Winning Entry
Bernice L. Fox Classics Writing Contest 2003
Topic: The Twelve Modern Labors of Hercules

Christine Boylan
Rosary High School in Aurora, Illinois
Teacher: Kathy Spencer

            As Jupiter of the ancients had allowed the Titans and monsters to live as a challenge to future heroes, so does the God of today leave social injustice and evil to be conquered by man.  Hercules’s labors were not only a punishment for his madness, but also an incentive to achieve immortality, and he can still be seen today in the night sky.  If somehow we could harness the stars and fashion from his constellation a modern hero, it would truly be the stuff of myth.  Instead, perhaps we could clone him.  Either way, were Hercules to reappear today, he would have to fight more abstract foes than he had originally.  I would make sure of this, because I would pose as the modern Eurystheus and do mankind’s bidding.

            Hercules had first been sent to kill the Nemean Lion, who would not succumb to death until Hercules squeezed the life out of him.  The Nemean Lion and his half-sister the Lernaean Hydra were the offspring of the hideous Echidna.  Echidna today would symbolize ugliness, and the Nemean Lion would have as its modern counterpart obesity, which is in a sense the spawn of ugliness.  As Hercules once squeezed the Nemean Lion to death, he would squeeze the obesity out of this rather corpulent nation.  By compressing each person into the handsome shape of his or her choice, everyone would be “skinny”.  Just as Hercules had flayed the lion of its hide, he would change an obese world into a “paradise” of skinny people, as is the prevailing trend.  All’s vanity.

            The Nemean lion (obesity) was the offspring of the Echidna (ugliness), as was the Lernaean Hydra.  She represents another component of ugliness: hairiness.  Once Hercules had lopped off one of her nine heads, another one would grow back.  No razor keeps hair away forever, for it also will grow back.  Hercules discovered that by cauterizing the decapitated Hydra, the heads would not regenerate.  He completed his second labor.  Today Hercules would be the inventor of laser hair removal along with a host of other cosmetic wonders.  But do not forget when Hercules dipped his arrows in the poisonous gall of the Hydra.  This, ironically, would lead to the death of both the enemies and friends of Hercules.  It would ultimately lead to “death” of Hercules himself.  So will vanity and superficial values lead to the downfall of both the good and the bad.

            For his third labor, Hercules was told by Eurystheus to capture and deliver the Cerynitian stag alive.  The stag was the beautiful, golden-horned deer sacred to the huntress Diana, and was a shining symbol of natural strength and the lure of the hunt.  Today, Charlton Heston is the beautiful, golden-haired spokesman for the N.R.A., and is a shining symbol of masculine strength and the lure of the Second Amendment.  Hercules would chase Mr. Heston through field and fen, through the quiet of the forest, through the town of Littleton, Colorado, and perhaps through Columbine High School.  I, Eurystheus, would have him brought live before me, in order that he might answer a few questions.  Of course, I would take refuge in a nearby urn, for fear Mr. Heston might shoot me while citing the Ten Commandments.

            The fourth labor of Hercules was to capture the Erymanthian boar.  While the boar had ravaged the country around Psophis, gangs now ravage the cities of the world.  Hercules had driven the boar out of its lair into the snow drifts of Mt. Erymanthus, where it was trapped.  In a similar way, Hercules could easily drive gang members from their dens, round them up and trap them in an alley, and deliver them safe and sound to the nearest facility for delinquents.  I would wait and watch eagerly…from the safe vantage point of my urn, of course.  Hercules had delivered the town of Psophis from the boar’s horrible hungry grunts, and now he would deliver us from blaring, obscene rap music.

            The most humiliating of his labors was Hercules’ fifth labor: cleaning the filthy stables of Augeas.  Hercules redirected the course of the rivers Alpheius and Peneius to flush the stables of muck.  In this day in age, even the rivers are befouled by toxic waste and oil spills, and we would need more to sweep away the smog and heal the ozone hole.  We would indeed need a cosmic flush to purge our world.  If Hercules were here today, he would “convince” the government to take more notice of the environment (not being exceptionally bright, he might throw them a punch or two.)  Because Hercules had requested payment from Augeas for cleaning the stables, this labor was not counted officially among Hercules’ labors.  Obversely, it is still money that prevents such an efficient environmental clean-up from being officially carried out today.

            The Stymphalian birds (Stymphalides), according to Apollodorus, were more of a nuisance in numbers than dangerous in and of themselves: there were simply too many of these offensive fowls.  Mankind poses the same problem: society corrupts the man, and overpopulation corrupts the world when it leaves no room for other beings.  There had been so many Stymphalides in Arcadia that they infringed upon the habitat of man.  Similarly, today there are too many people who drive wildlife out of the rain forest, the jungle, the plains, the Sahara.  Hercules had sounded a rattle to disperse the Stymphalides; perhaps all he need do today is sound a warning to mankind.  Though Hercules shot rather a lot of these birds I wouldn’t suggest such measures on mankind per se.  However, Hercules would teach mankind to stop loitering about on the property of nature herself, and perhaps then we wouldn’t harass the animals and they wouldn’t harass us. 

