The Story of the Death of Hercules

Œneus, who was king of the city of Pleuron in the land of Ætolia, had a fair daughter, Deïaneira by name. Now the maiden was sought in marriage by the god of the river Acheloüs; but she loved him not, for he was strange and terrible to look at. Sometimes he had the shape of a great dragon with scales, and sometimes he had the shape of a man, only that his head was the head of a bull, and streams of water flowed down from his beard. But it came to pass that Hercules, who was stronger than all the men that dwelt upon the earth, coming to the city of Pleuron, saw the maiden and loved her, and would have her to wife. And when she told him, saying that the river-god Acheloüs sought her in marriage, he bade her be of good courage, for that he would vanquish the creature in battle, so that it should not trouble her any more. Which thing he did, for when the river-god came, after his custom, Hercules did battle with him, and came nigh to strangling him, and brake off one of his horns. And the maiden looked on while the two fought together, and was well pleased that Hercules prevailed. King Œneus also was glad, and willingly gave her to him to wife. So after a while he departed with her unto his own country. And as they journeyed they came to the river Evenus. Now on the banks of this river there dwelt one Nessus, a centaur. (These centaurs had heads as the heads of men, but their bodies were like horses’ bodies; and they were a savage race and a lawless.) This Nessus was wont to carry travellers across the river, which indeed was very broad and deep. And when he saw Deïaneira that she was very fair, he would have taken her from her husband; but Hercules drew his bow and smote him with an arrow.

Now when Nessus knew that he should die of his wound—for neither man nor beast lived that was wounded of these arrows—he thought in his wicked heart that he would be avenged on this man that had slain him. Whereupon he said to the woman, “Behold I die. But first I would give thee a gift. Take of the blood that cometh from this wound, and it shall come to pass that if the love of thy husband fail thee, thou shalt take of this blood and smear it on a garment, and give him the garment to wear, and he shall love thee again as at the first.”

So the woman took of the blood and kept it by her. And it came to pass after a time that the two went to the city of Trachis and dwelt there. Now Trachis is in the land of Thessaly, near unto the springs of Œta. And Hercules loved his wife, and she dwelt in peace and happiness, only that he sojourned not long at home, but wandered over the face of the earth, doing many wonderful works at the commandment of Eurystheus, his brother. For the Gods had made Eurystheus to be master over him, for all that he was so strong. Now for the most part this troubled not his wife overmuch; for he departed from his house as one who counted it certain that he should return thereto. But at the last this was not so. For he left a tablet wherein were written many things such as a man writeth who is about to die. For he had ordered therein the portion which his wife should have as her right of marriage, and how his possessions should be divided among his children. Also he wrote therein a certain space of time, even a year and three months, for when that was come to an end, he said, he must either be dead or have finished happily all his labours, and so be at peace continually. And this he had heard as an oracle from the doves that dwell in the oaks of Dodona. And when this time was well-nigh come to an end, Deïaneira, being in great fear, told the matter to Hyllus, her son. And even as she had ended, there came a messenger, saying, “Hail, lady! Put thy trouble from thee. The son of Alcmena lives and is well. This I heard from Lichas the herald; and hearing it I hastened to thee without delay, hoping that so I might please thee.”

“But,” said the Queen, “why cometh not the herald himself?”

“Because all the people stand about him, asking him questions, and hinder him.”

And not a long while after the herald came; and the name of the man was Lichas. And when the Queen saw him she cried, “What news hast thou of my husband? Is he yet alive?”

“Yea,” said the herald, “he is alive and in good health.”

“And where didst thou leave him? In some country of the Greeks, or among barbarians?”

“I left him in the land of Eubœa, where he ordereth a sacrifice to Zeus.”

“Payeth he thus some vow, or did some oracle command it?”

“He payeth a vow. And this vow he made before he took with his spear the city of these women whom thou seest.”

“And who are these? For they are very piteous to behold.”

