Who was it left their home and country for
To follow Amphitryon, forged in war,
To Thebes – it was Alcmena, daughter of
Electryon, born by his wife in love.
Surpassed she all, in stature and beauty,
Of womankind; one could only pity
Any who tried to match her wisdom: none
Of women born could see her wits undone.
Her countenance, her dark eyes both so charmed –
That she, like Venus, all her foes disarmed.
She rendered honour to her husband, such
As no other woman, exceeding much.
He slew her father in a fit of rage
O’er cattle, then sought his guilt to assuage.
He came to Thebes, where Cadmus’ men bore shields,
And dwelt without the joys that Eros yields;
He could not go in to his wife until
He did the blood of Teleboans spill,
And also Taphians; for they both had slain
Alcmene’s brothers, they and all their train.
He had been charged their villages to burn,
By Zeus, and vengeance by their deaths to earn.
As witnesses, the gods did also stand,
And Amphitryon, he feared their command;
And so, he hastened to perform the deed;
The Boeotians too, each driving his steed
And breathing o’er his shield, they went in might,
With Locrians, who hand-to-hand join fight,
And Phocians, zealous for war, these all
Did heed the noble son of Alcaeus’ call.
But he who fathered all the gods and men,
Within his heart he schemed, and determined then
To fashion one to serve as defender
Of gods and men, ‘gainst every offender.
So he rose by night on Olympus’ height,
And searched for one who pleased his perfect sight;
And he came with speed to Typhaonium;
From thence went Zeus to the peaks of Phicium:
He sat – his heart made a cunning device,
For he of old and always is all wise.
That night he went and shared Alcmena’s bed;
On love the daughter of Electryon fed;
She of delicate ankles fulfilled desire
For Olympian Zeus, all heaven’s sire:
And that same night, when Amphitryon had
Accomplished his task, filled with joy and glad,
His shepherds and slaves he went not to see,
But with his wife, Alcmena, he went to be.
The people’s shepherd was filled with desire,
That burning, driving, pain of Venus’ fire.
As a man who escapes from misery,
Be it from disease or cruel slavery,
So Amphitryon came home with delight,
And Aphrodite’s gifts enjoyed that night.
And she from love of god and man gave birth
To twins: these differed in intrinsic worth;
She bore these two in Thebes, whose gates were seven,
One of man, one of the king of heaven,
Though brothers, they sprung not from the same soul
For one was weaker, the other’s strength was whole:
Strong and terrible, endowed with every good,
Exceeding all in everything he would.
Heracles she bare from Kronos’ son embrace,
The lord of the dark clouds and all of space;
And Iphicles of he who wielded spear,
Of Amphitryon: these two did she rear,
With mortal man united came the one,
The other from love with old Kronos’ son.
He slew Cycnus, the fearless son of Mars,
Who never has his fill of bloody wars;
These two together, within Apollo’s range,
Their armour blazed like fire, terrible and strange,
They stood in their car; their horses pawed the ground,
And dust like smoke arose, when they pulled it round;
The wheels, the horses hooves beat up the dust;
The chariot rattled while the horses thrust.
And guiltless Cycnus’ heart was filled with joy,
For that, with his sword, he thought to destroy
Zeus’ martial son and his charioteer,
And their brilliant armour to commandeer:
But Phoebus Apollo would not hear his boast –
He stirred Heracles, one better than a host.
And all the grove and altar flamed with fire,
Pagasaean Apollo’s eyes burned with ire;
The god and his arms kindled such a flame,
As shall ever live in eternal fame.
What man of mortals would have dared to face
The son of Mars, lest of immortal race?
Fierce Heracles, Iolaus by his side,
Their strength was great, and both their arms were tried:
Their arms from shoulders were strong and full of might;
They could not be vanquished in any fight.
Then Heracles to his charioteer:
“Iolaus, hero, best beloved peer,
Against the gods did Amphitryon sin,
And neither honour nor any good did win,
When he left Tiryns, that fortress renowned,
And came to Thebes: for all his sense was drowned;
He’d lusted for the oxen of the king
And like a beast upon him did he spring;
This done he came to Creon, who received
Him with long-robed Eniocha: thus reprieved
He was and honoured as suppliant too,
And there in freedom he was free to do
Whate’er he pleased; so lived he with his wife,
A joyful, happy, and a peaceful life.
