THE MYTH MAN'S
MYTH OF THE MONTH
(Roman name: Hercules)
by Nick Pontikis
(with apologies to grandpa Hesiod and uncle Homer)
Note: If you
haven't read Part I yet, do so first,
or some material in Part II may be Greek to you
HERCULES 1 - LIONS 0
The urgent message arrived right in the middle of Herc's 18th birthday party. He had just finished opening his gifts - the numerous presents included a sword from Hermes, state-of-the-art bow and arrows from Apollo, a golden breastplate from Hephaestus, and a robe from Athena.
By now, word of his superhuman strength and courage had spread across Greece, and it seemed that whenever there was trouble afoot or a horrible beast bedeviled a village, my nephew Heracles was the man to call on.
The messenger from Thespiae just managed to pant out the request, before he collapsed and died from exhaustion. (The Thespians should have hired my cousin Hermes to deliver it, the message would have arrived sooner, with no loss of life, but obviously the villagers couldn't afford the first-class courier fee...you get what you pay for, I guess...I was helping my nephew celebrate his birthday, so I can share the message with you.)
Remember the Lion of Cithaeron, which a while back wreaked havoc on your foster father Amphytrion's cattle herd? It was real impressive when you frightened away the beast by simply roaring at it, and the people were forever grateful. We were all so proud of you!
Well, oh magnificent Heracles, the bad news is, the damn lion has set up a lair up here on Mount Helicon and is treating the Thespian cattle as if they're the main course at an all-you-can-eat buffet down at Thanasi's Olympus Greek Restaurant. It's driving the price of beef right through the roof, and the citizens are starting to grumble. It now costs 200 drachmas for half a pound of sirloin, if you can even find it! We are desperate! We tried switching to goat meat, but it's so tough we kept breaking teeth and just gave up.
We who are not worthy beseech you, oh mighty Heracles, to come to Thespiae and kick some lion butt once and for all! We will grant your every wish if only you would agree to grace us with your presence and fulfill our urgent request.
PS: I have fifty gorgeous young daughters, and they all have a huge crush on you...
End of message. End of messenger. Should'a hired Hermes.
Oh my. Yeah, right, as if Herc was going to say no. I mean, come on, here's an eighteen year old, testosterone-belabored giant among men, being offered the heroic challenge of his young lifetime.
Not to mention a chance to kill the lion...
So, faster than you could say "Pack a case of Trojans," my nephew Hercules grabbed his custom made wild-olive mother of all clubs and set off for Thespiae. I tagged along, for I could smell a story in the offing. I swear, I had no ulterior motives. Strictly there out of journalistic curiosity.
Hmmm...Fifty daughters, eh? That King Thespius, he was one busy man. Poor Mrs. Thespius...Her labors made my nephew's pale in comparison.
Now, let me tell you a bit about fabulous Mount Helicon, and the wonderful Thespians who lived at its foot. You see, I had been there many times before, as a guest of my favorite cousins, the Muses. Each year the Thespians celebrated an ancient festival on its summit in honor of my cousins, and the people played amorous games at its foot around the statue of Eros, their patron.
No prudes, these Thespians. They worshipped the human body in all its beauty and paid homage to it by using the Muses for inspiration. The festival was the hottest ticket in Greece and each year I eagerly anticipated receiving a back-stage pass from my cousins.
The Muses never disappointed me - Is it any wonder they're my absolute favorite kin? Together with my second-favorite cousins, the Graces (Aggy, Effi and Tali), we had more fun and amusement than should be legal. Those were the days!
(Many, many years later my cousins threw another such Thespian party in a faraway land, and called it Woodstock. Needless to say, they didn't neglect to send me a couple of back-stage passes...I love those girls! Did I tell you about the time I got to ride on Pegasus, the winged steed of the Muses? Oh my, Pegasus got so excited that he reared and kicked the side of Mount Helicon, causing a couple of springs to gush forth. The Thespians worshipped these waters, as well they should, for they provided poetic and artistic inspiration. More on that later, it's a great story!)
THE DAUGHTERS OF KING THESPIUS
King Thespius and his wife Megamede, daughter of Arneus, were concerned that their fifty beautiful daughters would find unsuitable mates, so they decided that every one of them should have a child by Hercules, who was now busy hunting down the Cithaeron Lion.
