Like many of the most renowned heroes of Greek mythology, Hercules was the son of a god. In fact, his father was the king of the gods himself – Zeus.
This put Hercules in good company. Zeus had been the father of many of the most famous names in legend including the great-grandfather of Hercules, Perseus.
But while Hercules was not alone in being the son of the king of the Olympians, this fact had much more of an impact on his life than it did for many of his half-siblings. While many inherited some measure of heroism or strength, Hercules was unique in the way his parentage played into his story.
The entire legend of Hercules, from his birth through the events of his twelve famous labors, was directly shaped by the fact that Zeus was his father. It was not Zeus who played the greatest role in his life, however.
Instead, Hercules was constantly hounded by his stepmother, Hera. Zeus’s jealous wife spent most of the hero’s life trying to ensure his downfall.
Hera was antagonistic toward many of Zeus’s lovers and children, but her hatred of Hercules was so intense that it became the driving force in his life. So why did Hera have such special animosity toward one of Zeus’s many sons?
The answer to that question may lie in the unique circumstances of the hero’s birth and how it related to Hera’s position among the gods.
Hercules was one of many heroes who was born to Zeus from a mortal woman.
Alcmene was a beautiful human who was described as the tallest, fairest woman in all of Greece. She was also betrothed to Amphitryon.
Her father was the king of Tiryns and the son of the hero Perseus. This made Alcmene not only that hero’s granddaughter, but also the great-granddaughter of Zeus.
Her father had arranged for her marriage to Amphitryon, his nephew. Unfortunately, a series of tragedies unfolded before the marraige could be finalized.
Six of Electryon’s nephews came on behalf of their father to demand a share of the kingdom and all but one of the king’s sons was killed in the ensuing fight. When Amphitryon attempted to resture the king’s stolen property, he instead accidentally killed Electryon.
The king’s brother charged the young man with murder, and Amphitryon was forced to flee to Thebes to be ritually cleaned of the crime by the king there. Despite the tragic death of her father, Alcmene was loyal and went with her would-be husband.
She refused to marry him, however, until the deaths of her father and brothers had been avenged. Amphitryon set off with her last surviving brother on an expedition against their cousins and uncle.
Amphitryon had been away for some time when Zeus set a scheme in motion to win the lovely Alcmene for himself. He disguised himself as her fiance and went to her bedroom in the middle of the night.
Believing Amphitryon had returned victorious and avenged her family, Alcmene accepted him as her husband. She spent three nights with the man she believed to be Amphitryon but was actually Zeus in disguise.
On the fourth night, when Amphitryon came to her room he acted surprised at her casual greeting. This was the real Amphitryon, who had been sailing for Thebes when Zeus had put on his disguise.
The pair learned from the famous seer, Tiresias, the truth of what had happened. They also soon learned that Alcmene was pregnant.
When she gave birth to twins, it was accepted that one had been fathered by her husband while the other was the son of Zeus. They named the boys Iphicles and Alcides.
They had no way of knowing which twin was the son of Zeus until the children were eight months old. Hera, always jealous of her husband’s many affairs, sent two serpents into the babies’ crib to kill them both.
Iphicles cried and tried to crawl away from the snakes, but Alcides seized the serpents and strangled them. This early proof of his strength and heroism settled the question of his parentage.
Almene renamed her son Heracles, Hercules in Latin, in an attempt to pacify Hera. The question of his father settled, Tiresias prophesied that the serpents Hera sent would be the first of many monsters Zeus’s son would slay over the course of his life.
According to Homer, when Alcmene went into labor Zeus announced to the gods of Olympus that a child of his line would soon be born that would become king over all around him. When Hera heard this she was furious.
Zeus’s wife had long since grown tired of her husband’s many affairs. Women such as Io and Semele had already learned that the queen of the gods could take horrible vengeance on the women who consorted with Zeus.
So when Hera heard that Zeus’s next descendent would be a great king, she sought to make sure it would not be the son of Alcmene. She enlisted the aid of her daughter, Ilithyia, who was the goddess of childbirth.
First she delayed Alcmene’s labor, preventing the twins from being born. Then she hurried to Tiryns where Nicippe, the wife of the usurper king, was also pregnant.
