The 12 Labors of Heracles

The Labors of Heracles are in essence, metaphor for the spiritual path that all beings must take to achieve enlightenment.

I realize that as soon as a symbol is analyzed and objectified, it loses much of its power but I think the myth is worthy of analysis so that people realize there is more to it than a simple story.

The original purpose of the labors, lost over time, was a preparation for a sacred marriage with the Admete, another name for Athene (ie the sacred goddess / wisdom / enlightenment).

The labors and their corresponding spiritual meaning as I see them are listed below.

 

The Nemean Lion.

The lion represents fire. Representing the dominant element in male psyche. Slaying the lion would mean coming to terms with the inherent destrudo that rages within the unfocused, enevolved ego.

Afterwards, Heracles wore the invulnerable skin of the lion as a pelt with the head as a helmet. This is emblematic of becoming one with the spiritual fire and ‘seeing’ through its eyes. Once man has conquered his bestial state, he can perceive it in others and use it to his advantage when necessary.

 

The Lernaean Hydra.

Every time Hercules crushed off one of the Hydra’s nine heads, two more grew in its place. He was finally able to figure out that if he cauterized the wounds with a torch, the heads would not grow again.

Brute strength (the club) is no match for the cunning contrivances of the emotions (The serpent) and the only way to tackle the ever rearing head of personal desire is to transmute its energies into the creative mode via the fiery experience (gained by becoming one with the fiery lion). After he killed it, Heracles opened up the creature and dipped his arrows into its poisonous blood. Again Heracles, the spirit, becomes one with the former enemy, gaining its power.

 

The Ceryneian Hind.

The deer was sacred to Artemis so Heracles could not hurt or kill it in any way and so, hunted it for a whole year. He finally caught her by pinning her legs together with an arrow between bone and sinew so as not to draw any blood. Carrying the deer back to Eurystheus, he came across Apollo and Artemis. Artemis was angry but Heracles pleaded necessity and she forgave him.

The wild kingdoms of Artemis represent the inner mind. Hercules needed to learn that an animal can be a thing of beauty to be respected and cherished, that not all aspects of the self are monsters to be destroyed. The physical body is not an evil antithesis to the spirit, it is an aspect of the self and needs to be cherished yet overcome. Hercules learns tact and grace. True strength is only as strong as it is gentle. (Strength Tarot Card)

 

The Erymanthian Boar.

Heracles drove the great boar into a thick snow drift then bound it in chains. Along the way, though he was hanging out with a centaur pal and convinced him to open up the communal wine of the centaurs. The others smelled it from far away and, assuming theft, attacked Heracles. Heracles fought them off and drove them all the way back to their King, Chiron’s cave. A poisoned arrow from the hero’s bow flew through a centaur and accidentally struck his old friend , Chiron.

Although Hercules attended to the wound under Chiron’s skilled medical instruction, the pain from the Hydra’s poison was not eased. Chiron was immortal and could not die so he suffered in agony.

In this labour Hercules easily mastered the ‘boar’ within himself, but in the process wounded an old friend. The lesson is that we may overcome certain boarish traits in our own character but the pain of loved ones can still affect us. We must learn not only to be mindful of others but also not to let their pain influence our own Journey and make us jaded and angry.

 

The Augean stables

Kind Augeias possessed an immortal herd of Cattle that were incredibly prolific and immune to disease. Beacause of this, Aegeias had no need to clean the stables and so no grain could grow and the surrounding countryside was poisoned by their excessive dung. Eurystheus assigned this task to Heracles, thinking he would have to carry endless loads of manure on his back.

Hercules however had it all worked out and guaranteed to cleanse the whole area before nightfall. This he did by breaking the wall in two placese and diverting a river so that it carried all the dung away.

Because Heracles asked for payment, Eurystheus refused to count this labor. Furthermore, when Aegeias heard that Heracles was already obliged to clean the stables, he refused to pay.