“These he led captive when he destroyed the city of King Eurytus.”

“And hath the taking of the city so long delayed him? For I have not seen him for the space of a year and three months.”

“Not so. The most of this time he was a slave in the land of Lydia. For he was sold to Omphalé, who is Queen of that land, and served her. And how this came about I will tell thee. Thy husband sojourned in the house of King Eurytus, who had been long time his friend. But the King dealt ill with him, and spake to him unfriendly. For first he said that Hercules could not excel his sons in shooting with the bow, for all that he had arrows that missed not their aim. And next he reviled him, for that he was but a slave who served a free man, even King Eurystheus, his brother. And at the last, at a banquet, when Hercules was overcome with wine, the King cast him forth. Wherefore Hercules, being very wroth, slew the man. For the King came to the land of Tiryns, looking for certain horses, and Hercules caught him unawares, having his thoughts one way and his eyes another, and cast him down from the cliff that he died. Then Zeus was very wroth because he had slain him by craft, as he had never slain any man before, and caused that he should be sold for a year as a bond-slave to Queen Omphalé. And when the year was ended, and Hercules was free, he vowed a vow that he would destroy this city from which there had come to him this disgrace; which vow he accomplished. And these women whom thou seest are the captives of his spear. And as for himself, be sure that thou wilt see him in no long space.”

When Lichas had thus spoken, the Queen looked upon the captives, and had compassion on them, praying to the Gods that such an evil thing might not befall her children, or if, haply, it should befall them, she might be dead before. And seeing that there was one among them who surpassed the others in beauty, being tall and fair exceedingly, as if she were the daughter of a king, she would fain know who she was; and when the woman answered not a word, she would have the herald tell her. But he made as if he knew nothing at all; only that she seemed to be well born, and that from the first she had spoken nothing, but wept continually. And the Queen pitied her, and said that they should not trouble her, but take her into the palace and deal kindly with her, lest she should have sorrow upon sorrow.

But Lichas having departed for a space, the messenger that came at the first would have speech of the Queen alone. And when she had dismissed all the people, he told her that Lichas had not spoken truly, saying that he knew not who was this stranger, for that she was the daughter of King Eurytus, Iolé by name, and that indeed for love of her Hercules had taken the city.

And when the Queen heard this she was sore troubled, fearing lest the heart of her husband should now have been turned from her. But first she would know the certainty of the matter. So when Lichas came, being now about to depart, and inquired what he should say, as from the Queen to Hercules, she said to him, “Lichas, art thou one that loveth the truth?”

“Yea, by Zeus!” said he, “if so be that I know it.”

“Tell me, then, who is this woman whom thou hast brought?”

“A woman of Eubœa; but of what lineage I know not.”

“Look thou here. Knowest thou who it is to whom thou speakest?”

“Yea, I know it; to Queen Deïaneira, daughter of Œneus and wife to Hercules, and my mistress.”

“Thou sayest that I am thy mistress. What should be done to thee if thou be found doing wrong to me?”

“What wrong? What meanest thou? But this is idle talk, and I had best depart.”

“Thou departest not till I shall have inquired somewhat further of thee.”

So the Queen commanded that they should bring the messenger who had set forth the whole matter to her. And when the man was come, and had told what he knew, and the Queen also spake fair, as bearing no wrath against her husband, Lichas made confession that the thing was indeed as the man had said, and that the woman was Iolé, daughter of King Eurytus.

Then the Queen took counsel with her companions, maidens that dwelt in the city of Trachis, and told them how she had a charm with her, the blood of Nessus the Centaur; and that Nessus had given it to her in old time because she was the last whom he carried over the river Evenus; and that it would win back for her the love of her husband. So she called Lichas, the herald, and said to him that he must do a certain thing for her. And he answered, “What is it, lady? Already I have lingered too long.”

