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Eurystheus
Εὐρυσθεύς

smi277b: Heracles with the Erymanthian boar, and Eurystheus.

"I hasten to inform you that today there has been born a noble child who is to be King of the Argives. They have called him Eurystheus, and his father is Sthenelus, son of Perseus. So he comes of your stock, and it is quite a proper thing that he should have dominion over the Argives." (Hera to Zeus. Homer, Iliad 19.122).

"And Euryshteus, such as he was, was not king over either Argos or Mycenae, for he was not king even over himself." (Epictetus 3.26.32).


Eurystheus sat on the throne of Mycenae and Tiryns, a position that Zeus had reserved for Heracles 1 but that fell to his share thanks to Hera's deft manoeuvres. Following Heaven's arrangements, Eurystheus became the tormentor of Heracles 1, ordering him to perform his LABOURS. After Heracles 1's death, Eurystheus, fearing his rival's descendants, pursued them, and attempted their annihilation until he was defeated in battle.

Procreation of Heracles 1 and announcement of Zeus

Some believe that Zeus' love for Perseus 1's granddaughter Alcmena was rather an experiment in procreation; for he, by prolonging the time of procreation three times, fathered a son, Heracles 1, of most unusual strength and courage. Knowing beforehand which would be the result of his threefold night of love, the god announced in Heaven that the Perseid that was about to be born should be king of Mycenae. He said:

"Listen to me, all you gods, and goddesses … I wish you to know that this day Ilithyia, the goddess of travail, will bring into the world a human child, born of a stock with my blood in their veins, who shall have dominion over all his neighbours." (Zeus to the gods. Homer, Iliad 19.100).

Hera's move

This announcement, it is told, was inspired by Ate (Delusion), who is said to blind everybody, gods and men alike. When Hera heard what Zeus had ordained, she decided to outwit her husband by letting his announcement come true, although not in the way foreseen by him. Through Hera's agency, the goddess Ilithyia retarded Alcmena's delivery, and Eurystheus, who also was a Perseid, was born a seven-month child before Heracles 1.

Agreement of Zeus and Hera

Now, the words of gods differ from those of mortals in that neither intention nor deed are divorced from them, a circumstance or quality that some call integrity: thought, word and deed constituting what is integrated in harmonious oneness. That is why Zeus did not go against his own word, although he did seize Ate by her hair, and having whirled her round his head, cast her out from Heaven and down to earth, where she may still be found among men. Instead Zeus, wishing to take care of both word and son, persuaded Hera to agree that while Eurystheus should be king (for being the first born Perseid, as he had proclaimed), Heracles 1 would be allowed to serve him and perform twelve LABOURS, to be prescribed by Eurystheus himself. But that after he had performed them, Heracles 1 should be given immortality.

Previous differences on earth

This was the nature of the relationship that Heaven established between Eurystheus and Heracles 1. Before them, however, differences had aroused between Heracles 1's stepfather Amphitryon, and Eurystheus' father Sthenelus 3. The background of it all may be said to be the infiltration of the Pelopides, who succeeded, through Sthenelus 3 and Eurystheus, in replacing the dynasty of the Perseids on the throne of Mycenae. For although Eurystheus was a Perseid on his father's side, he opened the way for the dominance of the Pelopides, his mother being daughter of Pelops 1. The conflict expressed by Eurystheus and Heracles 1 continued after their departure from this world, and only ended when the Perseids, renamed HERACLIDES, returned to the Peloponnesus, and took possession of what they regarded as their legitimate inheritance.

Heracles 1's fate revealed by the Pythia

Heracles 1 learned what he was supposed to do when he recovered his wit after having been maddened by Hera; for it is this goddess, some say, who caused him to flung his children by Megara, and two children of his half-brother Iphicles into the fire. But afterwards, having returned to sanity, Heracles 1 came to consult the Oracle at Delphi, where the Pythian priestess told him to dwell in Tiryns, and serving Eurystheus for twelve years, perform the LABOURS that the king would impose on him; and when the LABOURS were accomplished, the Pythia added, he would gain immortality.

Eurystheus plays his part

Hera: made it possible for Eurystheus to become king. 6935: Juno. Konstakademin, Stockholm.

So when Heracles 1, obeying the Pythia, appeared in Tiryns, Eurystheus started to give him tasks, ordering him first to bring the Nemean Lion, an invulnerable beast offspring of Typhon. Heracles 1 captured the lion and choked it putting his arm round his neck. He then brought it to Mycenae where Eurystheus, amazed at the sight, ordered him to leave thenceforth the fruits of his LABOURS before the gates without entering the city. Some have said that these regulations were dictated by Eurystheus' cowardice, and as evidence they add that he owned a bronze jar inside which he could hide under the earth; yet not few would confess the difficulty of looking brave beside Heracles 1. It is also suggested that, for the same reason, Eurystheus sent to Heracles 1 his commands through the herald Copreus, son of Pelops 1 and father of the same Periphetes 1, who years later was killed by Hector 1 at Troy.

