This month, we’re touring into Greek mythology to visit the Garden of the Hesperides, which was the perfect secluded getaway until the notorious hero Hercules got tasked with raiding the place.
Before we get to the garden, let’s start with the Hesperides themselves. As with many lesser gods in mythology, these nymphs are credited with a great many different parents. Contenders include Nyx, goddess of night, and Atlas, the Titan tasked with holding up the sky. The sisters were Aegle, Erythraea and Hespera, all names that reference different stages of sunset. They were goddesses of the evening, which now that I type it sounds rather like a euphemism, and guardians of the Garden’s arboreal treasure: the golden apples of immortality.
The tree – or, depending on the version, grove – was a wedding gift from the earth goddess Gaia to the queen of the Pantheon, Hera. The apples also had the protection of a hundred-headed dragon, clearly Hera knew her family well enough to be prepared, but its best defence was the fact the Garden was so fiendishly difficult to find. When Hercules was assigned his eleventh Labour and told to steal apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, it was only by utilising his semi-divine might to capture and bully the sea god Nereus that he learned how to reach the Garden, and only with the support of the sun god Helios, who lent Hercules his own enormous golden cup in which to sail across the sea, that he actually got there.
And once he did get there, Hercules was smart enough not to do his own dirty work. He offered Atlas an opportunity that he could not resist; what wouldn’t Atlas agree to, in order to unload his terrible burden for a short time? Hercules would hold up the sky while Atlas stole the apples. Of course, after he had collected the prize, Atlas saw no reason to return to his servitude, but Hercules insisted he needed to settle the weight of the sky properly, with a cushion to soften the load, and he absolutely would if Atlas would only take hold of it for a minute…Obviously, as soon as Atlas was back in place, Hercules grabbed the apples and was gone. Apparently Athena later returned the apples, which makes the whole endeavour entirely pointless, but that’s divine intervention for you.
The Atlas mountain range passes through Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, so based on the implied proximity in this myth, it seems likely that the Garden of the Hesperides was intended to be somewhere in North Africa. Another possible location is in southwestern Europe, in the Iberian peninsula, this being favoured by the poet Stesichorus and the geographer Strabo.
Golden apples are a recurring image in Greek mythology. The goddess of discord, Eris, set off a chain reaction that started with a spiteful beauty contest and ended in the destruction of Troy by producing a golden apple ‘for the fairest’ of the Pantheon. The famed athlete Atalanta was slowed in the race that would decide her marriage by the distraction of three golden apples, gifts to her suitor from Aphrodite. The connection might be tenuous, but after all, even the strangest of fruit has to grow somewhere. So perhaps it’s rather lucky that Athena put those beautiful apples back, before they could take root anywhere else.
These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!
The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies – Anna Franklin (Vega, 2002), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hesperides, http://www.theoi.com/Titan/Hesperides.html, Greek Mythology – Sofia Souli (Editions Michalis Toubis, 1995), Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills