| Stories from the Greek Tragedians|
|by Alfred J. Church|
|Thirteen strong, interesting tales from Greek tragedy, admirably retold by Alfred J. Church and retaining remarkably well the spirit of the originals. Includes the stories of Alcestis, Medea, Antigone, Philoctetes, Agamemnon, Iphigenia, Electra, and Orestes among others. Ages 11-14 |
THE STORY OF PHILOCTETES, OR THE BOW OF HERCULES
 PRINCE Philoctetes, who reigned in Methone, which is in
the land of Thessaly, sailed with the other Princes of
Greece to make war against the great city of Troy. For
he also had been one of the suitors of Helen the Fair,
and had bound himself with a great oath that he would
avenge her and her husband, whomsoever she should
choose, on any man that should dare to do her wrong.
Now Philoctetes had been companion to Hercules in many
of his labours, and also had been with him when he died
upon Mount Æta. For which cause Hercules gave him the
bow and the arrows which he bare, having received them
at the first from Apollo. A very mighty bow it was,
shooting arrows so as none other could do, and the
arrows were sure dealers of death, for they had been
dipped in the blood
 of the great dragon of Lerna, and the wounds which they
made no physician might heal. But it chanced that the
Prince, being on his voyage to Troy, landed at the
island of Chrysa, where there was an altar of Athené,
the goddess of the lace, and, desiring to show the
altar to his companions, he approached it too nearly;
whereupon the serpent that guarded it, lest it should
be profaned, bit him in the foot. The wound was very
sore and could not be healed, but tormented him day and
night with grievous pains, making him groan and cry
aloud. And when men were troubled with his
complainings, and also with the noisome stench of his
wound, the chiefs took counsel together, and it seemed
good to the sons of Atreus, King Agamemnon and King
Menelaüs, who were the leaders of the host, that he
should be left alone on the island of Lemnos. This
matter they committed to Ulysses, who did according to
their bidding. But when the Greeks had laid siege to
the city of Troy, nigh upon ten years, they remembered
Prince Philoctetes and how they had dealt with him. For
now the great Achilles was dead, having been slain by
Prince Paris with an arrow
 in the Scæan Gate, when he was ready to break into the
city; and the soothsayers affirmed that the Greeks
should not have their wish upon Troy, till they should
bring against it the great archer to whom they had done
wrong. Then the chiefs took counsel together, and chose
Ulysses, who was crafty beyond all other men, to
accomplish this matter, and with him they sent
Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, who excelled in
strength, even as his father had done.
Now when these two were landed upon the island, Ulysses
led the way to the place where in time past he had left
Philoctetes. A cave it was in the cliff, with two
mouths to it, of which the one looked to the east and
the other to the west, so that in winter time a man
might see the sun and be warm, but in summer the wind
blew through it, bringing coolness and sleep, and a
little below was a spring of fair water to drink. Then
said Ulysses to Neoptolemus, "Go and spy out the place,
and see whether or no the man be there."
And the Prince went up and looked into the cave, and
found that it was empty, but that there were signs of
one who dwelt there, a bed of
 leaves, and a cup of wood, very rudely fashioned, and
pieces of wood for kindling fires, and also, a very
piteous sight, the rags wherewith the sick man was
wont to dress his wound. And when he had told what he
saw, Ulysses said, "That the man dwelleth here is
manifest; nor can he be far away, for how can one that
is wounded travel far? Doubtless he is gone to some
place whither the birds resort to slay them, or, haply,
to find some herb wherewith to assuage his pain. But do
thou set one who will wait for his coming, for it would
fare ill with me should he find me."
And when the watch had been set Ulysses said again, "I
will tell what it is needful for thee to say and do.
Only thou must be bold, son of Achilles, and that not
only with thy hand, but in heart also, if what I shall
now unfold to thee shall seem new or strange. Hearken
then: when the man shall ask thee who thou art and
whence thou comest, thou shalt answer him that thou art
the son of Achilles, and that thou hast left the host
of the Greeks, because they had done thee great wrong,
for that, having prayed thee to come as not being able
to take the great city of Troy without thee, yet they
would not deliver to thee the arms of
 thy father Achilles, but gave them to Ulysses. And here
thou mayest speak against me all kinds of evil, for
such words will not trouble me, but if thou accomplish
not this thing thou wilt trouble the whole host of the
Greeks. For know that without this man's bow thou canst
not take the city of Troy; know also that thou only
canst approach him without peril, not being of the
number of those who sailed with him at the first. And
if it please thee not to get the bow by stealth, for
this indeed thou must do—and I know thee to be one that
loveth not to speak falsely or to contrive deceit—yet
bethink thee that victory is sweet. Be thou bold
to-day, and we will be righteous to-morrow."
Then the Prince made reply, " 'Tis not in me, son of
Laertes, to work by craft and guile, neither was it in
my father before me. I am ready to carry off this man
with a strong arm; and how, being a cripple, shall he
stand against us? but deceit I will not use. And
though I should be loath to fail thee in this our
common enterprise, yet were this better than to prevail
Then said Ulysses, "And I, too, in my youth would do
all things by the hand and not by the
 tongue; but now I know that the tongue hath alone the
And the Prince replied, "But thou biddest me speak the
thing that is false."
"I bid thee prevail over Philoctetes by craft."
"But why may I not persuade him, or even constrain him
"To persuasion he will not hearken, and force thou
mayest not use, for he hath arrows that deal death
"But is it not a base thing for a man to lie?"
"Surely not, if a lie save him."
"Tell me what is the gain to me if this man come to
"Without this bow and these arrows Troy falleth not.
For though it is the pleasure of the Gods that thou
take the city, yet canst not thou take it without
these, nor indeed these without thee."
And when the Prince had mused awhile, he said, "If this
be so with the arms, I must needs get them."
Then Ulysses said, "Do this, and thou shalt gain a
And the Prince said, "What meanest thou
 by thy 'double honour'? Tell me, and I refuse no more."
"The praise of wisdom and of courage also."
"Be it so: I will do this deed, nor count it shame."
" 'Tis well," said Ulysses, "and now I will despatch
this watcher to the ship, whom I will send again in
pilot's disguise if thou desire, and it seems needful.
Also I myself will depart, and may Hermes, the god of
craft, and Athené, who ever is with me, cause us to
After a while Philoctetes came up the path to the cave
very slowly, and with many groans. And when he saw the
strangers (for now some of the ship's crew were with
Prince Neoptolemus) he cried, "Who are ye that are
come to this inhospitable land? Greeks I know you to be
by your garb; but tell me more."
And when the Prince had told his name and lineage, and
that he was sailing from Troy, Philoctetes cried,
"Sayest thou from Troy? Yet surely thou didst not sail
with us in the beginning."
"What?" cried the Prince. "Hadst thou then a share in
this matter of Troy?"
 And Philoctetes made reply, "Knowest thou not whom thou
seest? Hast thou not heard the story of my sorrows?"
And when he heard that the young man knew nothing of
these things: "Surely this is sorrow upon sorrow if no
report of my state hath come to the land of Greece, and
I lie here alone, and my disease groweth upon me, but
my enemies laugh and keep silence!" And then he told
his name and fortunes, and how the Greeks had left him
on the shore while he slept, and how it was the tenth
year of his sojourning in the island. "For know," he
said, "that it is without haven or anchorage, and no
man cometh hither of his free will; and if any come
unwilling, as indeed it doth sometimes chance, they
speak soft words to me and give me, haply, some meat;
but when I make suit to them that they carry me to my
home, they will not. And this wrong the sons of Atreus
and Ulysses have worked against me; for which may the
Gods who dwell in Olympus make them equal recompense."
"And I," said the Prince, "am no lover of these men.
For when Achilles was dead——"
 "How sayest thou? Is the son of Peleus dead?"
"Yea; but it was the hand of a God and not of a man
that slew him."
"A mighty warrior slain by a mighty foe! But say on."
"Ulysses, and Phœnix who was my sire's foster-father,
came in a ship to fetch me; and when I was come to the
camp they even greeted me kindly, and sware that it was
Achilles' self they saw, so like was I to my sire. And,
my mourning ended, I sought the sons of Atreus and
asked of them the arms of my father, but they made
answer that they had given them to Ulysses; and
Ulysses, chancing to be there, affirmed that they had
done well, seeing that he had saved them from the
enemy. And when I could prevail nothing, I sailed away
in great wrath."
" 'Tis even," Philoctetes made reply, "as I should have
judged of them. But I marvel that the Greater Ajax
endured to see such doings."
"Ah! but he was already dead."
