Heracles’ fifth Labour: the Augean Stables

Drawn for revision of the OCR GCSE Classical Civilisation topic.

An illustration based on the Olympian metope of Heracles' fifth labour - Heracles, his tunic  partially removed for ease, wields a shovel. Piles of poo are on the floor,. Athene stands on his right, standing uncomfortably, and points at some poo with her spear, saying 'Ew.' By Greek Myth Comix

Heracles’ fifth Labour from King Eurystheus was to go and clean the stables of King Augeas, in Elis.

This didn’t sound so bad, except that Augeas kept his enormous herd of (possibly immortal) cattle in the stables, and they pooed all the time – as soon as one part was cleared, another part was full.

Augeas was encouraged by Heracles’ initial failure, and promised him payment if he could complete the task.

Heracles was aided by Athene (representing his cleverness) and had the idea to divert the nearby rivers of Alpheius and Peneius through the stables, washing them out all at once.

Augeas, seeing Heracles‘ success, now failed to pay him as promised. In revenge, Heracles later returned to Elis and waged war on Augeas, killing him. He then (in one version of the story) dedicated the Olympian Games to his father Zeus, in honour of his success.

(Eurystheus later used the fact that Heracles had received payment, or at least been promised it, to declare this task void and make him do another.)

See the comic in more detail:

The comic is based on the metope from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, but has additions in order to help students remember both the metope and the story.

The Olympian metope of the fifth labour, of the tables of Augeas.
Sketch of the metope (author unknown, from Olympia) as it possibly looked when on the temple (photo taken by me at Museum of Olympia c.2015) – you can see a lot of it is left, and the position of the figures, but not what Heracles is originally holding.

A photo (by LJB) of the metope of the fifth labour at Olympia (2015)
Remaining parts of the carved stone metope from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (photo taken by me at Museum of Olympia c.2015)

This metope guides the eye from the left along Heracles body, then to Athene’s face, then back down along whatever Athene is holding (probably a spear) and down to her and Heracles’ bodies. The space is filled effectively in this way by the two characters and their implements filling the space.

Heracles is shown in a position where he is clearly pushing an implement – like a shovel or mop – this is his brute strength. However, his cleverness is again suggested by the presence of Athene, who is clearly indicating something – either that he should dig here to divert the rivers, or that he’s missed a bit of dung.

NOTE: Heracles isn’t wearing the lion skin or holding the club – his hands are full! – but his interaction with Athene, fully dressed in her recognisable outfit of peplos, helmet, shield and spear, and Heracles’ body’s position in an attitude of pushing/digging is enough to clarify him as the portrayed character.

In the illustration, I’ve made Heracles look tired as he does physical labour – his tunic is hanging down as he is hot. I have chosen to give him a shovel, as this could be used either for shovelling poo or shovelling earth as he digs a new trench for the rivers to follow.

Athene’s physical position, shifted over on one hip, always makes me think she’s tilting herself away from something nasty, using her shield to steady herself as she points at the offending item with her spear – she can’t get far enough away!

heracles by greekmythcomix - a lineart drawing of him, older, holding his club over his shoulder. He has a figleaf over his member (hello US audience!) and is carrying his lion skin. He's based on most standing statues of Heracles.

Continue learning about the life of Heracles:

Videos on YouTube

Comix on GMC

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