Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides
The last – or second to last, according to some versions – of the Labours of Hercules as ordered by Eurystheus was not an easy one, as much for the dangers he had to overcome on his way as for the actual stealing of the golden apples. Gaia (the Earth) had given these apples to the goddess Hera as a present for her wedding to Zeus. Hera planted them in her garden, which was located at the foot of Mount Atlas.
The guardians of the apples
To prevent them from being stolen, Hera placed an immortal dragon of one hundred heads at the gate of the garden, although the dragon depicted here has only one head. She also employed the three daughters of Atlas and Hesperis as guardians, known as the Hesperides, who appear in the tapestry chatting and neglecting their work as protectors of the apples.
Meanwhile, Hercules, having put the dragon to sleep, makes his way to the magical tree and picks off the golden fruits. Three trees beside the Hesperides may perhaps be a sign that, realising what had happened, they despaired and were eventually converted into trees. Another version says that Hercules send Atlas himself to pick the apples while the former held up the heavens, but this story is not referred to in the tapestry.
Great difficulties on the way
To arrive at what was considered to be the ends of the earth, Hercules had to overcome great dangers and gather information about the precise location of Hera’s garden. It seems that only the sea-god Nereus knew its whereabouts; he revealed it to Hercules only after being tied up and told he must speak to be liberated. On the way, he had to do battle with Antaeus (as depicted in the previous tapestry), although it is not clear whether this was going to or returning from the garden. Among other feats, he killed the eagle who devoured Prometheus’ liver every night with an arrow. Prometheus was a Titan who had been chained up in the Caucasus for having dared to steal fire from the gods and give it to humans.
After such great effort, the apples return to the garden
Eventually, Hercules presented himself before Eurystheus with the apples, who did not know what to do with the apples. He gave them back to Hercules, who offered them to Athena, who in turn restored them to their place in the divine garden.
Series The Labours of Hercules
Fifth tapestry in the extant series
Manufacture Willem Dermoyen, Brussels, c. 1528
Fabric Silk and wool
Size 370 x 397 cm
Location Royal Palace of Madrid
Origin Collection of Philip II
On display Royal Armoury