|A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes|
|by James Baldwin|
|This book paves the way to an enjoyable reading of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, by presenting the legends about the causes of the Trojan War woven into a continuous narrative, ending where the story of the Iliad begins. The youthful Odysseus is the hero, as he journeys to visit his grandfather Autolycus, then Nestor and Menelaus, hearing the old stories as he goes. Ages 8-12 |
HOW A GREAT HERO MET HIS MASTER
 NOW, after two years and more had passed in peace,
there came one day to Ithaca an aged wanderer who had
many things of great import to tell. For he had been in
every land and in every clime, and had trod the streets
of every city, even from Pylos to Iolcos by the sea;
and he knew what deeds had been done by all the heroes,
and what fortunes or misfortunes had befallen mankind
in every part of Hellas. And Odysseus and the elders of
Ithaca loved to sit around him in the banquet chamber
of Laertes, and listen to his stories, of which there
was no end. For in that wonderful Golden Age, these
strollers—blind bards and storytellers—were the
people's newspapers, and oftentimes the only means by
which those of one country could learn aught of what
was passing in another.
"Alas! the world is no longer as it was in the days of
my youth," said the old newsmonger, one morning, with a
sigh. "The heroes are all passing away. Indeed, of the
older race, I can now remember only three who are still
living,—Peleus, the king of the
Myrmi-  dons; Nestor, of
lordly Pylos; and Laertes, in whose halls we are
"You forget Cheiron, the wise master," said Odysseus.
"By no means," was the answer. "It is now seven years
since Zeus took him from earth, and set him among the
stars. Some say that Heracles, while fighting with
unfriendly Centaurs, unwittingly struck the great
master with one of his poisoned arrows. Others say that
the master, while looking at an arrow, carelessly
dropped it upon his own foot, thus wounding himself
unto death. But who is right, I cannot tell. I only
know that Cheiron lives no longer in his cave-hall on
rugged Pelion, and that the old heroes are all fast
following him to the land of the unknown."
"But what of Neleus, the old father of Nestor? And what
of my dear friend Iphitus of Œchalia? And what
of great Heracles? Surely the race of heroes still
lives in them."
"Can it be that you have not heard the sad story?"
asked the old man. "Can it be that no one has yet
brought to you the strange news, over which all Hellas
has been weeping? Two harvests now have passed since
the noble spirit of Iphitus fled down the dark ways,—
it may be to the gloomy halls of Hades, it may be to
the dwelling-place of fair-haired Rhadamanthus in the
Islands of the Blest. And old Neleus followed swiftly
in his footsteps, his feeble life snuffed out by the
mad hand of Heracles. Nor did great Heracles
long survive the evil deed and the wrath of the eternal
powers. But now he sits enthroned on high Olympus, and
walks the earth no more."
"Pray tell us how it all came about," said King Laertes
Then the old news-monger, prefacing his story with a
sad, wild song, told how the greatest hero of the
Golden Age met at last his master, even Death, the
master of all earth's creatures. And this was the story
that he told:—
"When Heracles fled from Calydon, as you already know,
he went to Trachis in Thessaly, close by the springs of
Œta; and there he abode a long time. Yet his mind
was ill at rest, and dire forebodings filled his soul;
for cruel Here was threatening him with madness, such
as had once before darkened his life, and driven him to
deeds too terrible to think upon. And so, at length, he
kissed his dear wife and his lovely babies, and went
forth to wander once more in loneliness from land to
land. He knew that he would not return; and, unknown to
Deianeira, he left in his dwelling a letter, such as
men write when they feel that the end is drawing nigh.
In it he told how the doves in the old oaks of Dodona
had shown him that within the space of a year and three
months he should depart from this earth; and then he
gave directions how his goods should be given to his
children and his friends, and what they should do to
hold his memory in honor.
