The Birth & Madness of Heracles

Heracles, too, was Theban-born. His mother, Alcmene, a Mycenaean princess, fled to the city with Amphitryon, her husband, when he accidentally killed her father. Soon after they arrived in Thebes,

Zeus took advantage of Amphitryon’s absence on campaign to visit Alcmene by night – and no normal night at that. To prolong his pleasure, and disguised as Amphitryon, he persuaded the sun-god Helios not to rise until three days had passed and Selene, the moon-goddess, to dawdle on her journey across the sky. Only when the real Amphitryon returned did Alcmene discover Zeus’ trickery.

As always, Hera was none too pleased by Zeus’ infidelity, especially since, with Alcmene already in labour, Zeus announced that a son born that day to the royal line of Mycenae was destined to rule her special land, the Argolid. His boast came too soon. Not to be outwitted, Hera hurried first to Tiryns, where she eased the premature birth of Sthenelus’ son, Eurystheus, then to Thebes, where she prolonged Alcmene’s labour until after dark. At last Alcmene was delivered of twins. One, Iphicles, was Amphitryon’s son, the other the son of Zeus, named either ironically or in an attempt to assuage the goddess’ anger, Heracles (‘Hera’s Fame’).

As his family look on and his wife, Megara, watches helplessly from the door, the maddened Heracles prepares to dash one of

his sons to the ground. (Mid-fourth-century BC South Italian wine bowl.)

Zeus’ plans were thwarted, but he still managed to outwit his wife. When Hera was passing Thebes, he caused Alcmene to leave the baby Heracles outside alone. Not knowing who he was and thinking he had been abandoned, the maternal Hera was drawn to his crying. Picking the baby up, she began to suckle him. But Heracles sucked too violently. Hera tore him off her breast, and her milk splashed high into the heavens to form the Milky Way. And then she recognized Heracles. Too late. Her milk had already rendered him immortal.

The Birth & Madness of Heracles Gallery Photos

The Birth & Madness of Heracles


Still Hera hounded Heracles. While he was a baby, she sent two serpents into the boys’ nursery.

Roused by Iphicles’ screams of terror, their parents ran in – only to find Heracles calmly strangling the snakes in his small but powerful hands. Grown to manhood, Heracles fought valiantly against neighbouring Orchomenos, earning the Theban king Creon’s gratitude and his daughter Megara’s hand in marriage. Soon they were proud parents of a dynasty of sons.

But Hera, her fury undiminished, drove Heracles temporarily mad. Mistaking his sons – and those of his brother Iphicles – for the sons of his enemy, Eurystheus of Tiryns, he began butchering them Euripides’ The Madness of Heracles (which places the episode later in Heracles’ life) tells how:

He chased one child, circling a column in terrifying pursuit until his view was unimpeded and he shot him through the heart. The boy fell backwards, spraying the stone pillar as he spattered out his life. Then Heracles aimed at another of his children, who was hiding, crouched behind an altar. The arrow drawn, the poor boy threw himself before him in an act of supplication, pleading, ‘My dearest father, please! Don’t kill me! I am not Eurystheus’ son, but yours!’ But Heracles scowled as grimly as the Gorgon . and slammed his club down on the boy’s fair head, crushing his skull, as a blacksmith hammers molten metal. Then he turned to his third son. Before he reached him, Megara snatched the boy and ran outside, slamming the doors behind them Now Heracles believed that he was standing by the walls [of Tiryns that] the Cyclopes built. He battered down the twisted doors, breaking down the jambs and lintel, and with one arrow shot dead both wife and child.

At last, Heracles came to his senses. Although granted ritual purification from his guilt, he still needed to atone for his family’s murder, and in punishment he was sent to Tiryns to serve Eurystheus and undertake twelve labours.

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