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Ch. 16: Hercules, Alcestis, Antigone, Penelope

The river-god Achelous told the story of Erisichthon to Theseus
and his companions, whom he was entertaining at his hospitable
board, while they were delayed on their journey by the overflow
of his waters. Having finished his story, he added, "But why
should I tell of other persons' transformations, when I myself am
an instance of the possession of this power. Sometimes I become
a serpent, and sometimes a bull, with horns on my head. Or I
should say, I once could do so; but now I have but one horn,
having lost one." And here he groaned and was silent.

Theseus asked him the cause of his grief, and how he lost his
horn. To which question the river-god replied as follows: "Who
likes to tell of his defeats? Yet I will not hesitate to relate
mine, comforting myself with the thought of the greatness of my
conqueror, for it was Hercules. Perhaps you have heard of the
fame of Dejanira, the fairest of maidens, whom a host of suitors
strove to win. Hercules and myself were of the number, and the
rest yielded to us two. He urged in his behalf his descent from
Jove, and his labors by which he had exceeded the exactions of
Juno, his step-mother. I, on the other hand, said to the father
of the maiden, 'Behold me, the king of the waters that flow
through your land. I am no stranger from a foreign shore, but
belong to the country, a part of your realm. Let it not stand in
my way that royal Juno owes me no enmity, nor punishes me with
heavy tasks. As for this man, who boasts himself the son of
Jove, it is either a false pretence, or disgraceful to him if
true, for it cannot be true except by his mother's shame.' As I
said this Hercules scowled upon me, and with difficulty
restrained his rage. 'My hand will answer better than my
tongue,' said he. 'I yield you the victory in words, but trust
my cause to the strife of deeds. With that he advanced towards
me, and I was ashamed, after what I had said, to yield. I threw
off my green vesture, and presented myself for the struggle. He
tried to throw me, now attacking my head, now my body. My bulk
was my protection, and he assailed me in vain. For a time we
stopped, then returned to the conflict. We each kept our
position, determined not to yield, foot to foot, I bending over
him, clinching his hands in mine, with my forehead almost
touching his. Thrice Hercules tried to throw me off, and the
fourth time he succeeded, brought me to the ground and himself
upon my back. I tell you the truth, it was as if a mountain had
fallen on me. I struggled to get my arms at liberty, panting and
reeking with perspiration. He gave me no chance to recover, but
seized my throat. My knees were on the earth and my mouth in the

"Finding that I was no match for him in the warrior's art, I
resorted to others, and glided away in the form of a serpent. I
curled my body in a coil, and hissed at him with my forked
tongue. He smiled scornfully at this, and said, 'It was the
labor of my infancy to conquer snakes.' So saying he clasped my
neck with his hands. I was almost choked, and struggled to get
my neck out of his grasp. Vanquished in this form, I tried what
alone remained to me, and assumed the form of a bull. He grasped
my neck with his arm, and, dragging my head down to the ground,
overthrew me on the sand. Nor was this enough. His ruthless
hand rent my horn from my head. The Naiades took it, consecrated
it, and filled it with fragrant flowers. Plenty adopted my horn,
and made it her own, and called it Cornucopia.

The ancients were fond of finding a hidden meaning in their
mythological tales. They explain this fight of Achelous with
Hercules by saying Achelous was a river that in seasons of rain
overflowed its banks. When the fable says that Achelous loved
Dejanira, and sought a union with her, the meaning is, that the
river in its windings flowed through part of Dejanira's kingdom.
It was said to take the form of a snake because of its winding,
and of a bull because it made a brawling or roaring in its
course. When the river swelled, it made itself another channel.
Thus its head was horned. Hercules prevented the return of these
periodical overflows, by embankments and canals; and therefore he
was said to have vanquished the river-god and cut off his horn.
Finally, the lands formerly subject to overflow, but now
redeemed, became very fertile, and this is meant by the horn of

There is another account of the origin of the Cornucopia.
Jupiter at his birth was committed by his mother Rhea to the care
of the daughters of Melisseus, a Cretan king. They fed the
infant deity with the milk of the goat Amalthea. Jupiter broke
off one of the horns of the goat and gave it to his nurses, and
endowed it with the wonderful power of becoming filled with
whatever the possessor might wish.

The name of Amalthea is also given by some writers to the mother
of Bacchus. It is thus used by Milton, Paradise Lost, Book IV.:

"That Nyseian isle,
Girt with the river Triton, where old Cham,
Whom Gentiles Ammon call, and Libyan Jove,
Hid Amalthea and her florid son,
Young Bacchus, from his stepdame Rhea's eye."


