Heracles had sworn to get rid of it all. Here again, as in the Minyan fastness, he reconnoitered carefully before making his presence known. Then he went straight up to Augeias and announced that the morrow would be spring-cleaning day. His proposition was to make the whole place spotless between sunrise and sunset. His price: one-tenth of the king's cattle—or nothing if he failed. Better men than Augeias would mistake Heracles' gusto for stupidity. Thinking to get a day's free labor from a muscular madman, the king sealed the bargain.

When Heracles promised a spring cleaning, he meant precisely that. Bright and early the next morning he dammed and diverted a mountain stream to send its torrents through the stables. Then Heracles, clean-handed and unmussed, broke his dam and returned the cataract to its proper plunging place. The noon sun dried and purified Augeias' grounds. What had been a miasmal purgatory was transformed into a setting of pastoral bliss. The birds sang; the cattle shone like new; men breathed again. Heracles, humming like a swarm of bees in his contentment, sauntered to the palace to collect. But Augeias himself was still dirty. He refused payment on the grounds that water demons, and not Heracles, had done the actual work. The hero, unpredictable as ever, let him off with that excuse.

Recent excavations in Israel throw a curious sidelight on this tale. It is now known that certain Old Testament communities were designed for just such cleaning methods as Heracles employed. Ingeniously devised aqueducts were built to divert the neighboring streams right through each street and barn and even through some houses on the nights preceding holy days.

While he could never bear to bargain or to press for the rewards that his services rightly merited, Heracles was not so averse to outright robbery. In this, as in many other virtues and vices, he remained a child of the proud, careless, bitter and, above all, glorious age that bore him. So, repenting of his softness to Augeias, he turned right around and resolved to revenge his honor in foreign parts, by rustling the red herd of Geryon, the King of the Golden West.

This domain corresponded, apparently, to modern Portugal. Rumor insisted that Geryon ruled the kingdom in triplicate, as it were. He was endowed with three complete physiques, joined at the neck to a single regal countenance. This arrangement made Geryon a busy buzz-saw type of fighter, a formidable fellow who feared no two-handed man, and he was certain to resist Heracles to the death. Geryon's very prowess and courage were to be his own doom, however, since they had served to attract Heracles' distant eye. Like all champions, Heracles was often at pains to find suitable opponents for himself, and Geryon sounded worthy. Just to make the game more difficult, Heracles swore not only to defeat the king but furthermore to drive the red herd all the way back to Greece. These cattle, sleek and fleecy as a sunset cloud, were accounted the world's most desirable.

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