Why Myths Still Matter: The Twelve Labors of Hercules Part 5
The last five labors of Hercules and their psychological significance.
Posted Jan 08, 2018
This is the last installment in my series of posts on the Twelve Labors of Hercules in Why Myths Still Matter (see Parts 1 and 2). Here we consider the final five Herculean labors and their possible psychological relevance.
The eighth labor of Hercules was to tame and bring to Eurysthes the man-eating mares of King Diomedes. Hercules harnesses them to his chariot. Symbolically, we could say that this task for Hercules was about learning to control and redirect his daimonic energies. Animals, especially horses, can symbolize our instinctual power. Freud metaphorically likened what he called the "id" to a wild horse which the overmatched ego must master. The fact that these were mares, i.e., female horses, suggests that here Hercules is dealing with what Jung termed his anima, his unconscious, which in men, especially highly masculine men like Hercules, tends to be primarily feminine in quality. Because of the unconscious state of the anima, she (a man's unconscious) tends to be dangerous, destructive and devouring. Conscious integration into the man's personality transforms this destructive energy of the anima by harnessing her primitive power for expression in positive and constructive or creative activity.
Next, labor number nine required Hercules to acquire the legendary leather belt of Hippolyte, Queen of the Amazons, which served as protective armor for her torso and from which her sword phallically was hung. At first, he simply and directly asks Hippolyte for the belt, which she generously agrees to give him. But then the goddess Hera, still angry with Hercules, leads the Amazons to believe he intends to kidnap their queen, and, feeling betrayed and furious, they attack, not unlike an angry hive of bees protecting their queen. Hercules handily kills Hippolyte and takes her belt forcibly from her lifeless body. The Amazons were women warriors who intentionally cut off one of their breasts so as to be better able to throw a spear or pull a bow. In this sense, they sacrificed part of their femininity so as to become more masculine, more aggressive, more dominating and competitive. This can be said of many modern women. But, in the end, due to their paranoid fear of men and hostile preemptive strike incited by Hera, they are defeated by the even more powerfully masculine figure, Hercules.
For his tenth labor, Hercules must steal the famous red cattle from the terrible giant Geryon, described as having three heads and six arms and legs, all joined together at the waist. Geryon's cattle were closely guarded by the double-headed dog Orthus, the brother of Cerberus, the three-headed hound of Hades, whom Hercules later captures in his twelfth and final labor (see below). Hercules is said to have sailed to the ends of the earth in a goblet to accomplish this difficult task. Once he defeated the powerful Orthus and his monstrous master, Geryon, Hercules' work was just beginning, since he still had to get the unruly herd to Greece, a task that may have taken years to accomplish, with many detours, mishaps, and obstacles on the way. But Hercules persevered and, finally, succeeded. Similarly, the psychotherapy patient must be adventurous, courageous, dedicated, committed, perseverant and, yes, patient, with the arduous and sometimes painful and frustrating treatment process, a journey which can take years to complete.
Labor eleven for Hercules involves stealing the golden apples of the Hespirides, which belonged to Zeus, king of the Greek gods. (Note here the repetitive themes of stealing and killing: Hercules, in order to repent for his sins, is forced to further sin by voluntarily submitting to his prescribed penance. Such total submission is essential to his transformation. Penance is a psychological sacrament, a symbolic act of contrition and self-absolution. Applying the proper penance is of the utmost importance in sentencing violent offenders like Hercules. There can be no true atonement without meaningful, appropriate penance. Hercules must learn, like Oedipus, to consciously accept, manage and direct his dangerous daimonic tendencies, to forgive himself for his sins, while taking full responsibility for his behavior and its consequences, slowly evolving from a psychological state of dysdaimonia to one of eudaimonia.) To succeed, Hercules had to defeat the monstrous guardian Ladon, a hundred-headed dragon reminiscent of the Hydra.