 "After this he took ship, and came by sea to his old
home at Tiryns, where erstwhile he had served his
brother and task-master, Eurystheus. There he sojourned
many days; and there he met Iphitus of Œchalia,
his friend in early youth, seeking twelve horses of
great worth and beauty, which had been stolen from him.
" 'Go you to Pherae in Messene,' said Heracles, his mind
even then verging towards madness. 'It may be that the
beasts have been taken by the lawless men of that
country, for they live by robbery. But if you fail to
find your horses there, come again to Tiryns, and
report to me; and then I will aid you, even though we
should have to seek them in the pasture-lands of old
Autolycus beneath the shallow of Parnassus.'
"So Iphitus, with a score of his bravest followers,
went down into Messene and Laconia, and even to the
gates of Lacedæmon, looking for his horses. But
he found no traces of the beasts; and in time he came
again to Tiryns, as the great hero had directed him.
"Sad, however, was the day of his return, for the mind
of Heracles was shrouded in deep darkness. While
Iphitus sat as a guest at his table, the mighty son of
Zeus arose in his madness, and slew him; and Heracles
cared not for the vengeance of the gods, nor for the
honor of his own board. Moreover, the goodly horses of
Iphitus were even then feeding in his stables at
Tiryns, for Heracles himself had found them.
"But after this the light began to struggle feebly
his mind, and the thought of his crime bore heavily
upon him. Then he remembered old Neleus, the most
ancient of men, and knew that he sat in the market-place
at Pylos dealing out justice to all who came to
him. And straightway he went by the nearest road to
Pylos, and besought Neleus the venerable to purify him
for the evil deed that he had done. But Iphitus and his
father, old Eurytus, had been very dear to Neleus,—comrades
and friends, indeed, in the stirring days of
" 'The blood of good Iphitus be upon you,' said the old
man to Heracles; and he would not purify him, neither
would he comfort him with words of kindness.
"Then madness again overpowered the great hero, and in
his wrath he marched through Pylos breathing slaughter.
And he slew old Neleus in the market-place, and put his
sons and the elders of Pylos to the sword, sparing only
the knightly Nestor, most discreet of men. But the fury
of the great hero was not to run unchecked. The
ever-living powers can never look with favor upon that
man who slays his guest in his halls or who deals
harshly with old age. And so they caused Heracles to be
sold to Omphalé, queen of Lydia, to serve her as
a bond-slave for a year and a day. And in that
far-distant land he toiled at many a thankless task
until the days of his bondage were ended. Yet the great
cloud was only a little way lifted from his mind, and
he thought to himself that all the misery that had ever
been his had come upon him through the
 house of
Eurytus. So he swore with a great oath, that, when he
had gotten his freedom, he would utterly destroy
Œchalia, and would sell all its people into
bondage. For, in a dazed, unreasoning way, he
remembered fair Iole, and the slight which Eurytus had
put upon him when he made trial of his skill in
"Now, when he was set free, he remembered all too well
the vow which he had made; and when he had overthrown
Œchalia, and had taken captive all the fair women
and children, he bethought him that he would go again
to Trachis where his wife and children still dwelt. But
on his way thither he stopped for a time in Eubœa
to offer sacrifice to Zeus; and he sent his herald
Lichas on before him, with certain of the captives.
When Lichas came to Trachis, and made himself known to
Deianeira, she asked him what word he had brought from
Heracles his master.
" 'He is alive and well,' said the herald, 'and he
tarries for a while in Eubœa to build an altar to
" 'Why does he do that?' asked Deianeira.
" 'He does it to fulfil a vow,' answered the herald,—
'a vow which he made ere yet he had overthrown
Œchalia and had led captive these fair women whom
"Then Deianeira drew nearer, and looked with pity upon
the captives as they stood in sad array on the shore of
the desolate sea. And she lifted her hands toward
heaven, and prayed that the great powers would keep her
from such a fate and would shield her children
 that so
sad an evil should never overtake them. Then she saw
that one among the captives was much more beautiful
than the others, tall and very fair, with long golden
tresses, and eyes as round as the moon and as blue as
the deep sea. And Deianeira, wondering whether she were
not some great man's daughter, asked her who she was;
but the sad captive answered not a word. The tender
heart of the queen was filled with pity; and she bade
that the beautiful lady should be taken into the great
hall of Heracles, and treated with the utmost kindness,
that so she should not have sorrow heaped upon sorrow.
