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Labour 3: Gathering the Golden Apples of the Hesperides



Hercules is directed to search for the sacred tree of wisdom and to pick its golden apples. Asking to be shown the quickest way, he is told that the way is long, that three fair maidens cherish the tree and watch over its fruit and that both tree and maidens are protected by a hundred-headed dragon. Hercules is also told that this labour holds five great tests, each affording scope for wisdom, understanding and skill, but that unless he is vigilant, he may fail to recognise them.


He proceeds north, looking everywhere and asking everyone the way but failing to recognise the subtle hints offered by the messenger Nereus who repeatedly comes to him in various forms. And so failing, he turns south where he meets and wrestles with Antaeus, the serpent who overpowers him in every way until Hercules lifts the serpent into the air and so vanquishes him. Happy and confident, he now goes west where, in this third stage of the labour, he meets Busiris, the arch-deceiver and son of the waters, who claims to be the Teacher and to know the truth. Without thinking, Hercules accepts him for what he seems to be and, losing his strength, finds himself bound to an altar. Gradually Hercules realises his mistake and, recalling the words of Nereus that truth lies within oneself, manages to break free. Chastened, but wiser from this failure, he continues his search and comes upon Prometheus in agony, chained to a rock and being attacked by vultures. Ignoring his own urges to hasten upon his quest, Hercules frees Prometheus and nurses him back to health, enduring yet another long delay, but succeeding in this fourth stage of the labour.


Worn with wandering and fear, Hercules hears that the tree can be found near a distant mountain. Taking heed, he turns east but is arrested by a sense of deep distress: before him is Atlas, staggering under the load of worlds, bowed with pain but asking no help. Hercules forgets his own search and rushes to aid him, lifting the burden from his brother onto his own back. The load rolls off and both stand free. With love, Atlas and the three maidens offer the golden apples to Hercules. Thus the labour concludes with the reminder that the Way is marked by service and that deeds of love are signposts on the Way.


Interpretation of the myth:

In this labour, the element of time is significant, also failure, but followed by eventual victory. The mission is clear: “Let Hercules unfold the power to search without discouragement, deception or too great a speed. Let perseverance now be called upon.” This test underlines the fact that the disciple must become a living illustration of his or her spiritual vision. All subjective and mental effort is to be worked out on the physical plane, for it is here that the “mechanism of contact” is developed and knowledge is transmuted into wisdom.


After the first two labours, the disciple needs to be aware of soul qualities and to recognise this presence in the waking consciousness. Hercules initially fails in this, falling victim to the obstructions of glamour and deception. By eventually realising this mistake, he can then find Prometheus, who symbolises the God within and who must be rescued from the vultures of desire and selfishness. In freeing him, Hercules comes to understand the power of service and love that free the server as well as those he serves. But the ultimate test of this labour is illustrated by Hercules' contact with Atlas: forgetting his own quest in his effort to help lift the burden of the whole world, he demonstrates great compassion and selflessness and, in doing so, he both frees Atlas and is handed the golden apples of his goal.


These golden apples echo the one apple in the story of the Garden of Eden: whereas that apple symbolises separation through the knowledge of good and evil, these apples represent plurality and the synthesis of the many, nourished by the One Tree of Life. The journey from Eve's single apple to the many of Hercules is one of understanding through the application of knowledge, in the light of wisdom, to the problems of life.


Keynote of Gemini:

Personality Aspect: Let instability do its work.

Soul Aspect: I recognise my other self and in that self, I grow and glow.