Hercules (Heracles in Greek) is perhaps one of the best-known heroes in Greek and Roman mythology. According to legend, Hercules was half god, born to a human mother and the kind of the gods, Zeus. He had superhuman strength and would endure such hardship because of his parentage. Hercules is known to be one of the few mortals who eventually becomes a god in Greek mythology. While a lot is known about Hercules, not very much attention was paid to his mother: Alcmene.
Who is Alcmene- Hercules’ Mother?
Alcmene was a mortal beauty who just happened to be the granddaughter of the demigod, Perseus (son of Zeus who killed Medusa). Perseus and his wife Andromeda had a son called Electryon who was the King of Tiryns and Mycenae. There are varying versions as to who Alcmene’s mother was, but the most common thread is that she was the daughter of Electryon and his wife, Anaxo. Since Electryon was a King and only quarter-god (his father Perseus was a demigod and his mother Andromeda was human), Alceme, his daughter was very much a human princess considering her mother was also human.
According to Hesiod, a famous Greek poet who lived in the time of Homer, Alcmene was the tallest, most beautiful woman in all of Greece. She was known for her wisdom, which is said to have surpassed that of any woman born to mortal parents. She is said to have had a face and dark eyes that were as charming as those of Aphrodite (the goddess of love) herself.
Alcmene was married to Amphitryon, who just happened to be a Prince and the son Alcaeus, the King of Tiryns. Sometime later, Amphitryon accidentally killed his father-in-law when he threw a club at a disobedient cow. The club bounced off of the cow and hit Electryon thus killing him. Amphitryon was then banished to Thebes by Sthenelus, one of Electryon’s brother.
The Conception and Birth of Hercules
After accidentally killing Electryon, Amphitryon was exiled to Thebes where he went with Alcmene. At Thebes, he was purified by the king and absolved of his sin. However, Alcmene refused to marry him until he had avenged the death of her brothers.
The legend goes that Alcmene’s brothers had been killed by the sons of Pterelaus who has some kind of claim to a share of her father’s kingdom. However, since her father, Electryon refused to listen to these claims, the sons of Pterelaus started plundering the country stealing cattle. In an attempt to stop this and get the cattle back, many of Alcmene’s brothers were killed.
While on his expedition to Taphians and Teleboans to avenge the death of his beloved’s brothers, Zeus, the Kind of the gods and also great grandfather to Alceme came to her at night disguised as Amphytrion. Zeus had been eyeing Alcmene for a while due to her beauty and her wisdom. When he came to her disguised as Amphytryon, he slept with her, and she conceived Hercules; half-god, half-mortal.
The Birth of Hercules
When Alceme was heavy with child (Hercules), Zeus announced to the gods on Olympus that on that very day, a child by him would be born and that this child would be the ruler of all those around him. Zeus’ wife, Hera made Zeus swear on that oath. As soon as Zeus had sworn to that effect, she descended from Olympus and went to Argos where she made the wife of Sthenelus (the son to Perseus) give birth to a boy named Eurystheus after being pregnant for only seven months.
At the same time, she made sure that Alcmene, who was due, had a delayed delivery thus ensuring that it was Eurystheus and not Hercules that would be the fulfillment of Zeus’s oath.
Hera was jealous of the affair that Zeus had with Alcmene and despised the yet to be born child, Hercules.
Due to the interference of Hera and the fact that Hercules was an unusually big child, Alcmene had a difficult childbirth and was in labor for seven days and seven nights. When that agony became too much to bear, Alcmene called upon Lucina (goddess of childbirth).
However, since Lucina had been instructed by Hera to delay the childbirth, she went to Alcmene and muttered charms and clenched her hands while crossing her legs thus preventing Alceme from giving birth. As the pain grew even more unbearable, Alcmene writhed in pain and cursed the heavens.
Thankfully, one of Alcmene’s maids observed this Lucina’s behavior and realized that it must have been Hera’s doing. So she immediately came up with a plan to help out her mistress, Alcmene. She ran into the room where Lucina was chanting and announced that Alceme had safely delivered a healthy baby boy.
Upon hearing that, Lucina jumped up in surprise thus unclenching her hands and uncrossing her legs. As soon as she did that, the charms stopped working, and Alcmene gave birth to the boy that would be Hercules.
Note:As punishment for her deception, the maid, Galanthis, was transformed into a weasel by Lucina. She continued to live with her mistress Alcmene.
Amphitryon and Alceme went on to have other kids, and upon Amphitryon’s death, Alcmene married a son of Zeus called Rhadamanthys with whom she lived in exile at Ocaleae.
Legend has it that after Hercules was apotheosized (to be recognized and treated as a god), he hunted down Eurystheus, the boy who would take his place had Hera had her way. Hercules killed Eurystheus and presented his mother, Alcmene with his severed head. Alcmene then went on to gauge out Eurystheus’ eyes with weaving pins.
The Death of Alcmene
There are two conflicting versions of Alcmene’s death. One states that she died at Megara, probably due to old age, when she was walking from Argos to Thebes. Another one states that she was turned from human from to stone on her death. There is an altar built in her honor in Cynosarges in Athens.