Sunday, February 5, 2012

Prologue

Before man first began to dwell
beneath the sun’s ethereal light,
all was confusion, one dismal hell,
abysmal darkness and eternal night,
when out of elemental strife
came love and primal sympathy,
eschewing death and choosing life,
whence first creation came to be,
beginning with maternal Earth,
whose own self-love gave rise to Sky.
Those, joining in incestuous mirth,
the race of Titans brought forth cruelly.
Then came the fabled Age of Gold
when work and sickness were unknown,
goods were neither bought nor sold
and all men reaped, though none had sown.
Wise rulers faltered, fools took over,
each reign declining from the last,
for epigones aren’t what their forbears were
and sequels seldom equal glories past.
But the fourth, the Heroic Age,
produced a race of men unrivaled
in vibrant strength, consummate courage,
and that’s the idyl here unraveled.

Of Heracles’ indomitable might,
proved in many an arduous trial
I sing, nor is the burden light
unless, dear Muse, you aid my toil.

Book I

Beginnings oft portend the end.
From little things we fathom great.
And what the Logos has ordained,
no verbal vandal can invalidate.
Amphitryon was off at war
when Zeus in thrice-prolongèd night,
disguised as him she waited for,
beguiled Alcmena of a husband's right.
When the real Amphitryon showed up,
his wife, whom Zeus had ridden hard,
said: "Don't you ever get enough?
Well, just don't take all night. I'm tired!"
When her confinement was at hand,
Zeus, beaming with a father's pride,
announced that child would rule the land
who next was born a purebred Perseid.
Then Hera, up to her old tricks,
said: "No doubt what you say is so,
but will you swear an oath by Styx?
Talk is cheap and words are wind, you know."
So Zeus took the irrevocable vow
and swore his words would come to pass,
then nodded his colossal brow,
mute witness to his giant ignorance.


Or so she thought, so Hera flew
to spur Nicippe's labor on,
although her infant wasn't due,
that he might reign instead of Zeus' son.
Eurystheus was born a king,
then Heracles and Iphicles, his brother;
twin sons born of a dual engendering;
one mortal, half divine the other.
But Hera's success didn't quench
her resentment. Quite the reverse.
It whetted her thirst for revenge
against Zeus and his half-breed papoose.
Twin serpents out of Hell's abyss
crept stealthily at her command,
gliding with surreptitious hiss
o'er barren soil and burning sand.
Slithering into the nursery,
they raised their pointy reptile heads.
Iphicles cried uncontrollably,
while Herc threw toys like hand-grenades.
The fanged assassins coiled to strike,
but Heracles, undaunted, stood his ground.
Alcmena entered and let out a shriek
to see her son in danger of a wound.
He gripped a snake in either fist
and squeezed so hard they couldn't breathe,
until they ceased to writhe and twist,
then dropped them lifeless to the floor beneath.


Amphitryon, stunned by the incident,
consulted the blind seer Teiresias,
who said the meaning of the portent
must be that Heracles Zeus' offspring was.
The prophet augured many things
the son of Zeus would undergo:
fierce wars, protracted wanderings,
and stubborn labors fraught with woe.
The child just smiled at their concern
with the insouciance of youth
as if he knew he'd one day earn
eternal fame for his immortal worth.
Amphitryon commenced with pride
to educate the growing boy
and showed how best the chariot to guide
in battle and his enemies destroy.
Autolycus taught the wrestling art,
the holds, maneuvers, and what not.
The disciple eclipsed the expert,
refining and adding as he went.
From Eurytus he conned the skill
of archery, the bowman's lethal craft,
till he could hit his prey at will
and mete out death with every shaft.
Swordsmanship he learned from Castor,
one of the swan-born Dioscuri,
and soon surpassed his fencing-master.
Even Pollux marveled at his fury.


Feeling the Muses were neglected,
Alcmena gleefully selected
a poet—vain perhaps, but gifted—
to teach her son. The boy objected.
The omniscient mom insisted,
chirping: "You'll thank me for it later."
The dutiful youngster yielded,
though it went against his nature.
The music master—named Linus,
had recently opened up shop.
He was half-brother to Orpheus
and a pretty hip dude for a fop.
When Alcides arrived—under protest—
Linus thought: "Not even my brother,
that wunderkind no woman can resist,
could do much with Li'l Abner here."
He handed Heracles a lyre.
It seemed a toy in his huge hands.
He showed him how to pluck the wire.
Heracles strummed the trembling strands.
To demonstrate, the poet sings.
The student patiently attended,
but accidentally broke one of the strings.
With that, the music lesson ended.
The poet dealt the lad a crease,
meant less to punish than correct.
Untutored in such niceties,
on him it had an adverse side-effect.


He brained the bard with his own lyre,
which made a most discordant noise.
Linus went to join the Muses' choir
and swell their number with his dulcet voice.
A trial was subsequently held.
Heracles was charged with murder.
The jury box by lot was filled.
The bailiff shouted: "Order, order!"
The upshot of the trial was this:
Heracles declared his innocence,
citing a law of Rhadamanthys
that pardoned killing in self-defense.
The jury found him innocent.
The judge approved the apophthegm:
"A man who turns to violence
will come to a violent end,"
and urged him to learn self-control,
then pardoned him on one condition
—which seemed to Heracles a trifle droll—
that he renounce his musical ambition.
Amphitryon owned flocks of sheep
that pastured on Mt. Cithaeron,
whose wooded slopes and rugged peaks
were home to wild boar, wolf and lion.
Heracles was sent to play shepherd
where his exuberance would do less harm
guarding against lion, fox and leopard,
and watching over the family farm.


It was the childhood of the year
when every insect, bird and flower,
and every leaf the branches wear
is rife with Aphrodite's ancient power.
An old prowler haunted this wood,
a lean, morose, remorseless beast,
and foraged in Alcides' neighborhood.
Many a lamb had been its midnight feast.
One day, the burly outdoorsman
stumbled on the feline felon
lashing its tail, shaking its tangled mane,
and gnawing on a hapless fawn.
Before he could pluck an arrow
and notch it on the taut bowstring,
the carnivore pounced on the hero,
claws bared, jaws wide and eyeballs glowing.
Grabbing the lion by the throat,
he wrung its neck like a pullet,
constricting his grip like a tourniquet
till he crushed its greedy gullet.
He flayed the deflated catamount,
devoting its pelt to the gods;
then, still dazed from the excitement,
began threading his way through the woods.
Along the footpath he followed,
beside a tree, there lay a well
whose water was sacred to Apollo.
Whoso drank, the future could foretell.


The hero paused awhile to rest
under the patriarchal laurel.
He took a drink to ease his thirst
and listened to a distant owl.
As he contemplated his fate,
two maids appeared before his eyes.
The first, named Pleasure, seemed to indicate
by looks and gestures, luxury and ease.
The second, Virtue, had a careworn air,
suggesting toil and a lasting name.
Both girls were superlatively fair,
but Heracles preferred enduring fame.
He still had many miles to travel,
so Heracles pursued his darkening way
till his eyes could scarce unravel
the path that seemed so clear by day.
Nestled snugly on Mt. Helicon
was a quaint hamlet called Thespiae.
Each spring to honor Venus' son,
the Thespians would dance and play.
To this town he now bent his step,

till he came upon the splendid home
of Thespius, the agèd king who kept
the laws and scepter, governing alone.


