Yes, I know, I skipped the hydra. Well, I’m not out to chronicle all of Herc’s labors. The hydra story is good, yes, and shows off that herc can adapt to circumstances, but the stables, the stables truly showcase Herc’s cleverness.
So the Augean stables are filthy. They have never been cleaned. Ever. And we’re not talking about a few years, but 30. Moreover, we’re talking about 3,000 divine cattle. This isn’t a neighborhood stable with a dozen horses. This is Texas roundup time.
Oh, and he has a day to do it.
So let’s do the math: 30 years of filth x 3,000 cattle / 1 Hercules x 24 hours (assuming he won’t sleep) = not gonna happen.
Yeah, this should be the new definition of impossible, not to mention demeaning. With the other labors, Hercules was out taming some kind of nuisance beast that terrorized the populace. This is just humiliating, and no amount of physical strength is going to help him scrub away the crap.
But this is Herc, and he’s more than just muscles. Herc is fully aware that he can’t clean the stables the normal way in the time limit. So he has to clean it his way. This is where Herc showcases his brains as well as his brawn. He diverts a nearby river to flow through the stables, washing all of the muck away.
Lest the environmentally-conscious complain about this, remember, this is Ancient Greece, and everything here is biodegradable. And there’s no lasting ecological damage because Herc puts the river back on its original course.
While Herc using his braincase is a highlight of this story, and taking down the impossible with style, Eurystheus puts a damper on things once again. He disallows this labor, claiming that Herc cheated. There were no stipulations as to how Herc was to complete the labour, it’s just that Eurystheus didn’t like the result. He wanted Herc covered in muck and failing miserably. For the king, the only choice for him to claim victory is to deny the event ever took place.
Previously we knew that Eurystheus had it out for Herc, but now the game is clearly rigged. If herc doesn’t play by Eurystheus ever-changing rules, he loses. Yet the only choice is acceptance and to move on to the next labor.
While Eurystheus doesn’t want Herc to gain any acclaim, Herc is still pursuing the higher purpose of trying to gain absolution, and perhaps a certain amount of humiliation—or humility—is necessary.