Gateway to the Classics: Gods and Heroes by R. E. Francillon
Gods and Heroes by  R. E. Francillon

The Oracle

Perseus and Andromeda had two sons, Alcæus, King of Thebes, and Electryon, King of Argos and Mycēnæ. Alcæus had a son named Amphitryon and Electryon had a daughter named Alcmēna. These two cousins—Amphitryon and Alcmena—married; and Jupiter resolved that they should have a son who should be the greatest and most famous of men.

But Juno was in one of her jealous moods; and she was especially jealous that such favor should be shown to Alcmena. Having considered how she should spoil his plan, she came to Jupiter in seeming good-humor, and said:—

"I have a question to ask you. Of two first cousins, which shall rule the other, and which shall serve—the elder or the younger?"

"Why, of course, the elder must rule the younger," answered Jupiter.

"You swear that—by the Styx?" asked Juno.

"By the Styx," Jupiter answered, wondering what she could mean by what seemed so trifling a question, and then thinking no more of the matter. But Juno knew what she meant very well. Alcmena had a brother, Sthĕnĕlus, who had married the Princess Nicippe of Phrygia. And Juno said to herself, "They also may have a son as well as Alcmena. Then the two boys would be first cousins; and Jupiter has sworn that the first-born shall rule the other. So if Nicippe has a son first, Alcmena's son will have to serve him and obey him: and then, O Jupiter, there will be a greater man than Alcmena's son; for he who rules must be greater than he who obeys."

Now it is Juno herself who settles when children shall come into the world. It was easy, therefore, for her to manage so that Nicippe's son should be born two whole months before Alcmena's. Jupiter was enraged when, too late, he found what a trick had been played upon him; but he had sworn by the Styx—the oath which could not be broken. Thus it became the will of heaven that the son of Alcmena should be the servant of the son of Nicippe.

The son of Nicippe was named Eurystheus: the son of Alcmena was named Hercŭles.

About the childhood of Eurystheus there was nothing remarkable. But when Hercules and his twin-brother, Iphĭcles, were only eight months old, the whole palace of Amphitryon was alarmed by the screams of Iphicles, which brought Alcmena and the whole household running into the room where the two children had been left alone. They saw a strange sight indeed. Poor Iphicles was found half dead with fright in a corner; and no wonder, for Hercules was being attacked by two huge serpents which were trying to crush him to death in their coils. But so far from being frightened, Hercules had got one of his baby hands round the neck of each serpent right and left; and so he quietly throttled them till they lay dead upon the floor. And this at only eight months old!

His strength grew with him till it became a marvel like that of Samson among the children of Israel, and in bulk and stature also he towered over all other men. Like many who are large and strong, he was grave and somewhat silent, using, when he spoke, but few words, not easily moved either to action or to anger, but, when once roused, then roused indeed. One seems to think of him as of some great lion. As for training, he had the best that could be given him. Castor taught him how to use the sword; Pollux how to use his fists; Eurytus, the finest archer in the world, taught him to shoot; Autŏlycus, to ride and drive. Nor were accomplishments forgotten; for Linus, the brother and pupil of Orpheus, taught him to play the lyre, and Eumolpus to sing. Finally, he was sent to finish his education under Chiron, the Centaur, who had taught Jason, and indeed nearly all the heroes of that age.

At eighteen he was already famous for his strength, his accomplishments, and his promise of a great career. But he was far from perfect in other ways. One finds nothing of the knightliness of his great-grandfather Perseus or of Theseus, in this strong young giant full of pride and passion, feeling himself already greater than the best of his fellow-creatures, and looking upon the world as if it were made for him alone. He would allow of no opposition to his least desire; he did not desire glory so much as power. Good-tempered as he mostly was, it was not safe to provoke him, as Linus, his music-master, found, who had his own lyre broken upon his head for presuming to correct his pupil a little too sharply.

Hercules now began to think of adventures worthy of his strength, and presently, as if to give him one, a lion came forth from the forests of Mount Cithæron, and ravaged the lands of Thespius, a neighboring king. To hunt and kill it unaided was child's-play to Hercules. And other services he did to the country, of small account in his own eyes but great in those of others; so that Creon, who was then King of Thebes, gave him his daughter in marriage, and made him his viceroy.

But Nicippe's son, Eurystheus, now king of Argos and Mycenæ, remembered that he had a right to his younger cousin's services by the oath of Jupiter. So Eurystheus sent a message to Hercules, commanding him to come forthwith to Mycenæ, and become the king's servant there.

Hercules, as may well be supposed, haughtily refused to obey this insolent order. Why should he, the ruler of Thebes, already the most famous man in all Greece, as well as the strongest, make a sort of slave of himself to a kinsman whom he scorned? For Eurystheus was just a commonplace person, with even less than common courage, who only wanted to feed his own vanity by having in his service such a man as Hercules to do whatever he bade. "Hercules may be master of Greece; but I am master of Hercules," was the sort of boast that ran in his mind.

I have said it was not strange that Hercules flatly refused to go to Mycenæ at his cousin's bidding. But it was more than strange that, from this moment, he began to fall into so strange a state of mind that any one would think he was being haunted by the Furies, until he, the pride of Thebes and the hope of Greece, became a dangerous madman, whom none dared approach for fear of being slain. And all the time his strength still increased; so that it seemed as if he had come into the world to be a terror and a curse to mankind.

Many dreadful things he did in his madness. And when at length the frenzy passed from him, he was left in a more dreadful condition still. He was in an agony of remorse for all the violence he had done, and believed himself to be accursed and an outcast from his fellow-men. Melancholy and despairing, he fled from Thebes, and wandered out alone among the forests and the mountains. And thus he lived like a savage, hiding himself away from the sight of men.

The time came when he thought he could bear life no longer. He felt as if he were hunted by demons, and with the scourges of Hades. In his last despair he wandered to Delphi, in whose temple Apollo's oracle, or living voice, was heard; and implored the gods to tell him what he should do.

And the voice of Apollo answered him and said:—

"O Hercules! those things were not sins which you did in your madness. Your madness is not sin, but the punishment for your real sin—the sin of pride, and self-love, and defiance of the will of Heaven. In rebelling against Eurystheus, you have rebelled against the gods, who decreed even before your birth that he should rule and you should serve. Is it not so, always? are not oftentimes the good made subject to the wicked, the wise to the foolish, the strong and valiant to the weak and craven? This is the oracle—the gods give each man his own different place and work: to you they have appointed service—therefore Obey. Seek not to know why this should be, nor question the justice of the gods. Know your duty, and do it with your might; and so you will be great enough; for no man can do more than serve the gods with such strength as they have given him."

For long Hercules stood before the altar, doing battle with his pride. Then, at last, he took the road to Mycenæ. And as he went, each step became quicker, his heart grew lighter, the shadow left his soul, and his peace of mind returned.

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