The Sixth Labour:
Chasing Off the Stymphalian Birds
by I.A. Watson
An extract from his novel Labours of Hercules
“What are you doing out there? Get under cover, you fools!”
The shout came from a peasant farmer sheltering in the doorway of a hero-shrine in the centre of the village. It was the only stone-built construction in the whole settlement, standing on almost the only completely dry ground.
Hercules and Iolaus had wondered at the strange design of the huts around the edge of Lake Stymphala. They’d had to abandon their chariot yesterday, a dozen miles back, and press across the reed-marsh along marked ridges and goat tracks where brackish waters occasionally overflowed. The locals, short of firm ground to build on, had developed stilt-legged shacks with wooden piles driven down into the water. Long log-bridge roads were roped over the mud. It was an isolated, inbred corner of Greece and it had strange customs.
Like this one. “Why are you all squashed into that monument?” Hercules wondered. It seemed as if the entire population of the backward hamlet was packed tight into the old shrine. Many of them clutched chickens, lambs, and goats.
“Quickly!” warned the farmer. “They’re coming!”
“What’s coming?” Iolaus asked, following the peasant’s frightened line of gaze up into a bright azure sky.
“The Birds of Ares! Can’t you hear how quiet it’s gone? The animals and other birds always know when the flock has taken flight.”
“Ah, the Stymphalian Birds,” Hercules approved. “That’s what we’ve come for. I’m here to get rid of them for you.”
“This is Hercules of Tiryns,” Iolaus explained. “The hero?”
“He’ll be getting funeral orations then, and you with him, if you don’t both get in here now!”
Iolaus discerned a dark shadow to the north, across the water of the lake. It was like a coil of smoke but it moved differently, more fluidly. He pointed it out to Hercules.
“They’re almost upon us!” the farmer called. “Last chance. We have to seal the door.”
Iolaus noticed that the stonework of the old shrine was chipped, as if it had been struck with daggers or arrow-heads. Most of the other buildings of the village had small holes in their roofs. The damage most resembled the result of catapulting scrap iron at an enemy host.
“Hercules, we might want to take cover,” the charioteer admitted.
The hero watched the cloud approach. Nearer, it resolved itself into a vast flock of black-plumed heron-sized birds. Their beaks and claws glinted metallically in the sun. “Shields,” called Hercules.
Iolaus dragged Hercules’ medusa-shield from the pack and passed it over. He equipped his own aspis and readied a shortsword.
The villagers despaired of them and closed the shrine door.
Hercules planted his shield at his feet for when he needed it and nocked an arrow in his bow. “Let’s see how hard these Birds of Ares are to kill.”
His first shot was at long distance. It arced over the still waters of Stymphala and dropped a bird from the host. A second and a third arrow felled two more.
The flock numbered in the thousands. “We might need more arrows,” Iolaus breathed.
Hercules used up the whole score of shafts in his quiver and reached for club and shield before the birds swarmed him.
The avians descended, trilling an unearthly screech as they aimed for Hercules and Iolaus. The adventurers defended themselves. Hercules whacked a half dozen of the birds out of the air with a single club stroke. Iolaus cut down another pair.
The rest tore at their prey with iron talons. Iolaus yelped in pain as a brazen beak jabbed through his bronze breastplate and drew blood. More stabs followed from other birds.
Hercules swatted the swarm aside, but he too was bleeding where the lionskin did not protect him. The birds knew to aim at his eyes and genitals.
Iolaus retreated until the men were back to back, better able to defend against enemies that could attack from any quarter including the sky above. “We’re not winning this!” he called to Hercules.
“Move this way,” the son of Zeus called. He swept another brace down with a slice of his shield and edged towards one of the peasant stilt-huts.
“I don’t think those things can keep them out,” Iolaus warned. “That must be why everyone’s hiding in the stone monument.”
“That’s not what I want it for.”
The questers were torn and bleeding when they reached the hovel. Iolaus was ripped up the worst, but Hercules was scratched and bloody too. Ares’ birds had beaks as hard as chisels and claws sharp as razors.
Hercules discarded his shield and club and grabbed the hut. He roared in rage and ripped the whole dwelling off its foundation. Iolaus dropped to the floor just in time. The son of Zeus swung the cabin round and swatted a hundred or more of the Stymphalian birds out of the air. He dropped the collapsing hut down and them and stamped them flat.
