Hesiod's Shield of Heracles

Translated by Christopher Kelk


Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) (1591-1666) - Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia)

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…or resembling

The maid who left Mycenae, following

Warlike Amphitryon; she travelled on

To Thebes, the daughter of Electryon,

Alcmene. She surpassed all womankind

In beauty and in stature, while her mind

Was sharper than all women’s who had wed

A mortal. Her face and her dark eyes had spread

Such charm as Aphrodite has, and she

Gave honour to her spouse more lovingly 10

Than any had before her. He indeed

Had slain her noble father in his greed

And wrath about his oxen. So he came

To Thebes from his own country and became

A suppliant to Cadmus’ men who carried

Their shields, and with the modest maid he’d married

He dwelt without the joys of love till when

He would avenge the death of those great men,

Her brothers, burning down in conflagration

The hamlets of the Teleboean nation 20

And Taphos. For this labour had been laid

On him – the gods were witnesses. Afraid

To face their wrath, as quickly as could be

He hastened to complete the task that he

Was forced by Zeus to do. With him went, too,

The horse-driving Boeotian warriors, who

Panted above their shields, the hand-to-hand

Locrian fighters and the gallant band

Of Phocians, ever keen for battle and war.

The son of noble Alcaeus went before 30

Them all, rejoicing in his fighting men.

However, Zeus was contemplating then

Another scheme to spawn one to defend

All gods and men from a disastrous end.

One night he left Olympus, pondering

Guile deep within his heart while hankering

For a well-girdled woman. Rapidly

He came to Typhaonium, then he

Came to the summit of Mt. Phicium’s height

To plot great things, and thus in just one night 40

With the trim-legged child of Electryon

He lay, and glorious Amphitryon,

His folk’s heroic shepherd, after he,

His task completed, gained his victory,

Went home. Before his men he visited,

The ones who worked his fields, he went instead

With speed to his dear wife. Then was he gripped

With passion, and as one who’s happily slipped

From sore affliction or the misery

Of cruel bondage, just the same did he 50

Come home, and with his modest wife he lay

All night, delighting in the fine array

Of golden Aphrodite’s great largess.

A god and a fine man’s loving tenderness

Produced in Thebes a brace of sons: although

Brothers, they were not of one spirit – no,

One was the dread, strong, mighty Heracles,

Far better than his brother Iphicles,

Spearsman Amphityron’s lad. The former one

She bore from the embrace of Cronus’s son, 60

The Lord of the Dark Clouds, and he would slay

Brave Cycnus, son of Ares, for one day

In far-shooting Apollo’s land he spied

Him and Ares, who’s never satisfied

With war. Their armour gleamed like blazing flame

As, standing in their chariots, on they came,

Their swift steeds pawing the earth, while all around

The dust rose up like smoke; over the ground

The well-built chariot-rails were rattling;

The horses’ hooves headlong were thundering. 70

Fine Cycnus smiled, for he had hopes to see

His slaying the dynamic progeny

Of Zeus and his charioteer and take away

Their splendid arms. But Phoebus would not pay

Attention to his vaunting flummeries,

Having stirred against him mighty Heracles.

Apollo’s grove and altar flared in dread

Of him and of his armour; from his head

His eyes flashed fire. Ah, what mortal man

Would have dared to oppose him other than80

Heracles and Iolaus? For those two

Were strong and had invincible arms which grew

From powerful shoulders. To the charioteer,

Strong Iolaus, Heracles spoke out clear:

“Iolaus, best loved of men, Amphitryon

Has sinned against the gods who dwell upon

Olympus. Leaving Tiryns, he went to

The sweet-crowned, well-built Thebes, because he slew

Electryon for his wide-browed oxen. He

Came to Creon and long-robed Enioche. 90

They then embraced him, giving him largess

Such as is due to suppliants, and no less

Praised him, nay even more. He happily

Lived with trim-legged Alcmene. Presently

Your father and I were born, each from the other

So different, though birthed by the same mother.

Zeus made your father unintelligent,

And so he left his family and went

To honour vile Eurystheus – such a shame!

