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City of northern Peloponnese (area
Argos was one of the most important cities of Peloponnese, rival of Sparta for the leadership of that region. Indeed, at the start of his Histories, Herodotus presents it as once a city that had "in every respects the first place in the country nowadays called Greece" (Histories, I, 1). And, in the Homeric world, Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek expedition against Troy, is often presented as king of Argos, or of the Argives (eg.: Iliad, II, 100-109, where Agamemnon is presented as king of all of Argolis, though in some parts of the Iliad, Agamemnon is said to be king of nearby Mycenæ, while Diomedes is named as commander in chief of the contingent from Argos, eg. : the catalog of ships, Iliad, II, 559-580), and the word "Argives (Argeioi)", inhabitants of Argos, is often used as synomym of "Greeks". In fact, as will be seen in the following account of the rich mythology surrounding Argos and Argolis, it is hard to separate the stories relating to Argos itself from those relating to Argolis as a whole or to other cities of Argolis, such as Tirynthus or Mycenæ, which helps explain why Agamemnon can be seen by Homer as sometimes king of Argos and at other times as king of Mycenæ.
In mythology, the first king of Argos is the River-God Inachus, a son,
like all rivers of the world, of the Titans Oceanus and his sister and wife
Tethys (not to be confused with the Nereid Thetis, mother of Achilles).
In some legends, Inachus is presented as contemporary with Erichthonius
of Athens and Eumolpus of Eleusis.
He was chosen as arbitrator between Hera and Poseidon in their fight for the
dominion over the country and decided in favor of Hera. Hera indeed, as she
herself claims in the Iliad (Iliad,
IV, 50-52), was the protector of Argos, where she had a very ancient temple,
In Peloponnesian legends, Inachus is said to have been the father of Phoroneus, the first human being (Plato refers to this tradition at Timæus, 22a-b), who is sometimes presented as the one who decided between Hera and Poseidon and introduced the cult of Hera in Peloponnese. He was also credited for teaching men to gather in cities and use fire. He was the father of Niobe, the mother of all living beings and the first mortal who was loved by Zeus (not to be confused with the daughter of Tantalus), from whom she had a son named Argus, credited for teaching men how to cultivate wheat, and who became king of Peloponnese, then called as a whole Argos after him, a name that was later restricted to the city of Argos and the surrounding region of Argolis (according to Arcadian legends, Zeus and Niobe had another son, Pelasgus, the eponym of the Pelasgians, the mythical people that lived in Greece before the Hellens, and supposedly the first man who lived in Arcadia).
Among the descendants of Inachus was Io, who is either said to be the daughter of Iasos, a great-grandson of Argus, or directly the daughter of Inachus, as in Æschylus' (Prometheus Bound, 588). Io too was loved by Zeus and, when Hera, Zeus' wife, became suspicious, Zeus changed Io into a white heifer. Hera then entrusted the metamorphosed Io to the surveillance of Argus, great-grandson of the above mentioned Argus, son of Zeus and Niobe, and thus a relative of Io, endowed with so many eyes that half of them could sleep while the other half stayed awake. Zeus, then, asked Hermes to free his beloved and Hermes killed Argus, whose eyes, in reward, Hera immortalized by moving them on the feathers of the peacock, a bird consecrated to her. After that, Hera sent a gadfly to torment Io who, rendered furious by the insect, ran through all Greece. She first followed the coast of what became known hereafter as the Ionian Gulf, then crossed to Asia at the strait that, as a result, received the name of Bosporus (litterally in Greek, "ox ford"), before eventually ending in Egypt where she gave birth to the son she expected from Zeus, Epaphus. In Egypt, she was later known and honored as Isis. The legend of Io is developed at length in Æschylus' Prometheus Bound (561-886) and is presented by Herodotus at the sart of his Histories, in a rationalized version, as the remote origin of the conflicts between Asia and Greece that led, from rapt of woman to rapt of woman to war (Io abducted by the Phoenicians, Europa by the Cretans, Medea by the Greeks, Helen by Paris, leading to the Trojan War) to the Medean Wars whose story he writes (Histories, I, 1-5).
Epaphus, the son of Zeus and Io, married Memphis, the daughter of the
River-God Nile, from which he had a daughter named Libya,
the eponym of the country west of Egypt. From Poseidon, Libya had twins, Agenor,
the mythical hero of Phoenicia, and Belus, who became
king of Egypt. Agenor became the father of Cadmus
(the founder of Thebes), Phoenix (who settled in Sidon
and gave his name to the Phoenicians) and Europa
(the mother of Minos, son of Zeus and king of
Crete), while Belus had two sons, Danaus and Ægyptus. Danaus had
fifty daughters, the Danaides, while Ægyptus had fifty sons. Afraid
of these boys, Danaus fled with his daughters and reached Argos where he overthrew
the king of the time, Gelanor, last descendant of Phoroneus, to become king
in his place. But, after he had settled in Argos, his fifty nephews came after
him to claim his daughters as wives. Danaus gave his consent, though he was
not convinced by the boy's plea of goodwill, but, during the wedding night,
at their father's command, all the daughters murdered their bridegrooms, except
the first-born, Hypermestra, who spared her husband Lynceus. After that, to
find willing husbands for his daughters, Danaus had to offer them as prizes
in games that he organized. In this manner, they could find husbands among young
boys from the area and became the origin of the Danaans, the people who replaced
the Pelasgians in Greece ("Danaans" is sometimes used by Homer as another name
for the Greeks). Eventually, the Danaides, along with their father Danaus, were
all killed by Lynceus to avenge his brethren. In Hades, as a penalty for their
crime, the Danaides were condemned to pour eternally water in bottomless vessels.
