]Where shall we start with this story? Let us start before the beginning, with Zeus, most powerful of the gods, transforming himself into some animal form and searching the land for a sexual and/or romantic diversion. He tended to do this from time to time, as his home life was apparently unsatisfying. Perhaps he relished the feeling of being so much stronger than the mortals he mated with. His activities never sat well with his wife Hera, in any event.
Zeus, this time assuming the form of an eagle, came across Aegina who, though mortal, was herself descended from gods. Her father was the river god Asopus and her mother Metope was a daughter of the river god Ladon. (Seems that taking up with mortals was not restricted to the gods of Olympus.)
Zeus carried Aegina away, perhaps still in his eagle form (reports are sketchy) and took her to the island of Oenone to have his way with her. The island was sparsely populated and a perfect place to mate with an unwilling partner without attracting attention. There are few writings about how Aegina felt about this whole business. Was she pleased at being made the consort of the most powerful and revered of the Olympic gods? Was she terrified and longed to escape but had nowhere to go, being on an island with no family or friends?
In a short time, she gave birth to a son, Aeacus. Zeus had little time enjoy his role as a new father, because Aegina’s father came angrily a-calling. Zeus had been ratted out by Sisyphys, the king of nearby Corinth, who had told Aegina’s father Asophus where Zeus had taken her. Why? Because he wanted a spring in dry Corinth and knew the river god could provide.
To escape dealing with Asophus, Zeus (no doubt gnashing his teeth at the inconvenience) transformed himself yet again, this time into a large boulder. But since he knew Aegina would be found and tell the whole story to her father, he transormed Aegina as well… into the soil of the island itself. Asophus was furious with Sisyphus because he found no Zeus and no daughter on the island of Oenone. The island that is now known as Aegina.
Zeus was royally pissed since he’d lost his latest conquest and had to pretend to be a boulder. So undignified. Years and years later, Sisyphus had offended off so many gods that he was relegated to pushing a huge boulder up a hill in Hades for all eternity. Coincidence?
But in the meantime, Zeus’ wife Hera had her own ideas of who to punish. She directed her fury not at Zeus himself, but at the island that had once been his mistress. She sent a plague upon Aegina that felled the animals first and then moved on to the people, either killing them outright or driving them to suicide in their fear of impending infection and death. Aeacus, alone, was untouched by the ravages of this pestilence, and found himself the only inhabitant of Aegina when he reached adulthood.
It was then that he lamented to his godly father that he was a king without anyone to command. How prescient that his name means “bewailing” in Greek. Ovid tells the story of Aeacus pausing near an ant-infested oak tree and wailing to Zeus, “O most excellent father, grant me just as many subjects, and fill my empty walls.”
Zeus sent the lonely king a vision that night, of the swarm of ants on that tree twisting and changing shape, becoming the mighty army that he felt he deserved. Aeacus woke in the morning to discover that the visions spoke the truth, and that he had a huge mass of Myrmidons (following the Greek word for “ants”) to serve and follow him.
Note that Zeus created only men. No doubt this throng of former ants, tired of being the subjects of a single all-powerful queen, took out their frustrations on the neighboring shores, carrying off their newfound wives much as Zeus had, to produce Aeacus. Perhaps due to this behavior—and the angry fathers and brothers who pursued their lost daughters and sisters—Aeacus fortified Aegina, making the island difficult to approach through surrounding it by sunken rocks and reefs.
Despite all the kidnapping and rape done under his watch, King Aeacus became regarded as the most righteous and pious of the Hellenes; word even spread that Zeus would take his counsel when there were disagreements among the gods. When mortal men had godly-created punishments they wanted to escape from, they would seek out Aeacus to pray and make sacrifices to his famous father for them. He ended one famous drought in this manner.
Years passed, and the circle came round again when Aeacus found himself his own wife, a woman by the name of Endeis. Her background was somewhat mysterious; some said she was the daughter of this or that minor deity, but the most persistent rumor was that she was the daughter of the Centaur Chiron. He married her and to his delight, she bore him two sons: Peleus and Telamon.
Perhaps there is some gene, specific to those of godly lineage, that compels the males to kidnap unwilling mortal women and force them into intercourse? Aeacus pursued the Nereid Psamathe, who was caught despite her best attempts, including turning herself into a seal at one point. Maybe Aeacus got off on seal fucking. Psamathe bore him another son, Phocus, who quickly became his favorite, to the consternation of Endeis and her two sons.
Soon Endeis was following in Hera’s footsteps, directing her attention not on Aeacus and his adultery and abandonment of her, but on the new “focus” of her husband’s affection. She persuaded her sons to plan the murder of Phocus during an athletic match. Phocus was forever outperforming her two sons, so she took great delight when he was killed by a well-thrown throw to the head during a game of quoits. (It’s like horseshoes; imagine someone throwing the horseshoe at your head instead of at a metal rod stuck in the ground.) They hid his body in the woods.
Aeacus learned what Endeis’ sons had done and sent them immediately into exile. Telamon went to Salamis, an island off the coast of Attica in the Saronic Gulf, and Peleus went to Phthia in southern Thessaly, and in time both became rulers of the countries that received them. With no sons to carry on his legacy, the remaining days of Aeacus were noted very little in historical record.
Aeacus was returned to his mother’s embrace when he died, buried in the soil of Aegina.
Aeacus’ story did not end with his death, however. After he made his journey to Hades, he was appointed to be one of the judges of the dead, along with Minos (of Crete) and Rhadamanthys (son of Zeus and Europa). He probably spends a bit of time visiting Sisyphus to see how he’s doing with that boulder.
The Myrmidons (“ant-people”) later took part in the Greek expedition against Troy, led by Achilles, son of Aeacus’ exiled son Peleus.
Alexander the Great traced his ancestry (through his mother) to Aeacus.