Hecuba was the chief wife of Priam, king of Troy, and the mother of many of his children, including sons Hector, Paris, and Troilus and daughters Cassandra, Creusa, and Polyxena.
There is no historical evidence that Hecuba ever existed, but she plays a major role in ancient Greek mythology. Ancient sources are divided on the names of Hecuba's parents. Homer, a Greek epic poet of about the eighth century BCE, described her as the daughter of Dymas, a native of Phrygia in western Asia, but according to Greek tragic playwright Euripides (c. 486–c. 406 BCE), her father was Cisseus. Other early writers give her mother's name as Evagora, Glaucippe, or Teleclia. However, Hecuba's importance in myth does not derive from her ancestry, but from her role as the wife of Priam and mother of several of his daughters and 19 of his sons, including Hector, the greatest warrior of the Trojans.
During Priam's reign, Troy was besieged for 10 years by the Greeks. According to Homer, the conflict ended when the Greek armies captured Troy, burned it to the ground, and killed or enslaved its inhabitants. All the stories about Hecuba are set against the background of the destruction of her city.
Until the war, Troy had been the wealthiest and most powerful city in Asia Minor. As Priam's chief wife and the mother of many of his children, most of them sons, Hecuba's status and happiness seemed assured. Yet the decade of the Trojan War stripped her of everything: her family, her home, her social status, and her personal freedom. During the conflict she sent her youngest son, Polydorus, to Polymestor, king of Thrace, for safety. When Troy fell to the Greeks, Hecuba was handed over to Odysseus as a slave. While accompanying Odysseus on his homeward journey to Greece, she discovered the corpse of Polydorus and avenged his murder by Polymestor by killing two of the latter's children and tearing out his eyes. Hecuba was eventually turned into a fiery-eyed dog.
Those are the bare bones of the legend of Hecuba. The story became popular with later writers, who did much to embellish her biography and character. Some of the details they appended are contradictory, however.
According to most Greek sources, the Trojan War began after the Trojan prince Paris, Hecuba's second son by Priam, eloped with the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. In response to this outrage, the Greeks mounted an expedition to rescue Helen from the enemy. According to Pindar (c. 522–c. 438 BCE), a poet from the city of Thebes in Boeotia (northwestern Greece), while Hecuba was pregnant with Paris she had a vivid dream that the son born to her was a firebrand that set fire to the city. The soothsayer Cassandra interpreted the dream to mean that Paris would bring destruction to the whole state. (In Homer's Iliad, Cassandra had been merely a daughter of Hecuba and Priam; her role as a prophetess was added by later authors.) Alarmed by this prophecy, King Priam gave orders that his child be left out to die on Mount Ida. Paris was rescued by a shepherd, however, and as a young man he was accepted back into the city, where he inevitably came to fulfill the seer's prediction.
All but one of Hecuba's children died during the Trojan War. Of the sons whose names were recorded by the author Apollodorus (fl. 140 BCE), a collector and probably an embellisher of myths, Antiphus, Deiphobus, Hector, Hipponous, Pammon, Polites, Troilus, and Paris himself were killed in combat. Polydorus, her youngest son, and her infant grandchild Astyanax (the only son of Hector) were murdered shortly after the end of the war. Her daughters Cassandra, Creusa, Laodice, and Polyxena all died during the fall of the city or shortly afterward. Hecuba's sole surviving offspring was Helenus, who spent some time after the war as a slave but later became king of Epirus.
In the Iliad—Homer's account of the ninth year of the Trojan war—Hecuba remains always in the background, fulfilling the role of the bereaved queen destined to survive the sack of Troy, the loss of her husband, and nearly all her children. The latter part of her life became a favorite subject of Greek tragedy. Hecuba features in two great plays by Euripides. In The Trojan Women, she is handed over to Odysseus at the end of the conflict and has to endure the sacrifice of her daughter Polyxena on Achilles' tomb and the murder of her grandchild, Hector's only son, Astyanax. Hecuba is powerless to intervene as her daughter Cassandra is given as a slave to Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks, and as Andromache, her daughter-in-law, the widow of Hector, is handed over to another Greek captain. Finally Hecuba herself is led away, lamenting the fate of her city, as the slave of the Greek Odysseus.
In Hecuba Euripides gives a different account of the end of the queen's life. She discovers the murder of her last remaining son, Polydorus, and the prophecy is made that she will later be transformed into a dog. Her daughter, Polyxena, accompanies Hecuba on Odysseus's ship, but the Greeks then decide to sacrifice her to Achilles. Shortly after Polyxena's death, word is brought to Hecuba that the body of her son, Polydorus, has been found washed up on shore. As in other versions of the story, Polydorus had been sent for safekeeping to Polymestor, king of Thrace, at the beginning of the war, only to be murdered by the monarch once Troy fell.
According to Euripides, Hecuba exacted a savage vengeance on Polymestor. She went to Thrace, pitched camp, and enticed him and his sons into a tent, where she and other Trojan women murdered the king's own children before his eyes, and then blinded him.
Having lost everything else, Hecuba now lost her mind, and at last even her humanity. Euripides depicts her being driven mad with grief. In the end the prophecy was fulfilled: Hecuba was transformed into a barking dog; she threw herself from Odysseus's ship and drowned in the sea.
Although many of the great characters and exciting incidents from the Trojan War are frequently represented in art, there are relatively few paintings of Hecuba. However, there are two outstanding exceptions to this general rule. Italian Renaissance artist Giuseppe Maria Crespi (1665–1747)—known as lo Spagnolo—l rule. Italian Renaissance artist Giuseppe Maria Crespi (1665–1747) painted Hecuba Blinding Polymnestor, a masterpiece which is now housed in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels, Belgium. Another famous depiction of the Trojan queen appears in the series of frescoes known as Scenes from the Trojan War. These were painted by Pippi de'Gianuzzi (c. 1499–1546) on the walls of the Reggia di Gonzaga (the ducal apartments) in Mantua, Italy.
See also: CASSANDRA; HECTOR; HELEN; ODYSSEUS; PARIS; PRIAM.
- The Iliad. New York: Penguin, 2009. , and Robert Fagles, trans.
- The Odyssey. New York: Penguin, 2009. , and Robert Fagles, trans.
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