The Cleaning of the Augean Stables was Heracles Fifth Labour set to him by King Eurystheus as he did penance for his previous crimes.
The Augean Stables
The Augean Stables were named for their owner, King Augeas of Elis, one of the ancient regions of the Peloponnese. Some ancient writers would trace the lineage of Augeas back to the sun god Helios, and some would also name the king as one of the Argonauts.
The Augean Stables did not house horses though, for in fact, they were cattle sheds, home to 1000 divine cattle; and were therefore massive structures. In addition to their size though, the Augean Stables were noted for not having been cleaned for 30 years.
The Fifth Labour of Heracles
Thirty years worth of waste from a thousand cattle would have made a lot of mess, and so it was thought that it would prove to be an impossible task now to clean the Augean Stables.
This belief meant that King Eurystheus tasked Heracles to clean the stables, and to make it even more difficult, Eurystheus placed a time limit of one day upon the Greek hero. In addition to believing that the cleaning of the Augean Stables would prove an impossible task, King Eurystheus also believed that Heracles would find it a demeaning task.
Heracles in Elis
Heracles travelled to Elis, and went straight to the court of King Augeas, and the first meeting between the pair proved to be a friendly one; perhaps because they had briefly been comrades upon the Argo. Heracles then offered to clean out the king’s stable for a small fee; a fee of 10 percent of the cattle housed within the stables. Heracles neglected to mention that he had already been tasked by Eurystheus to undertake the job. Augeas though agreed to the fee, as he, like King Eurystheus, believed that it would prove to be an impossible task.
The next morning, Heracles set out early to the Augean Stables, with the hero accompanied by Phyleus, the son of King Augeas; Phyleus would act as a witness to the successful or unsuccessful completion of the job.
Heracles Cleans the Augean Stables
Strangely though, Heracles did not enter the stables, and the shovel he carried with him, was not used to remove the animal waste from inside. Firstly, Heracles used the shovel to create a large whole in the side of the Augean stables, and then, the Greek hero started to dig out a channel leading to the two mighty rivers, the Alpheus and the Peneus.
The channel would eventually merge with the rivers, and so the water of the fast flowing rivers quickly ran along the new channel, and into the Augean Stables. The water rushed through the stables, flushing away all of the cattle dung, and therefore cleaning them completely in less than one day.
The problems for Heracles though were only just beginning, for neither King Augeas, nor King Eurystheus, would recognise the achievement. Augeas reached the conclusion that he should not be forced to pay for a task allotted by another king; and King Eurystheus refused to recognise the completion of the task, for Heracles had accepted payment for the task.
The Revenge of Heracles
At the time, Heracles could do little about the injustice of the situation, for both he, and Phyleus were immediately banished from Elis; the son of the king being banished for he argued with his father that Heracles should be paid for the successful cleansing of the Augean Stables.
Eventually, after the completion of all of his Labours, Heracles would return to Elis at the head of a combined army of Arcadians, Argives and Thebans. Augeas would gather his own army to meet the threat, and at the head of his army, Augeas placed his own nephews, Eurytus and Cteatus, the Molionidai twins.
The leadership of the Molionidai rallied the forces of Elis, and they managed to hold back the invading army, but then Heracles used his cunning to devise an ambush which would see Eurytus and Cteatus killed. With no military leadership, the army of king Augeas was then easily routed.
In some stories Augeas was killed by Heracles during the fighting, and in some versions, the king escaped, living into old age; in either case though, Heracles placed Phyleus onto the throne of Elis.
In one version of the story of the creation of the Olympic games, it was afterwards that Heracles instigated the games to honour his father upon Elean land.