Whoa…how long has it been since I did one of these myths? Seems like forever. Well, anyway, I picked this one because it seemed relatively stand-alone. I’m still not mentally up to the challenge of tackling the chronology of the life of Heracles, and I don’t want to do the voyage of the Argo until I finish reading the Argonautica. And I want to leave the Trojan War for last. Because. (And yet…)
It happened one day — as it often did — that Zeus and Hera were quarreling about Zeus’ constant acts of adultery. However, this time Zeus started the fight, angry at Hera for her constant torment of Alcmene and especially her son.
“Why would you torment a woman who shared her bed with me unwittingly instead of punishing me for my acts?!” Zeus demanded. “And how could the son born from that bed ever be responsible for his own begetting? Would you want to be punished for the acts of our father?!”
“You seem to forget that I also have rule over marriage,” Hera pointed out snidely. “That woman doubly disgraced the noble institution by cheating on her husband with a married god, and as to the son! He has no respect for marriage, bedding other men’s wives far more eagerly than his own!”
“But Alcmene thought I was her husband,” Zeus pointed out coldly, “and her son had never even imagined betraying the bonds of marriage when you tried to kill him in the cradle!”
Hera smiled coolly. “But I knew he was going to. Like father, like son. And as to the woman’s supposed ignorance of your identity…I don’t believe it. No woman could mistake another for her husband, no matter how alike they looked. Even if she hadn’t ever been intimate with him before. But why do you feel no shame for your actions? You try to make me out to be the villain, even though you have no respect for anything but your own pleasure!”
“It isn’t entirely his fault,” Apollo suddenly interrupted. “Sometimes it just happens; the insatiable, irresistible urge — the need — to bed some particular mortal woman.”
“What nonsense!” Hera insisted.
“It’s true,” Hermes agreed, deciding that if his brother had already intervened, then it was probably safe for him to do so as well. Their step-mother wasn’t likely to take on three gods all at once, surely! “I think Aphrodite gets a thrill out of forcing us to feel desire like that for mortal women.”
Apollo laughed bitterly. “In your case, I think it’s her way of getting you to leave her alone.”
“Why would she want to reject me?” Hermes countered. “I’m every bit as handsome as you are!”
“You wish you were as handsome as I am,” Apollo spat back at him. “Besides, even if that were true, I might point out that she’s never deigned to grace my bed, either.”
Zeus cleared his throat, feeling a little uncomfortable at hearing two of his sons arguing about their desire to bed one of their sisters. (Given that he had married one of his own sisters, and fathered a daughter on one of the other two, this was more than a little hypocritical of him.) “This is quite the serious accusation you’re making,” he said, turning to Hermes. “Aphrodite was given those powers with the express understanding that she was only to use them on mortals. Can you prove that she has indeed done otherwise?”
“I’d think so,” Hermes said. “Eros isn’t very loyal; he’ll probably tell us the truth if we ask.”
Hera looked at the three of them, unconvinced. Was this all a plot to get her treacherous husband off without punishment? She was sure she would feel less doubtful if it hadn’t been his two most lecherous bastards sticking up for him like this. But… “Fine,” she sighed, “we’ll go and ask Eros about this. But if it turns out that these two are lying to cover up for you — I’m going to castrate you!”
Zeus swallowed heavily, knowing all too well that she meant it, and that she was fully capable of it, too. But if he didn’t agree to her terms, then she would become irrevocably convinced that it was all a lie, so he had no choice but to accept. All four of them proceeded towards the garden where Eros was practicing his archery, but it was agreed that only Hermes would approach him: if he saw so many gods — especially Zeus and Hera! — he might realize what was going on, and clam up to protect his mother after all.
“What brings you here?” Eros asked, looking at Hermes suspiciously. They were not really on very friendly terms, but Eros was almost as mischievous as Hermes,which could be either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the circumstance.
“Oh, I just wanted to get out of the palace for a while,” Hermes laughed. “Quite the row going on in there. Couldn’t hear myself think.”
“I didn’t know you ever thought,” Eros chuckled, with a dismissing flutter of his wings. Then he turned back to his target, and resumed practicing. “What’s making the ruckus?”
“What do you think? Hera’s jealous again.”
“The silly old cow!” Eros guffawed. Just outside the garden, Hera moved to rush in and teach him a lesson in respect, but Zeus just barely managed to restrain her.
“Well, she is being betrayed,” Hermes pointed out. Not that he had ever in his life taken Hera’s side in anything, but…well, it couldn’t hurt to get on her good side for a change. Besides, how else was he going to trick eros into admitting what Aphrodite was up to.
Eros shrugged. “Hard to blame him; she’s not exactly a prize catch.”
“Father must think she is one, or he wouldn’t have married her,” Hermes replied. He didn’t have it in him to lie enough to say that he thought Hera was particularly desirable, but if he didn’t say something to defend her, she was likely to kill him and Eros both at the first possible opportunity. Or at least to mutilate them and throw them into Tartaros.
“I can’t imagine it, but I suppose you’re probably right,” Eros agreed. “Still, you’d think she’d be used to it by now.”
“You would think so,” Hermes agreed, “but I guess some people always hope for change where change is impossible. Odd that it’s usually mortals, though. If I had a jealous wife who targeted my mistresses and bastards, I’d make sure all of them were immortal like me, so they couldn’t be killed by her rage.” That, of course, was one of the many reasons he never intended to take a wife.
“Y-yeah, that is…odd…isn’t it?” Eros replied, his voice shaking. Guilt. Clear-cut and unmistakable.
