Sisyphus and The Fifth Labour of Heracles by Robert Graves

Robert Graves' account of the Greek myths has not merely introduced these narratives to generations of readers, it has also facilitated the understanding of the different cultural threads through which the stories have travelled across different locations in the West. Graves does not merely summarize, he offers the anecdotes and accounts through a more informed perceptive lens, accommodating contesting versions and even projecting issues that appear to be pertinent to a given narrative. His work, as such, is of historical importance, as it offers insights into a scholar's engagement with a world whose modern narrative enunciation bridges the richness of that mythic world, thereby making it an example of both revisitation and critical evaluation. Graves looks at the context in which these myths operated and were considered valid, encompassing as it did the political and cultural frames in the process of emergence. In his 'Introduction' to The Greek Myths this is what he points out when he writes: 'A large part of Greek myth is politico-religious history.' But this is not all, as Graves looks at the myths within a much wider framework of Hellenic history and culture. In his recounting of these myths, thus, Graves attempts to show the trajectories through which the stories travelled to highlight and represent aspects of societal change and situation, with newer accretions and modifications demonstrating the transformative potential of these myths.

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The myth of Sisyphus has occupied the modern mind as much as it did the earlier generations. Somewhat of an upstart, and a resistant voice within the Greek mythical echelons, Sisyphus is recognised for his ability to scheme and manipulate his way through, interested as he is only in his own gains. But, he does meet his match in a fashion that perennially engages him, not only condemning him to the cycle from which is unable to recover, but also serving as a lesson for those who overreach and cross the limits within which they are supposed to remain. Graves brings in aspects of the Sisyphus myth and provides a chronology of the circumstances in which operated, and the consequences he had to face for his scheming ways. We may also consider, in this context, another modern response to the question of the same myth and what it entails for man by looking at the version presented by Albert Camus in his examination of the existentialist problem in The Myth of Sisyphus. The orientations of both Graves and Camus are very different, showing in effect, how the same source material can be looked at and evaluated from alternative positions.

Hercules has been a figure of considerable interest in the West, with literature, art and other media exploiting the potential that his adventures presents. Graves looks at all the ‘labours' that Hercules is called upon to bear out in the Greek Myths, each account subsumed by the informative resourcefulness that we find in his other accounts as well. The 'fifth' labour, which involves the cleaning of the Aegean stables, a seemingly insurmountable task, is presented by Graves in terms of the implications it held for both Hercules and the antagonist whose command he was compelled to obey. The course change (of the waters) that he effects, and what it means for the 'labour' in question is not confined to the stable cleansing exercise alone. It highlights acumen and a critical responsiveness that Hercules displays, using both tact and intelligence to overcome odds that appeared humanly beyond reach. Graves points out that the river-turning act reflects remarkable understanding of the world in which the task was to completed, a lesson that tells us of the need to know the ground as much as the nature of work to be done.