Eurystheus accurate reckoning

When, as a second labour, Heracles 1 destroyed the Hydra of Lerna, Eurystheus argued that this labour could not be reckoned, since Heracles 1 had been assisted by his charioteer Iolaus 1, son of Iphicles, half-brother of Heracles 1. A similar dispute took place when Heracles 1, following Eurystheus' commands, carried out the dung of the cattle of King Augeas of Elis in a single day. Here Eurystheus said that this labour could not be counted, alleging that it had been performed for hire, since Augeas had promised to give Heracles 1 the tenth part of the cattle.

Eurystheus receives no benefits from the LABOURS

Normally, Eurystheus obtained no material gain out of the LABOURS performed by Heracles 1, and he often just limited himself to verify that they had been properly accomplished. For example, when Heracles 1 brought to Eurystheus the Cretan Bull (said to be the same that had ferried Europa for Zeus), the king, after having seen the animal, set it free. Similarly, when Heracles 1 brought to Mycenae the carnivorous MARES OF DIOMEDES 1 from Thrace, Eurystheus let them go, and they were later destroyed by wild beasts at Mount Olympus. A different case is presented by the Belt of Ares that the Amazon Hippolyte 2 had in her power, since Eurystheus ordered this labour in order to please his daughter Admete 2, who wished to possess it. Another instance is the labour that consisted in bringing the Cattle of Geryon; for when Heracles 1, after a long trip, presented them at Mycenae, King Eurystheus sacrificed them to Hera, the goddess to whom he owned his throne.

The last two LABOURS

The LABOURS were ten from the beginning, but as Eurystheus did not reckon two of them, they became twelve, the eleventh consisting in bringing the Apples of the HESPERIDES. Here again, when Heracles 1 brought the golden apples, Eurystheus bestowed them on his rival, who in turn gave them back to Athena, to be returned to the HESPERIDES; for as they say: it was not lawful for these fruits to be anywhere. And when Heracles 1 performed the twelfth labour by capturing the three-headed hound of the Underworld, Eurystheus, perfectly satisfied, just ordered Cerberus 1 to be returned to its place, as if it were a regular beast from a regular place.

Eurystheus did not invent the LABOURS

Eurystheus' display of authority and simultaneous indifference may disconcert, or even cause hilarity, firstly because the benefits that he obtained from the LABOURS are not apparent, and secondly because Too Much for Nothing often calls for irrepressible laughter. But Eurystheus is not the inventor of the LABOURS, which were conceived in Heaven and then transmitted to Heracles 1 by the Pythian priestess. In similar manner, Eurystheus found himself to be a seven-month child and king of Mycenae, not on account of his wishes—for he was not yet born when that was ordained—but because a goddess had arranged it so. But Amphitryon, they say, thought that Heracles 1 had submitted to Eurystheus' authority for his sake, believing that his stepson, by offering Eurystheus the service of freeing the world of savage monsters, would cause the king to soften and recall him from Thebes, where Amphitryon was exiled, letting him find a home in his own land, from which he had been banished for the slaying of his father-in-law Electryon 1.

The HERACLIDES persecuted

In any case, when Heracles 1 had performed his LABOURS, Eurystheus expelled him from Argolis, and when Heracles 1 died, Eurystheus showed his determination to annihilate his descent. Accordingly, the HERACLIDES were banished from one city to another, learning about the misery of the humiliated, the homeless, and the persecuted.They took refuge in Trachis, where King Ceyx had received their father and ancestor; but when Eurystheus demanded their surrender threatening war, they were kindly invited to leave that kingdom and seek refuge in Athens, where Ceyx sent them arguing that he was not strong enough to oppose Eurystheus.

Eurystheus killed by Hyllus 1

In their new exile, the HERACLIDES sat down on the altar of Mercy and claimed protection, which Theseus or his son Demophon 1 granted. But when Eurystheus realised that Athens would not surrender his enemies, he declared war and invaded Attica. However, in the battle that ensued, Eurystheus's army was defeated, and he and his sons lost their lives. Eurystheus' head, they say, was brought to Alcmena by her grandson Hyllus 1, and she, in such a moment of victory and vengeance, showed her delight or her disgust by gouging out the eyes from her enemy's head with weaving-pins.

