In Greek mythology, Alcmene was the mother of Heracles. The Mycenaean princess was said to have been nearly as beautiful as Aphrodite.
Unlike Aphrodite, however, Alcmene was famously loyal to her husband. To make her his mistress, Zeus had to disguise himself as the man she loved and lure her in through deceit.
While many of Zeus’s mistresses had little story beyond the birth of the god’s sons, however, Alcmene’s legend continued.
Heracles was one of the most popular heroes in Greek mythology, so it makes sense that his mother was also more prominent than many other mistresses of the gods. More was written about her life and family than most other women in Greek mythology.
Alcmene was famous because of her son, but there was more to her than just the birth of Heracles. These are just a few of the facts you might not have heard about the mother of Heracles.
Like many important figures in Greek mythology, Alcmene was descended from Perseus. According to most accounts, however, she was actually related to the great hero on both sides of her family.
Her father Electryon was the son of Perseus and Andromeda. Although he was, according to most versions of the story, not their oldest son, he inherited the kingdom of Tiryns from his father.
This made him the king of the city of Mycenae, which his father had built into a great capital. Electryon was one of the most powerful men in Greece.
Less well-known is the fact that Alcmene’s mother was also directly descended from Perseus.
Most accounts said that her mother was Anaxo. Her father was Alcaeus, another of Perseus and Andromeda’s sons.
This meant that Alcmene’s parents were uncle and niece. This type of relationship was not unusual in mythology and, throughout history, was often the case among the upper classes.
It also meant that her son Heracles was descended from Zeus on every branch of his family tree.
Zeus made Alcmene his lover through deceit, but he was also her great-grandfather on one side of her family and her great-great grandfather on the other.
Heracles could therefore trace his divine ancestry to many points on his family tree. There were even more fragments of Olympian heritage further back, since some of Perseus’s more distant ancestors had also been sired by gods.
These twisted family relationships made Heracles particularly heroic. He had more divine ancestry than any other hero in Greek mythology.
His mortal half-brothers were not excluded from this family tree. Alcmene married Amphitryon, one of her mother’s brothers and thus another direct descendant of both Perseus and Zeus.
The close family relationship Zeus had to both Alcmene and her son may be one reason Hera was particularly vengeful toward the princess. Hera famously hated Alcmene’s son, but less well-known stories also claim that she nearly killed his mother.
Later accounts from both Greece and Rome say that Alcmene nearly died in labor. She was only saved because someone was able to trick a goddess.
Ovid claimed that the goddess of childbirth, who was Lucina in Latin, had been instructed not to help Alcmene. Pausanias claimed that Hera had sent witches to make the labor more difficult instead.
In both stories, Alcmene’s labor was hindered by these efforts. Ovid made it clear that, because Heracles was such a large baby, the mother’s life was in danger.
In Ovid’s version of the story, Alcmene’s maid, Galanthis, noticed that the goddess of childbirth was crossing her hands and legs rather than helping with the delivery. Thinking quickly, Galanthis told Lucina that the child had suddenly been born.
The goddess was so surprised that she jumped up, undoing the spell that had kept Alcmene’s labor from progressing. As punishment for interfering with the work of the gods, Galanthis was turned into a weasel.
According to Pausanias, a similar trick fooled Hera’s witches. A woman named Historis convinced them to leave with the same lie.
Alcmene’s life was spared and she soon gave birth to her son Heracles. He was not her only child, though.
Heracles was the Mycenaean princess’s most famous son, but he was not her only child.
Zeus deceived Alcmene into spending three nights with him by pretending to be her new husband, Amphitryon. Alcmene was famously loyal to her husband and was horrified when she learned that she had been unwittingly unfaithful.
Because she had a mortal husband and a divine lover, Alcmene conceived twins. This was common in Greek mythology.
Heracles’ twin brother was named Iphicles. According to legend, they were both large, healthy babies so it was impossible to tell at first which was Zeus’s son.
The truth came to light when Hera sent a serpent to kill the children. They were only a few months old when a huge snake slithered into their crib.
Iphicles cried and shrank away like any child would. His twin brother, however, grabbed the snake and, displaying unusual strength for such a small child, strangled it.
When their parents saw the baby happily playing with the snake he had killed, they immediately knew which child was the son of Zeus.
Although he was not the son of a god, Iphicles still grew into an exceptionally powerful man. Only his brother could outmatch him in feats of strength and courage.