Danaus was said to have built the citadel of Argos, in which his tomb was still
visible in historical times.
This legend may have inspired Plato for the story Socrates tells Callicles in the Gorgias of men in Hades carrying water into leaking jars with sieves, as an image of people with insatiable passions (Gorgias, 493a-d ; see also Republic, II, 363d). From another standpoint, Plato, in the Menexenus, has Aspasia in her funeral oration oppose the Athenians that are pure Greeks to "the Pelopides, Cadmians, Ægyptians and Danaans [that is, the offspring of Pelops, Cadmus, Ægyptus and Danaus] and all others who are barbarians by nature and Greeks by law" (Menexenus, 245d).
Lynceus then became king of Argos. From Hypermestra, he had a son, Abas,
who became the father of twins that reproduced the hatred between their grandfathers
Danaus and Ægyptus : Acrisius and Proetus. They fought
for the kingship of Argos after the death of their father, and Acrisius got
Argos, while Proetus settled in nearby Tirynthus,
fortified for him by the Cyclops. It is said that it is on the occasion of the
war between the two brothers that the round shields used with so much success
during antiquity were invented.
Acrisius had a daughter named Danae and, when he asked the oracle for a son, he was told that it would be his daughter who would have a son and that this son would kill him. So he jailed Danae, but this didn't prevent Zeus from falling in love with her and making her pregnant in her jail by taking the form of a shower of gold (some say it was Acrisius' brother Proetus who made her pregnant and explain this way the hatred between the two brothers). Danae secretly gave birth in her jail to a son named Perseus, and her father didn't learn of it until one day, the infant made noise while playing and Acrisius heard him. Unwilling to kill the baby, yet hoping to save his life, Acrisius put his daughter and her son in a wooden box and abandonned them to the sea. The raft drifted until it landed in the island of Seriphos, where the baby and his mother were taken care of by a fisherman named Dictys, who became Perseus' adoptive father.
Meanwhile, Proetus, the twin brother of Acrisius who had become king of Tirynthus, had to split his kingdom in three and give two shares to Melampous and his brother Bias (grandchildren of Cretheus, the king of Iolcos in Thessalia) to get Melampous, a seer and healer who could understand the language of all the animals and knew how to use plants to heal diseases, to heal his daughters that had been struck by madness at the instigation of Dionysus (or, according to other sources, Hera) and were roaming the country pretending to be cows : at first, Melampous had asked Proetus for one third of his kingdom for himself as a the price for the cure, but Proetus found it too high and refused ; yet, when, finding no other cure for his daughters, he made a second call on Melampous, the healer raised his price and, this time, asked not only for one third of the kingdom for himself, but for another third for his brother Bias. This time, Proetus, afraid that the price might raise again if he waited any longer, agreed and Melampous cured his daughter, who later married Melampous and Bias. Proetus was succeeded by his son Megapenthes.
While this was happening, Perseus had grown up at the court of Polydectes,
the tyrant of the island of Seriphos, who was Dictys'
brother. One day, after he had become a strong and handsome young man, Perseus
promised Polydectes, who had fallen in love with Danae, that he would bring
him back the head of the Gorgon if only he would leave his mother alone. The
Gorgons were three sisters who had snakes for hair, golden wings and turned
into stone whomever looked them in the eyes. They lived in extreme Occident,
near the kingdom of the dead. Only one of them, Medusa, was mortal and, at the
time, she was pregnant by the works of Poseidon. With the help of Hermes and
Athena, flying sandals and a helmet that made him invisible, Perseus managed
to cut the Head of Medusa while she was asleep without looking her in the eyes.
From the neck of Medusa sprang a winged horse named Pegasus and a giant named
Chrysaor. On his way back, while in Ethiopia, Perseus freed and married Andromeda,
who was tied to a rock and offered to a sea monster sent by Poseidon to ruin
her country as a result of the foolish behavior of her mother Cassiopeia, who
had declared herself more beautiful that the Nereids.
Back to Seriphos, Perseus found that Polydictes hadn't waited for his return and had tried to rape Danae, who, with Dictys, had seeked asylum near a sacred altar. With the head of the Gorgon, Perseus changed Polydictes into stone and handed the kingdom of Seriphos over to Dictys. Then, with his wife Andromeda, he set sail toward Argos, his homeland. Learning about that, Acrisius, afraid that the oracle might come true, left Argos and fled to the country of the Pelasgians. There, he attended games organized by the king of Larissa when he was killed by a discus accidentally thrown among the spectators by none other than Perseus, who had come as a competitor to these games. Full of grief when learning who the victim was, Perseus buried his father and, unwilling to become king of Argos after such a crime, swapped the kingdom of Argos for that of Tirynthus with his cousin Megapenthes, the son of Proetus, who brought along with him the families of Bias and Melampous with whom he was sharing kingship. Perseus was said to have built the walls of Mycenæ.