Here the initiate is shown that the hardest and nastiest of tasks can be accomplished but not by the ‘ego.’ Intstead, Heracles uses the elemental power of the Cosmos, ie the true being. He learned his lesson when he tried to take credit for it.

The Stymphalian Birds.

A flock of crane-like carniverous birds with bronze beaks, feet and wings. They had taken up residence in the thick Stymphalian marshes.

Hercules arrived at the edge marsh, but birds were hidden beneath the tall grass and would attack Heracles when he ventured into the deep mud which was too soft to support his weight.

He was baffled until Athena gave him a pair of bronze castanets. When he shook these the noise was so terrifying that the birds rose in one great flock where Heracles could shoot them with his arrows

Cross culturally, the bird inevitably represents the ascent of the spirit, either to higher realms or simply out of the body. The vicious and aggressive Stymphalian birds represent that not all encounters during altered states are benign. Because we are out of mind and body, the ground is ‘marshy’, he was unable to use our normal defensive mechanisms. The sacred goddess gives us a means of driving the offending creatures of to place where we can handle them while remaininf free from emotions, as depicted by the moisture of the swamp.

 

The Cretan Bull.

This is essentially the same myth as Theseus and the Minotaur. The Cretan Bull was, after all, the father of the Minotaur. A ritual of this nature was also included in the Dionysian Mysteries at one particular stage.

For the deeper meaning we must consider the intervention of Zeus himself and move the whole drama to a more esoteric level. This presents us with a picture of the hero being obliged to face up and overcome a less desirable trait in his character, the nature of which was of a particular concern to the father of the Gods. This is symbolized by the Labyrinth for Theseus.

As a traditional symbol of the Element of Earth, the bull in this story would appear to allude to Hercules’ tendency to be a shade too materialistic, a trap into which an initiate may fall at any time when things appear to be going well for him or her. The higher mind must go on a journey to overcome the bull within. Only with the help of the goddess (Ariadne’s thread) can we hope to escape the twists and turns of this inward journey.

 

The Mares of Diomedes.

Hercules was ordered to capture the savage, flesh eating mares of the Thracian king Diomedes. With the aid of a few volunteers he succeeded in driving the beasts down to the sea, where he left them on a knoll to be guarded by his buddy Abderas.

Although grossly outnumbered by the King’s forces, Hercules and his pals succeeded in overcoming them by once again courting the good offices of the elemental forces. Hastily digging a channel which allowed the sea to flood the low lying plain, they cut off their pursuers off and dealt with them appropriately. Unfortunately, when Heracles and his band returned triumphant, the mares were gobbling up the remains of Abderas. Heracles then gave the mares there former owner. When they ate him they became normal horses, their appetites being thus assuaged.

In this labor, the hero is exposed to the power of corrupt authority, that which feeds off the flesh of people. The beasts, representing the corrupted people, are brought to the shore, the traditional liminal place of cleansing and seperated from the corrupt leaders. The element of earth is the channel through which the cleansing and protecting waters may run, thus confining the enemy to one place, where he is faced with the rebounding force of his won violence. The kings final destruction by his own mares tells the eternal tale of a contaminating force that is eventually devoured by the manifestations of its own corruptions. Abderas, an instrument of policital change, kept turning his head to see the battle rather than keeping his concentration on the horses and was devoured himself. The lesson here is when dealing with corrupt authority, don’t get distracted by your own ego or anger. Once again you have to overcome the ego and let the Cosmic force channel through you.

Matthew 10:19-20 But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be YOU speaking, but the SPIRIT of your Father speaking through you.

 

The Girdle of Hippolyte.

Eurystheus daughter, Admete, coveted the Golden Girdle of Hippolyte, Queen of the Amazons. So Hercules was duly despatched to obtain it for her. When he arrived, the queen fell in love with Heracles’ physique and agreed to give him the girdle as a love gift. The ease of this quest annoyed Hera to such an extent that she assumed the guise of an Amazon and, while the queen retired with Heracles on his boat, spread the word that he intended to kidnap the Queen. When Heracles saw the Amazonian cavalry approaching he suspected treachery and killed the queen. Heracles and his pals fought the fierce amazons and eventually defeated them, claiming the girdle by force.

