Once upon a time in Erytheia, an island off the west coast of what we now call Spain, there lived a monster who had a valuable herd of red cattle. The monster was called Geryon by the ancient Greek poets: he was a triplicate—three heads, three feet, three arms, three everything. Today that would be a hard story to swallow, but remember that this happened long ago. Anyway, modern readers will have to cut the ancient Greek poets some slack.
Another thing, Geryon was red, just like his cattle, and he had a dog and a herder to help him. The dog was ferocious and had two heads.
One day, the mighty Greek adventurer Herakles came to Erytheia. Herakles conked the watchdog’s noggins with a club and then used the same weapon to dispatch the herder. Herakles then proceeded to rustle the red cattle. Geryon armed himself: helmets, shields and swords (in triplicate, of course), and flew into battle (for he was winged as well). But, Geryon was beaten by a trick— Herakles shot him with a deadly poison arrow and he died on the spot. Of course, Herakles made off with the stolen cattle.
This story was first told by the Greek poet Stesichorus a very long time ago. Unfortunately only fragments of his poem have survived, but, fortunately for us, Anne Carson has filled in the missing details. She also updated the story to modern times: Geryon and Herakles really swing.
Carson’s tells the story of Geryon in two novels in verse: Autobiography of Red, and red doc>. Read them, you’ll be surprised and entertained by her imagination and story telling skill.
Anne Carson is a Canadian who teaches ancient Greek for a living. She recently was a poet in residence at Stanford University.