Text of the Poem
Deianira is married to the great hero Hercules. Hercules is now returning from his conquest of the kingdom of Oechalia, where he has killed the king, Eurytus, and has captured his daughter, Iole. Word has reached Deianira that Iole is being treated, not as a slave or prisoner, but as Hercules' honored mistress. Deianira knows that Hercules has a long history of involvement with other women--many other women--and she fears that Iole will supplant her in Hercules' affections. To prevent this, she has sent him a tunic soaked with the blood of one of his slain enemies, believing that it is an infallible charm for keeping his love. Unbeknownst to her, the blood is infected with a deadly poison from Hercules' own arrows, which will eat into his flesh as soon as he puts the tunic on. As she awaits further word on Hercules' activities, Deianira writes to him, presenting her own sorrows, reminding him of his great exploits, and reproaching him for his feminine entanglements. As she nears the end, she receives word that he has been poisoned by the tunic she sent him, and she finishes the letter with bitter self-reproach and indications of her impending suicide.
The story starts well back in time--three generations back from Hercules, in fact, with the Greek hero Perseus. Perseus was the son of Jove and the human woman Danae. As a young man, among his other exploits, he slew the Gorgon, Medusa, a monstrous woman with snakes for hair; anyone who looked at her face was instantly turned to stone. He also rescued the maiden Andromeda from a sea monster. He married her and they had children, including three sons who matter for this story: Alcaeus, Electryon, and Sthenelus. Alcaeus had a son, Amphitryon, and Electryon had a daughter, Alcmene. Amphitryon and Alcmene married one another, but Amphitryon accidentally killed Alcmene's father. Alcmene then refused to have sex with her husband until he had avenged the deaths of her brothers, who had been killed by someone else. So Amphitryon went off to find and kill the murderers of Alcmene's brothers. Enter Jove, the king of the gods. He had been lusting after Alcmene, and now her husband was away from home. He came to Alcmene disguised as her husband and described in detail how he had avenged her brothers' deaths. He then spent the night with her. Amphitryon came home the next day, and repeated the process. Alcmene became pregnant with two sons, Hercules by Jove, and Iphicles by Amphitryon. Meanwhile, Sthenelus (the other son of Perseus) is married to a woman named Nicippe, and she is also pregnant with a son--Eurystheus.
All this sounds a little complicated, but the basic situation is simple. Two descendants of Perseus are about to be born: a great-grandson, Hercules, and a grandson, Eurystheus. (Iphicles is also a direct descendant, but as it turns out he does not matter much for the story.) Enter Jove again. Jove boasted to his own wife, the goddess Juno, that he would have a son who would rule all of the Perseid peoples. Juno was extremely jealous, and it was her policy to get even with all the women Jove had affairs with. So she got Jove to promise that the descendant of Perseus who was born on that day would be king. Since she was a goddess who presided over childbirth, she was able to protract Alcmene's labor, delaying the birth of Hercules. Sthenelus' wife, however, had an easier labor, and Eurystheus was born on that day. Jove had to keep his promise, and Eurystheus, not Hercules, became king.
Juno was not through with Hercules. In fact, she became his implacable enemy for life. While he was still in his cradle, she sent two serpents to kill him. But Hercules was already showing signs of greatness. Although he was just an infant, he strangled the two serpents before they could do him any harm, and the first legend of his physical prowess was born. The legends of his temper also start in his youth. His music teacher, the famous poet and musician Linus, apparently corrected him one too many times, and Hercules killed him by hitting him over the head with his lyre. After this episode, Amphitryon sent him out into the countryside to tend the cattle.
The legends of his sexual escapades started fairly early, too. When he was still an adolescent or very young man, a lion was ravaging the herds of Thespius, a king who had fifty daughters. Hercules offered to kill the lion. In return, Thespius let Hercules stay as a guest in his palace during the hunt, and also offered his daughters to the young hero. Hercules slept with all fifty of them in a single night, and according to legend they all had children by him (according to Apollodorus, one of them had twins, so the total number of offspring was actually fifty-one). Hercules also killed the lion.
