Tenth Labour: Geryon’s cattle
For the tenth trial, Eurystheus commanded Heracles to go to the «misty» island of Erythia located on the edge of the ocean (or beyond) in the far-West and to bring back Geryon’s cattle. The latter was a monster made of three men joined at the waist.
In some old sources and on some ceramics, Geryon had one pair of wings on one of his bodies.
For some, Heracles began his journey at the eastern ends of the world. Some say that on his way, he killed many wild beasts «to prepare the roads of the future».
Then, exasperated by the heat, he threatened Helios with his bow. Impressed, the latter suggested to the hero to use his cup to cross the ocean. According to others, the hero fetched the cup from Nereus or even from Oceanos.
He then built «the pillars of Heracles» (the Columns of Hercules) in Tartessos which mark at the West the borders of the inhabited land.
Then he embarked on the cup and crossed «Oceanos’ passage » until the island of Erythia. During the journey, Oceanos tested him by raising high waves. But the hero threatened the god who calmed down, frightened.
At the end of his journey, Heracles waited for a favourable opportunity, then killed successively the dog Orthos (or Orthros) and the herdsman Eurytion. Geryon, warned by Menoetes who was keeping Hades’ cattle not far away, came to fight Heracles and did not survive.
The hero then seized the cattle, of which the beasts were purple.
According to Apollodorus, on the way back, Hera sent horseflies against the cattle in order to disperse it. The hero had a hard time gathering the cattle and bringing it to Eurystheus, who promptly sacrificed it to the goddess.
Geryon is a grandson of Medusa through Chrysaor (who sprang from the Gorgo’s neck when it was cut by Perseus). Thus he belongs to the Phorcys-Ceto couple’s progeny, in Pontos’ lineage. He represents some energies of the vital world that came into play during the constitution of the animal «I» (animal ego). That is why he lives in the Far-West, place of the memories of the animal humanity’s archaic functioning.
Erythia is «reddening» as it is the land of the setting sun – of humanity’s past – where the vital reigns supreme. In mythology, the East is indeed always related to the New and the West to the old. The sun therefore always completes its course from the new to the old: any new light must illuminate the unconsciousness that is at the basis of evolution.
And if this land is misty, it is because our present consciousness has difficulties grasping the functioning of this archaic mental consciousness and because the path of yoga in these depths is not laid out.
Some even say that Hades’ cattle was grazing close by: the wealth of the body unconscious is close to that of the vital archaic consciousness.
Geryon is one of Chrysaor’s sons «he who has a golden sword» who appeared from Medusa the Gorgo’s severed neck. In a previous chapter, we associated Medusa with fear and vital lust (the movement of appropriation) which comes from separative ignorance. When fear disappears, pure will can manifest, that which is under the guidance of the psychic and not mixed with the ego’s will, subjected to desire. In turn, this pure will reveals life’s gifts and their guardians: Orthros, Eurytion and Geryon.
Heracles must then confront forces that reveal themselves openly (in consciousness) when fear and the appropriation movement cease at the root of the ego. Formerly, they existed all the same but their expression was veiled by these elements, and the seeker did not have the possibility to clearly identify them or act in an impeccably right manner (Chrysaor «he who has a golden sword»).
Nevertheless, the sole awareness of it is insufficient, and to defeat them, the seeker must accomplish «Equality». That is why this Labour finds itself in continuity with that of the Amazon queen’s belt and continues the process of Nature’s liberation, of subjection to its laws.
Taking into consideration this labour’s place in the progression of the yoga and Geryon’s characteristics (a monster with three heads and three bodies of which one with a pair of wings), one can associate without too much risk of error these three bodies to the three gunas, the winged body being related to sattva.
In the Indian tradition, these gunas are the fundamental modes of nature. They are inextricably linked and interact continuously with each other.
Sri Aurobindo provides an extensive description of them in The Synthesis of Yogas, of which we are only quoting the main elements here:
The first mode, tamas, the principle of unconsciousness, of obscurity and inertia, is especially powerful in the material nature and in our physical being. It tends towards inaction, laziness or to mechanical and routine action. It is the cause of many imperfections, such as maintaining ignorance, inertia, weakness and incapacity, repetitive thoughts and the tenacious refusal of their widening, lack of faith, insensitivity, indifference, etc., but it also allows to balance the two other modes.
The second mode, Rajas, is the dynamic motor of action, the principle of effort, of passion, of fight and of initiative. Its favourite field of action is the vital. In the non-purified nature, it supports the desire and the will to possess. Unmoderated by the other gunas, it generates selfishness, violence, arrogance, ambition, vices and passions, the excess of sensitivity, the morbidity and the perversions of the vital being, etc. Subjecting the mind, it brings prejudices and preferences up to fanatism. But it is also the motor of the man of action, of the warrior and the leader.
