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.

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Niobe Clutching a Child

Poor Niobe. She thought herself so blessed in the abundance of her children that she dared to compare herself with a goddess: she had 14 children, while Leto only was mother to only two—Apollo and Artemis. Not a smart thing to do. She lost all of her children by most accounts and by some she was turned to stone that eternally weeps.

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Helen of Troy

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

Helen, the daughter of Zeus and Leda, Helen, was so beautiful that she 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.

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Alexandre Cabanel/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; and Oedipus blinded himself.

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Vase, by Eumenides Painter showing Clytemnestra trying to awaken the Erinyes, at the Louvre.

Bibi Saint-Pol/Wikipedia Commons

In the legendary House of Atreus tragedy, 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 (with a new 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.

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

Agave was a princess of Thebes, and a Maenad (a follower of Dionysus) who was the mother of Pentheus, King of Thebes. She incurred Dionysus' wrath by refusing to recognize him as the son of Zeus—her sister Semele was Dionysus's mother with Zeus and after she died the Maeneds spread the rumor that Semele had lied about who the father of the child was.

When Pentheus also refused to give the god his due and even imprisoned him, Dionysus made the Maenads delusional. Agave saw her son, but thought he was a beast, and tore him to pieces, carrying his head on a pole back to Thebes.

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

Andromache, the wife of Hector, one of the major figures in the Iliad. She gave birth to Scamander or Astyanax, but when and the child are captured by one of the sons of Achilles, he throws the baby from the top of the walls at Troy, because he is the heir apparent to Sparta. After Troy fell, Andromache was given as a war prize to Neoptolemus, by whom she gave birth to Pergamus.

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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 the wanderer Odysseus' wife and mother to his son Telemachus, whose tale is told in the Odyssey. She waited her husband’s return for 20 years, fending off her many suitors by tricks and stratagems. After 20 years, he returns, wins a challenge and slays all the suitors with the help of their son. 

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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

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.

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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 and 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.

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

The last of our mothers is the anti-mother, Medea, the woman who kills her two children when her mate Jason 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.

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Gill, N.S. "Top Legendary Greek Mothers." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 27). Top Legendary Greek Mothers. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Top Legendary Greek Mothers." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).