When he was a little older, Hercules married Megara. They had a number of children, but Juno still had a grudge against him. She drove him temporarily insane, and he killed his children and his wife (although some accounts have Megara surviving). He recovered his sanity and was purified of his guilt. The Delphic oracle then advised him to serve King Eurystheus for twelve years (the same Eurystheus who became king instead of Hercules because of Jove's promise to Juno). Eurystheus (apparently encouraged by Juno) commanded Hercules to perform a series of twelve seemingly impossible tasks, which became known as the Twelve Labors of Hercules. Here is the list (they are not always given in exactly this order, by the way):
The Nemean lion. He had to bring back the skin of the savage lion that was plaguing Nemea, a monstrous beast which was invulnerable to weapons. After his weapons failed to have any effect, he strangled the lion. Hercules' customary clothing was a lion's skin. It seems to have come from the lion he killed for King Thespius when he was young, but some accounts make it the skin of the Nemean lion.
The Lernaean Hydra. He had to destroy the Hydra, a nine-headed, serpent-like beast which lived in the swamps of Lerna. When one of its heads was cut off, two others grew in its place. Hercules cut off eight of the heads and then had his companion, Iolaus, burn the wounds with a torch to prevent their re-growth; the ninth head, which was immortal, he buried. He used the Hydra's venomous blood to poison his arrows.
The Ceryneian stag. He had to capture the Ceryneian stag, a magnificent and swift-footed deer with golden antlers and bronze feet, which lived in Arcadia. He chased it for a year, eventually wounding it and carrying it back on his shoulders to Eurystheus.
The Erymanthian boar. He had to capture the wild boar that was ravaging the area around Erymanthus. He chased it through deep snow until it was exhausted, and then carried it back to Eurystheus. During this labor, he also did battle with the Centaurs, creatures who were half man and half horse. He defeated them, but in the process killed his own friend, the Centaur Chiron.
The Augean stables. He had to cleanse the stables of Augeus, a king who had 3,000 oxen whose stalls had not been cleaned for thirty years. Augeus promised him one tenth of the oxen if he could accomplish the task in a single day. Hercules diverted two rivers and washed the stables clean in a day, but Augeus refused to give him the oxen. After the Twelve Labors were over, Hercules attacked Augeus' kingdom and killed him and his sons for reneging on the promise.
The Stymphalian birds. He had to destroy the monstrous birds which lived on a lake near the town of Stymphalus, in Arcadia. The had bronze claws, wings, and beaks, and ate human flesh. He used a bronze rattle to frighten the birds, and then killed them with his bow and arrows as they flew.
The Cretan bull. He had to capture the bull of Crete. The god Neptune had sent the bull from the sea for King Minos to sacrifice, but Minos was so taken with the bull's beauty that he decided to keep it instead of sacrificing it. In revenge, Neptune drove the bull mad. Hercules captured the bull and brought it home on his shoulders, afterwards setting it free again.
The horses of Diomedes. He had to capture the horses of Diomedes, king of the Bistones in Thrace. Diomedes was an especially cruel king, who fed his horses on human flesh and then nailed the heads of his victims over the gates to his palace. Hercules succeeded in getting the horses, but Diomedes and his men attacked him as he traveled away with them. He killed Diomedes and fed his body to the horses.
The girdle of Hippolyte. He had to acquire the girdle, or belt, of Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons. She was willing to give it to him, but Juno roused the Amazon women into attacking him, and he killed Hippolyte and took the girdle by force. On the way home from this labor, he rescued Hesione, the daughter of King Laomedon of Troy; in return, Laomedon promised to give him the wonderful horses he had received from Jove. Laomedon refused to keep his promise, and Hercules later attacked and destroyed Troy, killing all of the royal family except Priam (called Podarces at that time), who later became king of a rebuilt Troy.
The cattle of Geryon. He had to capture the cattle of Geryon, a monster with three bodies. The cattle were guarded by a giant, Eurytion, and by a two-headed dog, Orthus. He killed Geryon, Eurytion and Orthus and brought the cattle back; Eurystheus then sacrificed them to Juno.
