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Zeus sat alone at the breakfast table, musing on Hera’s dream long into the morning. Someone would rise up to save the immortals. Someone from the line of Perseus. It was probable, he told himself, that it was nothing but an impertinent fantasy sent by MORPHEUS to delude and confound. But there was a chance, a slim one, perhaps, but a chance nonetheless, that the dream was indeed a warning – a prophecy. There would be no harm in making preparations. Besides, a little fun could be had along the way.

So. The line of Perseus. Where were we …?

Zeus looked down on Tiryns, the capital of Mycenae. The royal pair of Perseus and Andromeda themselves had been catasterized, raised to the firmament as constellations; but were there, Zeus wondered, any direct descendants who might give birth to a hero whose bloodline would accord with the conditions of Hera’s dream?

There seemed to be three obvious candidates. One grandson of Perseus and Andromeda was STHENELUS, the current King of Mycenae. He was married to a young woman called NICIPPE. The couple was as yet childless.

The second living grandson was AMPHITRYON, who had fallen in love with and married his cousin, another grandchild of Perseus and Andromeda, the beautiful ALCMENE. They too were without issue.

It was possible, then, that one of these couples might produce a great hero. Now Alcmene, Zeus could not help noticing, happened to be very, very, very beautiful. Suppose she were to bear my son, not Amphitryon’s, he asked himself. Since Alcmene was herself a grandchild of Perseus, such a child would be of his line, all right and tight, and thus satisfy the demands of Hera’s prophetic vision. But it would also be a son of Zeus and therefore naturally constructed out of strong heroic stuff.

The more Zeus thought about it, the more he liked the idea. It would provide a hero that fitted the requirements of Hera’s dream and give him pleasure along the way. But how to impregnate Alcmene? She and Amphitryon did not live in Tiryns, but all the way over in Thebes. The reason for this was complicated, but interesting.

While hunting, Amphitryon had accidentally killed Alcmene’s father ELECTRYON (who was, of course, his uncle as well as his father-in-law). The killing of blood relations, I need not remind you, whether accidental or not, was held by the Greek mind to be the darkest and most unforgivable of all crimes. Amphitryon and Alcmene fled to Thebes where the ruler CREON expiated him for this blood crime. Cleansed and purified, Amphitryon left his wife behind in Thebes to return to Mycenae and settle a complex series of dynastic difficulties which Alcmene herself had demanded he do.

At the moment, therefore, Alcmene was alone in the grand villa in Thebes that Creon had lent the couple. She was a loyal, loving wife, so rather than manifest himself to her as an eagle, a goat, a shower of golden rain, a bear, a bull or any of the other animals or phenomena he had impersonated in the course of his lustful adventuring, Zeus elected to appear to her in the form of her beloved husband Amphitryon himself. At the moment, therefore, Alcmene was alone in the grand villa in Thebes that Creon had lent the couple. She was a loyal, loving wife, so rather than manifest himself to her as an eagle, a goat, a shower of golden rain, a bear, a bull or any of the other animals or phenomena he had impersonated in the course of his lustful adventuring, Zeus elected to appear to her in the form of her beloved husband Amphitryon himself.

Suitably armed and dusty from the road, Zeus-Amphitryon arrived one evening at the villa and told the delighted Alcmene that he had prevailed in Mycenae. Entranced by the details of how cleverly he had settled the difficulties she had sent him to solve, and thrilled to have him safely home, she welcomed him to her bed. Zeus stretched out the one night into the length of three, the better to enjoy himself. When morning finally came, he left.

Amphitryon – the real Amphitryon – returned that morning from Mycenae and was astonished to discover that Alcmene already knew every detail of his triumphant campaign.

‘But you told me last night, you dear, silly goose of a husband,’ she said. ‘And then we made love – and oh, how wonderfully we did so! We made love time and time again and with such fire and force. Let’s do it again.’

Amphitryon had been on the dusty road between Tiryns and Thebes for some days and had been so looking forward to just such amatory excitements that he put the oddity of her comments aside and leapt gratefully onto the bed.

