Eighth Labour: the Mares of Diomedes
Diomedes, son of Ares and Cyrene, was king of the Thracian people of Cicones (Kikones) or, according to others, of the Bistones who were very belligerent. His mares fed on human flesh. (Some stallions or winged horses appear on the oldest ceramics.) Eurystheus requested Heracles to bring them back to him.
According to Pindar, the hero who was supposed to accomplish the labour without help, gave the mares a passerby to devour to distract them while harnessing them. Diomedes tried to oppose the hero and died in the fight that followed. The animals, once quieted, let themselves be taken meekly.
According to Diodorus, the troughs were made of bronze and the mares were chained to them. The hero gave them their own master Diomedes to devour, and thus they were cured from their bad habits. He then brought them to Eurystheus who gave them to Hera and ensured their progeny.
According to Apollodorus, Heracles had taken some volunteers with him, among which Abderos (a son of Hermes) who he loved (some say he was his lover). He used violence against the servants attending the troughs and took the mares towards the sea. As the Bistones pursued him, he entrusted the mares to Abderos who was ripped apart. After defeating the Bistones and having killed Diomedes, Heracles founded the city of Abdera and took the mares along with him. They were released by Eurystheus and went to Mount Olympus, where they were killed by wild beasts.
The texts hardly give us more details regarding this labour. It is essentially question of «bad habits» (human flesh as food) which a king of Thrace had given to his horses on which he exerted severe constraints.
The horse is a symbol of strength, of power which the yoga brings, as well as of the vital force.
(We shall not take into account Euripides’ version that introduced in this labour which he placed in fourth position, the story of Alceste and Admete that we studied in the second Chapter of the present volume.)
This labour takes place in Thrace, province of asceticism located in North-Eastern Greece where Boreas, the North wind, blows. The latter is one of the «breaths» of the Absolute encouraging the effort for the labour of purification and transformation in the right movement of incarnation, before the seeker abandons it between the hands of his Psychic Being. Let us recall that Apollo, the god of psychic light, lives in Hyperborea, thus beyond asceticism.
If the previous Labour was focused on the risks of an insufficient consecration of the power of the luminous mind during the first spiritual experiences, power therefore deviated for the benefit of the ego, this Labour denounces excessive austerity and constraints on the vital forces which ruin a right asceticism and lead to dryness of the being or to an amputation of its potentialities and qualities. This deviation is supported by the wrong belief that this excess pleases the Divine, while in reality the seeker clings to the ego with all his strength. He therefore distances himself from Reality through the violence of his very efforts to «feel» and «seize» It.
Diomedes «who meditates on the Divine or whose concern is the Divine» (not to be confused with Diomedes, chief of the Argives against Troy) is indeed the Kikones’ king «they who work with strength». His father is Ares, the god who works towards individuation and ensures the destruction of obsolete forms, and his mother is Cyrene (Kyrene) «the authority». The seeker would constrain his own nature by an excess of «separating» authority, which leads him to reject sometimes violently a right process of incarnation. He uses the strength given to him (the horses) to «devour» himself, while, on the contrary, the path requires to develop one’s abilities at best.
One can also see in Diomedes he «who thinks the Divine», and because of his parents Ares and Cyrene, «he who has a preconceived and separated idea of himself», idea generating an inner «censor». When the latter acts with a will of purification, he simultaneously removes the faculties necessary to perfecting one’s nature in its integrality. (The homonym Diomedes of the Trojan War would represent a much vaster idea of the Divine.)
This story can also be compared to that of Glaucos’ homonym (usually identified as Sisyphus’ son) killed by Iolaus during the funeral games in Pelias’ honour. He also fed his horses human flesh and was devoured by them when they had none left. The story denounces the intellect’s habit of drawing from the mental reserves to sustain the vital.
The present Labour of Heracles could therefore also be understood as an excessive constraint over the vital forces, which are sustained at the expense of the mind.
Sri Aurobindo in The Renaissance in India insisted on this deviation: «It is a great error to suppose that spirituality flourishes best in an impoverished soil with the life half-killed and the intellect discouraged and intimidated. The spirituality that so flourishes is something morbid, hectic and exposed to perilous reactions. »
Long is the list of constraints that the seeker can exert on himself under the guise of purification and at the expense of his outer nature resources: the fight against all what may seem impure to him or contradicting the path the way he conceives it, various excesses of ascetic disciplines, etc.
In other words, it is the error of he who seeks too much purity and perfection through his own strength, who often refuses that he belongs to humanity with all the darkness it implies, and moreover, who has not surrendered his yoga to the Absolute yet. The will of consecration to the quest which is diverted here towards that which wants to «seize» the Divine (Diomedes) is then used exclusively for repression, even though it was not the intended goal. The seeker stiffens and devours himself.
In Pindar’s version, the seeker returns to a right control without suddenly breaking his habits and moreover, without forcefully trying to control the vital (without suddenly depriving the horses of their usual food or wanting to forcefully tame them, since Heracles gives them somebody to devour while harnessing them). As soon as resistance occurs, the cause of the error (the death of Diomedes) automatically disappears.
In Diodorus’ version, the seeker uses the trapped forces to turn back against that which constraints them.
(According to Hyginus, who gives them masculine names, the mares are called Podargos, Lampon, Xanthos and Dinos, respectively «a beautiful incarnation», «brightness», «flare» and «spinning » or «evolution towards the union». For this author, they would then be positive forces that were diverted.)
In Apollodorus’ version, after seizing the mares, Heracles had to fight against the Bistones, who were pursuing him. We do not know the meaning of this people’s name but it could probably be associated to the Kikones «who work forcefully», as it is logical for the hero to be «pursued» for a long time by what emanated from these deviated energies (the Bistones), even if the pressure over the compelled energies is released (the mares are freed).
With the structuring letters (Β+ΣΤ), this people would represent a labour of incarnation of rectitude, which would be pursued with excess here.
In order not to be hampered in his movements, the hero entrusted the mares to Abderos, who he loved. Yet, he was devoured.
Abderos is a son of Hermes and symbolises a movement stemming from the overmind. This name can be interpreted in two ways.
Either it represents «a right asceticism» inspired by the highest planes of mental consciousness. Abderos’ death would then mean that the seeker is not able yet to «rightfully» control the energies barely freed from the constraints that blocked them for too long.
Or it represents «the right use of the whip» and the disappearance of Abderos indicates that the released vital force can no longer bear any constraint, even the right one. During this work, the seeker would no longer need to put any constraints on himself for the yoga. This episode would reinforce the meaning of the mares’ liberation. Nevertheless, Heracles paid a tribute to the period where the right constraint was indissociable from the yoga by founding the city of Abdera.
In both cases, Abderos is logically «loved» by Heracles.
The mares’ destiny is inconsistent from one author to another.
Either Eurystheus consecrated them to Hera and secured their progeny: the liberated forces are put to the service of the right movement of evolution (Hera) and thus will be useful to the yoga and bear fruits.
Or, released by Eurystheus, they wandered to Mount Olympus where they were killed by beasts: released, these vital forces can help the yoga up to an advanced stage on the path, but they are not able to confront the forces of opposition that suddenly appear on the way.
Introduction to the last four Labours.
The interpretation of the last Labours of Heracles requires the right understanding of the advanced stages of the yoga. It is complex not only because of the difficulty of interpretation, but also because the progressions in the yoga associated to it vary according to the authors.
For further information about this introduction, please refer to the first chapters of The Yoga of Self-Perfection in which Sri Aurobindo presents the advanced stages of the yoga.
The two previous Labours, the Cretan Bull and the Mares of Diomedes, associated to the deepening of the purification, invite the seeker to a right control of the power of the illumined mind, while warning him not to exert excessive constraints to the life energies.
The essential idea is to bring balance, clarity and peace in the being, as nothing can happen in unconsciousness or agitation.
According to Indian terminology, it is the Sattva (one of the three modes of nature with inertia and dynamism) which must be brought to the best of its perfection. It is made of moderation, balance and harmony. It is directed towards goodness, knowledge, right understanding, right order and vital control. It is particularly active in the intellect.
But here again, it is only a state of higher wisdom, as complete control over the vital is not yet accomplished, nor the transcendence of the fundamental modes of nature, thus imperfections remain, like a particular form of egoism (sattvic).
Purification being the condition for liberation, we have seen that this realisation consisted in purifying the instruments «in themselves» (intelligence, will, etc.), from their deformations and limitations, from the false movements coming from fundamental ignorance and the mixing of functions. It was the object of the previous Labours. Its main orientation is the liberation from desire and the movements of the ego in the outer being (mind, vital and body): liberation from vital lust and its irruption in other planes, from the egocentric orientation of the will, of passion, from selfish preference in the intelligence, etc.
