Through a considerable effort of will and sacrifice, I have determined to try to wrap up my exploration of the relevance of classic myth and story to our personal journeys out of our destructive habits of body and mind. For the time being at least – I am certainly not swearing that I will not return to it at some point in the future, since I find it such a consistently rich seam to mine, yielding both wisdom and inspiration in copious swathes. And it’s also a lot of fun. But I have to weigh that against my strong inclination to wander indefinitely through the hallowed halls of Mount Olympus, Moria, Asgard, Hogwarts, and number 221B Baker Street, London.
Yes – one conspicuous and especially painful act of sacrifice that I made while ripping up my sketchy notes for this piece was an attempt to map the career of the estimable Sherlock Holmes Esq. onto the Labours of Hercules. It was going quite well, I think, but enough clues quickly became apparent that it took only the most elementary of deductions to conclude that self-indulgence was creeping into the case, and so I have reluctantly shelved it. The great sleuth is, without any serious rival, my favourite fictional character, and I could prattle endlessly on the subject without ever feeling any pressing need to get to the point. Which point? Any point. And there is a point to all of this, besides indulging my foibles and obsessions, so I am going to try to keep that very much in mind.
Besides, it is not completely clear in the stories whether or not Holmes ever did completely succeed in exorcising his many demons. To name but a few – his fondness for shooting up cocaine and morphine, his chainsmoking, his appalling rudeness, his narcissism, his inability to form relationships, his (mostly well-restrained) relish for violence, or whether he ever got his (very obvious) bipolar disorder under control – so perhaps he isn’t quite the textbook self-transforming hero we are seeking at this point. A little complicated perhaps, a touch nuanced. Another time perhaps, and so for now I’ll just beg the small indulgence of you taking my word for it – the stories fit together pretty closely on a surprising number of landmark points.
So, I think my aim here will be threefold: To wrap up the story of Herakles, to open a discussion of how I think this stuff might be directly applied to our own problem-solving, and to at least begin on the topic of the most significant conclusions that I myself distilled from its ending. It is conceivable that all this may spill over into one more piece, because I will certainly not make any rash promise to get to the end of that third thing since it’s a big one. As my current thinking goes on the matter, it may actually be the big one. I suspect that somewhere in-between the eleventh and twelfth labours, between the Atlas Mountains and Hades (as we shall see) may be where the missing ninety-something percent reside.
I refer of course to the horrifyingly high proportion of all addicts who come seeking help from any source at all – be that Thamkrabok, the 12-steps, the medical profession, or any other method, program, or rubric – and yet do not complete their quest. Who remain chained to the wheel, despite all the steps, and the instructions, and the wise counsel. And don’t forget that these pitiful stats count only those addicts who make themselves known to stat-collectors by asking for help. If we were to take a guess at how many additional ones don’t, and then postulate some figure for “all addicts” then that might perhaps suggest that we are considering a problem of heart-breaking magnitude and difficulty. A hero’s quest indeed, then…
Well, I hope that’s sufficient to pique some interest. Let’s crack on with Herakles, although with this caveat – my account of the last three labours may be a little more sketchy than hitherto. That’s partly for the reasons mentioned above, of wanting to press on, but also, I will freely admit, that the symbolism in them is particularly dense and complex, and so I would feel somewhat presumptuous giving any overly blithe or confident statements of “what all this means”. So I will restrict my analysis to the broad strokes, and to those elements that do seem to speak very strongly and clearly to me.
And I can conveniently frame all that as keeping spoilers to a minimum, because I really do hope that someone can be moved to discover, or revisit, this veritable colossus of a myth, and have a non-curated personal response to it. I further do hope that someone might then share any insights with me – please hit me up via the Contact page if anything stirs within.
Bearing all of that in mind, here goes:
Herakles’ tenth labour is supposed to be the last. Completing this frees him of penance for his sins, and of his bond of service to the King of Creep – Eurystheus.
