Herakles VI: The Stymphalian Birds

ἐπὶ δὲ τῷ ὕδατι τῷ ἐν Στυμφάλῳ κατέχει λόγος ὄρνιθάς ποτε ἀνδροφάγους ἐπ᾽ αὐτῷ τραφῆναι: ταύτας κατατοξεῦσαι τὰς ὄρνιθας Ἡρακλῆς λέγεται.

“Upon the water that was pouring down into Stymfalō, there were thought to be man-eating birds breeding; they say that Herakles shot them to death with arrows.”

Pausanias, A Description of Greece, 8.22.4 [translated by W. Grizzle]

Stymfalia_west_2006-1024x680
“The valley Stymphalos in the Peloponnese”. Image 2006, courtesy ulrichstill, creative commons, 2017.

In northwestern Arkadía, along the foot of Κυλλήνη (Mount Kylléne) is a valley called Στύμφαλος (Stymphalos). The valley floor is marshland full of reeds and rushes. There are so many frogs in Stymphalos that walking around causes waves of jumping amphibians to radiate from each footstep. Going deeper into the marsh, the valley floor gradually sinks forming a shallow lake.

The valley’s soil is rich and fertile. The Roman Emperor Hadrian built an aqueduct there in the A.D. 2nd century to drain part of the marsh while supplying running water to ancient Corinth some 30 miles to the northeast.

Standing in the marsh, or at the shore of the lake, affords a beautiful view of the water, the valley, and the forests of Mount Kylléne with its stunning, snowcapped summit. During the day, the only sounds you will hear, apart from the wind rippling the water and rustling the leaves, are those of birds. Wingbeats, squawks, and honks fill the air, especially in migration and breeding seasons. At night, a chorus of frogs fills the valley air.

———————

After the labor at Augeas’ stables, Eurystheus ordered Herakles to the valley at Stymphalos. His labor there was to find and defeat hellish, crane-like birds with razor-sharp beaks and a taste for human flesh. These birds were said to breed in the marsh and live in the forests up the side of Mount Kylléne.

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“Birds in Stymphalos”. Courtesy In-Korinthia. http://www.in-korinthia.com/en/lake-stymfalia/. Accessed 14 June 2017.

Once again on the paths of destiny, Herakles left Eurytheus’ palace in Mycenae and headed northwest. He passed again through Νεμέα (Nemea, site of the first labor) before continuing on to the tiny village of Ψάρι (Psári) and the pass of Σταυραετός (Stavraetos). After two days, he caught sight of Kylléne’s summit and before long entered the valley of Stymphalos.

Making camp near a small grove of golden trees, Herakles started a fire and sat down to rest. The fire crackled and sparked: the half-green olive wood letting out a loud POP every now and again. As night fell, a chorus of marsh frogs began to sing. Apart from the frogs and his thoughts, Herakles was alone.

Or so it seemed.

“Eurystheus was wrong,” Herakles thought to himself as the firelight danced through the limbs and leaves of the golden trees. “There’s nothing but peace and frogs in this valley.”

He leaned back against one of the trees, let out a contented sigh, and drifted off to sleep.

———————

“HELP! HELP! IN THE NAME OF ARTEMIS AND ARES, HELP ME!!”

Herakles jumped in alarm as a voice came from the marsh; bloody screams pierced the air like a thunderbolt.

He ran toward the voice, still screaming, “YE GODS! MY EYES! MY EYES!”

Herakles bolted through the reeds, as fast as his feet would take him.

When he arrived at the source, the screaming suddenly stopped. In the failing light of a forcibly discarded torch, he saw several hideous, feathered apparitions hovering over a bloody corpse: flying up and then dashing downward at what was left of the man, slicing away bits of flesh with each dive and then promptly swallowing them whole.

The monsters looked like birds, and they were all letting out unholy gurgling and groaning noises as they feasted viciously on their now grotesquely maimed victim. Blood covered their beaks and feathers, and, by the time they were finished, they were each completely soaked in blood. Herakles was paralyzed–partly with fear and partly dumbfounded–he could do nothing but stand and watch as these hellish creatures devoured what, moments ago, was a human being. When nothing but bones remained, the birds took them in their beaks and flew off, deep into the forest.

