1. The life of Perseus (fl. c. 1300 BCE) is largely mythological, as befits the founder of a legendary dynasty. He was reputed to be the son of Zeus; other versions stem from the later addition of earlier generations to the genealogy of this family. Perseus was in all accounts the son of Danae, an eponym of the family or tribal name Danaoi, who held the core cities of Argolis, including Mykenai, Tiryns, Midea, and probably Argos. Despite her later role as a wronged princess, Danae probably began as simply a nymph and consort of Zeus, like so many other eponymous female ancestors. Perseus is the male founder of the family (for Greek culture of course assigned the role of family-founder to males).
The original reason for his quest is therefore totally obscure; it will suffice to say that he set out on a quest. It seems the object of the quest was not the head of a Gorgon named Medousa, but the gorgonion, a sort of death’s-head specter sent by the Queen of the Underworld as a summons into death. (According to the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, the name of the star Algol comes from an Arabic translation of this word.) So Perseus presumably travelled to a place appropriate for the capture of such a thing, perhaps one of the entrances to the Underworld that are supposed to have existed on or around the Greek coastline. The identity of his bride Andromede may support this.
Andromede was the daughter of Kepheus and Kassiepeia, and niece of Phineus. The names of her father and uncle are reportedly eponyms for Arcadian towns (Kaphyai and Pheneos), and in fact the name of Kepheus is found among a largely eponymous (and probably Argive) genealogy of Arcadian kings. There is reason to believe that this Phineus is the same as the aged one found in the story of Iason and the Argo, who lives near an infested lake reminiscent of Stymphalia in Arcadia. It seems likely that Andromede was originally thought of as an Arcadian, rather than an exotic Aithiopian, princess. And if Perseus was making a journey to a southern cape such as Tainaron, he might indeed have passed through Arcadia, which was during his time still largely wild and full of natural dangers, even aside from the mythological ones he would have had to face.
Whatever transpired in Arcadia (or wherever), Perseus returned to Mykenai with Andromede and ruled there. Of their children, only three sons may be confidently included:
2. Elektryon may be presumed to have succeeded Perseus as king of Mykenai. He was certainly king when he and his nephew Amphitryon (see no. 5 below) had a dispute over cattle won (stolen) in a raid against defeated wartime enemies. In the course of the argument, Elektryon was accidentally or deliberately killed.
Elektryon and his brothers are reputed to have married daughters of Pelops, king of Pisatis, but the chronology of this is questionable. Also, in the era of the political genealogists, this was a standard technique for rendering one family subordinate to another: in this case, the family of Perseus to that of Pelops. Whoever his wife was, the couple had a single daughter and a series of sons who were all killed in the war that led to Elektryon’s own death:
In addition, Elektryon had a single son with an anonymous woman of Midea:
3. Alkaios seems to have died during Elektryon’s reign, after siring two children:
4. When Elektryon was killed, Sthenelos took the throne and banished Amphitryon. After his long reign, he left a son to rule after him:
5. At the time of Elektryon’s death, his daughter Alkmene was engaged to be married to Amphitryon, and she joined him in exile. (They probably did not go as far as Thebai, since that element of the story was added to explain the supposed presence of their son at Thebai later.) However, she refused to consummate their marriage until Amphitryon had avenged the deaths of her brothers. The myth recounts that as he finished doing so, Zeus took on his likeness and seduced Alkmene; when Amphitryon returned, Alkmene thought he had already been home for some time. Twins were conceived, and as both are given as sons of Amphtryon, we should perhaps conclude that Zeus was involved in some way other than literal, physical paternity. Whatever the case, the birth of the twins would prove to be the defining event in the couple’s lives.
Both Alkmene and Amphitryon were strong of body and will, tall, brave, and beautiful. After the deaths of Amphitryon (in a military campaign) and both sons, the aged Alkmene pressed for the death of her family’s rival, Eurystheus, still king in Mykenai.
Children of Alkmene and Amphitryon:
6. Likymnios of Midea was a lifelong ally of Amphitryon and Herakles, and was ultimately killed in one of their many campaigns. He had sons, who followed Herakles:
7. King Eurystheus of Mykenai is remembered as a weak and faithless man, a poor king, handed the throne by a twist of fate rather than for any merit of his own. Yet the fact remains that he was a grandson of Perseus, and ruled Mykenai at the height of its power, and it is possible that his character was exaggerated in a negative direction for contrast with his cousin and vassal, Herakles, who is usually the hero of his own story. Eurystheus inherited the throne from his father Sthenelos. He may have had a daughter, but her role in the story is to provide an example of the tarnished morality of this branch of the family, so it is doubtful whether we should include her here. Over their lives, the rivalry between Eurystheus and Herakles escalated, and after Herakles’s death, Eurystheus persecuted Alkmene and her grandchildren until they at last made war on his forces and killed him.
