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The Shield of Herakles


[lines 1-27] Or like her who left home and country and came to Thebes, following warlike Amphitryon,—even Alkmene, the daughter of Elektyron, gatherer of the people. She surpassed the tribe of womankind in beauty and in height; and in wisdom none vied with her of those whom mortal women bare of union with mortal men. Her face and her dark eyes wafted such charm as comes from golden Aphrodite. And she so honored her husband in her heart as none of womankind did before her. Verily he had slain her noble father violently when he was angry about oxen; so he left his own country and came to Thebes and was suppliant to the shield-carrying men of Kadmos. There he dwelt with his modest wife without the joys of love, nor might he go in unto the neat-ankled daughter of Elektyron until he had avenged the death of his wife's great-hearted brothers and utterly burned with blazing fire the villages of the heroes, the Taphians and Teleboans; for this thing was laid upon him, and the gods were witnesses to it. And he feared their anger, and hastened to perform the great task to which Zeus had bound him. With him went the horse-driving Boeotians, breathing above their shields, and the Lokrians who fight hand to hand, and the gallant Phokians eager for war and battle. And the noble son of Alkaeos led them, rejoicing in his host.

[lines 27-55] But the father of men and gods was forming another scheme in his heart, to beget one to defend against destruction gods and men who eat bread. So he arose from Olympos by night pondering guile in the deep of his heart, and yearned for the love of the well-girded woman. Quickly he came to Typhaonium, and from there again wise Zeus went on and trod the highest peak of Phikiom [near Thebes]; there he sat and planned marvelous things in his heart. So in one night Zeus shared the bed and love of the neat-ankled daughter of Elektyron and fulfilled his desire; and in the same night Amphitryon, gatherer of the people, the glorious hero, came to his house when he had ended his great task. He hastened not to go to his bondmen and shepherds afield, but first went in unto his wife; such desire took hold on the shepherd of the people. And as a man who has escaped joyfully from misery, whether of sore disease or cruel bondage, so then did Amphitryon, when he had wound up all his heavy task, come glad and welcome to his home. And all night long he lay with his modest wife, delighting in the gifts of golden Aphrodite. And she, being subject in love to a god and to a man exceeding goodly, brought forth twin sons in seven-gated Thebe. Though they were brothers, these were not of one spirit; for one was weaker but the other a far better man, one terrible and strong, the mighty Herakles. Him she bare through the embrace of the son of Kronos lord of dark clouds and the other, Iphikles, of Amphitryon the spear-wielder—offspring distinct, this one of union with a mortal man, but that other of union with Zeus, leader of all the gods.

[lines 57-77] And he slew Kyknos, the gallant son of Ares. For he found him in the close of far-shooting Apollon, him and his father Ares, never sated with war. Their armor shone like a flame of blazing fire as they two stood in their car; their swift horses struck the earth and pawed it with their hoofs, and the dust rose like smoke about them, pounded by the chariot wheels and the horses' hoofs, while the well-made chariot and its rails rattled around them as the horses plunged. And blameless Kyknos was glad, for he looked to slay the warlike son of Zeus and his charioteer with the sword, and to strip off their splendid armor. But Phoibos Apollon would not listen to his vaunts, for he himself had stirred up mighty Herakles against him. And all the grove and altar of Pagasaean Apollon flamed because of the dread god and because of his arms; for his eyes flashed as with fire. What mortal men would have dared to meet him face to face save Herakles and glorious Iolaos? For great was their strength and unconquerable were the arms that grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs. Then Herakles spoke to his charioteer strong Iolaos:

[lines 78-94] "O hero Iolaos, best beloved of all men, truly Amphitryon sinned deeply against the blessed gods who dwell on Olympos when he came to sweet-crowned Thebe and left Tiryns, the well-built citadel, because he slew Elektyron for the sake of his wide-browned oxen. Then he came to Kreon and long-robed Eniocha, who received him kindly and gave him all fitting things, as is due to suppliants, and honored him in their hearts even more. And he lived joyfully with his wife the neat-ankled daughter of Elektyron; and presently, while the years rolled on, we were born, unlike in body as in mind, even your father and I. From him Zeus took away sense, so that he left his home and his parents and went to do honor to the wicked Eurystheus—unhappy man! Deeply indeed did he grieve afterwards in bearing the burden of his own mad folly; but that cannot be taken back. But on me fate laid heavy tasks.

