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In Greek mythology, the Hesperides are nymphs who tend a blissful garden in a far west corner of the world, located, according to various sources, in the Arcadian Mountains in Greece, near the Atlas mountains in Libya, or on a distant island at the edge of the ocean. According to the Greek poet Stesichorus, in his poem the "song of Geryon", and the Greek geographer Strabo, in his book Geographika (volume III), the Hesperides are in Tartessos, a location placed to the south of Iberia (Spain). The Greek poet Hesiod said that the ancient name of Cádiz was Erytheia, another name for the Hesperides.

Additionally, Hesperides (also called Fortunate Isles) is a name given by the ancients to a series of islands located to the extreme west of the then known world. These may have included the Canary Islands, the Madeira Islands and Cape Verde.

The evening

According to different accounts, there were either three, four, or seven Hesperides, but they are usually numbered three, like the other Greek triads (the Three Graces and the Moirae). Among the names given to them are Aegle ("dazzling light"), Arethusa, Erytheia (or Erytheis), Hesperia (or Hespereia), Hespere (or Hespera), Hestia, and Hesperusa. They are sometimes called the Western Maidens, the Daughters of Evening, or the Sunset Goddesses, all apparently tied to their imagined location in the distant west, and Hesperis is appropriately the personification of the evening (as Eos is of the dawn) and the Evening Star is Hesperus. They are also called the African Sisters, perhaps when thought to be in Libya. In addition to their tending of the garden, they were said to have taken great pleasure in singing.

They are sometimes portrayed as the evening daughters of Night (Nyx) and Darkness (Erebus), in accord with the way Eos in the farthermost east, in Colchis, is the daughter of the titan Hyperion. Or they are listed as the daughters of Atlas, or of Zeus and either Hesperius or Themis, or Phorcys and Ceto.

The Garden of the Hesperides

The Garden of the Hesperides is Hera's orchard in the west, where either a single tree or a grove of immortality-giving golden apples grew. The apples were planted from the fruited branches that Gaia gave to her as a wedding gift when Hera accepted Zeus. The Hesperides were given the task of tending to the grove, but occasionally plucked from it themselves. Not trusting them, Hera also placed in the garden a never-sleeping, hundred-headed, dragon, named Ladon, as an additional safeguard.

Although Herakles was supposed to perform only ten labours, Eurystheus discounted those where he was aided or paid, and so two additional labours were given. The first of these (the eleventh overall) was to steal the apples from the garden. Herakles first caught Nereus, the shape-shifting sea god, to learn where the Garden of the Hesperides was located.

In some versions of the tale, Herakles did not know where to travel, and so sought help, being directed to Prometheus to ask, and when reaching Prometheus freed him from his torture as payment. This tale is more usually found in the position of the Erymanthian Boar, since it is associated with Chiron choosing to forgo immortality and taking Prometheus' place.

In some variations, Herakles, either at the start or at the end of his task, meets Antaeus, who was invincible as long as he touched his mother, Gaia, the earth. Antaeus was killed by placing him above the earth, suspended in a tree.

Occasionally, versions tell that Herakles stopped in Egypt, where King Busiris decided to make him the yearly sacrifice, but Herakles burst out of his chains.

Finally making his way to the Garden of the Hesperides, Herakles tricked Atlas into retrieving some of the golden apples for him, by offering to hold the heavens for a little while (Atlas was able to take them, as in this version, Atlas was the father of the Hesperides). Upon his return with the apples, Atlas decided not to take the heavens back from Heracles, but Heracles tricked him again by agreeing to take his place on condition that Atlas relieved him temporarily so that Herakles could make his cloak more comfortable. Atlas agreed, Heracles walked away. According to an alternative version, Herakles slew Ladon instead.

Herakles was the only person to successfully steal the apples, although Athena later returned the apples to their rightful place, in the garden.

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