Herakles IV: The Erymanthian Boar

Labor IV - Erymanthos Snow Capped
Mount Erymanthos: West Central Peloponnese, yo.

Ah, now ‘tis time for labor number four: Herakles’ ordeal wi’ the Erymanthian Boar!

Ὁ Ἐρυμάνθιος κάπρος (o Erymánthios kápros), “the boar of Erymanthia”, which the Romans later named Erymanthius, prowled the mountains of the Peloponnese.

Snow-capped Ερύμανθος (Erymanthos) is a formidable mountain range, whose tallest peak rises steeply from the valley floor over 2,220 meters. Erymanthos marks the ancient border between Αχαΐα (Achaea) and Ηλεία (Ileia) in the western part of the Peloponnese.

It was upon the slopes of Erymanthos, in the midst of a dreadful snowstorm, that Λυκάων (Lycaon), infamous ancient king of Αρκαδία (Arcadia), and prototypical werewolf, first encountered a great and terrible boar. Lycaon named the boar Erymanthos, after the mountain because both proved equally formidable to him that day.

Long after Lycaon’s time (and, if you will recall from last week, just after Kerynitis made her great escape), Eurystheus furiously demanded Herakles seek out and capture the dread boar Erymanthos. It would prove to be a journey both long and most bizarre.

On the long walk through Arcadia, and as he neared the foothills of Erymanthos, Herakles realized that he was nearing the vicinity of an old friend’s home. Φολος (Pholus) was the man’s name—though I should use the term “man” loosely, for he was no man at all, at least not completely. Pholus was a centaur. A kind and most hospitable chap, too, for, once he was Herakles coming, he rushed to him and invited him inside for supper.

JOHN LA FARGE, “Centauress”, ca. 1887. Oil on canvas, 42” X 35.2”. Brooklyn Museum.

As the two old friends dined, Herakles asked Pholus for some wine. Pholus replied that he had but one amphora of wine, but that it was sacred wine: a gift from Διόνυσος (Dionysos, the god of wine, grapes, and the vine) himself to all the centaurs of Erymanthos. Herakles, being charming, and Pholus being happy to see his old friend ultimately led to the amphora being opened.

The smell was absolutely divine! It wafted immediately from the amphora, temping the nose and the tongue in a way that only Dionysos’ wine could achieve. Soon, as the scent of the divine wine exited Pholus’ cave, Mt. Erymanthos came alive with crackling rocks, shuffling, and hoofbeats as the other centaurs began to stir and come down from the cliffs, attracted by the wine’s aroma.

As Herakles sat, continuing his meal while Pholus began to pour the wine, something caught his eye. As he turned, the entrance to the cave was literally filled with centaurs!


At this juncture, I feel compelled to share with you two important facts about life in legendary ancient Hellas, or Greece if you prefer that name (the locals don’t).

Dionysos Amphora
EXEKIAS (potter), TOWRY WHYTE PAINTER, “Dionysos, a silenus and a maenad”, Attic black-figure neck-amphora, ca. 540–530 BC. Terra cotta. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

First, you must understand that centaurs, having the body of both a horse and a human, are trapped between two natures. They are both wild and civil in the same mind and body. One centaur is a wise teacher, and we will meet him shortly, but for the most part, a centaur’s intelligence is always hampered by the occasional re-emergence of its wild side, and so, they do little else but reside in caves—except for that one I mentioned earlier.

Second, ancient wine was diluted with water before being drunk. There are a number of reasons for this practice, but rather than weigh the story down with them all, let’s just return to the scene.


As Herakles sat, continuing his meal while Pholus began to pour the wine, something caught his eye. As he turned, the entrance to the cave was literally filled with centaurs!

In a moment, they were all inside, demanding their share of the wine. Pholus obliged them, but they, being centaurs and not being worldly folk, did not know that wine must be mixed with water first. They gulped it all down, becoming quite drunk. The booze brought their wild sides out, and they attacked Herakles, Pholus, and each other.

Reacting quickly, Herakles grabbed his bow and arrows—their heads still smeared with hydra’s blood. He began to fire into the crowd of centaurs! After a few of the centaurs fell dead, the rest ran from Pholus’ cave, up the slopes of Erymanthos, all the way to the final cave, farthest up the slopes and nearest the summit. The last cave belonged to Χείρων (Kheiron/Cheiron, Chiron).

Herakles asked his friend, “Who lives in that farthest cave, to which they all now run?”

