Heracles’ tenth Labour: the Cattle of Geryon

Drawn for revision of the OCR GCSE Classical Civilisation topic.

An illustration based on the Olympian metope of the tenth Labour of Heracles. Heracles wears the tunic and lionskin, and has his club right over his head, about to bring it down heavily. Geryon takes up most of the illustration: his three bodies are upside-down, and only the topmost one, which appears to beg for mercy, still wears a helmet and holds the shield upright. In the background are some cows, the herd which Heracles has been sent to steal. By Greek Myth Comix

Heracles‘ tenth Labour from King Eurystheus was meant to be his last task, and was the most distant yet: the the edge of the world, in Erytheia. The monstrous warrior Geryon lived there, who had three bodies and three heads, and was a fearsome fighter. Eurystheus set the task of coming back with Geryon’s herd of cattle, which were famous for their distinctive red hides.

Heracles, upon finally arriving at Eurytheia, had to defeat the cowherd Eurytion and his two-headed dog, Orthrus (sibling of Kerberos). Then Geryon attacked. Heracles fought them off with his club and possibly his bow and arrow – it was three against one after all.

Heracles was successful, and drove the cattle back to Tiryns. On the way, he (somehow) ended up in Italy, on the future site of Rome, where a monster called Cacus stole the cattle while he slept, and Heracles was forced to defeat him (in the GCSE Prescribed Source: Virgil’s Aeneid, Book 8, the Greek King Evander, having settled in Italy, tells the newcomer Aeneas this story, cementing the Romans’ future link to Heracles.)

When Heracles returned, Eurystheus told him that two of his previous tasks – the Hydra and the Stables – didn’t count because he had had help for the former and been promised payment for the latter, so gave him yet another task (hoping it would at last be the end of Heracles….)

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.

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 only a little of it is left, the head and knees of Hippolyta, as well as part of her shield, and the legs, head and lower abdomen (ahem) of Heracles, as well as a touch of his club.

A photograph of the remains of the metope of Heracles' 10th labour at Olympia. Heracles is on the left - his head and upper torso and right arm are present. Geryon's middle head and torso, upside down, is visible, as well as his middle round shield. Photo by L Jenkinson-Brown
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 is mostly filled by the two (five?) figures, making an L-shape. This however leaves some space in the top right corner. Heracles’ position suggests he is about to bring the club crashing down on the last of Geryon’s heads – a kinetic moment with muscles engaged – as Geryon bows, two bodies already fallen, in front of him. The three bodies of Geryon seem to have only one set of legs, which has its toes and knees bent, but knees not touching the floor, as if in the process of falling to their knees in defeat. Heracles‘ left foot is about to lean on Geryon’s thigh, helping to push him down. Geryon’s three shields seem to be placed in a way that stops us from seeing how the bodies join together, or if they do at all (and in fact he’s three people), which is a clever way of deflecting from that difficult question and instead focusing on the action of the metope.

NOTE: AGAIN Heracles isn’t wearing the lion skin but he IS holding the club to help identify him… and he definitely used it in this myth in order to fight Geryon – he needed to rely on his strongest skills to defeat a three-bodied fighter!

In the illustration, Heracles is now dressed in a tunic and lionskin (for consistency) instead of what looks like a much later Greek cuirass with pleated linen skirt in the metope. The bodies of Geryon are wearing one-shouldered tunics and metal helmets (which are also from the later period), and they used round shields, although I’ve made them slightly more shaped like figure-of-8 shields – they look like a cross between figure-8s and the half-moon shields on the Warrior Vase.

I have also added some of the herd of Geryon to the image, to remind us of the actual task, and him driving them through Italy later on. They don’t look massively impressed, but then they are cows. They also fill the space in the top-right corner that would otherwise be empty in the metope.

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:

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Comix on GMC

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