Greek mythology, Eurystheus was king of Tiryns, one of three Mycenaean strongholds in the Argolid: Sthenelus was his father and the "horsewoman" Nicippehis mother, and he was a grandson of the hero Perseus, as was his opponent Heracles. He was married to Antimache, [Antimache, "strife of opposites" does not feature further in Greek myth, aside from a list of names of her sons and a genealogy for her, given in Pseudo-Apollodorus, " Bibliotheke" 2.5.9, 2.8.1, 3.9.2.] daughter of Amphidamas. In the contest of wills between Heraand Zeusover who the hero would be, to defeat the remaining creatures representing an old order and bring about the reign of the Twelve Olympians, Eurystheus ("wide strength") was Hera's candidate and Heracles—though his name implies that at one archaic stage of myth-making he had carried "Hera's fame"— was the candidate of Zeus. The arena for the actions that would bring about this deep change are the Twelve Laborsimposed on Heracles, by Eurystheus. The immediate necessity for the Labours of Heracles is as penance for Heracles' murder of his own family, in a fit of madness–that was sent by Hera, however; further human rather than mythic motivation is supplied by mythographers who note that their respective families had been rivals for the throne of Mycenae. Details on the Twelve Labours are to be found at the article on Heracles, but Hera was connected with all of the opponents Heracles had to overcome.
Heracles' human stepfather
Amphitryonwas also a grandson of Perseus, and since Amphitryon's father ( Alcaeus) was older than Eurystheus' father ( Sthenelus), he might have received the kingdom, but Sthenelus had banished Amphitryon for accidentally killing (a familiar mytheme) the eldest son in the family ( Electryon). When Zeusproclaimed the next born descendant of Perseus should get the kingdom shortly before his son Heracles was born, Herathwarted his ambitions by delaying Alcmene's labour and having her candidate Eurystheus born prematurely.
Heracles first task was to slay the
Nemean Lionand bring back its skin, which Heracles decided to wear. Eurystheus was so scared by Heracles' fearsome guise that he hid in a subterranean bronze winejar and from that moment forth all labors were communicated to Heracles through a herald, Copreus.
For his second labour, to slay the
Lernaean Hydra, Heracles took with him his nephew, Iolaus, as a charioteer. When Eurystheus found out that Heracles' nephew had helped him he declared that the labour had not been completed alone and as a result did not count towards the ten labours set for him.
Eurystheus' third task did not involve killing a beast, but to capture the
Cerynian Hind, a golden-horned stag sacred to Artemis. Heracles knew that he had to return the hind as he had promised to Artemis, so he agreed to hand it over on the condition that Eurystheus himself came out and took it from him. Eurystheus came out, but the moment Heracles let the hind go, she sprinted back to her mistress, and Heracles departed, saying that Eurystheus had not been quick enough.
When Heracles returned with the
Erymanthian Boar, Eurystheus was frightened and hid again in his jar and begged Heracles to get rid of the beast; Heracles obliged.
The fifth labour proposed by Eurystheus was to clear out the numerous stables of Augeias. Striking a deal with Augeias, Heracles proposed a payment of a tenth of Augeias' cattle if the labour was completed successfully. Not believing the task feasible, Augeias agreed, asking his son Phyleus to witness. Heracles rerouted two nearby rivers (Alpheis and Peneios) through the stable, clearing out the dung rapidly. When Augeias learned of Heracles' bargain for the task, he refused payment. Heracles brought the case to court, and Phyleus testified against his father. Enraged, Augeias banished both Phyleus and Heracles from the land before the court had cast vote. However, Eurystheus refused to credit the labour to Heracles, as he performed it for extraneous payment.
For his seventh labour Heracles captured the
Cretan Bull. Heracles used a lassoand rode it back to his cousin. Eurystheus wanted to sacrifice the bull to Herahis patron, who hated Heracles. She refused the sacrifice because it reflected glory on Heracles. The bull was released and wandered to Marathon, becoming known as the Marathonian Bull.
When Heracles brought back the man-eating
Mares of Diomedessuccessfully, Eurystheus dedicated the horses to Hera and allowed them to roam freely in the Argolid. Bucephalus, Alexander the Great's horse, was said to be descended from these mares.
To acquire the belt of
Hippolyte, queen of the Amazonswas Heracles's ninth task. This task was at the request of Eurystheus' daughter, Admete.
To extend what may have once been ten Labours to the canonical dozen, it was said that Eurystheus didn't count the Hydra, as he was assisted, or the Augean stables as Heracles received payment for his work.For the eleventh labour Heracles had to steal the Apples of the
Hesperides; his final labour was to capture Cerberus, the three-headed hound that guarded the entrance to Hades.
After Heracles died, Eurystheus attempted to destroy his many children (the
Heracleidae, led by Hyllus), who fled to Athens. He attacked the city, but was soundly defeated, and he and his sons were killed. The stories about the killer of Eurystheus and the fate of his corpse vary, [Ps-Apollodorus, " Bibliotheke" 3.8.1 and Diodorus Siculus4.57 give Hyllusas the slayer, Pausanias 1.44.10 and Strabo7.6.19 give Iolaus.] but the Athenians believed it remained on their soil and served to protect the country against the descendants of Heracles, who traditionally included the Spartans and Argives.
After Eurystheus' death, the brothers
Atreusand Thyestes, whom he had left in charge during his absence, took over the city, the former exiling the latter and assuming the kingship, while Tirynsreturned to the overlordship of Argos.
Eurystheus in Euripides
Eurystheus was a character in "Heracleidae", a play by
Euripides. Macaria, one of the daughters of Heracles, and her brothers and sisters hid from Eurystheus in Athens, ruled by King Demophon. As Eurystheus prepared to attack, an oracletold Demophon that he would win if and only if a noble woman was sacrificed to Persephone. Macaria volunteered for the sacrifice and a spring was named the Macarian springin her honor.
*Kerenyi, Karl. "The Heroes of the Greeks". New York: Thames and Hudson, 1959.
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