As Heracles approached the door,
two hounds beset him from the porch.
Curious what roused them at that hour,
a slender girl emerged bearing a torch.
"Don't be afraid," the hero said,
"for though these dogs think me a lion
come to prey on witless sheep, instead,
I'm just a hunter like Orion
who lost my way among the hills.
But tell me, isn't this the place
where Thespius, that gentle man, fulfills
the will of Zeus, dispensing justice?"
His easy manner calmed her fears.
"Kind stranger, you can stay the night
if Papa gives consent, who shares
this home with fifty daughters and a wife.
Indeed his name is Thespius and he
has ruled this city many years;
he treats the people like a father, they
revere and bless him in their prayers."
She led the way; he followed after
into the spacious domicile.
Once inside, a gust of girlish laughter
erupted from a chamber down the hall.
When Heracles entered the room,
the laughter ceased and all eyes turned.
To counteract the sudden gloom,
Thespius, in a cheery voice, intoned:


"By Zeus, this is a lucky sign,
for at this morning's sacrifice
the entrails presaged a divine 

visitor ere the moon rose twice.
Come in then; tell me who you are
and whence you came. But first relax.
It's obvious you've traveled far.
Eat first, then give me all the facts."
They laid a table for their guest
with food and darkly sparkling wine,
which Heracles consumed with zest,
the king and all his daughters looking on.
When he'd satisfied his hunger,
Alcides told the kindly king
about the poet slain in anger,
the trial, the lion; in short―everything.
The king was favorably impressed
by the manhood of the stranger,
his candor, strength and willingness
to encounter every kind of danger.
He thought: "He'd be the perfect sire
to procreate in Procris' bed."
But then he mused: "Why only her?
Why not give all my kids a kid?”
At last he said: "You must be tired.
Procris here will show you where to sleep."
But in his heart he secretly conspired
to make the young buck earn his keep.


She led her houseguest by the arm.
The room was dark as a moonless night.
He soon surrendered to her charm,
lost in the valley of love and delight.
The oldest, when the act was done,
excused herself to get some water.
The next girl entered, and so on,
till he made love to every daughter,
believing each to be the same
as she whom he had first embraced;
except the youngest, who refrained.
It ill became her years to be unchaste.
Each daughter gave birth to a son,
but though he only slept with forty-nine,
he fathered fifty-one children―
the first and last in line had twain.
We draw the curtain on our hero,
immersed in this steamy ordeal,
taking no thought for tomorrow,
a soldier on love's battlefield.

Book II

Genius can be grandiose and vain,
veering between God and devil.
Wisdom is Janus-like, a spinning coin
with virtue as the head and vice the tail.
When Dawn adorned herself in pink
and banished sleep from children's eyes,
Heracles, who barely slept a wink,
rose fresh from his nocturnal exercise.
Famished by his amorous labors,
he fared on what his host provided,
grateful for such generous neighbors,
and over all the jovial king presided.
He bid farewell to Thespius
and Helicon, the Muses' hill,
with some regret at parting thus
where he had been amused so well.
He met some heralds on the road
who boasted they were on the way
to collect the tribute Thebes owed,
and joked that if they didn't pay,
they’d lop off the ears and noses
of the townsfolk, so they'd be unable
to hear birdsong or savor roses,
which Heracles found reprehensible.


He seized the envoys—two brothers—
and did to them the very thing
they threatened to inflict on others,
jeering: "Take that tribute to your king!"
The king of Orchomenus fumed
to see his heralds mutilated
and fulminated Thebes was doomed
unless the culprit was extradited.
Creon, king of Thebes, was loath
to go to war for one man's fault.
Better to yank a rotten tooth
to spare the body grief, he thought.
Besides, the city had no arms,
for these were taken by the Minyans
when their army spoiled, like swarms

of locusts, Thebes and its environs.
But Heracles convinced the youth
to fight back like their ancestors,

and made them take a solemn oath
to choose death rather than surrender.
They made the rounds of all the temples
where spoils of war were dedicated
and found there many good examples
of former glory slightly antiquated.
When every new recruit was armed,
Alcides ranged the men in ranks.
Under his tutelage they learned
the art of fighting in phalanx.


Amid these martial preparations,
an oracle arrived from Delphi
predicting victory celebrations
if the noblest committed suicide.
There still lived in Thebes at that time
the scion of an ancient family tree;
a warrior--Antipoenus by name--
sprung from a dragon’s tooth in Cadmus' day.
Opinion was unanimous:
the Delphic priestess had picked him.
But the old flint was unconvinced,
growling, "Find another victim!"
The daughters of the nobleman
were mortified by his reply
and, saying it referred to them,
leapt harum-scarum in the sea.
The town paid them every honor,
proclaiming if they won the war,
it was due to girlish valor

and not the soldiers' quaint armor.
The Minyan army had set out,
meanwhile, led by the king soi-même.
When this intelligence was brought
to Thebes, they knew it was showtime.
Alcides marshaled all his troops
and led them to a mountain pass
where numbers would be of little use
and a few repel attack en masse.


From atop this lofty plateau,
they had a panoramic view
of the Minyan army far below,
like insects moving to and fro.
When nightfall came, Alcides crept
among the unsuspecting enemy
and stole their horses as they slept,
then killed the flower of their chivalry.
Daylight revealed the brutal slaughter,
the littered corpses oozing life
as if a battle had been fought there,
a scene of bitterness and grief.
The customary rites were held,
the funeral pyre and burial urn,
before the army had dispelled
its pent-up grief and ceased to mourn.
Advancing up the mountainside,
the troops were eager for a fight,
to kill whoever swung the sword
that slew their friends that gruesome night.
As the host of Minyan soldiers
filed through a narrow débouché,
the Thebans greeted them with boulders
before springing their ambuscade.
Heracles plunged in the fracas
and cut down men like dumb cattle.
"Don't let that maniac attack us!"
they prayed, and many fled the battle.


Erginus tried to halt his men,
but they were deaf to his commands,
until at last he also turned and ran,
for safety oft on prudent flight depends.
Exulting in their victory,
Heracles’ soldiers dogged the heels
of the retreating enemy,
showing no mercy to their appeals.
Marching at a rigorous pace
throughout the night, when morning broke,
the Thebans stood before the gates
of Orchomenus, as they had hoped.
They lost no time but went to work
and cut a tree to batter down
the doors, which splintered at the shock,
forcing their way inside the town.
Like a storm that fiercely rages
or like a swarm of angry bees
that neither prayers nor tears assuages,
the Thebans fought, urged on by Heracles.
Erginus led a stout resistance
but alas, the Thebans fought so well,
in desperation at this mischance,
he fled inside his palace citadel.
Amid this scene of death and ruin,
many brave soldiers met their end.
Among those killed was wise Amphitryon,
to Heracles a father and a friend.


Heracles was filled with malice
upon learning Amphitryon was dead
and flew like a hawk to the palace
to punish the author of the deed.
Erginus was seated on his throne
in full costume—robe, crown and scepter.
In an icy, triumphant tone,
he scowled: "So you are Thebes' defender!"
"Don't waste your breath on me old man,"
said Heracles. "A better man than you
has died this day and I don't give a damn
if I die or not, so long as you do!"
When Heracles held up Erginus'
freshly decapitated head,
the battlefield lapsed into silence
and the Minyans capitulated.
Heracles was hailed a savior,
gained new status, was raised in rank.
Forgotten was his past behavior.
The incident with Linus was a prank.
For his skill at martial slaughter,
his flair for taking human life,
King Creon gave his eldest daughter,
Megara, to become the strong man's wife.
The ceremony was barely over,
the hymn to Hymen scarcely sung,
the wedding guests only half sober,
the honeymoon hardly begun


when an ally of the Minyans,
King Pyraechmus of Euboea,
made what some, in their opinions,
called the worst mistake of his career.
He claimed the outcome of the war
had been a fluke, a quirk of fate,
the freak of some capricious star,
as his own campaign would demonstrate.
Once more Alcides took the field.
The fight was bitterly contested.
The enemy was forced to yield.
The reckless monarch was arrested.
The king was made an object lesson,
a warning to ambitious despots,
to discourage further aggression
and give the weary troops a respite.
He was tied between two horses.
At the signal they were driven.
Torn asunder by opposing forces,
the corpse no burial was given.
The war concluded, peace restored,
life's ageless tempo was resumed.
The poor worked hard for their reward,
the rich with profits were consumed.
Time went by, Alcides prospered.
Each passing year his family grew.
To his wife he spoke no cross word.
Their life seemed like a dream come true.


Hera, watching from Olympus,
—much has passed since she was last heard—
said: "My husband Zeus a pimp is,
pandering to his Boeotian bastard!
The royal satyr will be sorry.
He'll change his womanizing ways.
I'll send Tisiphone the Fury
the brain of Heracles to craze!"
She found the Fury in her cell,
mixing some foul-smelling potion
distilled from vermin bred in Hell
to sell to hags across the ocean.
To tell the story in detail
would take too long. The spell was cast.
The Fury worked her wicked will.
Alcides by a demon was possessed.
His children practiced side by side
with the sons of Iphicles, his brother,
performing feats of arms, learning to ride,
sharpening their martial skills together.
To Heracles' disordered mind,
his sons and nephews were marauders
coming to steal the Thebans blind
and carry off their wives and daughters.
The hero, lunging with his spear,
grazed his favorite nephew, Iolaus
who, being agile, managed to leap clear
and shouted: "Uncle wants to slay us!"


