Philoctetes, Or The Bow
by Alfred Church
Prince Philoctetes, who
reigned in Methone, which is in the land of Thessaly,
sailed with the other Princes of Greece to make war
against the great city of Troy. For he also had been one
of the suitors of Helen the Fair, and had bound himself
with a great oath that he would avenge her and her
husband, whomsoever she should choose, on any man that
should dare to do her wrong. Now Philoctetes had been
companion to Hercules in many of his labours, and also
had been with him when he died upon Mount Æta. For which
cause Hercules gave him the bow and the arrows which he
bare, having received them at the first from Apollo. A
very mighty bow it was, shooting arrows so as none other
could do, and the arrows were sure dealers of death, for
they had been dipped in the blood of the great dragon of
Lerna, and the wounds which they made no physician might
heal. But it chanced that the Prince, being on his
voyage to Troy, landed at the island of Chrysa, where
there was an altar of Athené, the goddess of the place,
and, desiring to show the altar to his companions, he
approached it too nearly; whereupon the serpent that
guarded it lest it should be profaned, bit him in the
foot. The wound was very sore and could not be healed,
but tormented him day and night with grievous pains,
making him groan and cry aloud. And when men were
troubled with his complainings, and also with the
noisome stench of his wound, the chiefs took counsel
together, and it seemed good to the sons of Atreus, King
Agamemnon and King Menelaüs, who were the leaders of the
host, that he should be left alone on the island of
Lemnos. This matter they committed to Ulysses, who did
according to their bidding. But when the Greeks had laid
siege to the city of Troy, nigh upon ten years, they
remembered Prince Philoctetes and how they had dealt
with him. For now the great Achilles was dead, having
been slain by Prince Paris with an arrow in the Scæan
Gate, when he was ready to break into the city; and the
soothsayers affirmed that the Greeks should not have
their wish upon Troy, till they should bring against it
the great archer to whom they had done wrong. Then the
chiefs took counsel together, and chose Ulysses, who was
crafty beyond all other men, to accomplish this matter,
and with him they sent Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles,
who excelled in strength, even as his father had done.
Now when these two were
landed upon the island, Ulysses led the way to the place
where in time past he had left Philoctetes. A cave it
was in the cliff, with two mouths to it, of which the
one looked to the east and the other to the west, so
that in winter time a man might see the sun and be warm,
but in summer the wind blew through it, bringing
coolness and sleep, and a little below was a spring of
fair water to drink. Then said Ulysses to Neoptolemus,
"Go and spy out the place, and see whether or no the man
And the Prince went up and
looked into the cave, and found that it was empty, but
that there were signs of one who dwelt there, a bed of
leaves, and a cup of wood, very rudely fashioned, and
pieces of wood for kindling fires, and also, a very
piteous sight, the rags wherewith the sick man was wont
to dress his wound. And when he had told what he saw,
Ulysses said, "That the man dwelleth here is manifest;
nor can he be far away, for how can one that is wounded
travel far? Doubtless he is gone to some place whither
the birds resort to slay them, or, haply, to find some
herb wherewith to assuage his pain. But do thou set one
who will wait for his coming, for it would fare ill with
me should he find me."
And when the watch had
been set Ulysses said again, "I will tell what it is
needful for thee to say and do. Only thou must be bold,
son of Achilles, and that not only with thy hand, but in
heart also, if what I shall now unfold to thee shall
seem new or strange. Hearken then: when the man shall
ask thee who thou art and whence thou comest, thou shalt
answer him that thou art the son of Achilles, and that
thou hast left the host of the Greeks, because they had
done thee great wrong, for that, having prayed thee to
come as not being able to take the great city of Troy
without thee, yet they would not deliver to thee the
arms of thy father Achilles, but gave them to Ulysses.
And here thou mayest speak against me all kinds of evil,
for such words will not trouble me, but if thou
accomplish not this thing thou wilt trouble the whole
host of the Greeks. For know that without this man's bow
thou canst not take the city of Troy; know also that
thou only canst approach him without peril, not being of
the number of those who sailed with him at the first.
And if it please thee not to get the bow by stealth, for
this indeed thou must do—and I know thee to be one that
loveth not to speak falsely or to contrive deceit—yet
bethink thee that victory is sweet. Be thou bold to-day,
and we will be righteous to-morrow."
