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One morning Jupiter boasted among the gods in Olympus that a son would that day be born, in the line of Perseus, who would rule over all the Argives. Juno was angry and jealous at this, and, as she was the goddess who presided over the births of children, she contrived to hinder the birth of the child he intended till that day was over, and to hasten that of another grandson of the great Perseus. This child was named Eurystheus, and, as he had been born on the right day, Jupiter was forced to let him be King of Argos, Sparta, and Mycenae, and all the Dorian race; while the boy whom he had meant to be the chief was kept in subjection, in spite of having wonderful gifts of courage and strength, and a kind, generous nature, that always was ready to help the weak and sorrowful.
Hercules at the Feet of Omphale.
The fifth task was a curious one. Augeas, King of Elis, had immense herds, and kept his stables and cowhouses in a frightful state of filth, and Eurystheus, hoping either to disgust Hercules or kill him by the unwholesomeness of the work, sent him to clean them. Hercules, without telling Augeas it was his appointed task, offered to do it if he were repaid the tenth of the herds, and received the promise on oath. Then he dug a canal, and turned the water of two rivers into the stables, so as effectually to cleanse them; but when Augeas heard it was his task, he tried to cheat him of the payment, and on the other hand Eurystheus said, as he had been rewarded, it could not count as one of his labors, and ordered him off to clear the woods near Lake Stymphalis of some horrible birds, with brazen beaks and claws, and ready-made arrows for feathers, which ate human flesh. To get them to rise out of the forest was his first difficulty, but Pallas lent him a brazen clapper, which made them take to their wings; then he shot them with his poisoned arrows, killed many, and drove the rest away.
King Minos, of Crete, had once vowed to sacrifice to the gods whatever should appear from the sea. A beautiful white bull came, so fine that it tempted him not to keep his word, and he was punished by the bull going mad, and doing all sorts of damage in Crete; so that Eurystheus thought it would serve as a labor for Hercules to bring the animal to Mycenae. In due time back came the hero, with the bull, quite subdued, upon his shoulders; and, having shown it, he let it loose again to run about Greece.
He had a harder task in getting the mares of the Thracian king, Diomedes, which were fed on man's flesh. He overcame their grooms, and drove the beasts away; but he was overtaken by Diomedes, and, while fighting with him and his people, put the mares under the charge of a friend; but when the battle was over, and Diomedes killed, he found that they had eaten up their keeper. However, when he had fed them on the dead body of their late master they grew mild and manageable, and he brought them home.
The next expedition was against the Amazons, a nation of women warriors, who lived somewhere on the banks of the Euxine, or Black Sea, kept their husbands in subjection, and seldom brought up a son. The bravest of all the Amazons was the queen, Hippolyta, to whom Mars had given a belt as a reward for her valor. Eurystheus's daughter wanted this belt, and Hercules was sent to fetch it. He was so hearty, honest, and good-natured, that he talked over Hippolyta, and she promised him her girdle; but Juno, to make mischief, took the form of an Amazon, and persuaded the ladies that their queen was being deluded and stolen away by a strange man, so they mounted their horses and came down to rescue her. He thought she had been treacherous, and there was a great fight, in which he killed her, and carried off her girdle.
Far out in the west, near the ocean flowing found the world, were herds of purple oxen, guarded by a two-headed dog, and belonging to a giant with three bodies called Geryon, who lived in the isle of Erythria, in the outmost ocean. Passing Lybia, Hercules came to the end of the Mediterranean Sea, Neptune's domain, and there set up two pillars--namely, Mounts Calpe and Abyla--on each side of the Straits of Gibraltar. The rays of the sun scorched him, and in wrath he shot at it with his arrows, when Helios, instead of being angry, admired his boldness, and gave him his golden cup, wherewith to cross the outer ocean, which he did safely, although old Oceanus, who was king there, put up his hoary head, and tried to frighten him by shaking the bowl. It was large enough to hold all the herd of oxen, when Hercules had killed dog, herdsman, and giant, and he returned it safely to Helios when he had crossed the ocean.