Aesculapius, the son of Apollo, was endowed by his father with
such skill in the healing art that he even restored the dead to
life. At this Pluto took alarm, and prevailed on Jupiter to
launch a thunderbolt at Aesculapius. Apollo was indignant at the
destruction of his son, and wreaked his vengeance on the innocent
workmen who had made the thunderbolt. These were the Cyclopes,
who have their workshop under Mount Aetna, from which the smoke
and flames of their furnaces are constantly issuing. Apollo shot
his arrows at the Cyclopes, which so incensed Jupiter that he
condemned him as a punishment to become he servant of a mortal
for the space of one year. Accordingly Apollo went into the
service of Admetus, king of Thessaly, and pastured his flocks for
him on the verdant banks of the river Amphrysus.

Admetus was a suitor, with others, for the hand of Alcestis, the
daughter of Pelias, who promised her to him who should come for
her in a chariot drawn by lions and boars. This task Admetus
performed by the assistance of his divine herdsman, and was made
happy in the possession of Alcestis. But Admetus fell ill, and
being near to death, Apollo prevailed on the Fates to spare him
on condition that some one would consent to die in his stead.
Admetus, in his joy at this reprieve, thought little of the
ransom, and perhaps remembering the declarations of attachment
which he had often heard from his courtiers and dependents,
fancied that it would be easy to find a substitute. But it was
not so. Brave warriors, who would willingly have perilled their
lives for their prince, shrunk from the thought of dying for him
on the bed of sickness; and old servants who had experienced his
bounty and that of his house from their childhood up, were not
willing to lay down the scanty remnant of their days to show
their gratitude. Men asked, "Why does not one of his parents
do it? They cannot in the course of nature live much longer, and
who can feel like them the call to rescue the life they gave from
an untimely end?" But the parents, distressed though they were
at the thought of losing him, shrunk from the call. Then
Alcestis, with a generous self-devotion, proffered herself as the
substitute. Admetus, fond as he was of life, would not have
submitted to receive it at such a cost; but there was no remedy.
The condition imposed by the Fates had been met, and the decree
was irrevocable. Alcestis sickened as Admetus revived, and she
was rapidly sinking to the grave.

Just at this time Hercules arrived at the palace of Admetus, and
found all the inmates in great distress for the impending loss of
the devoted wife and beloved mistress. Hercules, to whom no
labor was too arduous, resolved to attempt her rescue. He went
and lay in wait at the door of the chamber of the dying queen,
and when Death came for his prey, he seized him and forced him to
resign his victim. Alcestis recovered, and was restored to her

Milton alludes to the story of Alcestis in his Sonnet on his
deceased wife.

"Methought I saw my late espoused saint,
Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,
Whom Jove's great son to her glad husband gave,
Rescued from death by force, though pale and faint."

James Russell Lowell has chosen the "Shepherd of King Admetus"
for the subject of a short poem. He makes that event the first
introduction of poetry to men.

"Men called him but a shiftless youth,
In whom no good they saw,
And yet unwittingly, in truth,
They made his careless words their law.
And day by day more holy grew
Each spot where he had trod,
Till after poets only knew
Their first-born brother was a god."

In The Love of Alcestis, one of the poems in The Earthly
Paradise, Mr. Morris thus tells the story of the taming of the

"----- Rising up no more delay he made,
But took the staff and gained the palace-door
Where stood the beasts, whose mingled whine and roar
Had wrought his dream; there two and two they stood,
Thinking, it might be, of the tangled wood,
And all the joys of the food-hiding trees.
But harmless as their painted images
'Neath some dread spell; then, leaping up, he took
The reins in hand and the bossed leather shook,
And no delay the conquered beasts durst make,
But drew, not silent; and folk just awake,
When he went by as though a god they saw,
Fell on their knees, and maidens come to draw
Fresh water from the fount, sank trembling down,
And silence held the babbling, wakened town."


The poems and histories of legendary Greece often relate, as has
been seen, to women and their lives. Antigone was as bright an
example of filial and sisterly fidelity as was Alcestis of
connubial devotion. She was the daughter of OEdipus and Jocasta,
who, with all their descendants, were the victims of an
unrelenting fate, dooming them to destruction. OEdipus in his
madness had torn out his eyes, and was driven forth from his
kingdom Thebes, dreaded and abandoned by all men, as an object of
divine vengeance. Antigone, his daughter, alone shared his
wanderings, and remained with him till he died, and then returned
to Thebes.

Her brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, had agreed to share the
kingdom between them, and reign alternately year by year. The
first year fell to the lot of Eteocles, who, when his time
expired, refused to surrender the kingdom to his brother.
Polynices fled to Adrastus, king of Argos, who gave him his
daughter in marriage, and aided him with an army to enforce his
claim to the kingdom. This led to the celebrated expedition of
the "Seven against Thebes," which furnished ample materials for
the epic and tragic poets of Greece.

