Lands of Legend: The Garden of the Hesperides

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

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Lands of Legend: Hildaland and Hether-Blether

Two weeks late and it’s not actually May any more, but look, at least I wasn’t kidnapped by Finfolk and whisked away to a disappearing island.

The Finfolk are a nomadic shapeshifting people from Orkney myth and legend. In the winter, they lived in the underwater stronghold of Finfolkaheem: a crystal castle lit by glowing sea creatures, complete with extensive seaweed gardens. Hildaland was their summer home, an island only visible to a rare few and only then when it happened to appear above water. The name, appropriately enough, means ‘Hidden Land’, and may have originally referred to a group of islands as opposed to one. Travellers would pass through a fog and find themselves transported from their own world to the realm of the Finfolk, which was honestly not a great place for humans to be.

While Hildaland was very beautiful, in the grand tradition of paradise islands – rich green pastures, lush fields of bountiful crops – it was also a prison. The Finfolk had a habit of stealing mortal spouses. Stealing mortal anything, in fact, precious metals were good too, but in what sounds like a classic case of folklore misogyny, a Finwife was said to lose her beauty if she married a Finman so they preferred to take their chances with a human bride instead and Finwives tended to pick human men. Methods of abduction varied from seductive singing to posing as floating debris until they got close enough for a snatch and grab. The end result was a life sentence for the human unlucky enough to catch a Finfolk eye.

Eventually, however, the practice backfired badly. A newlywed farmer called Thorodale lost his wife to one such abduction and took it hard; the wife lost her freedom and took it harder. She managed to get word to him of where he might find vengeance for them both. After hearing the advice of the wise woman of Hoy, Thorodale performed a ritual of nines around the Odin Stone at Stenness – circling the stone nine times on his knees for nine full moons, until he had something of its power of clear sight. Then he packed for a heist and took his three full-grown sons to go avenge their stepmother. The Finfolk tried to repel the human invaders, first with illusions, then with mermaid charm, then with physical force, but Thorodale would not be turned aside and reached the shore of Hildaland. He and his sons sowed the land with nine rings of salt and cut nine crosses into the earth, claiming it for their own. He did not succeed in rescuing his wife, because the story really doesn’t care about her.

This version of events ties Hildaland to the entirely factual island of Eynhallow, which lies between Rousay and the Orkney mainland. Rousay is also linked to a story of Hether-Blether. A girl from Rousay went missing and for years there was no trace of her, until one day her father and brothers were lost in a fog and washed up on an unknown island. The girl greeted them there, ensconced in her new life: a happily married mother of three, a rare success story from the Finfolk marriage market. She refused to come home with her family, but offered them a piece of iron – in one version a stake, in another a knife – that would allow them to find her again. They didn’t even make it away from the island before dropping the wretched thing into the water, and Hether-Blether sank beneath the sea at once. Given what happened to Hildaland, maybe that’s not a bad thing.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!