Iphicles joined his brother on many expeditions. When Heracles went to Troy, for instance, Iphicles accompanied him.
He and Telamon went into the city to claim the mares that King Laomedon owed Heracles. The king threw them in prison, but his son Priam gave them swords so they could kill their guards and escape.
Because of his help, Priam was the only one of the king’s sons to survive Heracles’ sack of Troy.
Alcmene’s younger son, who was born one night after his divine brother, also had adventures without Heracles. He was one of the hunters of the Calydonian Boar.
Iphicles married twice and, according to many sources, had three children.
Unfortunately, the younger children of Iphicles did not grow to earn such honor.
With his second wife, Pyrrha, he had two children. They were young when Hera drove Heracles to madness and were killed in his frenzy.
Iphicles himself died at his brother’s side. Joining him on an expedition against Sparta, Alcmene’s second son was killed in the fighting.
Alcmene also had a daughter named Laonome. She married one of the Argonauts, variously named as either Euphemus or Polyphemus.
Euphemus was also a member of the hunt for the Calydonian Boar and was a son of Poseidon. He was said to have founded Cyrene, a colony in present-day Libya.
Polyphemus, meanwhile, was famous for defeating a tribe of hostile centaurs. Inadvertently left behind by the Argo, he founded the city of Cius in northwestern Turkey.
Most mothers of heroes fade from their sons’ myths in Greek mythology. After their affairs or marriages, they have little importance to the story.
Alcmene, however, remained an important figure. She was central to her son’s mythology even after his own death.
When Iphicles died, both he and Alcmene had joined Heracles in exile. It was a state in which she had spent much of her life.
Amphitryon had been blamed for the death of her father, Electryon, and her brothers. Because of this, she had joined him in exile until he could be purified and they could be officially married.
They were in Thebes so Amphitryon could avenge her brothers’ deaths when Zeus appeared to Alcmene and Heracles was conceived.
Amphitryon eventually fell in battle. Alcmene married Rhadamanthys, a son of Zeus and Europa.
Rhadamanthys had been exiled from Crete by his brother, King Minos, so Alcmene was once again without a home. They were welcomed in Ocaleae, a city in Boeotia.
Alcmene was reportedly still in Ocaleae after her son’s death. When her grandson Hyllus killed Eurysthenes, the king who had set Heracles’s twelve labors, the dead man’s head was gifted to Alcmene.
His persecution of both her son and her grandchildren was never forgiven by Alcmene. She reportedly gouged the eyes out of the dead man’s head with weaving pins.
Other stories claimed that Alcmene joined her grandchildren as they fled from Eurysthenes after their father’s death. One play thus placed her in Athens as an older woman.
Two accounts were given of Alcmene’s death as an old woman near Megara.
In the first, she died near there while walking from Argos to Thebes. Her grandchildren disagreed on whether to take her body back to Argos or if they should continue to Thebes so she could be interred with Amphitryon.
An oracle intervened and commanded them to bury her at Megara instead. Pausanias reportedly saw her tomb there.
Another story claimed that Alcmene did not die in a natural way, but was instead turned into a pillar of stone. This story from Thebes implies that she was made immortal after her death.
As the mother of Heracles, Alcmene was a well-known figure in Greek mythology. She was one of the most prominent and often-mentioned mistresses of the gods.
Alcmene’s family made her a prominent character long before her son’s birth. Both of her parents were direct descendants of Perseus, and her father had inherited the kingdom of Mycenae from him.
Alcmene’s husband Amphitryon was also one of the Perseids. She was so famously loyal to him that Zeus had to take on his appearance to trick her into seeing him.
According to many sources, Alcmene barely survived the birth of Heracles. Hera intervened to make it more difficult, so only a trick broke the spell and enabled her to give birth to her son safely.
Heracles was not the only child Alcmene brought into the world. His twin brother Iphicles, the son of Amphitryon, was a strong hero in his own right.
Iphicles accompanied Heracles on many of his journeys, eventually dying in one of his battles. His son Iolaus also traveled with Heracles as his charioteer.
Alcmene outlived both of her sons and her husband. According to some sources she later married another of Zeus’s sons, Rhadamanthus.
Alcmene reportedly died somewhere near Megara, which in the time of Pausanias was said to house her tomb. Other legends implied that she joined her son as an immortal after her death in old age.