The flock retreated, taking to the skies where Hercules could not reach them.
“We’re also going to need more huts,” Iolaus suggested.
The birds wheeled round, flexing their wings in odd ways. A shower of jet-black feathers flew down like darts.
Iolaus yelped and sheltered behind his shield. Even so three of the razor-sharp plumes buried themselves into his limbs. Hercules was more exposed and took at least a dozen.
“They can fire their plumage like darts!” Iolaus shouted, although that had just become obvious. The youngster was dismayed. The birds could remain airborne out of range of reprisal and shoot the adventurers down with impunity.
Hercules heaved the lad under his arm as if he was a straying sheep and raced full-pelt into the next cabin. A rattle of arrow-feathers followed them. Some pierced the wattle-and-daub walls. Others slashed through the fabric roof. But the birds could no longer see their enemy to aim with such accuracy.
Some swooped down to fly through the doorway. Hercules fended them with his club.
Then the birds revealed another tactic. They began dropping guano around the cabin. Where it landed on water the swamp turned dark and pestilent. On vegetation the droppings killed instantly. Ordure began to eat through the fabric of the roof.
“I had less trouble with the Hydra!” Hercules complained. He pushed Iolaus into a corner, dropped on top on him, and shrouded them both in the Nemean lion-skin, pulling it over them like a blanket to protect them from the deadly rain of feathers and droppings.
The birds continued their assault for an hour, but when it became clear that they could do little more harm they lost interest and swarmed away, cawing their malice and winding back north to their nests.
Hercules peered out from shelter. The hut was in shreds. Every bit of vegetation for twenty yards around was blackened and dead. Hundreds of those deadly plumes were embedded in the ground, already melting into foul pungent goo. “My lionskin is going to need a wash,” noted the hero.
Iolaus dragged himself from under Hercules’ bulk. “I won’t tell the bards about this if you don’t,” he promised.
Now the attack was over, the people of the village ventured out of the hero-shrine again. Iolaus was able to see from the dedication inside that the monument was to Stymphalus, son of Elatus of Phocis,[i] for whom the lake and region were named. Paintings inside the shrine showed the old hero’s death, treacherously murdered by King Pelops at a peace conference, dismembered and scattered across Greece; for which Pelops had been punished by the gods.
“You’re alive!” the farmer who had called out to them before gasped in amazement.
“How could you survive the Birds of Ares?” marvelled another.
“What happened to my hut?” asked a third.
Hercules dipped his lionskin into the waters to wash off the scummy droppings that crusted it. Unhealthy swirls of disease twisted off into the foetid swamp. “Who can tell me about those birds?” he asked the villagers.
The peasants were reluctant to discuss the avians. They had a superstitious belief that if they named the birds they might attract them again. Hercules did not scoff; after all, he avoided naming his dead children. Even then he sometimes heard them, and once or twice he’d been awoken in the night as tiny hands had pulled his beard.
The farmer who’d tried to save them passed on directions to the city of Stymphalus further round the lake, where he claimed there was a temple of Stymphalian Artemis and Athena that might answer the hero’s questions.
Hercules and Iolaus doctored their wounds and limped on along the marsh tracks.
“Keep back!” called out the gatekeeper at the palace of Phalanthus, home of the royal house of Stymphalus. “I have strict orders not to admit anybody.”
“This isn’t anybody!” Iolaus objected to the porter. “This is the famous Hercules of Tiryns, whose name is known across all Greece. He is a son of Zeus, the hero who overcame the Minyans, who sailed as an Argonaut, who cast down Troy. He slew the Nemean Lion and the Lernaean Hydra and caught the Boar of Mount Erymanthus. Admittedly he’s not looking his best right now, but that’s all the more reason to let him in to receive hospitality from your master.”
“I’m sorry,” the gatekeeper apologised, “but I’m really not allowed to let in anyone. There’s plague in town, sickness and death across the whole district, spread by those monstrous birds. My master King Phalanthus is away in Tiryns seeking aid from High King Eurystheus, and his daughters keep his household now. They have commanded that our gates be sealed, that no pestilence might enter.”
Hercules was not impressed. “I’ve come a long way – from Tiryns, by request of that same Eurystheus – and I’ve trudged through far too much swamp and mud to be denied meal, bath, and bed.”
There was movement inside the courtyard. Several women came to the gate, veiled against the diseases that infested the town. “Didn’t you hear our orders?” one demanded. “Go away.”
“There’s no room for you here,” another said.
“We can’t allow you in. Anyone might be infected,” commented a third.
“Try Athena’s precinct,” sneered another. “They’re letting anybody in there, no matter who or what they are.”
“We don’t even know that you’re who you claim to be. Anyone can call himself Hercules.”
“Well, I can settle that at least,” growled the hero. He reached out and wrenched the gate from its hinges, then crumpled the bars until they were knotted in a tangled ball. The uncourteous Stymphalides screamed and fled.
Hercules bowled the wad of bent metal to crash down their front door, and stamped away. “Let’s find some other place that will receive us with proper duty,” he shouted to Iolaus loud enough for both town and palace to hear. “No honour resides within those walls!”[ii]
The angry hero stormed down to the forum and headed for the temple compound and the altar of Athena Parthenos.
The young woman in command there also refused them entry. She took one look at the travellers who limped up to the precinct and sent them out again to wash. “There’s enough sickness in here without you treading in more,” she scolded. “Out back is a fountain spring with clear fresh water. Cleanse yourselves and your clothes before you come back. Anoint yourself with this ointment of silphium and borage, sovereign against diseases of the skin. Prayers to Apollo, Panacea, and Hygea wouldn’t hurt either.”
From the votary’s reference to the god of healing and his daughters it was clear that there was sickness in the compound. She obviously believed it to be related to the Stymphalian bird’s ordure; why else would she require anyone to wash before going amongst the sick?
Hercules and Iolaus did as instructed, stripping to the skin, washing even the bandages from their encounter with the evil birds. “That was an unusual priestess,” Hercules observed as he scrubbed. “She wasn’t wearing the usual fancy raiment of Athena’s servants – though the last one I met was an old woman and didn’t have the legs and figure to get away with a tiny tabard like this one does.” He had a very clear image in his mind of the maiden’s short white chiton and loose head-scarf.
“I don’t know if she was a priestess,” Iolaus considered, “but don’t sleep with her until we find out.”
“I’m a lay votary of Athena,” the woman answered when asked for clarification as the travellers returned to the gates. “It’s supposed to be an honorary duty. I turn up every month and help out with the sacrifices, go in procession when we do the rites, that sort of thing. But the priestess of the Wise One was amongst the first to catch the plague, and Athena’s temple servant went last week. A lot of people have fled, including most of the priesthood, so there’s really only me to organise things and to care for anybody in the city who gets sick.”
“Who are you, then?” Hercules asked. “When you’re not deputing for the goddess of wisdom.”
The votary looked the hero up and down. He’d not yet bothered to put on his wet lionskin or anything else. “When I’m not deputing for the chaste goddess of wisdom I am Parthenope,[iii] a daughter of the royal house of Stymphalus.”
“You’re kin to those harridans who wouldn’t give us hospitality,” Iolaus accused.
“I am giving sanctuary to anyone who needs it here at the forecourt of the gods.”
“And you are maintaining this hospital because nobody else will.”
“Yes. Because Athena is merciful. And to annoy my sisters at the palace, who say I’m bringing them into disrepute by getting my hands soiled, harming their chances of good matches. But mostly the Athena thing, honestly.”
Parthenope took them into the temple square. The largest foundation here was to Artemis, for this was a region dominated by hunting game and fowl, but there were smaller altars to Apollo and Athena and another hero-shrine to the founder of the city, dismembered Stymphalus. The forecourt precinct was half-full of ill people on straw pallets, sheltered from the sun by linen sheet tents.
“That’s a lot of sick people to look after,” Iolaus observed.
“Not really,” Parthenope sighed. “There were more before, but most of them died. I can’t really heal anyone. I just keep them watered and washed, and try to cram food down them if they can manage it. A few recover. The Birds of Ares bring the pestilences of war – dysentery, malaria, that kind of thing. Their droppings are toxic.”
“We’d noticed that,” responded Hercules “We were hoping there’d be someone here who could tell us more about the monsters. And how to stop them.”