A first achievement is the «liberation in the spirit» which is liberation from ignorance and the outer nature’s limitations for the seeker who reaches the union with the Divine in the spirit. According to a common denomination, the one who is «liberated» resides in the Self; he knows and he is the fundamental truth of his being; he enjoys his unity with universal existence, with the timeless Divine. But as soon as he comes down from his heights and approaches the limits of the mind, he contacts the roots of separateness in the spirit which can bring him back towards the ego at any moment, ignoring and forgetting unity. He may also imagine at times that he is free from the ego, while acting under its subtle influence.
As the extension of consciousness and the purification progress in view of the disappearance of the ego, the inner flame grows. This flame is represented by the river Thermodon “the warmth of the union” at the mouth of which live the Amazons, who symbolise a perfect vital control. This was considered the ultimate goal of all the ancient yogas (and it still is to a large extent the goal of contemporary yogas). Indeed, there are no more men among the Amazons, which signifies that there are no more works of yoga, but only goals or achievements represented by the women.
Nevertheless, it cannot be the ultimate goal for one who is searching for a divinisation of earthly existence. Also, it is not only a matter of bringing back the queen’s belt – symbol of perfect control – but also of pursuing the purification through the transcendence of the modes of nature, or gunas. Hence the fight against the Amazons, which marks a reversal in the yoga.
According to the ancients, the seeker would then face the complex action of the gunas within himself which operate in a very intricate manner. These are very powerful forces or principles of nature which find themselves in everything and whose particular combinations determine our temperament, for example. In action, the soul (or Psychic Being) is subjected to their game.
We shall give more details about these three «gunas» further. Tamas is the mode of passivity and inertia. Rajas is the principle of dynamism, effort and fight. Sattva is that of balance, integration and harmony.
Each one of these modes is particularly active in the plane of which it is the basic principle: Tamas in matter, Rajas in the vital and Sattva in the mind.
Their interaction is the source of dualities.
If the goal of yoga is the perfection of the entirety of nature, and not just a flight in the spirit, resolving the problem of the gunas’ domination becomes indispensable. Surpassing the gunas means surpassing all attachment to knowledge, action and its fruits, as well as indifference. It means reaching a perfect equality in the face of all dualities, suffering or pleasure, praise or blame, etc.
Yet any action attempting to limit the influence of one of these modes modifies the action of the others. For example, any attempt to limit Rajas, the principle of energy and of passion, causes in consequence renewed inertia, Tamas.
Thus there are only two solutions to overcome the problem of the gunas’ actions. Either immobilising nature’s instruments (mental, vital and bodily) to render the three modes inoperative, or mastering them.
According to the ancient initiates, none could stabilise a harmonious balance of the outer nature (Sattva) while maintaining their participation in the world. They considered that only the first solution – the immobilisation of the instruments – was realisable and constituted the ultimate stage the seeker could reach.
Because even if they considered its possibility, they had not found how to fully transcend the gunas, except by escaping into an immobility of the spirit, by withdrawing from worldly action. Any attempt to balance them in their not yet perfectly spiritualised being would automatically cause the cessation of action and the immobility of the soul. That is why they placed Heracles’ columns, symbols of impassable boundaries in yoga, at the end of the Amazons’ Labour or at the very beginning of that of Geryon’s Cattle, the latter also being the first of the Labours to take place in a mythical place.
In order to achieve this first separation from the gunas’ action, it is recommended to rise above them by developing the impersonal witness consciousness (which is a mode of the inner being) in order to conquer full freedom in the spirit. This consciousness leads to a «detached» superiority, a «static» freedom.
But, if the goal of the yoga is not only the individual liberation but that of the whole of humanity, one must overcome this realisation. For anyone who seeks divine perfection including in the body, this liberation through inaction is not enough as one must also render the outer being transparent to the action of the divine forces, thus transcending the gunas within action as well.
That is why Heracles and other heroes (like Theseus and Bellerophon) will have to face the Amazons to prepare themselves for the next labour, that of liberation of the ego’s spiritual root (which is also the root of the desire’s soul).
It supposes complete transcendence of the gunas and of the dualities they generate. Yet the greatest initiates already knew what Sri Aurobindo stated in our time: that the gunas’ conflict existed only because of human nature’s imperfection and that these modes expressed themselves in perfect unity in the being integrally liberated as three essential powers of the Divine in Nature: «the Divine calmness» which is the source of perfect power, «the pure spirit will» and the «Divine light» illuminating the whole.
According to our understanding, this will be the object of the Tenth Labour of Heracles, «Geryon’s cattle», which the great initiate Pindar considered unrealisable, having located the «Pillars of Heracles» on the road that leads to Geryon.