The apples of the Hesperides. He had to bring back the golden apples of the Hesperides, which Juno had received as a wedding present. He sent the Titan Atlas, whose task was to hold up the sky, to get the apples for him; in return, he held up the sky in Atlas' absence. Atlas brought back the apples but refused to take over the burden of the sky. Hercules told Atlas that he needed to adjust a pad for his shoulders, and tricked Atlas into holding the sky again for a moment. He then left with the apples. Eurystheus presented the apples to Hercules as a gift; Hercules dedicated them to the goddess Minerva, who returned them to the Hesperides.
The three-headed dog, Cerberus. He had to bring the giant three-headed dog, Cerberus, who guarded the gates of the underworld, to Eurystheus. He descended to the underworld and got its overlord, Pluto, to agree to let him take the dog if he could accomplish it without weapons. He carried Cerberus to Eurystheus' palace, and then returned it to the underworld. While he was in the underworld retrieving Cerberus, he freed the Greek hero Theseus, who had been imprisoned there while still alive.
Hercules also had quite a number of other exploits and love affairs at various points during his career. A few of these are referred to in Deianira's letter and should be mentioned here:
Anataeus. Antaeus was a giant who required everyone who came to him to wrestle with him; he killed everyone whom he defeated. Hercules wrestled with him and killed him. In Ovid's version of the story, Hercules discovered that Antaeus drew his strength from the earth, and so held him up in the air and squeezed him to death.
Busiris. Busiris was an Egyptian king who sacrificed any foreigners who came to his kingdom on the altar of Jove. He tried to sacrifice Hercules, and Hercules killed him and his followers.
Auge. Auge was the daughter of Aleus and Neaera. She was seduced by Hercules and bore him a son, Telephus. Telephus was supposedly suckled by a female deer on Mount Parthenius.
Astydamia. Astydamia was the daughter of Amyntor of Ormenus. She slept with Hercules and had a son by him, Ctesippus.
After he had finished his twelve years of service to Eurystheus, Hercules went to the court of Eurytus, the king of Oechalia, and asked to marry his daughter, Iole. Eurytus refused, perhaps because Hercules had killed his own children. While he was at the court, he killed the king's son, Iphitus, a young man with him Hercules had become friends. Once again he had to be purified of his guilt for a homicide, but this time he also became seriously ill. This time the oracle at Delphi advised him that, in order to be cured, he had to become a servant for three years and send his earnings back to Eurytus. He became the servant of Omphale, the queen of Lydia. According to the version of the myth that Ovid is using, he was essentially a maidservant, doing "women's work" like spinning and weaving, and even wearing women's clothing. This effeminate behavior did not change his sexual urges or attractiveness apparently; he had an affair with Omphale, and she bore him a son, Lamus.
And finally we come to Deianira, who is writing this letter. After Hercules finished his servitude to Omphale, Deianira became his second wife, and his final one. But we have to backtrack a little to sketch out her family background first, because it enters into the letter, too.
Deianira was the daughter of Oeneus, who was the king of Calydon in Arcadia, and his wife, Althaea. She had two brothers, Melager and Tydeus, and a sister, Gorge. It was a family filled with tragedy. Her brother, Tydeus, was a fierce and valiant warrior, but he committed a murder and had to go into exile from Calydon. He ended up at the court of Adrastus, who mounted an attack against the city of Thebes, taking with him Tydeus and five other Greek heroes. The war was known as the "Seven against Thebes," and Tydeus and the other five heroes were killed; only Adrastus himself survived. Tydeus did have a son, Diomedes, who later became one of the greatest of the warriors on the Greek side in the Trojan War.