The gig is: He has to steal some particularly desirable cattle from a particularly fearsome giant called Geryon, who has [versions differ] three heads, or perhaps three bodies, or perhaps both [although wouldn’t that make him three people???]. Anyway, he does it. This isn’t such a non-event as the first act of the Hippolyta’s belt shenanigan, since this one does involve some fighting, and cleverness, and stuff. But one thing these two stories do have in common is that the main bit that I think I understand comes up next – after the task has seemingly been completed, and all he has to do now is return to HQ, triumphant. However, at THIS point…
Hera. Her again. She isn’t going to stand for this. Herakles has defeated the giant and his cronies, and he has all the cattle herded together ready to depart, but she then sends a magic gadfly to bite at them, causing a stampede in multiple directions. They end up scattered across numerous lands, and it takes him a whole extra year to get them all back again. This of course creates opportunities for many additional adventures and encounters, but I think I’ll just gloss over all of that detail, zoom out to a lower resolution, “bigger picture”, and focus on the overarching event here.
I get two things from this. At the first level of outzoom, well – it seems pretty obvious to me, and a very important warning to give to anyone embarking on a voyage of transformation, that: whatever you think it will require from you, prepare for that and then some. Don’t expect rewards to be immediate. Patience is an uncool virtue, but an essential one – Herakles has shown many other sexier qualities, and in spadefuls, but a defeat could very easily be snatched from the jaws of victory if he isn’t now prepared to pull a lot more out of the bag.
Note well: this is henceforth a standard component of subsequent heroic tales – a “darkest before dawn” moment. I don’t think it is there just for a tension-building dramatic twist. Psychologically, such tests are powerfully transformative, since it is one thing to go from victory to victory – however bruising – borne aloft on thermals of high-fiving and endorphins; but then quite another to stir yourself anew from out of defeat and despair, after having already given it your best shot. Alright, let’s zoom out still further:
It’s just – it’s still not over. Not done – somehow. Hera is still lurking, the old madness is still latent. Not so dramatically this time, no deluded murder-rampage (so far so good…) just a maddening fly – but it still has the capacity to mess everything up. He has followed the program, not only doing everything asked of him, but doing it exceptionally well. All boxes ticked. Some other key element must still be missing. I wonder what? I think that what happens next could be very important…
We, of course, can bring more knowledge to bear than Herakles himself can. Why? Because we have read the contents page. So we know that the tenth labour is not, as originally advertised, the last. There will be two encores.
Jump-cut to one year later – Herakles has succeeded in rounding up the last of the lost cattle, and he has delivered them to his sniveling taskmaster, King Eurystheus. Snively still doesn’t want to release him.
By the way, the following observation should probably have been made earlier, but I have only just thought of it: The meaning of being bound to the service of this pathetic little man perhaps isn’t only “humility required” in general. It also highlights a possible powerful motivator for sorting your shit out, that being: Until you do, you will be a debased version of yourself, often obliged to serve causes less noble than you otherwise could.
But anyway. On sneaky technicalities, Eurystheus claims that two of the ten tasks now completed don’t count, so he is owed two more. One of these was the cleaning of the Augean stables, which I won’t discuss now, since I didn’t discuss it earlier [although, teaser/spoiler: It involves mountains of poo. Always a hit with the kids]. Also because the precise grounds for its disqualification vary, depending on who is telling the tale. But the other was the slaying of the Hydra; on grounds that Herakles had help.
Now, of course we could just extract from this the meaning that Eurystheus is a butthole (although I think we already knew that). Or indeed not worry too much about it on grounds that we just need something to move the narrative along and get to another action scene before everyone starts fiddling with their phones. But perhaps indulge me (I mean, you’ve come along this far..) and test my thesis that a right proper myth is simply ram-jammed with meaning, and devoid of filler. Consider the possibility that Eurystheus’ justification is a significant detail, and it underlines that the crucial act of transformation is a solo mission – nobody can do this but you. No guru, no mentor, no buddy, no loving family, even, can have your back with this. Okay? Maybe that will seem to illuminate what happens next. Maybe not…
The eleventh labour is to go get the golden apples of the Hesperides. They are magical maidens who tend a magic garden at the end of the Earth, as far west as you can go. Florida being yet unknown to the ancients, many readers have taken this to mean Morocco, where we find an imposing range known to us today as the Atlas Mountains. On the highest peak stands Atlas himself, holding up the sky.
