This is a chapter of Once Upon A Time: Children’s Stories From The Classics by Blanche Winder.
This is a story, not only about the golden apples that Heracles brought to his cousin, the king, but of other apples made of the same fairy metal. First of all, however, you shall hear about Heracles and the hidden far-off garden where the apples grew.
When the king told him he must find this garden, and gather some of the glittering fruit from the tree, poor Heracles was in despair, for he knew very well that the appletree had been lost a long, long time ago, and had never been found again. It had been given to Queen Hera as a wedding present, covered, with its crop of gold; and she had put it in the care of some beautiful maidens whose father, Hesperus, carried the evening star to the sky every night in a lantern set with gems. These maidens were called the Hesperides; and, in order that the apples might never be stolen, they had taken the tree far away into Africa, had planted it in a secret garden, and had set a wary dragon to live under the branches and to guard the treasured fruit both day and night.
However, Heracles shouldered his lion skin, took his club, and set off to discover someone who would tell him where to find the garden of the Hesperides. But nobody knew! Everyone had heard of the apples and of the beautiful maidens who had hidden them, but not a soul had any idea where the garden could be found. At last, he was told to go and find Prometheus, who would really be able to tell him about the garden. So away he went in search of Prometheus, whom he discovered chained to a rock in a lonely mountain gorge, with a great vulture guarding him and pecking at him in the most cruel fashion. This was Zeus’s way of punishing Prometheus for stealing the fire — as if all the trouble brought on men by poor, pretty Pandora had not been revenge enough! However, Heracles shot the vulture with one of his poisoned arrows, broke the iron fetters, and set Prometheus at liberty. And this wise, brave, good man was never chained up to the lonely rock again, but was allowed to go free, forever.
Prometheus, overjoyed, bade Heracles journey a little farther, and find Atlas, who was a great strong giant and lived on the top of a high mountain, holding the sky up with his mighty head and shoulders. Atlas knew all about the garden, said Prometheus, and would be only too willing to help.
Very glad and proud at having freed the man who had stolen the fire from the shining palace, Heracles strode off, yet again. And, sure enough, after a few more adventures, he found Atlas on top of the very mountain that Prometheus had described.
What a weary, patient, bored old giant Atlas must have been! For centuries and centuries, he had stood up there in the snow, his head among the clouds and stars. Some people, when they tell you the story of Atlas, will say that it was not the sky which he held up, but the world itself. However that may be, he was certainly so pleased to see Heracles that he told him, in a minute, all about the garden, and the beautiful maidens, and the wide-awake dragon that guarded the tree. And then Atlas said that, if Heracles would be good enough to hold the sky up for him during his absence, he would go to the garden and bring back the apples himself!
Heracles consented to this plan, and with wonderful ease, considering what a business it must have been. Atlas slipped the sky off his own shoulders onto the back of Heracles. So there stood the strongest man in the world, the sky, full of stars, with perhaps a comet or two rushing about, pressing upon his neck and head, while Atlas hurried off at full speed, muttering to himself, after the way of giants. Heracles watched him out of sight, and, if he had not been very brave as well as very strong, must have heartily wished to see him back again.
By and by, as Heracles stood on the top of the mountain, thinking what a terrible weight the sky was, and probably wondering what would happen if, by any chance, Atlas ever let it fall, heavy footsteps sounded once more on the mountain path, and up loomed the big figure of the giant, with three golden apples in one of his great hands. Heracles gasped with relief; but Atlas only stood still, when he was within a few paces, and, looking at the sky with extreme dislike, declared that he was thoroughly tired of holding it up, and would leave the task to Heracles, while he himself carried the golden apples to the king!
