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Monday, March 28, 2016

Herakles and the Hesperides

Herakles is one of the most popular figures in Greek art.  Depictions of a single story often number in the hundreds, and they have survived on objects made at different times—from the eighth to the fourth centuries BC—and in different places—from the East Greece to the mainlaind to West Greece (esp. southern Italy and Sicily).  Thus it is hardly surprising that the way the story is told often varies with the time and place of its narration.  There are different variants of the myth.  The story of Herakles and the Hesperides is a case in point.

Herakles’ eleventh labor (in the catalog of Apollodorus) was to fetch the golden apples of the Hesperides.  The apples grew on a tree in a garden somewhere in the far west.  The tree and its fruit were tended by nymphs, the Hesperides, with the aid of a snake named Ladon.

In one version, Herakles goes to the garden himself and confronts the serpent guardian.  This version of the myth is depicted on an Attic black-figure lekythos created around 500 BC.  In this depiction, Herakles obtains the apples himself.  Note that here the snake is shown with two heads.  In another version, he made one of the Hesperides pick them for him.

In yet another version of the myth, Herakles acts on the advice of Prometheus, who tells him to seek help from Atlas.  While Herakles relieves Atlas from his burden of supporting the sky, Atlas retrieves the apples from the Hesperides.  In this metope from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (ca. 460 BC), Athena is helping Herakles bear the load while Atlas approaches with the apples.

Yet another version of the myth was meant to make people laugh.  On this red-figure chous (wine pitcher, ca. 460 BC) Herakles is a satyr and the apples are wine pitchers (choes, like the vase itself) hanging on the branches of the tree (the club, the tree, the snake, the fruit all make the reference clear).  This type of vase (chous) was used in the Anthesteria, a festival in honor of Dionysus on the occasion of the maturing previous year’s vintage.  So naturally the joke has to do with wine.  Herakles’ heroic labor, the fetching of the apples at the behest of Eurystheus, is reduced to a satyr’s craving for wine.  The satyr will go to any length—he will even perform a Heraklean labor!—to get the wine that is the reason for the festival.  So this version of the myth is explained by vase painting humor.  For other examples of parody in which satyrs mimic heroes and even gods, see Mitchell (2009).

Mitchell, Alexandre G.  Greek Vase-Painting and the Origins of Visual Humour (2009) 150ff.

- Lesley Ehmer

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