"This is grievous news. And how fares old Nestor of
 "But ill, for his eldest born, Antilochus, is dead."
"I could have spared any rather than these two, Ajax
and Antilochus. But Patroclus, where was he when thy
"He was already slain. For 'tis ever thus that war
taketh the true man and leaveth the false. But of these
things I have had enough and more than enough.
Henceforth my island of Scyros, though it be rocky and
small, shall content me. And now, Prince Philoctetes, I
go, for the wind favours us, and we must take the
occasion which the Gods give us."
And when Philoctetes knew that Neoptolemus was about
to depart, he besought him with many prayers that he
would take him also on his ship; for the voyage, he
said, would not be of more than a single day. "Put me,"
he said, "where thou wilt, in forecastle, or hold, or
stern, and set me on shore even as it may seem best to
thee. Only take me from this place." And the sailors
also made entreaty to the Prince that he would do so;
and he, after a while, made as if he consented to their
But while Philoctetes was yet thanking him,
 and his companions, there came two men to the cave, of
whom one was a sailor in the Prince's ship, and the
other a merchant. And the merchant said that he was
sailing from Troy to his home, and that chancing to
come to the island, and knowing that the Prince was
there, he judged it well to tell him his news; 'twas
briefly this, that Phœnix and the sons of Theseus had
sailed, having orders from the sons of Atreus that they
should bring the Prince back; and also that Ulysses and
Diomed were gone on another errand, even to fetch some
one of whom the rulers had need. And when the Prince
would know who he might be, the merchant bade him say
who it was standing near, and when he heard that it was
Philoctetes, he cried, "Haste thee to thy ship, son of
Achilles, for this is the very man whom the two are
coming to fetch. Haply thou hast not heard what befell
at Troy. There is a certain Helenus, son of King Priam,
and a famous soothsayer. Him Ulysses, the man of craft,
took a prisoner, and brought into the assembly of
Greeks; and the man prophesied to them that they
should never take the
 city of Troy, unless they should bring thither the
Prince Philoctetes from the island whereon he dwelt.
And Ulysses said, 'If I bring not the man, whether
willing or unwilling, then cut off my head."
And when Philoctetes heard this his anger was very
great, and he became yet more eager to depart. But
first he must go into the cave and fetch such things as
he needed, herbs with which he was wont to soothe the
pains of his wounds, and all the furniture of his bow.
And when he spake of the bow, the Prince asked whether
it was indeed the famous bow of Hercules that he
carried in his hand, and would fain, he said, touch it,
if only it were lawful so to do. And Philoctetes
answered, "Yes, thou shalt touch it and handle it,
which, indeed, no other man hath ever done, for thou
hast done a good deed to me, and it was for a good deed
that I myself also received it."
But when they would have gone towards the ship, the
pangs of his wound came upon Philoctetes. And then at
first he cried, saying, that it was well with him; but
at the last, he could endure no more, and cried to the
 that he should draw his sword and smite off the foot,
nor heed if he should slay him; only he would be rid of
the pain. And then he bade him take the bow and keep it
for him while he slept, for that sleep came ever upon
him after these great pains. Only he must keep it well,
especially if those two, Ulysses and Diomed, should
chance to come in the meanwhile. And when the Prince
had promised this, Philoctetes gave him the bow,
saying, "Take it, my son, and pray to the jealous Gods
that it bring not sorrow to thee as it hath brought
sorrow to me, and to him that was its master before
And after a while the sick man slept. And the Prince,
with the sailors that were his companions, watched by
him the while.
But when the sailors would have had the Prince depart,
seeing that he had now the great bow and the arrows,
for whose sake he had come, he would not, for they
would be of no avail, he said, without the archer
himself. And in no long space of time the sick man
woke. Right glad was he to see that the strangers had
not departed, for, indeed, he had scarce hoped that
this might be. Therefore commending the
 young man much for his courage and loving kindness, he
would have him help him straightway to the ship, that
his pain having now ceased awhile, they might be ready
to depart without delay. So they went, but the Prince
was sorely troubled in his mind and cried, "Now what
shall I do?" and "now am I at my wits' end so that
even words fail me." At which words, indeed,
Philoctetes was grieved, thinking that it repented the
Prince of his purpose, so that he said, "Doth the
trouble of my disease then hinder thee from taking me
in thy ship?"
Then said the Prince, "All is trouble when a man
leaveth his nature to do things that are not fitting."
