Ovid's Metamorphoses: Birth of Hercules

After the story of the death of Hercules, you will read the dramatic story of his birth, as told by Hercules's mortal mother: Alcmena. As you will see, one of Alcmena's maids, Galanthis, is turned into a weasel as punishment for having tricked the goddess of childbirth, Lucina, and thus allowing Alcmena to give birth. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that the weasel gave birth through the mouth (or through the ears!); you can read more about legends regarding the weasel in this bestiary page: Weasel.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Ovid's Metamorphoses unit. Story source: Ovid's Metamorphoses, translated by Tony Kline (2000).




Alcmena tells of Hercules’s birth and of Galanthis

Atlas felt the weight of the new constellation. But even now the anger of Eurystheus, son of Sthenelus, was not appeased, and he pursued his unyielding hatred of the father through the children.

Argive Alcmena, troubled by endless cares, had Iole, as one to whom she could confide an old woman’s miseries, to whom she could relate her son’s labours, known to all the world, and her own misfortunes. At Hercules request, Hyllus, his son by Deianira, had taken Iole to his marriage-bed, and his heart, and had planted a child of that noble race in her womb.

Alcmena said to her: ‘Let the gods at least favour you, and shorten that time when, in childbirth, you call on Ilithyia, that Lucina who watches over frightened women, who, thanks to Juno’s influence, made things hard for me.

‘When the time for Hercules’s difficult birth came, and Capricorn, the tenth sign, was hidden by the sun, the weight of the child stretched my womb: what I carried was so great you could tell that Jove was the father of my hidden burden. I could not bear my labour pains much longer. Even now, as I speak, a cold horror grips my body, and part of me remembers it with pain.

‘Tortured for seven nights and as many days, worn out with agony, stretching my arms to heaven, with a great cry, I called out to Lucina, and her companion gods of birth, the Nixi.  Indeed, she came, but committed in advance, determined to surrender my life to unjust Juno. She sat on the altar, in front of the door, and listened to my groans. With her right knee crossed over her left, and clasped with interlocking fingers, she held back the birth. She murmured spells, too, in a low voice, and the spells halted the birth once it began.

‘I laboured, and, maddened, made useless outcries against ungrateful Jove. I wanted to die, and my moans would have moved the flinty rocks. The Theban women who were there, took up my prayers, and gave me encouragement in my pain.

‘Tawny-haired, Galanthis, one of my servant-girls, was there, humbly born but faithful in carrying out orders, loved by me for the services she rendered. She sensed that unjust Juno was up to something, and, as she was often in and out of the house, she saw the goddess, Lucina, squatting on the altar, arms linked by her fingers, clasping her knees, and said "Whoever you are, congratulate the mistress. Alcmena of Argolis is eased, and the prayers to aid childbirth have been answered.‘’

‘The goddess with power over the womb leapt up in consternation, releasing her clasped hands: by releasing the bonds herself she eased the birth. They say Galanthis laughed at the duped goddess. As she laughed, the heaven-born one, in her anger, caught her by the hair, and dragged her down, and as she tried to lift her body from the ground, she arched her over, and changed her arms into forelegs. Her old energy remained, and the hair on her back did not lose her hair’s previous colour, but her former shape was changed to that of a weasel. And because her lying mouth helped in childbirth, she gives birth through her mouth, and frequents my house, as before.’




(600 words)










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