Hercules and the Stymphalian birds

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Hercules and the Stymphalian birds
Hercules, cloaked in the skin of the Nemean lion, tightens his bow to fire his arrows at the monstrous birds who live beside Lake Stymphalia, in Arcadia. Behind Hercules, we see his companion and nephew Ioalus, holding the hero’s mace. The buildings in the background represent the palace of Eurystheus, who ordered Hercules to perform this feat.

The Fifth Labour of Hercules

A wide border of fruit and flowers frames the story depicting the Fifth Labour of Hercules, although not all authors agree on their order. The hero appears as a monumental figure, which is befitting of his extraordinary physical strength but also of the time at which the cartoons were produced. We can tell from the style of the cartoons that they were created at a similar time to the series.

Monstrous birds

According to some accounts, the birds had wings, talons and beaks of bronze, and they used their feathers as arrows. Reared by the god Ares, the birds were a continuous threat since their excrement destroyed harvests and they fed off human flesh. Eurystheus decided to eliminate the danger and ordered Hercules to slay them. Hercules considered the task particularly difficult, because many birds remained hidden in the woods beside the lake. However, he received a rattle from Athena whose noise scared the birds. Hercules exploited this moment to kill the birds with arrows. In the tapestry, however, the birds are seen to be expectant, rather than already wounded. Iolaus, whose demeanour mirrors that of the birds, seems indifferent to the action, despite his proximity to it.

Differing versions of the story

Other accounts relate that Hercules merely scared the birds, who then abandoned the lake. The story depicted in the tapestry is the most common one, although the birds in it have human faces and have no beaks.

Series The Labours of Hercules

First tapestry in the extant series

Model Unknown

Manufacture Willem Dermoyen, Brussels, c. 1528

Fabric Silk and wool

Size 362 x 403 cm

Location Royal Palace of Madrid

Origin Collection of Philip II

On display Royal Armoury


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