And while he whiled his years in such a way,
Your father and I were born and saw the day.
And him did Zeus deprive of all his sense;
He left his home and parents and went thence
To honour Eurystheus, the wicked king –
O woeful man! Such folly did he bring
Upon his head; he bore this burden long,
And paid the price for all his former wrong.
And heavy labours Fate laid on me to do,
And I could naught, but work to see them through.
Yet come, friend, quickly take the reins in hand
And the swift horses and chariot command:
Raise courage in your heart, skillfully guide
The horses and car ‘gainst the other side.
Have no hidden fear of Ares’ clamour,
For though rage and shouting is his manner,
And though he tramp about Apollo’s grove,
The god who shoots his bow from far above,
And strong though Ares be, and loving war,
Yet he shall have enough and want no more.”
Guiltless Iolaus said to Heracles,
“Dear friend, the sire of gods and men you please;
He honours you, and the Earth-Shaker too
(Who keeps Thebes’ guarding veil, that naught gets through,
That is, the walls: thus he guards the city,
Preserving for citizens their safety):
So strong is he with whom you must contest;
They’ve brought him that you may prove yourself the best.
Come now, and don your arms of war and speed
To bring our car that we may do the deed,
And fight with Ares; for the son of Zeus
Cannot be frightened: Fear shall not reduce
His will, nor that of the son of Iphiclus:
He’ll flee before Alcides’ two blameless
Sons, who are close by him, ready to cry –
To give the shout of war, not afraid to die;
For they love battle more than any feast;
They will not stop until the fight has ceased.
Thus he spoke, and strong Heracles was glad
In heart and smiled, and said unto the lad:
“O hero, Iolaus, of heaven born,
The brutal battle, which the weak do scorn,
Its time is now: so, as you have before,
Wheel forth with skill, and bring your horse to war;
The black-maned Arion, turn him every way,
And as you can, so help me win the day.”
This said, he took his greaves of bronze that shined
And fastened them upon his legs; the mind
Of Vulcan had conceived of them, and made
Them for Heracles; on his breast he laid
Athena’s gift, a breast-plate all of gold;
‘Twas finely fashioned, goodly to behold;
She gave it him, when he set out to do
His hard labours, to help him see them through.
On his shoulders he put the steel that saves
Men from their doom, that saves them from their graves.
Across his breast he hung behind a quiver,
Filled with arrows which cold death deliver;
Such silence speech of men when they deal a blow,
Sending them to be with the shades below:
Their points shed tears of death, shafts smooth and long;
The butts had feathers of brown eagles strong.
He took his spear: with shining bronze ‘twas tipped;
On his heroic head, he his helmet slipped:
From adamant ‘twas wrought with cunning skill;
Close to his temples, it guarded him from ill.
He took his shining shield into his hand;
Naught broke it of the blows that did ever land
And marvelous it was for one to see;
All shone on its orb in resplendency:
Enamel, electrum, ivory most white,
Each set with perfect skill to please the sight.
It glowed also with gold, and there were bands
Of blue glass drawn by skilled Hephaestus’ hands.
In the center, carved in adamant was Fear,
Terrible, with eyes that did with fire sear.
His mouth was filled with teeth, in a white row,
Dreadful, daunting, and on his brow the woe
Of fearsome Strife, arraying men in throngs,
To turn the minds of wretches for their wrongs
Against the son of Zeus, a war to wage
To drive the sense of fools into a rage.
Their souls went down beneath the earth to dwell
In Hades’ house, but where their bodies fell
The skin first rotted, then crumbled to dust
Where scorching Sirius baked Earth’s dark crust.
Pursuit and Flight were seen upon the shield
With Tumult, Panic, Slaughter on the field,
And Strife and Uproar rushed about in haste,
And deadly Fate held three and each abased;
One newly wounded, one unharmed, the last
She pulled by his feet through the tumult’s blast.
Across her shoulders was a garment, red
With blood of men, the stains of heroes dead;
She gnashed her teeth and horrible her eyes
Glared out; who’d fight her finds in vain he tries.