When they had finished, Alcmene could not help remarking on the difference between Amphitryon’s love-making that morning and the previous night.

‘You’re joking,’ said Amphitryon. ‘Last night I was still on the road. Ask my troops.’

‘But …’

They had a long conversation between themselves and decided that only TIRESIAS was wise and insightful enough to be able to shed light on the mystery. Tiresias saw nothing with his eyes but everything with his prophetic mind.

The blind Theban seer listened to their separate accounts of the events of the last day. ‘The first visitor to your bed was the Sky Father, Zeus,’ he told Alcmene. ‘And now something remarkable is happening inside you.’

He was quite right. Having slept with Zeus and Amphitryon in rapid succession, she had been made pregnant by each of them. Twins were forming in her womb, two sons – one fathered by Zeus and the other by Amphitryon. This phenomenon of polyspermy is common enough in littering mammals like cats, dogs and pigs, but is rare in humans. Rare, but not unknown. It rejoices in the name heteropaternal superfecundation.

Up on Mount Olympus none of this was lost on Hera. Never had the Queen of Heaven been so infuriated by one of her husband’s dalliances. In her mind his affairs with SEMELE, GANYMEDE, IO, CALLISTO, Danaë, LEDA and EUROPA were as nothing to this monstrous, humiliating betrayal. Maybe it was one infidelity too many, the amorous straw that broke the camel’s back, maybe she felt Zeus’s real affections had been engaged, maybe she felt most especially mortified because it had all come about on account of the dream she had shared with him. For whatever reason, an implacably vengeful Hera watched Alcmene grow closer and closer to term and resolved to do anything and everything she could to destroy the fruit of so insulting a union.

Hera could rely – of course she could – on her husband’s vanity to provide the first opportunity for revenge. It came the night before Alcmene was due to give birth, when the King of the Gods was in his cups on Mount Olympus. Zeus, being Zeus, could not help himself.

‘The next child born of the house of Perseus will rule all Argolis,’ he blurted out.

‘You mean that, husband?’ said Hera quickly.

‘Certainly I mean it.’

‘Swear it before all.’

‘Really?’

‘If you mean it, swear it.’

‘Very well,’ said Zeus, puzzled by this earnestness, but confident that nothing could go wrong. Alcmene was ready to give birth at any moment, after all. ‘I proclaim before you,’ he said in a loud, clear voice, ‘that the next child to be born in the line of Perseus shall rule the Argolid.’

You will remember Perseus’s other grandson in Mycenae, Sthenelus? Hera knew that his wife Nicippe had also become pregnant, although she was only seven months on. That circumstance would have been enough to stymie most people, but Hera was not most people. She was the goddess of marital fidelity, the Queen of Heaven and, more than that, a wronged wife. While she had a will – and no one ever had a keener one – she would find a way.

She summoned her daughter EILEITHYIA, goddess of childbirth and commanded her to go at once to Thebes, sit herself on a chair outside Alcmene’s bedchamber with her legs firmly crossed, and to remain in that position until further notice. This posture, in such close proximity to the pregnant woman, would prevent Alcmene from opening her own legs to give birth, which Hera knew must in time suffocate and kill the children trapped in her womb. Meanwhile, she went to Tiryns with a potion to induce Nicippe to give birth to her son by Sthenelus prematurely.

A complicated, cruel and distasteful scheme, but clever and effective. Such were the powers of Eileithyia that Alcmene, writhing in pain, was indeed unable to open her legs. In Tiryns, Nicippe was successfully delivered of a healthy boy, whom she and Sthenelus called EURYSTHEUS.

Hera returned to Olympus in triumph. ‘My dear husband,’ she trilled. ‘Prepare to be overjoyed. A boy has been born, a direct descendant of Perseus, no less!’

Zeus smiled broadly. ‘Ah, yes. I rather thought that might be the case.’

‘Such delightful news,’ trilled Hera. ‘I’m so happy for the couple. Sthenelus is a grandson of Perseus, of course, but Nicippe’s lineage is exemplary too. Quite a pedigree. Descended not only from Pelops but also –’

‘Wait, wait, wait … Nicippe? Sthenelus? What in hell’s name have they got to do with anything?’

