Hercules is a name that will strike a heroic note in the modern mind, by and large. Heracles, for the pedants. Strength, courage, indefatigability, perseverance, all that stuff. He murdered his wife and children, which on the surface of it might have precluded hero status, but we seem to have forgiven him.
Perhaps we’ve done so because of the penance he made. Apparently quite upset with himself over the wife-and-child thing, our hero prayed to Apollo, who gave him an out. He was sentenced to twelve years in the service of Eurystheus, King of Mycenae, who put him to work on twelve labours – feats so incredibly difficult they were deemed impossible .
Hercules had Hermes and Athena on his side but even so, by the time he had faced and conquered the Nemean Lion, the Lernean Hydra, the Cerynitian Hind, the Erymanthian Boar, the Stables of Augeas, the Stymphalian Birds, the Cretan Bulls, the Mares of Diomedes, the Belt of Hippolyte, the Cattle of Geryon , the Apples of Hesperides and the Hound of Hades , our man was well and truly rehabilitated in the mythology of ancient Greece, and subsequently Rome and finally, of course, our own mythologies, burnished to a modern sheen by the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and Hollywood.
It isn’t the man in the visitor centre that brings the ancient hero to mind. No, this chap is a very mild-mannered, gentle type. To sell us the packet of maps we’ve come for he abandons his tripod and camera and shows us into the shop. He seems very pleased with us, with our interest in the Parque Natural and the local coastline. He may have missed his vocation as a priest, he’s so nice and softly-spoken. So no, not him.
It isn’t the noise as we open a makeshift wire gate and close it behind us, ambling along a narrow track and running the gauntlet of a barrage of burly, barking dogs, though they’re frantic enough in their fury to invoke the Hound of Hades – luckily for us, they’re all tied up or fenced in.
“Not very relaxing, so far,” says K of the walk, and she isn’t wrong.
Not the pigs as we pass their pen, a squat, concrete structure, purely functional and devoid of anything you might call pastoral charm. Also, smelly. Happily though, every gate in the place is open and the pigs, as is usually the case with the iberico breed, wander freely around the yard and across an adjacent slope. It cheers me up to see a few landrace, or non-iberian pigs, sharing the humane conditions. They often aren’t so fortunate. I suppose they might remind one of Hercules’ brush with the Erymanthian Boar, but I’m too busy anticipating the guilt-free meal I might make of them, one of these days.
No, not the pigs. What makes me think of Hercules is this – the view ahead of us and slightly to the left as we make our way down a dirt road that slides gently toward the coast. The hills we’re in form a dish in our vision, a shallow cup that frames the hazy sky and silver sea and at the centre of it all that upstanding height – the Rock of Gibraltar.
Hercules was here, long before us, and when he was, depending on which version you listen to, he either built two mighty mountains or he smashed one in two, leaving half in Libya, nowadays known as the Maghreb, and half in Europe, on the southern coast of what we now call Spain.
It’s Hercules, then, that we can thank for these straits, the shimmering corridor that divides continents and funnels the fierce levante wind. Mount Calpe on the south side, now known as Jebel Musa, and Gibraltar on this side – the Pillars of Hercules. But what was a Greek doing in these parts?
He was here for some thieving. According to the legend there was an island, near the boundary of Libya and Europe, called Erythia. Of course we’re dealing with myth here but it’s tempting to conclude that Erythia might have been the Isla de las Palomas, an almost seabound headland that juts out into the strait from the little town of Tarifa, nearby. It’s the only modern feature I can think of that would fit the bill.
It’s a military compound nowadays but if it is the legendary Erythia, then when Hercules went there it was to complete his tenth labour: to steal the giant red cattle kept there by Geryon, a monster who, according to most accounts, had three bodies joined at the waist, parting again below into six legs. Shopping must have been a challenge.
I won’t go into the details but Hercules stole the distinctively coloured cattle without too much fuss in the end, having sailed to the island in a golden goblet from Tartessus, the area around the mouth of the Guadalquivir, just west of here. The difficult bit, apparently, was herding the dim creatures all the way back to Greece. As we navigate a series of curves, drops and ascents on the path I wonder how he felt. His tenth labour completed – so close to the end for him. Almost every box ticked on his almost insurmountable to-do list.
We’ve underestimated the distance involved in our walk, mistaken the time given on our map for an estimate of the round trip, but it turns out to be the time it takes to walk the path in just one direction, the same time again will be required to return to the car. Our legs are tired and we’ve been caught off guard by our mistake. We’re flagging a little. K is a cranky walker at the best of times.
We do make it out onto a headland though, stopping just a kilometer short of the mirador where the path supposedly terminates. If it was a clear day I’d persevere, K waiting for me here, to get some shots of the beautiful Jebel Musa and the Moroccan coast, but it’s grey and hazy and I happily turn back with her.
I’m no sportsman but I love to walk. The first few kilometres are always filled with thought and observation, but at longer distances the head goes down, the mind empties. It’s as close as I get to meditation. The physical surroundings fade way, there is only breath. There are only steps. A penance, getting home with tired legs and sore feet the reward. A happier head and a good appetite.
We leave Hercules here on this open, ancient terrain that makes thinking of him so easy. I wish him luck with his last two labours, with getting back to Greece, tired legs but heart a little haler. We’re all paying penance, whether it’s for something we’ve done or for something we haven’t. Sacrifice, sore feet; you have to make an effort, to work, if you want to rehabilitate your life, if you want to get anywhere.
Including back to the car, apparently.
Making our way past fields of small cattle herds, we watch them. A local breed, horned and enormous, coveted in this part of the world for the delicious beef they produce and known as Retinto for the unusual colour of their hide.
A beautiful, bright red.