[lines 95-101] "Yet, come, friend, quickly take the red-dyed reins of the swift horses and raise high courage in your heart and guide the swift chariot and strong fleet-footed horses straight on. Have no secret fear at the noise of man-slaying Ares who now rages shouting about the holy grove of Phoibos Apollon, the lord who shoots form afar. Surely, strong though he be, he shall have enough of war."

[lines 102-114] And blameless Iolaos answered him again: "Good friend, truly the father of men and gods greatly honors your head and the bull-like Earth-Shaker [Poseidon] also, who keeps Thebe's veil of walls and guards the city,—so great and strong is this fellow they bring into your hands that you may win great glory. But come, put on your arms of war that with all speed we may bring the car of Ares and our own together and fight; for he shall not frighten the dauntless son of Zeus, nor yet the son of Iphiklos; rather, I think he will flee before the two sons of blameless Alkides who are near him and eager to raise the war cry for battle; for this they love better than a feast."

[lines 115-117] So he said. And mighty Herakles was glad in heart and smiled, for the other's words pleased him well, and he answered him with winged words:

[lines 118-121] "O hero Iolaos, heaven-sprung, now is rough battle hard at hand. But, as you have shown your skill at other times, so now also wheel the great black-maned horse Arion about every way, and help me as you may be able."

[lines 122-138] So he said, and put upon his legs greaves of shining bronze, the splendid gift of Hephaistos. Next he fastened about his breast a fine golden breast-plate, curiously wrought, which Pallas Athene the daughter of Zeus had given him when first he was about to set out upon his grievous labors. Over his shoulders the fierce warrior put the steel that saves men from doom, and across his breast he slung behind him a hollow quiver. Within it were many chilling arrows, dealers of death which makes speech forgotten; in front they had death, and trickled with tears; their shafts were smooth and very long; and their butts were covered with feathers of a brown eagle. And he took his strong spear, pointed with shining bronze, and on his valiant head set a well-made helm of adamant, cunningly wrought, which fitted closely on the temples; and that guarded the head of god-like Herakles.

[lines 139-153] In his hands he took his shield, all glittering; no one ever broke it with a blow or crushed it. And a wonder it was to see; for its whole orb was shimmering with enamel and white ivory and electrum, and it glowed with shining gold; and there were zones of kyanos* drawn upon it. In the center was Phobos [Panic] worked in adamant, unspeakable, staring backwards with eyes that glowed with fire. His mouth was full of teeth in a white row, fearful and daunting, and upon his grim brow hovered frightful Eris [Discord or Strife] who arrays the throng of men; pitiless she, for she took away the mind and senses of poor wretches who made war against the son of Zeus. Their souls passed beneath the earth and went down into the house of Hades; but their bones, when the skin is rotted about them, crumble away on the dark earth under parching Sirius.

[* Kyanos was a glass-paste of deep blue color; the 'zones' were concentric bands in which were the scenes described by the poet. The figure of Phobos [Panic] [line 44] occupied the center of the shield, and Okeanos [Ocean] [line 314] enclosed the whole.]

[lines 154-160] Upon the shield Proioxis [Pursuit] and Palioxis [Flight] were wrought, and Omados [Tumult], and Phobos [Panic], and Androktasiai [Slaughter]. Eris [Strife] also, and Kydoimos [Uproar] were hurrying about, and deadly Moira [Fate] was there holding one man newly wounded, and another unwounded; and one, who was dead, she was dragging by the feet through the tumult. She had on her shoulders a garment red with the blood of men, and terribly she glared and gnashed her teeth.