And she said, “Take now this robe, which thou seest to be fair and well woven, and carry it as a gift from me to my husband. And say to him from me that he suffer no man to wear it before him, and that the light of the sun touch it not, no, nor the light of a fire, till he himself shall clothe himself with it on a day on which he doeth sacrifice to the Gods. And say that I made this vow, if he should come back from this journey, that I would array him in this robe, wherein to do sacrifice. And that he may know thee to be a true messenger from me, take with thee this seal.”

And Lichas said, “So surely as I know the craft of Hermes, who is the god of heralds, I will do this thing according to thy bidding.”

Now the Queen had anointed the fair garment which she sent with the blood of Nessus the Centaur, that when her husband should clothe himself with it, his heart might be turned to her as at the first.

So Lichas the herald departed, bearing the robe. But after no long time the Queen ran forth from the palace in great fear, wringing her hands, and crying to the maidens, her companions, that she was sore afraid lest in ignorance she had done some great mischief. And when they would know the cause of her grief and fear, she spake, saying, “A very marvellous and terrible thing hath befallen me. There was a morsel of sheep’s wool which I dipped into the charm, even the blood of the Centaur, that I might anoint therewith the robe which ye saw me send to my husband. Now, this morsel of wool hath perished altogether. But that ye may understand this thing the better, I will set it forth to you at length. Know then that I have not forgotten aught of the things which the Centaur commanded me when he gave me this charm, but have kept them in my heart, even as if they were written on bronze. Now he bade me keep the thing where neither light of the sun nor fire might touch it. And this have I done; and when I anointed the robe, I anointed it in secret, in a certain dark place in the palace; but the morsel of wool wherewith I anointed it I threw, not heeding, into the sunshine. And, lo! it hath wasted till it is like unto dust which falleth when a man saweth wood. And from the earth whereon it lay there arise great bubbles of foam, like to the bubbles which arise when men pour into the vats the juice of the vine. And now I know not what I should say; for indeed, though I thought not so of the matter before, it seemeth not a thing to be believed that this Centaur should wish well to the man that slew him. Haply he deceived me, that he might work him woe. For I know that this is a very deadly poison, seeing that Chiron also suffered grievously by reason of it, albeit he was a god. Now if this be so, as I fear, then have I, and I only, slain my husband.”

And she had scarce finished these words when Hyllus her son came in great haste; and when he saw her, he cried, “O my mother! would that I had found thee dead, or that thou wert not my mother, or that thou wert of a better mind than I know thee to be of.”

But she said, “What have I done, my son, that thou so abhorrest me?”

“This day thou hast done my father to death.”

“What sayest thou? Who told thee this horrible thing that thou bringest against me?”

“I saw it with mine own eyes. And if thou wilt hear the whole matter, hearken. My father, having taken with his spear the city of Eurytus, went to a certain place hard by the sea, that he might offer sacrifices to Zeus, according to his vow. And even as he was about to begin, there came Lichas the herald bringing thy gift, the deadly robe. And he put it upon him as thou badest, and slew the beasts for the sacrifice, even twelve oxen chosen out of the prey, and one hundred other beasts. And for a while he did worship to the Gods with a glad heart, rejoicing in the beauty of his apparel. But when the fire grew hot, and the sweat came out upon his skin, the robe clung about him as though one had fitted it to him by art, and there went a great pang of pain through him, even as the sting of a serpent. And then he called to Lichas the herald, and would fain know for what end he had brought this accursed raiment. And when the wretch said that it was thy gift, he caught him by the foot, and cast him on a rock that was in the sea hard by, and all his brains were scattered upon it. And all the people groaned to see this thing, that the man perished so miserably, and that such madness wrought in thy husband. Nor did any one dare to draw near to him, for he threw himself now into the air, and now upon the ground, so fierce was the pain; and all the rocks about sounded again with his groaning. But after a while he spied me where I stood waiting in the crowd, and called to me, and said, ‘Come hither, my son; fly not from me in my trouble, even if it needs be that thou die with me. But take me, and set me where no man may see me; but above all carry me from this land, that I die not here.’ Whereupon we laid him in the hold of a ship, and brought him to this place, where thou wilt see him soon, either newly dead or on the point to die. This is what thou hast done, my mother; for thou hast slain thy husband, such a man as thou shalt never more see upon this earth.”

