|Nessus, Heracles, & Deianeira|
Black-figured hydria, 6th c. BC, Louvre
Wednesday, May 6, 2015
The Life of Hercules: The Hero's Death
Tenth (and last) of a series. Here are the earlier posts:
The Early Adventures in the Quest for the Golden Fleece
The following utilizes the text of Robert Graves' Greek Myths:
Herakles had many women and other wives, but his most important liaison was with Deianeira. Deianeira was considered the daughter of Oeneus and the sister of Meleager, but she was really a daughter of Dionysus. She was courted by the River God Achelous, who often appeared as a bull or a bull-headed man, and the prospect of marrying him revolted her. Herakles was also in contention for her hand and he fought Achelous and won the battle, snapping off one of his bull's horns (I used this, in much adapted form. in The Storm-Wing, when Ki'shto'ba fought the lightning reptile and broke off his horn). Thus Herakles acquired the hand of Deianeira in marriage.
They had four sons and one daughter, including a son named Hyllus. The children that the mad Herakles killed, however, were from a different wife, Megara.
There is no denying that Herakles was never faithful to Deianeira. One day in crossing a river, the Centaur Nessus offered to carry Deianeira across on his back while Herakles swam. Instead, Nessus galloped off and tried to violate Deianeira. Herakles heard her screams and pursued, shooting an arrow through Nessus's breast.
For revenge, the dying Centaur told Deianeira that he would give her a charm to ensure Herakles's faithfulness -- that she should take blood from the wound, mix it with olive oil, and seal it up in a jar, then later on apply it to one of Herakles' shirts. This she did without telling anyone.
Later, when Herakles was preparing a thanksgiving sacrifice for a particular festival, he sent the courier Lichas to Deianeira for a fine shirt and cloak. Deianeira was being forced to live in the same household as one of her husband's mistresses, and so at this point she availed herself of Nessus's love charm, impregnating a piece of wool in the mixture and rubbing the shirt with it. After the clothing was dispatched to Herakles, she flung the piece of wool into the courtyard and to her horror watched as it ate into the pavement, causing red foam to boil up from it. Realizing that Nessus had deceived her, she dispatched another courier, but it was too late - Herakles had already donned the shirt. Herakles' arrow had infused Nessus's blood with the poisonous blood of the Hydra and this caused Herakles to burn with hideous fire. As he ripped off the shirt, his flesh came with it, exposing the bone.
Unable to find relief, Herakles raged across the countryside and killed the unfortunate courier Lichas, who was not at all at fault, by flinging him into the sea, where he became a rock of human shape, known as Lichas even to this day. Then Herakles sent for his son Hyllus and asked to be carried away to die in solitude. Meanwhile, Deianeira killed herself either by hanging herself or by the sword. [Here is a minor irritation - I know I read somewhere that another alternative death for Deianeira was by flinging herself off a cliff, but can I find that now? Doing a little checking, I discovered that in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Deianeira threw herself off a cliff, but I never watched those early episodes.]
Hyllus assured the vengeful Herakles that Deianeira was innocent, so Herakles forgave her and shared only with Hyllus Zeus's prophecy: "No man alive may ever kill Herakles; a dead enemy shall be his downfall." Herakles then lay down on his own pyre and ordered its kindling. Lightning bolts came from the sky and reduced the whole pile to ashes.
Zeus then took Herakles' spiritual remains up to heaven (apotheosis), made him one of the Twelve Olympians, and persuaded Hera to adopt him (unlikely scenario!) by producing him from beneath her skirt. He was then given Hebe in marriage, and he became the porter of Heaven while his mortal phantom stalks Tartarus, still looking like the shaggy earthly hero we all know well.
Those of you who have read the six volumes of the Ki'shto'ba series will see the quite ingenious connections that I was able to draw between Herakles and my own more peaceable and humane Champion. One plot problem lay with the sexual motivation, since termites feel no such thing as sexual jealousy. They do, however, experience the desire for revenge and the instincts of compassion and forgiveness. I won't spoil the final volumes of the series by giving any additional explanation.
This concludes my series on the Life of Hercules. However, I may supplement it with some additional myths which apply to the sequel volume (yes, there has to be a sequel volume, to tie up loose ends), so stay tuned.