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Heracles chose a surprisingly roundabout manner of getting his new adventure under way. He sailed first to Cyrene, on the green Libyan coast. From there he struck southward across a second, less hospitable sea: the Sahara Desert. He was making for what is now known as the Siwa Oasis: a lush little island of date palms, hard to find, no more than a single green dot amid the shifting and burning blankets of trackless sand. In those days it was called Ammon, a grove sacred to Zeus, the king of the gods. Ammon had a resident priesthood whose beginnings had been lost in the mist of ages long before Heracles himself was born. Its oracle was felt to be the voice of Zeus himself. For these reasons, and despite the extreme difficulty of reaching it, the sacredness of Ammon ranked second only to Delphi's in the ancient world. There, if anywhere, Heracles believed, he would learn at last the truth about his parentage. For Heracles had heard that Zeus was his real father.
Even before Heracles arrived, the god granted him a sign. Like many another petitioner of Ammon, Heracles became hopelessly lost in the desert. He was dying of thirst when, furious at so meaningless a fate, he stamped his foot hard upon the ground. Where the sand lay dinted a cool spring instantly gushed forth. Refreshed by it, Heracles found his way once more and soon afterward came stumbling into the presence of the god. To keep from blinding Heracles, radiant Zeus addressed him through a golden ram's-head mask. It is said that he acknowledged the hero as his natural son, fated to accomplish yet greater labors, to endure untold suffering and to become immortal.
Although this seems at first glance to be one of the least likely events in Heracles' career, it may well have happened almost precisely as it is told here. Everyone knows the instinct of certain diviners for finding water in desert places. Heracles, whose life was so intimately bound up with water, may well have possessed that instinct. Moreover, in historic times Alexander the Great made a similar pilgrimage to Ammon that had a similar outcome. He, too, was lost and rescued on his way to the oasis by a "miracle" (this time attested by known witnesses), and it appears that the oracle gave Alexander a similar reassurance of divine descent.
Following his dark encouragement by Father Zeus, Heracles made his way back to the Mediterranean and took ship for Portugal. But at the Strait of Gibraltar heavy seas and adverse winds combined to hold him back. (This will come as no surprise to seafaring men: the Straits are still a dangerous bottleneck for running under sail.) Heracles was not one to acquiesce in idleness. As an aid to future navigation and to while away the weeks he spent awaiting fair winds into the Atlantic, he built lofty towers for fire beacons on both the African and the European coasts.
The Pillars of Hercules were to remain standing and in actual use well into Roman times.
While Heracles still labored at the Straits, news of his coming and his purpose were brought to King Geryon. The triple giant could not but fume at such barefaced insolence, yet he found it amusing also. In his heart he, too, welcomed the struggle. Meanwhile, it was for him to choose his weapons and the field, and furthermore to arrange a suitably dramatic setting. He ordered first that the challenger's vessel be barred from the port and Heracles alone brought off to shore, giddily spinning in a little gilded dinghy. The people were to welcome the hero in silence and mock mourning. A troop of weary old women, heavily veiled, were to escort him up the winding cliff road to the citadel and leave him alone at the last turning, where the road ran straight on up to the iron gate. All that was done, accordingly, upon the fatal day. Heracles stood alone in the middle of the sunny road, leaning on his club, before the gate. Silently it opened outward.
King Geryon, armed cap-a-pie in his war chariot, came rattling down upon Heracles like a human threshing machine for threshing humans, while double-bladed battle-axes, each one sharp enough to draw blood from the wind, whined and flashed in all six of his hands.
So, in the few seconds of grace that distance gave him, Heracles laid aside his club, strung an arrow, circled swiftly to one side and shot, transfixing all three of Geryon's chests and hearts at once. The battle-axes shrapneled from the giant's hands, slashing up an acre of oak forest as he toppled and bumped, caught in the reins and dragged by his maddened horses on down the road to its first turning and straight on over the precipice into the gray Atlantic Ocean far below. As down he sank, Geryon's writhing limbs seemed to take a new form, and men say that he became a malevolent giant squid.
What followed for Heracles may not be quite the longest cattle drive in history, but it still stands among the most laborious. He chose the coast of southern Europe for his route because, however winding the way, it would be clear enough at all times: he had only to keep the sea on his right and stay with it, in order to reach home. But at the Rhone delta, rustlers attacked in force. He drove them off with a shower of stones, which supposedly accounts for the plain of fist-size stones near the mouth of the Rhone today. During his needless detour of the entire Italian boot, Heracles built a mile-long causeway to get his cattle across a bay near Naples. Farther on he dug a lake to water them. Nearing home at last, he found his way barred by a river too deep and swift for the cattle to ford, so he dammed it up. He got his loot to Greece all right. Heracles may have been a little impulsive at times, but he was also indefatigable.
The struggle with Geryon is almost pure myth. I believe that this fearsome sunset monarch stood for Father Time, the seemingly unconquerable, and that his three bodies symbolized Past, Present and Future. Heracles' subsequent long-way cattle drive served to explain his numerous Italian sanctuaries. The stories told about him there made Heracles a founder of hydraulic engineering throughout the country.