A daughter of Electryon, king of Messene, by Anaxo, the daughter of Alcaeus.1 According to other accounts her mother was called Lysidice,2 or Eurydice.3 The poet Asius represented Alcmene as a daughter of Amphiaraus and Eriphyle.4
Apollodorus mentions ten brothers of Alcmene, who, with the exception of one, Licymnius, fell in a contest with the sons of Pterelaus, who had carried off the cattle of Electryon. Electryon, on setting out to avenge the death of his sons, left his kingdom and his daughter Alcmene to Amphitryon, who, unintentionally, killed Electryon. Sthenelus thereupon expelled Amphitryon, who, together with Alcmene and Licymnius, went to Thebes.
Alcmene declared that she would marry him who should avenge the death of her brothers. Amphitryon undertook the task, and invited Creon of Thebes to assist him. During his absence, Zeus, in the disguise of Amphitryon, visited Alcmene, and, pretending to be her husband, related to her in what way he had avenged the death of her brothers.5 When Amphitryon himself returned on the next day and wanted to give an account of his achievements, she was surprised at the repetition, but Tiresias solved the mystery. Alcmene became the mother of Heracles by Zeus, and of Iphicles by Amphitryon. Hera, jealous of Alcmene, delayed the birth of Heracles for seven days, that Eurystheus might be born first, and thus be entitled to greater rights, according to a vow of Zeus himself.6
After the death of Amphitryon, Alcmene married Rhadamanthys, a son of Zeus, at Ocaleia in Boeotia.7 After Heracles was raised to the rank of a god, Alcmene and his sons, in dread of Eurystheus fled to Trachis, and thence to Athens, and when Hyllus had cut off the head of Eurystheus, Alcmene satisfied her revenge by picking the eyes out of the head.8
The accounts of her death are very discrepant. According to Pausanias,9 she died in Megaris, on her way from Argos to Thebes, and as the sons of Heracles disagreed as to whether she was to be carried to Argos or to Thebes, she was buried in the place where she had died, at the command of an oracle. According to Plutarch,10 her tomb and that of Rhadamanthys were at Haliartus in Boeotia, and hers was opened by Agesilaus, for the purpose of carrying her remains to Sparta. According to Pherecydes,11 she lived with her sons, after the death of Eurystheus, at Thebes, and died there at an advanced age. When the sons of Heracles wished to bury her, Zeus sent Hermes to take her body away, and to carry it to the islands of the blessed, and give her in marriage there to Rhadamanthys. Hermes accordingly took her out of her coffin, and put into it a stone so heavy that the Heraclidae could not move it from the spot. When, on opening the coffin, they found the stone, they erected it in a grove near Thebes, which in later times contained the sanctuary of Alcmene.12
At Athens, too, she was worshiped as a heroine, and an altar was erected to her in the temple of Heracles.13 She was represented on the chest of Cypselus,14 and epic as swell as tragic poets made frequent use of her story, though no poem of the kind is now extant.15
An archaic relief from Sparta depicts Zeus trying to woo Alcmene (ca. 600 BCE). A famous ancient statue of Alcmene, unfortunately lost, was made by Calamis. She is also portrayed on many Greek and Roman vases.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library ii, 4.5.
- Scholiast on Pindar's Olympian Odes vii, 49; Plutarch. Theseus, 7.
- Diodorus Siculus, iv, 9.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece v, 17.4.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library ii, 4.6-8; Ovid. Amores i, 13. 45; Diodorus Siculus, iv, 9; Hyginus. Fabulae, 29; Lucian. Dialogi Deorum, 10.
- Homer. Iliad xix, 95 ff.; Ovid. Metamorphoses ix, 273 ff.; Diodorus Siculus, l.c.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library ii, 4.11.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library ii, 8.1.
- i, 41.1.
- Plutarch. De Genio Socrates, 578.
- On Antoninus Liberalis, 33.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece ix, 16.4.
- Cynosarges, Pausanias. Description of Greece i, 19.3.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece v, 18.1.
- Hesiod. Shield of Heracles, init.; Pausanias. Description of Greece v, 17.4, 18.1.
- Aken, Dr. A.R.A. van. (1961). Elseviers Mythologische Encyclopedie. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
- Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.