The third mode, sattva, is the principle of assimilation, balance and harmony. It is particularly dominant within the mind, the intelligence and the reasoned will. It brings clarity of intelligence, self-control, and equality.
It is said that man must first become sattvic (ethical), then rise beyond until the light, the extent and the power of spiritual nature where he escapes from dualities’ clasp.
If it produces higher beings as for refinement, sensitivity and wisdom, sattva cannot approach the infinite, since it is, like the two others modes, created by the outer nature and then associated to a limited mental light. Furthermore, it depends on rajas for action. Thus an egoistic sattvic also exists.
In our nature generated by separating ignorance, these modes generate discord, division and fights between contraries, which we can gather using the term «dualities». If unity has been achieved in the worlds of the spirit, it must also be achieved in the game of nature, not by annihilation of these gunas, which is impossible without withdrawing from life, but by transcending them.
If this work concerns the advanced seekers, it is because the forces necessary to surpass these modes of nature, which support all action, are not sufficiently developed in the ordinary seeker, who is subjected to them.
Our outer being is under their control. Their play determines personality and surface temperament. They constantly operate in a mixed way within our nature where they are alternately preponderant. Tamas moderates the excesses of Rajas, sattva calls Rajas to the rescue to act, etc. which explains that Geryon’s three bodies are joined. The one with wings is sattva, since it expresses itself preferably in the intellectual mental nature related to air. Rajas would be more related to water and tamas to the earth element.
The transcendence of the gunas was traditionally considered impossible. Indeed, according to the elders, all action belonged to the play of the gunas and their perfect balance would automatically lead the seeker to the cessation of action and the immobility of the soul. A quiet liberation could be obtained by imposing an “illuminated Tamas” onto the outer nature.
But Sri Aurobindo stated that this transcendence was realisable, since these three gunas, as we saw before, are in reality divine powers. To find the divine mode of these three powers in the outer nature again is one of the advanced goals of the integral yoga, and according to our understanding, that of Heracles in this Tenth Labour. Indeed, this integral liberation prepares the work of «perfection». In the light of this goal, to withdraw from life and action, that is to say to place oneself in a plane where these modes are inactive, would only be a partial liberation.
The transcendence of the gunas passes through a perfect equality, a prerequisite condition to integral liberation, and supposes a complete detachment, meaning until one is detached from the fundamental attractions and repugnances, as well as the rejection of dualities.
According to some, the hero’s journey began at the eastern borders of the world and ended in the Far West: The seeker must explore the entirety of human consciousness, from the most advanced point in today’s humanity (the Far East, which can be associated with the overmind) until the limits of life, where this consciousness is born. Indeed, nobody can pretend to have descended into the roots of evolution before having first acquired the corresponding spirit forces.
That is why various elements indicate that only divine envoys (or maybe rare initiates) could attain this stage.
First of all, Heracles killed many wild beasts (violent archaic vital forces or forces of the subtle worlds opposing all transformation) «to prepare the roads of the future», that is to say humanity’s future evolution, more particularly to facilitate the path for those who will follow the steps of these adventurers of consciousness. Indeed, one could consider that the individual yoga ends with the fight against the Amazons and that is where the yoga for humanity begins.
Then, the seeker must experience the first manifestations of the supramental energy (Heracles was bothered by Helios’ heat), which are difficult to bear for today’s human nature.
Then, by building the Pillars of Heracles in Tartessos (Heracles’ Columns) which indicate the western limits of inhabited land, on the edge of Libya and Europe, the hero sets the extreme limits that no seeker could claim passing according to the elders. Here we are talking about the limits of the liberation process in the incarnation (Libya) and the expansion of consciousness (Europe) of he who has become a «seer »; passing Heracles’ Columns is to surpass the states of wisdom and sanctity.
Diodorus of Sicily, historian of the Ist century BC (and thus a relatively late source for us) evokes the famous columns in these terms (4.18.5): « It is said that, to leave an immortal memory of his expedition, Heracles brought the extremities of both continents, which were very distant before, closer to each other through a dyke leaving only a narrow passage to the sea water, thus preventing the ocean’s cetaceans to enter the inner sea: this colossal work perpetuated Heracles’ memory. Some claim that, on the contrary, both continents being sealed, Heracles opened the isthmus, thus creating the straits which connects today the Ocean and our sea. Everyone is free to adopt one or the other of these two views».