“Well, I can tell you where they came from,” the votary of Athena offered. “Last winter was particularly hard at Wolves Ravine on the Orchomenan Road. The starving wolves began to prey upon animals and birds that they would never have bothered in less terrible weather, so food became very scarce in that region. They howled all the time. What with the cold and the game shortage and the constant wolf-pack noise, the strange birds of Ares who lived in the ravine abandoned their nesting sites. They all flew off to find somewhere better to perch and never returned.”
“And they came here, to the Stymphalian Marsh,” reasoned Iolaus.
“Yes. A hot, sticky place, full of fat buzzing insects and huge lazy frogs would make normal birds content to live peacefully, with plenty to eat and not many humans to disturb them. But the birds of Ares are not normal birds.”
“We noticed that when we had an encounter with them,” Iolaus said ruefully.
“How did they become so numerous and so deadly?” Hercules wanted to know.
“You are Hercules, a son of Zeus? They say you had to track down the Ceryneian Hind as your third Labour for Eurystheus of Tiryns. That Hind was the special pet of Artemis the Huntress, and like her it is swift and beautiful.” Parthenope pointed to the carving of the divine twelve, the sacred family of Olympians. She tapped her finger on the engraving of grim Ares, god of war. “Ares’ pets are like him too, but because he is terrible and warlike so are his dagger-feathered Birds.”
“I’m taking a dislike to Mars,”[iv] grumbled the hero.
Parthenope gave him an un-Athenalike wink. “I picture brooding Ares – probably sulking because Hephaestus caught him with Aphrodite and put a stop to that mischief[v] - squatting there on his bleak hill Areopagus, a little way off from Olympus Mons so he can’t quarrel with his neighbours, feeding up his monstrous black birds and breeding them until they could blot out the sun. And then sending them to trouble mortals.”
“There do seem to be rather a lot of them,” Iolaus conceded. “Killing them individually isn’t a problem. Killing them collectively…”
“I’m not even allowed to have Iolaus here help me, really,” Hercules grumbled. “Last time he did I got disqualified.”
“Nobody could kill all of them,” judged Parthenope. “They are brazen-beaked, brazen clawed, and brazen winged. Pestilence follows in their shadow. Their poisonous droppings wither the crops. They fly over flocks of sheep and drop metal feathers on them to kill the poor animals to carry off and eat. Oh, and they feast on men as well. What was your task, exactly?”
“The Dung-man said we have to get rid of them,” Hercules recalled.
“That’s not the same as killing them, is it?” Athena’s votary noted.
The hero agreed that it wasn’t. “Are you going to call upon your goddess’ wisdom to help me overcome the monsters?”
“Let’s assume I am. So the first problem is that you can’t actually get to them. They nest on the Isle of Ares out there in the middle of the lake – except it’s really a marsh. The ground is even worse to walk on than the Lernaean Swamp where you fought the Hydra. It’s too runny to tread on and too solid to row a boat over. The next problem is the birds themselves. There are thousands, huge smelly things shaped like giant spoon-bills. And the last problem is that they can attack from the sky. You have one bow to shoot them. Meanwhile a thousand of them can launch their plumes at you.”
“I call it cheating,” Hercules grumped.
Parthenope nodded sympathetically. “I’d say somebody at Eurystheus’ palace is getting clever. Probably Queen Antimache, she’s the brains there. You’ve destroyed every monster they’ve thrown you at and caught even the hardest-to-find of creatures. This time they think they’ve found you a challenge that all your immense strength and stamina cannot solve.”
“So what do I do?”
Parthenope held up a cautionary finger. “Hold on there, hero. My patroness Pallas Athena has been helping you ever since you set out on these quests. Before you ask her for more favours, shouldn’t you be paying one back?”
“Would it help if I went up to the palace here and wiped out those inhospitable Stymphalides?” Hercules offered.
“Tempting,” the votary considered, “but that would be a favour for me, not the goddess.”
“Would it help if I was to make love to you?” the hero offered. “You’re not an actual priestess of chaste Athena, are you, so there’s no taboo or offence.”