Then she asked Lichas to tell her who the lady was; but
he said that he knew not, save that she seemed to be
"But now when Lichas had gone to the tents by the
shore, there came to Deianeira in the palace a
mischief-maker who told her that Lichas had not
answered truly in this matter.
" 'He knows, as well as I, who this fair stranger is,'
said the mischief-maker. 'She is the daughter of King
Eurytus of Œchalia, and the sister of Iphitus.
Her name is Iole; and it was for the sake of her beauty
that Heracles destroyed her father's city.'
"Then Deianeira was sadly troubled lest the heart of
the great hero should be turned away from her, and his
affections set upon this lovely captive. So she sent
again for Lichas, and questioned him still further. At
first he denied that he knew any thing about the fair
lady; but afterwards, when hard pressed, he said,
is indeed Iole, the fair damsel whom Heracles loved in
the springtime of youth. But why he has brought this
great grief upon her, and upon her father's house, I
"Sorely troubled now was Deianeira, and all day long
she sat in her chamber, and pondered what she should
do. And when the evening was come, she called her
friends together, the women and maidens who dwelt in
Trachis, and talked with them.
" 'I have been thinking of what I can do to keep my
husband's love,' she said. 'I had almost forgotten that
I have a charm which will help me, or I might not have
been so sadly troubled. Years and years ago, when we
were fleeing from my dear old home at Calydon, we came
to the river Evenus. The water was very deep, and the
current very swift; but there lived on the banks of
the stream an old Centaur, named Nessus, whose business
it was to ferry travellers across to the other shore.
He first took my husband safely over, and then myself
and our little son Hyllus. But he was so rude, and
withal so savage in his manners, that Heracles was
greatly angered at him; and he drew his bow, and shot
the brutish fellow with one of his poisoned arrows.
Then my woman's heart was filled with pity for the
dying Centaur, wicked though he was; and I felt loath
to leave him suffering alone upon the banks of Evenus.
And he, seeing me look back, beckoned me to him.
"Woman," he said, "I am dying; but first I would give
thee a precious gift.
 Fill a vial with the blood that
flows from this wound, and it shall come to pass that
if ever thy husband's affections grow cold, it will
serve as a charm to make him love thee as before. It
needs only that thou shouldst smear the blood upon a
garment, and then cause him to wear the garment so that
the heat of the sun or of a fire shall strike upon it."
I quickly filled the vial, as he directed, and hastened
to follow my husband.'
DEIANEIRA AND THE DYING CENTAUR NESSUS.
"Then Deianeira called the herald Lichas, and said,
'Behold, here is a fair white garment which I have
woven with my own hands; and I vowed many days ago,
that, if my husband should again come home, I would
give him this garment to wear while offering sacrifice.
Now he tarries, as you say, to do homage to the gods in
Eubœa. Go back, therefore, to meet him, and give
him this white robe as a gift from his wife. Say to him
that on no account shall he let another wear it; and
that he shall keep it carefully folded up, away from
the light and the heat, until he shall be ready to
clothe himself in it.'
The herald promised to do as he was bidden; and in that
same hour he hastened back to meet his master in
Eubœa, taking with him his master's young son
"Not many days after this, a great cry and sad
bewailings were heard in the house of Heracles; and
Deianeira rushed forth from her chamber crying aloud
that she had done some terrible deed. 'For I
the fair robe which I sent to my husband with the blood
of Nessus the Centaur; and now, behold, the bit of
woollen cloth which I dipped into the charm, and used
as a brush in spreading it upon the robe, is turned to
dust, as if a fire had burned it up. I have not
forgotten any thing that the Centaur told me: how I was
to keep the charm where neither the light of the sun
nor the heat of the fire could touch it. And this I
have done until now; only the bit of woollen cloth was
left lying in the sunshine. Oh, fearful am I that I
have slain my husband! For why should the Centaur wish
to do well by the man who brought death upon him?'
