Zeus, when he made the Mycenaean princess Alcmene pregnant with Heracles, planned to place the child on the throne of the Mycenaean city of Tiryns. Zeus’s vengeful wife, Hera, however, found out about Zeus’ dalliance, as well as the kingly destiny that the god envisioned for the unborn hero. To thwart her unfaithful husband’s ambitions, Hera carried out some godly maneuvering of her own to place Eurystheus on the throne of Tiryns before Heracles was born. This may have stopped the schemes of other gods, but Zeus was persistent in setting up his latest son for greatness. To Hera’s dismay, Zeus adapted to the situation and arranged a new destiny for Heracles that would eventually lead to glory, immortality and godhood. It would be a harrowing path for the godling to follow, filled with hardship, humble humiliation and suffering, but the end result of this new plan would result in a far greater destiny than if Heracles had been born as king of Tiryns. Yet, ironically, Hercules’ new fate required the hero to fulfil ten near-impossible tasks for King Eurystheus. These ten tasks were soon extended to twelve, as Eurystheus was able to use opinion and technicalities to declare that Heracles failed two of the original ten quests, and therefore two replacement missions were added to Heracles’ hellish to-do list.
King Eurystheus of Tiryns put Heracles through quite a challenging series of adventures. The Ten/Twelve Labors that Heracles performed for Eurystheus included hunting the Nemean Lion, defeating the Lernaean Hydra, obtaining the Cerynitian Hind, capturing the Erymanthian Boar, cleaning the cattle pastures of King Augeias of Elis, driving away the Stymphalian Birds, capturing the Cretan Bull, fetching the man-eating horses of Diomedes, obtaining the belt or girdle of Queen Hippolyte of the Amazons, stealing the cattle of Geryon, acquiring some golden apples of the Hesperides, and borrowing the chthonic guard dog, Cerberus, from the realm of Hades. Although this series of quest brought the hero great fame and renown, Heracles did not show King Eurystheus any gratitude for selecting these difficult tasks. Quite the opposite, Heracles became very annoyed and threatening. Ultimately, King Eurystheus was said to have started hiding (most famously inside a bronze jar) whenever Heracles showed up at Tiryns to announce his completion of a task. Eurystheus’ choice to avoid direct contact with the hero may have been wise, for Heracles was known to have killed people for far less severe annoyances than King Eurystheus’ Twelve Tasks. Whatever the case, the two rivals—king and hero—found a way to coexist.
King Eurystheus managed to outlive Heracles, who eventually took his own life after having been poisoned or cursed by his last mortal wife, Deianeira. With the hero now gone from the land of the living, King Eurystheus emerged from his bronze jar and began to act more boldly in the world. Eurystheus, evidently, had far less fear and respect for the many sons that Heracles had left behind. Instead of once again utilizing the tactic of avoidance that had kept him alive during his coexistence with Heracles, Eurystheus now pivoted to a new approach of confrontation, persecution and war with Heracles’ descendants. Heracles’ sons, the Heracleidae or Heraclids (as they were often called) did not ignore Eurystheus’ aggression. Instead, they rallied an army of supporters and faced King Eurystheus in battle. According to the works of the ancient scholars, Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE) and Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century), a specific son of Heracles named Hyllus or Hyllos fought and killed Eurystheus during a battle. After defeating the king in battle, the Heraclids brought the war to Eurystheus’ weakened Mycenaean kingdom, which turned out to be a complicated and lengthy endeavor.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Terracotta neck-amphora (jar) showing Heracles and Eurystheus, c. last quarter of 6th century BCE, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- 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.