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,...
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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 moment of application. Secretly, indoors, she spread the unguent on the robe with some wool and, folding the gift, placed it securely in a chest. Now, by chance, she throws the tuft of wool on the flagstones in the blazing sun, whereupon there boils up from it clots of foam as it consumes itself and disappears into nothingness. In consternation Deianira realizes that the black-venomed gore, instead of winning anew her husband’s love, is dying Nessus’s trick to cause his death, and she will be his murderer. Overwhelmed, she determines to end her own life.
Hyllus returns. He sees Herakles receive from Lichas the robe and put it on. Then, when the fierce rays of the sun melt the venom with which the deadly garment is coated, it clings to his body, the sweat bursting out, and, before the assembled company, he writhes in dreadful pain. Herakles in his agony calls out to Lichas, who tells him the robe is Deianira’s gift, whereupon the unhappy man seizes the messenger by the foot and dashes out his brains against a rock. When, shouting and shrieking, Herakles calls on Hyllus to carry him away to die where no one might see him, they place him on a ship and bring him to his home.
Hyllus now accuses his mother of her vile deed and calls down on her the vengeance of the Erinyes. Silently Deianira goes indoors and in the bedchamber of Herakles bids farewell to her bridal bed. Then with a sword she pierces her heart and dies. Hyllus, told by others that his mother’s gift of the robe to Herakles was instigated by the centaur, realizes too late her innocence, and he grieves to lose in one day both mother and father.
Hyllus, still lamenting, leaves, but returns with attendants bearing his father on a litter. Herakles, fighting off the deadly spasms that shake him, entreats his son to end his miserable life. He recalls his great labors and the fact that he never met defeat. Now death comes by a woman’s wile. Hyllus tells him that Deianira was innocent of murderous intent in her act, that she wished only to win back his love, that it was the centaur’s venom that brought about his undoing, and that Deianira, not wishing to live without him, now lies cold and dead.
Herakles admits that it was foretold that he would perish not by any living being but by a dweller in the realms of the Dead. The prophecy also promised him release from his toils, but he misinterpreted it as meaning a happy life; instead, it portended death, for with death comes the end of toil.
Knowing thus that his death is the will of the gods, Herakles faces it nobly. He bids Hyllus bear him to the peak of Oeta, place him on a great funeral pyre of oak and olive, and ignite it. Hyllus consents to carry his father to his destination and prepare the pyre, but he refuses to light it. Herakles, not pressing him, asks as one other boon that Hyllus take Iole to wife and care for her. Unwillingly, but moved by filial obedience, Hyllus assents. In these dread matters he sees the will of immortal Zeus.