"You may have my eldest daughter Procris as your bed-fellow," Thespius told Hercules, the true epitome of Greek hospitality. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.
For fifty straight days Herc lodged at Thespiae and each night another of Thespius' daughters visited him, until he had enjoyed every one. Lucky stiff! I asked him how he was holding out near the end and my nephew confided in me that long ago he had located the lion, and could have killed it then, but "King Thespius sure has some fine looking daughters, one more comely than the other, and I'd sure hate to disappoint him by leaving any 'loose ends', so to speak."
Wasn't Herc thoughtful? Oh my, the sacrifices a Greek demi-god must make. It brings tears to my eyes, just thinking about it.
When I mentioned to him years later that one late night down at Thanasi's Olympus grandpa Hesiod suggested that Hercules laid with all fifty daughters in one night, my nephew blushed and grinned mischievously. Turns out that once he was finished pleasuring daughter number one, and she crawled back to tell her sisters, they couldn't wait their turn and "swarmed" him, so to speak.
"What could I do, unc?" he winked at me. "I got a reputation to uphold, after all, strongest and most virile man in Greece, and all that..."
Oh my. So that's what they mean by "Herculean task"...That's Zeus's boy for you.
Only one of Thespius's daughters declined Herc's stud services and she remained a virgin until her death, serving as his priestess at Thespiae. Still, Heracles didn't do too shabbily in the sire department, having begotten fifty-one sons on her sisters. You see, Procris, the eldest, and first to give Hercules the famous Thespian "welcome home, sailor" treatment, had twins. So did the youngest sister.
Fifty-one sons. Made for one heck of a Father's Day party, let me tell ya!
So once Heracles performed his Thespian civic duty, he cornered the lion and slew it with ease, dressing himself in its pelts and wearing the gaping jaws for a helmet. Minutes later, the first Grecian urns featuring a lion-skin clad Hercules were available for sale at the Thespian flea market. Herc was an entrepreneur's dream, and the Greek merchants were damned if they missed a chance to make a drachma.
(I can still hear the heated arguments over this fashion statement, involving a bunch of ancient inebriated literary types, after hours down at Thanasi's Olympus Greek Restaurant:
Diodorus Siculus: "Pausanias, I swear that during evolution, your ancestors were in the control group. Heracles wore the pelt of the Nemean Lion and that's that! What have you been smoking, man?"
Pausanias: "Dio my friend, if one stands close enough to you, one can hear the ocean. My unimpeachable sources tell me that Herc adorned himself with the skin of the Cithaeron Lion. Now be a sport and admit defeat."
Apollodorus: "You're both dead wrong, and I ain't lion! Hercules wore the pelt of a beast which he killed at Teumessus - you know, that hick town near Thebes. It was Alcathous who slaughtered the Cithaeron Lion. The way you two carry on, it's hard to believe that you actually beat out 100,000 other sperm!"
Diodorus Siculus: "What's sperm?"
Pausanias: "What's 100,000?"
Apollodorus: "I rest my case."
It took grandpa Hesiod to bring order to the chaos:
Hesiod: "Boys, boys, you keep making mountains out of molehills, you'll end up with piles. Before y'all get so huffity, blow off some esteem, will ya?
"Heracles wore all three pelts. You don't actually expect the world's greatest hero to own only one change of clothing, do you? Hello? Anybody home? Just because you slobs never wash your clothes doesn't mean Herc isn't into personal hygiene. Of course he has more than one pelt, by Jove!"
Grandpa Hesiod. Like I said before, cooler than the other side of the pillow...
THE MINYAN HERALDS
Thus Hercules left Mount Helicon a man, his first pelt under his belt, in a manner of speaking. The walk out of Thespiae was precious: all the inhabitants lined the streets, singing the praises of my nephew, for overnight the price of beef had plummeted. The fifty daughters of King Thespius were last, and it was pathetic the way they flung themselves at my nephew, begging him to at least stay another night.
My nephew looked real relieved once we got out of town, breaking into a huge grin. I asked him what's up and he replied that when he saw the King's daughters coming at him en masse, he initially thought they were all rushing to slap him with multiple paternity suits.