‘Why, didn’t I say?’ Hera looked surprised. ‘It is Nicippe and Sthenelus who have given the world a son.’

‘B-but …’

‘Was there ever such splendid news? And now, just as you have sworn, this boy – Eurystheus, by name – son of Sthenelus and a grandson of Perseus will grow up to rule the Argolid.’

‘But …’

Just as you have sworn,’ Hera repeated in her sweetest tones. ‘In front of everyone. And I know you will ensure that no harm will ever come to the boy. For your word is law and mighty Cosmos would cry out and Olympus would crack and the gods fall should you be so foolish as to go against your own word.’

‘I … I …’

‘Mouth is open, darling, and there’s a string of drool dribbling from your beard right into your lap. It’s most unappealing. Would you like Ganymede to find you a napkin?’

Zeus had been outmanoeuvred in masterly fashion. Hera knew, and he knew, that he would be forced to honour his oath and allow this wholly unlooked-for grandson of Perseus, this Eurystheus, to rule over the Argolid – the united lands of Mycenae, Corinth, Arcadia and Argos. All the plans Zeus had formed for his son by Alcmene now threatened to come to nothing. The wretched boy would be stillborn and Hera would win. No warring husband and wife ever let the other win in a battle of wills if they could help it, but Zeus could not think what to do next. He sat on his throne and brooded darkly. THE LINE OF PERSEUS

Zeus sat alone at the breakfast table, musing on Hera’s dream long into the morning. Someone would rise up to save the immortals. Someone from the line of Perseus. It was probable, he told himself, that it was nothing but an impertinent fantasy sent by MORPHEUS to delude and confound. But there was a chance, a slim one, perhaps, but a chance nonetheless, that the dream was indeed a warning – a prophecy. There would be no harm in making preparations. Besides, a little fun could be had along the way.

So. The line of Perseus. Where were we …?

Zeus looked down on Tiryns, the capital of Mycenae. The royal pair of Perseus and Andromeda themselves had been catasterized, raised to the firmament as constellations; but were there, Zeus wondered, any direct descendants who might give birth to a hero whose bloodline would accord with the conditions of Hera’s dream?

There seemed to be three obvious candidates. One grandson of Perseus and Andromeda was STHENELUS, the current King of Mycenae. He was married to a young woman called NICIPPE. The couple was as yet childless.

The second living grandson was AMPHITRYON, who had fallen in love with and married his cousin, another grandchild of Perseus and Andromeda, the beautiful ALCMENE. They too were without issue.

It was possible, then, that one of these couples might produce a great hero. Now Alcmene, Zeus could not help noticing, happened to be very, very, very beautiful. Suppose she were to bear my son, not Amphitryon’s, he asked himself. Since Alcmene was herself a grandchild of Perseus, such a child would be of his line, all right and tight, and thus satisfy the demands of Hera’s prophetic vision. But it would also be a son of Zeus and therefore naturally constructed out of strong heroic stuff.

The more Zeus thought about it, the more he liked the idea. It would provide a hero that fitted the requirements of Hera’s dream and give him pleasure along the way. But how to impregnate Alcmene? She and Amphitryon did not live in Tiryns, but all the way over in Thebes. The reason for this was complicated, but interesting.

While hunting, Amphitryon had accidentally killed Alcmene’s father ELECTRYON (who was, of course, his uncle as well as his father-in-law). The killing of blood relations, I need not remind you, whether accidental or not, was held by the Greek mind to be the darkest and most unforgivable of all crimes. Amphitryon and Alcmene fled to Thebes where the ruler CREON expiated him for this blood crime. Cleansed and purified, Amphitryon left his wife behind in Thebes to return to Mycenae and settle a complex series of dynastic difficulties which Alcmene herself had demanded he do.