In latter days the poor man surely came 100

To grieve his folly. One can’t take away

A deed that’s done. But Zeus prepared to lay

Hard tasks on me. But come, friend, instantly

Grab the red reins, augment your bravery

And in your chariot urge your swift steeds on,

And have no fear of murderous Ares – none –

Who round the holy grove of Lord Apollo,

Far-Shooter, rage with his angry ‘hollo’.

Surely he’s had enough of killing men,

Though strong.” Fine Iolaus answered then: 110

“My friend, the almighty Father honours you

And the Earth-Shaker, Lord Poseidon, too,

Who guards the veil of Thebe’s walls. They bring

To you a man so overpowering

That you may win great glory. Straightaway

Put on your warlike armour that we may

Join Ares’ chariot with our own and fight.

The dauntless son of Zeus he will not fright,

Nor Iphicles’ son: I  think he’ll rather flee

The blameless Heracles’ twin progeny 120

When at close quarters; for the cry of war

They’re keen to raise, loving it so much more

Than feasting.” Heracles was well content

At this: he smiled and, answering him, he sent

Him winged words: “Iolaus, nurtured by

A god, tempestuous battle now is nigh.

As you have shown your expertise before

At other times, apply it now once more

And mount Arion, your great black-maned steed,

And roam about to aid me in my need.” 130

He donned the greaves of shining bronze which he

Was given by Hephaestus famously.

And then his fine, gold breastplate on his chest

He placed, a gift from Pallas when his test

Of toil he was about to bear, and then

Across his back the steel that saves all men

From doom he fastened and behind him slung

His quiver so that round his frame it hung

With many chilling arrows which deal death

And make a man incapable of breath. 140

Their points were lethal, and tears from them ran;

Their shafts were smooth and of a lengthy span,

Their butts with feathers covered, which once shook

Upon a red-brown eagle. Then he took

His sturdy spear, and on his head he placed

A helmet made of adamant, finely chased

And closely shaped. His bronze shield, all aglow,

He seized, which no-one ever with a blow

Had smashed or crushed, a wonder to behold,

The whole orb glistening with shining gold, 150

Gypsum, electron and white ivory,

While forged upon the layers one could see

Dark-blue enamel. At its core was Dread

In adamant, unspeakable, his head

Turned back, his eyes afire; his teeth shone white,

All in a row, daunting, provoking fright;

Feared Strife hovered about his shaggy face,

She who assembled all the warrior race:

She snatched the minds and senses pitilessly

Of those poor folk who brought hostility 160

To Zeus’s son, and they went down below

Into the house of Hades; their bones, though,

After the skin round them had rotted quite,

Crumbled away beneath the parching light.

And gathered all around the prince Caeneus

And Dryas and Perithous and Hopleus,

Exadius, Prolochus and Phalereus

And Mopsus, son of Ares, and Theseus

Were all the Lapith spearsmen, keen for strife.

The prince’s ranks looked like the gods whose life 170

Is endless, all of silver, and upon

Their frames was armoured gold, assembled on

The other side the prophet Asbolus,

The black-haired Mimas, Ureus, Arctus,

Dryalus and Perimedes, progeny

Of Peuceus, all of silver equally,

Gold pine-trees in their hands. It was as though

They lived that, hand-to-hand, they battled so

With spears and pines; grim Ares’ horses raced,

In gold, while that fierce Ares could be traced 180

There, too, the creator of the spoils, and he

Held in his hands a spear and urgently

Was spurring on his men. As if he would

Be slaying live men, he reeked blood. He stood

Upon his chariot, while beside him Flight

And Panic hovered, eager for the fight.

There, too, was Tritogeneia, child of Zeus,

Spoil-winner, who seemed anxious to let loose

The battle, with her weapon in her hand,

Gold helmet on her head, while round her spanned 190

The aegis, as she headed for the strife.