Eurystheus killed by Iolaus 1

Yet, it has also been told that Eurystheus' army met the HERACLIDES under Iolaus 1's command at Marathon, where, aided by the Athenians, the HERACLIDES obtained victory. Eurystheus, they say, fell in battle along with his sons, being buried at Gargettus, a place in Attica. But his head, they add, was cut off by Iolaus 1, and buried separately at Tricorynthus, also in Attica. Others have said that the tomb of Eurystheus could be found close to the Scironian road near Megara, where he was killed by Iolaus 1, the man who had defeated his army in Attica. Iolaus 1, nephew and former charioteer of Heracles 1, was an old man at the time of these events. But Hebe, they say, granted him to be young again for one day, so that he could exact retribution from his enemy. Iolaus 1 himself was later buried by the tomb of his grandfather Amphitryon at Thebes.

Eurystheus before Alcmena

Still others tell that Iolaus 1, having received his vigour back, captured the four-horse chariot of Eurystheus near the Scironian cliffs (on the Saronic coast of the Isthmus of Corinth), bringing the Mycenaean king captive to Athens, where Alcmena, before passing a death sentence against him, called him hateful creature and villain, and reproached him each and every one of his deeds against her son and the children of her son. Eurystheus, who had rather chosen to die in battle than confront Alcmena's hate did not ask for mercy:

"I shall not … say any word on behalf of my life by which a man might win the name of coward. I did not choose this quarrel of my own will…But whether I wished to or not—for a divinity was at work—Hera caused me to suffer this disease." (Eurystheus to Alcmena. Euripides, Heraclides 985).

Not surprisingly, he also believed that anyone else in his place would have acted towards his own enemies with the same ruthlessness:

"… Should not I, who am hated by these children and aware of their inherited hatred of me, have left no stone unturned in machinations to kill or exile them? If I did so, my interests were likely to be safe. You, no doubt, claim that if you had taken up my fortunes you would not have hounded the hostile offspring of the lion your enemy but would have modestly allowed them to live in Argos. You will convince no one of this." (Eurystheus to Alcmena. Euripides, Heraclides 1004).

Eurystheus' last words

Although Athens considered it an unholy act to kill an enemy that had been taken alive in battle, Alcmena managed to order his execution. But before the old woman sent him to his death, Eurystheus declared that his body beneath the earth would be most hostile to the descendants of Heracles 1, and most protective towards the city that shrank from killing him, adding that Alcmena's benefit from his death should be matched by the harm done to the HERACLIDES by the same dead body beneath the earth. But since those who cherish vengeance are not inclined to let themselves be affected by mysterious warnings or tales of guardian spirits, Alcmena, fearing the living more than the dead, sent him to his death.

"Eurystheus' Labour"

Such was the end of Eurystheus, who, before seeing the light of this world, had his birth, position, quarrels and death ordained by the gods to serve their purposes. No glory ever touched him, except for that of the great man, whom, by heaven's decision, he must lead to immortality through torment. Eurystheus succeeded in his task, and therefore he must carry, up to the end of time, the burden of being the detestable master of a superior man. That is perhaps "Eurystheus' Labour", and the gods know whether it weighs heavier than his rival's twelve.


Family 

Parentage

Mates

Offspring

Notes

Sthenelus 3 & Nicippe 1

Sthenelus 3 was son of Perseus 1 and Andromeda. He became the third king of Mycenae when he, after banishing Amphitryon, succeeded his brother Electryon 1. Sthenelus was killed by Hyllus 1, son of Heracles 1.

Nicippe 1 was daughter of Pelops 1 & Hippodamia 3.

Antimache

Admete 2
Alexander 2
Iphimedon
Eurybius 2
Mentor 2
Perimedes 1

Antimache was daughter of Amphidamas 1, son of Lycurgus 2, son of Aleus, son of Aphidas 1, son of Arcas 1, son of Zeus and Callisto. This family is from Arcadia.
Admete 2 is known for coveting the belt of the Amazon Hippolyte 2; in order to please her, Eurystheus sent Heracles 1 to fetch it.
The sons of Eurystheus were all killed in battle by the Athenians.


Genealogical Charts

Names in this chart: Admete 2, Alcmena, Aleus, Alexander 2, Amphidamas 1, Andromeda, Antimache, Cepheus 1, Danae, Electryon 1, Eurybius 2, Eurystheus, Heracles 1, Hippodamia 3, Iphimedon, Lycurgus 2, Mentor 2, Nicippe 1, Oenomaus 1, Pelops 1, Perimedes 1, Perseus 1, Pluto 3, Sthenelus 3, Tantalus 1, Zeus.


Related sections Alcmena, Heracles 1, HERACLIDES  
Sources
Abbreviations

Apd.2.4.5, 2.5.9, 2.8.1, 3.9.2; Dio.4.9.5, 4.57.6; Eur.Her.19; Eur.Hcl.111ff. and passim; Pau.1.32.6, 1.44.9; Pin.Pyth.9.79; Strab.8.6.19.

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