At the moment, therefore, Alcmene was alone in the grand villa in Thebes that Creon had lent the couple. She was a loyal, loving wife, so rather than manifest himself to her as an eagle, a goat, a shower of golden rain, a bear, a bull or any of the other animals or phenomena he had impersonated in the course of his lustful adventuring, Zeus elected to appear to her in the form of her beloved husband Amphitryon himself.

Suitably armed and dusty from the road, Zeus-Amphitryon arrived one evening at the villa and told the delighted Alcmene that he had prevailed in Mycenae. Entranced by the details of how cleverly he had settled the difficulties she had sent him to solve, and thrilled to have him safely home, she welcomed him to her bed. Zeus stretched out the one night into the length of three, the better to enjoy himself. When morning finally came, he left.

Amphitryon – the real Amphitryon – returned that morning from Mycenae and was astonished to discover that Alcmene already knew every detail of his triumphant campaign.

‘But you told me last night, you dear, silly goose of a husband,’ she said. ‘And then we made love – and oh, how wonderfully we did so! We made love time and time again and with such fire and force. Let’s do it again.’

Amphitryon had been on the dusty road between Tiryns and Thebes for some days and had been so looking forward to just such amatory excitements that he put the oddity of her comments aside and leapt gratefully onto the bed.

When they had finished, Alcmene could not help remarking on the difference between Amphitryon’s love-making that morning and the previous night.

‘You’re joking,’ said Amphitryon. ‘Last night I was still on the road. Ask my troops.’

‘But …’

They had a long conversation between themselves and decided that only TIRESIAS was wise and insightful enough to be able to shed light on the mystery. Tiresias saw nothing with his eyes but everything with his prophetic mind.

The blind Theban seer listened to their separate accounts of the events of the last day. ‘The first visitor to your bed was the Sky Father, Zeus,’ he told Alcmene. ‘And now something remarkable is happening inside you.’

He was quite right. Having slept with Zeus and Amphitryon in rapid succession, she had been made pregnant by each of them. Twins were forming in her womb, two sons – one fathered by Zeus and the other by Amphitryon. This phenomenon of polyspermy is common enough in littering mammals like cats, dogs and pigs, but is rare in humans. Rare, but not unknown. It rejoices in the name heteropaternal superfecundation.

Up on Mount Olympus none of this was lost on Hera. Never had the Queen of Heaven been so infuriated by one of her husband’s dalliances. In her mind his affairs with SEMELE, GANYMEDE, IO, CALLISTO, Danaë, LEDA and EUROPA were as nothing to this monstrous, humiliating betrayal. Maybe it was one infidelity too many, the amorous straw that broke the camel’s back, maybe she felt Zeus’s real affections had been engaged, maybe she felt most especially mortified because it had all come about on account of the dream she had shared with him. For whatever reason, an implacably vengeful Hera watched Alcmene grow closer and closer to term and resolved to do anything and everything she could to destroy the fruit of so insulting a union.

Hera could rely – of course she could – on her husband’s vanity to provide the first opportunity for revenge. It came the night before Alcmene was due to give birth, when the King of the Gods was in his cups on Mount Olympus. Zeus, being Zeus, could not help himself.

‘The next child born of the house of Perseus will rule all Argolis,’ he blurted out.

‘You mean that, husband?’ said Hera quickly.

‘Certainly I mean it.’

‘Swear it before all.’

‘Really?’

‘If you mean it, swear it.’

‘Very well,’ said Zeus, puzzled by this earnestness, but confident that nothing could go wrong. Alcmene was ready to give birth at any moment, after all. ‘I proclaim before you,’ he said in a loud, clear voice, ‘that the next child to be born in the line of Perseus shall rule the Argolid.’

You will remember Perseus’s other grandson in Mycenae, Sthenelus? Hera knew that his wife Nicippe had also become pregnant, although she was only seven months on. That circumstance would have been enough to stymie most people, but Hera was not most people. She was the goddess of marital fidelity, the Queen of Heaven and, more than that, a wronged wife. While she had a will – and no one ever had a keener one – she would find a way.

