Hesperides

Greek Gods
Fast Facts:
  • Pronunciation: he-sper-i-deez
  • Origin: Greece
  • Role: Guardians of the apples in the Gardens of Hesperides
  • Parents: Possibly Hesperus and Nyx
  • Symbol: Golden apples

What Is Hesperides?

Hesperides is the plural for Hesperis and represents the multiple nymphs of the garden of Hera. The Hesperides guarded Hera’s apple trees in the Garden of Hesperides, but shared the task with Ladon a dragon who had one hundred heads and never slept. This was Hera’s back up plan, as even the nymphs couldn’t be trusted not to take magical apples for themselves.

There is an ongoing debate as to the parentage of the Hesperides, as well as exactly how many there were. Most sources say there were between four and seven nymphs that stayed in the garden of Hesperides. However, despite the other ambiguities, it is generally agreed that they were beautiful and had wonderful sweet voices.

The name Hesperides – and the name of their father in some of the myths, Hesperus – is derived from the Latin word hesperos, meaning evening. In addition, it is the name for the planet Venus as it appears in the nighttime sky, also known as the evening star.

The precise location of the Hesperides has never been determined. Because the sun sets in the west, it is assumed that they were in the far west, and their home was an island sometimes called Hesperia, meaning evening, and otherwise called Erytheia, which means red, the color of the setting sun.

Family of Hesperides

The mythology isn’t completely clear on the bloodline of the nymphs. Some stories say they are the daughters of Hesperus. They have also been called the children of Nyx, the goddess of night, and Erubus, the god of darkness. Zeus and Atlas have been mentioned as being their possible father, too. It seems that they were certainly the offspring of one important deity or another, but Greek mythology is complex and their definitive parentage remains an ongoing mystery for the mythologists to solve.

Origin

Despite the inconclusive parentage and varying number of nymphs, we do know that they stayed in Hera’s garden amongst the golden apple orchards. Sometimes they were referred to as the Daughters of the Evening or the Nymphs of the West.

One location locals claim to be the setting for the magical garden is the site of the ancient Roman city of Lixus, which is located in a town called Larache in Morocco today. There are other proposed locations as well. Ladon is the name of a river in Arcadia as well as of the dragon of the myths, so the garden may have been in that region of Greece. However, most mythologists agree the garden was probably somewhere west of the river of Oceanus, around ancient Phoenicia on the northern coast of Africa.

Myths of the Hesperides

Hera’s golden apple orchard is the Garden of the Hesperides in the mythology. The consumption of a golden apple from this special orchard results in immortality. Hera was given the original apple branches by Gaia, the primordial deity and mother of all life, for her wedding gift when she married Zeus.

Judgement of Paris

All the gods and goddesses were sent an invitation to attend the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, except for the goddess of discord, Eris, who wasn’t invited or welcome. Thetis was a coveted bachelorette goddess and her wedding was going to be quite the event. Everyone who mattered was in attendance. Eris was bitter about being left off the event list so she showed up uninvited with a scheme to cause trouble.

The goddess of discord tossed a beautiful golden apple, which turned out to be the apple of discord, amongst the goddesses who were guests at the wedding. The apple was labeled, “to the fairest”. That cunning move was the equivalent of throwing raw meat into a lion’s den. Aphrodite, Hera and Athena all immediately claimed the apple. Ancient Greek goddesses are far better known for their vanity than their modesty. Zeus, was called in to mediate the decision regarding the fairest goddess. Knowing better than to actually make this particular decision, considering its obvious consequences, Zeus called upon Hermes to escort the three goddesses to Troy to meet with Paris, the mortal prince of the city. He would decide the issue.

Paris, being a human male, was overwhelmed with the beauty of all the goddesses and very confused about his decision. Each of the goddesses offered a gift to him, with the hope of influencing his choice. Hera offered him power, while Athena offered wisdom. Both of the gifts sounded tempting, especially to a mortal with minimal status, and possibly limited intelligence, when compared to a god. But Aphrodite offered him the option of beautiful wife named Helene. In fact, she was the most beautiful woman in all the land. Paris chose Aphrodite and she got the apple.
The problem was, Helene, otherwise known as Helen of Troy, was already married. And so was Paris, as it happens, to a nymph named Oenone. Since he didn’t accept the gift of either power or wisdom, he clearly lacked both and went after Helene anyway. Her abduction by Paris was the catalyst that started the Trojan War and the subsequent fall of the city.