"First time I knew the feeling of fear, unc!" he told me. "I'm just a poor Greek son of Zeus, with no steady means of income save the odd menial task. I can't afford to support myself, let alone fifty-one sons!"
I see your point, Herc. Next time, please pack the Trojans. Didn't your father Zeus ever warn you against sexual promiscuity?
No more than four hours out of Thespiae, we fell in with a travelling group of heralds, on their way to collect a Theban tribute. You see, some years before, during Poseidon's festival at Onchestus, the Minyan King Clymentus had been mortally wounded by a flung stone. Nobody remembers what petty issue brought on the spat, but the Theban king's charioteer tossed the rock projectile in anger and it was Clymentus no more.
Clymentus lamentus, if you will...
As he lay dying, Clymentus ordered his sons to avenge him. The eldest son, Erginus, mustered an army, attacked the Thebans, and utterly trounced them. They then swore oaths that under the terms of a peace treaty, the Thebans would pay Erginus an annual tribute of one hundred cattle.
If the cattle were delivered for twenty years - free of mad-cow disease, if you were to read the fine print - the death of Clymentus would be avenged.
Fair enough. I'm not quite convinced that two thousand head of cattle compensates for the loss of King, husband and father, but what do I know. The Thebans paid the annual tribute and banned stones from the kingdom. Anyone caught with rocks would henceforth be stoned to death.
Since we were all heading to Thebes, and the heralds were travelling first class, we joined their party. Things began to get ugly when Heracles inquired as to the nature of the heralds' business in Thebes.
"We have come once more to remind the Thebans of Erginus's clemency in not lopping off the ears, nose, and hands of every man in the city," scornfully replied the head herald. "As long as they keep handing over the cattle, we'll have no beef with them. Miss one payment, however, and it's face-off time!"
Herc and I exchanged quick glances, and I marveled at his self control. That's his home town they're laughing about, yet this gentler, kinder Heracles maintained his cool. We didn't say a word, for an oath is an oath, after all. But the head herald wouldn't let it be.
"You guys look like Thebans," he observed sarcastically. "It would be a shame indeed to mar such handsome features." Turning to his companions, he added, "What says you, boys, ain't these two Thebans cute? They must be Thebans, for they're so meek and mute. Well, if they ain't not going to use their tongues, maybe we should cut them off too! Har, har!"
Oh my. Before I could point out to the head herald that double negatives are a no-no, my nephew unsheathed the mighty sword given to him a few weeks earlier by Hermes, at his eighteenth birthday bash.
"Does Erginus really hanker for such tribute?" hissed Heracles. Within minutes the heralds had been maimed in exactly the manner that they had described, and Herc unceremoniously sent them back to Orchomenus and King Erginus, with their bloody extremities tied on chords about their necks, and a note stating, "We Maim to Please".
Erginus was not amused. He commanded King Creon of Thebes to surrender the perpetrator of this diplomatic outrage, a directive that Creon was rather eager to obey, since the Minyans had disarmed the Thebans. No weapons, no chance.
It was either give up Heracles to the Minyans for whatever punishment they saw fit, or kiss your kingdom goodbye. Poor King Creon was facing an unenviable task. I mean, come on. Can you see it? How would you like to be the bearer of the news?
"Excuse me, Mr. Heracles? Would you kindly permit us to tie you down and deliver you to the Minyan devils, who plan on dismembering you in ways most vile and scattering your wretched remains across Greece? What's that? Oh, Mr. Heracles, please put down that sword! Mr. Heracles!! Mr. Heracles!!"
No way. You tell him. Do I look crazy?
Herc wasn't about to let Erginus devestate Thebes. He told me he was going down to the temples to pray, for the answer always lay in one's god.
"I'll bee baaack!" he told me, in this real funky accent...Weird...
You won't believe what my nephew did next. Making a round of the Theban temples, he tore down all the armaments which over the years had been dedicated there as spoils of war. Returning weighed down with a plethora of swords, spears, shields, helmets and breastplates, Hercules persuaded his youthful comrades to rise up against the Minyan tyranny and then armed his companions.
The great goddess Athena looked down approvingly upon my nephew's courage and made the arms fit the youths. In no time flat, every Theban of fighting age was armed. Heracles then taught them how to effectively use these weapons.