She summoned her daughter EILEITHYIA, goddess of childbirth and commanded her to go at once to Thebes, sit herself on a chair outside Alcmene’s bedchamber with her legs firmly crossed, and to remain in that position until further notice. This posture, in such close proximity to the pregnant woman, would prevent Alcmene from opening her own legs to give birth, which Hera knew must in time suffocate and kill the children trapped in her womb. Meanwhile, she went to Tiryns with a potion to induce Nicippe to give birth to her son by Sthenelus prematurely.

A complicated, cruel and distasteful scheme, but clever and effective. Such were the powers of Eileithyia that Alcmene, writhing in pain, was indeed unable to open her legs. In Tiryns, Nicippe was successfully delivered of a healthy boy, whom she and Sthenelus called EURYSTHEUS.

Hera returned to Olympus in triumph. ‘My dear husband,’ she trilled. ‘Prepare to be overjoyed. A boy has been born, a direct descendant of Perseus, no less!’

Zeus smiled broadly. ‘Ah, yes. I rather thought that might be the case.’

‘Such delightful news,’ trilled Hera. ‘I’m so happy for the couple. Sthenelus is a grandson of Perseus, of course, but Nicippe’s lineage is exemplary too. Quite a pedigree. Descended not only from Pelops but also –’

‘Wait, wait, wait … Nicippe? Sthenelus? What in hell’s name have they got to do with anything?’

‘Why, didn’t I say?’ Hera looked surprised. ‘It is Nicippe and Sthenelus who have given the world a son.’

‘B-but …’

‘Was there ever such splendid news? And now, just as you have sworn, this boy – Eurystheus, by name – son of Sthenelus and a grandson of Perseus will grow up to rule the Argolid.’

‘But …’

Just as you have sworn,’ Hera repeated in her sweetest tones. ‘In front of everyone. And I know you will ensure that no harm will ever come to the boy. For your word is law and mighty Cosmos would cry out and Olympus would crack and the gods fall should you be so foolish as to go against your own word.’

‘I … I …’

‘Mouth is open, darling, and there’s a string of drool dribbling from your beard right into your lap. It’s most unappealing. Would you like Ganymede to find you a napkin?’

Zeus had been outmanoeuvred in masterly fashion. Hera knew, and he knew, that he would be forced to honour his oath and allow this wholly unlooked-for grandson of Perseus, this Eurystheus, to rule over the Argolid – the united lands of Mycenae, Corinth, Arcadia and Argos. All the plans Zeus had formed for his son by Alcmene now threatened to come to nothing. The wretched boy would be stillborn and Hera would win. No warring husband and wife ever let the other win in a battle of wills if they could help it, but Zeus could not think what to do next. He sat on his throne and brooded darkly.

Fortunately for Zeus, and for history, Alcmene was as lovely in manner as she was in looks. Good people attract loyal, loving friends and none were more loyal nor more loving than the two women who attended her, GALANTHIS and HISTORIS. For seven days and seven nights they had watched their poor friend and mistress writhing in pain at the growing burden inside her. At last Historis, who was a daughter of Tiresias and highly intelligent, conceived a plan.

Outside the door Eileithyia sat as stiff as a statue, legs tightly crossed, wondering how long it would be before she could safely assume that the baby inside Alcmene had died and she would be able stand up and let the circulation flow back into her thighs.

Suddenly, there came from inside the bedchamber the sound of screams. Could this be the news she was waiting for? The doors to Alcmene’s room were flung open and Galanthis burst out, clapping her hands and shouting, not with despair but with joy.

‘Spread the news, spread the news!’ she exclaimed. ‘Our mistress has given birth! Oh happy day, happy day!’

Dumbfounded, Eileithyia jumped up. ‘This cannot be!’ she cried. ‘Show me!’

Too late did she realise that she had been tricked into standing and uncrossing her legs. Through the open door she saw Alcmene, attended by Historis, now open her legs and push. First one, then another baby boy emerged and filled the air with healthy wailing cries. Wrapping her garments tight about her, Eileithyia fled the scene. She knew well how great Hera’s wrath would be.