At this point in the saga a new royal family (the children of Pelops again) are inserted into the throne of Mykenai, but they most likely belong at Arene and Amyklai, much further west. More likely is the absorption of this part of the Argolid into the kingdom of Sikyon or that of Corinth; probably this is where King Proitos of Argos should enter the story.
8. The most popular and well-known of the ancient Greek heroes is Herakles of Tiryns. His lifelong home at Tiryns undoubtedly gives us the location of his parents’ exile. Herakles was bound in service to King Eurystheus, perhaps simply through the obligations of the nobility to the king, or perhaps as a result of divine ordinance. He was tall, strong, and beautiful like his parents, and reputedly endowed with divine physical strength. However, Herakles’s character is checkered, and his story includes both glorious achievements and hideous sins. Mythologically, this accords with his ultimate apotheosis, paralleling Ino of Thebai (and her alone). Also, it makes him (paradoxically) a more human hero than many: he embodies humanity’s failings as well as its virtues, rather than being annoyingly perfect.
Herakles’s marriage to a princess of Thebai is probably a secondary development based on a Theban fire festival at which the Alkeidai were honored. Alkeidai, meaning “sons of the valiant one,” was reinterpreted as “sons of Alkeides,” that being a name of Herakles.
Among his early adventures are several water- and swamp-related exploits in various corners of the Peloponnesos, and the connection of standing water to ill health contributed to Herakles’s status as a god of medicine. There are Mycenaean-era drainage works in at least some of the places involved, suggesting that these myths have both mythic and historical significance. Properly, the exploits of Herakles, like those of Ino, should fall in no particular order, but as they fall into several rather obvious categories, we may take them one group at a time.
After cleaning up the physical landscape of the Peloponnesos in Eurystheus’s name (and garnering much Arkadian support), Herakles decides to clean up the political landscape too, launching an extended military campaign against unruly kings in Lakonia, Messenia, and Elis. This was not full-scale military conquest: after defeating or killing the native kings, he set up native successors who were loyal to Mykenai. Presumably this had the effect of establishing or reestablishing the supremacy of Mykenai in the Peloponnesos, and this of course accords well with history: it is, after all, known as the Mycenaean period.
In mythology, the Greeks could speak with the dead in a particular religious ceremony known as a nekuia. This is the ceremony that Odysseus performs in Book Eleven of the Odyssey. Herakles is supposed to have journeyed to the Underworld on at least one occasion, and to have spoken with, among others, Meleagros of Kalydon. It seems likely that he was on this occasion using either the nekuia ceremony, or the northerly Underworld entrance by the river Acheron. Perhaps both were required. In any case, Herakles in this story arranged, for whatever reason, to court Meleagros’s sister, Deianeira. As her name, “destroyer of men,” suggests, Deianeira was a fearless warrior, one of a handful of native Greek warrior princesses found in Greek mythology. When she and Herakles met, each saw in the other for the first time a fitting match. They were wedded at Kalydon.
Herakles’s involvement with the family of Eurytos of Oichalia would lead to his undoing. The story goes that Herakles entered an archery contest, and won it, but was refused the prize, which was to be marriage to Eurytos’s daughter Ioleia. Since the chronology is unclear, it cannot be said that this was after the marriage to Deianeira, but that would help explain why Eurytos refused to hand Ioleia over. Later, Herakles was accused of stealing mares (or some form of livestock) from Eurytos. Eurytos’s son Iphitos visited Herakles at Tiryns, and tried to talk with him about the missing livestock as they walked along the top of a rampart. An argument ensued, and ended with Herakles (whether deliberately or not) tossing Iphitos from the wall, killing him. Now, of course, the accusation was murder, and murder of a personal guest at that. Many years passed, and Herakles did proper penance and went on with his life, but it happened that he attacked Oichalia with an army, and finally killed Eurytos. He now took Ioleia by force.
According to the story, Deianeira eventually heard about Ioleia, and decided to ensure her husband’s loyalty. In familiar versions, she was deceived into thinking a deadly poison was a love potion, and applied this to the tunic he had sent for; one wonders whether she was really so unaware of what she was doing, in the earliest form of the story. In any case, Herakles received the poisoned tunic, and being of divine strength he survived, but in continual, agonizing pain. This was so that his death could be connected to a fire-centered ritual from Mount Oita, where Herakles was said to have died. The story has him order a funeral pyre be built, and as he was about to be consumed by fire the gods rescued him and brought him to Olympos as an immortal, thus accomplishing the apotheosis. No other version of the death of Herakles is recorded.
Several children of Herakles and Deianeira are recorded, but the most famous, Hyllos, began as an unrelated Dorian eponym (of the phyle known as the Hylleis), and was added to the Herakles story to provide legitimacy to the invading Dorians; and the only daughter, Makaria, “blessed,” exists only to provide a sacrificial victim in the story of the defeat of Eurystheus. Three sons remain, names with no dialogue:
9. Herakles’s twin brother was Iphikles, recalled as a somewhat weaker subordinate to his brother. One suspects that he actually began as an older brother, given that his son is Herakles’s charioteer in many adventures:
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