The gods, too, who enjoy eternal life

Were there, and Zeus’ and Leto’s progeny

Played on a golden lyre harmoniously

Amongst them all. The gods abode was there,

Holy Olympus, and, spread everywhere,

Was boundless wealth; a limpid melody

The Muses sang. A harbour, sanctuary

From the fierce sea, was painted there as well,

Which seemed to heave about the ocean’s swell, 200

Made of refined tin, finished as a sphere,

With many hunting dolphins rushing here

And there. Two silver dolphins in that team

Were eating up the mute fish as a stream

Of water left their mouths, and, furthermore,

Some bronze fish trembled. Sat upon the shore,

A fisherman watched them, and he seemed to be

About to cast the fishing-net that he

Held in his hands. There was the progeny

Of rich-haired Danaë, a cavalry 210

Master named Perseus, whose feet did not touch

The shield, though they were very near. O such

A thing to speak of! For in not one place

Was it sustained – the Lame One thus had chased

The gold himself. Around his feet were shaped

Black sandals and across his back was draped,

Tied with a bronze cross-belt, a black-sheathed sword,

And, quite as swift as thought, he roamed abroad

In flight. Across the broad of his back the head

Was seen of the monster Gorgon, causing dread 220

To everyone. A marvel to behold,

A silver pouch held it. Bright crests of gold

Hung from it. On the hero’s head there lay

A thing which never sees the light of day,

The dreadful cap of Hades. Shuddering

With horror, he himself was hastening,

Chased by the Gorgons, whom none would make bold

To near or speak of, eager to take hold

Of him. As they set foot on the pale steel,

The shield rang with a sharp and piercing peal. 230

Two serpents, with their heads curved forwards, hung

From tassels: each one showed a flickering tongue

And teeth that gnashed with fury, eyes alight,

And on their heads there quaked prodigious Fright.

Beyond them armed men fought, some to defend

Their town and parents from a tragic end,

Others to sack it. Many people lay

Slaughtered, but more continued in the fray.

Upon the well-built towers of bronze, with shrieks

That rent the air, the women tore their cheeks. 240

By famed Hephaestus had all this been made.

The elders, on whom old age had been laid,

Amassed outside the city gates to pray

To the gods in fear for their own sons. But they

Engaged in battle. The dark Fates, fierce-eyed,

Grim, bloody, unapproachable, all vied,

With pearl-white fangs that gnashed and snapped, to seize

Those who had fallen; thus, when one of these

Had dropped or had received some injury

They caught him and, in her avidity 250

To drink dark blood, one of them would append

Her great claws on him, and he’d then descend

To Hades and chill Tartarus, and when

They were replete with human blood, they then

Went back into the fray once they had flung

The man behind them, while above them hung

Lachesis, Clotho and Atropos (less tall

Than her companions, indeed quite small

And yet the eldest one and nonpareil),

And over the poor wretch a frenzied fray 260

They caused. They eyed each other fearsomely,

Fighting with hands and talons equally.

