Heracles

Alcmene And The Birth Of Heracles

The tale of Heracles first begins with Electryon, who was the son of Perseus and king of both Tiryns and Mycenae. Electryon had a beautiful daughter named¬†Alcmene¬†who was given in marriage to her cousin King Amphitryon of Troezen. It seems that one day as Electryon’s sons were busy tending to their father’s cattle, a band of Taphian pirates attached and ruthlessly killed eight of Alcmene’s brothers. Wanting to avenge the death of his sons, the king gathered up his army. Before leaving on his campaign, he appointed Amphitryon to act as regent in his place. During Electryon’s absence, news came that the stolen cattle were being held by the king of Elis and would not be returned unless a high ransom price was paid. Amphitryon met the murderers’ costly demands and then sent word to his father-in-law that the missing herds had been found.

Electryon returned home only to find that Amphitryon insisted he be reimbursed for the ransom fee. An argument ensued between the two men, and in a fit of anger Amphitryon picked up a hammer and hurled it at one of the nearby cows.

Unfortunately for Amphitryon, instead of hitting the animal, the weapon accidently struck Electryon upon the head with such force that it instantly brought about his death. Sthenelus, the brother of Electryon, took possession of the throne and without hesitation banished Amphitryon from Tiryns.

Alcmene fled with her husband to the city of Thebes where the two found shelter under the protection of King Creon. To add to Amphitryon’s woes, Alcmene refused to share her bed with him until the death of her brothers had been vindicated. Knowing that retaliation was his only chance for a happy marriage, Amphitryon banded together an army and rode out to seek his revenge.

With Amphitryon safely out of the picture, Zeus crept down from Olympus and made his way to Alcmene’s bedchamber. Disguised as Amphitryon, he assured the grieving woman that the cries of her murdered brothers had once and for all been silenced. Believing that Zeus was indeed her husband, Alcmene welcomed the god to spend the night in her bed. As fate may have it, the real Amphitryon won a victory for himself in the Taphian Islands and arrived home the very next day. Eager to share an afternoon of love with his wife, the jubliant champion hurried to Alcmene’s room only to find her worn out and tired from her previous night with Zeus. As Amphitryon told his tale of triumph, Alcmene listened with little enthusiam.

She could not understand why he was repeating the same words he spoke to her the night before. Sensing that something was odd about his wife’s behavior, Amphitryon summoned the seer Teiresias to the palace where the details of Zeus’ secret meeting were openly revealed. Before long Alcmene realized she had become pregnant with twins, one being of divine blood and the other a mortal.

One day Zeus could be heard boasting loudly through the halls of Olympus that he had fathered a child destined to be called Heracles (which means glory of Hera), and who would someday rule over the house of Perseus.

The news of her husband’s disloyalty filled Hera with anger. She demanded that Zeus swear an oath that any prince born to the house of Perseus before nightfall would be proclaimed king. Desperately wanting to avoid a confrontation with his contentious wife, Zeus hastily agreed and pledged the sacred vow. In an instant Hera dispatched her daughter Eileithyia, a goddess of childbirth to Thebes where Alcmene’s labor had entered into its seventh day.

In order to delay the birth of the twins, Eileithyia sat firmly atop her altar, symbolically keeping her legs tightly crossed and her arms and fingers entwined. Hera herself speedily traveled to Tiryns where she brought about the premature birth of King Sthenelus’ son Eurystheus, thus allowing the crown of Tiryns to fall smoothly into his hands.

Alcmene’s worried attendants were just about to give up hope when one woman named Galanthis cried out “The babies have arrived!” causing Eileithyia to unwrap her limbs and jump to her feet. Before the goddess realized she had been tricked, her spell was broken and Heracles and his brother Iphicles were born.

Proud of her victory over Eileithyia, Galanthius turned and let out a hearty laugh, but unfortunately for her the jubilance was short lived. She was at once transformed into a weasel and forever condemned to bear her young through her mouth. This ancient misconception came about due to the weasel’s habit of transporting their offspring by way of mouth.