The Girdle of Hippolyte

An enormous monster appeared through the waves and began its ascension towards Hercules and Hesione. Facing imminent death, the hero had to decide: should he give his life to protect hers, or should he let the princess meet her fate?

"A certain coven of nymphs that dwell at the edge of the world, the daughters of Nyx called ‘‘the Hesperides’’, are guarding a tree that is said to bear golden apples. Your task is to find them and bring those precious apples back to me." Eurystheus had spoken and Hercules set off for his next Labor. This time the hero had to travel to Africa, to the Atlas Mountains, where the nymph sisters were tending to the sacred tree.

Before beginning his journey to the south, Hercules first travelled to Caucasus where the Titan Prometheus was being held captive chained on a rock, his torture never ending. An eagle would attack him and feed on his liver every day, but during the night his immortal body regenerated the damaged liver. Hercules reached him in hopes of learning more about the nature of his task, having heard about the unmistakeable power of prediction the tortured titan possessed. The hero waited patiently until the eagle appeared on the sky and approached the steep rock where Prometheus was being held. He stretched his bow, and let one of his poisoned arrows pierce the wicked animal’s body.

Only then he went close to Prometheus and using his fabled strength broke the chains that were holding him. The titan, grateful and relieved, felt obliged to help the hero and warn him of the perils to come. He advised Hercules that he should let Atlas, the titan who holds the sky, fetch the golden apples for him, for the powerful guardian of the tree of the Hesperides was a divine dragon called Ladon. The dragon’s power was not to be challenged by anyone with mortal blood, for he would perish even if he were a son of Zeus.

Hercules thanked the titan and continued on his way. On his way to Africa, Hercules had to face many dangers and confront powerful tyrants who tried to halt his endeavour. When he set foot on Libya, Hercules faced Antaeus, the mighty son of Poseidon who was gifted with immortality as long as he had contact with the land. He challenged Hercules to a fight and the hero sent him crushing to the ground many times, only to see him re-emerge even stronger. When the son of Zeus noticed his opponent's power, he realized that he had to improvise. After seizing his opponent with a powerful grip, he held him high in the air and crushed him between his mighty arms. He then let him lie on the ground, lifeless and incapable of threatening the country anymore.

Eventually, the hero arrived on the top of the Atlas Mountains and located the sacred garden of the Hesperides. The nymphs seemed oblivious to his presence as they roamed the mountaintop. Hercules approached Atlas, the titan lord of those mountains. "Hero, I do know that you have come seeking the golden apples. Know that these apples can never leave their home, for a divine string returns them back to the tree where they belong. I can let you borrow them, though, on one condition: your power and determination are evident and your deeds can speak for themselves - so you can become my successor as lord of these mountains.’’ ‘‘And what about the mighty dragon that guards the tree?’’ the hero inquired. ‘‘That offspring of Ceto, Ladon, knows me well and is not bothered by my presence."

Hercules quickly accepted the offer, certain that there was no other way, but he tried to think of a way to trick the titan. He sat on the throne while Atlas stood up and left to retrieve the apples. Suddenly, the hero felt an enormous pressure on his shoulders unlike anything he had ever experienced before, almost crushing him against the throne. Now he knew why the priests insisted that ‘‘Atlas is holding the burden of the skies on his shoulders’’. When Atlas came back with the apples, Hercules asked him if he might take his place for a moment, so that he could wear the lion pelt which he had removed when he sat on the throne. The titan accepted gullibly, unaware of the hero’s plot. Hercules then wore the lion-skin again, took the golden apples and left the site quickly, leaving Atlas pinned on his throne again.

The hero carried the apples carefully throughout the journey home and brought them back to Eurystheus. The King's eyes could barely stand the glimmering of the golden apples. "These are not to be kept by mortals... you may get rid of them now!" the King ordered while setting his sight away from the shiny fruits.

Hercules then carried the apples to the temple of Athena and kneeled before the goddess's statue. He prayed and asked for guidance. What was he to do with these apples? ‘‘This is the fruit of your Labors so far, Hercules; you are discovering your divine nature through your triumphs and you are realizing your mortal flaws through your mistakes and mishaps. Unite the lower and the higher, and do not become prey of temptation and convenience.’’ The hero thanked the goddess and as he rose on his feet again, he noticed that his bag was lighter - the apples were gone. The goddess had taken them back to their tree.