An extract from Arcadian Nights, The Greek Myths Re-imagined, to be published by Duckworth on September 24th 2015


Arcadian Nights was written after my wife and I bought a house in a Greek mountain village in Arcadia, overlooking the Gulf of Argos. It occurred to me that if we had been there some 3,000 years ago we might have seen Agamemnon’s fleet sailing out to the War of Troy. Beginning with the story of Agamemnon and his ancestors, I retell the myths of the heroes particularly associated with the Peloponnese – Pelops, Herakles, Perseus and Theseus – and the god Apollo, who had a shrine on the hill behind our village. This story, ‘The Cowsheds’, is from the Herakles chapter, one of the Twelve Labours imposed on him by his cousin Eurystheus, King of Argos, in expiation. Herakles had killed his own wife and children in a fit of madness induced by his particular enemy, the goddess Hera.


Herakles had used his trick of diverting rivers once before, for his fifth Labour. This was a filthy job. In the north-western corner of the Peloponnese there was a king of the Epeans called Augeias, who owned a huge herd of pedigree cattle, thirty thousand of them. But their sheds had not been cleaned for thirty years – in those days the Greeks did not value manure as a fertiliser – and there was so much dung in them that the cattle were having to be kept outside. Winter was approaching and King Augeias was wondering what to do about it, when his son Phyleus remarked jokingly that only a superman like Herakles could hope to shovel shit on that scale. Augeias immediately despatched a messenger to Tiryns and Eurystheus enthusiastically agreed to send Herakles, adding that the whole job was to be completed in a single day.

When Herakles arrived he inspected the cowsheds and walked about the neighbourhood, admiring the great herds of fine cattle in all the fields around.

‘What do you think?’ asked Augeias. ‘Can you do anything about it?’

‘Oh, yes, no problem,’ said Herakles. ‘ My fee is ten per cent.’

‘Ten per cent of what?’

‘Of your cattle.’

‘Three thousand head of cattle!’ said Augeias, who was evidently a mean man or he would have paid labourers to clean his cowsheds regularly. ‘I thought you did these jobs for nothing.’

‘This one is exceptionally unpleasant,’ said Herakles, ‘not really suitable for a son of Zeus, and I feel I’m entitled to some small reward. What do you think?’ turning to Augeias’ young son Phyleus who was standing beside them.

‘It seems fair to me,’ said Phyleus, a brave boy who was afraid of his father but had been taught by his mother always to tell the truth and was besides thrilled to be consulted by such a famous hero. ‘I don’t know who else would or could do it for twice that fee or even the whole herd.’

‘All right, I agree,’ said Augeias sulkily, with a furious glance at his son.

So the moment dawn broke next day, Herakles, completely naked, set to work knocking down one wall of the cowsheds and diverting the courses of the two nearby rivers, the Alpheos and the Peneos. Just before dusk he dug away the banks and the two rivers raced towards the sheds. There was a brief period of flooding as the water encountered the dung and Augeias’ servants’ quarters were inundated, but very slowly the massed cowpats began to slide and shift and suddenly with a mighty whoosh the two currents regained their power and scoured Augeias’ cowsheds from end to end. Herakles threw down his last spade – he had bent or broken dozens – and smiled at the king.

‘No problem,’ he said. ‘I’ll be on my way with the three thousand cattle in the morning.’

‘No, I don’t think so,’ said Augeias. ‘It was the rivers that cleared the cowsheds, not you, and you’ve cost me every spade in my kingdom.’

‘You made an agreement,’ said Herakles.

‘Did I?’

‘There were no get-out clauses, no ifs or buts. Your son was a witness.’

‘Was he?’

Both men turned to look at Phyleus, who blushed all over at the embarrass- ing choice he had to make between supporting his father or telling the truth.

‘There were no ifs or buts,’ he mumbled.

‘This is your inheritance, son,’ said Augeias.

‘But you did agree and I thought that was fair.’

‘Then you’ll get no inheritance at all.’

‘Better that than inheriting a broken promise.’

‘You don’t know what’s good for you, son, and as far as I’m concerned you’re no longer any son of mine. You can leave my kingdom and go on the roads as a beggar! As for you, Herakles, you’ve done what you were told to do and can go home to your master before I call out my fighting-men.’

Some say that Herakles did so and came back later to exact his revenge, but it’s hard to imagine a man of his temper behaving so meekly under such provocation. No, Herakles picked up the king and dangled him upside down by one leg over the rushing waters of the Alpheos.

‘Did you make an agreement or didn’t you, king of shit?’

‘All right, I did.’

‘Nobody messes with Herakles. Remember that in future!’

‘I will, I will.’

But the wretched man had no future. Whether on purpose or because his hands were greasy with sweat, Herakles dropped him and he was swept away through his own well-scoured cowsheds and out to the dung-dark sea. Then, resuming his lion-skin, picking up his club and bow-and-arrows, shooting or clubbing a few of the foolish king’s more foolhardy guards who tried to stop him, Herakles rounded up a good number of the cattle – who was counting? – and, taking the young Phyleus with him, drove them home to Tiryns, where he gave them to a farmer to care for on his behalf.

He did not forget the courage and honesty shown by the boy Phyleus, but a few years later returned to Augeias’ kingdom with a small force of friends, defeated and expelled Augeias’ younger son, a surly and unpopular ruler like his father, and installed Phyleus as king. And while he was in that part of the Peloponnese, Herakles revived the Olympic Games, which had ceased to be held sometime after the death of Pelops. The marble metopes of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, carved by an unknown master in the fifth century BC, depicted Herakles’ Twelve Labours, and their fragments are among the treasures in the Archaeological Museum there. Why twelve rather than the ten Herakles had originally been assigned? Back at Tiryns, cousin Eurystheus declared that since Herakles had received a fee the cleansing of the cowsheds could not count as a Labour, so, with another that had already been ruled out, ten Labours became twelve.

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