Before the coming of Zeus and the Olympian gods, the cosmos was ruled by the old gods – gigantic beings called Titans. Zeus and his brothers defeated them, and cast most of them down into an underworld prison called Tartarus, but a few remained on Earth to receive more imaginative punishments. It is Atlas’ sentence to stand 24/7 bearing the heavens on his shoulders. He also happens to be the father of the Hesperides girls.
The next bit of the backstory is a bit technical and legalistic. It is also, admittedly, a bit confusing, with different versions differing somewhat in detail, but there is one mainstream version that quite clearly makes by far the most psychological sense to me: the task is literally impossible. The apples bear an enchantment that makes them unstealable, and so only the authorised divine gardeners can pluck them. Aaaaaand their dad can. Of course. I warned you that it got a bit lawyerish – just roll with it; let’s say there’s some kind of DNA-based security device. The point seems to be – it is utterly impossible for Herakles to do this.
That seems consistent with other elements in the story so far – we have had to travel to the farthest (known) land, and to climb the highest peak. We have reached the very edge of possibility, so where else is there to go but into the impossible? I suppose we could theorise that he could somehow persuade the Hesperides to give them to him, but I’m not feeling that. That would just be repeating the plot from the Hippolyta story, so I think it has to be something else, or why bother adding these extra episodes? Anyway, they wouldn’t dare – these apples belong to Hera (I probably should have mentioned that earlier) since the tree was a wedding gift to her when she married Zeus. See what I mean about how densely packed this stuff is? That definitely means something.. but I can’t quite wrap my head around that right now – let’s just say, no way is he getting them apples just for the asking. That’ll do.
So what are we to make of that? What possible useful wisdom could be encoded in such a message? It doesn’t sound very encouraging, or emulatable, on the face of it, does it? Let’s look at what happens next –
Herakles makes a deal with Atlas. You saw that coming, right? He will hold the sky for a bit, while Atlas goes to get them. Atlas gets a break – which he could probably really do with – and gets to visit his daughters. Herakles gets his apples. How you like them apples? Sounds peachy, right? Simple – all he has to do is Hold. Up. The. Sky.
Where does that leave us? We have found a clever solution to one impossibility, but that then turns out to be another impossibility. Let’s be totally clear here – I really don’t think we can fudge this with some lame explanation like, “well, he was a pretty strong guy. We didn’t realise he was quite that strong, but I guess that where there’s a will there’s a way…” No way. Not for any puny human. Or even unpuny – Atlas is a giant, and he’s a god. And this is his punishment, so I’m working on the assumption that this is pretty hard stuff, even for him. If you need any more evidence, well – the sky is no airy-fairy thing, it contains Mount Olympus, the home of Zeus, Hera, and the other gods (as well as being, like, a mountain). I’m sticking with “no way”. Impossible – he has to do something that only a god could do. Yet he does it. Hmmm…
Before I start trying to extract any trite little lessons from this, I would like to relate the twelfth and final labour, and then discuss the two together, because they strike me as something of a double-act. I think I can do this rather more succinctly though – having already been to the ends of the earth, he now has to go down to Hell, and return. Not only that, but to return having stolen something from Death.
Death, of course, effortlessly steals everything from us, as well as being a one-way trip, so following on from the physically impossible; we now have the metaphysically impossible, for a final flourish. Herakles will reverse the laws of nature itself. Here is another trope, by the way – an underworld, be it the mines of Moria, the Hogwarts Chamber of Secrets, or the belly-of-the-whale variation, but it’s older than even this old story.
To flesh out some essentials in this particular telling of it – Herakles has to descend to Hades, the underworld, which is presided over by Zeus’ brother, who somewhat confusingly is also called Hades. And he has to return from Hades with Hades’ dog, who is called… Cerberus. The dog is predictably fearsome, and has three very bitey heads [I’d like to think that at least one of the heads is called Hades]. And guess what? He does it, yay! And the labours are completed.