“I doubt that would help me concentrate,” Parthenope pointed out. “Let me think about the problem for a while, maybe pray and make a little sacrifice. I feel an idea coming. It just needs a while to be born.” She turned to go and added, “Born like Athena. Without sex.”[vi]
Hercules and Iolaus woke with the sun the next morning, but Parthenope was up before them, tending to the sick outside the sanctuary of the gods. Hercules watched her for a while, admiring both her form and her actions. She waved at him but carried on with her duties. A short while later she vanished into the temple to conduct what morning devotions she could manage in the absence of a priest or priestess.
“Has she had an idea yet?” Iolaus enquired.
“I’ll ask her when she comes out,” Hercules promised.
Only Parthenope didn’t come out. Athena did.
Hercules blinked in astonishment at the white-gowned presence with the owl on her shoulder. It looked a little like the daughter of the house of Stymphalus, but…
“Well met, son of Zeus,” said the goddess. “You have grown since we first encountered each other.”
“Yes. Thank you for that trick with Hera’s milk, by the way. I finally got told about it by a centaur who listened to Cheiron.”
“Your father has some plans for you, Hercules.” Athena warned. “And not just him. Never mind that for now, though,” she advised. “You owe me a favour for my help with the Lernaean Hydra.”
Hercules admitted that this was the case, even if Hera had added an extra monster in because Athena had tried to interfere. “What do you want me to do?” he asked.
Athena opened her hands and showed Hercules a pair of strange devices. “These were a present to me from Hephaestus, smith of the gods,” she explained. “They were amongst the things plundered by Stymphalus’ son Agamedes from the treasury of King Hyreias.[vii] They were dedicated at my altar here when Agamedes’ head was returned for his funeral.”
Hercules looked at the twin items. Each was a set of two concave brazen clappers almost the length of his palm. A loop-cord allowed fingers or thumb to hinge the cups open. It was one of the strangest devices he had ever seen. “What is it?”
“They are called castanets, a sort of musical instrument. Perhaps you could play me a tune on them?”
“I’m trained with a lyre in the classical manner and I can manage a tune with a syrinx. Wouldn’t you prefer that?”
“No. Try these.”
The goddess had commanded. The hero had never even seen castanets before but he did not want to let Athena down. He slipped the objects on to his hands and tried an experimental clack. A deep crash like thunder echoed round the temple court. Hercules tried for a rhythm but only managed a cacophony.
These were no ordinary castanets, to make a snapping sound between finger and thumb. These instruments were made by the smith-god himself, and were much bigger and noisier. As the hero tried to play them they made the most appalling booming noise. “Like someone dropping a big bag of pans down a staircase,” as Iolaus put it.
“Oh dear, oh dear!” remarked Athena. “I think you’d better go and to get some practise. Go out of the city, down to the water’s edge. Learn the instrument there.”
“It won’t do any good,” yelled Iolaus over the chaos. “They’ll hear this noise all across the lake!”
“Down to Stymphala, Hercules, and keep trying,” the goddess instructed.
“And then will you help me with these birds?” asked the son of Zeus.
“Ask me again when you have had a chance to improve.” Athena flexed her shoulder. The huge owl winged into the air, fluttering tawny feathers, and circled round under the lintel of the Wise Goddess’ temple. Parthenope blinked and shuddered and was herself again.
Iolaus and Hercules looked hard at the votary and tried to determine how they had ever mistaken her for Athena; yet the impression had been so strong.
“I’m so glad I’m not a dedicated priestess,” the princess of Stymphalus confessed. “Getting too close to the gods is not a comfortable experience.”
Hercules was a little bit put out that the goddess should expect him to waste his time on such a trivial thing as playing these castanets when he had important work to do in the Stymphalian Marsh. “Maybe we can work something out ourselves?” he suggested. “I can practise this thing with these clackers later.”
“Is it a good idea to ignore a personal request from divine Athena?” Iolaus cautioned.
“Maybe it’s a test?” Parthenope suggested. “If you do well with your castanets then she might reward you with what you hope for.”
Hercules looked at the curious brazen hemispheres in his hands - and realised what was going on. “Last time Athena tried to help me, Hera made my Labour more difficult,” he muttered. “But Athena is wise. She’s trying to aid me without seeming to.”
Once Hercules had that thought, he realised that Athena had wanted him to have the castanets for some reason. Suddenly he knew how to get rid of the ghastly birds of Ares. “Of course!” he roared, laughing boisterously. “To the marsh! I can beat these birds now!”