Wild indeed was Hera’s rage when she found out what had happened. With a fierce flick of her hand she turned the impudent scheming Galanthis into a weasel.

She had never felt so cheated and humiliated. From that moment on she swore eternal enmity against Alcmene’s son by Zeus.

But which of the twins was Zeus’s and which Amphitryon’s? They were both fine-looking babies, vigorous, strong and – as you might expect, being eight days overdue – hefty. The doting parents named the twin first from the womb Alcides, in honour of his grandfather Alcaeus, son of Perseus, the other they called IPHICLES. They could not tell by looking which was the son of a mortal and which the son of a god.

They would discover which of the two was the son of Zeus soon enough.

SNAKES ALIVE

The villa which King Creon had given over to Amphitryon and Alcmene for their use while resident in Thebes stood quietly in the moonlight. Only the most attentive sentry, and one with the most finely tuned senses, would have observed a slight parting of the tall grass of the outer perimeter as two turquoise snakes slid across the lawn in the direction of the terrace.

Hera wished to lose no time in unleashing her vengeance on the insolent mortal baby that had dared to commit the crime of allowing itself to be born. Not concerned with which of the twins was her husband’s baseborn progeny, she had sent the two venomous serpents to the kill them both.

A concerned weasel watched powerlessly as they slithered along the terrace and towards the room with the sleeping infants. There was nothing that Galanthis could do but hope and pray.

Amphitryon and Alcmene were awoken early the next morning by the hysterical shrieks of Historis.

‘Oh come, come!’ she urged them, pulling the sheets from their bed.

Alarmed, they followed the squealing girl to the twins’ nursery, where the most extraordinary sight met their eyes. The two babies lay in their cot. The face of one was screwed up with fear and it was purple from screaming.

The other lay on his back, kicking his legs in the air. In each dimpled fist he clutched a strangled viper. He looked up at his parents as they peered down and waved the dead snakes at them like toys, gurgling with delight.

‘Well,’ said Amphitryon, looking from one infant to the other. ‘I think we can safely say now which is the son of Zeus.’

‘Alcides.’

‘Exactly.’

‘This is the work of Hera,’ said Alcmene, picking up Iphicles and quieting his frightened sobs. ‘She sent those snakes. She will stop at nothing to destroy my boys.’

‘It isn’t fair on Iphicles,’ raged Amphitryon, chucking his true son under the chin. ‘We must consult Tiresias again.’

They made their way that night to seek his advice. While they were gone, the god Hermes stole silently into the nursery, took Alcides from his cot, flew with him up to Olympus and gave him to the waiting Athena.

The two gods crept round to where Hera was sleeping. Athena gently dropped the baby Alcides on her breast. At once he began to gorge himself. But he guzzled at her teat with such vigour that Hera woke up with a cry of pain. She looked down, plucked Alcides from her nipple and threw him disgustedly from her. Milk sprayed from her nipple in a great arc across the night sky, imprinting it with stars. Stars which, from that moment, would be known as the Milky Way.

Hermes had deftly caught the baby when Hera cast him aside and he now sped off back to Thebes to replace Alcides in his cot before anyone noticed he was gone.

The whole botched affair had been Zeus’s idea. He wanted his son Alcides to feed on Hera’s milk, which would make him immortal. His favourite son and daughter, Hermes and Athena, had done their best, but Alcides had ingested little more than a mouthful and none of them wanted to try that trick again.

In Tiresias’s temple, meanwhile, Alcmene and Amphitryon listened to the seer’s advice.

‘I have seen that Alcides will do marvellous things,’ he was saying. ‘Slay terrible monsters. Topple tyrants and found great dynasties. He will achieve fame such as no mortal has ever known. The other gods will help him, but Hera will harry and hound him without mercy.’

‘Is there nothing we can do to placate her?’ asked Alcmene.

Tiresias thought for a moment. ‘Well, there is one thing. Perhaps you could change the child’s name.’

‘Change his name?’ said Amphitryon. ‘How would that help?’

‘If you were to call him “Hera’s glory” for instance? “Hera’s pride”.’

And so it was decided. From now on Alcides would be called Heracles.