And there were snake heads terrible for fear,
Full twelve in number, and these all would rear
And gnash their teeth when the son of Zeus would fight,
And so reduce the tribes of men to fright;
These works shone brightly and were wonderful:
The serpents were unspeakably frightful.
And there were spots upon the snakes: each back
Was midnight blue, and all their jaws were black.
And there were boars and lions on the shield;
Each row moved on, and neither side did yield:
And both were fired with eager fury, for
Their manes, they bristled, both lion and boar.
And dead between them, there already lay
A lion and two boars that lost the day;
The boars lay dead, bereft of life: their blood
Spilled on the ground until it made a flood;
Beneath the lions outstretched lay their necks:
But neither side its rage nor fury checks;
Their anger fires them onward to the fight,
Both boars and lions, with eyes fierce and bright.
And there the Lapith spearmen in their strife,
Were gathered round Caeneus as in life,
And Dryas, Pirithous, with Hopleus,
Exadius, Phalereus, Prolochus,
Mopsus, the son of Ampyce, the one
Of Titaresia, Ares’ heir and son,
And Theseus, son of Aegeus, who
The minotaur, within the labyrinth slew:
Like deathless gods, in silver these were made,
With golden armour on their bodies laid.
Against them stood the Centaurs with Petraeus,
Asbolus the diviner and Arctus,
Ureus, black-haired Mimas, finally
The two sons of silver; each had a tree
Of golden pine, and they rushed together,
As though alive and striking one another,
One side with pines, the other with their spears,
Each one alone and also with his peers.
The shield, in gold, bore the fleet-footed horses
Of dread Ares, and he himself who forces
The spoils of war, Ares, the deadly one,
Who finds his joy in battle, when he’s won.
He urged the footmen on, his spear in hand,
Red with blood as though he slew a living band
Of men, and in his chariot he stood.
And eager to join the fight where’er they could,
Were Fear and Flight, who stood by Ares’ side;
And Tritogeneia her skill supplied,
The daughter of Zeus; so she drove the spoil,
And she went on towards the awful toil.
With spear in hand, and helmet on her head,
And the aegis across her shoulders spread;
She was arrayed for battle in her dress,
And she pushed on to join the dreadful press.
And there the gods in holy company,
And Zeus and Leto’s son making melody
Within their midst, and there the gods’ abode,
Where beauty shined and wisdom’s riches glowed,
Olympus, and the gods’ assembly, where
Unending riches were spread beyond compare.
The Pierian Muses sung a song:
The singers’ voices were both clear and strong.
And on the shield a harbor for respite
From the heaving waves of the sea, whose might
Was indomitable; and in the main
Were dolphins rushing like as they were fain;
They fished and swam, and two of silver devoured
The mute fishes, and as these dolphins loured,
Beneath them fishes of bronze were quaking,
And in their fear, they cowered and were shaking.
And watching on the shore, and holding steady
A casting net was a fisher: ready
Did he look, and he seemed about to throw
To bring the fish up from the depths below.
And there the horseman Perseus, the son
Of Danae, fashioned fairly by the Lame One;
His feet touched not the shield, but just nearby,
Unsupported, Hephaestus made him fly;
He fashioned him of gold, and he was shod,
With wingèd sandals by the skillful god;
His sword was sheathed in black, and it was slung
Across his shoulders, and from a cross-belt hung.
He flew as quick as thought, and on his back,
Hung a most dreadful weapon of attack:
A purse of silver with tassels of gold
Did the head of the Gorgon monster hold.
He wore the helm of Hades on his head;
From it the fearful gloom of night was bred.
And Perseus was stretched out to the full,
At speed, like one shuddering at the awful.
The Gorgons followed him, unspeakable,
And rushing on, they were inaccessible;
Upon the clear adamant, they were striding;
The shield resounded with a sharp, clear clanging.
Two serpents hung down from their girdles, curving
Their heads forward, and their tongues were flickering;
Their teeth were clashing madly for to bite;
Their staring eyes were filled with fearsome spite.
And on the Gorgon heads, there was dread Fear,
Shuddering; and awful did it appear.
