Deïanira was one of the most beautiful of princesses who lived in the long ago times of the Greek gods and goddesses. It seemed as if all the loveliness of the world in this, its story time, was hers. Her hair was bright with the yellow of the first spring sunshine, and her eyes were as blue as the skies of spring. Summer had touched Deïanira’s cheeks with the pink of rose petals, and the colors of the autumn fruits shone in her jewels, crimson, and purple, and gold. Her robes were as white and sparkling as the snows of winter, and all the music of soft winds, and bird songs, and rippling brooks was in this princess’ voice because of her beauty, and her goodness which even surpassed it, princes came from all over the earth to ask Deïanira’s father, Æneus, if she might go home to their kingdoms and be their queen. But to all these Æneus replied that to none but the strongest would he give the princess.
There were many tests of these strangers’ skill and strength in games and wrestling, but one by one they failed. At last there were only two left, Hercules, who could hold the sky on his great shoulders, and Acheloüs, the river-god, who could twist and twine through the fields and make them fertile. Each thought himself the greater of the two, and it lay between them which should gain the princess, by his prowess, to be his queen. Hercules was great of limb, and of powerful strength. Beneath his shaggy eyebrows, his eyes gleamed like coals of fire. His garment was of lion skins, and his staff was a young tree. But Acheloüs was able to slip between the huge fingers of Hercules. He was as slim and graceful as a willow tree, and dressed in the green of foliage. He wore a crown of water lilies on his fair hair, and carried a staff made of twined reeds. When Acheloüs spoke, his voice was like the rippling of a stream.
“The princess Deïanira shall be mine!” said Acheloüs. “I will make her the queen of the river lands. The music of the waters shall be always in her ears, and the plenty that follows wherever I flow shall make her rich.”
“No,” shouted Hercules. “I am the strength of the earth. Deïanira is mine. You shall not have her.”
Then the river-god grew very angry. His green robe changed to the black of the sea in a storm, and his voice was as loud as a mountain cataract. Acheloüs could be almost as powerful as Hercules when he was angered.
“How do you dare claim this royal maiden?” he roared, “you, who have mortal blood in your veins? I am a god, and the king of the waters. Wherever I take my way through the earth, grains and fruits ripen, and flowers bud and bloom. The princess is mine by right.”
Hercules frowned as he advanced toward the river-god. “Your strength is only in words,” he said scornfully. “My strength is in my arm. If you would win Deïanira, it must be by hand-to-hand combat.” So the river-god threw off his garments and Hercules his lions’ skins, and the two fought for the hand of the princess. It was a brave and valorous battle. Neither yielded; both stood firm. Acheloüs slipped in and out of Hercules’ mighty grasp a dozen times, but at last Hercules’ greater strength overpowered him. Hercules held the river-god fast by his neck, panting for breath. But Acheloüs knew magic arts which he could practise. He suddenly changed himself into a long, slippery serpent. He twisted out of Hercules’ grasp, and darted out his forked tongue at him, showing his poisonous fangs. Hercules was not yet outdone, though. He laughed in
scorn at the serpent. While he was still in his cradle, Hercules had strangled two serpents, and he had met a Hydra with a hundred heads that he had cut off. He was not in the least afraid of the river-god in the form of a serpent, but gripped the creature by the back of its neck, ready to strangle it. Acheloüs struggled in vain to escape, and at last tried his magic arts again. In a second the serpent had changed its form to that of a bellowing ferocious bull. With its horns lowered, it charged upon Hercules but Hercules was still unvanquished. He seized hold of the bull’s horns, bent its head, grasped its brawny neck, and throwing it down buried the horns in the ground. Then he broke off one of the horns with his iron strong hand, and held it up in the air, shouting,
“Victory! The princess is mine!”
Acheloüs returned to his own shape, and, crying with pain, ran from the castle grounds where the combat had taken place, and did not stop until he had plunged into a cooling stream. It had been right that Hercules should triumph, for his was strength of arm, not that of trickery. Deïanira stood by his side, and the goddess of plenty came forward to give the conqueror his reward. She took the great horn which Hercules had torn from Acheloüs’ head and heaped it high with the year’s stores. Ripe grain, grapes, apples, plums, nuts, pomegranates, figs, and all the other fruits of the autumn filled the horn, and overflowed it. The wood-nymphs and the water-nymphs came and twined the horn with vines, and crimson leaves, and the last bright flowers of the year. Then they carried this horn of plenty, high above their heads, and gave it to Hercules, and his beautiful queen, Deïanira. It was the richest gift the gods could make, the year’s harvest and ever since that long-ago story time of the Greeks the horn of plenty has stood for the year’s blessing of us; it is full to overflowing with the fruits of the harvest.
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