And there stood mournful, pale Unhappiness,

Dry, shrunk with hunger, causing great distress,

Knees swollen, long-nailed, dripping snot, cheeks red

With blood that down upon the ground she shed,

Ad hideously she leered, her shoulders wet

With much dust mixed with tears. One’s eyes then met

A well-built city: seven gold gates were fit

Upon its towers’ joists, thus guarding it. 270

The men with dances and festivities

Were holding celebrations, some of these

Conveying a new bride up to the house

Where she will live in harmony with her spouse,

Their means a well-wheeled car, the bridal song

Increasing, while in waves afar a throng

Of handmaids waved their torches, pivoting

About: they went ahead, all revelling

In the hilarity; there followed then

Frolicsome choirs; to the shrill pipes young men 280

Sang softly while the echo shook around

Them all. The maidens, to the lovely sound

Of lyres, led the dance, while flutes were played

Upon the other side where a parade

Of youths in laughing mood were revelling

And causing the whole area to ring

With mirth, dance and frivolity. Again,

Folk galloped on horseback, while husbandmen

Broke up the rich soil, tunics in a band

Swathed round their loins. There was a wide cornland 290

Where some with sharp hooks reaped the stalks which bent

Beneath their weight, while others were intent

On binding sheaves with strips, the threshing-floor

Then spreading out; and there were yet some more

Who reaped the vintage with a reaping-hook,

While from them others into baskets took

Black and white clusters from the many vines

Which were weighed down with leaves and hung in lines

Of silvery strands. Others were gathering

Them into baskets. Near them was a string 300

Of vines in gold: all this had been designed

By talented Hephaestus; it was lined

With shivering leaves and silver stakes, and they

Surrounded grapes that turned black. An array

Of men were treading grapes while others drew

Them off. Men boxed, men wrestled; huntsmen, too,

Chased hares, while sharp-toothed hounds ran in the lead,

Eager to catch their quarry by their speed,

The hares keen to escape. Horsemen, astride

Their charges, strove in contest as they vied 310

To win a prize, and charioteers stood on

Their well-built chariots while urging on

Their swift steeds with a slack rein: as they flew,

The jointed chariots, as they clattered, drew

A loud shriek from the naves. Thus endlessly

Their toil continued, and no victory

Was gained. A large gold tripod had been laid

Out for them, which had brilliantly been made

By clever Hephaestus. Round the rim there ran

Full-flowing Ocean all around the span 320

Of the shield. Above it swans called out and trailed

The sky while on the water’s face there sailed

Many more. Beside them fish were tumbling.

To see that great shield was a wondrous thing,

Even for Thunderer Zeus who had decreed

Hephaestus make it. Heracles indeed,

The valiant progeny of Zeus, could wield

Exquisitely this masterpiece, this shield.

He leapt upon his chariot with a spring

Resembling great Zeus’s lightning. 330

Then Iolaus, that strong charioteer,

Guided the curving chariot. Coming near,

Grey-eyed Athena spoke encouraging

And wingèd words: “Hail to you, o offspring

Of far-framed Lynceus! On this very day

Our lord, great Zeus gives you the power to slay

Cycnus and then strip the arms that splendidly

Glittered. And yet you shall hear more from me,

Mightiest of the people of this land:

When you have slaughtered Cycnus, I demand 340

That you leave him behind, his armour too,

And, as he joins the fight, I order you

To watch Ares and, when he is revealed

As powerless beneath his well-wrought shield,

Then wound him with your spear and then retreat,

For it is not ordained that you should cheat

Him of his steeds and arms. Then the goddess

Leapt on the chariot with illustriousness

And victory in her hands. The charioteer

Rebuked his steeds and, at his cry, in fear 350

They sped the chariot along the ground,

And from it dust was scattered all around.

The bright-eyed goddess shook her aegis then,

Thus putting dauntlessness into both men;

The earth groaned all around them. Like a flame

Or hurricane, horse-taming Cycnus came

Against Ares. The steeds neighed piercingly,

Facing each other, and reverberantly

The noise vibrated. “Cycnus, my good friend,”

Said mighty Heracles, “why do you send 360

Your steeds against me in our sore dismay?

Guide your swift horses clean out of the way.

I’m travelling to Trachis and the man

Who rules there, Ceyx, him whom no-one can

Outdo in power and honour in that land,

A thing that you yourself can understand,

For you wed dark-eyed Themistinoë.

His daughter. You’ll have no delivery

From death, you fool, if we should meet in war.

Indeed he has made trial of me before, 370

Standing against me, hankering to be

My victor. Three times was he hit by me:

Each time his shield was pierced, but then I struck

 His thigh with all my strength, and now it stuck

Deep in his flesh. Headlong into the dust

He fell beneath the force of my spear-thrust.

He would then have encountered the disdain

Of all the gods by leaving on the plain

His bloody spoils.” But Cycnus did not pay

Him any mind, and he refused to stay 380

His steeds. The two them leapt to the ground

From their well-structured chariots in one bound.

The fine-maned steeds were driven near to those two:

Their hoofs rang out as over the ground they flew.

As rocks from some great mountain way up high

Come leaping down and tumble, as they fly,

Upon each other, while oak-trees, once tall,

And pines and towering poplars break and fall

Beneath that mighty avalanche before

They reach the plain, so did they, with a roar, 390

Fall on each other. Famed Iolaus, Arne,

Aegina, green Althea and Helice

Echoed out loud. They closed with a great shout.

Clear-sighted Zeus then rained down many a gout

Of blood and thundered loudly. This was done

To signal battle to his dauntless son.

As in the mountain-glens a well-tusked boar

Will feel afraid to see a man before

His eyes, resolving then to make assay

Against the huntsmen, turning his head away 400

To whet his teeth while foam begins to flow

About his mouth, his eyes with fire aglow,

His shaggy mane now bristling around

His neck, so Heracles leapt to the ground.