[lines 160-167] And there were heads of snakes unspeakably frightful, twelve of them; and they used to frighten the tribes of men on earth whosoever made war against the son of Zeus; for they would clash their teeth when Amphitryon's son was fighting; and brightly shone these wonderful works. And it was as though there were spots upon the frightful snakes; and their backs were dark blue and their jaws were black.

[lines 168-177] Also there were upon the shield droves of boars and lions who glared at each other, being furious and eager; the rows of them moved on together, and neither side trembled but both bristled up their manes. For already a great lion lay between them and two boars, one on either side, bereft of life, and their dark blood was dripping down upon the ground; they lay dead with necks outstretched beneath the grim lions. And both sides were roused still more to fight because they were angry, the fierce boars and the bright-eyed lions.

[lines 178-190] And there was the strife of the Lapith spearmen gathered round the Prince Kaineus and Dryas and Peirithoos, with Hopleos, Exadios, Phalereos, and Prolochos, Mopsos the son of Ampyke of Titaresia, a scion of Ares, and Theseus, the son of Aigeus, like unto the deathless gods. These were of silver, and had armor of gold upon their bodies. And the Centaurs were gathered against them on the other side with Petraeus and Asbolos the diviner, Arktos, and Oureos, and black-haired Mimas, and the two sons of Peukeos, Perimedes and Dryalus; these were of silver, and they had pine trees of gold in their hands, and they were rushing together as though they were alive and striking at one another hand to hand with spears and with pines.

[lines 191-196] And on the shield stood the fleet-footed horses of grim Ares made gold, and deadly Ares the spoil-winner himself. He held a spear in his hands and was urging on the footmen; he was red with blood as if he were slaying living men, and he stood in his chariot. Beside him stood Phobos [Panic] and Palioxis [Flight], eager to plunge amidst the fighting men.

[lines 197-200] There, too, was the daughter of Zeus, Tritogeneia [Athene] who drives the spoil. She was like as if she would array a battle, with a spear in her hand, and a golden helmet, and the aegis about her shoulders. And she was going towards the awful strife.

[lines 201-206] And there was the holy company of the deathless gods; and in the midst the son of Zeus and Leto [Apollon] played sweetly on a golden lyre. There also was the abode of the gods, pure Olympos, and their assembly, and infinite riches were spread around in the gathering, the Muses of Pieria were beginning a song like clear-voiced singers.

[lines 207-215] And on the shield was a harbor with a safe haven from the irresistible sea, made of refined tin wrought in a circle, and it seemed to heave with waves. In the middle of it were many dolphins rushing this way and that, fishing; and they seemed to be swimming. Two dolphins of silver were spouting and devouring the mute fishes. And beneath them fishes or bronze were trembling. And on the shore sat a fisherman watching; in his hands he held a casting net for fish, and seemed as if about to cast it forth.

[lines 216-237] There, too, was the son of rich-haired Danae, the horseman Perseus; his feet did not touch the shield and yet were not far from it—very marvelous to remark, since he was not supported anywhere; for so did the famous Lame One [Hephaistos] fashion him of gold with his hands. On his feet he had winged sandals, and his black-sheathed sword was slung across his shoulders by a cross-belt of bronze. He was flying swift as thought. The head of a dreadful monster, the Gorgon [Medusa], covered the broad of his back, and a bag of silver—a marvel to see—contained it; and from the bag bright tassels of gold hung down. Upon the head of the hero lay the dread Cap of Hades which had the awful gloom of night. Perseus himself, the son of Danae, was at full stretch, like one who hurries and shudders with horror. And after him rushed the Gorgons [Sthenno and Euryale], unapproachable and unspeakable, longing to seize him; as they trod upon the pale adamant, the shield rang sharp and clear with a loud clanging. Two serpents hung down at their girdles with heads curved forward; their tongues were flickering, and their teeth gnashing with fury, and their eyes glaring fiercely. And upon the awful heads of the Gorgons great Phobos [Panic] was quaking.

