The Augean Stables

For his fifth labour, Heracles returned to the northeast Peloponnese, this time to cleanse the stables -or more properly the byres – of Augeas, the cattle-rancher king of Elis. Augeas possessed so many beasts, including five hundred stud bulls and a further twelve which guarded the herd, that the amount of excrement they produced was monumental. Try as he might (and he did not try hard), nothing Augeas did could get rid of the morass of dung clogging his fields and farmyard, whose stench polluted the air for miles around.

The Augean Stables Photo Gallery

Accompanied again by Iolaus, Heracles (wearing his trademark lionskin) had just agreed terms with Augeas – whereby the king would give him a tenth of his herd if Heracles achieved the task within a day – when one of the guard-bulls charged him, believing him to be a lion. Immediately, Heracles wrestled it to the ground, twisting its horns until it submitted.

Then the two men set to work. Rather than muck out the byres, they hit on a less unsavoury solution: they diverted two local rivers, the Alpheus and the Peneius, which flooded the fields and farmyard, removing all the ordure and rendering them clean and fragrant. However, Augeas called this cheating and, hearing that Heracles had been commanded to undertake the task by Eurystheus, he refused to make the agreed payment. So Heracles went to war, and it was to mark his victory over Augeas (some said) that he celebrated the first games at Olympia.

Heracles takes aim (here with a sling, not his usual bow) as the Stymphalian Birds rise flapping from the swamp. (Attic black figure vase, c. 560-530 BC.)

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