Alcmene was a princess of the legendary ruling family of Argos. Her father held the cities of Tiryns and Mycenae, considered the economic and political centers of Greece in the Age of Heroes.
Like most princesses in legend, she was exceptionally beautiful. She was an ideal Greek woman who was devoted to her husband and family.
Even a woman as virtuous and wise as Alcmene, however, was no match for the desires of the gods. Zeus tricked Alcmene into sleeping with him by disguising himself as her husband.
The result of this deception was the birth of Hercules, the most famous hero in Greco-Roman mythology. His strength and courage earned him a place among the gods.
Alcmene was notable as the mortal woman who was the mother of a god. Her human family, however, was just as noteworthy.
Alcmene was part of a long genealogy of kings and heroes, a family tree which also included many gods. Through her the line of legendary succession continued with her heroic son’s descendents, who were said to rule major cities in Greece well into recorded history.
Alcmene was the daughter of Electryon, the king of Tiryns and Mycenae. These two cities were the most powerful of the time according to most legends, making Electryon one of the wealthiest men in the Greek world.
According to Hesiod, Alcmene was the most beautiful woman in the world, whose charms and grace rivalled even Aphrodite. She was also among the wisest people to ever live, male or female.
Alcmene was to be married to Amphitryon, a Theban general. Although she loved him, she swore that she would not be married until the deaths of her brothers were avenged.
All but one of Electryon’s sons had been killed on an expedition against the island of Taphos and Alcmene could not celebrate her marriage until they were avenged.
Amphitryon and Electryon both set off for Taphos to settle the score. Alcmene waited patiently for them to return so she and her betrothed could finally live as husband and wife.
Amphitryon returned some time later and came to Alcmene’s room late at night. Overjoyed to see him back from battle, Alcmene welcomed him home and they consummated their relationship.
The next day, however, Amphitryon walked into her room again and was confused when she acted as though they had seen each other the previous evening. He claimed that he was only just returning from Taphos.
The early return of Amphitryon had, in fact, been a trick. Alcmene had not spent the night with her husband, but with Zeus in disguise.
Zeus often sought the affections of beautiful young women in Greece. Knowing that Alcmene was loyal and devoted to Amphitryon, the god had resorted to deception in order to spend the night with her.
Realizing what had happened, Amphitryon placed no blame on Alcmene. The rest of their marriage was, by all accounts, happy.
Alcmene gave birth to twins, although her labor was long and arduous as a result of Hera’s interference. She and her husband knew that one of the boys was the son of Zeus, but had no way of telling which one until Hera interfered again.
When Zeus’s jealous wife sent a serpent to kill the babies, one cried in fear while the other strangled the snake. This made it clear which child was the son of the god, and he was renamed Heracles, Hercules in Latin, in a futile attempt to appease his stepmother.
Amphitryon was killed in battle, accompanied by his stepson who was a young man at the time. Alcmene went on to marry Rhadamanthus, a son of Zeus and brother of King Minos who was living in exile in Boeotia.
It was said that Alcmene lived to old age, and was still alive when her son was taken to Olympus as a god. Upon her death, varying traditions claimed she was either buried at Megara or was turned into a stone near Thebes.
The story of Alcmene and the birth of Hercules was not the only one in which a god used deception to seduce a human woman. Even in the view of the Greeks, however, his use of her husband’s form to trick a virtuous woman was seen as particularly shocking.
It was not the first time Zeus had been involved in the family line, however. In fact, Alcmene was his own great-granddaughter.
She was the daughter of Electryon, who had inherited the throne of Mycenae from his own father. Electryon’s father was Perseus, the great hero and Zeus’s son.
Because of both their political power and their connections to the gods the family tree of the ruling family of Tiryns and Mycenae, called the Argive genealogy, was often referenced in Greek legend. Zeus appeared on several times, as did other gods.
Alcmene’s seduction by Zeus and the birth of Hercules presented another link between the kings of Mycenae and the gods of Olympus. In fact, the birth had been prophesied to Io many generations before when she herself was being pursued by Zeus.
Io’s son went on to be a mythical king of Egypt. Several generations later, one of his descendents returned to Greece to found Tiryns.
The family tree of Hercules was not just populated by gods and heroes. The ruling families of Greece typically intermarried, while junior branches founded new dynasties and colonies, so the Argive genealogy was connected to virtually every major kingdom and city in the known world.
This family tree continued to be important long after the Age of Heroes. Important figures in historical Greece and Rome continued to trace their ancestry back to figures in the Argive genealogy.
For rulers, this gave them additional authority and legitimacy. As descendents of gods their power was ordained by birth and less open to scrutiny.
The genealogy also formed a basis for the often fleeting partnerships between the various city-states of Greece. Ancient shared ancestry, even legendary, formed bonds between rival kings and their neighbors.
When King Electryon died, legend had it that his throne was claimed by his brother. His nephew Eurystheus was the king who sent Hercules, his cousin, on his famous twelve labors.
While Hercules never ruled the lands of Argos, the line of succession continued through him. His many descendents eventually established dynasties in both Corinth and Sparta.
The kings of Greece in the time of Homer and Hesiod traced their ancestry to Hercules and, through him, to Zeus. While Alcmene’s son was never a king himself, she still formed an essential link in the genealogies of many of classical Greece’s most important families.
Alcmene was a princess of one of Greece’s most powerful regions who was known for her beauty and intelligence. As the granddaughter of Perseus, she had a strong connection to the heroes and gods of legend.
Alcmene’s beauty attracted the attention of Zeus, but she was devoted to her husband Amphitryon. While her husband was away at war, Zeus took his form to trick Alcmene into sleeping with him.
Alcmene gave birth to twin sons, one of which was confirmed to be the son of Zeus when he exhibited exceptional strength and courage in infancy. She and Amphitryon renamed the child Heracles, Hercules in Latin, in a failed attempt to win the favor of Zeus’s jealous wife.
Alcmene outlived her husband and married into the royal family of Crete. As the wife of Rhadamanthus she became Zeus’s daughter-in-law.
Her family connections to Zeus and the other gods of Olympus were far more complicated than even this, however. The Argive genealogy, which traced the ruling family of Argos, could be traced back to Zeus through Io and included the rules of virtually every Greek state and the neighboring countries of the Mediterannean.
This family tree continued to be important well after the age of the legends, however. Historic kings of Greece claimed continued succession through Alcmene and her heroic son.
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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.