Top Legendary Greek Mothers

Had it not been for the beauty of Helen, Hermione's mother, there would have been no Trojan War. Had it not been for their mothers, Jocasta and Clytemnestra, the heroes Oedipus and Orestes would have remained obscure. Mortal mothers of other legendary heroes had important (if lesser) roles in the ancient Greek epics of Homer and drama of the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

01
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Niobe Clutching a Child
Niobe Clutching a Child. Clipart.com

Poor Niobe. She thought herself so blessed in the abundance of her children that she dared to compare herself with a goddess. Not a smart thing to do. She lost all her children by most accounts and by some she was turned to stone.

02
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Head of Helen. Attic red-figured krater, c. 450–440 B.C.
Head of Helen. Attic red-figured krater, c. 450–440 B.C. Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.

The daughter of Zeus and Leda, Helen's beauty attracted attention even from a young age when Theseus carried her off and according to some accounts sired a daughter named Iphigenia on her. But it was Helen's marriage to Menelaus (through whom she became the mother of Hermione) and her abduction by Paris that led to the events of the Trojan War renowned in Homeric epic.

03
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Jocasta

Alexandre Cabanel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The mother of Oedipus, Jocasta (Iocaste), was married to Laius. An oracle warned the parents that their son would murder his father, so they ordered him killed. Oedipus survived, however, and returned to Thebes, where he unknowingly killed his father. He then married his mother, who bore him Eteocles, Polynices, Antigone, and Ismene. When they learned of their incest, Jocasta hanged herself.

04
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Clytemnestra

Vase, by Eumenides Painter showing Clytemnestra trying to awaken the Erinyes, at the Louvre.
Apulian red-figure bell-krater, from 380–370 B.C., by the Eumenides Painter, showing Clytemnestra trying to awaken the Erinyes, at the Louvre. Public Domain. Courtesy of Bibi Saint-Pol at Wikipedia Commons.

Clytemnestra, the mother of Orestes, took Aegisthus as a lover while her husband Agamemnon was away fighting at Troy. When Agamemnon -- after having murdered their daughter Iphigenia -- returned (concubine Cassandra in tow), Clytemnestra murdered her husband. Orestes then murdered his mother and was pursued by the Furies for this crime, until the motherless goddess Athena intervened.
See House of Atreus tragedy.

05
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Pentheus torn apart by Agave and Ino. Attic red-figure lekanis lid, c. 450-425 B.C.
Pentheus torn apart by Agave and Ino. Attic red-figure lekanis lid, c. 450-425 B.C. Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.

Agave was the mother of Pentheus, King of Thebes. She incurred Dionysus' wrath by refusing to recognize him as the son of Zeus. When Pentheus refused to give the god his due and even imprisoned him, Dionysus made the women celebrants (Maenads) delusional. Agave saw her son, but thought he was a beast, and tore him to pieces.

06
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Andromache

Fragment from Frederic Leighton's Captive Andromache.
Fragment from Frederic Leighton's Captive Andromache. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Andromache, wife of Hector, gave birth to Scamander or Astyanax, who was hurled from the walls of Troy. After Troy fell, Andromache was given as a war prize to Neoptolemus, by whom she gave birth to Pergamus.

07
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Penelope and the Suitors by John William Waterhouse (1912).
Penelope and the Suitors by John William Waterhouse (1912). Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Penelope was Odysseus' faithful wife, who kept the suitors at bay in Ithaca, for 20 years, until her son, Telemachus, grew to manhood.

08
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alcmeneandJuno.jpg
Wellcome Library, LondonAlcmene giving birth to Hercules: Juno, jealous of the child, attempts to delay the birth. Engraving. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 2.0, see http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Alcmene's story is unlike those of the other mothers. There was no particularly great sorrow for her. She was simply the mother of twin boys, born to different fathers. The one born to her husband, Amphytrion, was named Iphicles. The one born to what looked like Amphitryon, but was actually Zeus in disguise, was Hercules.

09
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Medea by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix (1862).
Medea by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix (1862). Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Alun Salt commented on an earlier list, "Wot, no Medea?" Alun has a point. Medea is the anti-mother, the woman who kills her two children when her mate abandons her for a wife who would improve his social position. Not only was Medea a member of that small club of horrendous lovelorn mothers who kill their own children, but she betrayed her father and brother, as well. Euripides' Medea tells her story.

10
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Althaea

Althaea, by Johann Wilhelm Baur (1659) - Illustration of Althaea from Ovid, Metamorphoses 7.524.
Althaea, by Johann Wilhelm Baur (1659) - Illustration of Althaea from Ovid, Metamorphoses 7.524. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Althaea (Althaia) was the daughter of King Thestius, the wife of King Oineus (Oeneus) of Calydon, and the mother of Meleager, Deianeira, and Melanippe. When her son Meleager was born, the fates told her that her son would die when a piece of wood, currently burning in the hearth, completely burned up. Althaea removed the log and stored it carefully in a chest until the day her son became responsible for the death of her brothers. On that day, Althaea took the log and put it in a fire where she left it to be consumed. When it finished burning, Meleager was dead.