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The Twelve Labors of Hercules VI - The Stymphalian Birds

The Sixth Labor – Defeating the Stymphalian Birds (revised version, spring 2016)


         In his fifth labor, Hercules learned to channel his spiritual energies to rapidly overcome impossible obstacles. Hercules’ next task was to rid Greece of the diabolical Stymphalian birds. These were man-eating creatures made of brass, with sharp bronze feathers that could be shot at their victims, and poisonous dung. Moreover, they were sacred to Ares, the god of war. They had settled in a swamp near Lake Stymphalus and were terrorizing the surrounding countryside, destroying crops, orchards, and even buildings. Nesting deep in a dark forest, they were breeding like crazy and threatening to lay waste to the entire region.

         Hercules first thought this labor would be a walk in the park, but when he arrived where the birds were gathered he found that the ground was too swampy to support his weight, and the forest was so thick he couldn’t see anything anyway. As he stood wondering what to do, he was approached by the goddess Athena with a solution. She instructed Hephaestus, the divine blacksmith, to forge a stupendous set of bronze clappers. When Hercules smashed them together with his supernatural strength, it startled the birds, and they flew up out of the forest where he could shoot them down. Hercules picked off a number of the birds with his deadly arrows, and the rest flew to an island sacred to Ares in the Black Sea, never to return.

         Well, I have news for those ancient Greeks: the Stymphalian birds have returned at last, and their flock is bigger than ever. The Stymphalian brass is now called the military brass.

         It is quite plain that these birds represent warriors run amok, or what we nowadays call the military/industrial or military/corporate complex. That they are sacred to the god of war makes this patently clear. They even bear an uncanny resemblance to the latest evil invention, the unmanned killer drone, which has lately trumped the long and painful struggle to establish legal justice within a violent and bloodthirsty species. Now anonymous murderers execute people at will, without the least fear of being called to account by any judicial system.

         We live in a time when the military mindset has essentially conquered civilization, where the clever birds have even usurped the honorific of “heroic” for themselves. Masters of propaganda, they readily convince young humans that they are the true heroes, and recruit many to join them in the fight against the enemy, which happens to be the very humanity they are laying waste to and that the children are members of. At least the ancient mythographers knew who the real heroes were in this tale: the local citizens, not the birds.

         From the dawn of time, warriors have posed a threat to their own side as well as the enemy. They seek to prolong war to preserve their jobs, and in the process they use up scarce resources. They hide their murderous motivations behind secrecy and patriotic propaganda.

         Like the fast multiplying flock of birds, the “defense” industry has swollen to huge proportions and is busily laying waste to vast areas of the planet. The composer of the myth probably anticipated this, as Hercules was unable to kill off the birds, but merely drove them away. It may be that they cannot be eradicated short of divine intervention, and here’s why.

         Once a military clique has detached itself from civilian control, it takes on a life of its own, like a macro version of a super bacteria. Veiled in secrecy, humans become mere pawns within its incomprehensible structure, with no one having either the will or the ability to rein it in. Anyone proposing to curtail its excesses is simply excreted: fired or moved to a position of no power or even executed, while enthusiasts of continued lucrative adventures are rapidly promoted. When you think of the Kremlin or the Pentagon and their ilk, they are for all the world like the Stymphalian forest, dark and impenetrable. If you try to enter you will sink in the bureaucratic muck before you go ten feet. Inside it is so dense that you cannot see any of the “rare birds” who thrive there; much less can you “pick one off” by exposing their evil deeds. If you do flush one out you might be able to bring it to justice, but the birds can reproduce it immediately. It’s all perfectly legal and perfectly well insulated from outside interference.

         Athena is the goddess of civilization, wisdom, strategy and skill, among other things, but primarily of civilization, of a healthy social web. Civilization is eternally opposed to warfare, which tears it to shreds in a jiffy, flouting its every aspiration. Its primary reason for even existing is to control the mayhem that prevails when humans aren’t governed by law. The modern military actually arose as a fatally flawed method by civilized people to put an end to war and wholesale thievery. Sadly, humanity never seems to anticipate the paradoxical results of its half-baked efforts, which often boomerang to produce their exact opposite.

         Athena—the civilizing impulse—must teach Hercules how to defeat the evil birds. Unfortunately, his is a temporary victory at best, with only a handful of sacrificial lambs shot down. The remaining lovers of violent power are only driven out of sight and out of mind, where they take delight in plotting their ever more explosive return.