Hercules strode out beyond the city, into the pestilent swamp that now encroached on it. Iolaus trailed after him, ignorant of what Hercules was planning so that no winged spite of Hera’s might overhear and thwart the plan. Parthenope remained at the sanctuary of Artemis to tend to the sick in her care.
The son of Zeus ventured as far as he dared into the edge of the lake without sinking too deep into the sucking mud. He gestured for his charioteer to get well back. “I can’t have any aid now, or that Dung-man will cheat me out of another Labour. Take cover under the trees so Ares’ pets don’t spot you. Wrap your ears with something.”
Hercules cracked his fingers, limbered them, then pulled on the castanets. “Ho, birdies!” he shouted, “Let’s see how you like my music!”
His challenge echoed over the green waters to the Isle of Ares where the metal-fletched birds now nested. A few of them flew out to see what the roaring was about. More followed after them, circling high until they saw the hero wading in the shallows. They swooped down, nearing to launch their feather-darts.
Hercules started to play the castanets. Only a hero as strong as he could have used these particular instruments properly, but he made a noise even worse than his last attempt. It was as if someone was playing skittles with bronze pithoi[viii] that were filled with old knives and spoons. It was so loud that people heard it for a hundred miles.
The flock burst into the air, milling about, hammered by the vibrations of Hercules’ concert. Some of them darted in towards the hero, but each new racket disturbed them worse, tangling them together to drop into the lake below. Some scattered, while the rest flew overhead in a group so big that midday was darkened to twilight.
And Hercules clacked the castanets, booming like a thunderstorm on Olympus, clashing like the rage of armies. Hercules played for hours.
The Stymphalian Birds were terrified. The howling at Wolves Ravine had been enough before to shift them from their old nesting cliffs. The sounds Hercules were making were worse, and much louder. Each new boom sent ripples across the surface of Lake Stymphala, setting the reeds swaying on the opposite bank. Every time there was a steady rhythm the hero changed again, driving the avians to distraction.
By some secret signal, the flock all flew up in the high air, screeching. Hercules played louder still, straining with all his might to wring horrors from Hephaestus’ percussion tools.
With one accord, the brazen-beaked murder turned north and winged away, driven off by the impossible din. They all flew the long distance to the Sea of Corinth and vanished to the west, never to return.
It was later told that the Argonauts met some birds of Ares while on their distant journey, but whether they were the same ones from the Stymphalian Marsh or not there was no way of knowing.[ix] Other reports of the birds came from the deserts of Africa later on, so perhaps that was where they ended up.
“I did it, Iolaus!” Hercules called joyfully, setting the castanets aside.
“What was that?” his companion replied. His ears were stuffed with wax.
“The sickness will pass away now,” Parthenope assured Hercules when he returned the castanets to the altar of Pallas Athena. “The first signs of it are already showing. Some of the children grow stronger, their fevers broken. And my sisters have dared poke their noses out of the palace, to find that nobody will speak to them. All of Stymphalus is pretending they do not exist.”
“Are you going to be the goddess again at all?” Hercules asked the votary. She was back in her brief chiton, not robed as her divine patron.
“I hope not. Once is enough for anybody.” Parthenope looked around for Iolaus. “Where’s your friend?”
“He’s gone back for the chariot. We couldn’t drag it along all the back roads but there’s a proper track to your city. He’ll be back in two or three days, which will give me plenty of time to collect my hero’s fee from the House of Phalanthus.”
“My father is away,” Parthenope pointed out. “Besides, didn’t I hear that your stable-cleansing exploit was discounted because Augeus paid you?”
“He hasn’t paid me yet,” groused Hercules. “Still, you make a good point.”
“I think I see an answer,” the votary told him. “Wait here.” She patted him on the cheek and hastened to Athena’s altar. A while later she attended Artemis’ sanctuary also.
A tentative priest turned up that afternoon, having heard that Ares’ monsters had been cleared away and the pestilence was passing. He was wandering around the precinct tutting at all the things that hadn’t been done. Hercules pointed out scathingly that if all the holy men had not run away then they’d have nothing to complain about.
It was almost evening by the time Parthenope returned. “Come with me, Hercules,” she commanded. She led the hero through the city and out by a private gate, down quiet steps to the lake’s edge. There was a peaceful glade where cicadas leaned down to make a private bower. The red sun reflected on the waters, turning them as crimson as blood.
