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The Twelve Labors of Hercules V - The Augean Stables

The Fifth Labor – Cleansing The Augean Stables (revised version, spring 2016)


         The fifth task, the cleaning of the Augean Stables, illustrates the paradox of the one and the many. It is by far the most famous of the twelve labors, but in a somewhat cursory search I have not found anyone who appreciates the humor or who has even take a stab at what it means. This is a shame, since it is downright funny as well as highly instructive.

         Eurystheus was irked that Hercules had succeeded at every task he set him, since he really meant for him to fail. He wracked his brain to conceive of a truly impossible task, and came up with a good one. He demanded that Hercules clean out the vast Augean Stables in one day. King Augeas had owned 3000 oxen for 30 years—the biggest herd in all of Greece—but had never had his stables cleaned. The cow poop was mountainous, obviously, and it was constantly being replenished. By the time you’ve cleaned up one pile, a hundred more are lying steaming on the deck. Anyone who tried to simply shovel it out would never come to the end of it. Thus the job would not only be impossible, due to the huge amount of filth, but wading in shit would degrade and humiliate Hercules too. Obviously another strategy is required.

         Hercules had to use his brains. He thought for a long time. Then he made holes in the front and back walls of the stables. Next he dug channels from two nearby rivers and diverted them through the stables. In no time the water had flushed out all the muck, and the stables were fresh and clean.

         By refusing to wade into the muck, Hercules never got his feet dirty. Afterward, Augeas refused to pay him the fee he had promised, and the disappointed Eurystheus refused to count it as a legitimate task, claiming the river had done the work, not Hercules.

         Part of the moral here is that a lot of things are fun at first, but it’s important to take care of the after effects. If we ignore the consequences of our behavior, garbage piles up, and once it gets deep enough we seldom have the heart to deal with it. We might hope it will just disappear, but it doesn’t. We have to bring pressure to bear on it.

         And not just any pressure: it has to be intelligently and creatively conceived. Much of the charm of this labor is that Hercules comes up with a solution no one else could imagine.

         Clear thinking is like fresh running water: it keeps rushing forward, sweeping away all impediments to its progress. If it is directed to a problem, it can solve it almost effortlessly.

         Decoding this labor is helped by visualizing it. Imagine looking down a corridor in a huge barn, with a line of the backsides of cattle on either side. The oxen are eating hay and defecating continuously, and the accumulated pile reaches to the rafters. The smell is almost visible it is so strong. You look down and see you are carrying a small manure rake; compared to the pile it is no more than a fart in a windstorm. You realize immediately that the stuff is being generated faster than you can possibly take it away. To address it one item at a time would be utterly futile.

         Meditating on the problem, you come up with the clever idea of knocking out the far door and diverting two pristine streams through the front. Voila! Rudimentary plumbing is invented, and all the crap is quickly swept away.

         So what does this symbolize? In English at least, bullshit is even today a common term for lies and falsehood, and the term is quite vivid protolanguage for communicating the loathing we feel when we have been deceived by charlatans. Apparently assholes are assholes, whether in 2000 BCE or 2000 CE. Even many animals use their feces as a form of derogatory comment. Moreover, our own mind plays us false at times. Bullshit can be both internally and externally generated. We are full of shit, and the public arena is likewise full of shit. Oxenshit doesn’t have quite the same ring, so we call it bullshit if only for the poetry of it. In any case, one of the most critical tasks of a spiritual life is to get the bullshit out of your way.

         Such vivid imagery! Like the braying pundits of propaganda television and radio, we can conjure up an endless line of assholes spewing toxic filth, their hairpieces resembling oxen tails swishing over their filthy, unwiped maws. The oxen are content to mindlessly consume and excrete the fodder they have been served by their master’s lackeys. They don’t care what havoc they wreak with their excretions, they just know they have to be faithful and obedient or their sustenance will stop being doled out to them.

         A sincere person might spend a lifetime shoveling up the mess, refuting lie after lie, but then what is accomplished? As soon as one lie is nullified, ten more have been launched. Only an inner blast of light that neutralizes it all at once, that treats it as one single situation instead of millions of separate ones, can conquer this tenacious problem. The proper way, then, for us to overcome the challenge is to convert from a materialist view that treats each problem separately, to a unitive, spiritual vision that solves all dilemmas simultaneously. Dr. Mees offers us this:


The Labour teaches that the dirtiest work can be performed without losing face and in a dignified manner and that to the spiritual man no activity is degrading. Considered in its analogical implications the Labour shows that the Holy Ghost alone is able to effect a cleaning up of Ahankaric dirt within the soul. No amount of “psychological shuffling” (which is only “spadework”) can bring the same result.


         Falsehood in the form of bullshit or horseshit is endless and perennially renewed. It can’t possibly be dealt with piecemeal—that would take forever. The only solution is to call up a spiritual flood that cleanses everything.

         The Bhagavad Gita treats the same subject in a somewhat less colorful way. Horizontal life is described as a proliferating tree, in which “many branched and endless are the reasonings of them in whom reason is ill-founded.” The solution is not to painstakingly cut off every leaf or twig, but to go to the root and sever the whole business in one fell swoop.

