The Children of Herakles

Heracles and Telephos

Heracles and his child Telephos. Marble, Roman copy of the 1st–2nd century CE after a Greek original of the 4th century BCE. Found in Tivoli, Italy. Louvre Museum

Apollodoros’ list of the children of Herakles includes fifty sons by the daughters of Thespios (the names of the fourth daughter and thirty-third son are missing from the manuscripts), four sons (Hyllos, Ktessipos, Glenos, Oneites) by Deianeira, three sons (Therimachos, Deikoon, Kreontiades) by Megara, and one son each by a number of women: Omphale had Agelaos (or Lamos), Chalkiope (daughter of Eurypylos of Kos) had Thessalos, Epikaste (daughter of Augeias of Elis) had Thestalos, Parthenope (daughter of Stymphalos of Arcadia) had Everes (apparently in conjunction with Herakles’ sixth Labor, or perhaps after his affair with Auge, since Stymphalos was the cousin of Auge’s father and Diodoros says that Herakles went to Stymphalos after getting Auge pregnant), Auge had Telephos, Astyoche (daughter of Phylas of Ephyra) had Tlepolemos, Astydameia (daughter of Amyntor of Pelion) had Ktessipos, and Autonoe (or Iphinoe or Tinge), the widow of Antaios, had a son Palaimon (or Sophax).

There is a predictable abundance of variations in the list of Herakles’ children. The most important additions to the list are these: Deianeira also had a daughter Makaria, who voluntarily gave her life to save her brothers from Eurystheus after Herakles’ death; a slave-girl of Omphale had a son Kleodaios or Alkaios; a water-nymph named Melite, whom Herakles met on the island of the Phaiakians while seeking to be purified for the murder of his children, had a son Hyllos; Myrto, the sister of Patroklos, had a daughter Eukleia.

Theagenes of Thassos

Finally, the famous Olympic boxer Theagenes of Thasos was supposedly the son of Timosthenes, but it was said that Herakles, after his death, appeared to Timosthenes’ wife in the likeness of her husband and fathered Theagenes; thus Herakles reenacted the scene of his own conception as a result of Zeus’ deception of Alkmena.

After the death of Herakles, his old enemy Eurystheus was afraid that Herakles' children might want revenge for the way he had treated their father, so he refused to let them stay in the Peloponnese. Finally king Theseus of Athens agreed to help them, and in a battle between Athens and Eurystheus' army the Athenians were victorious and Eurystheus and his sons were killed.

The Herakleidai ("children of Herakles") were led by Herakles nephew Iolaos and his son Hyllos, and it was at this time that Herakles' daughter Makaria voluntarily offered herself as a sacrifice to ensure her brothers' victory.

Led by Hyllos the Herakleidai invaded the Peloponnese, but a plague forced them to withdraw. When the Delphic oracle told them they would be successful "in the third crop," they invaded again three years later to meet a Peloponnesian army led by king Atreus of Mycenae. Hyllos proposed a single combat between himself and a Peloponnesian champion, and said that if he won the Herakleidai would be restored to their ancestral kingdoms, but if he lost they would withdraw from the Peloponnese for fifty (or a hundred) years. The Arcadian Echemos, king of Tegea, accepted the challenge and killed Hyllos, and the Herakleidai again went back to Attica.

When the fifty or hundred years stipulated by Hyllos had passed, the Herakleidai again invaded the Peloponnese under the leadership of Aristomachos, Herakles’ great-grandson. By this time the Herakleidai had the Dorians as their allies; after the death of Herakles, Hyllos had been adopted by the Dorian king Aigimios and the Herakleidai had lived for a time in the third part of Dorian territory which Herakles had told Aigimios to hold in trust for his descendants.

Our sources for the attempts made by Herakles' descendants to conquer the Peloponnese, Herakles' homeland, are quite complicated, largely because myth involves at this point both the memory of historical migrations at the close of the Bronze Age and also the desire of poets and their audiences to situate themselves in the geopolitical map that resulted from these movements. To be related to Herakles through one of his descendants was, it seems, a matter of no small importance. Alexander I of Macedon, for example, was not permitted to participate in the Olympic games until he demonstrated that he was descended from the Herakleid Temenos. On another occasion the myth itself, not the relationship, was cited as historical justification for a political decision: before the battle of Plataia in 479, the contingent from Tegea argued that they should hold the left wing and cited as precedent the successful resistance of their ancestor Echemos against Hyllos and the Herakleids.

Greek tradition generally referred to the migrations into the Peloponnese at the end of the Mycenean period as the “return of the descendants of Herakles” or as the “Dorian invasion,” and this event was dated by Thucydides to eighty years after the end of the Trojan War. It was called a Dorian invasion because much of the Peloponnese during the Archaic period was inhabited by relative late-comers who spoke the Dorian dialect, and the return of the Herakleids because the Dorians were allied with the Herakleids in mythic versions of their arrival. The present state of archaeological evidence suggests that there was not a sudden invasion or great conquest, but rather a gradual movement of people speaking a Dorian dialect into different areas of the Peloponnese, and this may be why the myth of the return of the Herakleidai extends their effort over several generations.