         The use of the clappers to startle the birds into flight is an interesting image. A tremendous blast of sound, reminiscent of the opening salvo of the Kurukshetra War in the Bhagavad Gita, forces the creatures out of hiding. It is curious that a loud noise symbolizes a wakeup call, or a jolt of clarity. Dr. Mees notes that Hercules’ clapper is related to Thunder, and is wielded by the Guru.

         Hercules had to make a lot of noise to dispel the cloak of secrecy and bring the malefactors out into the open. It takes a courageous effort to stand up to warmongers and drive them out of their breeding grounds, so that peace can be restored. Civilization occasionally mounts such a concerted effort also. The Nuremburg trials after World War II come to mind, when for a brief period the idealism of a healthy society held the upper hand over the pestilential minions. Sadly, as with Hercules, a few bad actors were picked off but the majority escaped. In the case of the Nazis, many were actually brought into the United States and promoted to key posts in the military and covert intelligence, all with top secret clearance. That’s like Athena adopting the Stymphalian birds after they were flushed from the forest and taking them back to Mount Olympus to keep it “safe” and stand guard. What can you say about such a magnitude of stunning stupidity?

         A good myth is true on many levels, and we always want to address the personal implications. Even this highly “external” seeming myth has important lessons for seekers. Most of us probably won’t be curing military madness in the public arena, but we can root out its homologue in ourselves, where there is certainly a correlative impulse.

         We all have our secrets and veiled motivations, which may not all be benign regarding other people’s interests. Of course the birds feast on human flesh, since that’s the prime delight of the whole business of war. Like that, we each have a vicious streak deep in our psyche that preys on the feelings of others, that likes nothing better than to tear them apart and watch them squirm. If we don’t acknowledge that side of our total makeup, we are only deluding ourselves.

         It’s not uncommon to associate with people who wittingly or otherwise can help further our objectives, enshrined in the adage “birds of a feather flock together.” But here the feathers are sharp, metallic and deadly. A spiritually alert person should always question their own impulses to be sure they are aboveboard and legitimate, if not harmonious. Hercules picking off some of the birds with his arrows symbolizes using a sharply honed intelligence to negate our evil tendencies. We must fire our most clearheaded understanding right into the center of the problem, or it will escape and regroup.

         It is no accident that nearly every great saint and all the grand masters of the spirit extol peace and compassion. Yet in their name it is still far too easy to whip up their followers into a lethal frenzy. We must never be that type of deluded imitator.

         Ahimsa, non-hurting, is such an important concept, because we humans are innately primed to respond to provocations—real or imaginary—with violence. Especially in groups or flocks, ruthless behavior is almost irresistible. We know we will be evicted from the group if we don’t acquiesce to its dictates, so we compromise and rationalize about it. The Narayana Gurukula and similar spiritual outposts proudly proclaim the central tenet of ahimsa, so that all participants can rest assured that those institutions will never issue a call for any kind of injurious activity.

         The occult booklet Sacred Mythoi of Demigods and Heroes doesn’t have too much of interest regarding this labor, though it does tangentially note the military connection. As each labor is associated with an astrological sign, this one is Scorpio. The booklet tells us, “Some perverted Scorpio aspects are such as pertain to uncontrolled impulses, unbridled passions, destructiveness, callousness, tyranny, vindictiveness, intolerance, secretiveness, and pessimism.” Seems to me like every sign has these negative qualities, but never mind. It’s all about the metal birds. So that Scorpios don’t feel too badly, their good side is also presented: “But the pure influences of Scorpio are controlled forcefulness, energy, penetration, skill, resourcefulness, thoroughness, determination, devotion to the ideal, strength, courage, and potent regenerative capacity.” Ditto for their ubiquity throughout the zodiac. Which is fine.

         Just as the birds only retreat to a distant island and are never defeated, our own militant instincts cannot be completely eradicated, but only kept under control. Given the right stimulus they will flare up again. We have to remain on guard lest they return to wreak more havoc. Within us are archetypes of both Hercules and the Stymphalian birds, and although we would prefer to identify with the hero, we should acknowledge that the entire myth is cradled deep in our unconscious. That will keep us from getting an inflated sense of our own wonderfulness, and keep us honest in preparation for the complex labors yet to come.

Scott Teitsworth