         One requirement Eurystheus laid down was that if Hercules failed to complete the job in a single day, he would have to remain in the service of King Augeas and clean his stables for the rest of his life. This implies that if one gets caught up in dealing with horizontal activities there is no end to them. They keep renewing themselves. You either dispense with them in toto, all at once, or you stay stuck. Realization is not the product of a series of linked steps, but a wholesale quantum leap to a new orientation.

         When confronted with an endless series of lies, it is difficult to hold fast to truth. Without refuting them, they are likely to steer you (pun intended) away from what you know into muddy waters. If we don’t have a firm grasp of who we are, we can be led astray by the convictions of others, not realizing that their ideas are likely to be self-serving propaganda masquerading as facts. As Machiavelli was well aware, most people have an innate sense of justice and fair play, and they assume others are observing the same parameters. It is easy for deceivers to take advantage of such people, because they will tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. If you dress up your selfish motives with high-sounding verbiage, and keep it coming, you can fool most of the people most of the time.

         I well remember a bully in my high school who had a novel technique for beating people up. As he punched, slapped and smacked you, he would insist, “I’m not hitting you! I’m a nice guy. I’m not doing anything to you! What’s the matter with you?” Where you might stand your ground and fight back against simple punches, the tirade invariably threw you mentally off balance. There is a deep-seated urge in us to respond and correct the falseness of claims made against us. So, as our outrage rose up at the obvious lies, you would get hit three more times before you took cover.

         Modern so-called conservatives have adopted this bully gambit very successfully. As they cheer on the raping and plundering of the public treasury, they insist they are the only patriots in the room. Anyone who tries to stand up to them is labeled unpatriotic, or worse. Civilized people are always tempted to refute the false claims, and as they waste time trying to establish truth in those who care nothing for it, these “patriots” make off with whatever they can grab. As long as multiplicity is the norm, with opinions supplanting facts, they will always be several steps ahead of the law. Absolutist vision is necessary before we can call a thief a thief.

         Augeas’ stables were so full of shit that the stench pervaded the entire region. Decoders of mythology in the Age of the American Empire can certainly get a picture of what this means. Influential leaders of a nation have either an inspiring or a poisoning influence on their whole domain. They “set the tone” so to speak, for everyone far and wide, not just in their personal state of mind but in business relations, the arts, education, so many places. Bullshit at the center of the stables of power produces hostility among people, distrust in business, and bitterness and resentment in education and the arts. Such is the perfume we, like Hercules, are forced to inhale.

         At present the United States, in company with most of the nations of our planet, has been nearly destroyed by thieves and thugs who use bullshit philosophies to keep honest citizens at bay. We are now facing the dismaying task of repairing the damage and restoring some kind of functionality. If it is done bit by bit, as seems politically inevitable, it will take forever. However, that is the current strategy. Shoveling shit at close quarters, you can’t help but get it on you, meaning that by fighting evil on its own terms and with its own tactics you become corrupted yourself, as history well demonstrates.

         The ancient Greeks are using Hercules to counsel us that a wholesale rejection of the evil ways is necessary. Without a change of heart, we are doomed to continue to replay the same degrading scenario over and over. Those of us who live here can watch the bullshitters torpedo every sensible program with hairsplitting protestations and diversionary tactics. Meeting their insatiable demands is as daunting as cleaning the Augean Stables with a pitchfork. We have to find a way to get to the root of the problem instead.

         Of the numerous apt examples of this Herculean task from modern life, let’s look at the worldwide drug war. Prohibition is a proven failure in combating drug abuse, and yet it is ineluctably appealing to law enforcement and politicians, who make very good livings off it. It promotes extreme violence in smugglers, and the artificially high prices drive users to commit additional crimes to pay for their habits. When military pressure is applied in one area, the business simply moves elsewhere. Yet even in a limited region the effort-to-result ratio is astronomical. The whole mess looks exactly like millions of steaming heaps of manure, and no amount of additional effort will sweep it under the rug.

         The tragedy could be quickly ended by legalizing and regulating drugs, thus stripping out all the illegal profits. The legal profits could then be used to treat addicts and rehabilitate smugglers, not to mention helping make life in the world enjoyable enough so that recourse to drugs is not the only available way to be happy. Severing the tree at the root causes all its pernicious ramifications to wither.

         As usual, we don’t want to necessarily view this labor solely as an external matter, or it will lose its spiritual efficacy. The teaching here is definitely about spiritual or mental life also. Most mundane tasks must still be accomplished one step at a time, and enlightenment does not give us a pass on taking care of ordinary business the old fashioned way.

         Our own soul is polluted with similar filth as the halls of government. We deceive ourselves as much or more than the government or any corporation does. Renewing ourselves bit by bit could be accomplished in just about an infinite number of years. Advaita Vedanta, and apparently Greek wisdom tradition also, directs us to an instantaneous or at least a very rapid transformation. We must open ourselves to the cleansing flood of spiritual connection, like Hercules digging trenches to the two rivers to direct them where they were needed. Letting in the flow then renews everything at once.