In some versions of the story (not all) the King of Death also returns Herakles’ murdered children to him. It would be a shame, I think, to just regard this as a tacked-on happy ending, as some scholars have, explained as a reward for doing what was asked. That seems pretty shallow to me, and rooted in still seeing this all at face value rather than as symbolism. And somewhat questionable even at face-value, I mean; why would anyone (especially Hades) reward him? It might be arguable if some god had set these tasks, but they are the selfish, arbitrary demands of a petulant king, and nobody else has any reason to be pleased that he completed them.
To me, the return of the children is the outward sign that he is transformed. He was a destroyer of his own happiness, and a dangerous guy to be around, but now he is not. He can be a protector, rather than a liability, a good friend to have by your side (sorry, Hippolyta). And yes, potentially a good dad, if we must be literal, but this is the cool thing about myth and magic – outer circumstances can change instantly to reflect inner ones. He has the capacity be a trustworthy and benevolent family man, so suddenly he is one. Real life, unfortunately, usually requires a bit more work and patience, and other people playing along, in order to achieve such things. Boo! Real life, BOO!!!
I don’t think my summary here is too bad for spoilers (anyway, you guessed that he was going to pull it off) because there’s a wealth of further detail to discover, unpack, and ponder. On his progress through the land of the dead there are of course a few scrapes, and he interacts with a number of deceased characters from other Greek myths while he is down there, notably Theseus. That’s interesting “hyperlinking” since I am assuming these characters to be bringing with them some symbolic echo of whatever meanings we can find in their individual stories. If you can get your hands on a good Greek mythology anthology you can lose days (well spent!) over cross-referencing all this.
I will though, just mention two extra elements contained in this final task. Firstly, before his descent, he travels to Athens to be initiated into the Eleusinian mystery cult. I’ll return to that matter in depth a bit later – it’s a potentially intriguing one. Secondly, he has two illustrious guides who volunteer to help him to, and through, the underworld – no lesser figures than the goddess Athena, and the god Hermes. Again, I’ll leave it to you to mull over (if you care to) any meanings of it being those two in particular, and just comment more generally on the matter of them being gods at all.
Now, I have no doubt that an objection has occurred to you already, probably dawning on you somewhere over the course of labour number eleven; that of course being; “wait a minute – he’s getting a lot of help here. Didn’t he get disqualified earlier for that? How’s he going to get away with this?” A very valid objection. Well, I think he kind of is – and also isn’t – receiving outside assistance. And I think that is precisely the point, and I think that it works kind of like this:
Since I have yet to meet a practicing Olympian, I don’t think I need to be too afraid of treading on any fundamentalist toes when I rebut: “These gods aren’t in any obvious way ‘real’. They are shamanic manifestations, aspects of the psyche lent form for dramatic and interactive purposes. Just as Hera is better read as an embodiment of Herakles’ madness and its causes, these subsequent divine players – Atlas, Athena, Hermes, and others – are then avatars of helpful and guiding forces which arise within him”.
If you take a theistic view of things, then you could experience it as actual friendly entities heeding your call, answering your prayers, or just taking pity on you. If you don’t, then it might be more like some kind of hard shell around your dysfunctional personality has cracked, and is now allowing you to connect with positive universals and archetypes, whereas previously we knew only the locked-in, demonic ones. Or perhaps… you know what? It’s actually an ineffable kind of thing. It’s a very real and consistently reported psychological phenomenon, that has always been known to humanity, but can usually only be described indirectly through metaphor, or via negatives – by saying what it is not, or what drops away. Put simply – he is having a “spiritual awakening”. Wooooooo…
That’s a tricky and vague expression that could mean very different things to different people. And it often means nothing to many people these days, unless it means “a bunch of hippy bullcrap” [which could have either a positive, or negative, connotation, depending on who you’re talking to]. Well – this may come as an uncomfortable truth to many people then, but it is going to be essential to find some kind of palatable, honest, and meaningful understanding of that term, and more importantly, to somehow manage to have one. Sorry – I don’t make the rules. I’ll just wave my beloved stats around again, and point out that everyone who has ever taken the treatment of addiction seriously, and made some headway with it – from Carl Jung, to Bill from AA, to the Scientologists [yep, that’s an uncomfortable truth for me!], to Dr. Roland Griffin, Professor Jordan Peterson, and Dr. Gabor Maté in the present day – seems to be agreed. It is consistently observed that:
A “spiritual awakening” – or something that is subjectively experienced to be something like that, something described in similar terms, whatever that may mean to any given individual – is almost always reported by those happy few who have taken a heavy chronic addiction, and turned it around somehow. Sometimes it is the only common or consistent factor between different people who have in other respects used quite different strategies for getting clean and sane. Have yourself one of those, and we’re looking good. Finally – an encouraging statistic!