Just when the grasshopper with his dusky wings,

Perched on a verdant shoot, of summer sings

To men, the dainty dew his nourishment,

And all day long from dawn he is content

To pour his voice out at the very height

Of summer’s heat, when Sirius can blight 410

The flesh with scorching, when the beards which grow

Upon the millet men in summer sow,

When the crude grapes which Phoebus gave to men –

Both joy and sorrow – start to colour, then

They battled and a mighty din arose.

Just as two lions in their wrath oppose

Each other for a deer that has been killed –

They snarl and clash - , or else like crooked-billed

Vultures who claw each other as they screech

Aloud on some high rock that they may reach 420

A mountain-goat or else a fat, wild buck

Which with his bow a vigorous man has struck

But, ignorant of the place, has roamed away,

But readily they mark it and the fray

Is keen between them, they thus, with a yell,

Against each other make assault pell-mell.

The Cycnus, passionate to have a chance

To kill his foe, struck with his brazen lance

His shield but did not break it. It was so

That Zeus’s benefaction saved his foe. 430

But mighty Heracles, the progeny

Of Amphitryon, struck Cycnus violently

Upon the neck, where it was unprotected

Beneath helmet and shield, and thus bisected

The sinews. Like a rock, down Cycnus came,

Or like a lofty pine zapped by the flame

Of Zeus’s thunderbolt, and all about

His frame his armour clashed, and then the stout

Heracles let him alone as he took care

To watch for Ares. With a glowering stare, 440

Just like a lion who rips ferociously

The hide of a corpse he’s found and rapidly

Tears it apart in anger, fiercely glaring

And with his paws the earth he falls to tearing,

Lashing his flanks and shoulders with his tail

So that whoever sees him there will fail

To draw near and give battle, even thus

Amphitryon’s son, for fight still gluttonous,

Stood face-to-face with Ares eagerly,

Nursing within his heart his bravery. 450

Ares drew near and in his heart he wept,

Then with a cry they at each other leapt.

As when a rock shoots from a great rock-face

And rolls in lengthy whirls, bounding apace

And roaring, clashing with a high bluff, where

They grapple with each other, thus this pair

Engaged with a battle shout. Athena, though,

With her dak aegis, went to meet his foe:

She glowered and these wingèd words she spoke:

“Ares, hold back your matchless hands and choke 460

Your fearful anger. There are no decrees

That you should slay bold-hearted Heracles

Or strip his splendid armour. Come then, stay

Your fighting and do not stand in my way.”

So said she, but she couldn’t make him hear:

He spoke out loudly, brandishing each spear

Like fire and rushed headlong, eager to slay

His foe, and with a spear he made assay

Upon his shield, galled that his son had died,

But from her chariot Athena, gleaming-eyed, 470

Deflected his spear’s force. Then bitter woe

Seized Ares, who then leapt upon his foe,

His keen sword drawn. The son of Amphitryon,

Still keen for battle, as Ares came on,

Forcefully stabbed his thigh, which lay revealed

Beneath the base of his well-structured shield.

Deep down into his flesh he thrust his spear

And cast him flat upon the ground. Then Fear

And Panic caused the steeds to race ahead

And pull the smooth-wheeled chariot, as they sped, 480

Close to him. Lifting him from the wide ground

Into the chariot he lashed them, bound

For Olympus. Heracles and glorious

Iolaus stripped the armour from Cycnus.

Upon their chariot their swift steeds led

Them straight tot Trachis. The goddess, though, instead

Went to Olympus. As for Cycnus, he

By Ceyx and the large community

Ruled by that king was buried; in that place

Were Anthe and Aegina and the race 490

Of famed Iolcus, Helice and Arne.

There gathered there a multiplicity

Of folk to honour Ceyx, the good friend

Of all the blessed gods, but in the end

The Anaurus doomed the grave to oblivion

When swelled by a rain-storm: this by Leto’s son,

Apollo, was decreed, for regularly

Cycnus would watch for and then violently

Despoil rich hecatombs which folk would bring

To Pytho as a holy offering. 500

The end of Hesiod's Shield of Heracles