Beyond all these were men arrayed and fighting
In battle gear, and some were defending
From destruction their parents and city,
While others looked to sack it without pity;
And some lay dead already, but still more
Yet fought with all their might to win the war.
On towers of bronze, women tore their cheeks,
And as though alive, each one loudly shrieks:
Hephaestus’ workmanship they were, whose name
For all his skill has reached the utmost fame.
And they on whom Geras had laid his hand,
The elder men, outside the gates did stand;
There they raised their hands, to the gods they prayed;
Fearing for their sons, desiring death be stayed.
But these were caught in battle, and the Fates,
Each gnashing her white teeth, with longing waits
To drink purple blood, gory, dreadful, fierce;
And each one who fell they struggled to pierce.
Soon as a man took wounds or was o’erthrown,
One would grab him with her claws, and he was flown
Down to Tartarus, where great Hades lives;
The soul to him the Fate then promptly gives.
And when their souls by blood were satisfied,
They’d cast him behind, and again they flied
Into the tumult. Clotho, and with her
Lachesis and Atropos: these three were
Fates. Now, Atropos was shortest of frame:
But eldest and best, has the better name.
They fell to fighting over one poor wretch,
Seeking with claws and hands his soul to fetch;
Glaring darkly at each other with eyes
Of fury, jealous each to win the prize.
And Darkness of Death stood by, mournfully
And fearful, hungry, shrunken, pale, and ugly.
Her nails were long, her nose dripped, and her blood
Dropped from her cheeks, as tears rolled in a flood;
With dust the tears upon her shoulders mixed,
A gruesome leer upon her face was fixed.
Next on the shield, a city fortified,
Where well-built towers and gates could be espied;
The gates were seven and made all of gold:
They were set up to guard the town of old.
The men were busy with festivities,
The joys and merry things that do all men please.
Festivals and dance occupied these men;
Some carried a bride to her husband, then
The marriage song was heard, and torches blazed,
As by handmaidens, waving, they were raised.
The maidens went ahead, with great delight,
And after came another happy sight:
The playful choirs, with youths softly singing,
To the sound of pipes with high-pitched ringing;
And while the echo hovered, girls advanced,
And to the sound of lyres went on and danced.
Across from them were young men making mirth,
Playing flutes and dancing across the earth;
Some stepped in time to flutes with jollity.
The town was filled with dance and festivity.
And other some were mounted on horseback,
Galloping before the city. And the black
Soil was being broken by ploughmen, dressed
In tunics girt up, working without rest.
A field of wheat there was upon the shield,
And men with hooks who reaped Demeter’s yield
Of grain; the sheaves with bands some others bound,
Then spread them out for threshing on the ground.
And some with sickles reaped the goodly vine,
From which men make their vital drinks divine;
Others took the clusters of the creepers,
Both black and white, which they got from the reapers;
The vines were heavy with silver wisps and leaves;
The harvest into baskets another heaves.
And next to them another row of vines,
Hephaestus’ work in cunning golden lines;
With stakes of silver and leaves that shimmered,
Laden with grapes that turned black and glimmered.
And some men tread the grapes under their feet,
While others collected the liquor sweet.
And there were men engaged in wrestling
And boxing, and there were hunters chasing
Dashing hares with dogs on leashes, who chased
The hares, who strove with all their might and raced
To escape the hunters and baying hounds;
With speed they flew along the hunting grounds.
And next to them were horsemen firmly steeled,
Who laboured for a prize upon the field.
The drivers on their shining cars stood tall;
With slack reins they urged their horses with their call.
The wheels shrieked as the cars clattered along,
And cut their way through the fierce battle’s throng.
The toil ceased not; victory never came;
None won the fight; the war went on the same.
A golden tripod sat out as a prize,
Made by Hephaestus, a beauty to the eyes.
And finally, there flowing round the rim,
Was Ocean, in which shoals of fish did swim;
And it was full and circled all the shield,
On which Hephaestus’ wonders were revealed;
The swans soared overhead, while there below
The fish under the waves with speed did go.
