| Gods and Heroes|
|by Robert Edward Francillon|
|One of the best introductions to Greek mythology for children. Includes the stories of all the prominent gods and heroes, woven together into a continuous narrative, ending with a full treatment of the twelve labors of Hercules. Ages 8-12 |
HIS ELEVENTH LABOR: THE GARDEN OF THE HESPERIDES
O Hercules, without being allowed any time for rest, had
to go back the whole way he had come, without any
certain knowledge of where the golden-fruited gardens
of the Hesperides were to be found, except that it was
somewhere in Africa. Somebody must know, however, or
else the gardens would never have been heard of, for
travelers never told anything but the truth in those
days. He therefore diligently asked everybody he met
where the gardens were to be found, and, among others,
some nymphs whom he met on the banks of the river Po,
while he was passing through Italy.
"We cannot tell you," said they; "but we know who
can—old Nereus, the sea-god, if you can only get
him to tell."
"And why should he not tell?" asked Hercules.
"Because he never will tell anybody anything, unless he
"And how is he to be obliged?" asked Hercules again.
 "He is bound to answer anybody who is stronger than
"Well, I am pretty strong," said Hercules, modestly.
"Anyhow, I can but try."
"Yes, you do look strong," said the nymphs;
"but——" Here they broke into a laugh, as if some
sort of a joke were in their minds. "Well, if you go to
the Ægean Sea, where King Ægeus was
drowned, you'll be sure to find Nereus sleeping in the
sun somewhere along the shore."
"And how shall I know him when I see him?" asked
"You will see a very, very old man, older than anybody
you ever saw, with bright blue hair, and a very long
white beard. He has fifty daughters, so he often gets
tired, and likes to sleep as much as he can."
Hercules thanked the nymphs, whom he still heard
laughing after he left them, and thought to himself
that it would not be much trouble to prove himself
stronger than a very old man who was always tired. So,
having journeyed back again to the Ægean Sea, he
walked along the shore till, sure enough, he saw, sound
asleep in a sunny cove, a man who looked a thousand
years old, with a white beard reaching below his waist,
and with hair as blue as the sea.
"Will you kindly tell me the way to the gardens of the
Hesperides?" asked Hercules, waking Nereus by a
 gentle shake—though I expect one of Hercules'
shakes was not what most people would consider gentle.
Instead of answering, Nereus tried to roll himself into
the sea, at the bottom of which was his home. Hercules
caught him by the leg and arm: when, to his amazement,
Nereus suddenly turned into a vigorous young man, who
wrestled with him stoutly to get away.
Hercules got him down at last. "Now tell me the way to
the gardens of the Hesperides!" he panted—for he
was out of breath with the struggle. But he found
himself holding down, no longer a man, but a huge and
slippery seal, which all but succeeded in plunging into
But he held on until the seal also was exhausted. And
then Hercules found out what had made the nymphs laugh
so. For when the seal was wearied out it changed into a
gigantic crab, the crab into a crocodile, the crocodile
into a mermaid, the mermaid into a sea-serpent, the
sea-serpent into an albatross, the albatross into an
octopus, the octopus into a mass of sea-weed, which was
the hardest to hold of all. But the sea-weed turned
back into the old man again, who said:—
"There—you have conquered me in all my shapes; I
haven't got any more. You may let me go now, and I will
answer you. You must go on through Italy and
 Spain, and thence across into Africa. You will then be
in the land of Mauritania. You must still go south,
following the sea-shore, till you come to the giant
Atlas, who supports the sky upon his head, and so keeps
it from falling. He"—the old sea-god's voice was
growing fainter and fainter—"he will tell you all
about the gardens of the Hesperides. They're close
by—the gardens of the Hesp—"
And so, having finished his answer, Nereus turned over
and went comfortably to sleep again.
