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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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