The Death Of Hercules by
neus, who was king of the
city of Pleuron in the land of Ćtolia, had a fair
daughter, Deďaneira 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 neus
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 Deďaneira 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 woundfor neither man nor beast
lived that was wounded of these arrowshe 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 ta. 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, Deďaneira, 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
"I left him in the land of
Euba, 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
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 Euba; 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
Deďaneira, daughter of neus and wife to Hercules, and
"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
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
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
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
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
"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 herfor her nurse had
seen what she did, and had run to fetch her sonshe 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
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
"'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 ta. 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 ta, 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