Eurystheus ordered Hercules to go out once again and bring him the golden apples of the Hesperides [hes-PER-i-des]. This labor was one of the most difficult because our hero did not know where to find them. The apple trees belonged to Hera who had received them as a wedding gift. For safekeeping, she gave them to the daughters of Atlas, the titan who held up the earth and sky. Also guarding them was a hundred-headed dragon by the name of Ladon.
Hercules set about on his venture by heading first to the coast of Africa where he thought he might find the apples. Then he headed in a northerly direction where he encountered enemies who tried to stop him. He headed toward Asia when he came to the Caucasus Mountains. There he encountered Prometheus who had been bound in chains to a rock by Zeus for the crime of stealing fire from the heavens. In addition to being bound, Prometheus was visited daily by an eagle who pecked at him and ate his liver. The liver grew back every night so that the eagle could come again and continue his torture.
Hercules had been told that Prometheus would be able to tell him how to find the Garden of the Hesperides. Hercules agreed to release Prometheus in exchange for this information. Prometheus cautioned him not to pick the apples by himself but to ask Atlas to do the deed for him and gave instructions on how to reach the elusive gardens which were located in the northern reaches of the world.
When the request was posed to Atlas, the titan was only too happy to get the apples in exchange for being relieved of the burden of holding up the earth and sky. Hercules agreed to the deal. Atlas asked him first to kill Ladon, the monster guarding the apples. Then he took the weight of the earth and sky upon his shoulders while Atlas went to secure the favored fruit. When the deed was done, Atlas returned and told Hercules that he would deliver the apples to Eurystheus himself. He didn’t want to resume his former position and was pleased to be free.
Hercules knew that every man must bear his own burden and Eurystheus would never accept the apples from anyone else. He tricked Atlas into taking back the earth while he ostensibly found a more comfortable position. The titan put the apples down on the ground and took back his formidable load. Hercules picked up the apples and hastened to return to Tiryns. He presented the apples to his king who returned them immediately as it was unlawful to possess any of Hera’s property. Hercules presented the apples to Athena who returned them to their garden and their guardians.