And Philoctetes made answer, "Nay, is not this a
fitting thing, seeing of what sire thou art the son, to
help a brave man in his trouble?"
"Can I endure to be so base," said the Prince, "hiding
that which I should declare, and speaking the thing
that is false?" And while Philoctetes still doubted
whether he repented not of his purpose, he cried aloud,
"I will hide the thing no longer. Thou shalt sail with
me to Troy."
 "What sayest thou?"
"I say that thou shalt be delivered from these pains,
and shalt prevail together with me over the great city
"What treachery is this? What hast thou done to me?
Give me back the bow."
"Nay, that I cannot do, for I am under authority, and
must needs obey."
And when Philoctetes heard these words, he cried with a
very piteous voice, "What a marvel of wickedness thou
art that hast done this thing. Art thou not ashamed to
work such wrong to a suppliant? Give me my bow, for it
is my life. But I speak in vain, for he goeth away and
heedeth me not. Hear me then, ye waters and cliffs, and
ye beasts of the field, who have been long time my
wonted company, for I have none else to hearken to me.
Hear what the son of Achilles hath done to me. For he
sware that he would carry me to my home, and lo! he
taketh me to Troy. And he gave me the right hand of
fellowship, and now he robbeth me of the bow, the
sacred bow of Hercules. Nay—for I will make trial of
him once more—give back this thing to me and be thy
 What sayest thou? Nothing? Then am I undone. O cavern
of the rock wherein I have dwelt, behold how desolate I
am! Never more shall I slay with my arrows bird of the
air or beast of the field; but that which I hunted
shall pursue me, and that on which I fed shall devour
And the Prince was cut to the heart when he heard these
words, hating the thing which he had done, and cursing
the day on which he had come from Scyros to the plains
of Troy. Then turning himself to the sailors, he asked
what he should do, and was even about to give back the
bow, when Ulysses, who was close at hand, watching what
should be done, ran forth crying that he should hold
Then said Philoctetes, "Is this Ulysses that I see?
Then am I undone."
" 'Tis even so: and as for what thou askest of this
youth, that he should give back the bow, he shall not
do it; but rather thou shalt sail with us to Troy; and
if thou art not willing, these that stand by shall take
thee by force."
"Lord of fire, that rulest this land of Lemnos, hearest
 "Nay, 'tis Zeus that is master here, and Zeus hath
commanded this deed."
"What lies are these? Thou makest the Gods false as
"Not so. They are true and I also. But this journey
thou must take."
"Methinks I am a slave, and not freeborn, that thou
"Thou art peer to the bravest, and with them shalt take
the great city of Troy."
"Never; I had sooner cast myself down from this
Then Ulysses cried to the men that they should lay hold
on him; and this they straightway did. Then Philoctetes
in many words reproached him with all the wrongs that
he had done; how at the first he had caused him to be
left on this island, and now had stolen his arms, not
with his own hands, indeed, but with craft and deceit,
serving himself of a simple youth, who knew not but to
do as he was bidden. And he prayed to the Gods that
they would avenge him on all that had done him wrong,
and chiefly on this man Ulysses.
Then Ulysses made reply, "I can be all things
 as occasion serveth; such as thou sayest, if need be;
and yet no man more pious if the time call for goodness
and justice. One thing only I must needs do, and that
is to prevail. Yet here I will yield to thee. Thou wilt
not go; so be it. Loose him! We need thee not, having
these arms of thine. Teucer is with us, an archer not
one whit less skilful than thou. And now I leave thee
to this Lemnos of thine. May be this bow shall bring me
the honour which thou refusest."
When he had thus spoken he departed, and the Prince
Neoptolemus with him. Only the Prince gave permission
to the sailors that they should tarry with the sick man
till it was time to make ready for the voyage.
Then Philoctetes bewailed himself, crying to his bow,
"O my bow, my beloved, that they have wrested from my
hands, surely, if thou knowest aught, thou grievest to
see that the man who was the comrade of Hercules will
never hold thee more, but that base hands will grasp
thee, mixing thee with all manner of deceit." And then
again he called to the birds of the air and the beasts
of the field, that they should not
 fly from him any more, seeing that he had now no help
against them, but should come and avenge themselves
upon him and devour him. And still the sailors would
have comforted him. Also they sought to persuade him
that he should listen to the chiefs; but he would not,
crying that the lightning should smite him before he
would go to Troy and help them that had done him such
wrong. And at the last he cried that they should give
him a spear or a sword, that he might be rid of his
But while they thus talked together, the Prince came
back like one that is in haste, with Ulysses following
him, who cried, "Wherefore turnest thou back?"