“Pretty,” admitted the hero.
“I may have found a solution to the problem of your hero’s fee,” Parthenope told him. “You are owed much for saving our land. It’s not fair that you depart unrewarded because of my family’s meanness or King Eurystheus’ cavilling.”
“Honestly, I’m used to it by now,” sighed the son of Zeus.
“Not this time, generous Hercules. There was a simple answer when I thought about it. Four knots, that’s proper payment. Who could object to you getting compensated with mere bits of thread?”
“Four knots?” Hercules was puzzled.
“I have a problem too,” the maiden went on in soft, low tones; her name meant ‘virgin’s voice’. “I’m very honoured to have hosted Athena; or to been her chariot or whatever happened this morning. Of course I am. But I don’t ever want it to happen again. So now that the professional priests and priestesses are returning and the sick are recovering it’s time that I retired. I’ve made my sacrifices to Athena in the proper form and left her service in amity and honour. And then I made a nameless offering to virgin Artemis too, as all maidens must before they leave her care.”
“Ah.” Now she had Hercules’ full attention.
Four knots: two at her chiton’s waist, two more holding it in place at the shoulders. A flutter of two lengths of gauze, and beneath them a hero’s reward.
“Athena would never manifest through any but a virgin,” Hercules understood.
“My father owes you a royal price,” Parthenope declared.
“And of all things in Stymphalus, you are the most royal.”
“Perhaps, noble Hercules. Until your son is born.”
And so after the clamour of war came love.[x]
[i] This is a different Elatus to the centaur of the same name slain by Hercules. This one fought the Phlegyans and founded the city of Elatea.
[ii] A variant version of the Stymphalian labour from Mnaseas in scholia on Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica, 2. 1052, suggests that the ‘birds’ were actually the Stymphalides, daughters of Stymphalus, whose crime was lack of hospitality, and who were consequently slain by Hercules.
[iii] Parthenope was obviously a popular girl’s name in ancient Greece. The character in our present tale is mentioned by Pseudo-Apollodorus in Bibliotheca 2.7.8, though he makes her the actual daughter of Stymphalus, which is problematical given that Stymphalus’ murderer had been dead for generations at the time most mythographers place Hercules. Other Parthenopes include a daughter of the Argonaut Anceas who became the mother of Achilles’ ally Lycomedes, and one of the sirens, daughters of the river-god Achelous, who encountered Odysseus.
[iv] This name for Ares was popularised by the Romans but also appeared in Greek literature as an alternative descriptor for the war god.
[v] This is a reference to the myth, best known from Homer’s Odyssey viii.266-367, that Hephaestus caught his wife, the goddess of love, in bed with Ares – sex and violence. He literally caught them, since an unbreakable net he had rigged up pinned them both in flagrante delecto, and he then brought in all the other gods to see what they’d been doing and to comment, much to the couple’s discomfort.
[vi] Athena’s epithet Parthenos, often translated as “virgin”, specifically refers to her own unusual nativity, breaking violently out of her father Zeus’ skull despite his extraordinary efforts to prevent her birth.
[vii] Chirac of Paramus offered an account of the brothers Agamedes and Trophonius contracting to build a treasury for Hyreius, King of the Syrians in Boeotia. They left a wall-stone unmortared, which allowed them to slip into the treasury at night and plunder it without broaching locks and seals. Puzzled Hyreius set lethal traps for the thieves. Agamedes was caught in one of them. Trophonius, unable to free his sibling’s corpse, cut off Agamedes’ head to conceal its identity. He was swallowed up by the ground for his impiety.
[viii] Man-sized storage jars, of the size and shape of King Eurystheus’ underground Hercules refuge.
[ix] The timing and order of Hercules’ Labours varies between sources. In the timeline that this volume generally allows precedent, Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca, the Argonauts had already returned by the time Hercules began this task.
[x] Parthenope’s son by Hercules was named Everes.
An extract from
LABOURS OF HERCULES
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Cover art: “Hercules Removes Cerberus from the Gates of Hell” by Johan Köler, 1855
Cover design: Charles Shad
A Chillwater Press publication
Edited by R.R. Watson
First Printing: December 2016