Apples of the Hesperides (twelfth feat)

The most difficult feat Hercules in the service of Eurystheus was his last, twelfth feat. He had to go to the great titan Atlas, who holds the firmament on his shoulders, and get three golden apples from his gardens, which were watched by the daughters of Atlas Hesperides. These apples grew on a golden tree grown by the earth goddess Gaia as a gift to the great Hera on her wedding day with Zeus. To accomplish this feat, it was necessary first of all to find out the way to the gardens of the Hesperides, guarded by a dragon who never closed his eyes with sleep.

No one knew the way to hesperides and Atlas. For a long time Hercules wandered through Asia and Europe, he passed through all the countries that he had passed before on the way for the cows of Geryon; everywhere Hercules asked about the way, but no one knew him. In his search, he went to the farthest north, to the river forever rolling its turbulent, boundless waters Eridanu. On the shores of Eridanus, beautiful nymphs greeted the great son of Zeus with honor and gave him advice on how to find out the way to the gardens of the Hesperides. Hercules had to surprise the sea prophetic elder Nereus, when he comes ashore from the depths of the sea, and learn from him the way to the Hesperides; except Nereus, no one knew this way. Hercules searched for Nemeus for a long time. Finally, he managed to find Nereus on the seashore. Hercules attacked the sea god. The struggle with the sea god was difficult. To free himself from the iron embrace of Hercules, Nereus took all kinds of forms, but still did not let his hero out. Finally, he tied up the weary Nereus, and the sea god had to reveal to Hercules the secret of the way to the gardens of the Hesperides in order to get freedom. Having learned this secret, the son of Zeus released the sea elder and set off on a long journey.

Hercules fights with Antheus
Hercules fights with Antheus.
(Drawing on a vase.)

Again he had to go through Libya. Here he met a giant Anthea, son of Poseidon, the god of the seas, and the goddess of the earth Gaia, who gave birth to him, nurtured and raised him. Antaeus forced all travelers to fight with him and mercilessly killed everyone he defeated in the struggle. The giant demanded that Hercules also fight with him. No one could defeat Antaeus in single combat without knowing the secret from where the giant received more and more new powers during the struggle. The secret was this: when Antaeus felt that he was beginning to lose strength, he touched the earth, his mother, and his strength was renewed: he drew them from his mother, the great goddess of the earth. But it was only necessary to tear Anthea off the ground and lift him into the air, as his strength disappeared. For a long time Hercules fought with Antaeus. several times he knocked him to the ground, but only added strength to Anthea. Suddenly, during the struggle, the mighty Hercules lifted Anthea high into the air, - the forces of the son of Gaia ran out, and Hercules strangled him.

Hercules kills Busiris, king of Egypt
Hercules kills Busiris, king of Egypt.
(Drawing on a vase.)

Then Hercules went and came to Egypt. There, tired of the long journey, he fell asleep in the shade of a small grove on the banks of the Nile. The king of Egypt, the son of Poseidon and his daughter, saw Hercules sleeping EpafaLisianassa, Busiris, and ordered to bind the sleeping hero. He wanted to sacrifice Hercules to his father Zeus. There was a crop failure in Egypt for nine years; The soothsayer Frasiyo, who came from Cyprus, predicted that the crop failure would stop only if Busiris sacrificed a foreigner to Zeus every year. Busiris ordered the soothsayer Frasius to be seized and was the first to sacrifice him. Since then, the cruel king sacrificed to the thunderer all the foreigners who came to Egypt. Hercules was also brought to the altar, but the great hero tore the ropes with which he was bound, and killed Busiris himself and his son at the altar Amphidamant. So the cruel king of Egypt was punished.

Atlas holds the firmament depicted as a ball
Atlas holds the firmament, depicted in the form of a ball.
(Statue of the 1st century BC)

Hercules had to meet many more dangers on his way until he reached the edge of the earth, where the great titan Atlas stood. The hero looked with amazement at the mighty titan, who held the entire firmament on his broad shoulders.

- Oh, the great titan Atlas! - Hercules addressed him, - I am the son of Zeus, Hercules. Eurystheus, king of the gold-rich Mycenae, sent me to you. Eurystheus commanded me to get from you three golden apples from a golden tree in the gardens of the Hesperides.

- I will give you three apples, son of Zeus, - Atlas replied, - while I am going to take care of them, you must take my place and hold the firmament on your shoulders.

Hercules agreed. He took the place of Atlas. An incredible weight fell on the shoulders of the son of Zeus. He exerted all his strength and held the firmament. The weight on Hercules' mighty shoulders was terribly pressing. He bent under the weight of the sky, his muscles swelled like mountains, sweat covered his entire body from exertion, but the superhuman strength and the help of the goddess Athens gave him the opportunity to hold the firmament until the Atlas returned with three golden apples. Returning, Atlas said to the hero:

- Here are three apples, Hercules; if you want, I will take them to Mycenae myself, and you hold the firmament until my return; then I will take your place again.

- Hercules understood the cunning of Atlas, he realized that the titan wanted to completely free himself from his hard work, and used cunning against cunning.

- OK, Atlas, I agree! "Just let me make a pillow for myself first, I'll put it on my shoulders so that the firmament doesn't crush them so terribly."

Atlas stood back in his place and shouldered the weight of the sky. Hercules lifted up his bow and quiver with arrows, took his club and golden apples and said:

- Goodbye, Atlas! I held the vault of the sky while you went for the apples of the Hesperides, but I don't want to carry the whole weight of the sky on my shoulders forever.

Atlas brings Hercules apples from the garden of the Hesperides
Atlas brings Hercules apples from the garden of the Hesperides. Behind Hercules stands Athena, helping him to hold the firmament.
(Bas-relief of the 5th century BC)

With these words, Hercules left the titan, and again Atlas had to hold the firmament on his mighty shoulders, as before. Hercules returned to Eurystheus and gave him the golden apples. Eurystheus gave them to Hercules, and he gave apples to his patroness, the great daughter of Zeus, Pallas Athena. Athena returned the apples to the Hesperides so that they would remain in the gardens forever.

After his twelfth feat, Hercules was released from the service of Eurystheus. Now he could return to sevenfold Thebes. But the son of Zeus did not stay there for long. New exploits awaited him. He gave his wife Megara as a wife to his friend Iolai , and he went back to Tiryns.

But not only victories were waiting for him, but grave troubles were waiting for Hercules, as the great goddess still pursued him Hera.