The Hesperides: Greek Nymphs of the Golden Apple

Anyone will confirm that a beautiful sunset is something inspiring to witness. Many people go out of their way to find the most beautiful spots to watch the sunset, just for the sake of watching it. What is it that makes the setting sun and the golden hour just before so magical? 

One might wonder how it can be that something so recurrent can be special every single time. Although many cultures have explained it differently, in Greek mythology the magic of the sunset is attributed to the Hesprides. 

As goddess-nymphs of the evening, the golden light, and sunsets, the Hesperides protected the beauty of the evening while being parented and supported by some of the most powerful Greek gods and goddesses and mythological creatures. A story which doesn’t seem to have a univocal formulation, but for certain includes many golden apples and golden heads. 

Confusion About the Hesperides in Greek Mythology

The story of the Hesperides is very much contested, even to the point that we can’t say for sure how many there were in total. The number of sisters that are referred to as the Hesperides vary per source. The most common number of Hesperides are either three, four, or seven. 

Since many sisters in Greek mythology come in triads, it might be probable that the Hesperides also were with three.

Just to give a bit of insight into the complexity of the situation here, let us take a look at the different parents that are mentioned in relation to the Hesperides. For starters, Nyx is in many sources presented as the mother of the Hesperides. Some sources claim that she was a single mom, while some sources claim that they were fathered by Erebus, the god of darkness himself.

But, that’s not all. The Hesperides are also listed as daughters of Atlas and Hesperis, or Phorcys and Ceto. Not only that, even Zeus and Themis can make a claim to the child support of the Hesperides. While there are many different stories, sticking to one of the most cited ones might be the best thing to do, just to keep a clear storyline. 

Hesiod or Diodonus?

But, that means that the most cited storyline should be identified first. Staying with the struggle, two writers can lay a claim on this prestigious honor. 

On the one hand, we have Hesiod, an ancient Greek writer generally thought to have been active between 750 and 650 BC. Many Greek mythological stories have been described by him and he is often used as a valid source for Greek mythology.

However, Diodonus, an ancient Greek historian who is known for writing the monumental universal history Bibliotheca Historica, also can make his claim. He wrote a series of forty books between 60 and 30 BC. Only fifteen of the books survived intact, but that should be enough to describe the story of the Hesperides.   

Clarifying the Family of Greek Gods 

The main difference between the two intellectuals and their formulation of classical mythology surrounds their ideas surrounding the parents of the Herides. So, let’s discuss that first. 

Hesiod, Nyx, and Erebus

According to Hesiod, the Hesperides were birthed by Nyx. If you’re somewhat familiar with Greek mythology, this name might definitely ring a bell. Not for the least because she was apparently able to  give birth to the Hesperides without the help of the other sex.

Nyx is the Greek primordial goddess of the night. She, like Gaia and the other primordial gods, emerged from chaos. All the primordial gods together ruled the cosmos, up until the Titanchomy, the moment that the 12 Titans claimed the throne.

Hesiod describes Nyx in Theogony as ‘deadly night’ and as ‘evil Nyx’. Since she is generally seen as the mother of evil spirits, it was more than fitting to refer to the goddess in this way. 

Nyx was quite the seducer, birthing many children. Some of her children were the god of peaceful death, Thanatos, and the god of sleep, Hypnos. It is, however, quite hard to link Nyx to the actual Hesperides. What does the goddess of the night have to do with the goddesses of the sunset?

Diodonus, Hesperis, and Atlas

On the other hand, Diodonus considered Hesperis to be the mother of the Hesperides. It’s in the name, so it would make sense. Hesperis is generally considered to be the Northern star, a place in heaven which was granted to her after her death.

It’s easy to confuse the potential mother of the Hesperides with another Greek god by the name of Hesperus, who turns out to be her brother. Yet, it was the young woman Hesperis that brought seven daughters to Atlas. 

Indeed, Hesperis was the mother, and Atlas is seen as the father in Diodonus’ narrative. Atlas was known as the god of endurance, ‘bearer of the heavens’, and teacher of astronomy to mankind. 

According to one myth, he literally became the mount Atlas after being turned to stone. Also, he was commemorated in the stars. Many of the stories that relate to the Hesperides can be linked directly to the mythology of Atlas. It is therefore more than probable that the ancient Greeks, too, saw Atlas as the only genuine father of the goddesses. 

Although we can’t say for sure still, the rest of this story will elaborate on the Hesperides as parented by Atlas and Hesperis. For one, because Hesperis and Hesperides seem too similar of names to just look away from. Secondly, the mythology of the Hesperides is so intertwined with that of Atlas that it’s probable the two are as close as family. 

