It was with great pride — and only mild nausea — that we shared with our readers 10 examples of historically significant people who committed incest through marriage. It left us curious, though: What about the offspring? Which people who were prominent in the course of human events had that blemish on their origins? Did it have significant impact on who they became? How did they feel about it if they ever expressed an opinion? It is indeed highly dangerous for offspring, as Psychology Today reported that fewer than 46% of children of incest within the immediate family do not have severe genetic defects.
We won’t be focusing solely on European aristocrats. We’ll be trying to reach every corner of the globe and every social strata — although this is probably an area where diverse representation won’t be particularly appreciated…
Many children were taught in Sunday School the story of how Lot, descendant of Abraham, fled the city of Sodom with his family and how his wife looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt. After they grew up a bit, many of those Sunday School students learned the unsavory part of the story where Lot had children by his two daughters after they got him drunk — one of those inbred children being Ben-Ammi, by his youngest daughter. As noted in the intro, no product of incest wants to be defined by that aspect of their life, but Ben-Ammi literally means “Son of My Kin,” so he wasn’t really able to escape it.
Ben-Ammi is mostly remembered for founding a tribe called the Ammonites. That tribe was, for a long time, a thorn in the side of the Israelis. They would often raid Israeli travelers. By the 6th century BC they reached a much greater threat level when they joined an alliance with Syrians and invaded Judah. Curiously, after King David waged a grueling war against them (during the time that he was having his notorious affair with Bathsheba) and conquered their capital, he was persuaded to worship their god for a time. They wouldn’t be defeated once and for all by the Judeans until the 2nd century BC, under the command of Judas Maccabeus.
9. Saint Gregory
Also known as either Gregory I or Gregory the Great, he was Pope of the Catholic Church from 590 to 604. According to the 14th century document the Gesta Romanorum, he was conceived by two of the children of Emperor Marcus around 540 AD, and was abandoned by his naturally ashamed parents near the sea. He was found by fishermen and delivered to the local monastery. It was after he grew up that he found tablets that informed him about the truth about his origins.
Gregory’s legend might seem like it was some sort of slander, or maybe anti-church propaganda. But in the story, as soon as he learned about it, he traveled to the Holy Land as an attempt to cleanse the sin of his disgraceful origins, including living in poverty on a coastal rock for 17 years. It would be his extreme piety that would lead to his assent to the role of pope. Fittingly, he was able to provide absolution to his mother.
8. Darwin’s Children
Charles Darwin was one of the most esteemed members of our previous list about historical figures with incestuous marriages, and it’s time to revisit that family and get to know them better. Many of his seven children that survived into adulthood would lead distinguished lives, such as George Darwin — who became a professor of astronomy and experimental philosophy at Cambridge University — or Leonard Darwin, who became president of the Royal Geological Society. But their most notable contribution to science was less something they did, than something that was done to them.
Beginning with his first son, William Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin began to take extensive notes on the development of his children. He certainly didn’t go to the extremes of seeing how they reacted to deliberate abuse or neglect, but the tone of his notes would become so detached that he at least called one of them “it.” He published his observations in 1872 as part of the book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. The experiments performed on William, Anne, and other Darwin children would be cited heavily by such giants in the burgeoning field of psychology as Sigmund Freud.
7. Charles II
It’s not an obscure fact that there was a lot of inbreeding the Hapsburg Dynasty, especially considering that it contained people like Philip II, who engaged in it with so many wives. The unseemly practice culminated in the final Hapsburg King of the Spanish Empire, who reigned from 1665 to 1700, beginning at age four. His parents, Philip IV of Spain and Mariana of Austria, were first cousins. They had as many as 11 incestuous marriages in their family history.
Charles II suffered from hydrocephalus, was constantly ill, had a congenital heart defect, and went bald by age 30. He was supposedly extremely easily manipulated by other heads of state, as he could barely even read or write. His own subjects referred to him with pity as “El Hechizado” (“The Hexed”). He passed away at the age of just 39 without producing an heir, and so his death was followed in short order by the War of Spanish Succession. It was a fittingly uninspiring note on which to end the reign of a deeply unhealthy dynasty.
6. Mahidol Adulyadej
It may seem that this 20th century monarch was the inverted answer from Thailand (then Siam) to Charles II. He was born in 1892 to King Rama V and the scion of one of his four half-sisters that the king kept as concubines. As he was the Rama V’s 69th son, he did not seem likely to be in the line of succession. However in 1925, his eldest brother King Vajiravudh died, and all others in the line of succession had either died of natural causes or lacked children, so he reluctantly took the throne. He had health problems that were attributed to his incestuous origin, but his mind did not seem afflicted by his birth, to say the least.
While the prince spent much of his time during his developing years in Europe, his most significant education began in Harvard University in 1917. After graduating with a medical degree in 1927, he returned home with the training in the field where he would make his greatest mark. His health and sanitation reforms, financed in large part through the Rockefeller Foundation, would led to him being dubbed the “Father of Modern Medicine and Public Health in Thailand.” This achievement was so celebrated that today there is a Prince Mahidol Award given internationally for outstanding work in medicine and public health.
