Birds

Stymphalian Birds

Hercules Killing the Stymphalian Birds by Albrecht Dürer

Hercules Killing the Stymphalian Birds by Albrecht Dürer (ca. 1500)

Germanisches Nationalmuseum, NurembergPublic Domain

Overview

The Stymphalian Birds are best remembered as the object of Heracles’ sixth labor. These birds choked the woods around Lake Stymphalus in northeastern Arcadia. Though they were originally imagined simply as pests, later accounts depicted them as fearsome, dangerous creatures who could use their bronze feathers as weapons and sometimes ate human flesh. 

Heracles defeated the birds by frightening them with a rattle, which drew them out of the trees. He then either picked them off one by one with his arrows or allowed them to fly away from Lake Stymphalus (their fate varied depending on the source).

Etymology

The term “Stymphalian Birds” (Greek Στυμφαλίδες ὄρνιθες, translit. Stymphalídes órnithes) comes from the name of Lake Stymphalus in Arcadia, where the birds made their home.

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek
    Stymphalian BirdsΣτυμφαλίδες ὄρνιθες (Stymphalídes órnithes)
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    [stim-FEY-lee-uhn]/stɪmˈfeɪ li ən/

Attributes

Locales

The Stymphalian Birds lived near Lake Stymphalus in northeastern Arcadia.[1] They gathered in the woods around the lake in large numbers, perhaps as protection against wolves.[2]

Some sources claimed that after Heracles chased the Stymphalian Birds away from Arcadia, they made their new home on the island of Ares in the Black Sea.[3] The geographer Pausanias also knew of a breed of birds called “Stymphalian” that lived in Arabia; these creatures supposedly attacked people with their beaks, easily piercing even armor.[4]

Appearance and Abilities

In the earliest accounts, there does not seem to have been anything especially remarkable about the Stymphalian Birds except for their large numbers. But in later traditions, the birds acquired more aggressive and outlandish attributes, with several sources claiming they had bronze feathers that they fired as missiles at people and animals alike.[5] One author, Pausanias, even described the Stymphalian Birds as man-eating.[6]

Iconography

The Stymphalian Birds were not very popular in ancient art. When they were depicted, they usually looked similar to geese, with short bodies and long necks. Heracles was invariably shown slaughtering them, either with a sling, bow and arrow, club, or even his bare hands.[7]

Vase painting of Heracles fighting the Stymphalian Birds by the Diosophos Painter

Attic black-figure amphora by the Diosophos Painter showing Heracles fighting the Stymphalian Birds (ca. 500–490 BCE)

Louvre Museum, Paris / Bibi Saint-PolPublic Domain

Mythology

The Sixth Labor of Heracles

Heracles was sent to exterminate the Stymphalian Birds as the sixth of his Twelve Labors.[8] These labors were assigned by Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, who wished to destroy Heracles—a desire he shared with the goddess Hera. The first half of Heracles’ labors were more or less local affairs, pitting the hero against opponents in the Peloponnese, while the second half took Heracles to more exotic locations. The Stymphalian Birds were the last of Heracles’ “Peloponnesian Labors” (at least by Apollodorus’ count).

The Stymphalian Birds had infested the woods around Lake Stymphalus in Arcadia. In some traditions they were aggressive, though earlier accounts seem to have imagined them merely as pests, with the main complaint being their large number.

Heracles defeated the birds using a bronze rattle or castanets, which he either made himself or received as a gift from Athena. Using this tool, Heracles created a great racket that drew the birds out of the trees and into the open air. Sources are divided on what happened next. According to some, Heracles allowed the birds to fly away from Stymphalus unharmed.[9] But other sources claim he picked them off with his bow and arrow, shooting them out of the sky until they were all dead.[10]

Hercules at Lake Stymphalus by Gustave Moreau

Hercules at Lake Stymphalus by Gustave Moreau (ca. 1875–1880)

Gustave Moreau Museum, ParisPublic Domain

With his task fulfilled, Heracles returned to Mycenae. In some accounts, he delivered a few of the dead birds to Eurystheus as proof that he had done as he was commanded.[11]

The Argonauts

Some sources continued the tale of the Stymphalian Birds, suggesting that they fled to the island of Ares in the Black Sea after Heracles drove them from Arcadia. Later, when the Argonauts sailed past this island on their voyage to Colchis, the Stymphalian Birds pestered them until the heroes finally chased them away.[12]

Pop Culture

The Stymphalian Birds occasionally flit through contemporary adaptations of Greek mythology, though they are hardly among Heracles’ better remembered labors. These updated accounts diverge widely in their depictions of the birds. In the TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, for example, there is a single Stymphalian Bird, a giant winged creature similar to a pterodactyl. In the Percy Jackson and the Olympians novels, on the other hand, the Stymphalian Birds are described as small and pigeon-like.