YOUTH AND UPBRINGING OF A HERO

Young Heracles grew up with his twin half-brother Iphicles. Amphitryon and Alcmene raised them as equals, but the speed with which Heracles put on height, weight and muscle separated the two boys very early in the minds of all who encountered them.

The twins received the kind of education usual for children of a royal house in those days. Chariot driving, javelin and discus throwing, track jumping and running were taught by Amphitryon. EURYTUS, King of Oechalia, the most famed bowman in Greece and a grandson of the archer god Apollo himself, taught the young Heracles to string a bow and shoot arrows with speed and accuracy. By the time he was ten, Heracles had already acquired a reputation as a fearsome runner, jumper, horseman, driver, thrower and archer. It was noticed, though, that despite the boy’s amiable and friendly nature, he also possessed a fiery and furious temper. When the red mist descended, he was ungovernable by all but his father.

As well as fostering physical prowess, rhetoric, mathematics and music were of the first importance in the education of noble young Greeks and it was a matter of pride amongst the better families to secure the finest teachers. LINUS, the brother of ORPHEUS and a fine musician himself, taught Heracles and Iphicles how to tune and play a lyre, how to compose and sing, how to tap out precise rhythms and how to dance. None of these graceful accomplishments came easily to the young Heracles, who hated how self-conscious, clumsy and uncoordinated he felt when he tried to sing in tune or move in time. The day came when Linus, infuriated by Heracles’ refusal to attend to his instructions, lifted a stick and brought it down on the boy’s back. A storm broke in Heracles’ mind: he grabbed the cane with a savage roar and jerked it towards him, bringing Linus’s face directly in front of his. He nodded down, cracking the tutor’s brow, and then picked him up and flung him across the room. Linus fell dead to the floor, the bones of his arms, legs and back all shattered.

The scandal was too great to be hushed up, but in the end Heracles was forgiven. Iphicles had been in the schoolroom too and told anyone who would listen that his brother had been sorely provoked. EUMOLPUS, a son of AUTOLYCUS, took over the music tuition. At the same time CASTOR himself, the twin of POLYDEUCES, and like Heracles the offspring of a divine heteropaternal superfecundation, offered to complete the youth’s training in weaponry and the manly arts.

The killing of Linus revealed that Heracles had a very short fuse, something that was to cause distress to him and many victims of his outbursts of temper in the years to come. The rest of his schooling revealed that … how shall we put it kindly? … It revealed that while nature and fate may have gifted Heracles with many fine attributes, wit and wisdom, craft and cunning were not foremost amongst them. He was, as we might say today, far from the brightest pixel on the screen. He was not stupid, not a brainless oaf by any means, but his real strength was … his real strength.

For what could be said with confidence and admiration, was that by the time he grew into his later teens Heracles was the tallest, broadest, strongest and fastest young man in the world. Those gods who championed him came forward now with signs of their favour, to equip him for a life of warfare, trials and endurance. Athena presented him with a robe, Poseidon gave him fine horses, Hermes a sword, Apollo a bow and arrows, HEPHAESTUS a most wondrous breastplate of pure gold.

The young man’s growing reputation was cemented by the slaying of a fierce lion on Mount Cithaeron when he was still only eighteen years old. For forty-nine days he tracked the terrible creature; while each night the King of Thespiae, the grateful Thespis, whose realm had suffered most from this dreadful scourge, rewarded Heracles for his heroic efforts by sending him each night one of his fifty daughters.

When at last the fiftieth day dawned, the lion was cornered and killed. That night, after enjoying the fiftieth bout of passion with the fiftieth daughter of the king, Heracles went home. Each daughter went on to give birth to a male child, the eldest and youngest girls bearing twins. A son for every week of the year. Heracles was as virile and potent in his love-making as in his killing.

On Heracles’ return, he single-handedly defended Thebes against an attack from King ERGINOS of Orchomenos. The people of Thebes had been proud enough of Heracles, but pride now turned to veneration. They revered him as the greatest Theban since their founder hero Cadmus. If they had their way, Heracles would rule over them as king. Thebes already had a king, Creon, who was smart and politic enough to offer Heracles the hand of his daughter Megara.

