Health - Capture of the Red Cattle of Geryon
Myth and Introduction
Hercules was sent by Eurystheus to destroy the grandson of Medusa and Titan Oceanus, a fearsome giant named Geryon, and steal his herd of beautiful red oxen so that they could be sacrificed to Hera. Geryon had two well-developed legs, but from the waist up he consisted of conjoined, identical triplets who thought and spoke together as one being. In effect he was a kind of unholy Trinity who was believed to be even stronger than Hercules. He lived on an island named Erytheia, in the archipelago of the three mysterious Hesperides, which lay in the great, uncharted ocean west of the Mediterranean. Geryon also had a herdsman named Eurytion and a two-headed, herding dog named Orthrus, who was a sibling of the Nemean Lion, the Symphalian Birds, the Lernaean Hydra, the Chimera, and Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of Hades. Eurytion, Orthrus and his three-headed master looked after a herd of beautiful, healthy red oxen, each of whom had only one head.
On his way to steal the oxen, Hercules sailed his boat to the eastern shore of a mountainous ridge that connected Africa to Europe and separated the Mediterranean from the Atlantic Ocean. Instead of portaging over the ridge, he smashed through with his mighty fist and then pushed apart the continents apart with his bare hands in order to sail on through. From that day forward, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic would intermingle in what we now call the Strait of Gibraltar. By breaking apart the continents Hercules created a pair of promontories that faced each another across the strait and were known in antiquity as the Pillars of Hercules. Today, the pillars are usually identified as the Rock of Gibraltar (Mons Calpe), and a mountain in Morocco called Jebel Moussa (Mons Abyle), which can easily be seen from each other on a clear day.
Hercules sailed beyond his newly created pillars on the uncharted sea, but he soon lost his way in a gale and breached the hull of his small boat on the rocks in Tartessos, on the Iberian Peninsula. He jumped from the boat and, as it sunk, he cursed this cruel twist of fate. Frustrated, thirsty, and beaten down by the wind and the rays of the sun burning mercilessly down on his back, he wandered aimlessly across the arid plain that would someday be called Spain. Finally in frustration he launched a few arrows in the direction of the sun god, Helios. Rather than being insulted by Hercules, Helios was instead impressed with the solar demi-god and decided to help him out. The sun god softened his intense solar gaze and even offered to let Hercules borrow his golden cup-like ship that he used to sail beneath the Earth at night. Hercules climbed aboard the vessel and Helios pulled him west over land and sea to the shores of Erytheia, where he arrived at sunset. Hercules then gave the golden ship back to Helios so he was able to make his nightly journey.
Hercules found and slay the herdsman, the triple-backed beast, and the two-headed dog. At sunset, Helios again provided the golden ship. Hercules was able to herd the purloined cattle of Geryon aboard and sail them around the back of the world back to Greece where Eurystheus sacrificed them to Hera.
In ancient Greece and in the ancient Roman Empire, the Mediterranean Sea was the cradle of civilization while the Atlantic Ocean was the Great Unknown. Unschooled people in ancient Greece thought if you sailed west you would eventually reach the edge of flat Earth, an idea that—incredibly—is still followed today by certain members of the International Flat Earth Society. Flat Earthers think this because they follow the Bible literally, while disbelieving the overwhelming evidence available to their senses. There will be more on faith-based beliefs in the labor on religion, but suffice it to say here that Charles Johnson (the late president of the Society) once wrote that the round Earth idea was an old Greek superstition that has been perpetuated in an elaborate, international conspiracy for thousands of years.
Johnson was at least correct about the idea originating with the Greeks because most Greeks writers after the 5th century BCE accepted the idea of a spherical Earth. Plato (427–347 BCE), who studied under Pythagoras, believed that if one could rise above the Earth for a look one would see something that looked like a patchwork leather ball with the different colors—not unlike the famous “blue marble” photograph of the Earth taken by Apollo astronauts on their flight to the moon. Flat Earthers, on the other hand, have explained the photograph of the whole Earth, the voluminous record of the moon missions and the indisputable evidence of science, by saying it was all done on a Hollywood set by conspirators apparently working in secret with a global network of co-conspirators.
Aristotle (348-322 BCE), would no doubt be astounded to hear that men would travel to the moon and back only 2,200 years from his time, because he had a general sense of the size of the Earth and its relation to the moon. Though simple observations, the ancient Greek philosopher had correctly deduced that a lunar eclipse was caused by the Earth’s shadow falling across the moon. Even more impressively, Greek geographer and astronomer, Eratosthenes of Cyrene, was able to estimate the circumference of the Earth around 240 BCE by noting the angle of the sun in two different locations. This may be why a round Earth more or less fit into the myth about Helios sailing in his golden “cup” around the world to set in the west and rise in the east.
Today our word for the living Earth as a holistic ecosystem, inclusive of humans and their relationship with it, comes from the Greek word for the primordial and chthonic Earth goddess, Gaea. Some have a poetic vision of Gaea as a form of the Great Goddess that dates from the Neolithic period, with various goddesses, including Hecate, Demeter, and Persephone, standing in as the trinity of crone, mother, and virgin.
Hera, later called Juno by the Romans, has also been interpreted as a form of the Triple Goddess. Her jealous, hectoring, and generally unpleasant nature can be interpreted as a sign of her irritation at being demoted. Her descent from Mother Goddess down into the pantheon of many proliferating gods also compounded her resentment of Hercules, her husband’s bastard, half-human offspring who aspired to be a full-fledged god. Hera tried to prevent Hercules from being born and then harassed him at every turn throughout his entire life. In this particular myth, while Hercules was doing his best to collect the red cattle that would be sacrificed to her, Hera sent a gadfly to bite and scatter the cattle, and also flooded a river to block their path.