[lines 237-270] And beyond these there were men fighting in warlike harness, some defending their own town and parents from destruction, and others eager to sack it; many lay dead, but the greater number still strove and fought. The women on well-built towers of bronze were crying shrilly and tearing their cheeks like living beings—the work of famous Hephaistos. And the men who were elders and on whom age had laid hold were all together outside the gates, and were holding up their hands to the blessed gods, fearing for their own sons. But these again were engaged in battle; and behind them the dusky Fates, gnashing their white fangs, lowering, grim, bloody, and unapproachable, struggled for those who were falling, for they all were longing to drink dark blood. So soon as they caught a man overthrown or falling newly wounded, one of them would clasp her great claws about him, and his soul would go down to Hades to chilly Tartaros [the Pit]. And when they had satisfied their souls with human blood, they would cast that one behind them, and rush back again into the tumult and the fray. Klotho and Lachesis were over them and Atropos less tall than they, a goddess of no great frame, yet superior to the others and the eldest of them. And they all made a fierce fight over one poor wretch, glaring evilly at one another with furious eyes and fighting equally with claws and hands. By them stood Achlys [Darkness of Death], mournful and fearful, pale, shriveled, shrunk with hunger, swollen-kneed. Long nails tipped her hands, and she dribbled at the nose, and from her cheeks blood dripped down to the ground. She stood leering hideously, and much dust sodden with tears lay upon her shoulders.

[lines 270-285] Next, there was a city of men with goodly towers; and seven gates of gold, fitted to the lintels, guarded it. The men were making merry with festivities and dances; some were bringing home a bride to her husband on a well-wheeled car, while the bridal-song swelled high, and the glow of blazing torches held by handmaidens rolled in waves afar. And these maidens went before, delighting in the festival; and after them came frolicsome choirs, the youths singing soft-mouthed to the sound of shrill pipes, while the echo was shivered around them, and the girls led on the lovely dance to the sound of lyres. Then again on the other side was a rout of young men reveling, with flutes playing; some frolicking with dance and song, and others were going forward in time with a flute player and laughing. The whole town was filled with mirth and dance and festivity.

[lines 285-304] Others again were mounted on horseback and galloping before the town. And there were plowmen breaking up the good soul, clothed in tunics girt up. Also there was a wide corn-land and some men were reaping with sharp hooks the stalks that bent with the weight of the cars—as if they were reaping Demeter's grain; others were binding the sheaves with bands and were spreading the threshing floor. And some held reaping hooks and were gathering the vintage, while others were taking from the reapers into baskets white and black clusters from the long rows of vines that were heavy with leaves and tendrils of silver. Others again were gathering them into baskets. Beside them was a row of vines in gold, the splendid work of cunning Hephaistos; it had shivering leaves and stakes of silver and was laden with grapes that turned black. And there were men treading out the grapes and others drawing off liquor. Also there were men boxing and wrestling, and huntsmen chasing swift hares with a leash of sharp-toothed dogs before them, they eager to catch the hares, and the hares eager to escape.

[lines 305-313] Next to them were horsemen hard set, and they contended and labored for a prize. The charioteers standing on their well-woven cars, urged on their swift horses with loose rein; the jointed cars flew along clattering and the naves of the wheels shrieked loudly. So they were engaged in an unending toil, and the end with victory came never to them, and the contest was ever unwon. And there was set out for them within the course a great tripod of gold, the splendid work of cunning Hephaistos.

[lines 314-317] And round the rim Okeanos [Ocean] was flowing, with a full stream as it seemed, and enclosed all the cunning work of the shield. Over it swans were soaring and calling loudly, and many others were swimming upon the surface of the water; and near them were shoals of fish.

