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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Savages in remote areas of the world still use shattering noise to drive away the "demons" of infection. Only Heracles, in his day, had the wit to take this ancient remedy out of the sickroom and carry it straight against the source of pestilence. Cymbals in hand, he circled the marshes, crashing out a skull-splitting din deliberately calculated to shatter the hearing organs of the birds. Terrified they swarmed up out of their myriad nests, shrieking, darkening the sun with their frenzied swoops and flutterings. Relentlessly Heracles kept on crashing, smashing and banging his brasses to create a steadily welling throb of sound. Thoroughly crazed, at last the birds dispersed to alien skies.

Then Heracles cast aside his cymbals and took the plugs from his ears. As the last awesome thrumming died away a skin-prickling silence descended, palpable as mist. Heracles shuddered, but he plunged into the marsh. Many hours of resolute floundering brought him to the weed-choked chasm that was its underground exit. Desperately hurrying to outpace the gathering darkness, he cut back the weeds and widened the chasm with his spade. Then he climbed a piece of high ground and built a bonfire to thaw out his ague-bitten body through the night. With thick, sucking croaks and threatening lisps the swamp retreated all night long around him, sweeping in upon itself and gradually drawing underground its miles-broad flotsam of birds' nests, water bugs, vipers and slime.

Most likely the Stymphalian Marsh was malarial. In any case, Heracles appears to have saved young Greece by draining it. Today the swamps are creeping back around the lake, but not yet the Birds of Dread.

There remains but one story of Heracles' water-taming still to tell. This last one, however, concerns the most important wrestling match in history. Appropriately, it was a struggle for love's sake alone, and Heracles' opponent no mere slavering monster but instead an immortal god, Achelous by name, oldest of all rivers and yet ever young; turbulent, silver-green, untamable.

By preference Achelous usually inhabited a manlike form, though larger and more supple than a mortal's. From his man-brow sprouted two wide-curving horns. His beard streamed incessantly. His hands were like a concert pianist's: broad, long-fingered, clean, moist, restless, insatiable. His lean belly glistened with iridescent scales. Far beneath the river bearing his name, Achelous' crystal palace gleamed, upholstered with soft mosses and ceilinged with mother-of-pearl. Carillons of troll-fashioned stream-gold swung and sang in the foam about his belfries.

Invisible in a green dressing gown, Achelous reclined on his underwater terrace, idly combing the minnows from his shadowy hair as he watched the earth maidens from what he called "the dry palace" innocently bathing and cavorting high above. The Princess Deianira was the loveliest of them all, when she dived like rosy quartz cleaving the green sky. Her long red hair licked and floated like a slick fiery cloak as she lazily arched away up again to sunlight—all unaware of his slow tossing horns. Deianira happened to be plagued with suitors, each one of whom considered himself the most eligible bachelor in Greece. Her light-footed tact did nothing to lessen their self-esteem, yet Deianira cared not a whit for any of them. She loved her carefree maiden life: swimming, spinning, embroidering, hunting, daintily feasting, dancing, and then swimming again the next day. Meanwhile, however, the importunate suitors were eating her father out of palace and kingdom. Every man among them secretly believed that if only Deianira were forced to choose a husband the choice would fall upon himself. So they all kept saying that she must choose. The poor king yielded finally, since there was nothing else for it. He sent heralds far and wide to announce that Deianira would choose her own husband upon a certain morning not far off. In his heart the king was praying that yet one more suitor, somebody who really deserved his beautiful daughter, would appear on the appointed day.

But the day brought even greater suitors and more general excitement than the king had ever hoped to see. First Heracles appeared, hot from all-night marching, to claim the marriage prize. The fame of Heracles was now immense, and the fear of him also. The more warmly he smiled the more his rivals' marrow froze with dread. One by one they deserted the contest, until he stood alone before Deianira and the king. In a few minutes it would be noon, the marriage moment.

Achelous meanwhile had risen to shore and dried himself as best he could. Now the god girded on his shimmering armor of pearls. Now he came sweeping grandly along past the palace and into the palace garden and presented himself at the silken pavilion where Deianira and the king were entertaining Heracles. It astonished him to see only one other suitor in the field, and that a burly, dust-streaked fellow in a lion pelt. But what surprised him far more was that Heracles stood firm, a mere man against a god. In his thunderously gurgling voice, with mock courtesy, he enquired:

"Have I the honor of addressing glorious Heracles?"

"At your service, oh divine Achelous."

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