Just to ram that point home, there’s Herakles’ initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries. Now, to me the truly astonishing thing about this plot element is that it is the only part of this deeply allegorical, symbol-rich tapestry of layered subtle meanings and imagery that has absolutely none of that kind of stuff going on. At all. Which we might perhaps think of as a bit odd for a myth, but this just is what it is, literally, simply stated, and with no additional narrative twists or embellishment. I suspect that’s why it is so easy to overlook, but no detail or razzmatazz would have been necessary because everyone back then would have understood its significance.
The Eleusinian mystery was the most well-established and prestigious cult of the region, known to have existed from this early Grecian period (if not before) right through to the later Roman period. Many important people (notably Emperor Marcus Aurelius) were known to have undergone the ritual, which involved trance-states and symbolic death and rebirth. There is also convincing archeological evidence that psychedelic substances were used.
Now, this is rather interesting. In recent years there seems to have been a growing feeling among psychological professionals that it might be time to re-examine the psychedelics. Particularly with regard to their possible therapeutic role in treating the unholy trinity of modern misery: anxiety-depression-addiction. Early indications from trials that have been completed, and others that are still ongoing seem to indicate that they might have quite spectacular potential, if used judiciously, and integrated into a larger strategy. This too is very encouraging, particularly after decades of the medical profession playing jiggery-pokery with various approaches to tackling addiction, all of which pour a lot of effort and resources into proudly achieving success rates that essentially are some variation on “pitiful” – give or take a few percentage points.
We want to tread carefully here. Pharmaceutical history is of course littered with collateral damage from some drug or other that was at one time thought to be a wondrous cure-all, with no downside, and entirely predictable side-effects. It’s amazing how we never seem to learn – one might reasonably think that Freud’s experience with cocaine back in the 1890s (yes – he prescribed it for morphine addiction, thereby creating the speedball – epic fail. As well as just the ever-popular “everything is better” effect) might have made us cautious enough to not be facing an opioid tsunami more than a century later. Yeah, you might think that. You’d be wrong.
So let’s wait until some longer-term outcomes are known before we get too excited. And let’s not pretend to more knowledge than we have about precise pharmaceutical effects and side-effects. However, it is 2022, and I am a slave of fashion – so I am not about to let a complete absence of training, qualifications, or data hold me back from forming strong opinions on such matters and pontificating about them on the internet:
This shouldn’t take too long – I consumed a reasonably large quantity of a variety of psychedelics very enthusiastically, over a period of a couple of years during my mid-twenties. By my late twenties I was completely enslaved by cocaine and heroin. So obviously, they’re not in-themselves a cure for addiction, and clearly they can be incorporated into a wider pattern of generally dysfunctional drug use, as just another thing to get off your nut on.
On the other hand, my recollections of the mental states induced by such substances as LSD, Psilocybin, and DMT are vivid enough that I am happy to make a completely anecdotal, subjective, and unscientific assertion that their most profound effect is not any kind of wacky-but-enjoyable brain-misfire created only by the unique effect of the chemical in question. They are all slightly different doors that open into the same inner space. And that space is also accessible via non-chemical means, which indicates to me that it is a natural and innate mode of being. And certainly not a frivolous, merely hedonistic one. Although let’s not be too down on fun – we’re not hellfire puritans. Some things that are fun could also be good for you; they’re not mutually exclusive. And I suspect that this state can be very good for us indeed.