Hera forced Nicippe to go into labor two months early. Her son, Eurystheus, was born shortly before Alcmene’s children.
As a grandson of Perseus, Eurystheus was also a descendent of Zeus. According to Zeus’s proclamation this meant that he would become a great king instead of Alcmene’s son.
This interference not only led to Eurystheus growing up to hold the throne of Tiryns and Mycenae, but also gave Hera an ally in her persecution of Zeus’s child.
More than any of Zeus’s other mortal children, Hera held a life-long animosity toward Hercules. Her intervention in his birth and attempted assassination of him as an infant were only the beginnings of her attempts to destroy the great hero.
When he began to make a name for himself as a fighter despite her interference, Hera struck Hercules with madness, causing him to kill his own wife and young children.
In penance, Hercules was told by an oracle to enter into the service of the king of Tiryns. What he did not know was that both that king, Eurystheus, and the oracle were in the service of his stepmother.
Fueled by her jealousy, Hera devised a series of grueling tasks for Hercules to complete to earn his atonement. They were not only meant to test the hero; they were designed to be deadly.
Hera was well-known for punishing her husband’s mistresses and the children born from his affairs, but her hatred of Hercules stands out for its length and intensity. One of the most constant themes of the legends of Hercules is Hera’s interference.
So why did Hera hold such particular animosity toward Hercules?
The reason may be not only because he was a living reminds of Zeus’s affair, but also the way in which the affair had been conducted.
Alcmene was repeatedly described as being an exceptionally loyal woman, devoted to both her family and her husband. Her loyalty to Amphitryon may have been the very reason her son was so despised by his stepmother.
Hera was the goddess of marriage and, ironically considering her husband’s proclivities, presided over the proper arrangement of marital relations.
To seduce Alcmene, Zeus had gone beyond his usual disguises. She was so loyal to her soon-to-be husband that the only way Zeus could spend the night with her was by tricking her into believing he was her betrothed.
This perversion of marriage by Zeus would have been exceptionally galling to Hera as marriage was her domain. He had not only had an affair, but had done so under the guise of a proper and respectable relationship.
In the Greek world women were bound by their marriage vows, but it was considered normal for husbands to have other lovers. In the birth of Heracles, Alcmene had been entirely faithful to her husband, but Zeus had used that very loyalty to trick her.
Hercules was therefore not only a reminder of Zeus’s infidelity. His birth was a result of Zeus using Alcmene’s own loyalty and devotion, traits Hera embodied in wives, against her.
The seduction of Alcmene was more than just another affair by Zeus. It was a perversion of marriage and of her status as an engaged woman that would have been particularly insulting to Hera as the goddess of the marital union.
Hercules was a son of Zeus, one of many heroes born from the Olympian king’s affairs. In fact his own great-grandfather, Perseus, had been another of Zeus’s mortal sons.
His mother, Alcmene, was noted for her loyalty and devotion to both her father and her intended husband, a general named Amphitryon. She was so loyal that the only way Zeus could seduce her was by pretending to be her husband who had just returned from war.
From the time of his birth, Hera was particularly antagonistic toward him. She delayed Alcmene’s labor to prevent Zeus’s proclimation that a king would be born from applying to his son and even tried to kill Hercules and his twin brother as infants.
Hera’s animosity toward Hercules shaped his legends throughout his life. His twelve labors, notably, were orchestrated by his stepmother as a direct result of the murderous madness she had inflicted him with.
Hera was known for being jealous and vindictive toward her husband’s mistresses and children, but her hatred of Hercules was noteworthy. Even when he was renamed in her honor, she seemed to have a special vendetta against him.
The hatred Hera felt for Alcmene’s son may have been because of the circumstances under which he was conceived. While Zeus had seduced many women, his time with Alcmene was a violation of that woman’s devotion and loyalty.
As the goddess of marriage, Hera would be particularly insulted by Zeus’s actions toward Alcmene. Hercules was not only a result of Zeus’s affair, but of a violation of Alcmene’s loyalty to her husband and faithfulness as a wife.
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Mike Greenberg, PhD
My name is Mike and for as long as I can remember (too long!) I have been in love with all things related to Mythology. I am the owner and chief researcher at this site. My work has also been published on Buzzfeed and most recently in Time magazine. Please like and share this article if you found it useful.