The Most Awkward Family Reunion in Greek Mythology

Cousins, Cows, and a Guy Named Heracles

Detail of the statue 'Hercules and the Centaur' by Giambologna 1529-1608
Heracles heads up a really dysfunctional clan. Kenneth Wiedemann/E+/Getty Images

One of the greatest Greek heroes, Perseus was equally heroic in his procreative efforts. With his wife, Andromeda, he fathered enough children to create dynasties aplenty. As a result, the royal twosome was ancestors of a ton of heroes, including Heracles – he of the lion-skin and many labors. But things weren’t all peachy between his many kids and grandkids. This is a tale of lust, love, gods, and cows – a true Greek tragedy.

Here’s a quick recap of Perseus’s deeds and misdeeds. While on a quest, Perseus killed Medusa and rescued the maiden Andromeda from a sea monster. After fulfilling a prophecy and accidentally killing his grandfather, this son of Zeus finally settled down with his damsel in distress and got to reigning. He originally was going to inherit his grandfather’s kingdom of Argos, but figured it was bad karma to rule over a lands whose monarch he murdered. So he swapped realms with Megapenthes, king of Tiryns, and ended up ruling over that great city and its neighbor, Mycenae, which, according to Pausanias, Perseus also founded.

Luckily for Perseus, he didn’t have the procreative problems his grandfather had - remember, Acrisius sired only a daughter, Perseus’s mother Danae. In fact, Persy had numerous sons. The first was Perses, ancestor of the Persians (more on that here). His other boys were “Alcaeus and Sthenelus and Heleus and Mestor and Electryon,” according to Pseudo-Apollodorus in his Library.

Andromeda also gave birth to one daughter, Gorgophone, whose name, which meant “Gorgon-slayer,” commemorated her father’s heroic deeds. According to Pausanias, Gorgophone was the first woman ever to remarry. After her first husband, Perieres, king of Messene, died, she wed Oebalus, king of Sparta. Before this, Pausanias said, “wives were wont, on the death of their husbands, to live as widows.” With Perieres or Oebalus, Gorgophone had a few kids, according to Apollodorus, including Tyndareus, king of Sparta (and the mortal father of Helen, as well as bio dad of Clytemnestra) and Icarius, father of Penelope.

But back to Perseus’s boys. As so often happens with wives in Greek mythology, the name of Alcaeus’s spouse varied, but she’s often called a daughter of Pelops. That king was cursed, a tragedy that carried down to his son, Atreus, and grandsons, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Alcaeus’s son was Amphitryon, a nice young man who was going to marry his first cousin, Alcmene, a daughter of Alcaeus’s brother Electryon. A bit incestuous, but that’s nothing new for mythology, right?

At one point, Electryon had a ton of sons to inherit his kingdom. After most of them died in battle, he entrusted his kingdom of Mycenae to his nephew/future son-in-law, Amphitryon, when he went to war. Apollodorus recounted how Electryon mandated that his daughter remain a virgin until he got back from battle – great idea! But Electryon didn’t even end up going to war to avenge his sons. When Amphitryon was helping him round up some cows that had been stolen and brought home, the lad tossed his club at one of the bovines. Instead of a mooo!, there was a scream: “but the club rebounded from the cow's horns and striking Electryon's head killed him.” Now guilty of killing his king/father-in-law/uncle, Amphitryon was banished, along with his wife-to-be, to Thebes.

Was this kind of punishment necessary? The powers that be – i.e., the new king – sure thought so.

Remember Sthenelus? He was one of Perseus’s other sons, but he he staked his claim to the throne of Mycenae after forcing Amphitryon out. So Amphitryon really wanted to get married once he was in Thebes – the sooner he had kids, the sooner he could avenge himself on Sthenelus! But Alcmene said he first had to avenge the deaths of her brothers, who were killed in the recent war. Only then would she wed her cousin! After killing the enemy and helping a fellow monarch rid his kingdom of a magical fox, Amphitryon came home to marry his bride-to-be…only to find she’d already had consummated the wedding with some guy that looked like him! It turned out Zeus had fallen for Alcmene. After all, she was gorgeous, as Hesiod said when he waxed lyrical in his Shield of Heracles: “She surpassed the tribe of womankind in beauty and in height; and in wisdom none vied with her of those whom mortal women bare of union with mortal men.

Her face and her dark eyes wafted such charm as comes from golden Aphrodite.”