From Andromeda, Perseus had many children, including Alcæus and Electryon. The former was the father of Amphitryon and the later of Alcmene, the earthly parents of Heracles (Heracles was also said to be the son of Zeus, who had assumed the appearance of Amphitryon to seduce Alcmene). Perseus was also, through another of his sons, Sthenelus, who became king of Mycenæ, the grandfather of Eurystheus, Heracles' rival for the kingdom of Mycenæ who imposed upon him the 12 labors.
Back in Argos, Megapenthes had a son, Anaxagoras, and a daughter, Iphiarina (who is sometimes said to have married Melampous). Anaxagoras succeeded his father as king of Argos, and, in some traditions, it is him, not his grandfather, who split his kingdom with Melampous and Bias after Melampous had healed Argian women become mad.
Anaxagoras was succeeded on the throne of Argos by his son Alector, then by Alector's son Iphis.
During all that time, and until the reign of Cylarabes, the great-grandson of Iphis, who reigned after the Trojan war and reunited the kingdom of Argos under his sole leadership after the death of the last descendants of Melampous and Bias, Argos was split between the three families.
Melampous married Iphianassa, one of Proetus' daughters he had cured, while Bias married the other, Lysippe, though he had been married earlier to Pero, the daughter of his uncle Neleus, king of Pylos, and sister of Nestor, with whom he had had several children. It is a son he had had with Pero, Talaus, who succeeded him. Talaus took part in the expedition of the Argonauts and married one of Melampous' granddaughters, Lysimache (other traditions give Lysianassa, the daughter of Polybus, king of Sicyon, as the wife of Talaus), to become the father of Adrastus, who was to lead the ill-fated expedition of the Seven against Thebes.
Melampous had several sons, including Antiphates who succeeded him, and Abas, whose daughter Lysimache, in one tradition, married Talaus and was the mother of Adrastus. Antiphates married Zeuxippe, a daughter of Hippocoon, the half-brother of Tyndarus, king of Sparta, who gave him two sons, Oecles and Amphalces. Oecles married Hypermestra, daughter of either Thespius, king of the Boeotian city of Thespiæ, or Thestius, king of Pleuron and took part in the expedition of Heracles against Troy in which he was killed by Laomedon while guarding the ships. Oecles had a son named Amphiaraus who, aside from being admired as a bold and just king, was also a seer.
When Amphiaraus was young, during quarrels beween the reigning families in Argos, he killed Talaus and ousted Adrastus, who fled to Sicyon at the court of Polybus, his grandfather on is mother's side in the tradition that makes Lysianassa the mother of Adrastus). When Polybus died without children, he left his throne to Adrastus. Having become king of Sicyon, Adrastus made peace with his cousin Amphiaraus and recovered his share of the throne of Argos ; and, though he never completely forgave his cousin, he gave him his sister Eriphyle in marriage, under the condition that, in case of future disagreement, they would rely on her arbitration, a condition that turned out to be fateful to Amphiaraus later.
The opportunity for Adrastus to get even with Amphiaraus came when Polynices, the son of Oedipus ousted from Thebes by his brother Eteocles, and Tydeus, the son of Oeneus, king of Calydon, exiled by his father for having killed his brother, both arrived in Argos and knocked at Adrastus' door the very same day to seek asylum. While waiting at the door, the two exiles started fighting "like lion against boar", which reminded Adrastus, when he saw them, of an old oracle saying that he would marry his daughters to a lion and a boar. So, Adrastus greeted them, purified Tydeus of his murder, and gave his elder daughter Argia in marriage to Polynices and his younger daughter Deipyle to Tydeus, pledging to help them recover their kingdoms. And this was the origin of the expedition of the Seven against Thebes.
To help Polynices recover his throne, Adrastus asked the help of members of the three royal families of Argos, the sons of Bias, Melampous and Proetus. The seven princes who took part in the expedition against Thebes were, aside from Adrastus, their leader, Polynices and Tydeus :
When Adrastus died, of grief at the death of his last son in the expedition of the Epigones, he left his share of the throne of Argos to Diomedes, who was the son of his daughter Deipyle and of Tydeus. Diomedes married one of his aunts, Ægialea. Before becoming king of Argos, Diomedes, who was the grandson of Oeneus, king of Calydon, by his father Tydeus, had restored, with the help of Alcmæon, Oeneus' daughter and son-in-law on the throne of Calydon which had been usurped by Agrius, a brother of Oeneus, with the help of his sons. After that, Diomedes took part in the Trojan war at the side of Ulysses. In older traditions, he had one of the happiest returns from that war. But later traditions added new episodes to his story : while he was away at Troy, his wife Ægialea, at first faithful to him, had finaly decided to take lovers and Diomedes, when coming back, barely escaped death at their hands by fleeing in Italy, where he later died after having founded several new colonies in southern Italy.