Meleager was an even more tragic case. When he was born, the Fates told his mother, Althaea, that his life would last only as long as it took for a particular log burning in the fireplace to be consumed. She snatched the log out of the fire and hid it away in order to protect her son's life. Meleager then grew up into a valiant warrior who was seemingly invulnerable to harm, and accompanied Jason as one of the Argonauts in the quest for the Golden Fleece. Later, when King Oeneus neglected the rites of Diana, the goddess sent a giant boar to ravage the countryside of Calydon. A crowd of the greatest Greek heroes, including Meleager, was assembled to hunt down the boar. Meleager was in love with Atalanta, the only woman among the hunting party, and he rejoiced when she was the first to wound the boar; he then completed the kill himself, and awarded the boar's hide to her, on the ground that she had drawn first blood. However, Meleager's maternal uncles, Toxeus and Plexippus, were enraged that the prize of the hunt should be awarded to a woman, and tried to take it for themselves. Meleager fought with them and killed them. Upon hearing the news of her brothers' deaths, Althaea removed the half-consumed brand from its hiding place and cast it upon the fire. Meleager writhed in agony, finally dying when the brand was burned entirely into ash. Althaea herself did not fare much better. Torn with remorse over having killed her son, she committed suicide soon afterwards.
Nor was Oeneus immune to the family troubles. When he grew older, the sons of his brother, Agrius, overthrew him and placed their father on the throne of Calydon in his place. Eventually, Oeneus' grandson, Diomedes, came back to Calydon and killed most of the sons of Agrius, restoring the throne to Oeneus' line, but Oeneus himself was eventually killed by two of Agrius' surviving sons.
And now we come back to Deianira herself. After Hercules left Omphale's court, he came to ask for Deianira's hand in marriage. Oeneus was agreeable to the match, but Deianira already had another suitor, the powerful river-god Achelous. To determine who would get to marry Deianira, Hercules and Achelous wrestled with one another. Achelous was able to change his shape as he fought. First he changed into a serpent, but Hercules had had a lot of experience with serpents. Then he changed into a bull; Hercules bested him in this form, breaking off one of his horns. Achelous was forced to retire, defeated, with a scar on his forehead to remind him of the struggle. It is said that the nymphs took the broken horn and turned it into the cornucopia, or horn of plenty.
Deianira and Hercules then settled down to married life in Calydon. But Hercules' propensity for violence was still with him. He accidentally killed a boy in Oeneus' court, and he and Deianira were forced into exile. As they traveled across Arcadia, they came to the river Euenus. There a Centaur, Nessus, offered to carry travelers across the dangerous stream. Hercules made the crossing unassisted, but he agreed to allow Nessus to carry Deianira. Nessus was taken with Deianira's beauty, however, and attempted to rape her. Hercules killed the Centaur with one of the arrows he had poisoned with the Hydra's venom. As Nessus lay dying, he was determined to have his revenge. He told Deianira that his blood held power over love, and that if Hercules should ever show signs of straying, she should give him a garment steeped in the blood in order to keep him faithful to her. Deianira kept the blood of Nessus, not realizing that what it actually contained was the deadly poison from Hercules' own arrows.
Deianira and Hercules settled down again at Trachis, and they had a son, Hyllus. But Hercules had not given up his old ways. He still remembered the refusal of Eurytus to let him marry Iole, so he left home to make war on Eurytus' kingdom of Oechalia. He conquered Oechalia, killed Eurytus, and took Iole prisoner. It is at this point that we finally get to Deianira's letter. She had heard that Hercules had conquered Oechalia and was headed home, but that Iole was being treated as his mistress rather than his prisoner. Hoping to keep his love, she sent him a tunic, or shirt, soaked in the blood of Nessus. Then she started to write her letter, reproaching him for his philandering ways. Before she could finish the letter, word arrived that Hercules was dying in agony from the poison in the tunic she had sent him. She closed the letter by blaming herself and wishing for death. She then committed suicide out of remorse for causing her husband's death.
After all this, Hercules himself did not quite die. He built a funeral pyre on Mount Oeta, climbed up on it, and had it set afire. But instead of letting him be consumed by the flames, the gods took him up and he became a god himself, appearing among the stars as a constellation.
Lines 1-10: Deianira opens with a basic statement of the themes she will pursue throughout the letter. She congratulates Hercules on his conquest of Oechalia, and then complains that Hercules himself has been conquered by his captive, Iole. She says that this submission is unworthy of him (it "should be denied by your deeds"), and reminds him of his past exploits ("Juno and her vast series of labors"), in which he was never vanquished. She tells him that his enemies, Eurystheus and the goddess Juno ("the Thunderer's sister" and Hercules' "stepmother") would be pleased by his shameful behavior, but that his father, Jove ("the one for whom one night of striving," etc.) would not.