In this passage, two opposing realisations are being reported, which could be attributed to the avatars as part of their mission to help humanity in key moments of its evolution.
It is thus possible to consider them simultaneously on an individual and collective plane.
First of all, the impossibility for some vital forces to penetrate the being, the realised purity (or the union with the divine) constituting an impassable barrier (the Ocean’s cetaceans can no longer enter the inner sea). This halt would be the consequence of the rapprochement between spirit and matter (two continents which were formerly far apart from each other).
On the collective plane, this could be a definitive end to the action of some forces which must leave the manifestation, since they are no longer useful for its progression.
Those columns can then be considered as what remains of Atlas’ columns at this advanced stage of the yoga (that which keeps spirit separated from matter). Hence the identifications that has been made sometimes between the two.
And conversely, other initiates described the opening of a channel allowing the irruption of new forces into the personal and/or terrestrial consciousness between Oceanos (the global consciousness) and the personal and/or terrestrial consciousness (our sea).
The oldest reference to the columns seems to be found in Pindar’s work, a poet from the Vth century B-C. who affirms that it is not possible to go further in the yoga without precising their place in the Labours: “Now if this son of Aristophanes, being fair of form and achieving deeds as fair, hath thus attained unto the height of manly excellence, no further is it possible for him to sail untraversed sea beyond the pillars of Herakles, which the hero-god set to be wide-famed witnesses of the end of voyaging: for he had overcome enormous wild-beasts on the seas, and tracked the streams through marshes to where he came to the goal that turned him to go back homeward, and there did he mark out the ends of the earth.” (Pindar, Third Nemean. See on this subject Mother’s Agenda volume 1)
This author explains that an initiate – probably also himself – located the currents of consciousness/energy at the root of life and even «saw» the path which leads to the spirit-matter union, and then to matter’s divinisation.
The first authors to locate precisely those columns in relation to the Labours of Heracles seem to be Diodorus of Sicily, a historian from the Ist century BC, and Apollodorus, who lived in that same period. Thus, it is quite difficult to know if there was unanimity about this location in the Labours among the oldest initiates and if they considered that only «divine envoys» could have crossed these limits. In any case, it is certain that the gunas and the guardians of Geryon’s Cattle (Orthros, Eurytion and Geryon himself) were clearly identified, otherwise nobody could have spoken about them.
The name Tartessos is organised with the same structuring letters than those of the name Tartarus (Τ+ΡΤ) with two added sigma (ΣΣ) which also appear in Odysseus’ name (Ulysses) where they are associated to delta (Δ). Those letters from Tartessos’ name express a reversal (or a negation) of the spirit’s abilities in both the separative and intuitive functions of the human mind, associated to the idea of a dive to the root of human consciousness in the faltering steps of its first emergence (the irruption out of nescience).
Also, if at this stage the mind can no longer be the means of investigation of consciousness’ deep layers, an other «support» must be used. That is the role of Helios’ «barge» or «cup» which «carries» the supramental illuminating power during the journey across the night, that is to say in the time of distance and ignorance of our Divine origin.
That is why some authors say that it is Nereus, «the old man of the sea», Pontos’ older son acting at the root of vital consciousness, who provided the sun barge to the hero. The fact that Heracles could approach Nereus suggests that the seeker rose to the overmind, which solely allows the dive into the archaic layers of life.
According to others, the barge was given to the hero by Helios himself, or even by Oceanos, that is to say by the light of supramental Truth or by the cosmic consciousness.
Every evening, Helios settled in this cup to cross the ocean: the light of supramental truth uses a «support» to cross the ocean of consciousness in the time of darkness (the periods of distance from the Divine). It is thus absolutely not affected by those cycles or the alternance.
In order to cross the arm of the ocean to reach the island of Erythia, the adventurer of consciousness must use the same principle of consciousness that simultaneously isolates but also represents the junction between the greatest shadow and the strongest light, between the consciousness of creation immersed in obscurity and the supramental light. The symbol of the barge can therefore be that of an absolute consecration and Self-giving to the Divine, that is to say a complete transparency. The reddening of Erythia is the image of the body filled with supramental light-force.
One can also understand that the supramental consciousness acts alternately in conscious humanity at certain times (in the day) and behind the veil (at night) using another type of consciousness as intermediate.
The stretch of water which the seeker must pass is neither Pontos (symbol of life), nor Thalassa (the navigable sea, the path), nor even Als (the salty sea, the essence of the path which is liberation), but Oceanos, the current of consciousness «which surrounds the earth from all sides», the «cosmic consciousness». The access to the island of Erythia surrounded by mist thus requires a passage through the most archaic levels of consciousness with the support of the supramental light.