         According to my arcane reference book, Sacred Mythoi of Demigods and Heroes, cited earlier, the two rivers, Alpheus and Peneus are named after sons of the god Oceanus, and they may be viewed as standing for involution and evolution, the twin aspects of a balanced spiritual life. It’s a bit of a stretch to imagine the Greeks knew of it, but Vedanta also has two parallel rivers of prana, vital energy, that are to be united into a single stream of kundalini energy to overcome all obstacles and attain enlightenment. The fifth labor works well as a pictorial image of how this might look from inside the body. No matter how you frame it, our spiritual progress depends on not simply plodding ahead step by step, but on seeking and finding creative solutions.

         The image of the accumulation of the garbage over a long period of time is also significant. King Augeas didn’t take care of his effluvia for his whole life, believing it was his “royal prerogative” to ignore it. Spiritually, we have to be willing to deal with our own shit, meaning facing the stuff we’d prefer to avoid, that we’d rather pretend was someone else’s mess. We have to clean out all the samskaras, the wrong conditionings, we have piled up over the years, because they stink up the atmosphere. They plop out in front of us and we walk right into them, bogging us down and causing us to slip and fall into the muck. We could go into therapy and address them one by one, but that would take more than a lifetime. Alternatively, we can attune with the Absolute and vaporize them all at once, which leaves us some time yet to really live well.

[Psychedelics as fast acting cleansers]


         Besides conquering the Hydra, this is the other labor for which Hercules did not get credit, because he had tried to get paid by King Augeas for it, and because he hadn’t actually done any dirty work. Payment for spiritual services is at least unethical, if not downright deceptive, and it certainly corrupts anyone who imagines there is a connection between spiritual wisdom and remuneration. And it’s true that we cannot do this job without the assistance of Fate or the Divine, the aspect of Oneness.[?] Still, Hercules deserves full credit for discovering the only solution that could actually work. Spiritual seekers should be after results, real transformations, not fame or fortune. The two Kings’ denial of his achievement was little more than resentment that Hercules’ spiritual progress could not be derailed.

         It’s curious that the two labors that “don’t count” are quite similar. Both the Hydra and the cattle produce an endless series of problems: either you cut off a head and it grows back, or you sweep up the mess and it falls right back on the floor. Both the shit and the Hydra’s blood are toxic or noxious. With one you have to cauterize the root and with the other you have to call down a righteous river. Either way, the solution includes not getting caught up in details but invoking a Zen-like lightning bolt.

         I’ve known some people who could’ve used the veiled advice of this labor: those who put off doing something important until they got their life in order. Of course, life is never orderly, never certain, and they waited so long for the “right moment” that the opportunity faded away. A couple of my friends thought they should delay having children until they were on an even keel, and wound up completely missing the joys and lessons of parenthood. Some people postpone their dream trip until after retirement, and by then they are too old, or dead. Most of us fritter away our life on petty necessities when we should be writing that great novel or spending time with friends or volunteering on a project. We put our life on hold just like King Augeas put off cleaning out the stables, and so the inertia builds up, making a breakthrough more and more daunting.


         In one of those “divine coincidences” that happen from time to time, I ran across a passage from St. Theresa de Avila while I was editing Nataraja Guru’s An Integrated Science of the Absolute (in Vol. III, p 25). Theresa compares four stages of spiritual progress in the form of prayer with different ways to water a garden plot, and her third stage will look familiar. While it is virtually certain that she knew nothing of Hercules, the parallel with the fifth labor is astonishing and instructive. Then she goes one step farther. Let’s close with this, since it is gentle and sweet, in contrast to the heavy-handedness of the Greek myth:

Next we read St. Theresa's “Four Degrees (or Stages) of Prayer.” To follow the broad features of our own idea of structuralism, as we can easily recognize, we read:

We may say that beginners in prayer are those who draw the water up out of the well; which is a great labour, as I have said. For they find it very tiring to keep the senses recollected, when they are used to a life of distraction….

Let us now turn to the second method of drawing it which the Owner of the plot has ordained. By means of a device with a windlass, the gardener draws more water with less labour, and so is able to take some rest instead of being continuously at work. I apply this description to the prayer of quiet….

Let us now speak of the third water that feeds this garden, which is flowing water from a stream or spring. This irrigates it with far less trouble, though some effort is required to direct it to the right channel.

But now the Lord is pleased to help the gardener in such a way [with rain] as to be, as it were, the gardener Himself…. The soul does not know what to do; it cannot tell whether to speak or be silent, whether to laugh or to weep. It is a glorious bewilderment, a heavenly madness, in which true wisdom is acquired, and to the soul a fulfillment most full of delight.

In this state (i.e. the fourth state) the soul still feels it is not altogether dead, as we may say, though it is entirely dead to the world. But, as I have said, it retains the sense to know that it is still here and to feel its solitude; and it makes use of outward manifestations to show its feelings at least by signs.

How what is called union takes place and what it is, I cannot tell. It is explained in mystical theology, but I cannot use the proper terms: I cannot understand what mind is, or how it differs from soul or spirit. They all seem one to me.


(St. Theresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, tr. J. M. Cohen, Penguin edn., London.)


Scott Teitsworth