5. Theodore Stravinsky
The composer Igor Stravinsky and his cousin Catherine Nossenko had been childhood friends and mutual artistic supporters before they were married in 1905. In 1907, she gave birth to their son Theodore, who was named after his grandfather. The elder Stravinsky went on to worldwide fame for such compositions as The Rite of Spring and The Firebird and completely overshadowed his son in the eyes of the world. However, the younger Stravinsky went on to a career of his own that’s worth getting to know better.
In 1927, Theodore Stravinsky had his first solo exhibition in Paris, securing him in the painting career that would make him an international success. By 1940, he would be exhibited in New York as well, just before being arrested by the Vichy government. By 1948, he secured commissions doing high-profile clerical stained glass windows. By 1977, these commissions would earn him the insignia Commander of the Papal Order of St. Gregory the Great, a title bestowed on him by Pope Paul VI. Little wonder there is a foundation dedicated to his memory today.
4. John Byrne
For years, he was one of the the biggest names in the field of British television writing and theater. His credits include the scripts for the plays The Slab Boys and Colquhoun and MacBryde, which premiered in the Royal Court Theater in London. He also wrote the teleplays Tutti Frutti and Your Cheatin Heart. Many also know him for being the ex-husband of A-List actress Tilda Swinton after 14 years together.
The incestuous union that made him was between his mother and his grandfather. He learned about it in 2002 from his cousin Aileen Kane, and he claimed that it explained why his mother went to visit his parents in their home of Cardonald so often. He didn’t explain how he learned of the affair, but he did claim that the affair unsurprisingly left his mother with a mental illness that claimed her life in the 1980s. Byrne has expressed a somewhat morbid sense of humor about it, saying “that’s what they do in Ireland. I presume it’s what they do in unlettered places and lettered places. It’s traditional, and nobody speaks about it.”
It reasonably didn’t come up in any version of Frank Miller’s 300 or most tellings of the Battle of Thermopylae, but Queen Gorgo was actually King Leonidas’s niece. There is speculation among historians that the reason for the marriage was to heal a rift between Leonidas and Gorgo’s father Cleomenes, as Cleomenes had no male heirs to Sparta’s throne and needed a line of succession. What’s not disputed is that when Leonidas died at the famous battle, Pleistarchus was too young to rule, and so for a time the regent was Pausanias, who defeated the Persians in the Battle of Platea after the war had turned decisively against the Persians at the Battle of Salamis.
The most recorded venture of the reign of Pleistarchus was when he put down a huge Helot (i.e “slave”) revolt in the wake of a massive earthquake in 463 BC. It was a considerable achievement, as most of the population of Sparta at the time was slaves (a source from the same century claims that slaves outnumbered Spartan citizens seven to one). This success would still prove disastrous for Sparta down the line, because it kept the Spartans too occupied to aid Athens in stopping a revolt on Thasos, or to aid Thasos by conquering Athens when it was vulnerable. In either case, it helped set the stage for the Peloponnesian War shortly after Pleistarchus’s death, a decades long civil war which would leave Greece itself too weakened to resist conquest by Macedonian King Philip II, father of Alexander the Great.
We return to the subject of Lot and the children he had with his daughters. With his older daughter, he had Moab, and it turned out that Ben-Ammi had gotten away relatively light when it came to names. Moab translates to “from my father.” Despite such a setback, he also became the creator of a tribe of his own, and he followed the tradition of his brother and called his clan the Moabites in the 14th century.
Like the Ammonites, the Moabites would become bitter enemies of Israel. It began as early as the 13th Century. King Saul and King David would both go to war against them in the 11th Century BC, and King Solomon would attempt to put an end to the wars by erecting an idol to their god Chemosh. For a time, “moabite” just became a generic slang term for any group that the Judeans considered enemies of God. According to the historian Josephus, they were killed off by the Babylonians. Later historians estimated that this happened in 582 BC. We have to say, roughly eight centuries is a pretty good run for any community that was the result of incest.
1. Amenhotep I
He’s certainly not as famous as Egyptian pharaohs such as Ramses and King Tut, but if you like warmongers, he was much more successful as a pharaoh than either of them. By the time his sibling parents Ahmose I and Ahmose-Nefertiti had him around 1540 BC, incest was a centuries-old tradition among Egyptian royalty. Amenhotep I would continue the tradition by marrying his sister Merytamun. It would continue after him for more than a millenia and a half.
His military accomplishments include defeating an invasion from Libya that threatened the Nile Delta. He would spread the empire far to the south into modern day Sudan, or Nubia as it was known then. To the east, there is archaeological evidence that he spread his empire all the way to Syria. On the domestic front he had accomplishments such as reopening mines in the Sinai Peninsula and having temples built in Northern Egypt, though he was not so generous with the newly conquered Southern territory. By the standards of his time, it was certainly a reign to take pride in.
Dustin Koski is also the author of things without incest, such as his occult horror novel Not Meant to Know.