The invasion of the Herakleidai was called a “return” for several reasons. Although Herakles had been born and raised in Thebes, his ancestors Perseus and Elektryon had ruled Mycenae and Tiryns. Herakles had conquered the major cities of the Peloponnese and left them in trust for his return or that of his descendants (for example, he had left Sparta in trust to Tyndareus and Messene in trust to Nestor). Furthermore Mycenae and the Argolid were ruled after the death of Eurystheus by the Pelopidai Atreus, Agamemnon, Orestes, and Tisamenos, whereas the Herakleidai were descended from Perseus, the founder of Mycenae.

Aristomachos also consulted the oracle before the invasion began, and the answer he received is quoted by Eusebius: “the gods indicate victory to you by way of the narrows.” Aristomachos, figuring that the “narrow” must mean the isthmus of Corinth, attacked by this route, but he was killed and the Herakleidai were defeated. When Aristomachos’ sons Temenos, Aristodemos, and Kresphontes grew up they again went to the oracle and, having received the same answers as before, complained that they had repeatedly lost in the past by following the oracle’s instructions. Apollo answered that this was their fault, not his, since they had misinterpreted the messages: the “third crop” referred not to agriculture but to human generations, and the “narrows” really meant the “broad” sea. Now that he understood the higher logic of oracles, Aristomachos’ son Temenos led the Herakleidai and Dorians to Naupaktos, where they built ships for an invasion by sea.

While they were at Naupaktos Temenos’ brother Aristodemos died, struck by lightning, murdered by the sons of Pylades and Elektra, or shot by Apollo for failing to go to the oracle (since he had learned in a chance meeting with Herakles that the Herakleidai would successfully return to the Peloponnese). In the Spartan version reported by Herodotos, however, Aristodemos did not die but participated in the conquest of the Peloponnese, became king of Sparta, and was succeeded by his twin sons Eurysthenes and Prokles.

Misfortune also struck the army at Naupaktos. When an oracle-chanting prophet (Karnos of Akarnania) appeared, they decided he was a magician sent by the Peloponnesians to destroy them, and the Herakleid Hippotes killed him with his spear. As punishment for this murder, the Herakleid fleet was destroyed and the army was afflicted with famine. Temenos asked the oracle what they should do, and was told to banish the murderer for ten years and to use as their guide the “Three-Eyed One.” At this point the Aitolian Oxylos met them; he was returning to Aitolia from Elis, where he had spent a year in exile. Since either Oxylos or the horse he was riding was blind in one eye, the Herakleidai took him to be the “Three-Eyed One,” appointed him leader, and promised to give him Elis if they were victorious.

When they reached the Peloponnese, Oxylos led them through Arcadia instead of through Elis, since he did not want the Herakleids to see how good the land of Elis was. Finally they met the Peloponnesian army led by Orestes’ son Tisamenos and defeated them. Aigimios’ sons Dymas and Pamphylos died in the battle, and Tisamenos also was killed.

Although Apollodoros calls Oxylos the son of Andraimon, this is quite improbable chronologically (insofar as there is such a thing as probability in mythic chronology), since Andraimon was the husband of Deianeira’s sister Gorge. Pausanias calls Oxylos the son of Haimon and great-grandson of Andraimon; he also says that Oxylos was in exile because he had accidentally killed his brother Thermios with a poorly-aimed discus throw (just as Perseus had killed his grandfather Akrisios).

According to Pausanias, Tisamenos was not killed but expelled and went with an army to the region called Ionia on the north coast of the Peloponnese, where he asked the Ionians for permission for himself and his people to settle there. The Ionians refused, afraid that Tisamenos would be chosen king if both peoples were joined together; in the ensuing war Tisamenos was killed, but his side won and the Ionians fled to Attica, where the Athenians allowed them to settle. Since Tisamenos and his followers, the people displaced from Argos and Sparta by the Dorians and Herakleids, called themselves Achaians, they changed the name of their new home from Ionia to Achaia.