The shield was marvelous, even for Zeus,
To see; Hephaestus made it for the use
Of Zeus’ valiant son, who wielded it with skill,
And leaped into his car to do the will
Of his father, the aegis bearing Zeus,
Moving lithely; all of his limbs were loose.
Iolaus, his charioteer, was strong;
He guided the curved chariot along.
Then, the grey eyed goddess Athena came;
With winged words spoke the Olympian dame,
And said: “Hail, descendant of Lynceus!
The king of heaven, Zeus, to slay Cycnus
And strip his arms has given you power:
The time is now, even this very hour.
Yet, I’ll tell you more, mightiest of men,
After you’ve stolen the life of Cycnus, then
Leave his body there, and his armour too,
And turn to see the fight with Ares through:
Watch closely his attacks, and when you see
Him exposed below his shield, wrought cunningly,
There strike him with your spear, but then retreat:
Take not his arms or horses; do not this feat.
This said, the goddess, with the shining eyes,
Back up into her car with speed she flies,
Victory and fame she has in her hands.
Iolaus to his horses gave commands;
Dreadfully he cried, and they swiftly whirled,
The car along; dust from the plain they hurled;
For spirit into them Athena put:
The earth shook and it thundered under foot.
And Cycnus and Ares, horse-tamers they,
Came, insatiable, like fire to the fray.
Then the horses neighed, loudly, face to face,
And the echo flew wildly into space.
And Heracles to Cycnus spoke and said,
“Cycnus, good man! Why are your horses led
Against us, men most tried in suffering,
To all the hardships found in labouring?
Guide your swift car aside, and yield, I pray;
Hinder us not, but get you out the way.
To Trachis I am driving, to the king,
First in Trachis from whom might and honour spring,
To Ceyx, and this you know, for you have to wife
His daughter Themistinoe. But strife
You’ll not escape; for Ares will not save
You from death’s end, the cold and bitter grave,
If we two meet together in the fight:
I’ve made already trial of my might
Against dread Ares, for my spear ere this,
Four times it struck him, and I did not miss.
He stood on sandy Pylos, facing me,
Desiring battle, which filled him with glee.
Three times I struck him with my spear and cast
Him down to earth, and his great shield did blast
With a blow that pierced; then I struck his thigh;
I tore the flesh of he who cannot die;
The deathless god I pierced for this fourth time;
With all my strength, I did this feat sublime.
Headlong in dust he fell upon the earth,
And truly he’d been found of little worth
Amongst the deathless gods, if by my blow
He’d lost all his spoils to a mortal foe.”
So spoke Heracles. But Cycnus refused
To be in word or deed scorned or abused;
He reigned not the horses that drew his car,
And both leapt from their chariots to spar.
The son who was born to the God of War,
and the great son of Zeus, they stood before
Each other; the charioteers drove by,
And their horses’ hooves rang from earth to sky.
Like as rocks fall down from the mountain peaks,
One strikes another: each its damage wreaks;
They strike the lofty oaks and pines, which fall,
Along with poplars, which before stood tall;
The rocks roll down in their great roaring train,
Until they come to rest upon the plain:
So on each other they fell with a shout,
And all they nearby heard the awful rout;
At Iolcus, Arne, Helice, and in
The town of Myrmidons was heard the din;
In grassy Anthea they heard the cries,
Each man with fury towards the other flies.
And Zeus, all wise, rained down great drops of blood,
And thundered loudly when he sent the flood.
This served as signal to his fearless son,
To join the battle and to stop for none.
Like a boar, who strikes fear into a man,
Determined that he’ll gore him if he can;
The man finds him in the mountain valleys;
White tusked, and turning sideways, he sallies
Forth with foam flowing from his mouth and gnashes
His teeth, while from his eyes a fire flashes,
And his mane bristles: so, like this he bore
Down from his car to face the son of War.
It was the season when, with buzzing wings,
The grasshopper perches, and of summer sings;
He drinks the dew, and sings in scorching heat,
When Sirius burns the flesh, and the wheat
Which men have sown in summer gets its beard,
When the gift of Dionysus has appeared,
The grapes, which bring men joy and misery,
Begin to ripen – then they fought, and very
Loudly rose up the clamour of their strife,
As each man sought to end the other’s life.