Then the Prince made
reply, "'Tis not in me, son of Laertes, to work by craft
and guile, neither was it in my father before me. I am
ready to carry off this man with a strong arm; and how,
being a cripple, shall he stand against us? but deceit I
will not use. And though I should be loath to fail thee
in this our common enterprise, yet were this better than
to prevail by fraud."
Then said Ulysses, "And I,
too, in my youth would do all things by the hand and not
by the tongue; but now I know that the tongue hath alone
And the Prince replied,
"But thou biddest me speak the thing that is false."
"I bid thee prevail over
Philoctetes by craft."
"But why may I not
persuade him, or even constrain him by force?"
"To persuasion he will not
hearken, and force thou mayest not use, for he hath
arrows that deal death without escape."
"But is it not a base
thing for a man to lie?"
"Surely not, if a lie save
"Tell me what is the gain
to me if this man come to Troy."
"Without this bow and
these arrows Troy falleth not. For though it is the
pleasure of the Gods that thou take the city, yet canst
not thou take it without these, nor indeed these without
And when the Prince had
mused awhile, he said, "If this be so with the arms, I
must needs get them."
Then Ulysses said, "Do
this, and thou shalt gain a double honour."
And the Prince said, "What
meanest thou by thy 'double honour'? Tell me, and I
refuse no more."
"The praise of wisdom and
of courage also."
"Be it so: I will do this
deed, nor count it shame."
"'Tis well," said Ulysses,
"and now I will despatch this watcher to the ship, whom
I will send again in pilot's disguise if thou desire,
and it seems needful. Also I myself will depart, and may
Hermes, the god of craft, and Athené, who ever is with
me, cause us to prevail."
After a while Philoctetes
came up the path to the cave very slowly, and with many
groans. And when he saw the strangers (for now some of
the ship's crew were with Prince Neoptolemus) he cried,
"Who are ye that are come to this inhospitable land?
Greeks I know you to be by your garb; but tell me more."
And when the Prince had
told his name and lineage, and that he was sailing from
Troy, Philoctetes cried, "Sayest thou from Troy? Yet
surely thou didst not sail with us in the beginning."
"What?" cried the Prince.
"Hadst thou then a share in this matter of Troy?"
And Philoctetes made
reply, "Knowest thou not whom thou seest? Hast thou not
heard the story of my sorrows?" And when he heard that
the young man knew nothing of these things: "Surely this
is sorrow upon sorrow if no report of my state hath come
to the land of Greece, and I lie here alone, and my
disease groweth upon me, but my enemies laugh and keep
silence!" And then he told his name and fortunes, and
how the Greeks had left him on the shore while he slept,
and how it was the tenth year of his sojourning in the
island. "For know," he said, "that it is without haven
or anchorage, and no man cometh hither of his free will;
and if any come unwilling, as indeed it doth sometimes
chance, they speak soft words to me and give me, haply,
some meat; but when I make suit to them that they carry
me to my home, they will not. And this wrong the sons of
Atreus and Ulysses have worked against me; for which may
the Gods who dwell in Olympus make them equal
"And I," said the Prince,
"am no lover of these men. For when Achilles was dead—"
"How sayest thou? Is the
son of Peleus dead?"
"Yea; but it was the hand
of a God and not of a man that slew him."
"A mighty warrior slain by
a mighty foe! But say on."
"Ulysses, and Phœnix who
was my sire's foster-father, came in a ship to fetch me;
and when I was come to the camp they even greeted me
kindly, and sware that it was Achilles' self they saw,
so like was I to my sire. And, my mourning ended, I
sought the sons of Atreus and asked of them the arms of
my father, but they made answer that they had given them
to Ulysses; and Ulysses, chancing to be there, affirmed
that they had done well, seeing that he had saved them
from the enemy. And when I could prevail nothing, I
sailed away in great wrath."
"'Tis even," Philoctetes
made reply, "as I should have judged of them. But I
marvel that the Greater Ajax endured to see such
"Ah! but he was already
"This is grievous news.
And how fares old Nestor of Pylos?"
"But ill, for his eldest
born, Antilochus, is dead."
"I could have spared any
rather than these two, Ajax and Antilochus. But
Patroclus, where was he when thy father died?"
