During Heracles’ famous labors for King Eurystheus of Tiryns (a Mycenean stronghold city), one of the quests given to Heracles was for the hero to fetch the cattle of a powerful being known as Geryon, whose lair was in the vicinity of Spain. Heracles, as the myths tell, used the opportunity to tour the Mediterranean coastal lands, first sailing to Crete and then to North Africa, at which point he began trekking his way westward to the Strait of Gibraltar. Crossing into Spain, Heracles killed Geryon—along with herdsmen and guard dogs—in order to seize the cattle. With the animals in his possession, Heracles began directing the herd along the European coastline of the Mediterranean, prodding the animals from Spain to France, and from France to the Alps region. Curiously, instead of continuing around the northern shores of the Adriatic Sea and heading through the Balkans toward Greece, Heracles alternatively opted to take a detour down the Italian Peninsula.
In an odd myth told by sources such as Dionysius of Halicarnassus (c. 1st century BCE) and Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century CE), one of the bulls or calfs in Heracles’ herd escaped while he was traveling in southern Italy. Unbeknownst to Heracles, the animal rushed to the Strait of Messina and swam across to Sicily. Although he had not seen its path, Heracles was able to question locals in the region about where the stray bull might have gone. As the story goes, during the conversations about the whereabouts of the animal, the runaway beast was given the title Italus, a variation or derivative of vitalus—the Latin word for calf. Connecting the animal to the region, Heracles decided to designate the mainland and Sicily, through which Italus ran, as Italy. This curious myth was recorded in Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Library, which stated:
“At Rhegion a bull broke loose, plunged swiftly into the sea, and swam across to Sicily, and then, after passing through the neighboring land which was named Italy after it (because the Tyrrhenians called the bull italus), it arrived at the plain of Eryx, who was the king of the Elymoi, and Eryx, a son of Poseidon, mixed the bull amongst his own herds” (Apollodorus, Library, 2.5.10).
Unfortunately for Eryx, he chose the wrong bull or calf to take in. Heracles tracked the runaway animal to Eryx’s kingdom and demanded the animal’s return. One thing led to another, and Heracles ultimately engaged Eryx in a wrestling match to the death. Heracles, of course, won the deadly competition and retrieved the animal that he needed. Prodding the herd back on the move toward Greece, Heracles was able to successfully bring enough of Geryon’s cattle to King Eurystheus of Tiryns in order to accomplish the mission.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Print labeled Hercules and the Oxen of Geryones, created by Antonio Tempesta (c. 1555–1630), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET.jpg).
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).