All seemed so sweet in the life of the young Heracles. His fame increased and spread and happy years passed, during which he fathered a son and daughter by Megara and grew to full manhood as a devoted husband and father, very likely the heir to the Theban throne.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

Heracles’ life in Thebes was almost modern in its rhythms. Each day he would kiss goodbye to his wife Megara and children and go off to work, killing monsters and toppling tyrants. Today’s commuter finds less drastic ways to defeat competitors and bestial colleagues perhaps – the dragons we slay may be more metaphorical than real – but the manner and routine is not so very different.

One fateful evening Heracles returned to the family villa to be met by two small but fierce and burning-eyed demons in the doorway. He charged them at once, grappled them to the ground, broke their backs and stamped on their screeching heads until they lay crushed and dead at his feet. Suddenly, a great dragon came screaming out of the house towards him, fire streaming from its mouth and nostrils. He rushed at it, closed his hands around its scaly neck and squeezed with all his strength. Only as the life went of the monster and it slipped dead to the floor did Hera lift the mist of delusion she had visited on him. Looking down, he now saw with appalling clarity that the dragon he had killed was his wife Megara and the two demons were his beloved children.

It was one of Hera’s cruellest interventions, and evidence of the unfathomable depth of her hatred. She had been growing ever more frustrated at the sight of her loathed enemy living so happy and fulfilled a life. She chose to strip Heracles down to a state of absolute nothingness, to take in one swift and irreversible moment everything that mattered to him. Not just those he loved most, but his reputation too. When news broke of what he had done, no one would speak to, or come near to, him. He was polluted. From hero to zero is a tired phrase today, but nobody before had so swiftly gone from universal love and admiration to loathing and contempt.

Heracles’ grief was overpowering. He wanted to die. But he knew that he must punish himself by undergoing an unrelenting penance. Only then would he feel fit to meet the souls of Megara and his children in the underworld. Without purification from a king, oracle, priest or priestess, those responsible for blood crimes had to attempt to cleanse themselves by a life of exile and atonement. If they failed to expiate their crimes, the Erinyes, the wild Furies, would rise up from Erebus and chase them down, flailing them with iron whips until they went mad.

Heracles exiled himself from Thebes, and went on his knees to Delphi to seek guidance.

‘To atone for his abominable crimes, Heracles must take himself to Tiryns and supplicate himself before the throne,’ the Pythia chanted.

Heracles could not know this, but the priestess had been entranced by Hera and the words were hers.

‘For ten years he must serve without question,’ the priestess continued. ‘Whatever he is told to do, Heracles must do. Whatever tasks he is set to perform, these must Heracles willingly undertake. Only then can he be free.’

Hera’s spirit left the priestess and the voices of Apollo and Athena now enthused her.

‘Do all that you are asked without stint, without complaint, and immortality will be yours. Your father has promised it.’

Heracles did not want immortality, but he knew he must obey in any case. He turned his feet towards the road leading to Tiryns, capital of Mycenae. Its king was the now fully-grown Eurystheus, Heracles’ cousin, the one whose premature birth had been induced by Hera all those years ago to ruin Zeus’s plan to secure the throne for Heracles.

Eurystheus had none of Heracles’ heroic attributes, none of his strength, spirit, generosity or air of command. He had grown up all too aware of the reputation of his stronger, finer and more popular cousin, and he had long smouldered with hatred, envy and resentment.

What self-control it took for Heracles to kneel in front of Eurystheus’s throne and beg for expiation we can only guess.

‘The filth of your unnatural crimes has revolted all people of feeling,’ said the king, savouring every moment. ‘You will not be worthy to live in the world of men until you have paid the full price. Ten tasks you will perform for me over ten years without assistance or payment. When you have completed the last of them I may be disposed to forgive you, embrace you as my cousin and allow you your freedom. Until then you are bound to me as my slave. The Queen of Heaven herself has ordained it. Is this understood?’

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