dull, Heracles, yet surely not quite so presumptuous as to set your strength
against my immortal waters! Leave us; learn to play by yourself! Go bathe, at
you, Achelous, dripping one—bull-headed, weed-haired, sneeze-torn, mud-foot
garbage collector that you are at best—to treat more humbly with a son of Zeus!
My club is quick!"
"And my fish
are fresh, fellow! You call yourself a son of Zeus, yet your mother was a
mortal, married to Amphitryon of Thebes. So you're either a liar or—"
with gritted teeth, Heracles shrugged out of his lion pelt and lightly cast his
club aside. It seemed for just a moment that Achelous hesitated; some streams
have second sight. But then he slipped off his pearly raiment and stood naked
also: huge, silent, threatening, with lowered horns.
close against her father's knee. Her tearful blue gaze flickered, now soft, now
filled with fear, between the two towering contestants.
dashed to crash his boulderlike shoulders hard against the iridescent belly of
the god and bring him down, doubled over, gasping like a cataract. They rolled,
locked together in choking dust. The whole bright garden shook its colors
loose. Wide horns were rising, and Deianira screamed. But Heracles rose also,
fast-grappled still to the god, swaying as if in time to slow music, a dance of
death; he lifted Achelous clear off the ground, squeezing until blood burst
from the god's broad nostrils to stain their mingled beards. In a wink Achelous
narrowed all over to cable-slimness, turned slick and slipped hissing from
Heracles' grip. A quicksilver serpent, he slithered, looped, contracted to a
glittering coil, slit-eyed, fork-tongued, spitting threat of instant death. As
the creature reared to strike, Heracles sprang and caught it tight about the
gullet, crushing its metallic scales and moist, cold flesh together in his
eager fingers as he cried out gleefully, shaking his enemy, "I strangled
snakes in my cradle, Achelous! At Lerna I cut down a whole tree of serpents!
You don't frighten me!" But the god swelled and lurched loose from
Heracles' stranglehold, snorting: a huge black bull now, foam-flanked,
dainty-hoofed, his round red eyes alight with more than animal malice as he
charged hooking for the groin. Barely slipping that first murderous rush,
Heracles closed with the bull as it turned. He reached under the neck to seize
the far horn in both hands, then desperately, but still deliberately, twisted
it back, minute by minute, his knuckles white on the white horn, as the beast
bellowed in agony, gradually wrenching its head back, chin to sky. At the
moment of utmost strain he silently invoked his heavenly father and then flung
his full weight furiously down against the down-pointing horn, driving it deep
into the ground and snapping it clean off.
The bellowing of
Achelous abruptly changed to human groans and bitterly repentant words.
Resuming the shape of a horned man—but with only one horn now—he acknowledged
defeat. Thereupon Heracles magnanimously embraced him and supported his
tottering frame before the throne. With trembling scepter, the king signaled
both of them to keep a proper distance away from his daughter. But Deianira had
lost her former fear. The river god knelt fainting before her; she drew his
head into her lap. From her snowy bosom she drew a lapis lazuli vial of
ointment with which to dress his wound. Unfurling the saffron-colored silk from
her hair, she bound up his broken brow. Only then did she lift her own head and
raise the warm dancing blue of her gaze to Heracles' ice-blue eyes.
"You," she said.
gallant in defeat, and Heracles accordingly honored him as best man at the
wedding. The river god brought along a present that seemed a small thing at
first sight, a thoughtful souvenir and nothing more: the horn broken off by
Heracles. But no sooner had Deianira accepted the gift and warmed it for a
moment between her two hands than it started overflowing with flowers and the
sweet fruits of spring. This was to be the legendary cornucopia,
naturally gone on dreaming of the cornucopia. It was no dream, however, but a
promise—a promise of the plenty that tamed rivers can and will provide. The
mightiest and most lastingly momentous labor that Heracles ever undertook,
surely, was to seize this horn of fruitfulness for the uses of mankind. There
can be no abiding mystery about the cornucopia, once it is considered in the
context of Heracles' other water-taming exploits. It stands for irrigation: it
represents the channel broken off from the main stream of a river to insure
rich harvests even in dry summer weather.
famine fall before this fabulous horn, the wedding gift of lovelorn,
thrice-defeated Achelous, and Heracles' noblest trophy.