"He was already slain. For
'tis ever thus that war taketh the true man and leaveth
the false. But of these things I have had enough and
more than enough. Henceforth my island of Scyros, though
it be rocky and small, shall content me. And now, Prince
Philoctetes, I go, for the wind favours us, and we must
take the occasion which the Gods give us."
And when Philoctetes knew
that Neoptolemus was about to depart, he besought him
with many prayers that he would take him also on his
ship; for the voyage, he said, would not be of more than
a single day. "Put me," he said, "where thou wilt, in
forecastle, or hold, or stern, and set me on shore even
as it may seem best to thee. Only take me from this
place." And the sailors also made entreaty to the Prince
that he would do so; and he, after a while, made as if
he consented to their prayers.
But while Philoctetes was
yet thanking him and his companions, there came two men
to the cave, of whom one was a sailor in the Prince's
ship, and the other a merchant. And the merchant said
that he was sailing from Troy to his home, and that
chancing to come to the island, and knowing that the
Prince was there, he judged it well to tell him his
news; 'twas briefly this, that Phœnix and the sons of
Theseus had sailed, having orders from the sons of
Atreus that they should bring the Prince back; and also
that Ulysses and Diomed were gone on another errand,
even to fetch some one of whom the rulers had need. And
when the Prince would know who he might be, the merchant
bade him say who it was standing near, and when he heard
that it was Philoctetes, he cried, "Haste thee to thy
ship, son of Achilles, for this is the very man whom the
two are coming to fetch. Haply thou hast not heard what
befell at Troy. There is a certain Helenus, son of King
Priam, and a famous soothsayer. Him Ulysses, the man of
craft, took a prisoner, and brought into the assembly of
Greeks; and the man prophesied to them that they should
never take the city of Troy, unless they should bring
thither the Prince Philoctetes from the island whereon
he dwelt. And Ulysses said,' If I bring not the man,
whether willing or unwilling, then cut off my head.'"
And when Philoctetes heard
this his anger was very great, and he became yet more
eager to depart. But first he must go into the cave and
fetch such things as he needed, herbs with which he was
wont to soothe the pains of his wounds, and all the
furniture of his bow. And when he spake of the bow, the
Prince asked whether it was indeed the famous bow of
Hercules that he carried in his hand, and would fain, he
said, touch it, if only it were lawful so to do. And
Philoctetes answered, "Yes, thou shalt touch it and
handle it, which, indeed, no other man hath ever done,
for thou hast done a good deed to me, and it was for a
good deed that I myself also received it."
But when they would have
gone towards the ship, the pangs of his wound came upon
Philoctetes. And then at first he cried, saying, that it
was well with him; but at the last, he could endure no
more, and cried to the Prince that he should draw his
sword and smite off the foot, nor heed if he should slay
him; only he would be rid of the pain. And then he bade
him take the bow and keep it for him while he slept, for
that sleep came ever upon him after these great pains.
Only he must keep it well, especially if those two,
Ulysses and Diomed, should chance to come in the
meanwhile. And when the Prince had promised this,
Philoctetes gave him the bow, saying, "Take it, my son,
and pray to the jealous Gods that it bring not sorrow to
thee as it hath brought sorrow to me, and to him that
was its master before me."
And after a while the sick
man slept. And the Prince, with the sailors that were
his companions, watched by him the while.
But when the sailors would
have had the Prince depart, seeing that he had now the
great bow and the arrows, for whose sake he had come, he
would not, for they would be of no avail, he said,
without the archer himself. And in no long space of time
the sick man woke. Right glad was he to see that the
strangers had not departed, for, indeed, he had scarce
hoped that this might be. Therefore commending the young
man much for his courage and loving kindness, he would
have him help him straightway to the ship, that his pain
having now ceased awhile, they might be ready to depart
without delay. So they went, but the Prince was sorely
troubled in his mind and cried, "Now what shall I do?"
and "now am I at my wits' end so that even words fail
me." At which words, indeed, Philoctetes was grieved,
thinking that it repented the Prince of his purpose, so
that he said, "Doth the trouble of my disease then
hinder thee from taking me in thy ship?"
Then said the Prince, "All
is trouble when a man leaveth his nature to do things
that are not fitting."
