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Apples of the Hesperides

by Ron Leadbetter
Heracles on his penultimate task was asked to pluck three golden apples from the tree of the Hesperides, (nymphs of the evening). Gaia, the earth-mother had given Zeus and Hera golden apples as a wedding gift. Hera planted them in her garden, which was far to the west and close to Mount Atlas. To guard the apples Hera sent Ladon, an immortal monster with one hundred heads. It was yet another offspring of Echidna and Typhon. Also guarding the tree where the Hesperides, who were the daughters of Nyx and Erebus, but some versions say that Atlas was their father. Some versions say seven, but most legends say there were three Hesperides but it can vary; Aigle, Arethusa, Erytheia, Hespere, and Hesperethusa are some of the names given to them.

The most difficult part of this task was to find the location of the garden. Heracles set off toward the west. While crossing Thessaly in northern Greece, Heracles came across Cycnus, who was the son of Ares, the god of war. Cycnus killed travelers and passers-by, then offered their flesh as sacrifice to his father. Heracles fought and killed him (in some versions Ares, angry at the death of his son fought with Heracles, but Zeus intervened, sending down a thunderbolt to part them). Travelling on, the hero came to the waters of the Erydanus in Illyria. Here Heracles met some river nymphs who told him that Nereus, the old man of the sea, would know the whereabouts of the garden. Heracles found Nereus and asked him for directions. When Nereus refused, Heracles leapt on the sea-god, and held him in a clinch, but Nereus could transform himself into many forms, including fire and water. However, Heracles held on and in the end Nereus was forced to give the hero the directions he needed.

On his way Heracles liberated the titan Prometheus, who Zeus had chained to a rock as punishment for his ills against the great god. Each day his liver was torn out and eaten by an eagle (in some legends it was vultures), then every night the liver would grow back, to be torn out again the next day. Heracles released Prometheus from his daily torture. In gratitude he told Heracles not to take the apples himself, but to seek the help of Atlas, who was brother of Prometheus.

Continuing his journey the hero traveled through Libya, here he was confronted by Antaeus, a giant who was the son of Poseidon and Gaia. He gained his strength by keeping in contact with the earth. He challenged all comers to wrestle with him, he would kill them and decorate his father's temple with their remains. Antaeus challenged Heracles to wrestle with him, but realizing the giant replenished his strength from keeping in contact with the earth, the hero picked Antaeus from the ground, and choked him to death. After the hero had killed the giant he continued on his way.

On into Egypt, it was here Heracles came before Busiris, a harsh and cruel king. Some years earlier there had been a famine, and a soothsayer from Cyprus told the king that a yearly sacrifice of a stranger from foreign lands would favor the gods. Busiris chose Heracles as the sacrificial offering, as the ceremony began Heracles burst his shackles, killing the king and his priests. The Egyptians were terrified and let the hero go on his way.

After a long journey Heracles finally found the garden, and remembering the advice from Prometheus, Heracles went straight to Atlas, who had been given the burden of carrying the world on his shoulders. As leader of the Titans he had tried to lead a revolt against the gods, and this was his divine punishment given by Zeus. Heracles offered to take the burden from his shoulders, if he where to fetch three golden apples from the garden. Atlas, thinking this an easy way to rid himself of his heavy load, agreed.

When Atlas returned he had the three golden apples, but refused to take back his burden form the hero. Using his cunning Heracles pretended to enjoy holding this heavy burden, then asking Atlas if he would hold up the world for just a short time, while he bound his head with cords, as to relieve the pressure from his aching head. Atlas being a little slow in thinking, took back the burden on to his shoulder, as soon as the world was held once again by Atlas, Heracles made off with the golden apples, with Atlas deceived with his own trickery.

On his return to the court of king Eurystheus, the hero presented the three golden apples to him. With bewilderment Eurystheus appreciated their beauty but did not know what to do with them, and handed them back to Heracles. Unsure himself as what should be done, Heracles asked for guidance from his constant supporter Athena. She took them back to the garden of the Hesperides, as the law of the gods commanded that they should remain in the garden.

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