Temenos and Kresphontes, the two remaining sons of Aristomachos, and Prokles and Eurysthenes, the twin sons of Aristodemos, divided the Peloponnese into three parts - Argos, Lakedaimon (i.e., Sparta), and Messene - and decided to draw lots to determine who would get which region. Each of the three parties would throw a stone into a pitcher of water, and the first one drawn would get Argos, the second Sparta, and the third Messene. Since Kresphontes wanted Messene, he threw in a clod of earth instead of a stone; the clod dissolved in the water and thus the other two lots were drawn first. Temenos won Argos, the sons of Aristodemos won Sparta, and Kresphontes received Messene. They gave Elis to Oxylos as they had promised, and he led an army against king Dios of Elis. Since the Aitolians and Eleians were related (Oxylos’ ancestor, the eponym Aitolos, had fled from Elis many generations earlier), the two sides did not go to war but decided the matter by a single combat between the Eleian archer Degmenos and the Aitolian slinger Pyraichmes. Pyraichmes won, and Oxylos recovered his ancestral kingdom, allowed Dios to keep a privileged position, and became known as a wise and generous king.

Each of the three sides in the lot-drawing had made an altar of Zeus for sacrifice in advance of the drawing, and they found signs on the altars which corresponded to the triple division of the Peloponnese. A toad was on the altar of Temenos, who won Argos, a serpent was on the altar of Aristodemos’ sons, who won Sparta, and a fox was on the altar of Kresphontes, who won Messene.

In a somewhat different version of the lot-drawing, Temenos received Argos in advance and the drawing concerned only the claims of Kresphontes and Aristodemos’ sons, both sides wanting to obtain Messene. It was decided that whoever drew the first lot would have first choice, and Kresphontes managed to win over Temenos, who was in charge of the drawing and making of the lots. He made the lot of Aristodemos’ sons from sun-dried earth and the lot of Kresphontes from earth baked in fire. Since the lot of Aristodemos’ sons dissolved in the water, Kresphontes won the drawing and Messene.

The Spartans themselves said that Aristodemos himself, not his sons, was their king but he died immediately after his wife Argeia gave birth to twin sons, Eurysthenes and Prokles. The Spartans wanted to make the older twin king, but could not tell which was older; when Argeia said that she did not know either (a lie motivated by her desire that both would be made king), the Spartans asked the Delphic oracle, who replied that they should make both twins king but honor the older one more. Again the Spartans had to decide which one was older; watching Argeia closely they saw that she always washed and fed Eurysthenes first and they concluded correctly that this one must be older.

The reigns of both Temenos in Argos and Kresphontes in Messene were ended by assassination. Since Temenos favored his daughter Hyrnaitho and her husband Deiphontes, Temenos’ sons arranged the murder of their father; afterwards Deiphontes became king or Keisos, oldest of Temenos’ sons, assumed the kingship while Deiphontes moved with his wife and army to Epidauros and became king there. Pausanias names the sons of Temenos as Keisos, Kerynes, Phalkes, Isthmios, and Agraios, and says that while Deiphontes was ruling in Epidauros Kerynes and Phalkes came and tried to persuade Hyrnaitho to leave her husband. When they failed to do so, they kidnapped her and fled; Deiphontes pursued and killed Kerynes but was afraid to shoot Phalkes, who clung so tightly to the pregnant Hyrnaitho that she died. Deiphontes and the Epidaurians made a shrine for the dead Hyrnaitho, while Phalkes managed to escape and became king of Sikyon.

Pausanias adds that Temenos’ youngest son Agraios opposed his wicked brothers; this Agraios may be the same as Apollodoros’ Agelaos and the Archelaos, son of Temenos, who is banished from Argos by his brothers in Euripides’ lost tragedy Archelaos. Archelaos went to Macedonia where king Kisseus promised him the kingdom and his daughter if he would fight on his side. Archelaos did so but Kisseus went back on his promise and arranged a trap, a pit of burning coals disguised by branches. Archelaos learned of this, threw Kisseus into the pit, and escaped. Obeying an oracle of Apollo he followed a she-goat until she stopped (just as Kadmos followed a cow to Thebes); here Archelaos founded the city Aigeai (“Goat-Town) and became the ancestor of Alexander the Great.

Kresphontes, who had received Messene in the Herakleids’ division of the Peloponnese, married Merope, daughter of king Kypselos of Arcadia, and they had three sons. According to Pausanias Kresphontes and the two older sons were killed by wealthy Messenians, who thought he was too favorable to the lower classes; the youngest son Aipytos was raised by his grandfather Kypselos. When Aipytos grew up, Kypselos along with Dorian and Herakleid kings brought him back to Messene, where he avenged his father’s death and became king.

A different version of these events was the subject of Euripides’ lost melodrama Kresphontes.In this account the Herakleid Polyphontes killed Kresphontes, became king of Messene, and married the widow Merope against her will. She sent away her infant son Aipytos to be raised in Aitolia, but Polyphontes suspected that the child was alive and offered a great reward to whoever would kill him. When Aipytos grew up, he came in disguise to to Polyphontes and claimed the reward, saying he had killed Merope’s son. Since Merope did not recognize him and thought her son was really dead, she tried to kill Aipytos while he was asleep. At the last second a servant recognized Aipytos; he was reunited with his mother, killed Polyphontes while he was sacrificing, and was declared the rightful king.

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