Idyll XXIV. The Infant Heracles

by Theocritus


Alcmena once had washed and given the breast
To Heracles, a babe of ten months old,
And Iphicles his junior by a night;
And cradled both within a brazen shield,
A gorgeous trophy, which Amphitryon erst
Had stript from Pterelaeus fall'n in fight.
She stroked their baby brows, and thus she said:
"Sleep, children mine, a light luxurious sleep,
Brother with brother: sleep, my boys, my life:
Blest in your slumber, in your waking blest!"
She spake and rocked the shield; and in his arms
Sleep took them. But at midnight, when the Bear
Wheels to his setting, in Orion's front
Whose shoulder then beams broadest; Hera sent,
Mistress of wiles, two huge and hideous things,
Snakes with their scales of azure all on end,
To the broad portal of the chamber-door,
All to devour the infant Heracles.
They, all their length uncoiled upon the floor,
Writhed on to their blood-feast; a baleful light
Gleamed in their eyes, rank venom they spat forth.
But when with lambent tongues they neared the cot,
Alcmena's babes (for Zeus was watching all)
Woke, and throughout the chamber there was light.
Then Iphicles--so soon as he descried
The fell brutes peering o'er the hollow shield,
And saw their merciless fangs--cried lustily,
And kicked away his coverlet of down,
Fain to escape. But Heracles, he clung
Round them with warlike hands, in iron grasp
Prisoning the two: his clutch upon their throat,
The deadly snake's laboratory, where
He brews such poisons as e'en heaven abhors.
They twined and twisted round the babe that, born
After long travail, ne'er had shed a tear
E'en in his nursery; soon to quit their hold,
For powerless seemed their spines. Alcmena heard,
While her lord slept, the crying, and awoke.
"Amphitryon, up: chill fears take hold on me.
Up: stay not to put sandals on thy feet.
Hear'st thou our child, our younger, how he cries?
Seest thou yon walls illumed at dead of night,
But not by morn's pure beam? I know, I know,
Sweet lord, that some strange thing is happening here."
She spake; and he, upleaping at her call,
Made swiftly for the sword of quaint device
That aye hung dangling o'er his cedarn couch:
And he was reaching at his span-new belt,
The scabbard (one huge piece of lotus-wood)
Poised on his arm; when suddenly the night
Spread out her hands, and all was dark again.
Then cried he to his slaves, whose sleep was deep:
"Quick, slaves of mine; fetch fire from yonder hearth:
And force with all your strength the doorbolts back!
Up, loyal-hearted slaves: the master calls."
Forth came at once the slaves with lighted lamps.
The house was all astir with hurrying feet.
But when they saw the suckling Heracles
With the two brutes grasped firm in his soft hands,
They shouted with one voice. But he must show
The reptiles to Amphitryon; held aloft
His hands in childish glee, and laughed and laid
At his sire's feet the monsters still in death.
Then did Alcmena to her bosom take
The terror-blanched and passionate Iphicles:
Cradling the other in a lambswool quilt,
Her lord once more bethought him of his rest.
Now cocks had thrice sung out that night was e'er.
Then went Alcmena forth and told the thing
To Teiresias the seer, whose words were truth,
And bade him rede her what the end should be:--
'And if the gods bode mischief, hide it not,
Pitying, from me: man shall not thus avoid
The doom that Fate upon her distaff spins.
Son of Eueres, thou hast ears to hear.'
Thus spake the queen, and thus he made reply:
"Mother of monarchs, Perseus' child, take heart;
And look but on the fairer side of things.
For by the precious light that long ago
Left tenantless these eyes, I swear that oft
Achaia's maidens, as when eve is high
They mould the silken yarn upon their lap,
Shall tell Alcmena's story: blest art thou
Of women. Such a man in this thy son
Shall one day scale the star-encumbered heaven:
His amplitude of chest bespeaks him lord
Of all the forest beasts and all mankind.
Twelve tasks accomplished he must dwell with Zeus;
His flesh given over to Trachinian fires;
And son-in-law be hailed of those same gods
Who sent yon skulking brutes to slay thy babe.
Lo! the day cometh when the fawn shall couch
In the wolfs lair, nor fear the spiky teeth
That would not harm him. But, O lady, keep
Yon smouldering fire alive; prepare you piles
Of fuel, bramble-sprays or fern or furze
Or pear-boughs dried with swinging in the wind:
And let the kindled wild-wood burn those snakes
At midnight, when they looked to slay thy babe.
And let at dawn some handmaid gather up
The ashes of the fire, and diligently
Convey and cast each remnant o'er the stream
Faced by clov'n rocks, our boundary: then return
Nor look behind. And purify your home
First with sheer sulphur, rain upon it then,
(Chaplets of olive wound about your heads,)
Innocuous water, and the customed salt.
Lastly, to Zeus almighty slay a boar:
So shall ye vanquish all your enemies."
Spake Teiresias, and wheeling (though his years
Weighed on him sorely) gained his ivory car.
And Heracles as some young orchard-tree
Grew up, Amphitryon his reputed sire.
Old Linus taught him letters, Phoebus' child,
A dauntless toiler by the midnight lamp.
Each fall whereby the sons of Argos fell,
The flingers by cross-buttock, each his man
By feats of wrestling: all that boxers e'er,
Grim in their gauntlets, have devised, or they
Who wage mixed warfare and, adepts in art,
Upon the foe fall headlong: all such lore
Phocian Harpalicus gave him, Hermes' son:
Whom no man might behold while yet far off
And wait his armed onset undismayed:
A brow so truculent roofed so stern a face.
To launch, and steer in safety round the goal,
Chariot and steed, and damage ne'er a wheel,
This the lad learned of fond Amphitryon's self.
Many a fair prize from listed warriors he
Had won on Argive racegrounds; yet the car
Whereon he sat came still unshattered home,
What gaps were in his harness time had made.
Then with couched lance to reach the foe, his targe
Covering his rear, and bide the biting sword;
Or, on the warpath, place his ambuscade,
Marshal his lines and rally his cavaliers;
This knightly Castor learned him, erst exiled
From Argos, when her realms with all their wealth
Of vineyards fell to Tydeus, who received
Her and her chariots at Adrastus' hand.
Amongst the Heroes none was Castor's match
Till age had dimmed the glory of his youth.
Such tutors this fond mother gave her son.
The stripling's bed was at his father's side,
One after his own heart, a lion's skin.
His dinner, roast meat, with a loaf that filled
A Dorian basket, you might soothly say
Had satisfied a delver; and to close
The day he took, sans fire, a scanty meal.
A simple frock went halfway down his leg:
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Last updated January 14, 2019