The Birth of the Hesperides

Diodorus believes that the Hesperides saw their first rays of light in the land of Atlantis. Act He described the inhabitants of Atlantis as Atlanteans and actually studied the inhabitants of the place several centuries after the Greeks left. But, this is not the sunken city of Atlantis, a story that is still widely contested

Atlantis basically refers to the land where Atlas dwelled. It is an actual place, but there is little consensus about where this place would be. Diodorus studied its inhabitants. His journals state that even several centuries after the Greeks discarded their religion and sense of spirituality, the beliefs of the inhabitants of Atlantis were still heavily inspired by Greek worldviews. 

At one point in this mythological narrative, Atlas makes his appearance. The eventual father of the Hesperides was a wise astrologer. Actually, he was the first to obtain any knowledge of the sphere called Earth. His discovery of the sphere is present in this personal mythological story too. Here, he has to carry the world on his own shoulders. 

Atlas and Hesperus

Atlas dwelled with his brother Hesperus over the country that was also referred to as Hesperitis. Together, they owned a flock of beautiful sheep with a golden color. This color becomes relevant later, so keep it in mind. 

Although the land they dwelled at was called Hesperitis, it turned out that Hesperus’ sister took on a name that was almost exactly the same. She married Atlas, and it is believed that Atlas had seven daughters together with Hesperus’ sister Hesperis. Indeed, these would be the Hesperides.  

So, the Hesperides were borned at Hesperitis, or Atlantis. Here they would grow up and enjoy most of their adulthood. 

The Different Names of the Hesperides

The names of the Hesperides are oftentimes considered to be Maia, Electra, Taygeta, Asterope, Halcyone, and Celaeno. Yet, the names aren’t fully certain. In stories where the Hesperides are only with three, they are often referred to as Aigle, Erytheis, and Hesperethoosa. In other accounts, writers name them Arethousa, Aerika, Asterope, Chrysothemis, Hesperia, and Lipara.

So there are definitely enough names for seven sisters, or even more. However, the term which refers to the Hesperides as a group is also contested. 


Hesperides is generally the name that is used to refer to the seven goddesses. As indicated, the name Hesperides is based on the name of their mother, Hesperis. 

However, their father Atlas also makes a solid claim for the name of his daughters. That is to say, besides Hesperides, the goddesses are also referred to as Atlantides. At times, this term is used for all the women that lived in Atlantis, using the terms Atlantides and nymphs interchangeably for female inhabitants of the place. 


As indicated earlier, all of the Hesperides would secure a spot in the stars. In this form, the Hesperides are referred to as the Pleiades. The story of how the daughters of Atlas became stars is mostly out of pity by Zeus. 

That is to say, Atlas rebelled against Zeus, who sentenced him to hold up the heaven on his shoulders forever. This meant he couldn’t be of presences anymore to his daughters. This made the Hesperides so sad that they demanded change. They went to Zeus himself, who granted the goddesses a place in the sky. This way, the Hesperides could always be close to their father. 

So the Hesperides become the Pleiades as soon as we refer to them as the actual star constellations. The different stars make up a group of more than 800 stars located about 410 light-years from Earth in the constellation Taurus. Most skywatchers are familiar with the assembly, which looks something like a smaller, hazier version of the Big Dipper in the night sky.  

The Garden of the Hesperides and the Golden Apple

The complexity of the story surrounding the Hesperides should be relatively clear by now. Literally every single part of it seems to be contested. One of the few consistent stories is that about the garden of the Hesperides and the story of the golden apple.

The garden of the Hesperides is also known as Hera’s orchard. The garden is located at Atlantis, and grows one or multiple apple trees that produce golden apples. Eating one of the golden apples from the apple tree grants immortality, so it goes without saying that the fruits were popular under the Greek gods and goddesses. 

Gaia was the goddess that planted and fruited the trees, giving it as a wedding gift to Hera. Since the trees were planted on the territory where the Hesperides would reside, Gaia gave the sisters the task to take care of the trees. They did a good job, although they occasionally picked one of the golden apples themselves. 

Very tempting indeed, something which Hera also realized. 

To protect the gardens even more, Hera put a never-sleeping dragon as an additional safeguard. As per usual with never-sleeping dragons, the animal could perceive the danger quite well with his hundred sets of eyes and ears, each attached to their proper head. The hundred headed dragon went by the name of dragon Ladon.     

Trojan War and Apples of Discord

As host to the golden apples, the garden was in high regard. Actually, it led many to believe that it had some role in the initiation of the Trojan War. That is to say, after the hundred headed dragon Ladon was surpassed, the loot in the garden was up for grabs. 

The story surrounding the Trojan War relates to the myth of the Judgement of Paris, in which goddess Eris obtains one of the golden apples. In the myth, it is referred to as the Apple of Discord. 

Nowadays, the term apples of discord is still used to describe the core, kernel, or crux of an argument, or a small matter that could lead to a bigger dispute. As suspected, stealing the apple would indeed lead to the bigger dispute of the Trojan War. 

