E URYSTHEUS was getting to his wits' end for work which should keep his cousin employed. He sent him to kill the man-eating birds of Lake Stymphalus; to catch, and bring to Mycenæ alive, a wild bull which was devastating Crete; to obtain for Eurystheus the famous mares which fed on human flesh, and belonged to the Thracian King Diomēdes who used to throw men and women alive into their manger. In three years' time Hercules destroyed all the birds, and brought to Mycenæ both the bull and the mares, to whom he had given the body of their master.
These were the sixth, seventh, and eighth labors, which had taken eight years. The ninth was of a different kind. There lived in the country of Cappadocia, which is in Asia, a nation of women, without any men among them. They were called the Amazons, and were famous for their skill in hunting, and for their fierceness and courage in war, conquering the neighboring nations far and wide. Their queen at this time was Hippolyta; and Eurystheus bade Hercules bring him Queen Hippolyta's girdle. Perhaps he thought that a strong man would be ashamed to put out his strength against a woman. If so, however, he reckoned wrongly. Hercules had to do his work, whether man or woman stood in the way; and he won the queen's girdle in fair fight, without harming the queen.
"I must send Hercules to the very end of the earth," thought poor Eurystheus, who grew more and more frightened by every new success of his cousin. So he inquired diligently of every traveler who came to Mycenæ, and in time had the good luck to hear of a suitable monster named Geryon, who lived in a cave at Gades, now called Cadiz, on the coast of Spain; very near indeed to what the Greeks then thought to be the end of the world. Geryon, so the travelers reported, had three bodies and three heads, and kept large and valuable flocks and herds. "That will be just the thing for Hercules!" thought Eurystheus. So he called from his brazen pot—
"Go to Gades, and get me the cattle and the sheep of Geryon."
So Hercules set off for Spain by way of Egypt and that great Libyan desert through which Perseus had passed on his adventure against the Gorgons. It was an unfortunate way to take, for there reigned over Egypt at that time King Busiris, who had made a law that every foreigner entering the country should be sacrificed to Jupiter. Hercules, knowing nothing of this law, was taken by surprise as soon as he landed, overpowered by numbers, bound in iron chains, and laid upon the altar to be slain. But scarcely had the sacrificing priest raised his knife when Hercules burst the chains, and, being no longer taken at disadvantage, made a sacrifice of Busiris and his ministers, thus freeing the land of Egypt from a foolish and cruel law.
Thence he passed into the great desert, and traveled on until one day he reached a pile of human skulls, nearly as big as a mountain. While wondering at the sight, a shadow fell over him, and a big voice said—
"Yes, you may well look at that! I have nearly enough now."
It was a giant, nearly as high as the heap of skulls. "And who are you?" asked Hercules; "and what are these?"
"I am Antæus," answered the giant; "and the Sea is my father and the Earth is my mother. I am collecting skulls in order to build a temple with them upon my mother the Earth to my father the Sea."
"And how," asked Hercules, "have you managed to get so many?"
"By killing everybody I see, and adding his skull to the heap—as I am going to add yours."
So saying, he seized Hercules to make an end of him. And amazed enough the giant was when he himself was dashed to the ground with force enough to break any ordinary bones.
Antæus, however, though astonished, was not in the least hurt; so that it was the turn of Hercules to be surprised. Again they closed, and again Hercules threw him, with still greater strength; and they closed again.
And again and again Hercules threw him, but every time with greater difficulty. The more he was thrown, the stronger the giant became; he rose from every fall fresher than before. Plainly, if this went on, Antæus would be beaten until he became stronger than Hercules, and would end by winning.
It seemed very strange that the more a man was dashed to the ground the fresher and stronger he should grow. But—
"I see!" thought Hercules to himself. "This giant is the son of the Earth; so whenever he falls, it is upon the bosom of his own mother, who strengthens and refreshes her son. So I must take another way."
So thinking, he put out all his strength, and again lifted Antæus in his arms. But this time he did not dash him to the Earth; he held him in the air, and crushed him to death between his hands.
