The Birth of Heracles

Published March 19, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

We’ll see how well I can type this with a bandage on the tip of my finger.  (Doesn’t help that it’s the ring finger on my right hand, a finger that bears a large burden of the typing responsibilities.)


Zeus, the ever-desirous king of the gods, had long ago noticed Alcmene.  She was one of the most beautiful mortal maids he had ever seen–and he had seen them all!–as well as being one of the most wise.  She would be perfect to bear him the most kingly of all his sons.  After all, the mortal world was once more becoming a terrible place, filled with too many people who held too little regard for the rules the gods had set out for them.  Zeus had tried to wipe the mortals out once before, and since that hadn’t worked very well, this time he thought it would be best to father a great hero who could rule over the mortals, and guide by example even those he didn’t rule.  And who could be a better mother for that hero than Alcmene, granddaughter of his son Perseus?

But there had been the tricky issue of her ardent suitor, Amphitryon.  Since he was another grandchild of Perseus, Zeus hadn’t wanted to altogether ruin the young man’s hopes of a happy future by stealing the girl away.  But she was far too virtuous to share her bed with any man–or god!–while still unwed, and Zeus certainly didn’t want to partake of her bed after Amphitryon had been there first!

Eventually, Zeus came up with a plan that would allow him to father that precious son upon beautiful Alcmene, though he had to sacrifice her father’s life for it to work.

Still, work it had, and Zeus was soon putting on the disguise of Amphitryon so that he could share Alcmene’s bed and father on her the greatest hero of all times…

When Amphitryon finally returned to Thebes victorious, having vanquished the Taphian foes who had slaughtered his brothers-in-law, he found his beautiful wife asleep in the bed they had not yet shared.

As he was removing his garb to join her, she awoke, and looked at him sleepily.  “Did you get up for something?” she asked.

“Get up…?” Amphitryon repeated, perplexed.  “What are you talking about?  I only just arrived home, having avenged your brothers.  Now we can finally be man and wife!”

Alcmene shook her head.  “What are you saying?  You came in here last night and said the same thing, that you had killed the Taphians and were ready to make me yours.  How can you have forgotten the passion we just shared?”

Amphitryon could only stare at his beloved wife in disbelief.  What was she saying?  Had she betrayed him?  Was she making this excuse to explain why she had been deflowered by some man other than himself?

Shaken and enraged, Amphitryon ran from the house half-clad, and wandered the streets of Thebes.  What could he do?  What should he do?  What did a man do when he was cuckolded while avenging his wife’s brothers?

If he knew what man had played his role between his sheets, Amphitryon could have avenged himself upon the adulterer, but without knowing that…all he could do would be to punish his beautiful wife, the bride he had still never touched.

Having just made up his heart-broken mind to do so, Amphitryon turned back towards the home Creon had given him.  But in his path he soon found a broken-down, old, blind man, hobbling towards him.

“It’s quite late for an old man like yourself to be out without some young relation to help him,” Amphitryon commented.  “Have you no son to look after you?”

“I can look after myself better than most, son of Alcaeus,” the old man responded with a bitter laugh.

“Eh?  How do you know who I am?  Who are you?” Amphitryon replied.

“I am Tiresias, ill-omened and oft-ignored seer, cursed by the goddess Hera for siding with her husband in an argument, if you must know,” the old man snapped at him.  “Now, out of my way.  I’m tired and I wish to go to bed.”

“Wait, you’re a seer?” Amphitryon asked.  “Then perhaps you can explain a mystery to me!”

“Undoubtedly.  Whether or not you will believe my explanation is another matter entirely.” Tiresias cackled.  “What is this mystery of yours?”

Hastily, Amphitryon explained everything, especially the way his untouched, unblushing bride assured him that he had already slept with her that very night, though he had only just returned from avenging her brothers.

Tiresias nodded the whole time he was listening, then laughed coldly.  “You’ve been cuckolded, all right,” he chuckled, “but it was by one of the gods, not by any mortal man.”

“One of the gods?” Amphitryon repeated.  He didn’t like the idea that even a god had made free with his wife, but at least it cleared her of any blame or wrong-doing!  “Thank you, kind soothsayer!” Amphitryon exclaimed, embracing the old man enthusiastically.  “Blessings on your name for this kindness!”

