Tiryns & the Labours of Heracles

Heracles himself roused ancient Tiryns to arms. The city was not without brave men nor unworthy of her great son’s fame, but fallen on harsh times, without the strength that wealth can bring. Few live in her empty fields, but they still point out the citadel, built from the sweat of the Cyclopes’ brow. Yet still Tiryns can raise a force of three hundred gallant men. Untrained for war they may be, and lacking javelin-thongs or gleaming swords, but on their heads and shoulders they drape lion skins, as befits their ancestry; and in their hands they wield a pine staff, while their quivers bristle with innumerable arrows. They sing the battle hymn of Heracles, who purged the world of monsters; and far away on wooded Oeta, the god listens to their words.

Statius, Thebaid, 4.145f.

Beside the straight and busy road from Argos east to Nafplio, the fortress walls of Tiryns hunker squat and grey. At first glance, the site is far from prepossessing. Contained behind a metal fence in flatland strewn with cans and plastic bags, it is flanked to the south by the local prison and, across the road, by a string of modern homes. It can all seem rather unlovely, and the roar of traffic simply compounds the disappointment.

But enter the site; walk down along the walls, the massive masonry rough and warm; climb up the ancient ramp, and through the ruined remnants of the gate; stand on the Upper Citadel; look out beyond the citrus orchards to the mountains ranging east to Nafplio, its fortress proud above the pretty town; look back to Argos with its castle perched atop Larissa Hill; look to the sea, and to the mountains of Arcadia, pale contours in the bluing haze. Half close your eyes and see the coastline closer; see Bronze Age ships at anchor jostling by the quay; half hear the creak of timber and the slap of water on the hulls, the shouts of stevedores, the quick commands, the snatch of a sea shanty learned in far-off Syrian or Cretan ports; think of the legends clinging to this place and think of Heracles. Then Tiryns comes alive. For this once-proud citadel was not only one of the most important hubs of Mycenaean trading, it was the epicentre of some of the most exuberant of all Greek myths.

Tiryns & the Labours of Heracles Photo Gallery

Tiryns & the Coming of Heracles

Acrisius, king of Argos, had a twin brother, Proetus, with whom he quarrelled even in the womb. As adults, the two were meant to rule in alternate years, but Acrisius refused to relinquish the throne. So Proetus, aggrieved, fled east to Lycia, where he married the king’s daughter, Anteia (also called Stheneboea).

With the backing of his powerful father-in-law, the Lycian army and seven Cyclopes, Proetus returned to Argos, where he fought Acrisius for the throne. There was no clear victor, so the brothers split the kingdom Acrisius kept Argos, while Proetus took the north and east, including the port of Tiryns. Here he put the Cyclopes to work, hewing stone and heaving it into position to form impregnable defences. Today their handiwork can still be admired: with stones weighing up to nearly 14 tons, walls over 750 m (800 yd) in circumference and in places 8 m (25 ft) thick still rise to nearly 10 m (32 ft), half their original height.

Four generations later, Tiryns was the fiefdom of one of Perseus’ grandsons, the cowardly Eurystheus. He was the polar opposite of his distant cousin, Heracles. While Heracles performed deeds of daring in his native Thebes, Eurystheus achieved nothing. So it was a devastating slight when, to atone for killing his wife and children (in a fit madness sent by Hera, as described), Heracles was sentenced to serve Eurystheus for ten years, performing whatever tasks the king might set him.

Even now the gods (with the exception of Hera) could not stop loving Heracles. To assist him in the approaching danger they gave him armour and weaponry, reflecting their own special attributes. Thus Poseidon provided a team of horses, Apollo a bow, Hermes a sword, Hephaestus a well-forged breastplate and Athene a woven robe, while his father Zeus gave a shield, intricately embossed with scenes from earlier mythology, from which projected twelve snakes’ heads, which snapped their jaws as he advanced to battle. So, Heracles presented himself in Tiryns and bowed to his cousin’s command.

Early accounts differed as to the number and identity of the ‘Labours of Heracles’, but by Hellenistic times there was an accepted canon of twelve. These took the hero increasingly further from Tiryns into ever more fantastical and dangerous lands.

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