Herakles knew he had to do something, but this was, by far, the most terrifying foe he had yet encountered. There were so many birds—at least 40 he reckoned.

“The hydra had so many heads, each one lethal,” Herakles caught himself saying out loud, “but at least there was only ONE beast to overcome… 40 birds flew here; how many more are lurking up in those woods?”

Reasoning that the birds would likely not come back before tomorrow night, Herakles wandered back to the fire and sat down under the golden trees.

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“The Golden Grove in Stymphalos”. Image 2015, courtesy Katerina Dominou, creative commons 2017.

———————

He couldn’t sleep that night—not after the brutality he’d witnessed. He instead sat by the fire, staring into its dancing flames and looking occasionally down at his pack, thinking. He thought of all his travels thus far, and the hydra kept looming in his mind.

Just then a glint from his pack caught his eye in the firelight. The arrows! Dipped in hydra’s blood, surely they would fell the birds in one shot…

“How will I ever lure them out? I cannot simply wait to be ambushed; they’d skewer me for sure!” Herakles thought to himself.

With a plan hatching, he again stared into the fire: its flames dancing as if to a silent drum beat.

———————

It is unclear whether or not he was dreaming, but as the night grew longer and the moon crossed over to the other side of the lake, Herakles noticed something odd moving by the water’s edge just beyond the golden trees. He stood up and crept closer to get a better look. As he rubbed his eyes, he realized it looked like a person.

A feminine shape emerged, seemingly from nothingness, and a radiance grew brighter and brighter about her. As Herakles’ jaw dropped, he started to speak, when he was interrupted:

“Alkeidēs, son of Zeus—what brings you to my grove under the moonbeams this night?”, the woman asked in a reserved, stoic tone.

Herakles, bewildered, answered, “My lady, I have been sent here. My lord Eurystheus of Mycenae sent me here to find and destroy the devil birds breeding by the waters of this very lake.”

“Birds? Dwelling by waters poured out onto Stymphalos?” The woman asked.

“Yes, milady, these birds—they eat people. I saw them do so this very night.”

“I know.” The woman replied ambivalently.

Without another word, the woman stepped closer. As she neared, greater details of her person became visible. First her hair: long, beautiful and sparking with moonlight. Another step closer, and her flowing cloak came into view. With another step, a sleek and powerful bow appeared on her back along with a quiver of silver and golden arrows.

Herakles stood motionless: his breath quickening.

Slowly, the woman raised her head, and opened her eyes widely. It was as if the moon itself shined in her eyes. She was the most gorgeous woman Herakles had ever seen in his life.

“Alkeidēs…”, she said.

In an instant, what she would say next, Herakles suddenly already knew.

“I am Artemis.” The beautiful woman said. “The birds you seek belong to me.”

Herakles fell to his knees.

“Dearest goddess! How am I ever to atone for my sins? If, in their answer, I only should be made to sin anew?” Herakles pleaded, voice broken, and he broke into tears.

Herakles wept. He wept at Artemis’ feet. The wrenching scenes of past sins: rage, murder. They all played over and again in his mind.

As he wept by Artemis’ feet, Herakles faced his flaws–faced his pain–again for the first time. For the first time, he found himself dealing with his feelings. His regret. His self-loathing. His love, and his loss. Bitter tears washed the goddess’ feet as she stood still in the moonlight.

“I’m sorry! I’m so very sorry! Would that I could go back and change it all! Would that I could stay my hand and live with my family. I am so lonely. I am so scared!” Herakles shouted, tears streaming down his face.

“Forgive me! Have mercy, dear goddess!” He cried.

Hearing Herakles’ impassioned pleas, and searching his heart, Artemis saw that he was truly sorry. She saw that he truly wished to purge his heart and soul of the sin stain that dogged him.

Her heart was moved.

“Alkeidēs…”, she said, “I forgive you. But my forgiveness alone is not what you require to fully atone. You must be reconciled to Hera.”

“I will help you.”

Herakles looked up, and reached his hand toward Artemis’. “What must I do, milady?”, he asked.

