Heracles’ sixth Labour: the Stymphalian Birds

Drawn for revision of the OCR GCSE Classical Civilisation topic.

Heracles‘ sixth Labour from King Eurystheus was another that aimed to rid a locality of a natural/supernatural pest. Beyond the forests of Arcadia, in Stymphalos, an enormous flock of birds had been ruining farmland around the Stymphalian Marsh where they lived.

The birds are described differently in different versions of the myth: they are said to be huge, or regular-sized but with bronze feet and beaks (which means sharp, as bronze was used for weapons), and some versions say they were also human-eating!

Heracles was unsure how to attack them, but, as he was an excellent shot with a bow and arrow, Athene helped him by giving him a rattle: the noise scared the birds into the sky where Heracles was then able to promptly shoot them down (or use a slingshot in other versions).

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.

A line drawing from Olympia of the restored metope of the sixth labour of Heracles - he on the right is presenting some very small dead birds to Athehe, who is seated and without her helmet but is wearing her aegis for recognition. Heracles holds a bow in his left hand and passes the birds over with his right.
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 photograph of the Olympian metope of Heracles' sixth labour, presenting a seated Athene with some (very tiny) Stymphalian birds. Most of the metope is intact. By LJB
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 left to right to ‘read’ the image: Athene, seated on a rocky outcrop, is higher up – you can see the tension in her feet as she balances on her toes – and we look up her body as she leans towards Heracles, leaning on her left hand while her right hand comes in to take what Heracles is offering. Athene’s face seems angled to be looking at what is in Heracles’ right hand, so we also look down at it – as suggested, it contains the birds that he has killed – and then back up his outstretched arm to the rest of his body and face, and finally to the bow in his left hand.

There is space in the top left of the metope, so we imagine that the painted background would have been visible there, but the figures take up the second and third sections (3rds) of the metope, filling the space relatively well.

NOTE: AGAIN Heracles isn’t wearing the lion skin or holding the club – his hands are full! – but his interaction with Athene, dressed in her recognisable outfit of peplos and aegis, is enough to clarify him as the portrayed character. As is very often the case in the metopes, Heracles is totally naked. He is also bearded, reminding us that time is going on as he completes his labours.

In the illustration, I’ve dressed Heracles in his lion skin, and tucked the rattle given him by Athene into his belt. I’ve also added an arrow sticking out of one of the teeny tiny birds to go with the bow that he’s holding, which has been unstringed now he’s finished using it. He’s telling Athene that the birds are tiny, in response to my class of students always telling me they aren’t impressed with the birds’ size!

The rattle is based on Ancient Greek, Egyptian and Roman rattles, or sistrum (seistron in Greek), made from metal and with moving rods that make a rattling noise, and sometimes round metal disks on the rods to add to the noise – learn more about it here: https://www.mattnolancustomcymbals.com/blog/?p=139 (non-affiliated link) and hear it in the video below:

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.