His own wife, did have an opportunity to save him when he was wounded in battle, but she was still angry about being left for Helene and decided against doing so. A few days later, Oenone changed her mind, but it was too late, as Paris had already perished form his war wounds. When she found him dead, she hung herself.

11th Labor of Heracles

Hera, the supreme goddess and wife of Zeus, didn’t care for her husband’s son Heracles from the time he was born. His mother was the human mistress Alcmene. Heracles was conceived during one of her husband’s numerous affairs. She routinely went out of her way to make trouble for her mortal stepson and many myths tell of her passion for doing so. One of the most astonishing is myth of the Labors of Heracles.

The powerful Hera made Heracles lose his mind. In an angry state of confusion he killed his own wife and children. When he came to his senses, he was horrified by what he had done, and went to the god Apollo for help. Apollo told him would have to perform 12 nearly impossible labors and serve the king Eurystheus for redemption. The struggle of Heracles embodies a Greek idea called pathos, in essence, virtuous suffering and struggle will lead to fame, and inevitably immortality for Heracles.

After many years of suffering the first 10 labors, he came to the 11th Labor of his journey. This feat was to steal the apples of Hesperides. Eurystheus told Heracles to bring him the golden apples from Hera’s garden.

He set off on the mission steal the apples, but the initial problem was the hidden location of the garden. Heracles met up with a son of the god Ares, Kyknos, and challenged him to a fight in exchange for directions to the garden. Hercules won the fight in a few rounds, only to find out that Kyknos didn’t actually know where the garden of Hesperides was.

Next, he met with Antaeus, the son of the powerful Poseidon. Again, he demanded a fight, which he won, but Antaeus also had no information. Heracles then ran into Busiris, another of Poseidon’s sons. He was captured and brought to the altar of human sacrifice. Hercules narrowly escaped, and killed Busiris. He then continued on his journey to find the garden.

Just as desperation was starting to set in, Heracles wandered up to Mount Caucasus where he found the Titan Prometheus, the brother of Atlas, chained to a rock. Prometheus had stolen the secret of fire from Zeus and given it to a man. His punishment for the treasonous act was to be chained up at the mountain, where each day a gigantic eagle would come and eat at his liver. Every night, his liver would regenerate and he would survive. Therefore, he was bound to this torture for eternity. It had been 30 years by the time Heracles showed up and killed the eagle.

Prometheus was grateful, but unfortunately he didn’t know the location of the Garden of Hesperides either. However, he figured that his brother Atlas could find the apples. Since Atlas was tired of holding up the world and sky, he would likely agree to get the apples if he could pass his heavy burden of holding the world to Heracles. That worked out pretty well: Atlas went to fetch the apples and left Heracles in his place, with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

When Atlas returned with the golden apples of immortality, he told Heracles he would bring them to King Eurystheus himself, and Heracles could stay put holding up the world. Heracles agreed, but asked if Atlas would hold the world for just a moment so he could put some padding on his shoulders to help bear the weight. Understanding the intense burden, Atlas put the apples down, and took the world back. Crafty plan accomplished, Heracles ran off with the apples and carried them back to the king.

In the end, since the apples belonged to the gods, they could not stay with the king. Athena showed up immediately to right the situation, and took off with the apples to bring them back to the Garden of Hesperides. All the work of Heracles was undone in moments.

Modern Influence

The Garden of Eden and its forbidden fruit are reminiscent The Garden of Hesperides and the magical apples there. The golden apples in Hera’s garden gave the gift of immortality, while the forbidden apple of Adam and Eve granted wisdom but also represented temptation.

We compare apples and oranges, and call New York City the big apple. Snow White bites a poisonous apple after she is tempted by her wicked stepmother. Adam’s apple is the name for the projection over the larynx on a man’s throat, as presumably the forbidden apple is just stuck there. Interestingly, Apple Inc. uses the iconic apple to tempt us with the wisdom we gain by using their products. The symbol of the tempting and magical apple is as modern as it is ancient.

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