Herakles III: The Golden Hind

UNKNOWN, Herakles captures the Hind of Keryneia, detail from red figure kylix, ca. 440–430 B.C. British Museum, London. Digital image courtesy Jastro, used here under Creative Commons license, 2017.

[You can also read Part I and Part II.]

In besting both the Nemean Lion and the Hydra at Lake Lerna, Herakles had clearly demonstrated the superiority of his physical strength. Hera chose a third new task to be more subtle—a labor requiring more than brute strength–a chore to test Herakles’ meddle. Capturing a creature with supreme celerity would, no doubt, require cunning and quick wit. And so it was again that Eurystheus came to Herakles issuing Hera’s most recent demand: the capture of the golden hind of Keryneia: Ελαφος Κερυνῖτις, or, simply Kerynitis.

Keryneia, a tiny village on the north shore of the Peloponnese, was home to an incredible, magical doe: a hind called Kerynitis. Most unusual for a doe, Kerynitis’ antlers were made of pure gold, and her hooves of fine bronze. Sacred to her mistress Ἄρτεμις (Ártemis), Kerynitis ran faster than the wind—even faster than an arrow loosed from a bow.

Herakles set out, moving northward and curving along the coast of the Peloponnese until, at last, he came to the outskirts of Keryneia. He arrived by mid-day, and, tired, he laid down to nap just outside the village. It was nearly sunset when he awoke. Raising up and looking through bleary eyes, Herakles caught the barest of glints, a golden sparkle of something in the distance, some half a league off, near the forest’s edge.

Herakles stood. Immediately, Kerynitis’ keen sense of smell picked up Herakles’ scent on the breeze, and she shot off into the forest almost instantaneously. Herakles gathered himself and marched on to where the Hind had been, and onward, tracking her into the forest.

Herakles spent the next year tracking Kerynitis, and though he was able to lay eyes on her several times, he never once came close to catching her. Exhausted from chasing, Herakles appealed to his mind.

Knowing that Kerynitis was sacred to Ártemis, Herakles decided to visit the goddess and plead his case for capturing her. Perhaps Ártemis would be understanding, perhaps even gracious enough to aid him in the task.

In truth, Eurystheus and Hera chose this third labor hoping that it would anger Ártemis and her brother Apollo, and that they together would destroy the hero. However, Eurytheus underestimated Herakles’ political aptitude, especially insofar as Olympian gods are concerned. For, though Ártemis was adamant, at first, that Herakles not lay a finger on Kerynitis, a quick tug at the hunt goddess’ heart strings proved all that was necessary for Herakles to end up borrowing both a bow and a magical golden arrow, whose enchantments let it fly far faster than a normal arrow.

Knowing background and context means a great dealwhen it comes to politics. You see, Herakles knew that both Ártemis and her brother Apollo were the children of Zeus and Leto. He also knew that Leto was but one of many of Zeus’ extramarital conquests (Herakles’ own mother was another; that’s how this whole mess got started, after all). As such, Leto was one of the many perennial enemies of Zeus’ wife, who, of course, was none other than Herakles’ divine persecutor, Hera. Herakles, it seemed, knew how to pull strings, and, upon leaving Ártemis, he assured her that Kerynitis would not be harmed.

After seven days tracking the beast, Herakles got his chance to capture Kerynitis. He reasoned that, though the golden arrow would fly faster than Kerynitis could run, she might still be agile enough to dodge the shot—and Herakles only had one arrow. As the hind emerged onto a rocky outcrop in a nearby forest clearing, Herakles had his eureka moment. He figured if he shot towards Kerynitis’ front legs, perhaps timing the shot so that the arrow would zip by across the path and in front of her, she might become so confused that she would trip over her own legs. The rocky outcrop was positioned in such a way that Kerynitis was likely to drop down from it before gathering full speed on the surrounding flat terrain. It was the perfect bottleneck.

UNKNOWN, copy of Λύσιππος (Lysippos), Herakles Capturing the Cyrenian Hind, French bronze copy of an Hellenic bronze original, ca. 390 B.C. Private collection. Image courtesy of owner, 2017.
UNKNOWN, copy of Λύσιππος (Lysippos), Herakles Capturing the Cyrenian Hind, French bronze copy of an Hellenic bronze original, ca. 390 B.C. Private collection. Image courtesy of the owner, 2017.

Drawing the bowstring and a deep breath, Herakles paused, took aim, and let the golden arrow fly! TWIPPP! The snap of the bowstring was the only stimulus Kerynitis needed to run like the wind. And, in a flash, the golden arrow had done its work, just as Herakles imagined it could. The thrash and cry was terrible to behold as Kerynitis tripped over her own legs and rolled nearly a hundred feet before finally coming to rest. She was dazed, and Herakles knew that it wouldn’t last long. Right away, he dropped the bow and ran to Kerynitis, subduing her and binding her legs without even the briefest moment to spare. Half of Herakles’ political coup was now complete.

Part of the bargain Herakles made with Ártemis included him promising that Kerynitis would not be harmed, and that Herakles would return her to Ártemis immediately after confirming the labor’s completion with Eurytheus and Hera. However, when Herakles returned, Eurytheus demanded the hind for his own, stating he wanted her as a centerpiece for his menagerie.

Here, again, Herakles’ cunning shined through. He agreed to give Eurytheus the hind–even at the risk of death from Ártemis–only if Eurytheus agreed to come and take her for himself. Eurytheus agreed, and Herakles, with a glimmer in his eye much like the glint of Kerynitis’ golden antlers, let her go a split second before Eurytheus could take her. Like a shot, Kerynitis was gone: mere dust and a memory remained. She ran without stopping all the way back to her mistress Ártemis.

Eurytheus was outraged! Herakles’ defense? None other than the famed ancient retort, “Too slow!” Livid, Eurytheus then demanded Herakles scale Mount Erymanthos and return with the Erymanthian Boar alive.

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