The Death of Herakles

Death of Hercules
Death of Hercules Jean-Baptiste Deshays (1729–1765) Aberystwyth University School of Art Museum and Galleries

When Herakles reached Trachis, he assembled an army for what would become his final campaign; many years earlier Eurytos, king of Oichalia in Euboia, had refused to give his daughter Iole to Herakles, and Herakles now wanted to punish Eurytos and win possession of Iole. After sacking Oichalia and killing Eurytos and his sons, Herakles went back to Trachis with Iole and other captive women.

Herakles’ return to Trachis and the events leading up to his death are the subject of Sophocles’ Trachiniai. The tragedy begins with Deianeira’s lament for the misfortunes which have troubled her ever since she came of age for marriage, beginning with her courtship by the river-god Acheloos and the terrible combat between Herakles and the river-god. Even her marriage to Herakles, which she thought would bring her happiness, has been a source of fear and sorrow, since Herakles is never with her and spends his life in the performance of endless labors for one master or another. She learns from her son Hyllos that Herakles has been a slave of Omphale but is now fighting against Eurytos in Oichalia, and she recalls that Herakles had left with her a prophecy that by now he would either be dead or have an untroubled life henceforth. A Messenger enters and tells her that Herakles is nearby, and Lichas, Herakles’ herald, arrives with a band of captive women and announces that Herakles is on the coast of Euboia sacrificing to Zeus in thanks for the defeat of Eurytos. According to Lichas, Herakles had killed Eurytos’ son Iphitos and been punished with a year’s slavery to Omphale, then returned to Oichalia and sacked the city in vengeance. Deianeira’s joy is lessened by her compassion for the captive women, especially one who refuses to speak despite Deianeira’s repeated questions. Lichas claims not to know who she is and leaves with the captives, but the previous Messenger reveals that Lichas was lying: it was lust, not desire for vengeance, which drove Herakles to Oichalia; the silent girl was the princess Iole, for whose sake alone Herakles went to war; and Herakles is bringing her home to be not his slave but his wife. Unable to restrain her jealousy, Deianeira remembers the love charm she had received from the centaur Nessos; dipping a robe in the centaur’s blood, she sends it with Lichas as a present to Herakles. As soon as Lichas has left, she begins to fear that the supposed charm is really a deadly trick of Nessos, and her fears are confirmed when Hyllos returns and calls her the murderess of Herakles; the love potion is a lethal poison that is burning and melting Herakles’ flesh. Deianeira goes into the house and commits suicide by stabbing herself on her marriage bed, while Hyllos weeps over her body upon learning of his mother’s true intention. Men enter bearing Herakles on a litter; still alive but in great agony, he calls for Deianeira to be brought out so that he may kill her. Hyllos tells him of Deianeira’s death and the centaur’s deceit, and at this point Herakles forgets about Deianeira and begins preparing to die, for he now knows that an old prophecy that he would die at the hands of someone already dead referred to the dead centaur. He gives two final commands to Hyllos, to supervise the burning of his body on the funeral pyre that will release him from pain and to marry Iole, tasks which his distraught son reluctantly accepts.

Hercules Funeral Pyre
Elie-Honoré Montagny (died 1864), Hercules on his Funeral Pyre. Princeton Art Museum

In the usual version Herakles was carried to Mount Oita near Trachis and lay on the funeral pyre, but no one was willing to light the fire. In some accounts Poias, a local king, was passing by in search of his sheep and agreed to light the fire, and Herakles bequeathed his bow to him; usually it is Poias’ son Philoktetes who lights the pyre and receives the bow. Immediately a cloud lifted Herakles into the sky, and lightning consumed the pyre; when the companions of Iolaos came to gather the bones of Herakles, they could not find a single one and so assumed that Herakles had become a god.

Zeus now persuaded Hera to adopt the new god Herakles and “to have for all time a mother’s attitude toward him.” Hera lay on a bed and held Herakles under her clothes, then let him drop through to the ground as if he were being born. Tzetzes adds that she also nursed him at her breast. Hera now gave her daughter Hebe, the goddess of youth, to Herakles as his final bride and his reward for a lifetime of labors, struggle, and suffering. The eternally juvenile Hebe, it seems, is the only appropriate wife for the hero who was compelled to abandon or give away the many women he won during his life; she is the final answer to his compulsive search for a woman who is both permanently desirable and also permanently non-demanding and non-threatening. Herakles and Hebe have two sons, Alexiares and Aniketos, but they never appear elsewhere in myth and their only importance seems to be the demonstration of Herakles’ Olympian potency.

There is, however, another post-mortem Herakles; when Odysseus visits the underworld to inquire about his journey home, the last thing he sees, immediately after viewing the unending punishments of the great criminals Tityos, Tantalos, and Sisyphos, is the phantom of Herakles. The real Herakles, says Homer, is with Hebe and the gods, but still there is this other Herakles, glaring and miserable, stalking through Hades with his bow ready to shoot, as though even the most potent of eternal wish-fulfillments cannot entirely erase the very causes of Herakles’ greatness and heroic status, his equally eternal persecution and frustration.

The chief differences between Sophocles’ version and that of Apollodoros, who otherwise follows Sophocles closely, are that Apollodoros has Deianeira kill herself by hanging, not stabbing, and that Sophocles never mentions Herakles’ acquisition of immortality.

During the Trojan War the Greeks learn they can defeat Troy only if they possess the bow of Herakles. They therefore must bring Phloktetes from Lemnos, where they had abandoned him, to Troy. Their difficulties, and eventual success are told by Sophocles in his tragedy Philoktetes.

Return to Dick Caldwell's Greek Myths Index