Taking aim with bow and arrows,
he better compassed his desire,
shot them down like helpless sparrows
and cast their bodies in the fire.
When he perceived his grievous error,
the heinous nature of his crime,
his mind was overcome with horror,
his heart was overwhelmed with shame.
Lamenting what his hands had done,
his shrill cries scarified the air.
He shunned the comfort of the sun,
stunned by the blackjack of despair.
When time diminished his distress
and reconciled him to his plight,
he sought the home of old King Thespius,
well versed in every cleansing rite.
For kindred murder he was purified.
A lamb was led in by a halter.
The gods were asked to intercede.
Its blood was sprinkled on the altar.
Thespius suggested he go
consult the Delphic oracle.
His fate the prophetess would show,
babbling in a voice hysterical.
The priestess was a wizened crone
who'd been a virgin all her life.
To her alone were all things known.
Kings staked their crowns on her advice.


As Heracles approached the fane
to learn what fortune held in store,
the priestess and her menial train
were shuffling out the temple door.
The priestess muttered: "Who are you?"
He: "You're the priestess, don't you know?"
"The past and future, yes, it's true.
The present is a little harder though.
Be a treasure, give me a clue."
He: "My name is Heracles of Thebes."
"Mix lamb and tortoise in a stew.
It's one of my home remedies."
After much pointless dialogue,
which we often find in fiction,
the priestess, in a foreign brogue,
made the following prediction:
"Twelve years of labor to complete
in service to a worthless king,
twelve labors great in cold and heat
and many more in war and wandering
till, spent with toil and travail hard,
and travels far by land and sea,
the gods your efforts will reward
with boundless fame and immortality."
With that, the priestess was exhausted
and sank unconscious to the ground.
Feeling his time not wholly wasted,
Alcides hitched a ride back into town.

Book III

Nothing galls the human spirit,
defiant in its natural pride
and conscious of superior merit
like serving one to whom it's denied.
Some authors contend Heracles
suffered symptoms of depression
like Plato and his mentor Socrates,
a common ailment in uncommon men.
In any case, feeling despondent
at what the oracle foretold
and at the melancholy prospect
of serving one who couldn't hold
a candle to him in love or war,
he moved to Tiryns, the city
where he was born and reared and where
Eurystheus enjoyed sole sovereignty.
He generated quite a stir,
returning to his native town.
His military exploits were
a favorite theme for miles around.
Eurystheus noted with disgust
his cousin's triumphant arrival
and grew increasingly jealous,
seeing in him a dangerous rival.


When Heracles informed the king
he'd come to Tiryns to atone
for kindred murder by doing
any ten tasks he wanted done,
Eurystheus' eyes began to gleam.
That night, he lay awake in bed
concocting a diabolical scheme
to get rid of Heracles for good.
Whether by Typhon and Echidna
the Nemean lion was begotten,
or by Orthrus and the Chimera,
time’s bookkeepers have forgotten.
The lion was extremely fierce,
a ravenous and savage creature
with a hide no man-made blade could pierce,
ergo impregnable by nature.
The first task Eurystheus set
was to exterminate this menace.
He had no choice but to accept,
so Heracles struck out at once.
Tramping the dusty road to Argos
with bow and arrows, club and sword,
he met a shepherd named Molorchus
whose son the lion had devoured.
He asked Alcides if he'd care
to stay the night, as it was late.
They dined on coarse and simple fare,
and both men relished every bite.


Next day Molorchus went to offer
a calf to Hera, but Alcides
bid him not to harm the heifer,
but wait instead for thirty days.
He said: "If I return within
that time, we'll sacrifice to Zeus.
If I don't make it back by then,
to me as demigod address your vows."
Reaching Nemea around midday,
he looked in vain for sight or sound
or someone to direct the way
to where the lion might be found.
After a long and fruitless search,
he spied the lion just returning
from another bloody debauch,
for it had killed again that morning.
The son of Zeus swiftly unleashed
some arrows with unerring skill.
They bounded harmless from the beast,
which merely scratched and switched its tail.
Next, he unsheathed his trusty sword
and tried to run the lion through.
It yawned as if completely bored
as the faultless falchion snapped in two.
Grasping the haft of his olive club,
he brought it down on the lion's skull.
It shattered with a resounding thud.
The club, that is; the lion found it dull.


The feline, to escape the heat,
sought refuge in a cave nearby.
Heracles, to forestall retreat,
sealed off one entrance with debris.
Then, following the lion's path
—the cave, you see, was open-ended—
he goaded it to savage wrath
by grappling with it empty-handed.
There was no turning back. The cat
was out of the bag, so he fought,
for he'd learned to exploit the hate
and rage that augmented his might.
He crooked an arm around its neck
in a chokehold, catch as catch can,
bearing down till he felt it crack.
The cat went slack from lack of oxygen.
Returning with the lion's carcass

across his neck, by the same road
as before, he found pious Molorchus
worshiping Herakles the demigod.
The shepherd trembled like a leaf,
astonished at the lion's size.
When he'd overcome his disbelief,
to Zeus the two men sacrificed.
From then on, the Nemean games
were held to honor Father Zeus,
while one who died a babe in arms,
 
Opheltes’ laurels fell into disuse.
 

That evening they celebrated
and drank a jar of Chian wine.
The old man sang and danced, elated,
and struck the cat that ate his son.
At daybreak, Heracles ventured out
to hew a new club from an olive tree.
If the sun hit him just right, he might
have passed for some sylvan deity.
When news of Heracles' approach
was bruited in the marketplace,
the folks of Tiryns crowded close
to touch the victim of the chase.
Many, however, were so scared
when they beheld the lion's scowl
that quite a number never dared.
Some even swore they heard it growl.
He led them through the city gates,
pied-piping through the market square;
setting the crowd a breathless pace,
they followed up the palace stair.
The king appeared, fearing disaster,
to quell the uproar at its source,
but stumbled, falling on his keister.
From there things went from bad to worse.
Lying supine, he looked aside
and saw the lion gazing back.
The last sound Eurystheus heard
was laughter as the sky went black.


The king eventually revived
and ordered Heracles in future,
if a like occasion should arise,
outside the gates display his capture.
No need to further embellish
tales everybody knows. It's said
Alcides felt a certain relish
seeing Eurystheus discomfited.
To Heracles it seemed a sin
to throw away the lion's pelt.
The question was how best to skin
the beast and so avoid the fault.
Thus, applying Occam's razor
and passing from effect to cause,
he found the only way to flay her
was with her own serrated claws.
Wearing its pelt for protection
made him impervious to attack
from arrows, spears—most any weapon.
For a helm he left the skull intact.
Saying no offense was taken,
the king let on that he was pleased,
but inwardly his mind was shaken,
exhibiting psychotic tendencies.
He had a blacksmith cast an urn
of bronze to bury in the earth.
On news of Heracles' return,
he hid within, provoking mirth.


Laughter is difficult to bear
when we're its involuntary cause.
This humor made the ruler swear
to get revenge whate'er the cost.
Eurystheus cast his mind about
for a task so risky to complete
as to leave the hero no way out
and end in imminent defeat.
It happens that in ancient Greece
there lived a plethora of pests
that gave the populace no peace
and sent her heroes forth on quests.
Such was the detested Hydra,
a killer snake with an ennead
of heads that stalked the swamps of Lerna
and filled its denizens with dread.
A courier was then dispatched
to carry Heracles a scroll
to which a letter was attached
explaining everything in full.
The journey only takes a day
to Lerna, but to vary it,
he picked up Iolaus on the way.
His nephew drove their chariot.
The road meanders by the coast
and, winding, wanders lazily
along. The cheerful eye is lost
in wonder gazing at a beryl sea.


Halting beside a sacred grove,
they turned the horses out to graze,
to crop wildflowers as they roved,
switching their tails to swat the flies.
The allies searched together till
Alcides spied the Hydra's den,
a fissure in a grassy knoll
beside a spring that bubbled from the fen. 

