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The Twelve Labors of Hercules VIII: The Mares of Diomedes

The Eighth Labor – The Mares of Diomedes (revised version, spring 2016)


         There are a number of versions of the eighth Labor, a rather gristly myth, but the general outline goes like this. King Diomedes, a son of Ares and a giant, owned four ferocious horses with a taste for human flesh. The horses were so wild they had to be secured with an iron chain to their brass cribs. When newcomers appeared in his land, Diomedes would innocently invite them in and then feed them to his horses. Hercules was assigned by Eurystheus to capture the horses and deliver them to him. He first killed Diomedes and fed him to his own horses, who then became more tame, allowing Hercules to lead them home and complete his task.

         To understand the inner story we have to imagine what those strange man-eating creatures represent. When we think of horses, they symbolize both power and an independent spirit that is explosively wild. While not the same, the two are quite compatible and often are found together. King Diomedes, then, is obsessed with both. That he is the son of the war god, Ares, gives us a further hint that he is an archetypal power-mad person in a position of leadership, who maintains at best very insubstantial reins on his willfulness. The myth, then, is about the hazards of power.

         The horses are tied with unbreakable iron chains to cribs of brass, so it is impossible for them to escape. Brass—imitation gold—also has an association with military power, quite probably the most intractable form of human power there is.

         Diomedes feeds newcomers to his power-horses, meaning that innocent bystanders are sacrificed to the appetites of power as a matter of course (pun intended). Those who are trusting and politically na´ve in the presence of a monarch are destined for an unhappy end, as the powerful use them for their nefarious schemes without the slightest twinge of conscience. Machiavelli has written the final word about this practicality in The Prince and elsewhere, nearly 500 years ago. Here’s a typical quote: “Men are so simple and so much inclined to obey immediate needs that a deceiver will never lack victims for his deceptions.”

         Outside of a purely military context, many powerful people are polite and nice on the outside but seethe with hatred inside. A savvy person is not fooled, so the hatred consumes its host instead.

         When Hercules, the embodiment of justice, arrives, he kills Diomedes and feeds him to his own creatures. The hero is like karma restoring the natural balance. The Nuremberg trials after World War II served a similar function.

         The eighth Labor offers the hopeful notion that unbridled power, while lethally dangerous for those who stray within its orbit, will sooner or later destroy those who wield it. Being “hoist with your own petard” doesn’t require a heroic figure to bring it about; it’s pretty much the natural order. “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword,” as Jesus put it. Hercules must represent the urge for justice that hopefully can hasten the process, preferably without recourse to violence, though the Greeks were realists in that regard. Power does not need to abuse everyone, but the lust for vengeance that lurks within it enjoys meting out suffering. Even when the powerful maintain a veneer of civility, it very likely cloaks a boiling animosity that threatens to burst forth at any moment. So while a violent denouement is not absolutely necessary, it is frequently the outcome.

         Once power has consumed its purveyors it loses its strength, because it is wholly dependent on them. As Dr. Mees puts it: “It generally has a salutary effect if brutality is given a dose of its own medicine.” In war there is always a buildup of vicious power, like a violent thunderstorm, which then releases its energy in a lethal paroxysm, followed by a period of calm. The alternation of tension and release underlies much of human endeavor, including art, sport, politics, and historical evolution. The longer the tension is sustained by the power elite, the greater the subsequent collapse. In art, at least, the alternation is a way to sustain interest, but in politics, minimizing its amplitude would be much less damaging.

         The desire for power can be seen as a compensation for a childhood where the soul, which intuitively knows it is a spark of immeasurable beingness, is compressed and made to feel tiny, insignificant, and even illegitimate. The developing psyche has various strategies to combat this monumental injustice, generally either becoming withdrawn and introverted or craving extroversion and power. The child’s strategy resembles Nataraja Guru’s image of a small man trying to jump on the back of a horse: not enough effort and he falls back to the starting point, too much and he sails right over to the other side. A yogi controls the effort with expertise and so lands right on top. The trick is to start with a burst of energy, but then hold it in check just enough. Those untethered psyches that become drunk with power lose the ability to restrain themselves, and tend to run amok. If they can be said to be “secure in the saddle,” and “holding the reins of power,” they are riding a man-eating steed, not a noble pathfinder.

         Overcompensation is more or less common for a standard abusive upbringing, where the ego is regularly thwarted. For kids raised with balance—respect without exaggeration—it’s as if they have been offered a “leg up” on the horse of their destiny. For those reared as budding aristocrats, encouraged in their conceits of superiority, it is as if they are being catapulted onto their chosen mount. They need to find a way to hold back or they will soar far over their objective to land in a heap. Thus, dealing with power intelligently is everyone’s problem, not just the military brass and politicians.


Scott Teitsworth