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The Hesperides in Greek Mythology
Many people will think of Greek mythology simply in terms of the Olympian gods and famous heroes. But the heroes and gods of Mount Olympus lived in a wider world, a world that was inhabited by mortals, mythical creatures, monsters and other immortal figures.
One such group of immortal figures were the female nymphs known as the Hesperides.
The Birth of the Hesperides
The genealogy of the Hesperides is one of the most confusing within Greek mythology, and every writer of note from antiquity, would tell of different parentage.
Hesiod’s Theogony is normally looked at first when it comes to the genealogy of the gods, and the Greek writer tells of the Hesperides being born to Nyx, the goddess of the Night. Hyginius, commenting on Cicero’s De Natura Deorum, would add a father for the nymphs, the father being Erebus, god of Darkness.
Famously, Diodorus of Sicily tells of the Titan Atlas being father to the Hesperides, with Hesperus, the Northern Star, mother. This parentage would fit into the appearance of the Hesperides, for Atlas was known as fathering the most beautiful of daughters, with the likes of the Pleiades.
Other parents are named though, and also include Zeus and Themis, and Phorcys and Ceto.
The Names of the Hesperides
The parentage of the Hesperides is not the only confusing aspect of the nymphs, for there was also no consensus in antiquity about how many or who the Hesperides were.
It might be generally considered that there were three Hesperides; three being a common number of sisters for other mythological figures, including the Morai or Graeae. On occasion though, there might be four or seven sisters talked of.
Hesiod would write of three Hesperides, naming them as Aigle, Erytheis and Hesperethoosa. Other writers would name Hesperides as Arethousa, Aerika, Asterope, Chrysothemis, Hesperie and Lipara.
The Role of the Hesperides in Greek Mythology
In Greek mythology, Hesperides were thought of as in terms of goddesses of the evening, and were particularly associated with sunsets.
The Hesperides though, were also given a specific role within Ancient Greece, for the sisters were considered to be the guardians of the Garden of Hera.
The Garden of Hera was also known as the Garden of the Hesperides, and was a garden that housed the tree of the Golden Apples. The garden was sacred to Hera, with the tree, or trees, grown from the original Golden Apples present to Hera and Zeus on their wedding day by Gaia.
The Golden Apples of the Hesperides were a tempting prize for any would be thief, so the Hesperides were not the only guardians of the garden, and Hera, would position Ladon, the hundred-headed dragon that never slept, with in the garden.
The garden was therefore so secure that other gods would place valuable items in the Hesperides’ Garden, including powerful weapons, and in some stories the Horn of Plenty as well.
The Garden of the Hesperides
The Location of the Garden of the Hesperides
Before any potential thief could face the dangers of Ladon, they would have to find the Garden of the Hesperides; and its location was a closely guarded secret, only known by a select few deities.
A general location for the Garden of Hera was considered to be in the Western Mediterranean in a region near to the Atlas Mountains. This generalisation allowed the garden to be virtually anywhere in Africa, and so the Hesperides were also referred to as the “African Sisters”.
Another possible location though, placed the Garden of the Hesperides further out in the realm of Oceanus, the great earth encircling river.
Eris Entering the Garden of the Hesperides
Entering the Garden of the Hesperides
Entering the Garden of the Hesperides though was no easy task, and there are only a handful of stories of those who successfully gained access to it.
Eris was the goddess of Strife or Discord. The goddess was said to have entered the Garden of Hera and taken a single golden apple after not being invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. Eris then inscribed on it the words “for the fairest” and threw it amongst the assembled wedding guests, ultimately leading to the Trojan War.
There is no detail given about how Eris managed to bypass the guardians, both the Hesperides and Ladon, to take the apple.
The Greek hero Perseus was also said to have successfully entered the Garden of the Hesperides, although Perseus was not looking for Golden Apples, but was in search for weapons to aide him in the quest for Medusa’ head.
Perseus was being aided in his quest by Athena and Hermes, so it could be assumed that the god and goddess accompanied the hero, allowing him access without being troubled by the garden’s guardians.
The Garden of the Hesperides is arguably most famous for its appearance during the adventures of Heracles, when the hero was undertaking his 11th Labour. Heracles was tasked by King Eurystheus with bringing back a Golden Apple.
There are various versions to the story, but the first part of the tale sees Heracles having to find out where the garden was; this the hero did, either by wresting the sea god Nereus, or by simply asking Prometheus for the information.
Heracles would also need the assistance of the Titan Atlas to retrieve the Golden Apples. In a famous version of the story, Heracles holds up the heavens in place of the Titan, whilst Atlas retrieves the apples; the task being easier for Atlas, with the Hesperides being his daughters. Heracles though, would subsequently have to trick Atlas into up the heavens once again.
In an alternate version of the story, it is Heracles himself who enters the Garden of Hera, bypassing the Hesperides, killing Ladon, and stealing the apples.
Subsequently the goddess Athena would assist Heracles, by returning the stolen apples after Heracles’ Labour had been completed.
Heracles and the Hesperides
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- Who is Perseus? Ancient Greek Dragon Slayer
Who is Perseus? Perseus is a hero of ancient Greek mythology who slew dragons--the Gorgon, Medusa, and the sea serpent, Cetus. He married Andromeda after rescuing her from Cetus.
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- Introduction to the 12 Labours of Heracles
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- The Titan Atlas in Greek mythology
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