Drawing a bead on its burrow,
he coaxed the monster from its lair
by firing a Molotov arrow,
followed swiftly by several more.
The Hydra slowly issued forth.
It seemed a thing of vast extent.
Only a fiend could have given birth
to a beast so vile and virulent.
Eight smaller snakes around a stalk

―the mother stem was fertile―
writhed constantly, prepared to strike.
The main head was gold, ergo immortal.
It surged with a rippling motion,
curved fangs dripping toxic venom,
undulating like the ocean,
not side to side like lesser vermin.
Advancing through the underbrush,
the Hydra left a sticky spoor,
which Heracles was loath to touch,
its stench too potent to ignore.



As he drew close, it grew more fierce,
for he was no snake charmer.
The snakelets struck but couldn't pierce
the lion cape he wore for armor.
Wielding his club, Alcides rushed
to clout them at a frenzied pace,
but for every sentry snake he crushed,
two new ones sprouted in its place.
The Hydra coiled around his feet
to try and gain the upper hand.
The son of Zeus began to sweat,
for now he found it hard to stand.
As if not already hard put,
Crabzilla clambered from the swamp
and grabbed Alcides by the foot,
locking its huge claw like a clamp.
Crushing its shell with one deft stroke,
he reprimanded his nephew:
"This is no time to stand and gawk!
Shake a leg! Your Uncle needs you!"
Setting a patch of woods alight,
Iolaus fetched burning brands.
Whenever Heracles would smite
a snake, he seared the dangling strands.
Having subdued the lesser threat,
he used a golden sword to lop
the deathless head, which hissed and spit,
and stuffed it under a massive rock.


Its golden head safely buried,
he slit the Hydra's body wide
and dipped his arrows in its blood.
The viscous fluid quickly dried.
Zeus, watching from his recliner,
remarked with a derisive grin:
"What happened to your pet, my dear?
It seems my son made sushi of him."
Hera, seething with indignation,
enshrined the crab in outer space,
raising it to a constellation
to reward its selfless sacrifice.

Book IV

Whether hind or boar or Holy Grail,
whatever flees as we pursue
becomes the symbol of mankind's ideal,
the good, the beautiful and true,
some lovely form we long to clasp
which, keeping steadily in view,
in spite of all eludes our grasp,
forever flies while we the chase renew.
Because he found him hard to kill,
Eurystheus esteemed it best
to keep him far away as possible
and send him deep into the wilderness.
The labor he was next assigned
his wit and matchless prowess proves:
to catch the Cerynean Hind,
a deer with golden horns and brazen hooves.
Some call it hart and others stag,
while some think no such thing exists.
Some say it only lives in the imag-
ination or the dreams of poets.
How Heracles pursued the hind
and chased it over Hell's half-acre
is what now occupies my mind.
Muse, help me cheat the undertaker.


Heracles began his distant quest
in Arcadia when snowdrifts form,
in a virgin forest in the midst
of a land known for its rustic charm.
The natives there wore sheepskin coats.
Rude huts kept out both heat and cold.
Instead of meat, they ate assorted nuts
and seeds, as did their patriarchs of old.
The hind haunted a certain hill
frequented by the goddess Artemis.
Around its base there flowed a rill
noteworthy for its pristine loveliness.
After a week of silent waiting,
nothing of moment had occurred
except the musical complaining
of one lonely goliardic bird.
Ten days the holy spot was guarded
but still no sign was seen or heard.
Small animals came and departed;
the son of Zeus was undeterred.
At last his patience was rewarded:
the sacred hind majestically appeared.

It's antlers had a roseate glow
like hot embers trapped in amber.
The stag seemed ghostlike in the snow,
its coat like puréed alabaster.
To avoid offending Artemis
and capture the elusive deer
without excessive use of force,
he tracked it for an entire year,


through raging rivers, woods and lakes,
past thorns and thickets, heath and pond,
o'er bush and brier, bogs and brakes,
to the land beyond the cold north wind.
Through deep ravine and level plain,
the hind became his cynosure;
field and fountain, moor and mountain,
he followed it like a guiding star.
After a year, the deer grew weary
and so, as though bored with the game,
sought its mountain sanctuary,
returning to familiar haunts again.
Descending to the river Ladon,
the creature made as if to cross
but, as it was about to wade in,
seemed too good a target to let pass.
Heracles let fly an arrow,
pinning its forelegs where it stood.
The shaft bisected bone and sinew
and never drew a drop of blood.
He hastened through Arcadia
with the hind across his shoulders
to beef up the king's regalia
and awe his fawning courtiers.
Artemis met him on his journey
when he crossed Mycenae's border.
She: "I hope you have a good attorney."
He: "I was just obeying orders."


The beauty poets eulogize
was manifest―the word made flesh.
Only a fool with two glass eyes
could miss the meaning of that text.
The virgin huntress made him swear
that upon completion of his quest,
he'd treat her holy beast with care
and return it unscathed to the forest.
The man of iron kept his word.
When all had gandered at the deer,
the animal was readily restored
with only minor signs of wear and tear.
Eurystheus had hatched a plot,
meanwhile, to put him in harm's way
and end his labors or, if not,
to catch a still more deadly prey.
There was a boar that used to ravage
crops and fields near Erymanthus
and caused considerable damage.
Its huge tusks made it doubly dangerous.
Ordered to bring it back alive,
the son of Zeus set out forthwith,
but not before he bought supplies
and paid a visit to the village smith.
Criminals had a verve back then
absent in today's banausic crooks.
Lacking humor was more inhuman
than murder in their code of ethics.


Termerus was an arrant rascal
who used to challenge passersby
to butt heads with him billy style,
killing those who dared to disobey.
As Heracles casually proceeded
toward Erymanthus and its boar,
he found his progress was impeded
by a blackguard with a jagged scar.
"Whither so fast my friend? Such haste!
Haven't you heard that every man
must come to the same end at last?
Why waste the day? Live while you can!"
Thinking he would easily dispose
of him, Termerus explained the rules.
Then, glowering beneath their brows,
they squared off like a pair of bulls
to try the merit of their cause
and test the temper of their skulls.
Alcides' density was greater,
for though the felon's head was big,
he crushed it when they rushed together
like a ripe melon or rotten egg.
A band of Centaurs lived nearby,
a race intractable and proud
who traced their lineage to the sky,
a man's infatuation with a cloud.
Pholus, of all the Centaur breed,
was kindest and most generous.
When some weary wayfarer applied
for refuge, he'd always acquiesce.


When Heracles stopped by his cave,
Pholus welcomed his famous guest.
Coaxing the embers into a blaze,
he offered to share his meager feast.
He'd recently butchered a sheep
and took some mutton from a shelf.
For Heracles he cooked the meat
but preferred to eat it raw himself.
Pholus drily observed: "I guess
you met Termerus. Queer fellow that."
And Heracles replied: "Why yes,
we had a pleasant little tête-à-tête."
The reader understands, of course,
that Heracles did not speak French,
but what's the use of writing verse
if what we say makes perfect sense?
When man and Centaur ate their fill,
Alcides looked about for wine,
for wine with meals is indispensable
to lift the hearts of those who dine.
The Centaur eyed him cautiously
until the son of Zeus burst out:
"This is a damn fine hostelry!
Is there no wine to end this drought?"
At this, Pholus recalled the jar
the wine god, Dionysus, gave
to a Centaur many years before,
who buried it inside the cave.


The drunken god's instructions were,
against the inevitable day,
to save the jar of choice liqueur
till Heracles should come to stay.
When Pholus broke the bottle's seal,
ambrosial odors filled the room.
The evening breeze broadcast the smell,
infusing the air with its rich perfume.
The Centaurs soon became aware
that wine was wafted on the breeze
and gathered to demand a share,
brandishing axes, rocks, uprooted trees.
Mild-mannered Pholus was afraid
and would have granted their demands,
but Heracles was undismayed,
repulsing them with flaming brands.
The first assailants to be killed
were headstrong Ancius and Agrius.
Two more by poison shafts were felled
whose names were Oreus and Hylaeus.
The others fled to Malea's cliffs
where Chiron lived in solitude
since the battle with the Lapiths
drove him from his previous abode.
Chiron was their tacit ruler.
Skilled in physic and philosophy,
he sometimes acted as a tutor
to noble youths of marked ability.