In order to achieve an integral liberation, that is to say not only the union in the spirit of one’s being with that of the Divine Being, but also that of one’s will with the Divine Will working in the manifestation, the seeker must then also attain a second liberation through the transcendence of nature’s modes and of their complex interactions, source of dualities which support the roots of the ego.
According to Sri Aurobindo, even if ego and desire have been eradicated from the instruments (of the mind and the vital), the first purification and liberation is insufficient as it does not eliminate their spiritual roots located at the highest of mental nature. This root or «primordial knot» appears when the individual soul strays from Unity (which is the universal and transcending truth of one’s being) and wants to make something of its own with the spiritual energy that supports the universal movement and works towards individuation. The soul seeks to possess its being, its consciousness, its strength, its joy, in a separative way, in its own right and not in the Divine’s right. This will for a separated existence then changes nature within the external instruments and transforms into tension, effort and suffering.
It is the movement which finds its origin in the Echidna-Typhon couple – «the cessation of the evolution in the union» combined with «the ignorance» – that produced the four great monsters.
Thus it is «the sense of ego» or the mere idea of ego (which is also the fundamental root of desire) that must be eradicated. Ultimately, the feeling and the experience of being a separated and independent person in the universe must disappear, including in the body. (About the loss of bodily ego, see Mother’s Agenda volume 10, 1969.)
This liberation cannot be completed without the help of the energies from the supramental plane. That is why Heracles will use the sun’s barge. According to Sri Aurobindo, integral liberation can be achieved only by he who accesses the Gnosis and lives in the supramental.
In this phase of the yoga, the work of liberation is marked by an increasing «equality», as «the perfect equality» is the sign of an accomplished liberation. The first realisation in the progression of equality is illustrated by the action of Atalante «the Equality», the first feminine hero who distinguished herself in the hunt for the Calydonian boar, which represents the purification of the uncouth elements of the vital. Without a certain «equality», it is impossible to overcome the boar.
Sri Aurobindo seems to distinguish «Equanimity» and «Equality», as he attributes a more restrictive nature to the first notion: «There is a stage in the sadhana in which the inner being begins to awake. Often the first result is the condition made up of the following elements:
1. A sort of witness attitude in which the inner consciousness looks at all that happens as a spectator or observer, observing things but taking no active interest or pleasure in them.
2. A state of neutral equanimity in which there is neither joy nor sorrow, only quietude.
3. A sense of being something separate from all that happens, observing it without being a part of it.
4. An absence of attachment to things, people or events.
(Letters on Yoga, Part IV, Experiences of Inner Consciousness)
According to Sri Aurobindo (The Synthesis of Yogas, Part IV, Chapter XIII, The Action of Equality), the progression of this equality can be assessed in oneself through four criteria:
Equality in the most concrete practical sense of the word: freedom from mental, vital and physical preferences, an even acceptance of all God’s workings within and around him;
a firm peace and absence of all disturbance and trouble,
a positive inner spiritual happiness and spiritual ease of the natural being which nothing can lessen,
a clear joy and laughter of the soul embracing life and existence.
and he adds: «To be equal is to be infinite and universal. »
With the integral liberation from nature comes a liberation of the spiritual perception of nature’s dualities. That is to say that the «fully liberated one» completely «understands» the Divine game, that for him there are no more contradictions, just the deployment of a vast harmony. The fundamental knot of attraction and repulsion is defeated (repulsion for the divine action in the universe which manifests in us through suffering, for example, and which seems contrary to the nature of the Divine, as since long vital repulsion has been mastered ).
But this integral liberation is not the culmination of spiritual evolution yet. As Nature, within all its instruments including the body, must still become divine: «to be, to know and to possess the Divine» is the ultimate goal of the evolution for humanity.
To prepare this transformation, the being has to become totally transparent for the action of the divine forces within – through a complete spiritualisation -, he must have reached Apollo’s state in Hyperborea, beyond asceticism (the Divine does the work within him), and beyond duality, in the land «where things have no shadow»: the divine forces can thus go through the seeker without the slightest turmoil, without facing the slightest resistance nor awakening any fears in the lower planes.
The last phase, that of the transformation which must lead to the divine perfection in a divinised body, begins to be illustrated by the two last Labours located in mythical places like Geryon’s: the quest for the Apples of the Hesperides, symbol of «Union» or «unitive knowledge» of which the limits are ceaselessly pushed further as they progressively expand to all the parts of the being, and the descent in Hades to learn about, before removing them, the barriers opposing the body’s transformation for its divine perfection.