TWELVE LABOURS OF HERCULES
The vast Ring-Dance of the
Zodiac, which Hercules performed
and ever performs, begins in
the Sign of Aries the Ram and
ends in the sign of Pisces or
the Two Fish. Month by month,
year by year, life by life,
the energies of each constellation
stream forth, posing the same
challenges and trials to each
human being, as Hercules once
This is the Labour, this
is the Work.
Let us follow
the Tracks of Hercules
the Far-off Light
Labour I - Aries
The Capture of the Man-Eating Mares
Long ago, Hercules, the Glory of the Goddess Hera,
Set out to capture the Wild Horses of Diomedes.
He cornered and tethered them
But gave to his friend Abderis
The task of driving them back to Diomedes.
On the way they trampled Abderis to death.
So Hercules was forced to take on the task:
He drove the wild mares
The horses of generation,
Firmly back to Diomedes.
Thus did Hercules learn
Straight from the horses' mouth.
Labour II - Taurus
The Capture of the Cretan Bull
The voice said to Hercules:
'Enter the Maze
Grope through the Dark,
Seize the Bull,
Thread your Way
Through the Labyrinth
To the water-lapped shore.'
He did this, and the Voice said:
'Ride Taurus the Bull
From Island to Mainland,
Over the Wine-Red Sea
Of Lavish Desire.'
He did this too
And the Voice said:
Brimful with light,
The Beauty of the Bridle,
The Art of the Curb.'
Hercules slowly mastered this.
Labour III - Gemini
The Golden Apples of the Hesperides
Voyaging in a Cup of Gold
Over the wide passionate Sea,
In search of Golden Apples
Guarded by a coiled Dragon,
Hercules was diverted from his goal
By various acts of service
Such as holding the Great Globe
Of Atlas on his shoulders,
Or pausing to release Prometheus
From his heavy iron chains.
Yet finally he reached the Hesperides,
Was permitted to eat a Golden Apple,
And as a final act of service
He left other Apples behind him
For those who would follow in his tracks
In times to come.
Labour IV - Cancer
The Capture of the Doe
Hercules hunts the shy Doe
Of the Forest, so swift to vanish.
Like a flash of intuition, she comes and goes
In the forest clearing of the stockstill mind.
Though Hercules wounds it and brings it to a temple,
It ever moves delicately through the shadow-dappled glade
Of a far hill.
Labour V - Leo
The slaying of the Nemean Lion
Rumour reached Hercules of a Great Lion
Ravaging by night the Land of Nemea.
He decided to go there and kill it
But this was easier said than done,
For on arrival he found that the cavern
It lived in had two openings so that
If he entered by one, the Lion left by the other.
Finally he decided to block one opening
And enter by the other. Clever, eh!
In this way he cornered it, lifted it
Above the earth, and so throttled the Lion.
Ever after he wore the Lion's Skin
Over his head and down his spine
As a token of true self-conquest.
Labour VI - Virgo
Seizing the Girdle of Hippolyte
Hercules made some grievous mistakes.
For example, in seizing the Girdle of Motherhood
By force, he killed Queen Hippolyte.
His Teacher said: "Redeem this act"
Hercules set out to do so.
He passed a Great Sea,
And saw a Huge Monster there
Rise and swallow Maid Hesione
In one gulp.
As Heroes must,
Before he could think,
Hercules dived down
Deep into the red gullet
Of the Huge Monster
And rescued Hesione
And brought her back
To the light of day.
The Pattern is ancient:
The Doubt and the Dithering,
Between Substance and Spirit,
The Choice at the Crossroads,
Between Body and Soul,
Only to be resolved in the Act
Which embraces both.
Labour VII - Libra
The Capture of the Erymanthian Boar
On his Seventh Labour Hercules was told
To capture the Wild Erymanthian Boar
But remember to take time off to eat -
Good advice, but he carried it too far,
For, climbing the cliffs in quest of the Boar,
He met two Centaurs with a cask of wine.
They broached it and downed the wine,
Till Hercules, sloshed, slew one of the Centaurs.
Hercules now plodded upwards alone,
Found the Wild Boar, fought it
With his bare hands, and subdued it.
Then lifting it by its hind-legs,
He marched the Boar like a wheel-barrow
Down to the City of the Centaurs,
Who, being half human, half horse,
Laughed and whinnied at the ludicrous sight!
Hercules had completed his Mission,
But had wobbled somewhat on the way.
Labour VIII - Scorpio
Destroying the Lernaean Hydra
There was severe drought in ancient Argos
And so the Goddess Amymone struck a Rock
And out of it gushed three clear streams.
But the Foul Hydra with Nine Necks
Settled in the foul Swamp nearby.
Hercules' task was to kill it, knowing
That each time he lopped off one Tentacle
Three more would spring up in its place.
A most radical procedure was required.
The Voice of his Master whispered to him:
"Rise by kneeling. Conquer by supplication",
And this the Hero proceeded to do.
Kneeling, he raised the Hydra into the air,
And one by one the squirming Tentacles
Sagged down. The Hydra died.
Such is the power of the Bent Knee
And Clasped Hands.
Labour IX -
Killing the Stymphalian Birds
On his Ninth Labour Hercules was told
To cleanse yet another Stinking Marsh
Where the fierce Stymphalian Birds
With their iron beaks and sharp talons,
Lurked, threatening all wayfarers who came near.
He tried shooting arrows at them,
Setting traps. But to no avail.
Hercules was in a quandary.
He paused and pondered,
And he heard these words:
"The Flame that gleams
Beyond Common Sense
Reveals the Way ahead."
A solution dawned on him,
And seizing two great bronze cymbals
He set up such a din
That the brutal Birds fled.
Deep silence settled.
The bright sun sank.
Saturated with light.
Labour X - Capricorn
The Slaying of Cerberus, Guardian of Hades
Always in the dead of Winter
When the Sun sags over the horizon
The Monster Cerberus;
It is the Turning-Point
When the Way down
When the Child swaddled in shadow
Gleams in the Crib
For Everybody's Sake,
Growing towards Light
Out of the dim Depths.
Labour XI - Aquarius
Cleansing the Augean Stables
Hercules next comes to the Sick Land of King Augeus
And finds it afflicted by a Pestilent Stench
Rising from the heaped dung of the King's Stables.
It has brought disease to the whole realm.
People are dying, the crops are withering.
And so seeing that Augeus does nothing,
Hercules decides to Act.
After racking his brains,
He forms a plan and carries it out:
He brings two large rivers together
To make one great Flood;
He directs its flow first
Through the King's Stables
And scrubs them spick-and-span.
And then Hercules lets the Waters
Wash the Whole Kingdom Clean.
The stench vanishes;
The people recover;
Fruit ripens on the laden boughs
And fields shimmer with gold Corn,
That will bulge the barns for winter.
Only Augeus is displeased
And, as might be expected,
He rewards Hercules
Labour XII - Pisces
The Capture of the Red Cattle of Geryon
It is said that on his Last Labour
Hercules overcame the Great Illusion;
Glimpsed, beyond all partial truths,
Truth in all simplicity.
Across the Fretful Waves
Of the wide, wind-swept sea
Fares Hercules to Erytheia,
In a Bright Golden Cup
To free the captive hoards
Of All Humanity,
Long interned in darkness.
He will then ferry them all
To the Sacred City
In the Sturdy Ship
Of the Holy Grail.
Thick Darkness now gives way to Dawn
Out of the glade emerges the Fawn,
The Dying Grain revives as Corn,
The Old Age dies, a New Age is born.