As told by ancient Greek mythology, Alcmene was a Mycenaean princess who gave birth to the famous hero, Heracles, after she was visited by the ancient Greek high-god, Zeus, who had been convincingly disguised at the time as Alcmene’s husband, Amphitryon. Zeus had special plans for this newest son, and one of his first ambitions was to place Heracles on the throne of the Mycenaean stronghold city of Tiryns. Zeus even went so far as to utter a careless and vague prophecy that a ruler of the Mycenaeans was about to be born. Nevertheless, Zeus’ godly wife, Hera, learned of her husband’s latest case of unfaithfulness, and she decided to sabotage the successful life of Heracles by pulling some divine strings of her own to arrange for Hercules’ royal rival—a Mycenaean nobleman named Eurystheus—to be born before Heracles, and therefore it was this Eurystheus who became the next king of Tiryns. Zeus, however, adapted to the situation and arranged a new destiny for Heracles that would eventually lead to glory, immortality and godhood; but first, Heracles would have to take on a harrowing life filled with hardship, humble humiliation and suffering. Adding insult to injury, most of Heracles’ trials and tribulations came when he was divinely ordered to fulfill ten near-impossible tasks (later extended to twelve) for his Mycenaean rival, King Eurystheus. Although this series of quests 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 increasingly annoyed and angry with Eurystheus. Alcmene, too, evidently shared her son’s negative impression of the king of Tiryns. Nevertheless, the two rivals—king and hero—found a way to coexist. That changed, however, when Heracles died and left his mother and children to face Eurystheus alone.
After Heracles’ death, King Eurystheus began to act more boldly in the world and ultimately started persecuting Heracles’ descendants, forcing them to seek help from sympathetic cities. This persecution of Alcmene’s grandchildren must have further deepened her dislike for the king of Tiryns. Unfortunately for Eurystheus, Heracles’ sons, the Heracleidae or Heraclids (as they were often called) had a bit of their father’s strength and valor. They did not ignore Eurystheus’ aggression, but instead rallied an army of supporters and eventually faced King Eurystheus in battle. In the struggle that ensued, the sons of Heracles were victorious and Eurystheus was killed during the fight. The violence to Eurystheus’ body, however, did not end on the battlefield. The curious last twist to the story was recorded by the scholar, Pseudo-Apollodorus (1st-2nd century), who stated, “Eurystheus himself fled in a chariot, but Hyllos, who had set off in pursuit, killed him as he was passing the Scironian Rocks, and cut off his head; and he gave it to Alcmene, who gouged out the eyes with weaving pins” (Apollodorus, Library, 2.8.1). Such was the way Alcmene apparently let out all the years of pent-up anger caused by Eurystheus’ treatment of her son and grandchildren.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Penelope, By Thomas Seddon (1821-1856), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons, Christies and Artvee).
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).