Hercules (Greek: Heracles) remains a celebrated figure to this day, representing strength and heroism. However, while most of us know his name, his stories are not always so clearly remembered. Did he ride with Jason and the Argonauts? Yes, for a little while. Even though Hercules was long dead, did he play a part in the Trojan war? Once again, yes, though it’s a story that involves his death, as well as the death of Paris. Did he have as many erotic adventures as his father, Zeus? As many as possible for a semi-mortal. In his stories, does Hera serve as the grand archetype of the evil stepmother? Yes, even though he derives his Greek name (Heracles) and his supernatural strength from her, not Zeus.
So, let’s look at his story in sections, starting with his conception, birth and infancy:
ACT 1: Zeus and Hera
The Olympian God Zeus ruled the other Gods with his sister-wife Hera. This was a contentious marriage, in part because Zeus enjoyed sex, just not with his consort. No Goddess or human female was safe from his amorous intent, and it was a constant source of tension between the divine couple.
In retaliation, Hera would often attempt to kill or torture his lovers and their children (even the Titaness Leto, who despite Hera’s cruel intentions, was able to bear two future Olympians: the lunar huntress Artemis, and the solar warrior Apollo). Sometimes, this meant forcing the hand of the Goddess of Childbirth, Eileithyia (one of Hera’s children with Zeus). By having Eileithyia sit cross-legged, with her clothing tied in knots, childbirth could be delayed indefinitely, a point which will figure into the story of Hercules.
Alcmene was a granddaughter of the hero Perseus (himself a son of Zeus), married to a royal warrior named Amphitryon. She is described as an incredibly beautiful woman, rivaling the Goddess Aphrodite herself. While her husband went off to battle, Zeus transformed himself to appear like Amphitryon. Pretending to be home from the war, he seduced her for three nights, impregnating her in the process.
On the night Zeus left his great-granddaughter’s chambers, the real Amphitryon came home, and made love to his wife, impregnating her as well. Alcmene was now carrying two great-grand sons of Perseus; one through Zeus (his great-great-grand son, the future Hercules) and one through Amptron (Iphicles, whose own future son, Iolaus, would be Hercules’ charioteer).
Back on Olympus, Zeus made a proclamation: a descendant of Perseus was destined to rule over the world. Zeus, of course, was thinking about Hercules; Hera had other plans.
Alcmene’s uncle, also a son of Perseus, was expecting a son of his own. His wife had conceived two months after Alcmene; to spite Zeus, Hera contrived to make this child, who would be named Eurystheus, the future king.
To this end, she had to slow down Alcmene’s parturition by at least two months. She sent her daughter, Eileithyia, and bade her to sit cross-legged, with her clothing tied in knots, just as she had done with Leto. Eileithyia complied, and Alcmene, who was ready to give birth, found herself painfully stuck in an unending labor.
This might have continued indefinitely, if not for the cunning of Alcmene’s handmaiden, Galanthis. After the birth of Eurystheus, Galanthis went to Eileithyia, and casually mentioned that Alcmene had given birth to Hercules. Eileithyia was so surprised that she jumped up, thus spreading her legs and loosening her clothing, in doing so breaking the spell that had kept Alcmene from delivery.
ACT TWO: The Milky Way
Fearing further retribution from Hera, Alcmene abandoned the infant Hercules to the elements, where he was found by another child of Zeus (though not by Hera, or any woman for that matter), the Goddess of Combat and Art, Athena. As a patron of heroes, she took the child to safety; being cunning, she formed a plan to ensure her half-brother’s future success.
Athena took the infant up to Olympus. Showing off the child she had found abandoned in the woods to other deities, she eventually made her way to Hera, the Queen of the Olympians. She handed the baby to Hera, and Hera, moved by pity for the child, volunteered to nurse-made him.
The baby hungrily suckled at Hera’s breast. He sucked and sucked, until Hera found herself in pain. Still, the infant continued to feed. Finally, Hera tried to gently pull her breast away, but infant clamped down on her nipple, biting it as he did. Hera forcibly pulled her breast away, and when she did, a stream of milk shot across the heavens.
On a clear night, away from city lights, you can still see the spray of milk that ejected from Hera’s breast. We call it the Milky Way, in honor of its Greek mythic origins:
Athena returned the child to his parents, knowing that Hera’s milk would give him superhuman powers, and it did.
Hercules’ birth name was Alcides; hoping to mollify the Goddess, his parents renamed him Heracles, “the fame of Hera” (which was Romanized to Hercules).
Did this work? Not for long…
When he and Iphicles were still in their cribs, Hera sent two giant snakes to kill them both.
Hearing baby Iphicles screaming, their nurse ran into the room.
While Iphicles was still wailing, Hercules was giggling in his crib, playing with the two, very dead snakes, tossing them around as if were toy animals. Athena’s cunning had won out. and thanks to Hera’s milk, Hercules would live to fight many another day; crushing giant snakes was just the beginning.
Of course, this only inspired Hera to greater acts of revenge…