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The Twelve Labors of Hercules IX: The Girdle of Hippolyte

The Ninth Labor – The Girdle of Hippolyte (revised version, spring 2016)

 

         Like a number of Hercules’ Labors, the ninth exists in several versions, which we will have to sort out. The King, Eurystheus, wanted to present the belt or girdle of the Amazon queen Hippolyte to his daughter, and sent Hercules to retrieve it. The belt was a gift from the God of War, Ares, and had magic powers. It held Hippolyte’s sword and javelin and signified her high standing as a military leader. Plus, the belt projected a magical aura of protection around her.

         The Amazons were an all female tribe of warriors who hated and distrusted men, so of course the task was impossible—like all the other Labors. There was no way for Hercules and his small band of supporters to defeat a whole nation of dedicated fighters. Hercules knew he couldn’t defeat the Amazons in battle, so he made friends with the queen, and she gave him the belt as a gift.

         It would be easy to interpret this Labor as a cautionary tale about sexual relations and trust, but I’d like to go a little deeper than that. The crafters of the Greek myths had a high purpose, much beyond entertaining their patrons with a bedroom farce. They intended to intuitively convey spiritual truths.

         It is crucial that Hercules succeeded in obtaining the belt not by force, but by love. He arrived in amity and was honest with the Queen about his needs. She responded in kind, and offered to give him the belt as a gift. So love and trust conquered all.

         The moral is that kindness succeeds where aggression fails. Facing an overwhelming force, Hercules knew if he opposed it directly he would be defeated. Instead he embraced his enemies with openness and honesty, and quickly gained what he was after. That might have been the end of it, but it is all too easy to stir up trouble in suspicious people. One naysayer can easily fire up a mob, and many innocent people have lost their lives because of it.

         It seems we learn best through meeting challenges, so the easy road is not very educational. In Greek myths the gods are ever intervening to confuse the situation and up the ante. This is highly reminiscent of Nataraja Guru, who would interfere with his disciple Nitya’s arrangements whenever they promised to become permanent. In his autobiography Love and Blessings, Nitya describes one such occasion, and sums up:

 

This wasn’t the first time Guru had come into my life like a destroying Shiva to separate his disciple from the snare of karmic entanglements. Wherever I proved to be successful or was becoming admired, he had a knack for sabotaging the situation. Once I asked him why he was doing this, and he told me his name was Natarajan and he was only doing his duty, adding “If Shiva doesn’t demolish, Brahma won’t get a chance to create again.” I have to admit that whenever he intervened to get me to terminate a program it always led to another program of greater spiritual value. (L&B, 207)

 

         In this case Hera, who is overseeing Hercules’ development like a pesky guru, cultivated distrust and suspicion among the Queen’s subjects by spreading false rumors that Hercules was planning to abduct Hippolyte. Alarmed, the citizens took up their weapons, mounted their horses, and swarmed down toward the docks. They had not met Hercules, and could only imagine what was taking place, so they were predisposed to react in the accustomed way. Societies always have that weakness, that lies are more palatable than truth if they meet habitual expectations.

         Dr. Mees describes what happened this way:

 

Then Hera, the Mother-Goddess, representing the Power of Karma, who ever put difficulties in the way of him whose name signifies “renowned through Hera,” went among the Amazons in the guise of one of them and spread the rumour that Hercules had come to carry off their Queen. The Power of Karma, forming an aspect of Maya, is clever at “disguises”…. The Amazons demonstrated lack of patience and tolerance, and fickleness, for they immediately mounted their horses and attacked Hercules and his companions.” (Revelation in the Wilderness, III, 194)

 

Hera’s interference introduces dramatic tension, if not divine guidance, into the tale. Otherwise, the Labor would be just too easy. In real life, it never is.

         In the most likely rendering of the myth, then, Hippolyte freely gave the belt to Hercules before the conflict. Alternatively, when Hercules saw the Amazons riding down on him he imagined that Hippolyte herself had betrayed him, so he killed her and took the belt. In yet another version she was killed accidentally by her army. One way or another, Hercules secured the prized girdle and headed for home.

