The city of Athens was more than just the birthplace of democracy and the legal courts. It was also a center of the arts, known for its inventive playwrights and skilled poets.
One of these was Euripedes, whose works are among the most well-known Greek tragedies. They combined elements of well-known myths with the culture of his city to give Athens a prominent place in the stories of the gods.
In one such play, Euripedes detailed the fate of some of the children of Heracles. While these children were mentioned in other legends, his play established one of the most well-known traditions of the Heraclidae.
Unlike many stories of the descendants of the gods, the most heroic actions in the play were not taken by warrior sons. Instead, it was Macaria, the demi-gods maiden daughter, who saved both the city and the family.
The story of Macaria and her brave sacrifice pulled the city of Athens into the legends of Heracles. In doing so, it made Heracles one of the many gods and heroes to have a personal interest in the security and prosperity of Euripedes’s home.
In the 5th century BC, Euripedes detailed the fates of Heracles’ many children in two of his plays. The Heraclidae, or “Children of Heracles,” features one of the hero’s daughters in a major role.
Macaria was the daughter of Heracles and an unnamed woman. Like her siblings, she was in grave danger after their father’s death.
According to Euripedes, the children left behind after Heracles died were pursued by King Eurystheus. The hero’s cousin still held a vendetta against him following the twelve labors Heracles had performed at his behest.
Macaria and her siblings, along with their father’s nephew and long-time friend Iolaus, sought refuge in many Greek cities. Eventually, they were taken in by King Demophon of Athens, a son of the hero Theseus.
The king offered them his protection even though it made him an enemy of Eurystheus. Athens was soon threatened with the mighty army of Tiryns if their king would not hand over the children of Heracles.
Demophon prepared for war rather than hand over the innocent children of the hero. Knowing the Athenians stood little chance against the army of Eurystheus, he consulted an oracle for advice.
The sage told him that there was only one way to save the people of Athens from defeat. The invading army would be defeated if a noble maiden was sacrificed on the altar of Persephone.
Demophon was devastated by this news. He told Iolaus to take the children of Heracles out of the city because he could not ask any of his people to kill one of their own children to avoid the war.
A lottery was suggested so that none of the Athenians would be forced to offer a daughter themselves. Macaria heard of this, however, and refused to allow it to happen.
She was unwilling to trade another life for her own, but knew that if she left the city she would be killed by King Eurystheus almost immediately. The only choice she saw was to offer her own life to save both her siblings and the city that sheltered them.
Macaria offered herself as the sacrifice Persephone demanded. She said farewell to her siblings and Iolaus and bravely walked to Persephone’s altar to meet her fate.
At the same moment as Macaria’s noble sacrifice, her brother Hyllus arrived unexpectedly with reinforcements. The Athenian army was bolstered enough to defeat the troops under the command of Eurystheus.
Iolaus himself captured the enemy king. Although he was old and frail, he insisted on fighting for his uncle’s children and was made young again by the will of Hebe, the goddess of youth who Heracles had married when he became a god.
Alcmene demanded that Eurystheus be executed for the many crimes he had committed against her family, but this was against the laws of Athens. Demophon allowed the execution to take place, however, when he learned that a prophecy had been made that Eurystheus’s spirit would protect the children of Heracles if they were the ones who killed him.
The Athenians honored Macaria for her sacrifice. Her bravery had saved not only her own family, but the entire city of Athens.
The story of Heracles grew and expanded over time. While early writings mentioned only a few key parts of his legend, new adventures were almost constantly added throughout Greek history.
As Heracles came to be seen as both a cultural hero and a god, many of the new stories made connections between his mythology and places in the Greek world.
This was a common theme in Greek mythology. By claiming gods, heroes, and their descendants as patrons of a city or the ancestors of its founders, the people of that city could also claim a special relationship with the divine.
It was thought that these ancestral gods and heroes would grant special favors to the city because of this connection. They would protect it from harm, ensure its prosperity, and ensure the security of its people.
Many such stories emerged in the city of Athens. They were bolstered not by temples and kings, but by the city’s cultural centers.
In the 5th century BC, Athens was a major city for playwrights, poets, and artists. Many of ancient Greece’s most well known works came out of Athens, which is why their versions of many legends are the most well-preserved today.
Euripedes was one of the major playwrights of his age. Many of his works expanded on known legends and drew direct connections between mythological figures and his home city.
The story of the Heraclidae and Macaria’s sacrifice formed a connection between Heracles and the city of Athens. While many Greek colonies claimed to have been founded by sons of Heracles, the more well-established city-state of Athens could still claim a connection to the demi-god because it had once harbored his children.
The sacrifice of Macaria showed this connection by illustrating the ways in which a deity or hero could benefit the city. Macaria protected the people of Athens from attack, which they could hope that Heracles would continue to do because of their connection.
Euripedes likely created the story of Macaria for his play, as he did with many of his other known works. He was inspired, however, by both trends in Greek mythology and the city of Athens itself.
It was well-established that Heracles had many children who went on to influence the affairs of the Greek world. Euripedes did not create this detail, but expanded upon it to make it pertinent to his city.
An existing site in Athens may have also inspired the character of Macaria.
Her name translates as “She Who is Blessed.” It was known in Athens before the play, however, as the name of a spring that ran through the city.
According to Euripedes and later Athenian writers, the spring was the site of Macaria’s sacrifice and was named in her honor. It is more likely, however, that the spring was named before this time.
A spring that was identified as blessed would have been common in many ancient cities. Such sites were often identified with gods and nymphs and were a blessing because they provided the city with fresh water.
It seems likely, therefore, that Macaria was named for the blessed spring rather than the other way around. An existing holy site in Athens was reimagined by one of the city’s great writers to form a dramatic story that linked the great city with a beloved figure from mythology.
The story of Macaria is known from one of the surviving plays of Euripedes, the Heraclidae. The tragedy tells the story of how some of the children of Heracles fared after their father’s death.
Hunted by King Eurystheus, the children of Heracles and Iolaus took refuge in Athens. King Demophon, a son of Theseus, promised to protect them.
When Eurystheus threatened war, however, Demophon nearly broke his promise. An oracle told him that the only way to save the city was to sacrifice a noble girl, which the king was not willing to ask any of his people to do.
Realizing that she would be killed by Eurystheus if the Athenians expelled her family from the city, Macaria volunteered to be the sacrifice. She bravely met her fate and her action was immediately rewarded when reinforcements and help from the gods arrived.
Stories that connected cities to figures from mythology were common in the Greek world. These connections fostered civic pride and were thought to give the city special attention and protection from the gods and heroes connected to it.
Euripedes used his plays to create new stories that made these connections. After the Heraclidae, the sacrifice of Macaria could be seen as proof that Heracles and his descendants protected Athens and its people.