Comparing Apples to Oranges

In some other accounts, the golden apples are actually seen as oranges. So, yes, apples can be compared to oranges, apparently. The fruit was quite unknown in Europe and the Mediterranean before the start of the Middle Ages. Yet, golden apples or oranges became more common in contemporary southern Spain during the time of the ancient Greeks. 

The link between the unknown fruit and the Hesperides became somewhat everlasting, since the Greek botanical name that was chosen for the new fruit category was Hesperides. Even today, a link between the two can be seen. The Greek word for orange fruit is Portokali, named after a place that was close to the Garden of the Hesperides.  

Comparing Apples to Goats

Outside comparing them to oranges, in the story of the Hesperides apples can also be compared to goats. Yet another confirmation that the story of the Hesperides is potentially the most contested in Greek mythology. 

As indicated earlier, Atlas and Hesperus would lead their flock of sheep across the land of Atlantis. The sheep were astonishing, which also informed the way in which the goats were referred to. In artistic fashion, ancient Greek poets would often refer to the sheep as golden apples. 

The Eleventh Labour of Heracles

An often heard story in relation to the Hesperides is that of the eleventh labor of Heracles. Heracles was cursed by Hera, a goddess that married Zeus. However, Zeus had an affair with another woman that resulted in the birth of Heracles. Hera couldn’t appreciate this mistake and decided to curse the very baby that was named after her. 

After some attempts, Hera was able to put a spell on Heracles. Because of the spell, Heracles murdered his beloved wife and two children. A sinister Greek tragedy with quite some consequences. 

After visiting Apollo, the two agreed that Heracles had to perform a number of labors in order to be forgiven. Apollo was aware of the spell by Hera, and decided to cut the Greek hero some slack. After his first and difficult labor of killing the Nemean lion, Heracles would proceed to perform eleven different labors. 

Heracles Tries to Steal the Apples

The eleventh labor is related to the Hesperides, the golden apples, and their garden. It all starts with Eurystheus, the king of Mycene. He commanded Heracles to bring him the golden apples of the garden. But, Hera was the official owner of the garden, the same Hera that put a spell over Heracles and dumped him into this mess to begin with.

Still, Eurystheus wouldn’t take no for an answer. Heracles obediently took off to steal the apples. Or actually, he didn’t, since he had no clue where the garden of the Hesperides could be located. 

After journeying through Libya, Egypt, Arabia, and Asia, he eventually ended up in Illyria. Here, he seized the sea-god Nereus, who was aware of the secret location of the garden of the Hesperides. But, Nereus wasn’t easy to conquer, since he transformed himself into all kinds of shapes while trying to escape. 

Entering the Gardens

Yet still, Heracles obtained the information he needed. Continuing on his quest, he would be stopped by two sons of Poseidon, which he had to fight in order to continue. Eventually, he was able to pass to the place where the blissful garden was located. Yet, entering it was another objective.

Heracles arrived at a rock on Mount Caucasus, where he found the Greek trickster Prometheus chained to a stone. Zeus sentenced him to this horrible fate, and everyday a monstrous eagle would come and eat Prometheus’ liver. 

However, the liver grew back every day, meaning he had to endure the same torturing every day. But, Heracles was able to kill the eagle, freeing Prometheus.

Out of tremendous gratitude, Prometheus told Heracles the secret of getting to his objective. He advised Heracles to ask for the help of Atlas. After all, Hera would do anything to decline Heracles’ access to the garden, so asking someone else to do it would make sense.

Fetching the Golden Apples

Atlas would agree to the task of fetching the apples from the Garden of the Hesperides Heracles, however, had to hold the earth for a second while Atlas was doing his thing. Everything happened as Prometheus had predicted, and Atlas went to get the apples while Hercules was stuck in Atlas’s place, with the weight of the world literally on his shoulders.   

When Atlas returned with the golden apples, he told Hercules he would take them to Eurystheus himself. Hercules had to stay at the exact place, holding the world in place and all. 

Hercules slyly agreed, but asked Atlas whether he could take it back again because he needed a few seconds of rest. Atlas put the apples on the ground, and lifted the burden onto his own shoulders. And so Hercules picked up the apples and quickly ran off, carrying them back, uneventfully, to Eurystheus.

Was it Worth the Effort?

There was one final problem, however. The apples belonged to the gods, more specifically to the Hesperides and Hera. Because they belonged to the gods, the apples could not remain with Eurystheus. After all the trouble Hercules went through to get them, he had to return them to Athena, who took them back to the garden at the northern edge of the world.

So after a complex story, the myths in which the Hesperides are involved return to neutral. Maybe that’s the only constant surrounding the Hesperides; after a full day, a setting sun assures us that a new day will follow soon, providing a neutral clean slate for the development of a new narrative. 

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