References

Notes

  1. Strabo, Geography 8.6.8; Apollodorus, Library 2.5.6; Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.22.4; etc.

  2. Apollodorus, Library 2.5.6.

  3. Scholia on Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica 2.382; cf. Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 2.1030ff; Servius on Virgil’s Aeneid 8.299. According to Hyginus, Fabulae 20 and 30, the Stymphalian Birds had always lived on the island of Ares, and it was there that Heracles fought them. However, this is surely an error, as the birds’ appellation indicates fairly unambiguously that they came from Lake Stymphalus.

  4. Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.22.4–5.

  5. Servius on Virgil’s Aeneid 8.299; scholia on Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica 2.382; cf. Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 2.1030ff; Hyginus, Fabulae 30.

  6. Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.22.4.

  7. Susan Woodford, “Herakles and the Stymphalian Birds (Labour V),” in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (Zurich: Artemis, 1990), 5:54–57.

  8. Though Diodorus of Sicily claimed it was actually Heracles’ fifth labor.

  9. Pisander, Heraclea frag. 4 (from Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.22.4); Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 4.13.2.

  10. Pherecydes, Fragmente der griechischen Historiker (FGrH) 3 frag. 72; Hellanicus, FGrH 4 frag. 104; Apollodorus, Library 2.5.6; cf. Quintus of Smyrna, Posthomerica 6.227ff; John Tzetzes, Chiliades 2.291–92.

  11. Apollodorus, Library 2.5.6.

  12. Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 2.1030ff; Hyginus, Fabulae 20.

Primary Sources

Greek

The earliest literary accounts of how Heracles defeated the Stymphalian Birds come from the epic poet Pisander (seventh/sixth century BCE) and the mythographer Pherecydes (mid-fifth century BCE). But the fullest accounts appear in later works, especially the Library of History of Diodorus of Sicily (ca. 90–ca. 30 BCE) and the Library of Apollodorus or “Pseudo-Apollodorus” (first century BCE/first few centuries CE). Pausanias (ca. 115–180 CE) described the birds as man-eating in his Description of Greece (8.22.4).

Roman

The Roman mythographer Hyginus or “Pseudo-Hyginus” (first century CE or later) introduced the idea that the birds were covered in bronze feathers that they could shoot like missiles. This (and other fabulous traits of the birds) may represent a later invention.

Other

Further valuable information on the Stymphalian Birds can be found in commentaries and compilations from antiquity and the Middle Ages, including the scholia and works of Servius (fourth century CE) and John Tzetzes (ca. 1110–ca. 1180/85). For further references, see the notes.

Secondary Sources

Gantz, Timothy. “Labor VI: The Stymphalian Birds.” In Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources, 393–94. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Hard, Robin. “Fifth Labour: The Stymphalian Birds.” In The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology, 8th ed., 247. New York: Routledge, 2020.

Roscher, W. H. “Stymphalische Vögel.” In Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, edited by W. H. Roscher, vol. 4, 157–91. Leipzig: Teubner, 1909–1915.

Smith, William. “Heracles or Hercules.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed March 29, 2022. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DH%3Aentry+group%3D7%3Aentry%3Dheracles-bio-1.

Stafford, Emma. “The Stymphalian Birds.” In Herakles, 37–38. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Theoi Project. “Stymphalian Birds.” Published online 2000–2017. https://www.theoi.com/Ther/OrnithesStymphalides.html.

Türk, Gustav. “Stymphaliden.” In Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, edited by Georg Wissowa and August Friedrich Pauly, vol. 4A.1, 434–36. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1931.

Woodford, Susan. “Herakles and the Stymphalian Birds (Labour V).” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, vol. 5, 54–57. Zurich: Artemis, 1990.

Zimmermann, Sylvia. “Stymphalian Birds.” In Brill’s New Pauly, edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e1124690.

Citation

Kapach, Avi. “Stymphalian Birds.” Mythopedia, January 26, 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/stymphalian-birds.

Kapach, Avi. “Stymphalian Birds.” Mythopedia, 26 Jan. 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/stymphalian-birds. Accessed on 6 Jun. 2024.

Kapach, A. (2023, January 26). Stymphalian Birds. Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/stymphalian-birds

Authors

  • Avi Kapach

    Avi Kapach is a writer, scholar, and educator who received his PhD in Classics from Brown University

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