Here was a terrible plight for Heracles! He was determined not to spend the rest of his life holding up the sky — and, of course, he dared not let it drop! However, he pretended to agree to the plan and said he was quite willing to take the giant’s place if Atlas would be kind enough to let him have something soft, such as a big cushion, on his neck and shoulders. Atlas sympathized with the request and consented to hold the sky again for a few minutes, while Heracles made his arrangements. But no sooner had the poor giant taken back his burden, than Heracles snatched up the apples from the ground where they were lying, and hurried off at full speed, leaving Atlas to his old task, all alone with the stars. And so terribly tired did Atlas get in the end that, when Perseus chanced to pass that way with the Gorgon’s head, he begged the prince to let him have a look at it —or so some folks will tell you— and was turned at once into a stony top to the mountain. And a stony mountain top Atlas is to this very day.
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Those apples of the Hesperides were very famous apples, and you may be sure the king was so delighted to see them that he did not think it necessary, this time, to jump into his brass jar. No less famous were three other apples that Aphrodite gave to a handsome youth called Hippomenes, in whom she took a great interest, for the usual simple reason that he was in love!
The princess whom Hippomenes loved was young and beautiful, but in her ways she was much more like a boy than a girl. Her name was Atalanta, and everybody knew how brave and swift-footed she was. She would lead the boar hunts, shouting with excitement; and no skilled archer’s arrow was more true in its flight, no practiced hunter’s spear quicker to slay. A true follower of Artemis was this spirited princess; like Artemis, too, she was determined to remain unmarried. Whenever her father, the king, presented a suitor to her, she would laugh with scorn and tell each new lover that she would only marry him if he could beat her in a race. If he agreed to try, she would add that, if he were beaten, his head would be cut off. But plenty of youths were to be found who were quite sure they could never be beaten in a race by a maiden and were ready enough to accept her challenge.
So they ran races with Atalanta, but the princess always won. Then the poor lovers’ heads were cut off, by Atalanta’s orders — no doubt that she might be saved further worry in the way of proposals.
Hippomenes, however, had watched Atalanta run a lot of these races and had fallen deeply in love with her. But he did not think, swift-footed though he was, that he could ever win if he were to challenge her to a trial against him. So he went to Aphrodite, and Aphrodite gave him three golden apples which she had just plucked from a favorite tree and told him what to do with them.
With the apples hidden under his scarf, Hippomenes drew near to Atalanta and asked her to run a race with him, as she had done with the others. She consented — scornfully as usual. They went together down to the royal meadows where Atalanta’s races were always run, and there were all the suitors’ heads set round on poles! This was enough to frighten any stranger, but Hippomenes knew all about them, so he was not at all alarmed. He fingered the hidden apples and prepared to start.
All the court had come to see the race, and, when the signal was given, off went the beautiful long-limbed princess like the wind, her rosy feet treading down the flowers. Then, after running a little way, she pretended, as she had often done before, to allow her lover to overtake her. Looking back, rather mockingly, over her shoulder, she saw him close on her heels. And at that very moment, he deliberately dropped one of the apples.
Atalanta saw it fall and begin to roll away — a wonderful, glittering, fairy ball of gold. She hesitated, paused, and then stopped dead, in order to pick it up. As she stooped for it, Hippomenes shot past her and took the lead.
But it did not take Atalanta long to recover the ground she had lost. Off she flashed, again, like an arrow. In a moment she would have overtaken Hippomenes, but he dropped a second apple!
The beautiful thing rolled away among the meadow blossoms, and, once more, Atalanta checked her flying feet. Turning back, she stooped for the shining fruit. As she set her face again toward the goal, she saw that Hippomenes was much farther ahead than before. She had to put on all her speed to come up to him; but, as they neared the winning post, down to the ground fell the third golden ball, seeming even more beautiful to the princess than the two she already carried.
It was no use — she could not leave the apple behind! Trusting that her fleetness could still make up for the pause, she stooped yet again and lifted the apple from the ground. The next moment, a wave of shouts fell upon the air. Hippomenes had reached the winning post. The race and the prize were his!
In that way, the boy-like princess was won by her lover and married him in fulfillment of the promise she had made.