And Philoctetes made
answer, "Nay, is not this a fitting thing, seeing of
what sire thou art the son, to help a brave man in his
"Can I endure to be so
base," said the Prince, "hiding that which I should
declare, and speaking the thing that is false?" And
while Philoctetes still doubted whether he repented not
of his purpose, he cried aloud, "I will hide the thing
no longer. Thou shalt sail with me to Troy."
"What sayest thou?"
"I say that thou shalt be
delivered from these pains, and shalt prevail together
with me over the great city of Troy."
"What treachery is this?
What hast thou done to me? Give me back the bow."
"Nay, that I cannot do,
for I am under authority, and must needs obey."
And when Philoctetes heard
these words, he cried with a very piteous voice, "What a
marvel of wickedness thou art that hast done this thing.
Art thou not ashamed to work such wrong to a suppliant?
Give me my bow, for it is my life. But I speak in vain,
for he goeth away and heedeth me not. Hear me then, ye
waters and cliffs, and ye beasts of the field, who have
been long time my wonted company, for I have none else
to hearken to me. Hear what the son of Achilles hath
done to me. For he sware that he would carry me to my
home, and lo! he taketh me to Troy. And he gave me the
right hand of fellowship, and now he robbeth me of the
bow, the sacred bow of Hercules. Nay—for I will make
trial of him once more—give back this thing to me and be
thy true self. What sayest thou? Nothing? Then am I
undone. O cavern of the rock wherein I have dwelt,
behold how desolate I am! Nevermore shall I slay with my
arrows bird of the air or beast of the field; but that
which I hunted shall pursue me, and that on which I fed
shall devour me."
And the Prince was cut to
the heart when he heard these words, hating the thing
which he had done, and cursing the day on which he had
come from Scyros to the plains of Troy. Then turning
himself to the sailors, he asked what he should do, and
was even about to give back the bow, when Ulysses, who
was close at hand, watching what should be done, ran
forth crying that he should hold his hand.
Then said Philoctetes, "Is
this Ulysses that I see? Then am I undone."
"'Tis even so: and as for
what thou askest of this youth, that he should give back
the bow, he shall not do it; but rather thou shalt sail
with us to Troy; and if thou art not willing, these that
stand by shall take thee by force."
"Lord of fire, that rulest
this land of Lemnos, hearest thou this?"
"Nay, 'tis Zeus that is
master here, and Zeus hath commanded this deed."
"What lies are these? Thou
makest the Gods false as thyself."
"Not so. They are true and
I also. But this journey thou must take."
"Methinks I am a slave,
and not freeborn, that thou talkest thus."
"Thou art peer to the
bravest, and with them shalt take the great city of
"Never; I had sooner cast
myself down from this cliff."
Then Ulysses cried to the
men that they should lay hold on him; and this they
straightway did. Then Philoctetes in many words
reproached him with all the wrongs that he had done; how
at the first he had caused him to be left on this
island, and now had stolen his arms, not with his own
hands, indeed, but with craft and deceit, serving
himself of a simple youth, who knew not but to do as he
was bidden. And he prayed to the Gods that they would
avenge him on all that had done him wrong, and chiefly
on this man Ulysses.
Then Ulysses made reply,
"I can be all things as occasion serveth; such as thou
sayest, if need be; and yet no man more pious if the
time call for goodness and justice. One thing only I
must needs do, and that is to prevail. Yet here I will
yield to thee. Thou wilt not go; so be it. Loose him! We
need thee not, having these arms of thine. Teucer is
with us, an archer not one whit less skilful than thou.
And now I leave thee to this Lemnos of thine. May be
this bow shall bring me the honour which thou refusest."
When he had thus spoken he
departed, and the Prince Neoptolemus with him. Only the
Prince gave permission to the sailors that they should
tarry with the sick man till it was time to make ready
for the voyage.
Then Philoctetes bewailed
himself, crying to his bow, "O my bow, my beloved, that
they have wrested from my hands, surely, if thou knowest
aught, thou grievest to see that the man who was the
comrade of Hercules will never hold thee more, but that
base hands will grasp thee, mixing thee with all manner
of deceit." And then again he called to the birds of the
air and the beasts of the field, that they should not
fly from him any more, seeing that he had now no help
against them, but should come and avenge themselves upon
him and devour him. And still the sailors would have
comforted him. Also they sought to persuade him that he
should listen to the chiefs; but he would not, crying
that the lightning should smite him before he would go
to Troy and help them that had done him such wrong. And
at the last he cried that they should give him a spear
or a sword, that he might be rid of his life.