Once more Hercules set out upon the journey which had
seemed as if it would never even begin. Once more he
traveled through Italy and Spain, and crossed into
Africa over the strait which he himself had made. And
on and on he went, always southward by the sea, till,
full six hundred miles from the Pillars of Hercules, he
saw what he knew must be the giant Atlas on whose head
rested the sky. There Atlas, King of Mauritania, had
stood ever since he had looked upon the head of Medusa.
And if you wonder how the sky was held up before that
time, you must ask Nereus, if you can catch
As you may suppose, the poor giant was terribly weary
of having to hold up, night and day, year after year,
the whole weight of the sun, moon, and stars. Even his
strength is not able to keep stars from falling
 now and then—sometimes on a clear night you may
see them tumbling down by scores, so it is terrible to
think of what would happen if he took even a moment's
rest. The whole sky would come crashing down, and the
universe would be in ruins. He was longing for the rest
he dared not take, and so, when Hercules said to him,
"I am seeking fruit from the gardens of the
Hesperides," a crafty idea came into the giant's mind.
"Ah!" said he, with a nod which shook down a whole
shower of stars. "There is no difficulty. All you have
to do is walk through the sea towards the setting sun,
till you get there. And there's nothing to prevent you
from getting the golden fruit but the dragon who guards
the tree on which it grows. The sea doesn't come up
higher than my waist, even in the deepest part; and, if
you can get past the dragon, my three daughters, the
Hesperides, will no doubt receive you with the greatest
For the first time, Hercules felt dismayed. He had no
boat, nor the means of building one; he could not swim
further than his eyes could see. As for wading through
an ocean that would come up to the waist of a giant as
high as the skies, that was absurd. And as to the
dragon, he remembered that Perseus had only passed it
by means of a helmet which made its wearer invisible.
 Atlas saw his perplexity.
"Ah, I forgot you were such a little fellow," said the
giant. "I'll go and get you some of the fruit myself.
It isn't many of my steps from here to the garden, and
the dragon knows me—and if he didn't, I could
step over him. And he couldn't hurt me, seeing that
I've been turned to stone. But wait, though—what
on earth's to become of the sky while I'm gone?"
"I'm pretty strong," said Hercules. "If I climb up to
the peak of the next mountain to you, I daresay I could
hold the sky up while you're away."
Atlas smiled to himself, for this was just what he had
"Come up, then," said he. So Hercules clambered to the
highest peak he could find, and Atlas, slowly bending,
gradually and carefully let down the sky upon the head
and shoulders of the hero. Then, heaving a deep roar of
relief, he strode into the sea.
It was surely the strangest plight in which a mortal
ever found himself—standing on a mountain-peak,
and, by the strength of his own shoulders, keeping the
skies from falling. He was answerable for the safety of
the whole world: the burden of the entire universe was
laid upon the shoulders of one man. They were strong
enough to bear it; but it seemed like an eternity
before Atlas returned. A hundred times a minute
 felt as if he must let all go, whatever happened;
indeed he was actually tempted to yield, for he was
weary of these endless labors; and it was only for
mankind's sake, and not for his own, that he held on
through the agony of the crushing weight of the whole
But Atlas came at last, with three golden apples in his
"Here they are!" he roared. "And now, good-bye!"
"What!" exclaimed Hercules. "Are you not coming back to
"Am I a fool?" asked the giant. "Not I. Keep the honor
of holding up the skies yourself, since you are so
strong and willing. Never again for me!"
"At least, then," said Hercules, "let me place my
lion's skin between my shoulders and the sky, so that
the weight may be less painful to bear."
Atlas could take no objection to that, so he put his
own shoulders under the dome of heaven to let Hercules
make himself as comfortable as the situation allowed.
Hercules seized the chance, and let the whole weight of
the sky fall upon the shoulders of Atlas once more. And
there it still rests; and thus Atlas failed in trying
to shift his own proper burden to another's shoulders.
 "Only three apples!" exclaimed Eurystheus, when
Hercules returned. "You can't have taken much trouble
to get so little. Go to Hades, and bring me Cerberus,
the three-headed dog of Pluto! . . . He will never do
that?" he thought to himself. "To reach Hades, one must
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics