Eurystheus ordered Heracles to bring him back the golden apples of the Hesperides, a garden which was located in the Hyperboreans’ land on the Atlas. These golden apples symbolize the Knowledge whose limits are constantly receding as human evolution progresses.
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Heracles in the garden of Hesperides – Louvre Museum
It is said that it was Gaïa’s wedding present to Hera on the occasion of her marriage to Zeus.
They were guarded by a snake (son of Phorcys and Ceto according to Hesiod) and entrusted to three Nymphs, the Hesperides, who protected them from the lust of Atlas’ daughters.
Having reached the Caucasus mountain range, Heracles killed the eagle born of Typhon and Echidna who was devouring Prometheus’ liver and freed the latter. To maintain the sky, he suggested to Zeus that Chiron – who wanted to die because of his wound – take Prometheus’ place. The latter was grateful to the hero and advised him not to get the apples by himself, but to entrust this task to Atlas while he would support the sky. The hero followed his advice.
But when the Titan returned from the garden with three golden apples, he refused to take his place again. So Heracles had to devise a stratagem: on the pretext of sliding a cushion on his shoulders, he asked the Titan to relieve him for a moment. Obviously, he then did not take back the sky onto his shoulders and handed the apples back to Eurystheus.
According to Apollodorus, Eurystheus then handed back the apples to Heracles who gave them to Athena. The goddess brought them back to The Garden of Hesperides since they could not be anywhere else.
In another version, Heracles went himself to collect the apples after killing the snake-dragon.
With those two last Labours, which suppose an advanced stage in «the integral liberation», begins the path of «perfection» which consists of realising an always greater transparency for the action of the divine forces to operate within the body.
The previous Labours occurred in the four directions: The Cretan Bull to the South, The Mares of Diomedes to the North, The Belt of Hippolyte, the Amazon Queen to the East, and Geryon’s cattle to the West. The two last ones, The Garden of Hesperides and the capture of Cerberus, have been symbolically located by the elders in the two remaining directions, on the vertical axis:
- at the Zenith, for the Garden of Hesperides which is near mount Atlas in the Caucasus if we follow Apollodorus’ version, which is the most coherent. The state of Knowledge which is symbolised by the apples is reached when the spirit/matter separation maintained by Atlas ceases. For the other authors, this garden is most often located without more details «at the edges of the world» (where no one has been or the most advanced point reached on the path), in the «Far-West» (at the root of life in matter) or even «beyond Oceanos» (beyond the realisation of the cosmic Divine).
To have the knowledge is to have access at each moment in consciousness to all the elements necessary to action in Truth, including the vision of its causes and of its consequences, as much in the details as on the plane of the universe, and in all the planes of consciousness (thus in all the «worlds»). Indeed, this labour is about progressing towards an indefinite extension of consciousness, in width and in depth. In fact, those who reached the furthest on this path mention that it is an exit from time and space as we know them. Sri Aurobindo, describing the Yoga of the King, speaks about it in Savitri I.V:
“Admitted through a curtain of bright mind
That hangs between our thoughts and absolute sight,
He found the occult cave, the mystic door
Near to the well of vision in the soul,
And entered where the Wings of Glory brood
In the silent space where all is for ever known.”
(The Wings of Glory mentioned here can most probably be compared to those on Hermes’ Caduceus.)
- In Nadir, at the doors of Hades’ kingdom guarded by the dog Cerberus, at the deepest of the body’s unconsciousness which must become conscious. Through the knowledge of its guardians, one must allow the work of the divine forces for the transformation of the body to begin.
Those last two Labours are related on one hand to the supramental and on the other hand to that which is concealed in the depths of matter and of the body. Indeed, the liberation in Spirit or the Union with the Divine in the Spirit does not imply the absolute state of knowledge, since ignorance and unconsciousness perpetuate in the outer nature. Only the barrier of the ego to the union in Spirit is lifted. Similarly, the liberation from nature is only one step on the path of the body’s divinisation.
It is not our purpose to describe here those extremely advanced stages of the Yoga. According to the experience related by Satprem, one can mention just one aspect of Heracles’ Labour, knowing that the seeker who applies himself to becoming a perfect receptacle for the action of the divine forces within and through him, without opposing any «shadow», observes an alternance in the work of those forces which sometimes go up from the feet, and at other times come down through the top of the head.
If in the previous stages of the yoga, all work of purification in the depths of the unconscious had to be preceded by a corresponding ascent, no precise order can be detected from now on. The two last labours must then be regarded simultaneously, even if we have retained here the order given by Apollodorus (which follows Pherecydes’ version).
Note on the other hand that those two labours represent explorations which inevitably have some consequences on all humanity since the seeker works at levels where matter is One.
For some authors, this Eleventh Labour happens in Hyperborea, Apollo’s favourite country, located «beyond asceticism», beyond all ways (Boreas is the wind that blows in Thrace) when the Absolute takes charge of the transformation for an integral perfection.
Note that Hyperborea is located beyond Thrace and is not usually linked to the Caucasus or to the Atlas.
Indeed it seems obvious that this phase of the path is not any more a part of the «personal yoga». From now on, it is the Absolute that leads through the psychic being which came to the fore of the being.
The apples seem to have been considered in ancient times as a symbol of immortality, associated in this study to non-duality, a characteristic of the gods, while the humans are «mortal». They are also related to fertility (creative abilities) and to Knowledge. Generally speaking, one can consider them as symbols of Union.
They are henceforth the symbol of Knowledge which is one with unity. (One finds a similar but not equivalent symbolism in the Genesis where they represent more a path towards knowledge.)
Atlas being the Titan who supports the sky on his shoulders, who separates Spirit from Matter, the apples are where this separation in Spirit stops (in the supramental), while Hades is the place where it stops in Matter.
Atlas is a force associated with the Titans and thus a force beyond the gods’ domain (of the overmind). (In fact, Atlas is the son of a Titan and does not belong stricto sensu to this group, but rather to the next generation, that of the gods. Nevertheless, as he took the Titans’ side in the war that opposed them to the gods, the Ancients considered him as one of them.)
His children are not limited to the Pleiades (the separation in the mind), but some authors also add the Hyades (the separation in the vital) and Hyas (the separation in the body). It would thus symbolise separation down to its roots within the body. It might be the meaning of the three apples, symbols of Knowledge in the three planes of the mental, the vital and the body.
What represents the state of Union is moving further away with every new spiritual conquest. This explains why the Argonauts, reaching the Garden of the Hesperides, did not find the apples already taken by Heracles, or even why Athena put them back in the garden after Heracles gave them to Eurystheus. The access to the immediate, absolute, exact and total Knowledge for the necessities of the pure Act in the moment at the level of the body will only be realised with the installation in the supramental. Before reaching this level, the knowledge will always be blurred because of duality, even at the level of the overmind (the plane of the gods).
The apples were offered by Gaia to Hera at the occasion of her marriage with Zeus, when Consciousness bends towards the development of human Intelligence (Zeus having swallowed Metis) according to the divine law (Hera). The Zeus-Hera couple (the overmind) is then only the depository of Knowledge and not its source, which lies in the Absolute; it only represents a stage towards total Union.
Those apples were entrusted to the Hesperides who protected them from the lust of Atlas’ daughters. These Hesperides are the «evening Nymphs». According to the authors, they are the daughters of Nyx alone, of Nyx and Erebus, of Atlas or even of Phorcys and Ceto. Those different filiations situate their apparition at different stages of the evolution following the authors’ conception of Knowledge (of the Union): either at the sources of manifestation (upstream of creation) when they are daughters of Nyx «the Night», sometime united with the Erebus, «the Darkness», (both being children of Chaos «the Divine Consciousness concentrated on herself») ; either at the origin of the Spirit/Matter separation as Atlas’ daughters ; finally at the birth of the «animal I» as daughters of Phorcys and Ceto, the latter filiation being barely mentioned.
These Nymphs protect the apples from the lust of Atlas’ (other) daughters – the Pleiades, and the Hyades – meaning that the forces they represent prevent the seeker from accessing the Knowledge from a level lower than the supramental, whatever their desire (the planes of growth in the mind and the vital can only bring partial knowledge).
The apples are guarded by a snake. According to Hesiod, it is the son of Phorcys and Ceto and thus appeared during the birth of the animal ‘I’: it is in going back beyond duality in the vital, beyond the origin of animal ego, that the seeker will be able to access Life unity, moment that this author also associates with the acquisition of knowledge.
A few other adventures of Heracles
The location of these adventures in link with the four last Labours vary depending on the authors, because of their progressive realisation. Here, we will follow Apollodorus who place them just before the hero arrival in Hyperborea.
Reaching the river Eridanus, Heracles asked the Nymphs (here, daughters of Zeus and Themis) to let him know where Nereus, «the sea elder», was staying as he knew where to find the apples. Nereus tried to shirk by changing forms but without success.
According to Hesiod, the Eridanus is a river flowing in the Western world, and thus at the roots of life (Nereus, Pontos’ elder son) where the la