Artemis took him by the hand and helped him to his feet.

“You must do what you came here to do”, she said. “I will allow you to kill one of my birds, but you must drive the others away from here, or else Eurystheus will think you have failed, and he will surely report that to Hera.”

Herakles looked puzzled and said, “How in the world could I ever drive these creatures from here—this place they themselves love and in which they raise their own families? And they are so fearsome—and so many!”

“With this”, Artemis answered. She reached down into the reeds and, plucking one, magically formed it into two small, hinged instruments. “Those who are truly great can work great wonders with tiny things. These are krotala. Wear them on your fingers, one in each hand, and clap them together, playing this song.”

Artemis raised her hands in the air and began to play. She moved gracefully, arms and hands gliding through the moonlight. Her cloak followed her with a flourish as she twirled in the night air. The rhythym of the krotala captivated Herakles. He felt like he could fly through the air while he watched her play.

As she concluded her song, she said, “If you play as I have, the birds will awaken and stir from their roosts. They will become so entranced and excited that they will fly toward the moon and never again return to Stymphalos.”

“Go up to the top of Stavraetos overlooking the valley to play the krotala; from there they will hear you, wherever they are.”

“As I promised, I will send one of my pets to you as a sacrifice”, Artemis assured. “Once the birds begin to fly toward the moon, three shall remain here in the golden grove. Come back down and shoot one of them with one of the hydra’s arrows. Speak peace to the other two and they will not harm you.”

Herakles nodded in acknowledgement, and as he opened his mouth to thank Artemis, she faded into a shimmer of moonlight.

———————

Herakles did as he was told. He climbed Stavraetos overlooking the valley, and he began to play.

For the first moments he heard nothing but his playing. Then, as though they were revelers awaking from a night party, the birds began to stir. Stir and squawk and flutter. Suddenly, the entire base of Mount Kylléne on the other side of the lake came alive with feathered forms. The doom birds took to the air, and Herakles’ heart jumped into this throat as they took flight: heading across the lake in his direction.

There were far more than 40 of them. Forty thousand would have been a better estimate. The black cloud of frightful foul drew nearer.

Herakles kept playing the song.

He could see their eyes now: black orbs gleaming in the moonlight. The iron-rich stench of blood filled the air as they closed in on him.

Still, Herakles kept playing.

Closer, almost to him, their beaks opened as if to swallow him—slice him limb from limb.

Still, Herakles, kept playing.

Facing his fear, facing his dread, he kept playing. The sickening sound of the birds deafened him. His heart was beating out of his chest–pounding in his ears!

Still, Herakles kept playing.

His eyes grew large as the birds closed the last inches. Thousands of them! The sound terrible; the sight unimaginable. At the very last moment, Herakles felt the world start spinning and his head grew light. Just then—

WHOOOOSHHHH!!

The wind from thousands of wings brought him to his senses. The birds had turned! Climbing hard and heading for the moon were thousands of death birds. A steady black stream of feathers, beaks and wings poured out of the valley and out of sight following the moonbeams.

Herakles fell flat on his back, exhausted and bewildered. The krotala vanished from his hands.

———————

After a few moments’ rest, Herakles gathered himself and made straight for the golden grove.

When he arrived, he found three of the doom birds perched in the tree above his now faltering campfire.

No sooner than he saw them, they screamed, throwing themselves from their gilded perch, making straight for Herakles’ heart.

Herakles drew his bow, nocked an arrow, and shot the first bird coming at him. It fell dead instantly.

The remaining two pulled up to regroup: “Eirēnē”, Herakles cried, “Peace!”

The two birds broke off their attack, swirled upward, and alighted upright on the ground: one on either side of the golden tree. Before his eyes, they became as beautiful maidens with birds’ feet, and they turned into statues of flawless white marble.

Herakles picked up the dead bird and put it into his pack. The frogs’ chorus filled the air, and Herakles set off for Mycenae.

Gustave_Moreau_-_Hercules_at_Lake_Stymphalos
GUSTAVE MOREAU, “Hercules at Lake Stymphalos”. Oil on canvas, c. 1875-80. Musée national Gustave Moreau, Paris.

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