12 Labors of Heracles: The Mares of Diomedes

The eighth labor that the hero Heracles had to endure dealt with the intimidating horses of King Diomedes. In Greek myths, the horses were described as wild and uncontrollable, yet Heracles was given the task of capturing the creatures. In this article, you will learn more about the eighth labor of Heracles.

What are the Mares of Diomedes?

The Mares of Diomedes (also referred to as the Mares of Thrace) were known to wreak havoc on man. Described as ‘man-eating horses,’ they belonged to Diomedes. It is said that the horse that Alexander the Great rode on was a descendant of the mares. The horses were given names, such as Podagros (the fast), Lampon (the shining), Xanthos (the blond) and Deinos (the terrible).

Who was Diomedes?

King Diomedes who ruled over Thrace was the giant son of Ares (the god of war) and Cyrene. He called the shores of the Black Sea his home, as he ruled over the tribe of Bistones , often known for their warlike qualities. The King was known for his four horses, which had a reputation for eating humans.

Heracles and his Eighth Labor

Following the capture of the Cretan Bull, Heracles was sent to steal the Mares from Diomedes. There is more than one version of the story. In one account, a group of youths aid the hero in completing his task. They took the horses, but were chased by Diomedes and his men. Another version says that when they breathed , fire came out.

Stealing the mares would not be an easy task, as they were tethered to a bronze manger because they were too wild. It was said that the horses went crazy because they were given an unnatural diet of human flesh. As Heracles went about stealing the mares, he had to engage in a fight with Diomedes. In the meantime, he left behind his favorite companion (Abderus) so that he could look after the horses. The boy was eaten in the process. Heracles was furious and fed Diomedes to his own horses in retaliation. The place where the boy’s tomb was positioned, the hero founded the city of Abdera.

Another version of the tale saw Heracles staying awake so that he did not place himself in danger. He feared that Diomedes would cut his throat in the middle of the night. Instead, he was able to cut the chains that held the horses in place. He used the tactic of scaring the horses to higher ground, which Heracles turned into an island by digging a trench and filling in with water. When Diomedes arrived, he killed the king with an axe and fed the body to the horses in order to calm their nerves.

The act of feeding the horses to make them calmer appears in the various versions of the story. When he could, Heracles binded the horses’ mouths shut so that it wasn’t hard to take them back to Eurystheus. The horses were dedicated to Hera. Other accounts state that the horses were allowed to wander about Argos without any restrictions. In the process, they were no longer wild and became calm.