THE REPENTANCE OF NEOPTOLEMUS.
"To undo what I did amiss."
"How sayest thou? When didst thou thus?"
"When I listened to thee, and used deceit to a brave
"What wilt thou then? (I fear me much what this fool
"I will give back this bow and these arrows to him from
whom I took them by craft."
"That shalt thou not do."
"But who shall hinder me?"
 "That will I, and all the sons of the Greeks with me."
"This is idle talk for a wise man as thou art."
"Seest thou this sword whereto I lay my hand?"
"If thou talkest of swords, thou shalt see right soon
that I also have a sword."
"Well—I let thee alone. To the host will I tell this
matter; they shall judge thee."
"Now thou speakest well; be ever as wise; so shalt thou
keep thy foot out of trouble."
Then the Prince called to Philoctetes, who, being
loosed by the sailors, had hidden himself in the cave,
and asked of him again whether he were willing to sail
with him, or were resolved to abide in the island.
And when the man had denied that he would go, and had
begun again to call down a curse on the sons of Atreus,
and on Ulysses, and on the Prince himself, then the
Prince bade him stay his speech, and gave him back the
bow and the arrows.
And when Ulysses, seeing this deed, was very wroth, and
Philoc-  tetes put an arrow to the string, and drew the bow to the
full, and would have shot at the man, but the Prince
stayed his hand.
And then again the Prince was urgent with him that he
should cease from his anger, and should sail with him
to Troy, saying that there he should be healed by the
great physician, the son of Asclepius, and should also
win great glory by taking the city, and that right
soon; for that the soothsayer Helenus had declared that
it was the will of the Gods that the city of Troy
should be taken that same summer.
But for all this he prevailed nothing; for Philoctetes
was obstinate that he would not go to Troy, nor do any
pleasure to the chiefs who had done him such wrong. But
he would that the Prince should fulfil the promise
which he had made, that he would carry him in his ship
to his own country. And this the Prince said that he
And now the two were about to depart to the ship, when
lo! there appeared in the air above their heads the
great Hercules. Very wonderful was he to behold, with
bright raiment, and a great glory shining from his
face, even as the
 everlasting Gods beheld him with whom he dwelt in the
place of Olympus. And Hercules spake, saying—
"Go not yet, son of Pœas, before thou hearest what I
shall say to thee. For 'tis Hercules whom thou seest
and hearest; and I am come from my dwelling in heaven
to declare to thee the will of Zeus. Know then that
even as I attained to this blessedness after much toil,
so shall it be with thee. For thou shalt go to the land
of Troy; and first thou shalt be healed of thy grievous
sickness, and afterwards thou shalt slay Paris with
thine arrows, and shalt take the city of Troy, whereof
thou shalt carry the spoils to thy home, even to Pœas
thy father, having received from thy fellows the
foremost prize for valour. But remember that all that
thou winnest in this warfare thou must take as an
offering to my tomb. And to thee, son of Achilles, I
say; thou canst not take the city of Troy without this
man, nor he without thee. Whereof, as two lions that
consort together, guard ye each other. And I will send
Asclepius to heal him of his sickness; for it is the
will of the Gods that Troy should yet again be taken
 by my bow. And remember this, when ye lay waste the
land, to have the Gods and that which belongeth to them
Then said Philoctetes, "O my master, whom I have long
desired to hear and see, I will do as thou sayest."
And the Prince also gave his consent.
Then Philoctetes bade farewell to the island in these
"Home that hast watched with me, farewell!
And nymphs that haunt the springs or dwell
In seaward meadows, and the roar
Of waves that break upon the shore;
Where often, through the cavern's mouth,
The drifting of the rainy South
Hath coldly drenched me as I lay;
And Hermes' hill, whence many a day,
When anguish seized me, to my cry
Hoarse-sounding echo made reply.
O fountains of the land, and thou,
Pool of the Wolf, I leave you now;
Beyond all hope I leave thy strand,
O Lemnos, sea-encircled land!
Grant me with favouring winds to go
Whither the mighty Fates command,
And this dear company of friends,
And mastering Powers who shape our ends
To issues fairer than we know."
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