Ancient Greece’s mightiest hero, Heracles (known in Rome as Hercules), was the son of Greek mythology’s chief god, Zeus, and a Mycenaean princess named Alcmene. As was often the case with Zeus’ lustful pursuits, there was little attention paid to mutual understanding and consent. Instead, Zeus used his magical and divine powers to make himself look like Alcmene’s husband, Amphitryon. It was by the means of this deception that Zeus was able to sneak into Alcmene’s bedroom and attain his desires. Yet, the supernatural disguise was not all that was abnormal about Zeus’ evening with Alcmene. Quite the opposite, Zeus was said to have worked a miracle upon the world in order to accommodate his goal. Simply put, Zeus utilized his divine abilities to make the night last three times longer than usual, giving the god more time to practice his procreative magic. An ancient historian named Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE) wrote of this peculiar myth, stating:
“[W]hen Zeus lay with Alcmenê he made the night three times its normal length and by the magnitude of the time expended on the procreation he presaged the exceptional might of the child which would be begotten, and, in general, he did not effect this union from the desire of love, as he did in the case of other women, but rather only for the sake of procreation. Consequently, desiring to give legality to his embraces, he did not choose to offer violence to Alcmenê, and yet he could not hope to persuade her because of her chastity; and so, deciding to use deception, he deceived Alcmenê by assuming in every respect the shape of Amphitryon” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 4.9).
After completing his lengthy procreative mission, Zeus slipped away and the real Amphitryon returned. Alcmenê had not noticed anything amiss during her long night experience, and, in fact she seemed to have quite enjoyed herself, for when the human Amphitryon arrived, Alcmene made sure to tell him glowing reviews about the night she thought they had spent together. These statements baffled Amphitryon, and he immediately went to consult a wise prophet about what Alcmene was saying. On this epilogue to the story of Zeus and Alcmene, a scholar known as Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century) wrote, “When Amphitryon arrived and saw that his wife was welcoming him with no great ardour, he asked her the reason; and when she replied that he had come the previous night and slept with her, he found out from Teiresias about her intercourse with Zeus” (Apollodorus, Library, 2.4.8). Fortunately for Alcmene, Amphitryon took the news well and it had no negative influence on his relationship with his divinely-visited wife and her demigod child.
Writen by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Zeus and Semele, painted by Jacques Blanchard (c. 1600 – 1638), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons, Artvee, and the Dallas Museum of Art).
- 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.