Without waiting for the old man’s crotchety reply, Amphitryon raced home, and explained to Alcmene what Tiresias had told him.  She seemed perplexed, but accepted his word, and the two of them were quickly reconciled, and entered their marital bed as they had always hoped.

Nine months later, Alcmene was terribly swollen with child, such that she could barely rise up out of bed.  Her husband was understandably concerned, but the physicians in the service of King Creon assured him that she had grown so large because she was carrying twins, so the father had little need of worry.

The other father, Zeus himself, was far from worried.  In fact, he was quite euphoric as the day of delivery approached.  On the very day that Alcmene was supposed to give birth, Zeus was proudly speaking to his brother Poseidon, and commented that “Today, in the lands of Hellas, a child with my blood is going to be born, and he will rule over all of the Argolid, perhaps even all of Hellas itself!”

Poseidon was politely appreciative of Zeus’ good fortune, but their sister Hera heard the remark as well.  Realizing that her philandering husband had fathered another mortal bastard, she became filled with rage, and called her  daughter Eileithyia to her.

“What mortal strumpet has my husband been playing around with this time?” she demanded.  “She’ll be giving birth today!  Who is she?”

“Mother, there are hundreds upon hundreds of mortal women giving birth today, just like any day,” Eileithyia replied.

“But this one is somewhere in my own Argos!” Hera replied.  Argos was the mortal land most dearly beloved to her, and to think that her husband would fool around with some mortal wench there of all places…!  “She’ll be someone important, if he thinks her son will rule over my Argolid.”

“Well, the Queen of Tiryns, Mycenae and Argos is pregnant,” Eileithyia said slowly, “but she isn’t due to give birth for several weeks yet.  And she…ah…she isn’t Father’s type.”  She paused.  “Oh, but the exiled grandson of Perseus, Amphitryon, his wife Alcmene is giving birth today.  Her labor pains have already started, in fact.”

“That must be the one!  Stop the birth!” Hera insisted.

“What?  But, Mother, that’s not really–”

“Stall it!  Don’t let her give birth today!  And send one of your attendants to the Queen of Tiryns.  Make sure she does give birth today,” Hera added, with a vicious smile.  This way, her husband’s boast wouldn’t be false, it just wouldn’t apply to the bastard he wanted it to…

Eileithyia sighed sadly.  “Very well, Mother.”  She knew better than to interfere with her mother’s crazed jealousies.

Dutifully, Eileithyia went down to Thebes and found her attendant who was helping Alcmene to give birth.  She dismissed the attendant, sending her to Tiryns to speed along the birth of Sthenelus’ son.  Then Eileithyia left the chamber where Alcmene was groaning in the agony of labor, and sat down outside the door, crossing her arms and legs, and willing the birth to be blocked, the children to be stalled inside Alcmene’s womb, unable to emerge, despite their mother’s groaning and screaming.

Before the sun had set, her attendent returned and told Eileithyia that the Queen of Tiryns had given birth to a son.  But, still obedient to her mother’s command, Eileithyia continued to block the birth of Alcmene’s children.

As the sun was beginning to rise, the worried Amphitryon sent a message to Tiresias, asking if the seer knew why his wife could not give birth.  The old man sent back a message saying that the goddess of childbirth was stopping it for some reason, and she would have to be propitiated if the children were to be born.

Amphitryon was anguished by the response.  How could he make peace with a goddess he had never insulted?  What gift was appropriate to allow the birth of his son?  He had no knowledge of the ways of the goddess of birth, after all.

But Alcmene heard the message, too, and soon she stopped grunting and groaning in pain.  Instead she let out a cry of joy.  “Let me hold him!” she exclaimed.  “My beautiful son!”

Her attendants were mystified, as she had still not given birth.  But out in the hall, Eileithyia heard Alcmene’s cry of delight.  How could she have given birth while being divinely blocked?  Curiosity getting the better of her, Eileithyia rose to her feet and hurried into the room to see what had transpired.  Because she had been distracted from her task of blocking the birth, Alcmene was finally able to give birth to her twin sons.