As two lions stand with a deer between,
Then leap together, and a fight is seen,
With snarls and gnashing teeth; like crooked claws
Of vultures, that fight to snatch within their maws
Some mountain goat or deer, dead from the shot,
Of some hunter, who, from his hiding spot
Did loose the string that sent his arrow out,
But, not knowing where, wandered, lost, about:
But buzzards speedily mark it and go
Contest for it and seek to overthrow
Each other; like these two the heroes ran
With shouts to face each other, man to man.
Then, Cycnus, zealous to slay the son of God,
Smote upon the shield with his brazen rod:
But the shield of bronze it didn’t shiver:
Vulcan’s gift did Heracles deliver.
But mighty Heracles struck with his spear
Cycnus; through his neck did the hero shear.
Beneath the chin, between the helm and shield,
The hero, with skill, did his weapon wield.
The spear cut through two sinews; for the blow
With all the hero’s strength fell on the foe.
And Cycnus, like a towering pine or oak,
That falls when it receives from Zeus a stroke
Of lightning, even so he fell when dashed,
And all his brazen armour with him crashed.
Then, the son of Zeus left him be, that he
Might watch for man killing Ares; fiercely
He looked, like a lion upon his prey,
Who eagerly the hide with his claws does flay,
And steals with speed the life of his precious kill;
And yet his heart with rage is filled up still;
His eyes burn, and his paws rip up the dirt;
His whipping tail declares that he will hurt
Whoever comes to face him in a fight:
Not one approaches, fearing lash and bite.
Like this the son of Amphitryon stood,
Hungry for battle and with courage good.
And Ares came with sorrow in his heart:
Each towards the other did with violence start;
As when from off a cliff a rock is hurled,
And has with eager roaring downward whirled,
And strikes a jutting crag, and there been stopped,
With no less noise did Ares, once he’d dropped
Down from off his car, the chariot borne,
Did rush at Heracles with noise of scorn.
But for battle, Heracles was ready,
And received the attack; so held he steady.
But Athena came, the daughter of Zeus,
Who wore the aegis and checked Ares’ abuse;
She frowned at him and spoke a sharp command:
“Dread Ares, check your rage, and stay your hand;
For it is not ordained that you should kill
Bold Heracles, the son of Zeus, nor spill
His blood or strip him of his arms: so, halt!
Cease fighting that you find not yourself at fault.
But Ares hearkened not: he gave a shout
And waved his spears like fire; his heart was stout;
Towards strong Heracles headlong he flew;
He longed to kill him: with his might he threw
His brazen spear against the mighty shield;
For his dead son, he was with fury steeled.
But gray eyed Athena reached out and turned
His deadly spear, so his revenge was spurned.
Then Ares was assailed by bitter grief,
And drew his sword to seek by it relief;
He sprang on Heracles, the lion-like,
But Amphitryon’s son with skill did strike;
Filled not of battle, his spear pierced Ares’ thigh:
The same fell down, and stood no longer high
Upraised; into his flesh the spear had torn,
And by the thrust he to the ground was borne.
And Dread and Panic quickly drove his car:
They lifted him and straightly drove him far
From thence; they lashed the horses as they went,
And drove in haste to Olympus’ firmament.
But Alcmena’s son, and the glorious
Iolaus stripped the armour off Cycnus’
Broad shoulders, and they drove their horses to
The city of Trachis when they were through.
Athena, gray-eyed went back to the sky,
To great Olympus, where Zeus dwells on high.
But Ceyx buried Cycnus, and all the throng
Of people came out and gathered ere long;
Near the city of the king, in Anthe,
In famous Iolcus and in Arne,
With the city of the Myrmidons and
Helice – so from all across the land
They came and showed honour to Ceyx, the friend
Of blessed gods: but then did Anaurus send
From out his banks, o’erflowing from the rain,
The swells which blotted out where they had lain
The body of Cycnus and made his grave:
The marker of his tomb they could not save;
For Leto’s son, Apollo, commanded
This: for recompense the god demanded;
For Cycnus used to watch and seize as prey
The hecatombs that men brought up to slay
At Pytho, where the god had his sacred shrine,
High and holy, famed, beautiful, divine.