[lines 318-326] A wonderful thing the great strong shield was to see—even for Zeus the loud-thunderer, by whose will Hephaistos made it and fitted it with his hands. This shield the valiant son of Zeus wielded masterly, and leaped upon his horse-chariot like the lightning of his father Zeus who holds the aegis, moving lithely. And his charioteer, strong Iolaos, standing upon the car, guided the curved chariot.

[lines 327-337] Then the goddess grey-eyed Athene came near them and spoke winged words, encouraging them: "Hail, offspring of far-famed Lynkeus! Even now Zeus who reigns over the blessed gods gives you power to slay Kyknos and to strip off his splendid armor. Yet I will tell you something besides, mightiest of the people. When you have robbed Kyknos of sweet life, then leave him there and his armor also, and you yourself watch man-slaying Ares narrowly as he attacks, and wherever you shall see him uncovered below his cunningly-wrought shield, there wound him with your sharp spear. Then draw back; for it is not ordained that you should take his horses or his splendid armor."

[lines 338-349] So said the bright-eyed goddess and swiftly got up into the car with victory and renown in her hands. Then heaven-nurtured Iolaos called terribly to the horses, and at his cry they swiftly whirled the fleet chariot along, raising dust from the plain; for the goddess bright-eyed Athene put mettle into them by shaking her aegis. And the earth groaned all round them.

And they, horse-taming Kyknos and Ares, insatiable in war, came on together like fire or whirlwind. Then their horses neighed shrilly, face to face; and the echo was shivered all round them. And mighty Herakles spoke first and said to that other:

[lines 350-367] "Kyknos, good sir! Why, pray, do you set your swift horses at us, men who are tried in labor and pain? Nay, guide your fleet car aside and yield and go out of the path. It is to Trachis I am driving on, to Keyx the king, who is the first in Trachis for power and for honor, and that you yourself know well, for you have his daughter dark-eyed Themistinoe to wife. Fool! For Ares shall not deliver you from the end of death, if we two meet together in battle. Another time before this I declare he has made trial of my spear, when he defended sandy Pylos and stood against me, fiercely longing for fight. Three times he was stricken by my spear and dashed to earth, and his shield was pierced; but the fourth time I struck his thigh, laying on with all my strength, and tore deep into his flesh. And he fell headlong in the dust upon the ground through the force of my spear-thrust; then truly he would have been disgraced among the deathless gods, if by my hands he had left behind his bloody spoils."

[lines 368-385] So said he. But Kyknos the stout spearman cared not to obey him and to pull up the horses that drew his chariot. Then it was that from their well-woven cars they both leaped straight to the ground, the son of Zeus and the son of the Lord of War. The charioteers drove near by their horses with beautiful manes, and the wide earth rang with the beat of their hoofs as they rushed along. As when rocks leap forth from the high peak of a great mountain, and fall on one another, and many towering oaks and pines and long-rooted poplars are broken by them as they whirl swiftly down until they reach the plain; so did they fall on one another with a great shout; and all the town of the Myrmidons, and famous Iolkos, and Arne, and Helike, and grassy Anthea echoed loudly at the voice of the two. With an awful cry they closed; and wise Zeus thundered loudly and rained down drops of blood, giving the signal for battle to his dauntless son.

[lines 386-401] As a tusked boar, that is fearful for a man to see before him in the glens of a mountain, resolves to fight with the huntsmen and white tusks, turning sideways, while foam flows all round his mouth as he gnashes, and his eyes are like glowing fire, and he bristles the hair on his mane and around his neck—, like him the son of Zeus leaped from his horse-chariot. And when the dark-winged whirring grasshopper, perched on a green shoot, begins to sing of summer to men—his food and drink is the dainty dew—and all day long from dawn pours forth his voice in the deadliest heat, when Sirius scorches the flesh [then the beard grows upon the millet which men sow in summer], when the crude grapes which Dionysos gave to men—a joy and a sorrow both—begin to color, in that season they fought and loud rose the clamor.

