After reading Euripides’ play, Children of Heracles, I undertook a little extra research in an attempt to sort out just what was what and who was who. Holy Hole in a Doughnut! (as Robin said in Batman, “Zelda the Great”, season one episode 9) Our man Heracles was not having tea and scones with all the women he met. Nor were the children he killed in the last Euripides play I read, Heracles, the only time Hera caused him to go mad and kill his children. So I guess, in this instance, it paid off to have lots of children by lots of different women.
For Children of Heracles, first performed in 430 BC, it is important to know that Eurystheus, the dude who has been chasing the old man Iolaus (Heracles nephew and friend), old lady Alcmene (Heracles’ mother) and many of Heracles’ children (of various ages) from town to town is the same dude for whom Heracles had to perform all his labors. Heracles had to undertake his famous labors as purification for killing six of his sons. It is interesting to note that the second time Heracles killed some of his children all he had to do to purify himself was go to Athens with his pal Theseus and perform some animal sacrifices. My how times change. Anyway, Eurystheus and Heracles are basically pawns in the ongoing marital spat between Hera and Zeus. Eurystheus is Hera’s champion and Heracles is Zeus’s son and champion.
In the play, Heracles is really and truly dead this time, not just suspected of being dead. So now Eurystheus is after Heracles’ children, also known as the Heracleidae, in an effort to kill them all because, why not? The kids and the old folks finally take refuge as suppliants in Athens, currently ruled by Demophon, son of Theseus. We know what good friends Herc and Thes were so Demophon decides to provide them a refuge even when threatened by war.
This being a tragedy, however, there’s a hitch. After consulting the oracles, Demophon learns that the only way Athens will win in a battle against Eurystheus is if a highborn maiden is sacrificed to Persephone. Even for the Greeks human sacrifice was a shocking thing so one can imagine a collective gasp from the audience when Demophon tells the news to Iolaus. Demophon rightly says that he will not sacrifice any of his daughters nor will he ask any Athenian to do so. One of Heracles’ daughters steps up and offers herself. In the play she doesn’t even get a name, she is simply “maiden.” In the whole myth drama though, her name is Macaria.
Everyone is relieved that Macaria offers herself willingly. Iolaus, maybe feeling a bit guilty though, suggests that she and her sisters can draw straws. Macaria says no, she’s the one who will be sacrificed and goes into a long explanation about why it is better for her to die for the cause. Demophon says great, we’ll remember you always and she is hustled off stage. There apparently is a spring near Athens called Macaria so Demophon was true to his word.
Then the play gets just plain silly. Eurystheus’ army arrives on the plain outside Athens and Iolaus demands armor and weapons because he plans to fight too. There is then a nearly slapstick exchange between Iolaus and a cheeky servant:
Servant: Sir, your strength is not what it once was.
Iolaus: But all the same I shall fight as many men as ever.
Servant: But the weight you add will hardly tip the scales in favour of your friends.
Iolaus: My enemies will all give up at the sight of me.
Servant: Sight alone wounds no one: the arm has to be involved.
Iolaus: What do you mean? May not even my blow pierce a shield?
Servant: You may aim a blow, but you might fall down before it lands.
And it continues on for quite a few more lines. It is determined that the servant will carry all of Iolaus’ armor and weapons to the field of battle because everyone is worried Iolaus will fall down under the weight of it before he arrives. So servant and Iolaus set off to take the field:
Iolaus: Hurry up. I’ll be terribly upset if I miss the fighting.
Servant: It’s not me slowing us down, you know: It’s you. You just think you’re coping.
Iolaus: Can’t you see how fast my legs are moving?
Servant: I see that you’re making good speed in your imagination, but not in reality.
Ha! Off stage they go. We get a song from the chorus and then a messenger appears to deliver a very long and dull account of the battle. Athens wins. Iolaus, through the intervention of the gods, is made young again for the battle. Eurystheus is captured and his sons are killed. Alcmene wants Eurystheus brought to her and demands he be killed. This is a shocking demand (again with the shocking! Not sure how the audience could stand it.) because, while it’s fine to kill each other on the field of battle, captured enemies are not killed because at that point it becomes murder.
Against protests from citizens of Athens, Alcmene says that they can escape the pollution of the act by taking Eurystheus outside the city where she will then kill him herself. Then the story takes another odd turn. Eurystheus says, yes, kill me Alcmene, and Athens, if you bury my body properly, I will protect you against the descendants of Heracles’ children. The deed is done off stage and the play is over.
The ending of the play is dripping with irony and whether Euripides was aware of it at the time or not, I am not certain, but I think he must have been. It is traditionally believed that the descendants of Heracles’ children conquer and rule Sparta. The Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta broke out in 431 BC. Guess who was about to come knocking on the gates of Athens when Euripides’ play was staged? Coincidence? I don’t think so. Unfortunately, Eurystheus’ spirit didn’t do a very good job at protecting Athens since Sparta finally won the war in 404 BC. Obviously spirit protection comes with an expiration date. Keep that in mind should you ever find yourself in a similar situation.