The six final labours of Heracles concern the most advanced stages of the spiritual journey. Accomplished out of the Pelopponese, they symbolize the end of the process of purification and liberation.
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Héracles on Olympus – Louvre Museum
A voice cried, “Go where none have gone!
Dig deeper, deeper yet
Till thou reach the grim foundation stone
And knock at the keyless gate. »
Sri Aurobindo – A God’s Labour
The first six Labours of Heracles described the conditions necessary to the first liberation, named “spiritual liberation” by Sri Aurobindo, that is to say a cessation of the spirit’s subjection (understood here as including the planes above the logical mind) to the mixed, ignorant movements of the lower nature.
Mainly defined by the two first labours – the Nemean Lion and the Lernaean Hydra – this spiritual liberation consists of a liberation from the ego (the will of self-assertion) and from desire, of which the root is a vital lust stemming from a deformation of life energy due to ignorance and to a halt in the evolution in union.
The next four Labours of this first group specified certain requirements or necessities for this liberation of the spirit.
with the Ceryneian Hind, an aspiration and purification of the intuition from what interferes with it, for the purpose of integrity and consecration.
with the Erymanthian Boar, the necessary rejection of the most uncouth impulsions and movements of our nature.
with the cleaning up of Augeas’ Stables, the renouncement to «the benefits» of the first experiences on the path.
finally, with the Stymphalian Birds, the ability to discern the confusion of the planes (mental and vital) and the obtainment of a certain control over our mental movements.
These first six Labours take place in the Peloponnese, on either side of Argos for the two first Labours, in Arcadia located South of Achaea in the central area of the Peloponnesus, or on its borders for the four next ones.
The next six Labours take us away from the Peloponnesus, adressing more precisely the rather advanced seekers who at least received a first response to their aspiration from the Invisible, in the form of a temporary opening of the mind or of the psychic (illumination or psychic opening), or both simultaneously.
This first contact enables the entrance into what is usually called in Western mystic «the unitive stage» following those of «purification» and «illumination». The seeker must deepen his being’s purification upon entering this unitive life. He is then driven by his «inner guide» (the «Psychic Being» or the Master of yoga) rather than by the will of his outer being, at least when it comes to the major orientations in his life
If entering the path confronted him to a first purification, called «night of the senses» in this mystic, he could find himself confronted to a second night, that «of the spirit». The duration of these nights, their requirements and their intensity are obviously different for each individual, and probably proportionate to the intensity of the experiences. This second night brings the seeker into contacting a place of silence and peace deep inside the being, which corresponds to a surrender of the outer being and eventually to the end of psychological suffering. It is around this place that the seeker will progressively reunite all the parts of his being, in order to make his inner fire grow.
Nevertheless, Sri Aurobindo did not dwell on these different nights nor did he encourage addressing them, preferring to indicate that all seekers meet periods of darkness and dryness throughout the yoga. As the very principle of it is an ascent followed by an integration, it is obvious that any progression towards light implies descending into the corresponding shadow. The first night corresponds to a lack of interest for wordly affairs and ordinary pleasures, just like the second one, who will dive into what seems like a radical abandonment of the Divine support (which can go as far as the loss of intellectual functions), are only specific formulations of these periods of integration.
Some ancient masters also marked this important step by the conclusion of the elimination of the most common errors in asceticism, which is the object of Theseus’ preliminary labours. Indeed, for them, the Cretan Bull which Heracles had to bring back during the seventh Labour was the same one that Theseus had to tame in Marathon as he just arrived in Athens after «correcting» many mistakes on the way, before even tackling the Minotaur.
Let us recall that after his victory over this monster, Theseus established synoecism, unifying Attica through the reunion of the twelve communities in order to have only one people and by setting central institutions of a same state. Synoecism is a «community of houses» and represents the founding act of a city. Cf. ch. 4.
Even if Heracles’ Seventh Labour seems to correspond rather correctly with the stages of Theseus’ life, let us remind ourselves that it is advisable to avoid comparing lineages too precisely.
At this stage, the construction of a labyrinth should be no longer possible, that is to say that the seeker should no longer have the freedom to build a mental fortress out of a spiritual experience sustained by the power of the luminous mind but which would have been diverted by the ego, thus from the consecration to the Truth. Furthermore, the process of purification has been set in motion and all the energies are gathered under the control of a higher will. The seeker can then guide them towards his only true «task» of which he already perceives the essential outline.