“I suppose the really strange part is that he used to only go after immortal women,” Hermes added, trying to prod Eros into confessing. “I wonder what made him switch to fragile mortals?”
“Well, that was Prometheus’ fault, right?” Eros suggested, all too hastily. “Because he put that scare in him about the goddess who was going to give birth to a son greater than his father!”
“Yes, but he finally coughed up the name, and Thetis is due to be safely married off to some poor mortal sap as soon as that sap can strong-arm her into it,” Hermes reminded him, though he frankly found it doubtful that Peleus would ever manage to master his bride-to-be. “Doesn’t seem to have put Father back onto immortal women, though.”
Eros coughed uncomfortably, and fired off several arrows without saying anything further. “But…there haven’t been any more mortal women since Alcmene,” he finally pointed out, turning to look at Hermes.
“How did you know that?” Hermes asked. “Surely you aren’t in my father’s confidence so much that he shares the names of all his mistresses with you. He only tells me because I’m the one he sends back and forth to make sure they and their children have everything they need.”
Eros jumped slightly, and his wings began to tremble. “I — it’s not my fault!” he exclaimed. “I was just doing like my mother told me to!”
Hermes merely lifted an eyebrow, watching the younger god curiously.
Eros folded under his gaze, and looked away. “Sometimes Mother doesn’t want anyone knowing where she’s going or what she’s doing. She doesn’t want any more jealousies like over Adonis. So…sometimes…she decides to…um…distract everyone…by sending me to…inspire love in one of you…for some mortal or other…”
“Is that so?” Hermes asked. Even though he had already known it was true, having Eros come out and admit it made him surprisingly angry. It was hard to keep his cool. “Even that time Apollo and I were both in love with the same mortal girl? That was your fault?”
Eros cleared his throat, then nodded meekly.
“Remind me to beat you to a bloody pulp for that sometime,” Hermes growled. Did that little punk have any idea how frustrating it had been to have his way with a sleeping maiden because his oh-so-popular older brother was courting her while she was awake? Though at least the son produced from that union had the last laugh, being the greatest mortal thief ever, while his twin half-brother was nobody special.
“I was just doing what my mother told me to do!” Eros insisted again. “You’d never disobey your parents, would you?!”
Hermes shrugged. “It’d depend what the order was,” he answered, finding that he couldn’t quite bring himself to admit that he disobeyed his father’s minor rules all the time. Not while his father was listening in, anyway. Though he suspected his father already knew that anyway…
Terrified, Eros took flight, and was soon gone from sight, hiding in the clouds above Mt. Olympos.
Now that their quarry was gone, the other three gods joined Hermes in the garden. “We can’t let that strumpet get away with this!” Hera insisted.
“Let me have a word with her,” Zeus said. “I’ll convince her to stop.”
“Since when have you ever been able to say ‘no’ to one of your daughters?” Hera countered. “How many unreasonable promises have they wheedled out of you because they’re pretty and bat their eyelashes at you?”
“Apart from Aphrodite, none of my daughters has ever batted her eyelashes at me,” Zeus sighed.
“That is, perhaps, all the more reason not to simply talk to her,” Apollo said, surprisingly coming in on Hera’s side of the argument. Maybe he was still bitter about Hermes beating him to that girl’s bed… “Better to find some other way to make her see the error of her ways.”
“Toss her into Tartaros for a while,” Hera suggested. “Let her watch as all her favorite lovers, past and present, go to other women.”
“Such cruelty would only beget more cruelty,” Zeus pointed out. “She’s not the type to simply accept such treatment. No, we must make her understand what she has put us through, by putting her through it.” He walked over to the target, and removed several of the arrows that Eros left behind. “These should be more than enough to force her to feel the anguish of an unwanted yet irresistible desire for a mortal.”
Hera laughed. “Yes, that should do nicely,” she agreed. How unlikely for her to agree with her husband so quickly! Hermes was quite impressed.
“Let me choose just the right mortal for the task,” he suggested. “As much as it would please the vicious side of my nature to see her bedded down with some unworthy shepherd, if the other mortals should find out…no, it will have to be someone handsome, and of good family, or all the gods’ reputations will be tarnished.”
Zeus nodded. “Not merely a ‘good’ family. An irreproachable one. But perhaps not from the finest branch of the family. Don’t let her child be born into a position of power. Let him feel jealousy and longing for a role he will never fulfill.”
Hermes broke out into a truly wicked smile. “Leave it to me, Father. I’ll find the perfect one.”
With that, he set off running down to the mortal realm.
Well, I had intended to tell the whole story today, but somehow the preamble ended up being quite long, so…the main part of the myth will have to be next week.
I must admit, of course, that most of this is entirely my own invention. The Homeric Hymn that is the oldest attested version of next week’s story does say that Zeus forced Aphrodite to fall in love with a mortal because the gods were sick of her making them fall in love with mortals, but it didn’t say how he did it, nor go into much detail about the process that made the gods decide to punish her thus.
I have to say, though, the timing works out remarkably well, considering this is right before the Trojan War, which is the end of the Age of Heroes, and the age of the gods intervening in the mortal realm…and especially the end of them fathering bastards on mortal women. (Though of course by this point Heracles is either dead or almost dead, and he’s supposed to be the youngest of Zeus’ children by mortal women…which is probably why they made up that story about Sarpedon having lived for three generations and being the son of Europa, because if Heracles was the youngest, then the Sarpedon that Patroclos kills couldn’t be a son of Zeus. Hmm…maybe I should change that line about Alcmene being the last to “there’s only been one since Alcmene” or something like that…)