Amphiaraus, the brother-in-law of Adrastus, opposed the
enterprise, for he was a soothsayer, and knew by his art that no
one of the leaders except Adrastus would live to return. But
Amphiaraus, on his marriage to Eriphyle, the king's sister, had
agreed that whenever he and Adrastus should differ in opinion,
the decision should be left to Eriphyle. Polynices, knowing
this, gave Eriphyle the collar of Harmonia, and thereby gained
her to his interest. This collar or necklace was a present which
Vulcan had given to Harmonia on her marriage with Cadmus, and
Polynices had taken it with him on his flight from Thebes.
Eriphyle could not resist so tempting a bribe, and by her
decision the war was resolved on, and Amphiaraus went to his
certain fate. He bore his part bravely in the contest, but could
not avert his destiny. Pursued by the enemy he fled along the
river, when a thunderbolt launched by Jupiter opened the ground,
and he, his chariot, and his charioteer, were swallowed up.

It would not be in place here to detail all the acts of heroism
or atrocity which marked the contest; but we must not omit to
record the fidelity of Evadne as an offset to the weakness of
Eriphyle. Capaneus, the husband of Evadne, in the ardor of the
fight, declared that he would force his way into the city in
spite of Jove himself. Placing a ladder against the wall, he
mounted, but Jupiter, offended at his impious language, struck
him with a thunderbolt. When his obsequies were celebrated,
Evadne cast herself on his funeral pile and perished.

Early in the contest Eteocles consulted the soothsayer Tiresias
as to the issue. Tiresias, in his youth, had by chance seen
Minerva bathing. The goddess in her wrath deprived him of his
sight, but afterwards relenting gave him in compensation the
knowledge of future events. When consulted by Eteocles, he
declared that victory should fall to Thebes if Menoeceus, the son
of Creon, gave himself a voluntary victim. The heroic youth,
learning the response, threw away his life in the first

The siege continued long, with various success. At length both
hosts agreed that the brothers should decide their quarrel by
single combat. They fought and fell by each other's hands. The
armies then renewed the fight, and at last the invaders were
forced to yield, and fled, leaving their dead unburied. Creon,
the uncle of the fallen princes, now become king, caused Eteocles
to be buried with distinguished honor, but suffered the body of
Polynices to lie where it fell, forbidding every one, on pain of
death, to give it burial.

Antigone, the sister of Polynices, heard with indignation the
revolting edict which consigned her brother's body to the dogs
and vultures, depriving it of those rites which were considered
essential to the repose of the dead. Unmoved by the dissuading
counsel of an affectionate but timid sister, and unable to
procure assistance, she determined to brave the hazard and to
bury the body with her own hands. She was detected in the act,
and Creon gave orders that she should be buried alive, as having
deliberately set at nought the solemn edict of the city. Her
love, Haemon, the son of Creon, unable to avert her fate, would
not survive her, and fell by his own hand.

Antigone forms the subject of two fine tragedies of the Grecian
poet Sophocles. Mrs. Jameson, in her Characteristics of Women,
has compared her character with that of Cordelia, in
Shakespeare's King Lear. The perusal of her remarks cannot fail
to gratify our readers.

The following is the lamentation of Antigone over OEdipus, when
death has at last relieved him from his sufferings:

"Alas! I only wished I might have died
With my poor father; wherefore should I ask
For longer life?
Oh, I was fond of misery with him;
E'en what was most unlovely grew beloved
When he was with me. Oh, my dearest father,
Beneath the earth now in deep darkness hid,
Worn as thou wert with age, to me thou still
Wast dear, and shalt be ever."
Francklin's Sophocles


Penelope is another of those mythic heroines whose beauties were
rather those of character and conduct than of person. She was
the daughter of Icarius, a Spartan prince. Ulysses, king of
Ithaca, sought her in marriage, and won her over all competitors.
When the moment came for the bride to leave her father's house,
Icarius, unable to bear the thoughts of parting with his
daughter, tried to persuade her to remain with him, and not
accompany her husband to Ithaca. Ulysses gave Penelope her
choice, to stay or go with him. Penelope made no reply, but
dropped her veil over her face. Icarius urged her no further,
but when she was gone erected a statue to Modesty on the spot
where they parted.

Ulysses and Penelope had not enjoyed their union more than a year
when it was interrupted by the events which called Ulysses to the
Trojan war. During his long absence, and when it was doubtful
whether he still lived, and highly improbable that he would ever
return, Penelope was importuned by numerous suitors, from whom
there seemed no refuge but in choosing one of them for her
husband. Penelope, however, employed every art to gain time,
still hopping for Ulysses' return. One of her arts of delay was
engaging in the preparation of a robe for the funeral canopy of
Laertes, her husband's father. She pledged herself to make her
choice among the suitors when the robe was finished. During the
day she worked at the robe, but in the night she undid the work
of the day. This is the famous Penelope's web, which is used as
a proverbial expression for anything which is perpetually doing
but never done. The rest of Penelope's history will be told when
we give an account of her husband's adventures.

Thomas Bulfinch

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