“Kheiron,” said Pholus, “the hand.”

“The hand?” Herakles asked, “The hand of what?”

“Of wisdom: of many things. Son of Kronos and Philyra, the rest of us are but mere crude copies.” Pholus admitted.

At that, Herakles fell silent, pondering the meaning of his friend’s words.

“Was this Kheiron really a son of a Titan?”

“How very old he must be!”

“Is there anything of this mountain he would not know?”

All these thoughts Herakles ran through Herakles’ mind as he turned to his friend, Pholus, bad him farewell, and started up the steep, icy, and now dark slopes of Erymanthos.

As the Moon rose high into the sky, and the winds grew cold and bitter, Herakles was about halfway to Kheiron’s cave, when he heard a deafening, unearthly noise. It was best described as a booming squeal, but with the volume of a mighty roar, and twice the reverberation or either. Again it boomed, echoing through the mountain’s many crenulated walls and hollows.

Herakles knew the god-awful sound must have originated in the throat of his quarry: the boar of Erymanthos! That sound meant he smelt blood—the centaurs’ blood! He was coming to wallow in it and feast upon the flesh of whatever poor souls he found nearby.

The boar roared again. It was making for Pholus’ cave, for sure! Caught halfway between Pholus’ and Kheiron’s caves, Herakles had no idea what to do. In a panic, he yelled out to Kheiron. He figured Kheiron hearing him would be a long shot, but, if nothing else, the boar might hear his calls and decide to come for Herakles instead of his dear friend.

UNKNOWN, “Kheiron Instructs Young Achilles”, a mosaic found on the interior wall of a house in Herculaneum, ca. A.D. 79. Stone, ceramic, and shell, 125 cm X 127 cm. National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy.

Herakles yelled once: nothing. He yelled again: no response. A third time, Herakles cried out the name of Kheiron, and, lo, from the mouth of the summit cave emerged the most majestic centaur Herakles had ever seen—more regal than he ever could have imagined a centaur (or any creature) to be.

“Who calls my name?” Kheiron asked, his voice bellowing down, into the craggy depths.

“It is I, Herakles, son of Zeus and Alcmene. I have come to his mountain to—”

Kheiron cut him off: “I know why you are here, Alkeidēs, and I know your friend is in trouble. Go to the ledge overlooking Pholus’ cave. Look down, and between where you stand and your friend’s home, high upon the mountain wall, you will see a snow drift, sparkling in the moonlight. Pick up a stone, throw it hard at the Moon’s radiance. Eurystheus’ bane shall be delivered, and Pholus shall dance another day.”

At that, Kheiron vanished into the mountain mists.

Herakles went to the ledge. There was the snowdrift. The moonlight reflected brightly in each tiny crystal. It was dazzling: beautiful. Herakles picked up a rock and readied himself. When he heard the boar’s hooves coming ‘round the last bend…

Herakles let the rock fly…

“Ka-CHUNK!” Right on target!

The snow, what looked like tons of it, came crashing down right onto the boar as he rounded the last crook in the path before Pholus’ cave. Herakles knew he wouldn’t have long before the boar got his bearings and dug himself out of the snow drift, so down he ran.

Herakles arrived just in time. Pholus, seeing his friend rushing down the mountain, threw out some rope to Herakles as he arrived at the thrashing, monstrous boar. He “hog” tied it as quickly as he could, and bound it tightly.

Pholus, grateful, and knowing that Herakles must waste no time in returning with his prize, thanked his friend for saving his life, and bade him farewell.

STYLE of THE ANTIMENES PAINTER, “Herakles returns with the Erymanthian boar, taunting King Eurystheus, who has retreated to his pithos.” Side A of an Attic black-figure amphora, ca. 510 BC. Terra cotta. Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich.

Many days later, Herakles, carrying the boar on his back the whole way, finally arrived back at Eurystheus’ estate. Eurystheus never expected Herakles to come back with the boar, and the boar was so fearsome that Eurystheus ran, screaming and hid inside of a large jar (called a pithos). He begged and pleaded with Herakles to get rid of it. Enjoying this display, Herakles decided to taunt Eurystheus as few times before he finally threw the boar into the sea.

It took three days for Eurystheus to finally come out of that pithos. He was still shaking when he ordered Herakles next to Augeas. “You’ll need a shovel,” Eurystheus said as Herakles turned and started to walk away. Truer words have yet to be spoken under the sun.

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