[lines 402-412] As two lions on either side of a slain deer spring at one another in fury, and there is a fearful snarling and a clashing also of teeth—, like vultures with crooked talons and hooked beak that fight and scream aloud on a high rock over a mountain goat or fat wild-deer which some active man has shot with an arrow from the string, and himself has wandered away elsewhere, not knowing the place; but they quickly mark it and vehemently do keen battle about it—, like these they two rushed upon one another with a shout.

[lines 413-423] Then Kyknos, eager to kill the son of almighty Zeus, struck upon his shield with a brazen spear, but did not break the bronze; and the gift of the god saved his foe. But the son of Amphitryon, mighty Herakles, with his long spear struck Kyknos violently in the neck beneath the chin, where it was unguarded between helm and shield. And the deadly spear cut through the two sinews; for the hero's full strength lighted on his foe. And Kyknos fell as an oak falls or a lofty pine that is stricken by the lurid thunderbolt of Zeus; even so he fell, and his armor adorned with bronze clashed about him.

[lines 424-442] Then the stout hearted son of Zeus let him be, and himself watched for the onset of manslaying Ares; fiercely he stared, like a lion who has come upon a body and full eagerly rips the hide with his strong claws and takes away the sweet life with all speed; his dark heart is filled with rage and his eyes glare fiercely, while he tears up the earth with his paws and lashes his flanks and shoulders with his tail so that no one dares to face him and go near to give battle. Even so, the son of Amphitryon, unsated of battle, stood eagerly face to face with Ares, nursing courage in his heart. And Ares drew near him with grief in his heart; and they both sprang at one another with a cry. As it is when a rock shoots out from a great cliff and whirls down with long bounds, careering eagerly with a roar, and a high crag clashes with it and keeps it there where they strike together; with no less clamor did deadly Ares, the chariot-borne, rush shouting at Herakles. And he quickly received the attack.

[lines 443-449] But Athene the daughter of aegis-bearing Zeus came to meet Ares, wearing the dark aegis, and she looked at him with an angry frown and spoke winged words to him. "Ares, check your fierce anger and matchless hands; for it is not ordained that you should kill Herakles, the bold-hearted son of Zeus, and strip off his rich armor. Come, then, cease fighting and do not withstand me."

[lines 450-466] So said she, but did not move the courageous spirit of Ares. But he uttered a great shout and waving his spears like fire, he rushed headlong at strong Herakles, longing to kill him, and hurled a brazen spear upon the great shield, for he was furiously angry because of his dead son; but bright-eyed Athene reached out from the car and turned aside the force of the spear.

Then bitter grief seized Ares and he drew his keen sword and leaped upon bold-hearted Herakles. But as he came on, the son of Amphitryon, unsated of fierce battle, shrewdly wounded his thigh where it was exposed under his richly-wrought shield, and tore deep into his flesh with the spear-thrust and cast him flat upon the ground. And Phobos [Panic] and Deimos [Fear] quickly drove his smooth-wheeled chariot and horses near him and lifted him from the wide-pathed earth into his richly-wrought car, and then straight lashed the horses and came to high Olympos.

[lines 467-471] But the son of Alkmene and glorious Iolaos stripped the fine armor off Kyknos's shoulders and went, and their swift horses carried them straight to the city of Trachis. And bright-eyed Athene went thence to great Olympos and her father's house.

[lines 472-480] As for Kyknos, Keyx buried him and the countless people who lived near the city of the glorious king, in Anthe and the city of the Myrmidons, and famous Iolkos, and Arne, and Helike; and much people were gathered doing honor to Keyx, the friend of the blessed gods. But Anauros, swelled by a rain-storm, blotted out the grave and memorial of Kyknos; for so Apollon, Leto's son, commanded him, because he used to watch for and violently despoil the rich hecatombs that any might bring to Pytho.

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