When the Minyans realized that Hercules wasn't about to be handed over on a silver platter to be battered, they marched against Thebes and my nephew showed his strategic brilliance. Ambushing the enemy in a narrow pass, nearly single-handedly he killed Erginus and most of his captains. He then descended on Orchomenus, battered down the city gates (such brute strength!), sacked the palace, and forced the Minyans to pay a double tribute to Thebes: Two hundred cattle annually for twenty years.
That's what you call paybacks with interest!
On his return to Thebes, Heracles dedicated an altar to Zeus, a stone lion to Artemis and two stone images to Athena, who helped her chosen son most of all. To thumb their noses at the loser Minyans, the Thebans honored their liberator by dedicating a statue to him, called Heracles the Nose-docker.
HERCULES GOES NUTS
The brilliant defeat of the Minyans made Heracles the most famous and celebrated of Greek heroes. As his reward, King Creon offered Herc the hand of his eldest daughter, the stunning Megara, and appointed him protector of the city. Meg and my nephew had four sons, even though the boys down at Thanasi's Olympus argued that the number was two, three, four and even eight. These sons of Hercules were called the Alcaids.
Iphicles, Herc's forgotten brother, as an afterthought was married to the youngest daughter. Everyone forgets her name.
Poor Iffy...second lyre again. He was smitten by Meg and simply swooned when she entered the room, but he got stuck with her dog-faced sister, what's her name. I'm here to tell you that it didn't do a thing for his self-esteem.
When King Pyraechmus of the Euboeans, an ally of the vanquished Minyans, dared march against Thebes, Heracles once again proved his mettle by vanquishing him. To send a message that there's a new sheriff in town, Herc created terror throughout Greece by ordering that the body of King Pyraechmus be torn in two by horses and exposed unburied beside the river Heracleius.
Well. Herc's personal Nemesis, my aunt Hera, had just about enough! Livid at what she perceived to be vile excesses, she drove my nephew mad. His first victim was his beloved nephew Iolaus, Iffy's eldest son, who somehow managed to evade his wild lunges. Next he mistook his own children for enemies, shot them dead and flung their corpses into the fire, together with two other sons of Iphicles. The boys were performing martial exercises at the time and Hercules in his madness killed them thinking they were assassins sent by the hated Minyans.
When Megara came to their aid, he killed her also.
Sad, sad day. Heracles loved his sons with all his might, and had planned brilliant futures for them. They would have ruled over all men, and the choicest brides had been chosen for them - alliances with Athens, Argos, Thebes and Sparta. Sad, sad day.
Sad, sad day. When Hera permitted Hercules to recover his sanity, nobody had the nerve to break the news to him that some despicable creature had murdered his wife and children, and that despicable creature was himself!
When Aphytrion finally mustered the courage to tell him, Herc was simply devastated by his vile actions. He shut himself up in a dark room for days on end, speaking to no-one, and we were really concerned for him. At length he emerged, having looked deep within his heart of darkness. He journeyed to Mount Helicon where King Thespius purified him, then my nephew proceeded to Delphi, to inquire of the Pythoness, which is what Apollo's oracle was called, what he should do to make amends.
The Delphic Oracle, addressing him for the first time as Heracles, rather than Palaemon, which was another of his names, laid out the penance: He must move to Tiryns and serve Eurystheus, that sissy punk, for twelve years. In that time Herc must perform ten Labors set by Eurystheus, later to become twelve.
If he was successful in these Labors, he would become immortal, the Pythoness told him. "And by the way, Herc: The twelve labors will be such difficult feats that they will appear downright impossible. That'll be two hundred drachmas, please. Tip extra."
This put Heracles into a deeper funk and despair, for he loathed serving a man who was so blatantly inferior to him. He was inconsolable, even though all his buddies came to offer solace in his distress. In due time he snapped out of his misery and girded his heart. It's as if my nephew had been re-born.
If that's what it took to make amends to his gods for the insane and insidious murders of Meg and the children, so be it! Let's see what you got, Eury, you punk!
"Damn you, Hera! Damn you!"
He placed himself at Eurystheus's disposal, and that's where our story really begins.
HERCULES - THE LABORS
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