Lines 11-26: In this section, she continues reminding him of his great deeds and of his principal weakness. Juno, she says, confronted him with formidable challenges and enabled him to prove himself a great hero, but Venus (the goddess of love) has subdued him. She speaks of his accomplishments in general terms at first ("the world, made peaceful by your avenging strength"), but in lines 17-18 she starts to get specific, mentioning the burden of the sky that he held up for Atlas, and urging him not to "crown your earlier famous deeds with disgrace." She refers to the serpents that he killed as an infant, and contrasts that deed with his most recent (or "last") actions. She closes the section as she began it, claiming that, while he never yielded to "a thousand wild beasts" or to Eurystheus ("the Stheneleian enemy"), or even to Juno herself, he has been conquered by love.
Lines 27-46: In this section, Deianira shifts abruptly from Hercules' actions to her own sorrows. She points out ironically that she is "said to be well married," since she "called" the wife of a great hero and her father-in-law is Jove himself ("he who thunders above"). But the wife who marries someone above her in status ends up being miserable, and her "honor" is "mere appearance." She compalins that her husband is always away from home, and that she constantly fears for his life, busying herself "with virtuous prayers" for his safety. Then she gets specific once more about the sorts of things Hercules does, referring to the Hydra and to the snakes that attacked him in his cradle ("serpents"), to the Erymanthian boar, and to the "lions" that he faced in boyhood and as part of his Twelve Labors, as well as to Cerberus, the three-headed dog of the underworld ("three-faced dogs"). Her sleep is troubled, she says, and she only catches rumors of his welfare and does not know what to believe. She closes the section with an account of the situation at home. Hercules' mother, father and son are gone, and she has to bear the burden of Eurystheus' and Juno's ("the goddess") hostility alone.
Lines 47-72: In this section she moves back to complaints about Hercules' behavior, especially his sexual affairs ("foreign loves") and his habit of fathering children here, there, and everywhere ("anyone whatsoever can be a mother by you"). She starts by mentioning three of the more famous episodes from his past that she says she is not going to complain about: Auge (by whom he had a son, Telephus), Astydamia (the "nymph of Ormenus," by whom he had a son, Ctesippus), and the fifty daughters of Thespius ("the Teuthrantian mob, the sisters," by whom he had a total of fifty or fifty-one children). The she moves on to her main complaint (the "recent offense")--his service to and affair with Omphale, queen of Lydia. She has a number of things to complain about here. The first is that he has, once again, fathered a child ("I have been made stepmother to Lydian Lamus"). But she gives even more attention to his behavior while at Omphale's court. It is reported that he wore feminine ornaments (a "collar" or necklace around his neck, and gold jewelry on his arms); she rebukes him for this, reminding him of the sky that his neck held up and the lion that his arms strangled ("the bane of Nemea"). He is also reputed to have worn women's clothing ("a woman's turban" and "a Maeonian girdle"); she reminds him of the "white poplar" he wore on his hair when he retrieved the three-headed dog Cerberus from the underworld, and tells him that Diomedes, Busiris and Antaeus would all be disgusted to have been vanquished by such an "effeminate hero."
Lines 73-100: In this section, Deianira continues her diatribe against Hercules' conduct at Omphale's court, and continues contrasting his effeminate activities with his past heroic exploits. With heavy irony, she asks him about his wool-spinning "among the Ionian girls," and accuses him of cowering at the "threats of your mistress." She even asks him how often he has "broken the spindles" because his hands were too powerful. She then goes on to berate him for telling the tales of his heroic exploits under such conditions ("the deeds which you should have kept silent about"). She runs through a whole list of his past conquests in the next fifteen lines:
the "huge serpents" that he killed in his cradle
the huge Erymanthean ("Tegeaean") boar
the flesh-eating horses of Diomedes in Thrace
the cattle of Geryon, the monster with three bodies
the three-headed dog, Cerberus, which he dragged from the underworld
the Lernaean Hydra ("the fertile serpent"), which grew two new heads every time one was cut off
the giant Antaeus ("he who ... hung as a great weight"), who drew his strength from the earth and had to be held up in the air and strangled
the Centaurs ("the equine mob"), whom Hercules defeated in the mountains of Thessaly.
