The Eighth Labor – The Mares of Diomedes (revised version,
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.