Heracles, the mightiest hero of ancient Greek myth, was said to have been born after an incident of divine trickery. Zeus—the leading god of the ancient Greek religious pantheon of deities—magically impersonated a nobleman named Amphitryon in order to sleep with the Mycenaean princess, Alcmene, who was Amphitryon’s partner. Alcmene was convinced by Zeus’ disguise and she continued to be none the wiser when she and the god proceeded to have an intimate encounter, conceiving Heracles in the process. Zeus soon slipped away before Amphitryon returned, and it did not take long for Alcmene and the real Amphitryon to realize that their memories of their previous night together were not matching. Faced with the unreconciled memories, the couple decided to consult the blind prophet, Teiresias, to discern the truth of what had happened. Teiresias was able to uncover the truth of the matter, telling the couple that Alcmene had encountered Zeus, and that her unborn child was the son of the god. As the story goes, Amphitryon accepted the situation well, but Alcmene, in contrast, was quite worried. Her worry was reasonable, for Zeus’ wife, Hera, was famously jealous and wrathful in regards to Zeus’s lustful dalliances. Therefore, Alcmene (who was pregnant with a child of Zeus) had real reason to fear reprisals from Hera.
In one variant telling of the Heracles myth, Alcmene was so fearful of Hera’s vengeance that she ultimately decided to abandon baby Heracles as soon as the child was born. Fortunately for the young demigod, Heracles’ divine big sister, Athena, was watching over him and rescued the abandoned child from the wild. In a curious move, Athena allegedly arranged for her newborn brother to be introduced to the unlikeliest of nurses—Hera. Perhaps, wise Athena thought this ploy could encourage a bond between the two fated enemies. Nevertheless, the scheme to cultivate a relationship between the newborn hero and the maternal goddess did not go as smoothly as Athena had hoped. A scholar named Diodorus Siculus (1st century BCE) narrated the tale:
“After Alcmene had brought forth the babe, fearful of Hera’s jealousy she exposed it at a place which to this time is called after him the Field of Heracles. Now at this very time Athena, approaching the spot in the company of Hera and being amazed at the natural vigor of the child, persuaded Hera to offer it the breast, but when the boy tugged upon her breast with greater violence than would be expected at his age, Hera was unable to endure the pain and cast the babe from her…” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 4.9).
After Hera’s rejection of mouthy Heracles, Athena rescued the young child once more. Taking the baby with her, Athena tracked down Alcmene and convinced the frightened mother to take back the child and continue raising him. Alcmene did indeed agree to accept Heracles back into her life, and she ultimately faced little-to-no personal trouble from Hera, for the goddess’ wrath seemed solely focused on Heracles, himself. Mighty Heracles, however, was more than a match for Hera’s many schemes, and once he eventually ascended to godhood, Heracles and Hera were finally convinced by Zeus to make peace.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scene of infant Heracles, made by the so-called Master of the Labours of Hercules, (model after 1506, possibly cast 19th century), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Met Museum).
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.