The confrontations no longer take place at the level of the gods but at that of the Titans, since it is Oceanos who tries in vain to rise the sea against him, and not Poseidon as it was the case for the seekers, including the most advanced ones like Ulysses.
It is the first Labour in which a close cooperation between one of the greatest gods, Helios, and a mortal occurs. It sanctions the beginning of an alliance which proves indispensable in the war of the gods against the giants. Indeed, «there was an oracle among the gods saying that no giant could be killed by the gods alone, but that if a mortal would form an alliance with the gods, then the giants would die». Those giants represent forces that manifest at the root of life, even before the emergence of human consciousness: they are preceding the gods since they were born out of drops of blood falling from Uranus’ severed sex which was thrown into the sea. Indeed, these are forces which must be confronted within the body, going back to life’s origins, when the adventurer of consciousness has improved in himself the mental and vital planes of consciousness to the best of their possibilities (having achieved the union of men and gods). This fight will be studied later, since it concerns the yoga’s most advanced stages.
Geryon’s cattle was under a triple guard: a dog, a herdsman and finally Geryon himself, whom the hero had to defeat successively.
The first «guardian» is the dog Orthros.
It is unambiguously one of the four monsters born to the viper Echidna «an evolutionary “halt” of the union» – herself daughter of Phorcys and Ceto, the stage of the first «will of individuation» in the animal consciousness – and of Typhon «the ignorance».
Let us recall that the corrections of this name (from Orthros to Orthos) were made by scribes in the manuscripts and that it is then quite difficult to re-establish the name previously used by each author.
If we keep the spelling Orthos, meaning «erected, not deviated, straight», it then cannot be «the Truth» (otherwise his murder would obviously not have been necessary) but only a «transitory» truth which must be surpassed when the time has come. This monster would then represent the «established truths» which appear unreal or even deceitful to the adventurers of consciousness, especially the physical laws (for example that of the senses, of illness, or even of death).
If one considers the other spelling, Orthros, this name can mean at the same time «he who is present from dawn, at the root of conscious life», and also «the opposite of Truth, that is to say falsehood, the fundamental insincerity », all that keeps one away from unity with the Real.
Nevertheless, at a very advanced stage of the yoga, the adventurer realises that a tiny movement of consciousness is enough to pass from the world of Truth to its reverse, which would explain the close use of both names, Orthos/Orthros, as well as Orthros’ representation with two heads.
The victory over the first guardian can then be considered under two points of view: either it consists of questioning, not only mentally, but also practically, the established beliefs and the «imprints» in regard to the most fundamental «laws» of the mental-vital nature, or it requires the growing awareness of the tiny torsions that transform the movements at their root and plunge them in the world of separation and of division.
The second opponent of the hero was the herdsman Eurytion. This name means, with the structuring letters, «a vast consciousness on the plane of the spirit». Eurytion most probably incarnates the bulwark which demands that man has reached the summits of the mind before proceeding to a reversal that would make the cattle, or «divine realisations», which belong to the world of Unity accessible.
Eurytion can also be the symbol of «the spiritual root of the ego» as we already mentioned in the introduction of the four last Labours. In the Indian tradition, this root lies indeed in the Buddhi, the highest intelligence.
Finally, Heracles clashed with the «owner» of the cattle, Geryon «voice, language, ability of expression (here that of Nature, as it is situated at the origins of life)». This giant with three bodies, triple in one, would then incarnate the three gunas or indissociable modes of Nature’s expression.
To kill Geryon is to transcend the gunas and to reach not only the liberation of the spirit but also that of Nature.
Then penetrating into the world of non-dual true life, the seeker is able to retrieve Geryon’s cattle of which the beasts were purple, that is to say life’s divine powers. Those powers, for today’s humanity, are still miraculous.
But they remain only life’s powers at the level of the overmind, and not that of the supramental. That is why some say that Hades’ cattle was grazing not far from there (let us recall that Hades, ΑΙΔΗΣ, is the symbol of unity of consciousness in matter, in the body). This is only a stage that must also be surpassed. That is why Sri Aurobindo and The Mother deliberately limited the use of those powers in order not to be restrained by an intermediate realisation which did not offer the possibility of human transformation that they were looking for.
We shall not linger here on the etiological tales of the hero’s return, since the sources we have are too recent and unreliable.
Still it should be noted that Apollodorus mentions that Hera sent a horsefly to disperse the cattle that Heracles was bringing back, as she did to torment Io. This action, opposed to Zeus’ movement of expansion, might prevent too big a lag between the evolution of a rare few initiates and that of the rest of humanity.