Sarah has a PhD in classical civilisation from Swansea University. She continues to write on the ancient world and other topics.
Heracles was the greatest of the heroes of ancient Greek mythology. The son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Alcmene, Heracles was dogged throughout his life by the wrath of Hera, wife of Zeus and Queen of the Gods. Ironically, his name means ‘Glory of Hera’.
Heracles' Mother Alcmene, Descendant of Perseus
Alcmene was a descendant of the hero Perseus. Her father Electryon was ruler of the great city of Mycenae. When the city came under attack by the sons of Pterelaus from the island of Taphos, Electryon left the kingdom in the charge of Alcmene and her husband Amphitryon while he pursued the war.
In the course of the fighting, most of Alcmene’s brothers were killed. By ill luck, when Electryon was returning to the city herding the stolen cattle he had won back from his enemies, a cow panicked and charged him. Amphitryon hurled a rock at the cow to save Electryon, but instead struck Electryon dead with it. As a result, both he and Alcmene were driven from the kingdom by Sthenelus, another descendant of Perseus, who took over the kingdom. Alcmene and Amphitryon fled to Thebes where they received help and hospitality from the ruler Creon.
Zeus' Trick on Alcmene: The Conception of Heracles
It was at Thebes that Zeus, King of the Gods, fell in love with Alcmene. When Alcmene urged Amphitryon to make war on Taphos to avenge the deaths of her brothers, killed by the sons of Pterelaus, Zeus took advantage of his absence. He made himself appear the double of Amphitryon so that no one could tell them apart and appeared at the palace at Thebes, telling Alcmene that she had avenged her brothers’ deaths as promised. Delighted, Alcmene welcomed who she thought was her husband to her bed. It is said that Zeus caused that night to be three times longer than an ordinary night. On that miraculously extended night the hero Heracles was conceived.
The following night, the real Amphitryon returned to Thebes and was disappointed when his wife did not hurry out to meet him, eager to hear how he had done in the war to avenge her brothers. When Alcmene pointed out that she’d greeted him the night before, that he’d told her all about the war already and they had been to bed together, Amphitryon realised something very strange had happened. He consulted the wise prophet Tiresias, who explained that his wife had been visited by Zeus in disguise. That night, Alcmene and Amphitryon lay together in truth. From that union, Heracles’ brother Iphicles was conceived, so that Alcmene bore twins within her womb, one an ordinary mortal, the other a son of Zeus.
The Birth of Heracles: How Hera Robbed Heracles of the Throne of Mycenae
Before Heracles’ birth, Zeus had decreed that a descendant of Perseus born on the day Heracles was expected should be king of Mycenae. His wife, the Goddess Hera was furious that Zeus had fathered a child by a mortal woman and was determined to thwart his plan to raise the boy up to the kingship. Accordingly, she approached her daughter Eileithyia, Goddess of Childbirth, and obliged her to delay the progress of Alcmene’s labour, so that Heracles was born too late for the terms of Zeus’ prophecy to apply to him.
Meanwhile, Nicippe, the wife of Alcmene’s relative Sthenelus was also pregnant. Hera caused Nicippe to go into labour two months early and give birth to a son, Eurystheus, so that he fulfilled the prophecy and was destined, as a descendant of Perseus, to inherit the kingdom. Heracles, the son of Zeus would be in a subordinate position to him. This was to be the more galling when Eurystheus grew up to be a weak and cowardly character who exploited his power over Heracles to the full.
The enmity and rivalry thus set up between Heracles and Eurystheus by Hera's delaying Heracles' birth would profoundly affect the hero's mortal life and even dog his descendants after his death.
Hera Sends Deadly Serpents: The Infant Heracles' First Great Deed
Despite this victory in out-maneuvering her husband Zeus, Hera’s anger and spite against the infant Heracles was not appeased. When he was eight months old, Hera sent a huge pair of deadly serpents into the room in which baby Heracles and his mortal brother Iphicles were lying in their cradles. Iphicles’ cries of terror brought his parents running to the chamber, but when they got there, they found baby Heracles laughing and two monstrous serpents lying strangled on his pillow. Some say it was then that Heracles won his name ‘Glory of Hera’ and that previously he had been called Alcides. It was by triumphing over the serpents sent against him by the Goddess that the hero committed his first great deed and won glory, however it was only the beginning of Heracles’ lifelong struggle against the wrath of Hera.