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The Birth of Heracles in Greek Mythology

Updated on July 4, 2015
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

Heracles is the greatest and most famous of all the Greek heroes. In adulthood, Heracles would face giants, warriors and many monsters, but the adventures of the son of Zeus would begin from the day he was born; and there is even a story in Greek mythology about the birth of Heracles.

The Line of Perseus

Heracles was ultimately born into the line of Perseus, the elder Greek hero having founded Mycenae. Infighting between the descendents of Perseus though, would result in Sthenelus, a son of Perseus being on the Mycenaean throne, and Amphitryon, a grandson of Perseus, exiled in Thebes.

The number of Perseus’ descendents by this time was numerous, and Amphitryon would wed his cousin Alcmene. Alcmene would refuse to sleep with her husband though, until he had avenged the death of nine of her brothers; and so Amphitryon would go off to war against the sons of Pterelaus.

Statue of the Baby Heracles

Statue of Heracles - Musei Capitolini Sailko - CC-BY-SA-3.0
Statue of Heracles - Musei Capitolini Sailko - CC-BY-SA-3.0 | Source

Heracles Conceived

Alcmene was regarded as the wisest and most beautiful woman of her age, and so it was only natural that the god Zeus took an interest in her.

Zeus would therefore descend from Mount Olympus, and then transformed himself into the very image of Amphitryon. Proclaiming that the war had been won, “Amphitryon” would then lay with his wife, and a son was conceived.

The following day, Amphitryon himself returned from the war, although the welcome from his wife was not as gushing as he thought it should be, nevertheless he would sleep with his wife, and Alcmene would also become pregnant by Amphitryon.

Alcmene, of course, believed that she had already welcomed her husband home once, and when she explained this to Amphitryon, he went to the Oracle of Delphi to find the meaning to this strangeness, and the Pythia told him that Zeus had impersonated him.

Zeus Plans Life for his Son

After nine months had passed, Alcmene was on the verge of giving birth to Zeus’ son, and the supreme god made an oath that the descendent of Perseus born the following day would become the King of Mycenae.

It would prove to be a rash promise, induced by the goddess of rashness, Ate, and Hera, now aware that evidence of her husband’s unfaithfulness was due to be revealed, hatched her own plan.

Hera Interferes

Hera went to the house of Amphitryon, and there ordered Ilithyia, the goddess of childbirth, to sit cross-legged, preventing Alcmene from giving birth.

Hera then visited the court of Sthenelus, where his wife, Nicippe, was seven months pregnant with a son. Hera induced an early birth, and so on the given day, Eurystheus was born.

The next day Alcmene then gave birth to a son, initially named Alcides, but later renamed Heracles; and the day after Alcmene gave birth to a son for Amphitryon, Iphicles.

Zeus would not go back on his word, and so Eurystheus became predestined to become King of Mycenae, the throne that Zeus had intended for his own son. Zeus’ anger would be directed at Ate, the goddess of rashness, who Zeus then literally threw out of Mount Olympus.

Zeus then bargained with Hera, that if, later on in life, his son could compete a series of epic tasks, he would be made immortal.

The Creation of the Milky Way

Creation of the Milky Way - Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) - PD-art-100
Creation of the Milky Way - Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) - PD-art-100 | Source

Heracles Abandoned

The loss of the Mycenae throne in no way diminished the hatred that Hera had of Heracles, and she was already plotting further punishment for the son of Zeus.

Fear of the vengeance of Hera, would lead Alcmene, to abandon the newborn Heracles in a field, just outside of Thebes. The unprotected baby though, was rescued by Athena, Heracles’ half-sister, who took him up to Mount Olympus. In an act of mischievousness, Athena then presented the unidentified baby to Hera, who out of pity, would nurse the abandoned child.

Heracles though would suck so hard that Hera had to push the baby away, and the milk of the goddess would spray outwards, and form the Milky Way. Heracles though, had received enough of the milk of the goddess to imbue it with powers beyond those of normal mortals. With the baby fed, Athena would then return it unharmed to Alcmene and Amphitryon.

To placate the goddess the parents of Heracles would seek out the advice of the Oracle of Delphi, who would suggest that the baby should be renamed Heracles, from Alcides, for Heracles means “glory of Hera”, although of Hera was not placated.

Heracles Strangles Snakes

Heracles and Snakes - Attributed to Bernardino Mei - PD-art-100
Heracles and Snakes - Attributed to Bernardino Mei - PD-art-100 | Source

Hera Tries to Kill Heracles

When Heracles was just eight months old, Hera tried for the first time to kill the son of Zeus. As Heracles and Iphicles were in their shared bedroom, Hera sent forth two deadly serpents.

Iphicles cried out, which caused the children’s nurse to come running, and there she found that Heracles had strangled the snakes, one in each hand. The Theban seer Tiresias, would proclaim that the baby boy would kill many monsters; and so Hera had been foiled for the first time by Heracles.

Of course, Hera had many years left before Heracles was made immortal, and so plenty more opportunities to seek vengeance on the product of Zeus’ infidelity.

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