The Hesperides: Greek Nymphs of the Golden Apples

In Greek mythology, Hesperides are the magic of the sunset. 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. They are also known for their gardens and keeping the golden apples.

Who are Hesperides?

In Greek mythology, the Hesperides were nymphs who were the daughters of Titan Atlas and the sea nymph Hesperis. They were often depicted as tending to a beautiful garden, known as the Garden of the Hesperides, which was located at the western edge of the world, near the realm of the setting sun and the most famous story involving the Hesperides revolves around their role as guardians of the Golden Apples.

The Hesperides themselves were often depicted as ethereal and beautiful nymphs, associated with the evening and the golden light of the setting sun. Their name is derived from the Greek word “hesperos,” which means “evening” or “western.” They were sometimes considered to be the daughters of Night (Nyx) and Darkness (Erebus), adding to their connection with twilight and the fading light.

The Hesperides play a relatively minor role in Greek mythology compared to some other figures, but their association with the Golden Apples and their garden has made them an enduring symbol of the mythical and magical aspects of the ancient Greek world.

Confusion about the Hesperides in Greek Mythology

The story of the Hesperides is very much contested. The number of sisters that are referred to as the Hesperides vary per source. The most common number of Hesperides is either three, four, or seven.

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

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?

There is 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.

And there is Diodonus, an ancient Greek historian who is known for writing the monumental universal history Bibliotheca Historica. 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 

Hesiod, Nyx, and Erebus

According to Hesiod, the Hesperides were birthed by Nyx, 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 war of Titans.

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.

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 that was granted to her after her death.

It’s easy to confuse the potential mother of 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.

The Birth of the Hesperides

Diodorus believed that the Hesperides saw their first rays of light in the land of Atlantis. 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 which was also referred to as Hesperitis. Together, they owned a flock of beautiful sheep with golden fleece.

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 born 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 there are only three Hesperides, 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.

Atlantides 

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.

Pleiades

As 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 of Zeus.

That is to say, Atlas rebelled against Zeus, who sentenced him to hold up heaven on his shoulders forever. This meant he couldn’t be present anymore for 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 and 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 Apples

The garden of the Hesperides is also known as Hera’s orchard. The garden is located in 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 among the Greek gods and goddesses.

Gaia was the goddess that planted and fruited the trees, giving them 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 some 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 Apple 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. The fruit was quite unknown in Europe and the Mediterranean before the start of the Middle Ages.

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 Sheep

Outside comparing them to oranges, in the story of the Hesperides apples can also be compared to sheep. Yet another confirmation that the story of 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. 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. 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.

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 every day a monstrous eagle would come and eat Prometheus’ liver.

READ MORE: 11 Trickster Gods From Around The World

However, the liver grew back every day, meaning he had to endure the same torture 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 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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