         In a tragic turn typical of Greek myth, Hippolyte is killed after she removes her protective girdle. Possibly some spiritual death of the defensive ego is implied, which would excuse Hercules as a guru for administering the coup de grace. Otherwise, it would be utterly contrary to justice for the very guru who coaxed her out of her defenses to then do her in, so the idea that Hercules is the assassin is not satisfactory. A crowd of angry people lured by false counsel—in other words, society—is the much more likely culprit. Social conditioning cannot abide freedom, and stamps it out it whenever encountered, as history amply demonstrates.

         Because of this, I prefer the version that the enraged citizens accidentally killed Hippolyte, rather than that Hercules betrayed her and stole the belt. The latter version turns him into just another cad. But Hercules is a model of spiritual excellence. The Queen, also a highly evolved being, must have voluntarily surrendered her defensive shield to him, after which he completed his task by taking the belt back to the king, where its mixed blessing was conferred on his daughter Admete. Happily, that’s Dr. Mees’ take on it also, saying simply: “After Hippolute had given her Girdle to Hercules, as she had promised, the Hero embarked for the return journey.”

         A couple of additional insights may be gleaned from this. Amazons are described as women who remove their right breast because it interferes with shooting arrows and launching javelins. Usually though, they were depicted in Greek art as having both breasts, though one was often covered. This suggests that the breast-removal is metaphorical. Breasts symbolize caring, nurturing, generosity, selflessness, and the like, so they naturally stand in opposition to warfare and bloodshed. Suppressing them—or half suppressing them—makes room for the hardheartedness of a warrior.

         In concert with restraining our compassion, humans are raised to gird ourselves with a psychological magic belt or other protective garment, bristling with weapons, in order to guard our delicate inner being. As individuals we are defined to a large extent by the particular form of armor or weapon we habitually choose. Whenever we are approached in real or imagined hostility, we rise to the challenge and dig in our heels, ready to repulse the assailant.

         Of course, what protects also binds; a fortress can be both a refuge and a prison. Hippolyte is spiritually mature enough to be ready to remove her binding defenses and turn them over to a guru such as Hercules. But for a younger person they do have value, so they are going to be passed on to the King’s daughter. We need a measure of protection during our formative years. Only when we have become “crowned and mitered” unto ourselves can we dare to stand unencumbered by defense mechanisms.

         Because of the defenses symbolized by the belt, Hercules was wise enough to realize that an aggressive approach was doomed to fail. Instead he came in peace and supplication. The myth does not relate his cleverness at disarming Hippolyte, but he was a man, exactly what the Amazons despised most. He had to prove he was not what she expected.

         This is the piece of the myth that would be most educational if it was spelled out for us, but it is not: we have to flesh it out for ourselves. We can catch a glimpse of what may have transpired from the venerable Sacred Mythoi of Demigods and Heroes:

 

In the vision and knowledge of Truth the Soul becomes free. When Truth is presented to the consciousness in such wise that it is readily perceptible, the mind willingly accepts it. Thus, Hippolyte—the lower mind—is willing to relinquish the symbol of her sovereignty and binding power—the Girdle—to Hercules, who, as the glory of the Soul, is a manifestation of the Divine Truth in the Image of which the Soul is said to be made. (38)

 

Dr. Mees agrees: Hippolyte “was much impressed by his beauty and character, and when she learned the object of his visit, she promised him her Girdle, a symbol of her sovereignty.” Our sovereignty is our “defended territory,” and spiritual awakening takes place when we give it up. The only territory we can legitimately claim as ours is that which accrues to us naturally, the Self or the Absolute in us. All else is superfluous, the ego’s turf, the clothing that binds or burns. Ironically, Hercules himself will eventually be killed by donning a poisoned cloak, which merits its own chapter at the end of these Labors. It is a warning that success can be even more encouraging to the spiritual ego than failure.

 

        

 

Scott Teitsworth

rsteitsworth(at)yahoo.com