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.
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.
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
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
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.
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?"
service, oh divine Achelous."