Nevertheless, during this first phase, the seeker is far from being done with «his personal will», since the process of consecration or total abandonment into the hands of the Absolute will still take a long time. Thus he must remain extremely attentive to the continuation of his purification and consecration, with a growing sincerity, in order to avoid falling into the classic mistakes of this phase. The deviances which usually occur after the first experiences often originate from the fact that the seeker holds on to the «I» whilst believing he has surrendered to the Divine.
The two first Labours of this second series, the Cretan Bull and the Mares of Diomedes, concern the ability to contain without artifice (with bare hands) the producing power of the luminous mind and to overcome the attraction for excessive asceticism, which compels the vital force.
Through these two Labours, who are located on two opposing poles (Crete to the South and Thrace to the North), it is a question of achieving a fair control over one’s potential and a right balance in the work of yoga.
Jason already had to prove his ability in this domain by mastering the powers of realisation of the luminous mind at work in the world of duality (he had to plough Ares’ field after putting two fiery bulls under one yoke).
The second phase of the progression towards the union with the Divine (or «unitive life») is marked essentially by the growth of the inner flame. The progressive warmth of the current towards the mystic union is illustrated by the river Thermodon «the union’s warmth (or ardour)» at the mouth of which is located the Amazons’ capital. (Cf. «Living Flame of Love», by John of the Cross).
It includes two realisations. First of all, with the Belt of the Queen of the Amazons, the seeker must surpass the achievement of a perfect vital control. This phase marks the peak of the inner fire and opens wide the doors to the powers of life. The second realisation, illustrated by The Cattle of Geryon marks the acquisition of the powers of life, which are still akin to miracles for most of men. This realisation corresponds to the state of sanctity.
At this stage, the seeker must consider overcoming the three modes of nature (the «gunas»).
But it is still not the path’s end, and the seeker will have to avoid all temptation to use these powers if he wants to continue on the way towards Knowledge and towards the transformation of the body for the Absolute to lead him to its perfection. These realisations are the subject of the two final Labours.
Following the order of the canonical list of this second group of six Labours, the four first ones are arranged according to the cardinal points – Crete to the South (the Cretan Bull), Thrace to the North (the Mares of Diomedes), the shore of the Black Sea to the East (the belt of the Amazons’ queen), and Erythia to the West, the glowing island «in the Far West» (the Cattle of Geryon). This cross might carry various symbolisms, like the initiatory journey which always takes one back to the centre, the infinite extension of consciousness or even the progressive annihilation of the ego in all the planes.
Unlike the three first ones, the labour of Geryon’s cattle is not located precisely; we only know that it took place in the Far-West. It implies a resolution of the archaic memories at the root of life, memories which the seeker will have to deal with as they progressively appear, always going further back towards the source until he finally broaches the yoga of the body, the descent to Hades which is the subject of the next labour.
Finally, the last two Labours take place in purely symbolic places, the descent in the Hades and the Garden of Hesperides, which exclude a priori all possibility of total completion as much for the initiates of Ancient Greece as for today’s humanity. This explains why their places could have been interchanged according to the authors. As it represents an evolution regarding the millennia ahead of us, they can nevertheless still receive the beginning of a realisation.
Thus they occur not only in mythical places but also in mythical times, beyond even all the late accomplishments of the heroes, the Praxeis – «deeds» or «achievements» – which continue beyond the twelve famous Labours.
The Apples of the Garden of the Hesperides symbolise «the union», the «non-duality» and thus also the «Knowledge» of which the limits ceaselessly get «pushed further» following human evolution. It can only be «absolute» when humanity is permanently settled in the Supermind.
This is why Heracles had already picked the apples when Jason arrived in the Garden of the Hesperides, and why he had to return them at the end of the eleventh Labour in order to put them back in the garden.
As for the task concerning Cerberus, it represents a first investigation of the transformation of the body, of what «guards» or «prevents the access to» its divinisation, or, in other words : what prevents its premature divinisation arises to the consciousness.
The limited visibility of the elders about the degree of progress necessary to undertake the two last Labours explains why some initiates situated the ultimate limit of the possible realisations in the yoga at the end of the tenth Labour (the Cattle of Geryon), characterised by the famous «Pillars of Heracles (Hercules)». We therefore understand better why the poet Pindar exclaimed that it was impossible to cross the inviolate sea beyond the Pillars of Heracles.