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The Hesperides were a group of nymphs who guarded a garden at the Western end of the world in Greek mythology. As with many characters in Greek mythology, the story of the Hesperides is told in different ways in different texts; they are depicted as children of varying pairs of parents, for example, and their group waxes and wanes in size depending on the tale. Most stories generally seem to agree that the Hesperides were put in place to guard special golden apples given by Gaea as a wedding gift to Hera, and the father of the Hesperides is usually said to be Atlas.
The number of the Hesperides is often said to be three, mimicking stories of the Three Graces and other triads in various mythological traditions. Their number rarely exceeds seven in Greek myths, and in most stories the Hesperides remain unnamed. In others, they are given names like Arethusa, Aegle, Liupra, and Hespera. The women are also known as the Western Maidens or the Daughters of the Evening, in a reference to their Westerly location.
According to the stories, the women guard a fantastic garden which seems almost like paradise. The golden apple trees are the primary feature of the garden, but other magical or beautiful plants are often described in tales about the Hesperides. The garden also houses a dragon named Ladon, who was allegedly installed in the garden to ensure that the Hesperides did not yield to temptation and pluck from Hera's apple trees. The Hesperides also supposedly enjoyed singing and making music to entertain themselves.
People who are familiar with myths about Hercules may be familiar with the Hesperides, since stealing some of their apples was one of the tasks that Hercules had to complete. According to most stories, Hercules tricked Atlas into stealing the apples for him, and in some tales he slew the dragon Ladon as well. However, upon returning with the apples, no one knew quite what to do with them, and ultimately Hercules gave them to Athena, who returned them to the garden.
Tales like that of the Hesperides are found in many cultures, suggesting that many human societies have a vision of a paradise guarded by attractive and talented women. The apples in the garden of the Hesperides are said to grant immortality, another common theme in mythology; many people enjoy the idea that a magical fruit with the gift of life exists somewhere, even if they cannot access it.
I remember studying Greek mythology back in high school but I have to admit that I couldn't remember all twelve of Hercules' labors. I do remember though that he had to slay a dragon, but I thought it was a three headed serpent from the sea. This was a fascinating article and I thank you for sharing it with us.
One version of the story states that Heracles wasn't actually the one who stole the golden apples. Once he reached the Garden of the Hesperides, he met Atlas who was holding up the world as punishment for waging war against the Gods.
Hercules had asked Atlas to get the apples for him and he would hold the world up for him in the meantime. Atlas had no problem agreeing with this task and set out to retrieve three apples of the the Hesperides.
Upon his return with the apples, Atlas refused to take back his duty, but Hercules tricked him by asking him to hold it for a moment while he adjusted his clothing for a more comfortable position. Atlas agreed and Hercules fled.
No one knew what to do with the golden apples at this point so Athena returned them to the garden where it is said they still remain.
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