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Greek Gods and Goddess: Alcmaeon

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Was one of the sons of Amphiaraus and Eriphyle, his brother was named Amphilochus. Their father was deceived by his wife, to go on the ill-fated expedition against Thebes, but before he left he asked his two young sons to avenge him and kill their mother as soon as the old enough if he was killed. Sure-enough their father did not return.

Setting the scene.

Although the pair would do as they were asked, it appears they may not have done it till some years later. Their Father Amphiaraus was a seer, and predicted from the outset that the attack on Thebes would fail, and he and the others involved would be killed as a result. But he also predicted the sons of those who died would return to avenge their fathers and be successful, and that his son Alcmaeon would be the first to enter the gates of the city.


There are two variations on what happened next. According to one Eriphyle their mother is bribed by Thersander (whose own father had been killed in the original attack) to encourage Alcmaeon to attack Thebes with him and the others whose fathers had been killed in what was remembered as ‘The Seven against Thebes’ in exchange for the robe of Harmonia. In the other, the various sons of those killed receive an oracle telling them to persuade the reluctant Alcmaeon to join them and elect him as leader. Either way he joined them and they defeated Thebans and Thersander was made king of Thebes.


Alcmaeon returned home and with the help of his brother they murdered Eriphyle, but whether this was to avenge her betrayal of their father, or Eriphyle’s betrayal of Alcmaeon, is hard to say. But we are informed that Alcmaeon alone is pursued by the furies, also, known as the Erinyes, the dark goddesses of revenge which gradually drove him mad. Thus, we might think that Amphilochus his brother may not have participated in the murder, for there is no mention of the furies chasing him. However, there may be clue, in what occurs later in his story, that would account for the Furies coming after him, we will come across it soon enough. Although it might be that in reality it was his conscience unable to come to terms with what he had done that was unhinging his mind.

Flight of Conscience

He soon fled to Arcadia where his grandfather Oicles ruled, but finding no relief there he went to Psophis, where King Phegeus ruled. Phegeus purified him of his blood guilt and gave him Arsinoe, his daughter’s hand in marriage.

But all is not what it seems for Phegeus was the son of the river god Alpheus, he is reported to be the father of Alphesiboea or Arsinoe, Temenus, Axion, Pronous and Agenor. But this also means that any daughter Phegeus had was a river nymph, therefore a Naiad, are they were not only normally infertile, they were very dangerous to men, as we will see.

Gifts of doom

On the day that Alcmaeon marries Arsinoe (also called Alphesiboea.) he not only produces the robe that Thersander had used to bribe his mother, but also the necklace, that his Thersanders’s father had used to bribe his mother to send his father on the ill-fated campaign the ‘Seventh against Thebes, both of these things had been stolen from the goddess Harmonia. Which leads me to conclude that the Furies did not go after Alcmaeon because he and his brother murdered their corrupt mother, but because he stole and kept the sacred things that should have been returned to Harmonia.

Seeds of Revenge

Because of this double theft the ground around Psophis became barren, and on consulting the oracle he was told to go and stand on the river bank of the river Achelous and await trial. But instead he went to the springs of Achelous, where the river god purified him and gave his daughter Callirrhoe as his wife, so he went, as so many do from the frying pan into the fire. For Callirrhoe was a deadly Naiad, but oddly she bore him two boys, Amphoterus and Acarnan. But it was not long before she craved the robe and necklace that Alcmaeon had foolishly given to his first wife Alphesiboea-Arsinoe, and she told him she would not stay with anymore unless he fetched them for her.


(Pausanius calls her Alphesiboea, only by Pseudo Appolodorus is she referred to as Arsinoe, considering the story reports the Clytius was seer or soothsayer, and the names, it would seem that Alphesiboea, being a primal moon and snake goddess is the more consistent name)

Death of Alcmaeon

So Alcmaeon returned to Arsinoe and pretended that he had to return the gifts to Delphi and dedicate them, then his madness would leave him. Perhaps hoping that once in his right mind he might return to her, she believed him and handed him the robe and necklace. But a servant let his true intentions known and Arsinoe’ father instructed his sons Temenus and Axion (although another source, says it was Pronous and Agenor,) to ambush and kill Alcmaeon and then take the robe and necklace to Delphi themselves, to lift the curse from the ground. But when Arsinoe found out what they had done and scolded them, for which her father apparently locked her in a chest, took her to Tegea and gave her as a slave to Agapenor, (who led his Arcadians in the war against Troy,) accusing her of the murder.


In the meantime, Zeus making the most of Alcmaeon’s sudden demise began to court Callirrhoe, she requested of him that he turned her young boys instantly into fully grown men so they could avenge their father’s death. Her wish was granted and she immediately sent them in pursuit of the two brothers. Phegeus’s sons presumably on their way to Delphi stopped to rest at Agapenor’ house at Tegea, hoping to change their sisters mind, so that she would withdraw her curse, which she had sworn by the moon, as they knew there was an ancient temple dedicated to Athena Alea in the town. Unfortunately, Callirrhoe’s sons turned up there also, killed them and retrieved the robe and necklace, they then went Psophis, and killed Phegeus and his wife. The people chased after them, but they made it back to Tegea, where the town’s people stopped their pursuers, and they returned safely to Callirrhoe and told her of the events. They then went to Delphi a dedicated the gifts as directed by the river god Achelous, after which they apparently went to Epirus, collected some settlers and settled in Arcania.


       The author Pausanias, has the sons of Phegeus taking to robe and the necklace to Delphi themselves, and doesn’t mention any revenge by Callirhoe’s sons. It is said that Alcmaeon had a son by Alphesiboea named Clytius, who fled to Elis to escape her vengeful brothers.

Pseudo-Apollodorus has a different story, about Alcmaeon. I feel this story is a mere invention, for it in no way fits in easily with all that was reported previously, unless it is about a completely different Alcmaeon altogether; I have included it anyway, so you can make your own mind up. The Manto mentioned in it was a highly regarded prophetess, see her separate story.

It was reported that during Alcmaeon’ period of madness, her had an affair with Manto, the daughter of seer Tiresias. She was taken captive during the second attack on Thebes by the sons of those killed in the first attack ten years previously, and had been brought to Delphi as part of the spoils of war. By Manto, Alcmaeon fathered two children, a boy named Amphilichus and a girl called Tisiphone. Apollo apparently sent Manto on a mission to found an oracle devoted to him in Colophon (Kolophon) so while she was away Alcmaeon took the two children to king Creon, who agreed to be their guardian and bring them up. But Tisiphone was a great beauty and when she grew up, Creon’ wife, feared her husband might fall for her, so she sold her into slavery. But it said by chance Alcmaeon brought his own daughter and used her as a handmaiden in his household, only later did he find out who she was when he went to Corinth to collect his children. And on discovering this he leaves the region and founds the Amphilocian Argos.


Whether this is a myth on morals, which it easily could be taken as, or not, is difficult to decide. Considering that all myths have their origin in Astrology and agriculture, it requires greater consideration, the failed first attack on Thebes, and later successful attack, may in fact be to do with a battle of beliefs, and it requires more consideration, but for now I will leave it for you to think on.