Pylos fresco
A fresco from the palace of Pylos, dated around 1300-1200 BC

Herakles now went for revenge to Pylos, because its king Neleus had refused to purify him after the murder of Iphitos, or because Neleus had been an ally of Augeias, or because Neleus had stolen the cattle of Geryones from him. In the battle at Pylos Herakles killed Neleus and eleven of his twelve sons; only Nestor, the youngest, was spared, since he had been sent away from home to be raised by the Gerenians.

One of Neleus’ sons, Periklymenos, had received from his grandfather Poseidon the ability to change himself into any kind of animal or tree; another source limits his choices to an eagle, ant, bee, or snake. Herakles swatted him with his club when he was a bee or a fly, or shot him with an arrow when he took the shape of an eagle.

During the same war Hera, Poseidon, and Hades were allies of Neleus, while Athena and Zeus helped Herakles. Ares fought on the side of Neleus until Herakles wounded him in the thigh with a spear thrust and forced him to withdraw. Herakles also wounded Hades in the shoulder with an arrow, and he shot Hera in the right breast with a three-pronged arrow that caused her “incurable pain.” The intensity of her suffering was due to the fact that Herakles tipped his arrows with the poison of the Hydra, the monster which Hera herself had raised against Herakles. By wounding Hera in the breast Herakles gained symbolic revenge for her rejection of him from her breast when he was an infant; his “retroactive” poisoning of her breast appropriately punishes her refusal to give him the nurturance he desired.

Herakles’ next foes were king Hippokoon of Sparta and his sons, who had been allies of Neleus and also had killed Herakles’ cousin Oionos, son of Alkmena’s brother Likymnios. While Oionos was looking at the palace of Hippokoon, a dog ran out and bit him; when he threw a stone at the dog, the sons of Hippokoon beat him to death with clubs. In one version Herakles was with Oionos in Sparta; the Spartans wounded him in the hollow of the hand or the thigh, but the legendary surgeon Asklepios cured him and he returned with an army. First, however, he went to Tegea in Arcadia and asked king Kepheus and his twenty sons to help him; Kepheus refused, afraid that in his absence the Argives would invade his country. Herakles gave Kepheus’ daughter Sterope a lock of Medousa’s hair which he had received from Athena, and told her she could defeat her enemies by holding it up three times from the walls without looking at it. Kepheus then agreed to help Herakles but in the battle at Sparta he and all his sons were killed along with Hippokoon and his sons and Herakles’ brother Iphikles. Herakles now brought back Tyndareos, who had been expelled by his brother Hippokoon, and gave him the kingdom.

Elsewhere Sterope is called Airope, who was loved by Ares and died in childbirth; her son survived by sucking milk from the breast of his dead mother and was named Airopos In this account Athena gave Medousa’s hair directly to Kepheus; Herakles’ possession of the fatal tress is another instance of his recurrent imitation of the adventures of Perseus. 

Aleos and Auge

Telephos Frieze
The infant Telephus is abandoned in the wilderness and: carpenters construct a boat in which Auge is to be cast adrift. Telephos Frieze, North Wall, Pergamon Altar, Pergamon Museum, Berlin

Kepheus had a sister named Auge; both were the children of Aleos, king of Arcadia, and his niece Neaira. While Herakles was in Tegea he seduced Auge, who had a baby son and hid him in the precinct of Athena. When a plague afflicted the land of Aleos, he entered the precinct and there found the baby. He exposed the infant on Mount Parthenios and gave Auge to Poseidon’s son Nauplios with orders to drown her or sell her to a foreigner. The baby was saved by a doe which found and nursed him, and shepherds who discovered him named him Telephos (or gave him to king Korythos, who named him). As for Auge, Nauplios gave her to Teuthras, king of Teuthrania (another name for Mysia in Asia Minor), and Teuthras married her.

According to Diodoros, Auge was still pregnant when her father gave her to Nauplios; as she was being led off she felt labor pains and, pretending that she had to perform a “necessary act,” went into some bushes, had the baby, and left it there. Pausanias says that Aleos put both Auge and her son into a chest and threw it into the sea (just as Akrisios had done with his daughter Danae and her son Perseus). The chest floated to Mysia, where Teuthras found it and married Auge.

The fullest version says that Aleos was warned by the Delphic oracle that his daughter’s son, if she had one, would kill his maternal uncles (Aleos’ sons). Aleos therefore made Auge a virgin priestess in the temple of Athena and threatened her with death if she lost her virginity. While Herakles was being entertained by Aleos he got drunk and ravished Auge; her father gave her, still pregnant, to Nauplios, and Nauplios sold her, and the child she bore on Mount Parthenios, to Teuthras.

Although Pausanias says that Aleos was succeeded as king of Arcadian Tegea by his son Lykourgos, and Lykourgos by Kepheus’ grandson Echemos, Kepheus and Korythos both appear as kings of Tegea during Aleos’ lifetime. This confusion probably results from a tendency to refer to local Arcadian rulers and eponyms as kings of Tegea, the capital of Aleos’ kingdom; one of the ten demes (counties) of Tegea was named for Korythos and another for Echemos. Kepheus gave his name to the city Kaphyai, just as Aleos did for the city Alea; both cities are on the border between Arcadia and Argos, and the Arcadian Kepheus was probably the father of Andromeda in early versions of the Perseus myth.

Return to Dick Caldwell's Greek Myths Index