The Girdle being a traditional symbol of binding, Hercules’ ninth mission suggests that he was called upon to break the bonds by which his anima was held in the submissive mode as a result of the heroic role he had undertaken. Being ladies of masculine inclinations, the Amazons represented an over accentuation of the animus, in the female body. Admete was, it seems, another name for Athene. Hercules’ own tutelary Goddess, so it was for his tutelary deity that he needed to obtain the Girdle. Hera’s interference in Amazonian guise indicates the battle the hero must have experienced with his own animus prior to securing the Girdle for Athene and thereby passing the initiation.

No matter which role we may choose to adopt prior to incarnating in any one life, to grow spiritually we must always have an understanding of the parts played by others in the cosmic drama. In order to achieve this state of awareness it becomes necessary for us to subjugate our own egos by freeing them at will from their chosen stereotypes. Hercules was essentially the strong macho male – all animus. The girdle, remember, was Aphrodite’s attribute and therein lies the initiation.

 

The Cattle of Geryon.

Geryon was a triple bodied sheperd who reigned over the western coast of Iberia. He owned a herd of oxen that were safely guarded by his herdsman Eurytion and the dog Orthrus, As ordered by Eurystheus, Hercules overcame the herdsman and the dog and took possession of the oxen undergoing several other minor tests while journeying to and from the place. On one occasion Hera sent a gadfly that stung the cattle , driving them mad so that they dispersed through the mountains causing Hercules considerable difficulty in catching them . While undertaking this labour Hercules also visited Gaul, where he abolished human sacrifice.

Geryons triple heads suggest the triple goddess, whose worship was strong in the Iberian regions. Hercules taking possession of the oxen no doubt alludes to the religion of his father, Zeus, assuming ascendancy over the prevailing matriarchal cults. But the task would have been simpler for Hercules in the larger town and cities than in the mountains where remnants of the old religion were still strong; hence Hera’s dispersal of the cattle over those regions.

At the personal heroic level the Labour described the aspiring hero’s quest through many schools of belief before he found that which he feels to be right for him. And even then his faith can be shattered into fragments and dispersed over the wastelands of human experience. As a result of this lesson, the Initiate learns that there is a point at which sacrifice, either of the ‘self’ or others, ceases to become necessary and must, therefore, be abolished from spiritual thinking modes, there being no such things as a required sacrifice in the final analysis – only experience.

 

The Apples of the Hesperides.

Although Heracles had performed the first ten Labours in the space of eight years and one month. Eurystheus discounted the second and fifth on the grounds that the hero had received too much external aid and set him two more. The first of these involved fetching fruit from the golden apple tree that had been the wedding gift to Hera from the Earth herself. So pleased had Hera been with this gift that she planted it in her own personal garden . As with all mythological tress of this nature, an ever-vigilant dragon named Ladon was curled around it to protect the fruit from pilferers.

During this Labour Hercules encountered the usual series of obstacles including a giant whose strength was renewed each time his feet touched the Earth. The Hero defeated the giant by holding him aloft in the air until his energies ran out, The prophet Nereus advised Hercules by which road he should travel and, needless to say, that very route was beset with every conceivable setback. In spite of this the hero performed several good deeds during the course of his journey, including slaying the eagle that constantly tortured Prometheus, which finally freed the old Titan from his purgatory. Hercules eventually reached the garden of the Hespirides where he despatched Ladon and took the Apples as Eurystheus had requested.

Another story has it that Atlas aided him in this quest by picking the Apples while Hercules held the world on his shoulders for the Giant. Atlas, however, was as reluctant to hand over the delicious fruit as he was to take back his traditional burden. By following advice Nereus had previously given him , however, the Hero was able to outwit the giant.

