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Heracles’s Sixth Labour: the Stymphalian Birds

For the sixth Labour, King Eurystheus ordered Heracles to drive away an enormous flock of birds which gathered at  lake Stymphalia, high in the mountains of northern Peloponnese, near the town of Stymphalos.

The Stymphalian Birds were man-eating birds with beaks of bronze, sharp metallic feathers they could launch at their victims  and poisonous dung. They bred quickly and swarmed over the countryside, destroying crops, fruit trees – and people.

These fly against those who come to hunt them, wounding and killing them with their beaks. All armour of bronze or iron that men wear is pierced by the birds; but if they weave a garment of thick cork, the beaks of the Stymphalian birds are caught in the cork garment… These birds are of the size of a crane, and are like the ibis, but their beaks are more powerful, and not crooked like that of the ibis.

Pausanias, Description of Greece, 8.22.5

Arriving at the lake, Heracles could not go into the marsh to reach the nests of the birds, as the ground would not support his weight Athena, noticing the hero’s plight, gave Heracles a pair of bronze rattles which Hephaestus , the god of the forge, had made especially for the occasion.

Climbing a nearby mountain, Heracles clashed the rattles loudly, scaring the birds out and then shot them with with arrows tipped with poisonous blood from the slain Lernaean Hydra, or possibly with a slingshot, as they took flight. The rest flew far away, never to plague the region again. Heracles brought some of the slain birds to Eurystheus as proof of his success.

The surviving birds made a new home on an island in the Euxine Sea (the modern Black Sea). The Argonauts later encountered them there.

The ancient traveller and writer Pausanias also saw and described the sanctuary built by the Greeks at Stymphalos and dedicated to the goddess Artemis. He reported that the temple had carvings of the Stymphalian birds up near its roof. Standing behind the temple, he saw marble statues of maidens with the legs of birds.

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