Hercules, being from a patriarchal, command-and-compliance era, was well meaning but hardly the nurturing type. Instead, he killed a great variety of man and beast while also doing harmful things to Gaea—like smashing mountain ranges, washing dung into rivers, and generally taking the war-like, destroy-it-to-fix-it approach to problems that we often still see today.
Geryon had a tripartite nature and tended red cattle. He can be seen as a stand-in for the Great Mother/Triple Goddess who has been demonized into a monster who can have no legitimate claim on red cattle or anything else. This was why Hercules felt justified to murder Geryon, his herder, and his dog and steal his possessions. At the same time, cattle—especially blood red ones—are symbols of the Earth Mother and sacred to Hera. The purpose of bloody sacrifice was to feed the destructive blood lust of the Nature Goddess, who gives in birth what she destroys in death. The people doing the sacrificing hoped that their offering would satisfy her. The sacrifice to Hera of the red cattle of Geryon would have twice the hoodoo because the cattle were already the color of blood even before their throats were slit. King Eurytheus thought this would especially please Hera and buy him more time outside Hades.
The Pillars of Hercules also have symbolic importance in this story. At a time when the natural world was seen as something to be both feared and subdued, this pair of geologic features were seen as sentinels to protect humans from the Great Unknown. As a part of nature, the body was a vessel fashioned by the gods and imbued with a life force that could be withdrawn at any time by its creators.
Our symbol for health is derived from the staff of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing and medicine who was always depicted with a staff entwined with a serpent. The origin of this important symbol, which is ubiquitous even today, comes from the natural world above and below. In the sky, the serpent takes the form of the constellation Draco. In 2,700 BCE, Draco was coiled around the celestial axis above the North Pole with Draconis (aka Thuban) as the pole star. (Today, Polaris is the pole star because of a 25,920 year wobble in the Earth’s axis.) This sky serpent’s invisible staff, cut from a tree, connected the hub of the sky to the hub of the Earth. This had profound implications for the mythologies and religions of the northern hemisphere and for that reason we will return to this symbol in the next labor.
The pole star is always visible to those in the Northern Hemisphere, so the sky serpent was seen as eternal. The serpents that crawled upon the earth were also symbols of immortality because it was thought snakes avoided death by shedding their skins in an annual ritual that allowed them to be born again. Snakes also swallow eggs whole, which are symbols of rebirth. For these reasons prehistoric people may have identified the serpent with the eternal sky god or goddess for many thousands of years.
The “pagan” religions were subsumed and demonized by the Abrahamic religions. This is apparently why Jahweh’s great rival became the “writhing serpent Leviathan,” who in one of its forms also tempted Adam and Eve in the garden. The serpent was also Nehushtan, the fiery, pole-climbing bronze god serpent of the Canaanites. The Old Testament tells us that the snake god was crafted by Moses at God’s behest. After being worshipped for many centuries by the people of Judah, the snake idol was destroyed by King Hezekiah.
Why would God have ordered Moses to build an idol when the commandments he gave to Moses ordered His people to not have any false gods before Him? It goes back to when the Israelites were brought up from Egypt and were forced to wander in the desert under the burning sun for 40 years without food, water, or a golden ship. When they began to kvetch about their wretched condition, God by his actions more or less said, “Cry? I’ll give you something to cry about,” and sent poisonous snakes to bite the complainers. After many people suffered and died horribly, Moses pleaded and prayed for mercy, which caused the Lord to reconsider how He was treating His Chosen People. He ordered Moses to conjure up Nehushtan who would have the power to cure subsequent victims of snakebite. All they had to do was look at the divine snake-on-a-stick and they would be healed.
Moses as a healer with his magic serpent correlates rather neatly to the Greek healer Asclepius, whose own staff-climbing snake is still with us today as a symbol of healing. The reason we don’t see Asclepius standing next to his staff on the sign over the pharmacy is because Zeus killed him with a thunderbolt. His crime was receiving payment for raising someone from the dead. Afterwards, like Yahweh with the healing snake, Zeus felt bad about what he had done. To make amends, he turned Asclepius into the constellation Ophiuchus, which means “staff holder” and is the 13th sign of the sidereal Zodiac.
The staff of Asclepius is often confused with another ancient symbol, the caduceus, which is composed of a double helix of snakes wound around a rod and usually topped with a pair of wings. Probably of Babylonian origin, the caduceus was later borne by the Egyptian goddess Isis and the Greek god Hermes, who was known to the Romans as Mercury. Isis and Hermes/Mercury were the messengers of Hera, the nemesis of Hercules. The caduceus is associated with deception, theft and death, attributes of both Hera and many aspects of our modern health care industry. The caduceus is also a symbol of making money through commerce, thus compounding the irony of many doctors and medical organizations mistakenly using the caduceus as their symbol.
In addition to the caduceus and the staff of Asclepius, the Hippocratic Oath has also survived intact from ancient Greece, complete with an oath to the whole pantheon of heathen gods. Hippocrates (460-380 BCE), unlike Asclepius, was an actual person and is considered the “father of western medicine.” Still recited today by physicians, the Hippocratic Oath begins, “I swear by Apollo, Asclepius, Hygieia, and Panacea, and take to witness all the gods, all the goddesses, to keep according to my ability and my judgment, the following oath.”
What follows will be our guide to this labor and it can be summed up as follows: “Above all, do no harm.”
To read more about health, fix in your mind the image of the snake on a stick and click here. To read the introduction and myth of Labor XI: Religion, click here.