Because it was, by now, the next day, Eileithyia figured her duty had been discharged well enough, and returned to Mt. Olympus.

Alcmene was delighted by both her sons.  One was fair, and the other dark, but they were both strong and healthy babies, and she was sure they would grow to be great men, wise and strong.

Amphitryon tried to delight in his good fortune at having two such fine sons born, but he knew that one of them belonged not to himself, but to a god, and he could not feel the same joy that every other man expected him to feel.

Soon, it was the tenth day after the births, and the three infants were named.  The son of Sthenelus, in Tiryns, was named Eurystheus, and was proclaimed by all as the future king of all the Argolid.  The sons of Alcmene were given the names Alcides and Iphicles.

Many months passed, with little of note happening to the infants; an infant’s life is one of blissful tedium, after all.  Zeus was watching over his fair-haired son from Mt. Olympus, delighted at the boy’s strength and courage, even in his infancy, and already planning how to raise him onto the throne of Argos, where he belonged.

But his wife Hera was watching the infant’s growth with considerable rancor.  And soon she could bear it no longer.  She took a pair of poisonous vipers, and slipped them into the bed where the children were sleeping.

Her approach had roused Iphicles, but the baby could only scream and cry as the snakes approached him and his half-brother.  His cries woke Alcides, who looked at the snakes as any other child might look at a new toy.  He gripped the two snakes by their necks, and started shaking them, giggling with glee at his new game.

By the time their mother ran up to her babies, the snakes were quite dead, and Alcides looked very sad to have his toys taken away so soon.

Once more, Tiresias was consulted.  “Only a god or goddess could enter into such a secure home and place those serpents where they could attack those infants.  And only one immortal would dare such a feat, as infants are specially protected by the great goddess Hera.”

“Who?” Amphitryon demanded.  His own son, after all, had been in just as much danger as his wife’s demi-god son!

Tiresias laughed.  “Hera herself, of course!  No immortal would dare to cross her.  It must have been Zeus himself who shared your wife’s bed.”

“What shall we do?” Alcmene asked, cuddling little Alcides against her chest.  “How can I ever raise my son to manhood if he’s being targeted by the queen of the gods herself?  Can’t I apologize to her somehow?  I had no idea it was her husband instead of my own in my bed!”

“Hera is not known to be forgiving, and I bear the scars of her anger myself,” Tiresias replied, shaking his head.  “But you can try to propitiate her.  Make offerings at her temple, give gifts to flatter her.  Perhaps you can win her forgiveness where I could not.”

The worried parents thanked Tiresias for all his help, then discussed what they could do to placate the enraged goddess.  They did, indeed, make many offerings at her temple, and promised that they would always continue to honor her above all the other gods.  As a further step, Alcmene laid Alcides at the foot of the goddess’ statue in the temple, and addressed the goddess:

“Mighty Hera, I beg you to set aside your wrath for my son!  He has committed no sin against you!  If you must avenge your honor on someone, avenge it on me, not my innocent child!  He, too, will beg you for your understanding, once he has words to speak with.  And his name itself will be a prayer to your greatness and glory:  from this day forth, he will be Alcides no longer, but Heracles!”

Amphitryon and Alcmene thought they had done well to placate the goddess, but Hera was not one to forgive so easily.  However, her husband was angry with her over the murderous attack, so she decided to bide her time, and wait until Heracles was an adult before taking her vengeance on him…


Traditionally, it’s one of Alcmene’s attendants who tricks Eileithyia instead of Alcmene herself, but I thought why not give the woman some agency for once?  Especially since she’s supposed to be wise and all.  Likewise, it’s usually a seer who suggests changing his name from Alcides (“(grand)son of Alceus”) to Heracles (“glory of Hera”) but again, I wanted to give Alcmene a role other than womb.

Sometimes the change from Alcides to Heracles is actually quite late, and at the behest of the Oracle at Delphi, but…it would have been really annoying, not to mention confusing,  if I’d had to keep calling him Alcides throughout his early adventures.

Not sure just how many of his adventures I’m going to tell, of course.  Gotta look ’em over and figure that out.  There’s a lot of them, and no definite order to them.  Depending on how things go, I might set Heracles aside for a few weeks and do something simpler next week.

 

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