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XXI

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Omphale

Omphale was queen of the kingdom of Lydia, the wife of Tmolus, the oak-clad mountain king of Lydia.  After he was gored to death by a bull, she continued to reign on her own. 

Omphale bought Herakles from Hermes, who sold him after an oracle declared Hercules must be sold into slavery for three years.  Hercules had sought the oracle learn what he must do to purify himself, after he murdered his friend Iphitus and stole the Delphic tripod.  As a slave, Heracles was forced to do women's work and even wear women's clothing and hold a basket of wool while Omphale and her maidens did their spinning.  Meanwhile, Omphale wore the skin of the Nemean Lion and carried Heracles' olive-wood club.  But it was also during his stay in Lydia that Heracles captured the city of the Itones and enslaved them, killed Syleus who forced passersby to hoe his vineyard, and captured the Cercopes. He buried the body of Icarus and took part in the Calydonian Boar Hunt and the Argonautica. After some time, Omphale freed Heracles and took him as her husband.

The Greeks did not recognize Omphale as a goddess.  Omphale's name, connected with omphalos, a Greek word meaning navel (or axis), may, however, represent a Lydian earth goddess. Heracles's servitude and marriage may represent the servitude of the sun to the axis of the celestial sphere, the spinners being Lydian versions of the Moirae. This myth may have been and attempt to explain why the priests of Heracles, curiously, wore female clothing.