Lines 101-118: In this section, Deianira brings her complaints about Omphale to a climax, saying that, by subduing Hercules, she has become greater than he is and has stripped him of his honors. She starts by contrasting the attire of Hercules and Omphale. They have essentially exchanged clothing--he is dressed in a "Sidonian garment," while she has "adorned herself with your armor" and trophies of battle. She is the man now, not he ("she has been a man by right, which you have not"). If he was greater than those whom he conquered, then she is greater than all of them because she has conquered him; she now inherits all of his fame ("your lover is heir to your praises"). Deianira closes the section by transferring the attributes most closely associated with Hercules over to Omphale: Omphale has taken the lion's skin that he wore ("that rough skin"), the poisoned arrows that he used ("the missiles black with Lernaean poison"), and the huge club that he carried, and she has seen herself in the mirror arrayed with his weaponry.
Lines 119-136: In this section, she shifts from past complaints to present ones. She had only heard about Omphale, and she "could disbelieve rumor." But she has seen Iole (the "foreign concubine") with her own eyes. Hercules displays her plainly, "through the middle of the city," and Deianira is not allowed "to turn away." Iole does not even act like a prisoner, but is arrayed "in rich gold" and is dressed (with one more jab at Hercules' behavior at Omphale's court) "in the same way that you were in Phrygia." She holds her head high, even though her city (Oechalia) has been conquered and her father (Eurytus) killed. Finally Deianira imagines that she is to be driven out and that Iole will replace her as Hercules' wife. She declares that she is overcome by this thought and made weak by it.
Lines 137-146: This section is the turning point of the letter. Deianira reminds Hercules that he has fought for her in the past--first against the river-god Achelous, who was a rival suitor, and then against the Centaur Nessus, who had tried to rape her. Achelous had been wounded and scarred when his horn was broken off ("his mutilated temples"), and Nessus had been killed ("his equine blood stained the waters"). But even as she mentions Nessus, word comes that "that my husband dies of the poison from my shirt." She had soaked the shirt in the blood of Nessus, believing it to be a potent love-charm; the poison from Hercules' own arrows tainted the blood, and now was killing him. Deianira is now stricken with remorse ("What have I done?"), and she ends the section with a refrain that will be repeated three more times, foretelling her own suicide: "Disloyal Deianira, why do you hesitate to die?"
Lines 147-152: She opens this section with guilt over her husband's death, "torn to pieces in the midst of Mount Oeta," and vows to die herself as "proof of our marriage." She then turns to her own ill-fated family, bringing up the death of her brother, the heroic Meleager, and ending with the refrain from the previous section: "Disloyal Deianira, why do you hesitate to die?"
Lines 153-158: She continues her preoccupation with her family here, running through the list of their misfortunes. Her father, Oeneus, has been driven from his throne by her uncle, Agrius. Her brother Tydeus lives in exile from his native land. Her brother Meleager ("my other brother") is dead ("placed alive in the fatal fire"); the log which was linked to his life was burned to ash by his own mother, Althea. Althea herself, Deianira's mother, committed suicide over remorse for her son's death. The same ominous refrain ends the section: "Disloyal Deianira, why do you hesitate to die?"
Lines 159-164: As she nears the end of the letter, she prays to escape blame for deliberately plotting her husband's death. She explains why she sent him the poisoned shirt: Nessus, as he was dying, told her that his blood "holds the power of love." Then she gives her refrain one last time: "Disloyal Deianira, why do you hesitate to die?"
Lines 165-168: She ends the letter with her last farewells--to her family (all except her brother Meleager and her mother Althaea, who are dead), to her homeland, and to the light of day. In the last line, she plays on the meaning of "farewell" to wish that Hercules could "fare well" under the circumstances, and says goodbye to her son, Hyllus. Here the letter ends, without a final repetition of her refrain--the implication being, presumably, that she is no longer hesitating to die.
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Last updated 06/23/2013