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Greek mythology : The Theban Cycle

Parents: Amphiaraus and Eriphyle
Spouses: Callirhoe, Arsinoe
Descendants: Amphilochus (2), Tisiphone by Manto; Clytius by Arsinoe; Acarnan, Amphoterus by Callirhoe; mythical progenitor of the Alcmaeonids.
Greek spelling: ΑΛΚΜΑΙΩΝ (Αλκμαίων)

Alcmaeon was one of the bigger players in the insane Theban soap opera. Son of the famous Amphiaraus, he was joined by his brother Amphilochus (1) in the expedition of the Epigoni whom he led against Thebes, the oracle at Delphi having predicted success under his leadership. After their success in this venture the brothers, or perhaps Alcmaeon alone, avenged their father's betrayal and death by killing the person responsible for it--their mother. Of course matricide is generally frowned upon and he inevitably ended up being chased by the Erinyes who, as they tend to do in cases like this, drove him mad.

At this point he decided, like all smart people did, to consult the oracle at Delphi about getting his sanity back and the Furies off his back. The oracle suggested that he go to "a land that the sun did not shine upon when he killed his mother." While he was in Delphi he made the best of it and sired two children by Manto, daughter of Teiresias. He left the sanctuary at Delphi for Arcadia, where Oicles received him and sent him on to Psophis, where he was temporarily freed from the Furies' persecution due to the purifying ministrations of Phegeus. While in Psophis he married Arsinoe, daughter of Phegeus. To her he gifted the robe and necklace of Harmonia, which he had taken from his mother and which had been the instruments of Amphiaraus' downfall.

His marital bliss didn't last long before the Furies found out where he was and came after him. When he was asked nicely to leave because things were turning kind of barren in Psophis, he finally decided to heed the oracle's advice and headed to the south-western reaches of mainland Greece at the advice of another oracle. At the mouth of the Achelous river he found "new land" created by the river's silting and was purified by the river god, who also gave him his daughter, the nymph Callirhoe in marriage. Apparently some versions mention the Alphius river which is in Elis but the bit about silting makes the Achelous (of which silting is a characteristic even today) much more plausible, as does the general connection of the family with the areas surrounding it.

Just as he was about to settle down for good, the objects that had brought about his father's death came to haunt Alcmaeon. His new wife did not like the idea of her predecessor possessing the glamorous robe and necklace of Harmonia. He should have known better but set out to recover them anyway. His father-in-law Phegeus smelled a rat when Alcmaeon tried to get the objects back from Arsinoe and, depending on whom you believe, killed him himself or had his sons Agenor and Pronous do it. Either way, the infamous cursed robe and necklace were the undoing of yet another Theban.

E2 Dictionary of Classical Mythology


  1. The eldest son of the soothsayer Amphiaraus (for his ancestry, see Table 1) and elder brother of Amphilochus. When Amphiaraus, under strong pressure from his wife Eriphyle, had to leave for the war against Thebes knowing from his powers of divination that he must die there, he charged his children to avenge him when they reached manhood. To achieve this they were to undertake an expedition against Thebes and also kill their mother. Alcmaeon therefore in due course took part, as a follower of Adrastus, in the campaign of the Epigoni. An oracle had promised the Epigoni that they would be victorious if they were led by Alcmaeon.

    But in spite of the oracle and the duty which his father had imposed on him before he left Alcmaeon showed no enthusiasm for leaving to fight against Thebes. He was finally persuaded to do so by his mother who had been lured by the gift from Thersandrus son of Polynices of the robe of Harmony (see Eriphyle). In the earliest fighting Alcmaeon with his own hands killed Laodamas, son of Eteocles and king of Thebes. In a state of demoralization the beleaguered Thebans fled during the night on the advice of their soothsayer Tiresias, and on the following day the victorious troops entered the town and sacked and pillaged it. The dedicated part of the booty to Apollo and put Thersandrus in charge of the town.

    After the battle had been won Alcmaeon went to the Delphic oracle to ask about the second duty he had to discharge, the murder of his mother. The oracle replied that he must do this without fail since not only had Eriphyle allowed herself to be corrupted in order to drive her husband to his death, but she had done the same thing again with his children in deciding that they should go on the second expedition against Thebes. That made up Alcmaeon's mind and he killed Eriphyl, either with the help of his brother Amphilochus or, more probably, by himself. After this the avenging Furies pursued him as they had pursued Orestes when he had killed Clytemnestra. In his distraction he went first to his grandfather Oecles in Arcadia and then later to Psophis and the protection of Phegeus. The latter purified him, brought him back to health and gave him his daughter Arsinoe (or in other accounts Alphesiboea) in marriage. Alcmaeon gave her the necklace and the robe of Harmony which in bygone days had been used to corrupt Eriphyle.

    But the land of Psophis was struck by barrenness and the oracle directed that in order to get rid of this curse Alcmaeon must be purified again, this time by the river-god Achelous. Alcmaeon resumed his wanderings. He went first to Oeneus at Calydon where he was received as a welcome guest. In contract the Thesprotes in Epirus, to whom he went next, drove him from their country. Eventually, in compliance with the terms of the oracle, he found at the mouth of the Achelous a piece of ground 'created after his mother's murder' and there the river-god purified him and gave him his daughter Callirhoe in marriage. But Callirhoe demanded the presents of the robe and necklace of Harmony as a condition of their living together. In order to comply with her wishes Alcmaeon set off again to Phegeus at Psophis and demanded that his first wife should return the presents which he had previously given her. He made the excuse that, in accordance with the command of the oracle, he had to dedicate them to Apollo of Delphi to gain final pardon for the murder of his mother. Phegeus permitted his daughter to return the gifts, but one of Alcmaeon's servants disclosed to the king the true purpose of his master and where they were to go. In his indignation Phegeus ordered his sons Pronous and Agenor (sometimes said to be Temenus and Axion) to set a trap for Alcmaeon and kill him. (Phegeus could not do this himself since Alcmaeon was his guest.)

    In the time of Pausanias, Alcmaeon's tomb was to be seen, surrounded by huge cypress trees, in a high valley above Psophis. His sons, however, lost no time in avenging their father (see Acarnan). A separate tradition, mentioned only by Propertius, had it that this revenge was carried out by Alcmaeon's first wife herself (who, in this version is called Alphesiboea).

    Another tradition, which was used by Euripides, has it that during his madness when he was being pursued by the Furies, Alcmaeon had two children, a boy, Amphilochus, and a girl, Tisiphone, by Manto, the daughter of Tiresias. Subsequently he brought them both to Corinth and entrusted them to Creon, the king of the town, to bring up. But Tisiphone became so exceptionally beautiful that the queen was offended and, fearing that the king might make her his wife, she had her sold as a slave. The girl was bought by her true father, Alcmaeon, who did not recognize her. Then when Alcmaeon returned to Corinth he demanded his children back. The king could give back only his son, but it was later realized that the slave that Alcmaeon had bought was Tisiphone and in this way Alcmaeon regained his two children.
  2. For another Alcmaeon, son of Sillus, see Sillus.


Table of Sources:

  1. - Paus. 7, 24, 4; 8, 24, 8 (cf. Prop. 1, 15, 15ff.); 10, 10, 2
    - Apollod. Bibl. 3, 6, 2; 3, 7, 2; 3, 7, 5f
    - Hyg. Fab. 72
    - Pind. Pyth. 8, 38ff. (55ff.)
    - Thuc. 2, 102
    - Plutarch, De Aud. Poet. 13, 35c
    - Sophocles, Alcmaeon (lost tragedy, Jebb-Pearson, I p. 68f.)
  2. See Sillus.

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