Eurystheus bids Hercules to bring to him alive the Stag which frequented Mount Maenalus, and was famous for its extraordinary fleetness.
It had golden antlers and brazen hooves and was sacred to Artemis.
Hercules pursued it for a year over hills and plains and valleys into the Hyperboreans and thence back to the Arcadian Hills whence it started.
At length he wounded it with an arrow as it was endeavouring to gain the shelter of the
recesses of a mountain sacred to Artemis, caught it and would have slain it had not Apollo and Artemis appeared. He then carried it away on his shoulders to Eurystheus.
Mount Maenalus was said to be a haunt of Pan in his aspect as God of Nature.
The Stag was sacred to Artemis, or Diana, as Goddess of Nature, but with its golden antlers and brazen hooves, it is, among other things, symbolical of the manner in which the forms of Nature may be exalted by works and processes which are superimposed upon those of Nature; gold denoting exaltation, and brass, as an alloy, signifying the power to combine and develop the simple elements or products of Nature. The Stag may also be regarded as denoting the object which is pursued by aspirational nature, and which is so swift and difficult to capture.
The Hyperboreans, or northern regions, signify the measurable extremity to which objects of aspiration can be pursued by merely human means.
Sagittarius, the “Archer”, is the Zodiacal Sign of this labour. Some of its perverted influences are aimless roving, restlessness, hastiness, carelessness, fretfulness, rebellion, narrowness, and over-confidence; but its pure aspects are resoluteness, agility, quick discernment, idealism, love of liberty, honesty, naïve frankness, and optimism.
This task of Hercules may be interpreted as that of learning to direct Aspirations into right channels so that they may lead the Soul to the realization of right Ideals.
It is easy and natural for the Soul to aspire, but purely natural aspirations do not necessarily lead the Soul to a realization of those Ideals which are above and beyond Nature. To allow the aspirations merely to follow the ways of Nature is equivalent to the worship of Nature. But Nature, although comparable to the Book of God, is not itself God. Therefore, natural aspirations must be turned, ultimately, to that which is supra-natural and divine for their ideal realization. Then the processes of purification and regeneration symbolized by the two previous labours may be carried a stage further towards their full accomplishment.
When aspirations follow Nature they return, as it were, to their starting points after traversing the sphere which Nature comprehends, because Nature cannot, alone, raise herself above her own level. Thus, Hercules pursues the Stag through the realms of Nature for a whole year – that is, he completes a natural cycle and returns to his starting point without catching the Stag, or the object of his aspirations. The Soul in its highest aspect (Hercules) aspires to something above Nature, because it is prompted by the Inner Monitor (Eurystheus). Thus, when he pursues the Stag to the mountain sacred to Artemis, it is as though his aspirations are turned to the Divine Source of Nature which Artemis or Diana signifies. And the arrow whereby he wounds it is like a swift shaft of aspiration from the very deeps of the Soul, which is more rapid and potent than any of the merely natural aspirations. But these latter are not to be slain, they are useful and even indispensable for leading the Soul a stage further towards the attainment of its ideals, as Hercules – or the Soul – realizes when the Divine Light of Apollo and the Divine Principle of Nature (Diana) appear before him. Therefore, he lifts the Stag (aspirations) on to his shoulders and bears it away, thus completing the task of directing aspirations into right channels.