Fifteen long months pass since Deianira has received word from Herakles, her husband, who, when he left on his last journey, gave her a tablet setting forth the disposition of his estate and stating that it was decreed that after a year and three moons pass he will either die or live happily thereafter in untroubled peace. The fated day arrives, and Deianira is filled with foreboding.
Before she can send her son Hyllus to get accurate news of her husband, a messenger, outstripping the herald Lichas, arrives to announce that Herakles is living and will soon appear. Lichas himself follows shortly with a group of captive maidens and, answering Deianira’s question, assures her that her husband, alive and sound of limb, is at that time sacrificing the fruits of his victories to great Zeus in fulfillment of a vow made when he took from towered Oechalia the captive women. Deianira is touched by the plight of the captives. Lichas tells her they are from the city ruled by Eurytus, selected by Herakles as chosen possessions for himself and for the gods. He adds, however, that it is not the taking of the city that delays the hero this long time. He is detained in Lydia. Sold into bondage, he passed a year as servant to Omphale, the barbaric queen. Before this bondage, Eurytus, an old friend, so taunted and incensed him that Herakles, encountering Iphitus, one of Eurytus’s four sons, without warning hurled him from a cliff. This act roused the ire of Olympian Zeus who, because Herakles slew a foe by treachery and not in fair fight, drove him out to be sold as a slave to Omphale. Those who reviled Herakles are conquered, however, and now Lichas brings the virgins by Herakles’ order to Deianira.
A strange pity comes over Deianira as she gazes at the captives. One in particular, Iole, holds her attention. Lichas pretends not to know Iole; Iole herself speaks no word, bearing in silence her grief and suffering. The messenger, however, informs Deianira that Lichas did not tell the truth, which is that Herakles for love of Iole destroyed Eurytus, the maiden’s father; that it was not his adventures in Lydia, his serfdom with Omphale, or the death of Iphitus that held him these many moons, but love for this maid. Failing to persuade her father to give up his daughter, Herakles attacked Oechalia, sacked the city, slew Eurytus, and took Iole for his concubine. Deianira, cruelly hurt, calls upon Lichas to tell her everything. He confirms the news. Sorrowfully she asks the herald to wait while she has suitable gifts prepared for Herakles in return for those he sent.
Deianira cannot bear the thought of having another share her husband’s affections. Judging it unwise to give way to anger, she thinks of another course. In an old urn she long hid a keepsake of Nessus, the centaur whose work it is to ferry wayfarers across the river Evenus, carrying them in his arms. When Deianira, as a bride, was on her way to Herakles, she, too, was carried across by the centaur, but in midstream he lewdly sought to take her. Her screams brought from the waiting son of Zeus an arrow that pierced the centaur’s lungs. Dying, he told Deianira that as the last to be ferried across the river she should profit by receiving from him a love philter made by taking the curdled gore from his wound. This would act as a charm so that Herakles would never find any other woman fairer than she. Now, recalling these words, Deianira selects a festal robe and smears it with the magic ointment. Then she presents the robe to Lichas, telling him he is to instruct Herakles to put it on immediately, before sun or light strikes it, and stand before the people with it on as he makes his sacrifices to the gods.
No sooner does Lichas depart, however, than Deianira feels uneasy because she resorts to magic to win back her husband’s love. Quickly her fears are realized. She faithfully follows the instructions of the centaur by preserving the drug unexposed to light or fire or sun until the...
(The entire section is 2,175 words.)