            The seventh labor of Hercules was to capture the Cretan (Marathonian) Bull.  The Cretan Bull had raped Queen Pasiphae and fathered by her the Minotaur, who devoured the sons and daughters of Athens.  Because the Athenians were overpowered, they had to pay tribute to Crete by sacrificing seven sons and seven daughters to the Minotaur. After Hercules had captured the bull and presented it to Eurystheus, he released it.  The Cretan bull was then free to wreak havoc upon the countryside of Athens. Today, Saddam Hussein is the equivalent of the Marathonian bull, who rapes just government and “fathers” the Iraqi dictatorship, which devours its people’s free thought and sense of security.  Overpowered by the dictatorship, the Iraqi people are forced to pay tribute.  The United States once had Saddam Hussein, but released him.  Once Hercules were to have caught Saddam Hussein, he would not simply let this snorting bull go to paw the ground and wreak havoc upon the world stage.

            For his eighth labor, Hercules was to fetch the Horses of Diomedes.  They were trained by Diomedes to thrive on and crave only human flesh.  Upon capturing the four mares, Hercules fed Diomedes to them.  It was not natural that these horses eat meat, nor it is natural for an elephant to balance on a ball, nor a tiger to leap through flame, nor a monkey to live out its days in a laboratory cage receiving only shocks for stimuli.  Yet man can train and tame the beast.  The “wild” mares of Diomedes were in fact tame:  they were not wild enough to survive the creatures of Mount Olympus who tore them to shreds.  The modern Hercules would deliver animals from abuse and cruelty at the hands of their masters, and an ironic justice would be won.  Just as the mares fed upon the man who taught them to eat man, the elephant would jump on the trainer who taught him to jump, the tiger would leap to freedom instead of through a circus ring, and the triumphant monkey would zap his scientist.  There would be very many people hiding in urns.

            The story of Queen Hippolyta’s belt is the timeless story of confused relations between man and woman.  It began when Eurystheus wished to please his daughter Admete by procuring for her the girdle of Hippolyta.  Many men today still seek diamonds and exotic jewels with which to adorn their females – supposedly in order to make them happy.  Hippolyta had received Hercules peaceably and offered to give him her belt, but the spiteful Hera rallied the Amazon women to charge the boat.  Seeing this, Hercules misconstrued Hippolyta’s intentions and, thinking her treacherous, slew the Amazon queen and took her belt.  The misunderstanding and distrust between Hippolyta and Hercules are still present today in many relationships between men and women (hence “men are from Mars, women are from Venus”.)  Hera’s role of the jealous wife is still played today.  Hercules’ modern task would be to find a way for men and women to understand and reciprocate each other’s feelings.  This would be the end of domestic quarrels and an armistice to the War of the Sexes.

            In his tenth labor, Hercules was told to bring back the cattle of Geryon. Geryon, the three-headed king of Erythrea, had the henchman Eurytion and his two-headed dog Orthus guard the cattle.  Not until the cattle were stolen and his two guards killed did Geryon emerge to chase Hercules.  Similarly, Osama bin Laden is known to have quite a few henchman who fight for him, but not yet has Osama bin Laden truly emerged to do his own fighting. His cattle are the Al Qaeda, who do not think for themselves when they commit mass suicides in the name of jihad.  Hercules would be the hero to draw Osama bin Laden form his den in order to fight him openly in the light.  Only then could Herucles vanquish him.

            Hercules sought the Golden Apples of the Hesperides for his eleventh labor.  This sacred grove was in a distant place to the west, and Hercules had trouble finding it.  The garden belonged to Hera and the gods, and was tended by the Daughters of Evening and guarded by the dragon Ladon.  On his journey there, Hecules was told only an immortal could pick form the golden tree.  When he met Atlas, who carried the world upon his shoulders, he tricked the giant into bringing the apples to him and taking the world back onto his shoulders after Hercules had carried it for a while.  Today, these golden apples would represent knowledge and higher education, which leads to success and wealth.  The Hesperides are colleges and universities.  No student knows quite where he or she wants to go, and the colleges are often far off and seemingly unattainable.  Often only the elite, like the Olympian gods, have any access to them.  Atlas, who carried the world upon his shoulders, calls to mind the student who carries his backpack and all the homework, tests, and other such scholastic worries that it entails upon his weary shoulders.  The apples signify knowledge and success that education offers, but even these can be used corruptly like Eris’ apples of discord.  Hercules could bring education and knowledge to the world by delivering these metaphorical apples to us, but it would be up to us to use the gift wisely.

            Finally, Hercules was sent to the Underworld to drag back the three-headed Cerberus.  Hades allowed Herules to take Cerberus from his dark watch at the gates of the Underworld out into the bright light of day.  The Underworld of today is organized crime, along with racism, sexism, pedophilia, murder, terrorism and all the sly evils which lurk in the dark.  Cerberus, also the offspring of Echidna, is true ugliness: the evil of mankind’s soul which is buried in the dark never to be scrutinized in the light.  Hercules would expose all the evils of the Underworld and drag them into the light to be seen outright.  But sadly, the Eurysthei of the world, perhaps you and I, might still be hiding in our urns.

            Hercules could perform the greatest of tasks with the mightiest bravery, but now he is only a vestige in the stars, a footprint in the sky.  When Hercules ascended to Olympus, with the exception of a few heroes here and there, man was left to fend for himself.  But if Hercules were to descend from the mountaintop one day, would we be ready with a list of tasks for him?  Or can we afford to wait that long?

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