I can also speak from experience about altered states reached through meditation, and more temporary and contingent states of transcendence via losing oneself in music. I have spoken at length with people who have become somehow “one with God” (of some kind) although this kind of route is obviously only available to those with great faith in such an externalised and personified version of the transcendent, and such people are becoming rarer these days. People of a particularly open and wonder-inclined nature might even have spontaneously-arising experiences of this kind in the presence of natural beauty.
It seems clear enough to me that all such experiences involve ego-dissolution, in which nothing seems to exist, except the object of contemplation – including the contemplator. And that this has enormous healing potential if placed within a framework of addressing and remedying dysfunctional aspects of our individual natures. That seems perfectly logical – after all, any such things are locked into the personality. We of course need some kind of working self, persona – whatever you want to call it – in order to interact with the everyday world, and we need to make it consistent enough that we can at least hold down a job and have relationships.
It can be quite a struggle holding it all together, and so we often prioritise maintaining the whole over examining the parts. Like persisting with an old clunky, leaky washing machine long after you know you should, because you keep needing clean clothes for tomorrow – so you just put up with the spills and malfunctions, and keep crossing your fingers that it won’t one day flood the house. This clinging to identity is what locks things in – the faulty bits, as well as the functional. Any time the machine can be stopped, or even disassembled, is a great opportunity to reconstruct it in a different and better configuration, whereas it is much trickier to fix things on the fly (you may have to stink for a few days, of course..)
This then, is how I read the allegorical meaning of Herakles’ subsequent descent into Hades. Whether or not he was actually tripping earlier, he has somehow managed to let go of his insistence on, and frantic clinging to, being a certain person. A person who sees things in a certain way, responds in certain ways, and therefore tends to do the same kind of stuff, again and again. Including the bad stuff. What dies and remains in the underworld is the self-addicted self, with all its bundled balderdash and baggage, and what emerges is something new. I’m not sure why that’s dragging a dog along with it. Like I said – I’ll just do the bits I think I get.
Right. At this point I think I have to just draw an arbitrary line, and stop teasing out more allegorical clues about strategies for defeating addiction, however enjoyable I find that to be. Although I would certainly like to encourage you to continue that process. It’s time to wrap up, and I propose to do so with a discussion of how and why I think all this mythological stuff can actually get to work. And then I would like to throw in a couple of super-cool Herakles factoids that it would really be a shame to be unaware of, and that I think back up my assertion that it is worth taking this story very seriously indeed.
So do I believe that myths may contain useful checklists of actions and strategies that will help us to slay our own dragons? Yes, I do. But I don’t think that the best way to utilise these is to simply try to extract them in a cut-and dried manner, pad and pencil at the ready, as if we are trying to construct some new, faddy alternative 12-steps, and then follow a logical and failsafe roadmap to wellbeing. Let’s not just re-invent the (somewhat egg-shaped) wheel.
I suspect there’s far more value in simply consuming them as they are, as stories. But aren’t stories for kids? Surely grown-ups solve their problems in ways that are far more methodical, more scientific, and certainly less fun (so you can tell that it’s “good for you”, presumably). Yes, that generally seems to be a common consensus, but I hope that by now I have made enough of the case that it really doesn’t seem to be working all that well in the field of addiction.
And that discussion is going to slide across to next time. Apologies for how long it took me to get this installment out – it seemed like a bit of a Herculean struggle, involving a veritable Augean Stable-full of ripped-up notes and false starts. I guess that’s somehow appropriate..
P.S. If anyone would like to aquire a basic Greek hero-myth primer, I can thoroughly recommend “Tales of the Greek Heroes” by Roger Lancelyn-Green. His collections of Viking, and Arthurian, legends are a nice balance of faithful/readable/epic too.
Or, if you would prefer to read to, by Stephen Fry (which strikes me as being preferable to many, if not most, things in life), try this for a start: