Herakles V: The Augean Stables

The region of Élis in western Peloponnese. Mount Erymanthos is in the upper center, and Olympia appears just left of and below center (at the red pin). Google Maps.

“You’re going to need a shovel…”

Αὐγείας (Augeias, Augeas) was king of Ἆλις (Alis, Ēlis), the western-most kingdom on the Peloponnese. The summit of mighty Ερύμανθος (Erymanthos), setting of last week’s tale, marks a corner where the kingdoms of Ēlis, Αχαΐα (Achaïa, Achaea), and Αρκαδία (Arkadía, Arcadía) meet.

Map of the Ancient Kingdoms of the Peloponnese. Image courtesy Jkan997, used under Creative Commons license, 2017.

The ancient town of Ὀλυμπία (Olympia), home of the Ὀλυμπιάς (Olympiás, the Olympiad), the original Olympic games and the marvelous Temple of Ζεύς (Zeús), which enshrined in its sanctuary a wondrous, colossal statue of ivory and gold of the lord high-thunderer for over 800 years, is where Augeas made his home.

QUATREMÉRE DE QUINCY, “Zeus in Olympia”. Gold and ivory by Φειδίας that was enshrined at Olympia, appearing in de Quincy’s Sculptured Antique Art, 1815. Lithograph on vellum.

It was said that Augeas had some degree of divine parentage. Some say his father was a god: either the titan Ἥλιος (Hēlios), personification of the sun, or perhaps it was Ποτειδάων (Poteidáōn, Poseidon), god of the sea. Other sources say Poseidon was father to Augeas’ father Ἔλείος (Eleios) instead. The kingdom of Ēlis got its name through association with Hēlios or Eleios, one or the other: the mists of legend obscure the rest.

At any rate, Augeas was very wealthy and owned more livestock than anyone else in the Peloponnese. Among his stock were thousands of divine cattle, whose immortal health caused them to produce extraordinary amounts of dung.


Temple of Zeus at Olympia today. Image courtesy Elisa.rolle, used under Creative Commons license, 2017.

Either through lack of care or ignorance, Augeas’ stables had not been cleaned in over 30 years. Each night, the livestock were driven into the stables, and the resulting mess of excrement had piled up to astronomical proportions. The stench was rumored to waft up even unto the summit of Olympus and cause the gods themselves to wrinkle their noses in disgust.

It was to Augeas’ stables that Eurystheus ordered Herakles as he climbed out of that pithos, shaking. Shoveling manure was meant to humiliate the hero, who had up to now humiliated Eurystheus. “You’ll need a shovel,” Eurystheus advised as Herakles began to walk away.

“Oh, and one more thing,” he said, “I’m giving you only a single day to have those stables spotless.”

Herakles shook his head, and continued out the gate and down the road, never once turning back to acknowledge the still-shaking Eurystheus.


Herakles knew he was getting close when the stables’ miasma crawled into his nose and seemingly poked holes in his brain. To say it was awful would be a colossal understatement, yet awful it was, all the same.

“Ποταμός Λάδωνας” (Ládonas River – the largest tributary to Alfeiós). Image courtesy of “Go Peloponnese: Your Holiday Guide”. www.gopeloponnese.com. Accessed 10 June 2017.

The fetor nearly overcame Herakles, but he found refreshment when he came to the river Αλφειός (Alfeiós), where he dropped to his knees, washing his face and nostrils in the cool, cleansing water. He took some strips of cloth from his pack, soaked them in river water, and he tied one about his nose and mouth and continued onward.

With Alfeiós at his back, Herakles traveled though the night. He crossed the river Πηνειός (Pineiós) shortly after the fourth hour. At dawn, Herakles reached Augeas’ palace.

In audience with king Augeas, Herakles said nothing of Eurystheus’ command, and instead offered to clean the stables, saying,

“If I can clean the stables in a single day, you will give me one-tenth of your cattle.”

Augeas agreed, saying, “Take also my son Φυλεύς (Phyleús), so that he may watch you fail.”

Now, dear readers, you know already of Herakles’ cunning from the account of his conflict with the Hydra. You also have probably figured out that Herakles is about to outsmart not only Eurystheus, but Augeas, as well.

It turns out to be a very good thing that Phyleús tagged along with our hero.

Grabbing Phyleús by the wrist, Herakles boomed, “Come, we’ve no time to lose!”

Off to the stables they flew.

The stables were roofed completely, but they were open to the air on all sides, where a colonnade supported the roof’s edges. Around the stables was a stone wall about fourteen feet high that set off a stockyard of a few acres, as well as a walled route back toward the palace. Behind the stables was a high hill with a hollow in its side that led down to the back of the stockyard wall.

Herakles first tore two opposite holes in the wall. He then hurried up the hill beyond the stables. Phyleús, confused, scurried after him.

My beautiful picture
UNKNOWN, “Hercules cleans the Augean stables by rerouting the rivers Alpheus and Peneus”. Detail of The Twelve Labours Roman mosaic from Llíria (Valencia, Spain), ca. 201-250 B.C. Opus tessellatum, stone. Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid. Image 2006, courtesy Luis García, used under Creative Commons license, 2017.

When he reached the top of the Hill, Herakles began digging a massive trench from the top of the hollow. The sun rose high as he continued to dig, farther and farther away from the stables. Phyleús sat down on a stump to rest as he watched the hero, still digging, gradually move out of sight.

Shortly after noon, Phyleús heard the sound of rushing water. He ran toward the sound to find that Herakles had trenched all the way to the rivers Alfeiós and Pineiós and had joined their flow within his trench. The water was now making its way toward the stables!

With a deafening crash, the waters fell over the edge of the hill overlooking Augeas’ stockyard. The stables were flooded in an instant, and 30 years’ worth of manure washed away in a flash toward the sea.

Once the stables were clean, Herakles diverted the rivers back to their original courses with great boulders. Phyleús could hardly believe his eyes: Herakles had won the bet!

The two returned immediately to Augeas to report Herakles’ success. However, the king denied Herakles his prize of one-tenth of the cattle, and upon learning that Eurystheus had commanded Herakles to clean the stables anyway, Augeas denied ever having made such a bargain in the first place.

Herakles demanded a judge decide. With Phyleús’ testimony, the judge decided in Herakles’ favor, but before Augeas could be ordered to comply, he banished both the hero and his son from the country.

Phyleús went north into Achaea, while Herakles returned to Eurystheus in Myceneae. Eurystheus decreed that it was not Herakles, but the rivers that had done the work in Ēlis, and, therefore, the labor did not count.

Quick to think of another task to lay before Herakles, Eurystheus sent him to Arcadia to find and defeat the man-eating birds said to roost at Lake Stymphalia.

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