Greek hero Heracles has been appointed ten Labours to atone for killing his family in a fit of madness. The Labours are set by his jealous cousin King Eurystheus, and when he learns that Heracles had help with the many-headed Hydra of Lerna and the Stables of King Augeas, he declares that two more Labours must be performed to make up the number.
WITH the cattle of Geryon, Heracles thought he had completed the ten labours appointed by the oracle.* But Eurystheus judged that Heracles had had help with the Hydra and the Augean stables, and declared them void.
So Heracles was despatched to bring home three apples from a sacred tree growing the Garden of the Hesperides, daughters of the Night.* This tree was guarded by a fearsome dragon with a hundred heads, but that hardly mattered because no one knew where the Garden was.
Undeterred, Heracles struck out northwest, where he surprised the shapeshifting sea-god Nereus, dozing. Nereus eventually calmed down, and yielded up some grumpy directions towards the East, but though Heracles crossed all Arabia as far as the Caucasus, there was no sign of the Garden.* He did come across Prometheus, however, and after shooting down the eagle that came daily to feast on the Titan’s flesh, released him from his eternal chains.* For that, Heracles was rewarded with the right directions at last.
* Heracles had killed his family in a fit of madness brought upon him by his implacable enemy Hera, and an oracle (taught by Hera) had told Heracles that he must serve his mean-spirited cousin Eurystheus in reparation. Several ancient authors declare that the initial ten Labours took Heracles eight years and one month.
* The apple trees that grew in the Garden were a wedding present from Gaia (Earth) to Hera, and nymphs named the Hesperides were set to watch over them. Occasionally, however, the Hesperides picked the apples for themselves, so Hera set the dragon (i.e. a serpent) to guard the apples from their guardians.
* This wild goose chase gave the ancients ample opportunity to add in additional exploits of the hero. It is said, for example, that he went to Libya, ruled by Antaeus, a son of Poseidon who gained a constant supply of superhuman strength from his mother the earth. He tried to kill Heracles, but the hero took Antaeus in a bear hug, and lifted him off the ground long enough to deprive him of all his powers.
* Prometheus was one of the Titans, second-generation gods who were overthrown by the third-generation Olympians, children of the Titan Cronus. Prometheus was mankind’s friend, indeed their creator according to some; he it was who gave man the gift of fire, for which breach of discipline he was chained forever to a rock, and an eagle came daily to feed on his liver.