But safe asylum proved elusive.
Alcides found them in a rage,
complaining loudly of ill usage
and cowering about their agèd sage.
The Centaurs scattered like a shot
when Heracles stepped into view.
His bowstring gave a soft report
as a wingèd shaft leapt from the bow.
Passing through Elatus's arm,
the arrow lodged in Chiron's knee.
The hero watched in stunned alarm
as the old healer howled in agony.
Alcides was beside himself
and hurried to remove the shaft.
He dressed the wound with Chiron's help,
using his most effective salve.
Retiring in anguish to his cell,
Chiron nursed his wound—to no avail.
The arrow bore the Hydra's gall;
no balm could coax the sore to heal.
Whether it was the constant pain
or that eternal life grew onerous,
he sought to leave the world—in vain,
till aided by profound Prometheus.
The Titan offered, it is said,
to take the ailing Centaur's place
and be immortal in his stead.
Thus Chiron died, the wisest of his race.


Pholus, remaining at the cave,
where he hid from the hostilities,
was about to dig a fitting grave
to house his fallen relatives.
He found an arrow on the ground
where Hylaeus lay in the dust
and wondered how so small a wound
could kill a creature so robust.
He handled it too carelessly,
dropping it on his hairy fetlock.
The poison acted instantly,
striking him lifeless on the spot.
When Heracles came on the scene,
he wept at the unforeseen event
and realized he was to blame
for gentle Pholus' fatal accident.
He washed the body in a stream
and buried him at the ascent
to the lofty peak that bears his name.*
The mountain was his monument.
Now Heracles set out once more,
resolved, whatever fate might bring,
to catch the misbehaving boar
and lead it captive to a craven king.
To trap the boar involved some risks
for, if attacked while it was fresh,
he'd be in danger from its tusks
and, if too forceful, he'd cause its death.


*Mt Pholoe


Fresh powder blanketed the earth.
Its tracks were easy to discern
and pointed to some heavy undergrowth.
Alcides followed in the icy dawn.
Giving his most ferocious yell,
he flushed it from its thorny brake.
It took off like a mortar shell,
trailing clouds of rubbish in its wake.
Bounding across snow-covered plains,
the wild hog petered out at length.
He bound the animal in chains
before it could regain its strength.
Heracles ferried his feral freight
piggyback like a tun of lard,
dropping it off at the palace gate,
while Eurystheus cowered in his jar.

Book V

Our joys are seldom unalloyed.
Some bitter clings to every sweet.
Cruel thorns by roses are deployed.
Love is often followed by regret.
After the death of King Cretheus,
Aeson, his son, took the throne,
which nettled his half-brother Pelias,
for the villain had plans of his own.
He imprisoned Aeson and scorned him
and, to add spice to the scandal,
a menacing oracle warned him:
 
Beware of a lad with one sandal.
When Jason showed up—you guessed it,
he only had one of his shoes.
While crossing the river he lost it.
It got stuck in alluvial ooze.
The rascal asked: "Who are you son?"
He answered: "My pals call me Jason,
but back in the town where I'm from,
Diomedes I'm hailed, son of Aeson."
Aware of the evil he wrought,
he sought for a way to inveigle
the son of his rival. He thought:
"I'll clip the wings of this eagle."


He tricked him into leaving home
and sent him on a wild goose chase
by vowing he'd renounce the throne
if Jason fetched the Golden Fleece.
That's why the heroes assembled
from the furthest corners of Greece,
and why the sea, earth, and sky trembled—
on account of a moth-eaten fleece.
Heracles joined the Argo's crew,
seasoned warriors one and all,
while Hylas came to guard his bow
and be his aide-de-camp in general.
Hylas was an affable youth.

Stars scintillated in his eyes.
His ringlets fell pell mell, his breath
was sweet as horehound lozenges.
Heracles killed Hylas' father.
The rogue fell afoul of his club
in a quarrel several years before.
He adopted the orphaned cub.
Before embarking on their mission,
the other men saw fit to offer
to let him lead the expedition,
but Heracles declined the honor,
and he advised, to fend off rancor,
the crew give Jason their devotion.
It was agreed; the ship weighed anchor
and cut a passage through the ocean.


The sailors landed at the isle
of Lemnos, ruled by lonely whores—
a delicate and daunting trial
for a virile band of horny tars!
They decided to relax awhile
to sample life on foreign shores,
and got the womenfolk with child
before returning to their oars.
After hitching up their trousers,
the chieftains put to sea again.
They manned the oars and loosed the hawsers.
The taut sheets bellied in the wind.
Passing the Hellespont by night,
they left the Aegean heading east.
Keeping the mainland on the right,
the vessel hugged the Phrygian coast.
By dinnertime the ship had come,
by dint of many sleepless hours,
within a bowshot of Mt. Dindymum,
also known as the Mount of Bears.
In the shadow of the mountain,
the Doliones built their city.
By means of cattle, wine and grain,
they led a life of gay simplicity.
King Cyzicus, the city's ruler,
had just been joined in matrimony
to a girl as fresh as any flower,
a princess of distinguished ancestry.


The newlyweds were drunk on love
and planned to end their days together.
In each heart an equal passion strove;
she was beautiful and he was clever.
Coming ashore, the Argonauts
were given a warm reception
and set aside all solemn thoughts
to join the nuptial celebration.
In those days on the Mount of Bears
there lived a host of earth-born giants
boasting six hands apiece—three pairs—
a feat unknown to modern science.
Amid the gaiety and revels,
as cakes and ale were going round,
these overgrown, six-handed devils
descended on the unsuspecting town.
Chaos ensued. In their alarm,
mothers ran to seek their children.
The old and infirm fled from harm,
while others found the scene bewildering.
Seizing a spear that stood nearby,
Alcides hurled it with such force,
it pierced one giant through the eye
and laid him sprawling on the grass.
Grabbing his legendary bow,
he shot an ogress in the breast,
for there were lady giants too,
equally savage and grotesque.


The monsters lobbed great, jagged rocks
and tore huge trees up by the root.
The mountain echoed with the shrieks
of people being trampled underfoot.
Taking their cue from Heracles,
the other heroes followed suit
and ran to meet the fearsome freaks
as Jason raised the battle shout.
The fight was fiercely contested.
The giants' might was impressive,
but when the dust had subsided,
Greek derring-do proved decisive.
The monsters were annihilated.
The city once again was free.
The heroes were congratulated,
having won without one casualty.
They laid the ogres side by side
like railroad ties along the beach.
As they putrefied in the tide,
crustaceans feasted on their flesh.
Leading a festive entourage,
the effervescent bride and groom
bid their visitors a bon voyage
and eagerly resumed their honeymoon.
A placid breeze at first propelled
the Argo forward on its course,
but then a sudden thunder-squall assailed
the ship with gales of staggering force.


The ship was helpless as a toy,
tossed to and fro as if in play
to entertain some thoughtless boy
who magnifies a puddle to a sea.
At last they came upon an island
and seized the offer chance extended
to plant their feet once more on dry land
and lie low till the tempest ended.
As they began to disembark,

they met with yet another threat:
bandits attacked them in the dark.
They had no choice but to retaliate.
They put the buccaneers to flight,
killing some and wounding others.
Daylight revealed their tragic plight,
proving that sorrow waits on lovers.
King Cyzicus lay pale as snow,
surrounded by a pool of blood.
Jason's spear delivered the blow
and Atropos severed life's thread.
Ironically, the ship was driven,
conditions being what they were,
right back to its place of origin,
arriving on an unfamiliar shore.
The Doliones, seeing the ship,
thought it carried armed invaders
coming to plunder, rob and rape,
and gathered to repel the raiders.


When Cleite heard the woeful tidings

―for that was his lovely spouse's name—
she cried: "Now I believe those writings
that say the gods don’t give a damn!"

Using a bedsheet for a noose,
she tied it to a roof timber,
moving with unswerving purpose
like a revenant or sleepwalker.
Then, cinching the end that hung loose
snugly around her lissome neck,
she went to join her darling Cyzicus,
giving the chair one final, fatal kick.
The nymphs of the surrounding wood,
heartbroken by these sad affairs,
wept so profusely, long and hard,
a fountain sprouted from their tears.
The pair were buried near their home
where traces of the barrow still appear.
The heroes slowly paced around the tomb
armed cap-à-pie in burnished battle gear.
Funeral games were celebrated
with sports of the customary sort.
All the Argonauts competed
except Heracles, who stood apart.
A tempest raged for days on end,
preventing the crew from sailing.
They implored the gods to relent,
but their prayers were unavailing.


One night as Jason snored in bed,
the sleeping chief received a sign:
a halcyon fluttered o’er his head
and warbled an ecstatic strain.
Mopsus, who was a learned seer
and knew the language of the birds
just happened to be standing near
and interpreted its cryptic chirps.
He roused the slumbering leader
and lulled him with a dull recital
whose tedium would bore the reader
and make a blasé poet suicidal.
The offended powers were appeased,
turning the world a gracious mien.
Counsel prevailed, contention ceased.
Universal justice reigned supreme.
Leaving behind the dismal scene,
sleek Argo slipped away from shore.
As for the doleful king and queen,
the Doliones wept a whole month more.
The crew was acting so downcast,
depressed by what had taken place,
the son of Zeus spoke up at last
and rallied them in a cheerful voice.
“What happened to that young couple
is unfortunate, but life goes on.
At least they'll never know the trouble
of old age. Their worries are done.


Circumstance conspired to ruin
the games, for it seemed disrespectful
to vie for prizes like children
when we were partly responsible.
But now, lest any doubt who's strongest
or boast in jest I'm past my prime,
let's find out who can row the longest.
The last to ship his oar wins our esteem."
The Argo was a marvelous craft.
Her prow was carved from a sacred oak.
As they put their backs into the task,
the figurehead called out the stroke.
Orpheus kept time with his lyre,
who taught insensate stones to move.
Hylas joined in too, whose vocal fire
could melt the coldest heart with love.
The virile heroes rowed for hours
before their strength began to wane,
and little wonder. So would yours,
unless you fancy you're immune to pain.
The sun was dipping in the west
to pasture his sky-footed team
among the Islands of the Blest
and take a bath in Ocean Stream.
But ere his cresset was extinguished,
engulfed in clouds of mist and steam,
most of the sailors had relinquished
the right to boast themselves supreme.


Four rugged souls still tugged an oar:
Alcmena's son, great-hearted Heracles,
well-knit Jason, horse-loving Castor,
and his twin, godlike Polydeuces.
Castor's strength began to waver,
but he was determined to persist
till, shipping his own oar as a favor,
Polydeuces induced him to desist.
That left Heracles and Jason.
Seated across from each other,
both men labored at their station,
pulling the ship along together.
Alcides' strength could be compared
to some piston-driven mechanism.
A diesel engine would have fared
badly next to his impressive frame.
Despite his charisma and grace
and a form Apelles might have painted,
the competition proved too arduous
and, dropping his oar, Jason fainted.
At the same instant Jason fell,
tumbling clumsily in the aisle,
Heracles gave a strenuous pull,
snapping his oar like a pretzel.
The sailors, needing no command,
plied their oars with grim tenacity
until they reached the verdant strand
where the river Chius met the sea.


As the crew bivouacked for the night,
their boasting was replaced by groans.
They gathered wood in the fading light
and spoke in low, crepuscular tones.
With only one thing on his mind

―to make a more trustworthy oar―
Alcides left the Argonauts behind
and went to find the perfect fir.
If you traversed the land of Hellas
or the whole world for that matter,
you'd never find the likes of Hylas.
For comeliness there was none better.
Telling the rest: "I'll see you fellas!"
the lad set out in search of water.
Before long he observed a spring
encircled by soft grass and flowers
where nymphs oft came a-caroling
and danced away the playful hours.
Dryope that night had come to dwell
beneath the water's crystal firmament.
As Hylas knelt beside the pool,
the moon looked on in bored astonishment.
Pulling him beneath the surface,
she clasped him in a strict embrace.
Hylas was wildly alarmed at first,

but soon surrendered to her kiss.
Returning with his makeshift oar,
Heracles met Polyphemus.
Though the latter was his senior,
the former was far more famous.


"As I was strolling in the wood,"
Polyphemus stammered, "I heard a yell.
I ran to bring what help I could
and found Hylas' ewer by the well."
In a flurry of confused alarm,
they searched the surrounding terrain,
while from the bottom of the tarn,
Hylas watched, but not without a pang.
The son of Zeus was so distraught,
he charged all he met with to inquire
till the man or animal was caught
that brought harm to his darling squire.
Next morning they were miles away,
still vainly seeking Hylas's trail.
After waiting for them half a day,
the captain passed the word to sail.
Jason retrieved the Golden Fleece
with help from King Aeëtes’ daughter.
His manners charmed the sorceress,
but their marriage ended in disaster.
The couple had a nasty quarrel,
for though he was a model sailor
and his wife Medea was immoral,
as a husband he was still a failure.

Book VI

Those who rely solely on force
to carry out some grand design
will have occasion for remorse.
Let subtlety and strength combine.
Some folks think Heracles an oaf
with less intelligence than brawn,
but many of his deeds give proof
of a restless and inventive brain.
Augeas held the throne of Elis,
a man of unrestrained ambition.
He styled himself a son of Helios
and feigned a sunny disposition.
The king was quite a cattle baron.
In fact, he owned so many head,
their number was hard to determine,
for every day they calved and bred.
Now cows are adept at alchemy
(for this we don't account them wiser);
by black arts they transmogrify
plain grass into cheap fertilizer.
This dark matter had accumulated
in such astonishing profusion,
the cattle stalls were inundated.
There was barely room to moo in.


Eurystheus smirked with furtive glee
to picture Heracles befouled with dung
and reveled in the vile indignity
he'd suffer ere the dirty work were done.
He ordered Heracles to Elis
to clean the stable in a day.
Smug at first, the king grew jealous
as the hero calmly strode away.
Alcides met an ancient swain
who eked a living from the soil.
The farmer looked as tough as whang,
his carcass jerked by years of toil.
The hero said: "Good day grandfather!
You seem familiar with these parts.
Tell me, if it isn't too much bother,
do you know King Augeas' whereabouts?"
The codger quit what he was doing
just long enough to wipe his brow,
then patiently resumed his hoeing,
determined to complete another row.

The old coot curtly said: "I should,
I called him boss for thirty years,
tending his cows and riding herd,
till I got too old to wrassle steers."
He stiffly laid aside his hoe
—for countryfolk are curious—
and led the way without further ado,
though his boy scout act was spurious.


He kept his questions to himself,
but wondered at the stranger's garb.
Clad in a shaggy lion's pelt,
his right hand grasped a massive club.
Before the duo came in sight,
Augeas' dogs picked up their scent
and rushed at Heracles from every side;
nor was his seedy sidekick exempt.
By reaching down to pick up rocks
and talking gruff, the sly old timer
had done enough to cow the dogs
and tranquilize their katzenjammer.
 
"A dog's a rude, uncouth critter,"
he yokelized, "an empty blusterer,
but they'd be honored evermore

if they could sniff out character."
When Heracles and his companion
arrived at the sprawling estate,
cattle were streaming from the canyon
where they often went to ruminate.
Phoebus had finished his cosmic course
and parked his celestial calèche.
He put a nosebag on each horse
and fêted them with ambrosial mash.
But ere his dwindling light was spent,
Alcides hailed the haughty sovereign
and offered, for a small emolument,*
to clean the cowshed in one afternoon.


*Ten percent of the cattle


The king thought Heracles an oaf,
but saw no harm in playing along,
so he made him take a solemn oath
in front of Phyleus, his eldest son.
Augeas owned twelve spotless bulls,
groomed for their gallant services.
By far the most belligerent of these
was Phaeton, terror of all carnivores.
As they concluded their agreement,
the huge bull spied the lion pelt
that was Alcides' favorite garment
and charged the son of Zeus full tilt.
The hero met the charge head on
with no apparent sign of fear.
Seizing the angry bull's left horn,
he stopped it cold in mid-career.
The florid monarch was nonplussed
by this impromptu tour de force.
He tried to pass it off as just
bravado but it spooked him nonetheless.
Next morning at the rooster's shrill
charivari, its rustic reveille,
Heracles bashed a commodious hole
in the barn wall with his shillelagh.
The river Alpheus flowed close by
and bathed the meadows with its flood.
It was a cheap and plentiful supply
of water for the entire neighborhood.


Removing one of the giant doors
that opened into the spacious byre,
Alcides carried the gate perforce
and laid it athwart the river floor.
Once the river was obstructed,
the water sought another channel
and flowed as gravity directed,
cleansing the stable of its offal.
One Copreus, whose name means filth,
worked for the king in twin capacities,
and won more wealth by stealth than tilth,
unearthing libelous obscenities.
By plying him with gold and lies,
he wormed the truth from the old timer,
the gossip told him by his cronies,
though he put no stock in such a rumor.
Thus Copreus informed Augeas
that Heracles deserved no fee,
but was ordered by Eurystheus
to clean the cattle stalls for free.
The case was brought before a judge.
Phyleus was called to testify.
He bore the son of Zeus no grudge
and told the truth—his father swore to pay.
The ruddy tyrant fulminated
against his son's ill-timed apostasy.
He bellowed, sputtered, foamed and execrated,
and ranted in an apoplectic way.


The ruling on the suit was mooted.
Augeas sent them both packing.
Heracles withdrew and brooded.
Incentives to revenge weren’t lacking.
He took fond leave of Phyleus
on the outskirts of Dulichium
and continued toward Olenus
where he slew the Centaur Eurytion.
Olenus' king, it seems, was guilty
of some careless indiscretion
to which the Centaur was a party
and vowed to publish his transgression.
The frantic king, to buy his silence,
agreed to his vulgar proposal:
his daughter’s hand! She bid defiance,
being loath to such a gross betrothal.
On being informed how matters stood,
Alcides said: "Leave this to me."
He hid on a lonely stretch of road
and waited for the Centaur to prance by.
Eurytion came to fetch his bride,
but Heracles ambushed and slew him.
You could hardly call it homicide,
for Centaurs aren't completely human.
Eurystheus, true to character,
declared the labor of the stable
null and void, as it was done for hire,
which Heracles found unforgivable.


After exchanging bitter words,
Alcides traveled to Arcadia
to oust a host of noxious birds
wreaking havoc in the area.
Stymphalian Birds! What could be better
to test the mettle of our hero?
They'd impale you with a brazen feather
as deftly as a marksman's arrow.
They ate the weanlings of the flocks
and skewered farmers on their beaks,
then spewed their feces on the crops
so nothing green would grow for weeks.
They migrated from Wolves' Ravine
to escape those heartless predators
and settled under Mt. Cyllene
on Lake Stymphalus' headwaters.
Upon arriving at the marsh,
strange noises struck Alcides' ear.
The birds' discordant cries were harsh,
their grating voices terrible to hear.
The sodden turf was far too soft
to support a traveler on foot,
nor was the water deep enough
to keep a shallow skiff afloat.
His bow was useless at this juncture
to dislodge the pertinacious fowl,
for though he could've made a puncture
in some, he couldn't shoot them all.


The son of Zeus, never at a loss,
resorted to a cunning artifice.
He made a rattle out of brass,
a noisy sort of anti-bird device.
Climbing atop a rugged spur
that jutted from the mountainside,
he shook the sistrum with such verve,
it reverberated far and wide.
The birds, affrighted by the din,
dispersed in terror and confusion
and never bothered anyone again,
made timid by a nervous constitution.
Grant me, O Muse, in future chapters,
if I haven't croaked or been trepanned,

to send my readers into raptures
with some death-defying sleight of hand.

Book VII

Many a man who was a paragon
of wisdom crossed by stern adversity
has acted dumber than a stone
when overcome by sweet prosperity.
King Minos ruled the isle of Crete.
No man alive had greater pow'r or pelf,
by virtue of a first-rate merchant fleet
that scoured the seas in search of wealth.
One day, while musing on his luck,
the king was struck with gratitude
and hit upon an innovative trick
to solemnize this humble attitude.
He made a pledge to Lord Poseidon
to sacrifice the first thing to arise
from the depths―whatever rode the tide in.
A speck on the horizon met his gaze.
On close inspection, to be brief,
the speck turned out to be a bull;
not your ordinary side of beef,
but a very special breed of animal.
Its hide was white as a wedding gown
and soft as the tears of summer stars.
It tossed its head and pawed the ground,
wielding its horns like scimitars.


Minos felt it would be a waste
to slaughter such a precious specimen
and sacrificed another in its place,
keeping the bull to propagate its line.
The Lord of Waters was insulted
by the offer of a substitute
and a chain of incidents resulted
proving that gods cannot be duped.
Minos' wife conceived a passion
to mate with this majestic suitor
and commissioned Daedalus to fashion
a hollow cow so it could mount her.
The fruit of this unlikely union
was a monster called the Minotaur.
The bull ran rampant shortly after
its amorous encounter with the queen.
Each day revealed some new disaster,
another innocent bystander slain.
Eurystheus, bored with life at court,
perked up when told about the bull.
He hoped his rival might be gored
grappling with a beast that powerful.
Thus Heracles set sail for Crete.
Once there, he found the king absorbed
in momentous affairs of state,
with strict orders not to be disturbed.
The strong man craved an audience
to ask for the king's assistance,
but when he finally gained admittance,
he was regarded with indifference.


The son of Zeus was irritated,
indignant at the king's rebuff.
Resolved to do the task unaided,
he exited the palace in a huff.
He found the bovine behemoth
roaming freely beside the sea.
It tossed its head as if to scoff
and pawed the sand repeatedly.
Quickly doffing his lion cape,
Alcides played the gallant matador.
He fluttered the enticing drape
the way an angler jiggles a lure.
After more than a dozen passes,
he began behaving recklessly.
The ease of previous successes
gave him a false sense of security.
The bull made an unexpected turn
and caught the hero from behind.
For a split second he was airborne
till his flying buttress hit the sand.
Quickly regaining composure,
he whirled to face his nemesis
just as the cud-chewing bulldozer
was about to deal the coup de grâce.
Vaulting with an almost feline jump,
Alcides somersaulted in mid-air,
inventing by this acrobatic stunt
a sport that later flourished there.*


*The sport of bull-leaping


The pair proceeded to engage
in a contest of sheer bone and muscle
so common in that brutal age
when even gods were prone to scuffle.
The bull was strong as oxen go,
but if it had ten times the strength
that ordinary, stall-fed cattle do,
it couldn't last for any length.
Exercising routine caution,
Alcides trounced the bull tout de suite,
which lay down, panting from exhaustion,
thus tacitly acknowledging defeat.
He crossed the saline sea to Greece,
riding astride its ample back
and managing the reins with ease,
for now the bull was tame and meek.
Eurystheus let the ox go free
but, lapsing into vicious habits,
it ran amok, killing haphazardly,
for bulls are your worst recidivists.
There was a rumor current then
about a king named Diomedes
who governed Thrace―a Scythian
who, despite lugubrious entreaties,
slew all unsuspecting strangers
and used their mutilated corpses
to stock a set of brazen mangers
where they were eaten by his horses.


Eurystheus ordered Heracles
to yoke the four man-eating mares
and drive them as a team to Greece
on crowded public thoroughfares.
Mustering a hasty levy
of young, two-fisted fighting men,
Alcides led his little navy
to Thrace. The ship outstripped the wind.
The crew docked at various ports,
their first stop being Thessaly,
hotbed of foul play, eldritch arts,
black sabbaths and necromancy.
Before proceeding with my tale,
I have to give a brief account
of prior events in some detail
whose significance is paramount.
One day, Apollo, feeling spunky,
spied a cute, curvaceous virgin
astride a gallant little donkey
that capered at her gentle urging.
The sight of such a sexy waif
riding bareback gave him the hots.
He wooed her with a godly gift:
some bonbons in a heart-shaped box.
He propositioned, she demurred.
He persisted, she resisted.
He made her laugh, she dropped her guard.
He waltzed off with her maidenhead.


Time passed like a narcotic dream.
The days flowed smoothly as a river.
The memory of the god grew dim
and the lass―Coronis―took a lover.
A crow, that interfering bird,
happened to see the pair in bed
and told Apollo what he'd heard,
the soft endearments that were said.
Apollo was a jealous god.
He burst into the lovers' room
and plunged a bodkin in her bod,
cutting the foetus from her womb.*
Repenting of this irrational act,
he captured the officious crow
and dyed it blacker than a bat,
which hitherto was white as snow.
Delivered by Caesarian section,
the child was cleped Asclepius
and entrusted to the Centaur Chiron
to cultivate his budding genius.
The Centaur taught him botany
and how to cauterize a wound.
He learned comparative anatomy
dissecting insects he had found.
Every single fact or facet
pertaining to the human body
took on a fascinating aspect
and became the boy's peculiar study.

 

*She was pregnant from their first encounter.

By the time he reached maturity,
Asclepius was so deeply read
in arcane authors of antiquity,
it was quipped he could raise the dead.
When Theseus' son, Hippolytus,
who preferred wildlife to women
―a devotee of buskined Artemis―
fell victim to his step-mom’s venom,
the goddess, to save her votary,
beseeched the eminent physician
to apply some sovereign remedy
and restore his former condition.
Asclepius treated the cadaver,
deftly flourishing his scalpel.
After much intensive labor,
a shallow pulse was palpable.
Hippolytus resumed the chase,
much to the goddess's delight,
but the implications of the case
troubled Zeus on his chilly height.
"If one man be allowed the chance
to abrogate the laws of nature,
the gods will lose preeminence
and our decrees will cease to matter."
Saying thus, the cloud-compeller
unpacked a box of thunderbolts,
but had to rummage in the cellar
to find one with sufficient volts.


Asclepius perished in a flash,
a warning to all innovators.
His body was reduced to ash
and strewn about by sportive zephyrs.
Phoebus, craving retribution
for such an unjust penalty,
avenged his son's electrocution
by traveling to sunny Sicily.
Beneath the crater of Mt. Aetna
that belched forth incandescent plumes
of smoke and streams of molten lava,
the Cyclopes toiled amid the fumes.
The volcano held the smithy
where Arges, Brontes and Steropes
forged the heavy artillery
Zeus hurled against his enemies.
As they assembled thunderbolts
to meet the quota set by Zeus,
Apollo snuck up on the dolts
and cut their throats in one fell swoop.
Zeus refused to brook such hubris.
For his insubordination,
Apollo was sold to King Admetus,
trading his harp in for an apron.
As he was tidying the kitchen,
the three Weird Sisters came a-calling.
Clotho, with thinly veiled derision
sighed: "Tsk-tsk, how the mighty have fallen!"


The toothless hags cackled with glee,
amused at their own raillery.
Apollo answered good-naturedly
and made them shriek with every repartee.
In time the conversation turned
to how the god was being treated.
Atropos said she was concerned,
a theme all three reiterated.
Apollo told them not to worry,
Admetus was a veritable saint,
the most beloved man in Pherae,
and gave him no grounds for complaint.
"Pity he has to die so young,"
Lachesis blurted inadvertently,
and Atropos snapped: "Mind your tongue!"
casting a spiteful glance her way.
"Wouldn't you ladies like some wine?"
Apollo offered, acting nonchalant.
"This old Falernian is really fine.
Come on, Admetus gives me all I want!"
The Sisters weren't at all averse
to taking an occasional nip.
In fact, good wine was far too scarce
to turn their crooked noses up.
At first, they took a drink for thirst.
It was so good, a second beckoned.
The third they sampled just for taste
till they were three sheets to the wind.


Amid the general hilarity,
Apollo managed to persuade
Death’s debt collection agency
Admetus' fate should be delayed.
They agreed on a compromise:
Admetus' thread would not be cut
if, at the time of his demise,
he could produce a willing substitute.
Admetus, learning of the deal,
thought it would be an easy thing
to find some patriotic fool
who'd die for his beloved king.
But when he put it to the test,
his request was greeted with disdain,
for each one loves his own life best
and calls it blest, however mean.
"Surely my father or mother,"
he thought, "will die to save their son."
But neither would forsake the other
or leave their love to face the world alone.
The hour of doom was drawing near.
The king withdrew to an unlit room
and brooded in his favorite chair,
compounding the surrounding gloom.
As he sat immersed in this brown study,
glumly staring into empty space,
his wife, Alcestis, renowned for beauty
and every charm that gives a body grace,


touched his arm and said: "Admetus,
you overlooked the only person
who stood ready at a moment's notice
to forfeit life for your redemption."
These words, said with such conviction,
touched Admetus to the very core.
Till then he'd thought love just a fiction
invented by some drunken troubador.
At first he wasn't sure whether
he wanted worse to cry or laugh:
to cry at losing such a treasure
or laugh at finding such a wife.
He gradually realized, however,
the more he pondered on his loss
that, despite our best endeavor,
love sometimes exacts an awful cost.
When Heracles took a brief hiatus
on his way to tame the Thracian mares
to pay a call on his friend Admetus,
he found the hall a scene of grief and tears.
After the usual courtesies,
observing his careworn demeanor,
Alcides asked his pal of former days
who all the funeral pomp was for.
Not wanting to upset his guest,
Admetus improvised a fib
that sharper marksmen would have missed,
for he was a dab hand at ad lib.


"A humble woman," he intoned,
"who served my family well for years
and loved our children as her own,
has gone to meet her ancestors."
"Your sentiments are very noble,"
said Heracles, "but somewhat misplaced.
You shouldn't go to so much trouble
for a slave. They're easily replaced."
Once settled in the guest quarters,
Alcides pulled out all the stops,
calling for wine, barking orders,
and shouting ribald songs over his cups.
One of Admetus' old retainers,
a major-domo proud of his station,
resenting Heracles' ill manners,
couldn't contain his indignation.
"The queen is barely in her grave
and all you care about is drinking!
Is that the way true friends behave?"
He paused to let his words sink in.
The son of Zeus sat bolt upright.
"The queen? I thought it was a slave!"
It was as if a miniature light
blinked on inside a mammoth cave.
Grabbing the old man by the collar,
he demanded: "Where's Alcestis' tomb?"
He answered in a raspy whisper:
"Near the cave called the Witch's Womb!"


Heracles hastened to the spot
where earlier that afternoon
Alcestis' coffin had been brought,
for Death was due to meet her soon.
Coming to a densely wooded dell,
the hero saw a hooded figure
he recognized as Death himself
stalking toward Alcestis' sepulchre.
They reached the tomb simultaneously
where Alcestis lay like a stone gisant.
Alcides blocked the marble passageway,
preventing Death from entering the vault.
The skull and crossbones you can see
on many harsh and toxic solvents,
does not do justice to, much less convey
a faithful image of, Death's lineaments.
O Muse, who ever guides my pen,
grant me the talent to describe
Death's features to dull-witted men
and earn the plaudits of my tribe.
Death has a slow and measured gait.
Aside from this peculiar feature,
he demonstrates no telltale trait
and seems a man of average stature.
But Death's outstanding attribute
is his air of supreme authority.
No emperor could be more absolute,
or Pope residing in his Holy See.


Those who quietly accept their fate,
he leads in easy stages down to Hell.
Those who struggle and vociferate,
he drags by force, kick how they will.
In his most condescending voice,
Death asked: "Do you know who I am?"
The son of Zeus replied: "Oh yes,
I know. I just don't give a damn."
Incensed at this insubordination,
King Mort resorted to violence,
but when he tried to force his way in,
he met with formidable resistance.
In the ensuing altercation,
Death found himself so sore bestead
that, forgetful of his reputation,
he trusted to his heels and fled.
Returning later that evening
with one dressed like a mendicant,
Heracles found the king still grieving.
The florid hall was richly redolent.
Admetus welcomed his return
and asked the hero where he'd been,
for he was curious to learn
the mystery of his hooded friend.
The stranger bore a strong resemblance
to someone he'd often seen before,
and brought poor Alcestis to remembrance
―but that was utter madness, to be sure.


Now it was Heracles' turn to stretch
the truth and pull the wool over his eyes.
He said he'd won her at a wrestling match
at which she constituted the first prize,
and he asked Admetus if he'd watch
the girl till he returned from overseas.
Admetus was at first reluctant,
too grief-stricken to even touch her,
but Heracles was adamant,
insisting he would trust no other.
His arguments at length prevailed.
Admetus took her tender hand in his,
and when the hooded maiden was unveiled,
who should stand revealed but Alcestis.