But while they thus talked
together, the Prince came back like one that is in
haste, with Ulysses following him, who cried, "Wherefore
turnest thou back?"
"To undo what I did
"How sayest thou? When
didst thou thus?"
"When I listened to thee,
and used deceit to a brave man."
"What wilt thou then? (I
fear me much what this fool may do.)"
"I will give back this bow
and these arrows to him from whom I took them by craft."
"That shalt thou not do."
"But who shall hinder me?"
"That will I, and all the
sons of the Greeks with me."
"This is idle talk for a
wise man as thou art."
"Seest thou this sword
whereto I lay my hand?"
"If thou talkest of
swords, thou shalt see right soon that I also have a
"Well—I let thee alone. To
the host will I tell this matter; they shall judge
"Now thou speakest well;
be ever as wise; so shalt thou keep thy foot out of
Then the Prince called to
Philoctetes, who, being loosed by the sailors, had
hidden himself in the cave, and asked of him again
whether he were willing to sail with him, or were
resolved to abide in the island.
And when the man had
denied that he would go, and had begun again to call
down a curse on the sons of Atreus, and on Ulysses, and
on the Prince himself, then the Prince bade him stay his
speech, and gave him back the bow and the arrows.
And when Ulysses, seeing
this deed, was very wroth, and threatened vengeance,
Philoctetes put an arrow to the string, and drew the bow
to the full, and would have shot at the man, but the
Prince stayed his hand.
And then again the Prince
was urgent with him that he should cease from his anger,
and should sail with him to Troy, saying that there he
should be healed by the great physician, the son of
Asclepius, and should also win great glory by taking the
city, and that right soon; for that the soothsayer
Helenus had declared that it was the will of the Gods
that the city of Troy should be taken that same summer.
But for all this he
prevailed nothing; for Philoctetes was obstinate that he
would not go to Troy, nor do any pleasure to the chiefs
who had done him such wrong. But he would that the
Prince should fulfil the promise which he had made, that
he would carry him in his ship to his own country. And
this the Prince said that he would do.
And now the two were about
to depart to the ship, when lo! there appeared in the
air above their heads the great Hercules. Very wonderful
was he to behold, with bright raiment, and a great glory
shining from his face, even as the everlasting Gods
beheld him with whom he dwelt in the place of Olympus.
And Hercules spake, saying—
"Go not yet, son of Pœas,
before thou hearest what I shall say to thee. For 'tis
Hercules whom thou seest and hearest; and I am come from
my dwelling in heaven to declare to thee the will of
Zeus. Know then that even as I attained to this
blessedness after much toil, so shall it be with thee.
For thou shalt go to the land of Troy; and first thou
shalt be healed of thy grievous sickness, and afterwards
thou shalt slay Paris with thine arrows, and shalt take
the city of Troy, whereof thou shalt carry the spoils to
thy home, even to Pœas thy father, having received from
thy fellows the foremost prize for valour. But remember
that all that thou winnest in this warfare thou must
take as an offering to my tomb. And to thee, son of
Achilles, I say; thou canst not take the city of Troy
without this man, nor he without thee. Whereof, as two
lions that consort together, guard ye each other. And I
will send Asclepius to heal him of his sickness; for it
is the will of the Gods that Troy should yet again be
taken by my bow. And remember this, when ye lay waste
the land, to have the Gods and that which belongeth to
them in reverence."
Then said Philoctetes, "O
my master, whom I have long desired to hear and see, I
will do as thou sayest."
And the Prince also gave
Then Philoctetes bade
farewell to the island in these words—
"Home that hast watched with me, farewell!
nymphs that haunt the springs or dwell
seaward meadows, and the roar
waves that break upon the shore;
Where often, through the cavern's mouth,
drifting of the rainy South
Hath coldly drenched me as I lay;
Hermes' hill, whence many a day,
When anguish seized me, to my cry
Hoarse-sounding echo made reply.
fountains of the land, and thou,
Pool of the Wolf, I leave you now;
Beyond all hope I leave thy strand,
Lemnos, sea-encircled land!
Grant me with favouring winds to go
Whither the mighty Fates command,
this dear company of friends,
mastering Powers who shape our ends
issues fairer than we know."