In love with Alcmene, Zeus had slept with her while disguised as Amphitryon. He even made sure it lasted all night long by making the evening three times as long! Eventually, Alcmene had twin boys – Heracles, who was Zeus’s son, and Iphicles. They were half-brothers, but it was clear Iphicles was Amphitryon’s son: “Though they were brothers, these were not of one spirit; for one was weaker but the other a far better man, one terrible and strong, the mighty Heracles,” said Hesiod. Regardless of his true parentage, Heracles was still often called by his mortal stepgranddad’s name, like in the Shield. There, he was dubbed the “noble son of Alcaeus.” Regardless, as Diodorus Siculus boasted, “consequently the sources of his descent, in their entirety, lead back, as is claimed, through both his parents to the greatest of the gods, in the manner we have shown.”

Let’s head back to Perseus’s original kids. Just to recap: Electryon had lots of sons who died in a war, as well as a daughter, Alcmene. Alcaeus had a son, Amphitryon, who married Alcmene and had Iphicles and Heracles (by Zeus). There were other kids scattered here and there throughout this family tree, but these were the most important for our story. So what about evil Uncle Sthenelus? Didn’t he have a child or two? Indeed, he did – a late-in-life baby called Eurystheus. You might know him as the cowardly king of Mycenae – he once hid in a big jar when Heracles dragged up a giant boar to the walls of his city - to whom Heracles had to bring the fruits of his labors.

How did he come to be a king and Heracles be an average hero?

When Alcmene was pregnant with Heracles, Zeus was super-proud of his son-to-be. He vowed to Hera that one of his descendants born that very day would rule over Mycenae. He meant Heracles, of course, but Sthenelus’s wife was also seven months pregnant at the time. As Homer recounted in Book XIX of the Iliad, Hera made sure the son of her rival, Alcmene, wouldn’t get the throne. Hera “brought the child [Eurystheus] to birth though there was a month still wanting, but she stayed the offspring of Alcmen[e].”  So she kept Heracles in the womb while Eurystheus, also a descendant of Zeus through Perseus, was born on the same day the king of the gods swore his oath. In order to keep his vow, Zeus was forced to make Eurystheus a future monarch.

So we’ve accounted for the offspring of three out of Perseus’s five sons. What about Heleus and Mestor’s kids? Heleus didn’t do much – he ruled a couple of islands. But Mestor, by his wife, another daughter of Pelops, fathered a daughter … and her descendants would cause major trouble for the family. This pretty girl’s name was Hippothoe. As often happened in tales, Poseidon took a fancy to Hippothoe and whisked her off; she bore the sea god a son, “Taphius, who colonized Taphos and called the people Teleboans,” recounted Apollodorus. Taphius, grandson of Mestor, sired a son named Pterelaus, “whom Poseidon made immortal by implanting a golden hair in his head.” Pterelaus and his sons, great-great-grandsons of Perseus, had their own kingdoms, but they weren’t going to rule quietly.

The sons of Pterelaus, the Teleboans, came back to their ancestral land, Mycenae, ruled by Electryon at the time. They demanded a slice of the family pie. But their distant kinsman wasn’t having it, which led to war. Remember the conflict that killed Alcmene’s brothers and precipitated the conception of Heracles? Yes, this is it – the battle between the Teleboans and the direct line of Perseids over Mycenae and the family jewels. Although Alcmene’s legitimate brothers all died, one did survive, “a bastard son, Licymnius,” according to Apollodorus. Licymnius lived a long time – by the time of the Trojan War, he was very old – and was killed by his half-great-nephew, Heracles’s son Tlepolemus, said Homer in Book II of the Iliad.  A bunch of other Teleboans survived, and, eager to revenge themselves against the Mycenaeans, captured a lot of the enemy cattle. This was a fairly standard thing to do; there was a long history of cattle raids in myths of the Greeks and other Indo-European cultures.

That didn’t mean the Mycenaeans were keen on losing their cows, though. Amphitryon, Electryon’s nephew, got the cattle back eventually, but Electryon really wanted to get revenge against the Teleboans. Amphitryon went to the Teleboans’ land and defeated the enemy, King Pterelaus, by seducing his daughter – a.k.a. his cousin. Remember the golden hair Pterelaus had that made him immortal? Amphitryon convinced the king’s daughter, Comaetho, who had fallen for him, to trim that lovely lock. That killed her father and ended the conflict; then, Amphitryon “slew Comaetho, and sailed with the booty to Thebes” – and his waiting bride-to-be, Alcmene, said Apollodorus. Of course, Zeus had other ideas…and here the story comes full circle.

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Silver, Carly. "The Most Awkward Family Reunion in Greek Mythology." ThoughtCo, Aug. 9, 2016, Silver, Carly. (2016, August 9). The Most Awkward Family Reunion in Greek Mythology. Retrieved from Silver, Carly. "The Most Awkward Family Reunion in Greek Mythology." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 19, 2017).