The Hespirides were the four children of Atlas and Hesperis. Their abode was beyond the river ocean at the extreme western limits of the world and they were said to be personification of the could illuminated by the rays of the setting sun. In other words, the Hespirides garden were a sort of retiring summer land of great beauty and a spot beloved of the Gods. Hercules was nearing the end of his trials by reaching a place so blessed. But although the fruits of his Labors were within sight and touch, they were still not his for the taking; they has to be rendered justly to another. Eurystheus gave them to Athene, who returned them to the Nymphs as it was against Olympian Law for Hera’s property to pass out of her hands. esoterically, the apples are indicative of the joys to come, which the aspiring Hero is permitted to glimpse, but which must then be returned to their rightful sphere.

The tree is the Qabalistic Tree of Life, or the Norse Yggdrasil, which the Hero must eventually come to know if he is to comprehend the nature of life. The help rendered by the prophetic divinity, Nereus (Noah, Utnapishtim), is also significant the tutor always ensuring that the right advice is communicated to his pupil in one way or another. By freeing Prometheus from his suffering, Hercules made the Titan’s services once more available to mankind while the Atlas episode suggests that there will be times when humanity will try to foist the weight of the world onto the shoulder of the aspiring hero but, as the legend tells us, that this is not his role and he must not therefore, allow himself to become saddled in this way,

 

The Capture of Cerberus

The last and most difficult Labor allotted to Heracles was to bring Cerberus up from Tartarus. He prepared for this task by presenting himself for initiation at the Elausinian Mysteries and seeking the aid of Hermes, the divine patron of travelers. Hercules underwent many adventures on this perilous journey but after wounding Hades, Hercules received the lord of the Underworld’s permission to carry off Cerberus , the proviso being that no weapons were to be used. It was this final feat that made best use of his great strength.. He overpowered and brought back Cerberus to Eurystheus, after which he freed the beast so that it could return to its own dark domains. In other words, the Hero had finally overcome death itself by showing no fear of its terror. No longer did the lower regions have power over him.

One day, after the Gods has deemed that Hercules had been sufficiently tested, the Hero felt consumed by an inner fire the pain of which became so intense that he believed his end had come. Preparing his own funeral pyre in the hope of escaping death, he begged his companions to set light to it. They all refused except Poeasm father of Piloctetes, who lighted the pines, whereupon the hero made him a parting present of his bow and arrows. But that was not the end,. As the flames rose and Hercules prepared himself fearlessly to meet his end, a cloud descended from the skies, thunder and lightening shook the Earth and Zeus came to claim the spirit of his son for immortality.

The Phenomena of thunder and lightning is said to proclaim the passing of the souls of the just, recognized holy books quoting many examples. But orchid religion does not, of course, hold the prerogative of sanctity as similar occurrences have taken place at the death of other noted adepts, Carl Jung being one example. As fire is the senior element, it is only fitting that the Salamanders should undertake the first stages of refining the ascending spirit to a point at which it can negotiate the realms beyond psysical metter with facility and spiritual purity.

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4 Comments

  1. Edgardo Pineda said,

    October 4, 2011 at 11:47 pm

    Thank you for posting this, The labors of Hercules are the labors of the soul thru the soul’s 12 personalities.

  2. January 13, 2012 at 7:08 am

    Brilliant Esoteric Analysis of the 12 Labors of Heracles! This Myth is Very Inspirational… especially for people down on their luck! The Saying is right… There is Nobility in Struggle… even though it’s a pain in the butt! 🙂

  3. Flo Hepola said,

    December 1, 2012 at 7:32 pm

    Excellent explanation.Thank you for this. Several years ago, I found a brand new card on the ground next to my driver’s side door. I had no idea what it was. It was Heracles Labors. Beneath a drawing of a lion was; 2, Heracles, Erymanthian Boar, and Augean Stables. Beneath that was a sentence; “First he killed the Nemean Lion and thereafter wore it’s skin as a cloak”.
    I just found this and it makes sense but what does anyone think of finding the card like that. Any input as to the challenges mentioned?

  4. Flo Hepola said,

    December 1, 2012 at 7:33 pm

    Also, I’ve had a very challenging life and am in the midst of a very difficult struggle.


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