But first, he had to wrestle with Anteus on his journey to the home of the nymphs of Hespirides. It turns out that Anteus is the son of Terra, mother earth, and receives his power from direct physical contact with the ground. He can only be conquered, discovers Hercules, by lifting and holding him aloft until he weakens sufficiently to be killed. Like Anteus, we each have our replenishing source of energy and power which, when neglected or unavailable, leaves us in a weakened and vulnerable state. Along the way, Hercules also takes it upon himself to rescue Prometheus, whom the gods had chained to a mountain as eternal punishment for stealing fire for humankind. Poor Prometheus was tormented relentlessly by a gigantic eagle that would eat his liver. His liver regenerated overnight, only to be devoured again the next day. This was the price Prometheus paid for daring to defy the gods in order to benefit humanity. Indeed, it can be seen as the cost of human creativity and freedom, in the form of tormenting feelings of existential anxiety and guilt, and the heroic courage and strength (as represented by Hercules) required to overcome, transcend and liberate oneself from such torture. The myth of Prometheus and his eternal punishment is similar to the story of Sisyphus, who attempted to outsmart and avoid death. As punishment, he was sentenced by the gods to eternally roll an immense rock uphill. Each day he labored to push the rock to the top of the hill, only to have it roll back down before reaching the summit. We all have our tedious Sisyphean tasks in life, our metaphorical rock to roll uphill each day, only to do it all over again the following day. In order to achieve his task, Hercules must convince Atlas, who holds the entire world on his shoulders, to help him collect the golden apples.
In the twelfth and final labor of Hercules, he has to confront the brother of Geryon, Cerberus, in Hades. Cerberus, according to most accounts, was a ferocious canine with three heads, a lion's claws and Medusa-like mane of snakes, and a venomous serpent for a tail. He guarded the entrance to Hades, welcoming the dead but attacking and devouring anyone attempting to escape. (Much in the same way the earth devours the body after death and burial.) In order to accomplish the apparently impossible task of capturing Cerberus and taking him out of the underworld, Hercules, himself a half-god, approaches Hades directly for permission to do so. Hades agrees, so long as Hercules can confront and conquer Cerberus without employing his customary weapons, much like the rules set for (but subverted by) Theseus meeting the Minotaur in the labyrinth. (See my prior post.) Interestingly, in some versions of the myth, Hercules rescues the by then deceased Theseus from Hades during his descent to capture Cerberus.
Ultimately, Hercules, accompanied and guided on his journey by the gods Hermes and Athena, finds a way to subdue Cerberus without utilizing his usual weaponry, such as his shield and venom-tipped arrows, which we can think of as Hercules having to face this monster on his own, without hiding behind and depending upon his habitual defense mechanisms, methods or techniques. This can be likened to the task of both the patient and therapist during the psychotherapy process. Patients must be encouraged to relinquish their defenses, excuses, and avoidant tendencies in order to confront and, with great effort, overcome their demons. Psychotherapists must similarly, at least to some extent, put aside their rigid and defensive professional persona and over-reliance on technique if they are to authentically provide such encouragement and guide and accompany patients on their own journeys down into the underworld and back again. In this sense, we each must call upon our own inner Hercules to tap into his strength, support, courage, and cleverness. Somehow, Hercules manages to subdue Cerberus with his bare hands, puts the demonic dog in chains, and leads him up into the light from the underworld. Upon presenting Cerberus to King Eurystheus, who had tasked Hercules with these presumably impossible twelve labors, Hercules fulfills his sentence for having slaughtered his wife and children in a moment of madness, and Cerberus was set free to go back to hell where he came from and continue to fulfill his function as gatekeeper.
This final phase of the myth of Hercules and his Twelve Labors reveals to us several vital secrets about human existence: First, that we all have our Herculean labors required of us by life. Second, that we are called upon by life, like Hercules, to be heroic at times, which requires discovering our inner courage, cleverness, strength and fortitude. Third, that we each must eventually and inevitably confront and come to terms with our personal demons, though, like Hercules himself, we all need some assistance, support, encouragement and companionship to successfully do so, and the unequivocal commitment and perseverance to complete this task. Fourth, that we too must learn to deal with our daimonic tendencies more consciously and constructively, lest we come to commit our own evil deeds. And lastly, that, though there is always a painful price to pay, compassion, forgiveness and redemption for evil deeds may be possible, depending on the offender's readiness and willingness to experience remorse, accept existential guilt, and make adequate and meaningful restitution to society for his or her minor or major crimes of hubris.