Who Were the Parents of the Greek Hero Hercules?

Hera Suckling Hercules. Mid-4th century Apulian Painted Vase.
Hera Suckling Hercules. Mid-4th century Apulian Painted Vase. © Marie-Lan Nguyen

Hercules, better known to classicists as Heracles, technically had three parents, two mortal and one divine. He was raised by Amphitryon and Alcmene, a human king and queen who were cousins and grandchildren of Zeus's son Perseus. But Heracles' biological father was actually Zeus himself. The story of how this came about is known as "The Amphitryon," a tale told many times over the centuries. 

Hercules' Mother

Hercules' mother was Alcmene, the daughter of Electryon, the king of Tiryns and Mycenae. Electryon was one of the sons of Perseus, who in turn was the son of Zeus and the human Danae, making Zeus, in this case, his own great-great-grandfather-in-law. Electryon had a nephew, Amphitryon, who was a Theban general betrothed to his cousin Alcmene. Amphitryon accidentally killed Electryon and was sent into exile with Alcmene to Thebes, where king Creon cleansed him of his guilt. 

Alcmene was beautiful, stately, virtuous, and wise. She refused to marry Amphitryon until he avenged her eight brothers, who had fallen in battle against the Taphians and Teleboans. Amphitryon went off to battle, pledging to Zeus that he would not return until he had avenged Alcmene's brothers' deaths and burned the villages of the Taphians and Teleboans to the ground.

Zeus had other plans. He wanted a son that would defend gods and men against destruction, and he chose "neat-ankled" Alcmene as the mother of his son. While Amphitryon was away, Zeus disguised himself as Amphitryon, and seduced Alcmene, in a night that was three nights long, conceiving Heracles. Amphitryon returned on the third night, and made love to his lady, conceiving a fully-human child, Iphicles. 

Hera and Heracles

While Alcmene was pregnant, Hera, Zeus's jealous wife, had found out about his child-to-be and made Zeus swear that any of his descendants born that day would be king over Mycenae. Zeus had forgotten, however, that Amphitryon's uncle, Sthenelus (another son of Perseus), was also expecting a child with his wife.

Wanting to deprive her husband's secret love child of the prestigious prize of the Mycenaean throne, Hera induced Sthenelus's wife into labor and made the twins root deeper into Alcmene's womb. As a result, Sthenelus's cowardly son, Eurystheus, wound up ruling Mycenae, rather than mighty Heracles. And Heracles's mortal step-cousin was the one to whom he brought the fruits of his Twelve Labors.

The Birth of Twins

Alcmene gave birth to the twin boys, but it was soon made clear that one of the boys was superhuman and the child of her inadvertent liaison with Zeus. In Plautus' version, Amphitryon learned of Zeus' impersonation and seduction from the seer Teiresias and was outraged. Alcmene fled to an altar around which Amphitryon placed fire logs which he proceeded to light. Zeus rescued her, preventing her death by extinguishing the flames.

In fear of Hera's wrath, Alcmene abandoned Zeus's child in a field outside of the city walls of Thebes, where Athena found him and brought him to Hera. Hera suckled him but found him too powerful, and sent him back to his mother, who gave the child the name of Heracles, the "Glory of Hera."  

Versions of the Amphitryon 

The earliest version of this tale has been attributed to Hesiod (ca. 750–650 BCE), as part of the "Shield of Heracles." It was also the basis for a tragedy by Sophocles (5th century BCE), but nothing of that has survived. 

In the second century BCE, the Roman playwright T. Maccius Plautus told the story as a five-act tragicomedy called "Jupiter in Disguise" (likely written between 190–185 BCE) recasting the story as an essay on the Roman notion of paterfamilias: it does end happily. 

Be of good cheer, Amphitryon; I am come to thy aid: thou hast nothing to fear; all diviners and soothsayers let alone. What is to be, and what has past, I will tell thee; and so much better than they can, inasmuch as I am Jupiter. First of all, I have made loan of the person of Alcmena, and have caused her to be pregnant with a son. Thou, too, didst cause her to be pregnant, when thou didst set out upon the expedition; at one birth has she brought forth the two together. One of these, the one that is sprung from my parentage, shall bless thee with deathless glory by his deeds. Do thou return with Alcmena to your former affection; she merits not that thou shouldst impute it to her as her blame; by my power has she been compelled thus to act. I now return to the heavens. 

More recent versions have been mostly comedies and satires. English poet John Dryden's 1690 version focused on morality and the misuse of power. Greman playwright Heinrich von Kleist's version was first staged in 1899; Frenchman Jean Giraudoux's "Amphitryon 38" was staged in 1929, and another German version, Georg Kaiser's "Zwiemal Amphitryon" ("Double Amphitryon") in 1945. Giradoux's "38" is itself a joke, referencing how many times the play had been adapted.

Who Were Hercules Parents? Key Takeaways

  • Hercules (or more properly Heracles) was the son of Alcmene, a beautiful and virtuous Theban woman, her husband Amphitryon, and the god Zeus. 
  • Zeus seduced Alcmene by taking the form of her absent husband. Alcmene had twin sons, one credited to Amphitryon (Iphicles) and one credited to Zeus (Hercules). 
  • The oldest version of the story was written by the Archaic Greek writer Hesiod in t"he Shield of Heracles" in the 6th century BCE, but many others have followed. 

Sources

Burgess, Jonathan S. "Coronis Aflame: The Gender of Mortality." Classical Philology 96.3 (2001): 214–27. Print.

Hesiod. "Shield of Heracles." Trans. Evelyn-White, Hugh G. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1914. Print.

Nagy, Gregory. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2013. Print.

Neumarkt, Paul. "'The Amphitryon Legend' in Plautus, Molière, Dryden, Kleist, Giraudoux ." American Imago 34.4 (1977): 357–73. Print.and Kaiser

Papadimitropoulos, Loukas. "Heracles as Tragic Hero." The Classical World 101.2 (2008): 131–38. Print.

-Edited by Carly Silver