What's in a Word | All Blogs


Two rivers ran through it

By Debra Dobbins

Readers who know the story behind George Will’s use of the mythological phrase “Augean stables” better appreciate Will’s contention that cleaning up Washington, D.C. would be no small accomplishment.

The Augean stables were not ordinary, run-of-the-mill barns. No, housing more than 1,000 cattle, the stables had not been cleaned out for three decades. Oh, and the cattle were immortal, to boot. At least the cattle couldn’t have been running amuck; after all that time, I’m thinkin’ they had to be up to their necks in muck and therefore unable to move around much.

The stables were the setting for the fifth labor of Heracles (Hercules to the Roman), who accomplished 12 stupendous feats as atonement for killing his wife and children while in a confused mental state. Though generally portrayed as a pretty hunky hero, Heracles in this labor chose to use brain over brawn and successfully devised a plan to reroute the Alpheus and Peneus rivers to flood all the filth out.

From this tale we have the phrase “Augean task,” which means any daunting and/or huge job.


Heracles rerouting the rivers Alpheus and Peneus. Roman mosaic, 3rd century AD
Now displayed in the National Archeological Museum of Spain in Madrid
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

 

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