Drawn for revision of the OCR GCSE Classical Civilisation topic.
Heracles‘ eleventh Labour from King Eurystheus was absolutely meant to finish him off this time – he had only been meant to have ten tasks, but Eurystheus had decided that two – the Lernean Hydra and the Stables of King Augeas – didn’t count because he had had help for the former and an offer of payment for the latter (even though he absolutely didn’t get paid).
This time, Eurystheus sent Heracles to the ends of the earth again, this time to do something even more potentially deadly than steal an Amazon Queen’s belt – to steal the golden apples that were Gaia (The Earth)’s wedding present of Zeus and Hera, the king and queen of the gods, which were guarded by the nymph daughters of Atlas, the Hesperides/Atlantides, who represented the golden light of dawn and sunset.
Heracles didn’t know where to go to find the Garden of the Hesperides, and after travelling round the Mediterranean and Adriatic coastlines (fighting the river god Achelous on the way – see your GCSE Prescribed Source on Hercules’ lesser adventures in Ovid: Metamorphoses), he instead travelled to find Atlas, their father, whose job was holding up the sky in the Caucasus mountain range.
Atlas agreed to go and get the apples for him from his daughters… if Heracles would hold up the sky for him while he was away. Heracles agreed, knowing this was a trick as Atlas hated holding up the sky.
Atlas, amazingly, came back to show Heracles he’d got the apples. Then he offered to take them back to Eurystheus on Heracles’ behalf.
Heracles saw where this was going, but agreed… as long as Atlas would take the sky back for a minute while Heracles went to get a pillow for his shoulders… this flattered Atlas, showing him the great hero was no match for him who held up the sky with ease, so of course Atlas agreed. However, as soon as he’d put down the apples and taken the sky back from Heracles, the hero picked up the apples and made a run for it. Clever.
After Heracles showed the apples to Eurystheus, Athene took them back to the garden: they were the property of Zeus and Hera after all.
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.
This metope is filled well by the three figures, who each take up about a third of the metope. Athene on the left, only recognisable by her dress and spear (not in the metope but a hole in her hand suggests it was there), and Atlas on the right, only recognisable because he is holding the (amazingly tiny hand-sized!) apples, are made to look bigger than Heracles, because his head is hunched down under the weight of the sky, although really they are all similar sizes. Heracles has a pillow on his shoulders and both hands next to his head to hold up his clearly heavy burdern: all of his muscles are engaged and he stands very straight, save for his head and neck. The fact that his head is bent forward allows us to see his face. Athene is helping him hold up the sky – either a metaphor for his cleverness in getting away afterwards, or as part of the story as she is his patron – and is clearly finding it a lot easier than he is, showing the difference between a god and a mortal, even a son of Zeus.
NOTE: AGAIN Heracles isn’t wearing the lion skin or the club to help identify him. The other figures – Athene as his patron, and Atlas holding the apples – serve to identify the story overall.
In the illustration, Athene stands on the left in her dress and with spear, and Atlas stands on the right holding the tiny apples of the Hesperides (which I’ve made a bit more recognisable by adding more of them), offering them to Heracles, who, in the middle, is really struggling to hold up the sky. he now wears a simple tunic, rather than being naked as in the metope. Athene is thinking ‘so *not* heavy, such a wimp…’, whilst Heracles and Atlas have a conversation: Atlas is saying ‘so, like, I’ll take these back for you?’ and Heracles replies ‘Cheers, just, er, swap back while I get a pillow… oh, wait, they already carved me one… so… how do I get out of this again?’, commenting on the fact that in the metope he already has a pillow so can’t use it as an excuse to get away. Oops. For clarity, I’ve made it clear that Heracles is holding up a large, possibly rounded object – the sky – as suits the positioning of the hands on the metope. This also fits with later images of Atlas holding up the sky, and even the whole world, but a geographical Atlas is not directly named after him!
One thought on “Heracles’ eleventh Labour: the Apples of the Hesperides”
Just discovered your comics and fascinating explanatory texts, as I am in the middle of reading *The Song of Achilles* and was looking for some background details. Thank you! I am casually interested in mythology (Greek and otherwise) and just love your angle on it!