"Hardly had she spoken these words when her son Hyllus
came in great haste to the palace, even into the
woman's hall where she stood.
" 'O my mother!' he cried. 'Would that you were not my
mother! For do you know that you have this day brought
death and destruction upon my father.'
" 'Oh, say not so, my son,' wailed Deianeira. 'It cannot
" 'But truly it is so,' said Hyllus. 'For when Lichas
and myself came to Eubœa bearing the white robe
which you sent, we found my father ready to begin his
offering of sacrifices. And he was glad to see me and
to hear from you; and he took the beautiful robe and
put it upon him. Then he slew twelve fair oxen, and
joyfully worshipped the ever-living powers. But when
the fire grew hot, the deadly robe
 began to cling to
him, and pangs, as if caused by the stings of serpents,
shot through him, and the pains of death seized on him.
He asked Lichas why he had brought that robe; and when
the herald told him that it was your gift, he seized
the wretch, and cast him over the cliff upon the sharp
rocks beneath. And great fear filled the hearts of all
who saw the sufferings of the mighty hero; and none of
them dared come near him, so terrible were his
struggles. Then he called to me, and said, "Come here,
my son. Do not flee from your father in his great
distress; but carry me from this land, and set me where
the eyes of no man shall see me." And so we put him in
the hold of our good ship, and brought him home with us
to Trachis. And soon you shall see what you have done;
for you have slain your husband,—a hero the like of
whom the world shall never see again.'
"When Deianeira heard these words she made no answer,
but, with one despairing cry, she hasted to her
high-built chamber; and when, soon afterward, her
maidens sought her there, she was dead. Then Hyllus
came, also seeking her; for the women of the household
had told him how she had been deceived by the dying
Centaur. And when he saw her lifeless form, he wept
bitterly, and cried out that now indeed the Fates had
bereft him of both father and mother on the same day.
"Then they brought Heracles into his own broad hall,
bearing him upon a litter. He was asleep; for the
had left him a little while, and tired Nature was
taking her dues. But the sad wailings of his son awoke
him; and again he cried aloud in his agony, and
besought those who stood around him that they would
give him a sword wherewith to end his pain. Then Hyllus
came into the hall, and told his father all about the
terrible mistake which his mother had made, and how the
Centaur had deceived her, and how she was at that
moment lying dead, with a broken heart, in the chamber
" 'Then, indeed, is my doom come,' cried Heracles. 'For
long ago the oracles spake of me, that I should die,
not by the hands of any living being, but by the guile
of one dwelling in the regions of the dead. So now
Nessus, whom I slew so long ago, is avenged; for he has
slain me. Now, my son, carry me to the wooded summit of
the hill of Œta, and build there a great pile of
olive beams and of oak; and, when it is finished, lay
me upon it, and set fire unto it. And shed no tear,
neither utter any cry, but work in silence; for thus
thou shalt prove thyself a son of Heracles.'
"The boy promised to do all this as his father wished,
only he would not set fire to the pile. So when he had
built the pile, and had put between the beams great
stores of spices and sweet-smelling herbs, they laid
Heracles upon it; and Philoctetes, the hero's
armor-bearer, set fire to the pile. And Heracles, for
this kindness, gave to Philoctetes his famous bow,—a
weapon more marvellous even than the bow of Eurytus.
 Then the red flames shot high towards heaven, shedding
brightness over land and sea; and the mighty hero was
at rest. He had met his master."
Such was the story that the old news-monger told in the
hall of King Laertes.
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