After this he traveled on, without further adventure, until he reached the far western end of the Mediterranean Sea, which was thought to be the end of the world. If you happen to look at a map you will easily find the exact place—it is where the south of Spain very nearly touches Africa. When Hercules arrived there, Spain quite touched Africa, so that one might walk from one into the other. It is said that Hercules himself opened out the narrow passage which lets the Mediterranean Sea out into the great ocean, so that ships could afterwards sail to Britain and all over the world. That passage is now called the Strait of Gibraltar. But the rock of Gibraltar in Spain, and the opposite rock in Africa, between which the Strait flows, are still often called the "Pillars of Hercules."
To get from there to Gades was no great distance; and to kill the monstrous ogre Geryon and to seize his flocks and herds for Eurystheus was no great feat after what he had already done. But to drive such a number of sheep and cattle all the way from Gades in Spain to Mycenæ in Greece was not an easy matter. There was only one way of doing so without being stopped somewhere by the sea, and this, as a map will show at once, is by crossing those two great mountain-ranges, the Pyrenees and the Alps—and for one man to drive thousands of sheep and thousands of horned cattle over such mountains as those was the most tiresome and troublesome labor that Hercules had ever undergone.
He got as far as Italy without the loss of a single sheep or cow, and was thinking that he saw the end of his trouble. One morning, however, having counted the cattle as usual, and having gone some miles upon his day's journey, he became aware that there was something wrong. The sheep began to bleat and the cattle to bellow in an odd and excited way. And frequently, from behind him, he heard an answering sound which at first he took for an echo. But no, it could not be that, for an echo would have repeated the bleating as well as the bellowing, and what he heard behind him was the sound of bellowing only—precisely like that of Geryon's cows. He counted the herd over again, and, though he was convinced that it was all right at starting, he found a full dozen missing.
Now a dozen was not much to lose out of thousands. But he had been ordered to bring back the whole herd, and he would have felt that he would not have done his duty if he, by any neglect or laziness of his own, lost even one lamb by the way. So, following the distant sound, he, with infinite labor, drove his cattle back across the hills, league after league, till he reached a huge black cavern, the mouth of which was strewn and heaped with human bones. His cattle became more excited and more restive, for the sound he was following evidently came from within the cave.
He was about to enter and search when a three-headed ogre issued, whose three mouths, when he opened them to speak, breathed smoke and flames.
"This is my cave," said he, with all three mouths at once; "and no man shall enter it but I."
"I only want my cattle," said Hercules. "Bring them out to me."
"Cattle?" asked the ogre. "There are no cattle here. I swear it by the head of my mother."
"And who was she," asked Hercules, "that her head is an oath to swear by?"
"I am Cacus, the son of the Gorgon Medusa," answered the ogre, "and I swear—"
But before he could finish his oath, there came such a bellowing from within the cave that the very cattle seemed as if they could not endure such falsehood, and were proclaiming that Cacus lied.
"I am sorry," said Hercules. "I am weary of traveling, and of monsters, and of giants, and of ogres, and of liars, and of thieves. I really do not want to kill any more. You are not one of my labors, and I have had enough trouble. Still, if you had as many heads as the Hydra and as many arms as Briareus, I should have to fight you rather than lose one of the cattle I was bidden to bring."
Cacus laughed. "Do you see those bones?" he asked. "They are all that is left of people who have looked for what they have lost in my cave."
"Then," said Hercules, "either you shall add mine to the heap, or I will add yours."
And presently the bones of Cacus the Robber were added to the heap, and Hercules, having got his cattle back, at last reached Mycenæ.
Eurystheus almost forgot to be frightened in his joy at becoming the owner of such flocks and herds. He listened with interest to the story of his cousin's travels, and, having heard it to an end, said—
"So you crossed the great Libyan desert until you reached the ocean which surrounds the world? Why, then, you must have found the way to the gardens of the Hesperides—the gardens of golden fruit which the great sleepless dragon guards, and which our forefather Perseus saw when he turned Atlas into stone. Did you also see those gardens?"
"No," said Hercules.
"Then," said Eurystheus, "go and see them at once. Go and bring me some of the Golden Apples—as many as you can."