And when the Queen heard this, she spake not a word, but hasted into the palace, and ran through it like unto one that is smitten with madness. And at the last she entered the chamber of Hercules, and sat down in the midst and wept piteously, saying, “O my marriage-bed, where never more I shall lie, farewell!” And as she spake she loosed the golden brooch that was upon her heart, and bared all her left side; and before any could hinder her—for her nurse had seen what she did, and had run to fetch her son—she took a two-edged sword and smote herself to the heart, and so fell dead. And as she fell there came her son, that now knew from them of the household how she had been deceived of that evil beast the Centaur, and fell upon her with many tears and cries, saying that now he was bereaved both of father and of mother in one day.

But while he lamented, there came men bearing Hercules in a litter. He was asleep, for the pain had left him for a space, and the old man that was guide to the company was earnest with Hyllus that he should not wake his father. Nevertheless, Hercules heard the young man’s voice, and his sleep left him. Then he cried aloud in his agony, complaining to Zeus that he had suffered such a torment to come upon him, and reproaching them that stood by that they gave him not a sword wherewith he might make an end to his pain. But most of all he cursed his wife that she had wrought him such woe, saying to Hyllus—

“See now, my son, how that this treacherous woman hath worked such pain to me as I have never endured before in all the earth, through which, as thou knowest, I have journeyed, cleansing it from all manner of monsters. And now thou seest how I, who have subdued all things, weep and cry as doth a girl. And these hands and arms, with which I slew the lion that wasted the land of Nemea and the great dragon of Lerna, and dragged into the light the three-headed dog that guardeth the gate of hell, see how these, which no man yet hath vanquished in fight, are wasted and consumed with the fire. But there is one thing which they shall yet do, for I will slay her that wrought this deed.”

Then Hyllus made answer, “My father, suffer me to speak, for I have that to tell thee of my mother which thou shouldest hear.”

“Speak on; but beware that thou show not thyself vile, excusing her.”

“She is dead.”

“Who slew her? This is a strange thing thou tellest.”

“She slew herself with her own hand.”

“‘Tis ill done. Would that I had slain her myself!”

“Thy heart will be changed towards her when thou hearest all.”

“This is strange indeed; but say on.”

“All that she did she did with good intent.”

“With good intent, thou wicked boy, when she slew her husband?”

“She sought to keep thy love, fearing that thy heart was turned to another.”

“And who of the men of Trachis is so cunning in leechcraft?”

“The Centaur Nessus gave her the poison long since, saying that she might thus win back thy love.”

And when Hercules heard this he cried aloud, “Then is my doom come; for long since it was prophesied to me that I should not die by the hand of any living creature, but by one that dwelt in the region of the dead. And now this Centaur, whom I slew long ago, hath slain me in turn. And now, my son, hearken unto me. Thou knowest the hill of Œta. Carry me thither thyself, taking also such of thy friends as thou wilt have with thee. And build there a great pile of oak and wild olive, and lay me thereon, and set fire thereto. And take heed that thou shed no tear nor utter a cry, but work this deed in silence, if, indeed, thou art my true son: and if thou doest not so, my curse shall be upon thee for ever.”

And Hyllus vowed that he would do this thing, only that he could not set fire to the pile with his own hand. So they bare Hercules to the top of the hill of Œta, and built a great pile of wood, and laid him thereon. And Philoctetes, who was of the companions of Hyllus, set fire to the pile. For which deed Hercules gave to him his bow and the arrows that missed not their aim. And the tale of this bow, and how it fared with him that had it, may be read in the story of Philoctetes.

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