Again Eurystheus sent Hercules to the utmost parts of the earth. This time it was to bring home the golden apples which grew in the gardens of the Hesperides, the daughters of old Atlas, who dwelt in the land of Hesperus, the Evening Star, and, together with a dragon, guarded the golden tree in a beautiful garden. Hercules made a long journey, apparently round by the north, and on his way had to wrestle with a dreadful giant named Antaeus. Though thrown down over and over again, Antaeus rose up twice as strong every time, till Hercules found out that he grew in force whenever he touched his mother earth, and therefore, lifting him up in those mightiest of arms, the hero squeezed the breath out of him. By and by he came to Mount Caucasus, where he found the chained Prometheus, and, aiming an arrow at the eagle, killed the tormentor, and set the Titan free. Atlas undertook to go to his daughters, and get the apples, if Hercules would hold up the skies for him in the meantime. Hercules agreed, and Atlas shifted the heavens to his shoulders, went, and presently returned with three apples of gold, but said he would take them to Eurystheus, and Hercules must continue to bear the load of the skies. Prometheus bade Hercules say he could not hold them without a pad for them to rest on upon his head. Atlas took them again to hold while the pad was put on; and thereupon Hercules picked up the apples, and left the old giant to his load.
One more labor remained--namely, to bring up the three-headed watch-dog, Cerberus, from the doors of Tartarus. Mercury and Pallas both came to attend him, and led him alive among the shades, who all fled from him, except Medusa and one brave youth. He gave them the blood of an ox to drink, and made his way to Pluto's throne, where he asked leave to take Cerberus to the upper world with him. Pluto said he might, if he could overcome Cerberus without weapons; and this he did, struggling with the dog, with no protection but the lion's skin, and dragging him up to the light, where the foam that fell from the jaws of one of the three mouths produced the plant called aconite, or hellebore, which is dark and poisonous. After showing the beast to Eurystheus, Hercules safely returned him to the under world, and thus completed his twelve great labors.
Hercules was subject to fits of madness, in one of which he slew a friend, and as a penalty he allowed himself to be sold as a slave. He was purchased by the Queen of Lydia, Omphale, and remained in her service three years. She used to make him do a woman's work, and even dressed him at times in female garments, while she herself wore his famous lion skin and laughed at him.
But strong as he was, Hercules had in time to meet death himself. He had married a nymph named Deianira, and was taking her home, when he came to a river where a Centaur named Nessus lived, and gained his bread by carrying travellers over on his back. Hercules paid him the price for carrying Deianira over, while he himself crossed on foot; but as soon as the river was between them, the faithless Centaur began to gallop away with the lady. Hercules sent an arrow after him, which brought him to the ground, and as he was dying he prepared his revenge by telling Deianira that his blood was enchanted with love for her, and that if ever she found her husband's affection failing her, she had only to make him put on a garment anointed with it, and his heart would return to her; he knew full well that his blood was full of the poison of the Hydra, but poor Deianira believed him, and had saved some of the blood before Hercules came up.
Several years after, Hercules made prisoner a maiden named Iole, in Lydia, after gaining a great victory. Landing in the island of Euboea, he was going to make a great sacrifice to Jupiter, and sent home to Deianira for a festal garment to wear at it. She was afraid he was falling in love with Iole, and steeped the garment in the preparation she had made from Nessus's blood. No sooner did Hercules put it on, than his veins were filled with agony, which nothing could assuage. He tried to tear off the robe, but the skin and flesh came with it, and his blood was poisoned beyond relief. Unable to bear the pain any longer, and knowing that by his twelve tasks he had earned the prize of endless life, he went to Mount OEta, crying aloud with the pain, so that the rocks rang again with the sound. He gave his quiver of arrows to his friend Philoctetes, charging him to collect his ashes and bury them, but never to make known the spot; and then he tore up, with his mighty strength, trees by the roots, enough to form a funeral pile, lay down on it, and called on his friend to set fire to it; but no one could bear to do so, till a shepherd consented to thrust in a torch. Then thunder was heard, a cloud came down, and he was borne away to Olympus, while Philoctetes collected and buried the ashes.
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