Still working off his debt to the gods after killing his family in a blind rage, Heracles is now despatched by his envious cousin King Eurystheus to rid a village of some man-eating birds. However, not everyone is against him.
A COLONY of birds once sought refuge from wolves by settling in marshy woods around Lake Stymphalia. Artemis took them for pets, and bred them to be ferocious, with bronze beaks and poisonous dung, and sharp quills they could shoot like darts. Now they ravaged crops, carried off beasts, and devoured townspeople.
Hoping his cousin might come to some harm, Eurystheus sent Heracles to deal with them.
At first, Heracles was confounded. The marshy ground of the lakeside wood was too soft for his weight, and the trees concealed the birds from his arrows tipped with venomous hydra blood. But then came a tap on his shoulder.
It was Athene, laden with an enormous pair of brazen castanets, fashioned specially for him by Hephaestus. A grateful Hercules seized the castanets, and rattled them noisily. The terrified birds rocketed into the air, and as they flew off towards the Black Sea, never to return, the hero picked some off with his poisoned arrows, to show to Eurystheus.*
* The Argonauts met the birds in their new home on the Black Sea, and drove them away once more, this time with dazzling light flashing from burnished shields and helmets.