| 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 THE DEATH OF HERCULES
 OENEUS, who was king of the city of Pleuron in the land
of Ætolia, had a fair daughter, Deďaneira by name. Now
the maiden was sought in marriage by the god of the
river Acheloüs; but she loved him not, for he was
strange and terrible to look at. Sometimes he had the
shape of a great dragon with scales, and sometimes he
had the shape of a man, only that his head was the head
of a bull, and streams of water flowed down from his
beard. But it came to pass that Hercules, who was
stronger than all the men that dwelt upon the earth,
coming to the city of Pleuron, saw the maiden and loved
her, and would have her to wife. And when she told him,
saying that the river-god Acheloüs sought her in
marriage, he bade
 her be of good courage, for that he would vanquish the
creature in battle, so that it should not trouble her
any more. Which thing he did, for when the river-god
came, after his custom, Hercules did battle with him,
and came nigh to strangling him, and brake off one of
his horns. And the maiden looked on while the two
fought together, and was well pleased that Hercules
prevailed. King Œneus also was glad, and willingly gave
her to him to wife. So after a while he departed with
her unto his own country. And as they journeyed they
came to the river Evenus. Now on the banks of this
river there dwelt one Nessus, a centaur. (These
centaurs had heads as the heads of men, but their
bodies were like horses' bodies; and they were a savage
race and a lawless.) This Nessus was wont to carry
travellers across the river, which indeed was very
broad and deep. And when he saw Deďaneira that she was
very fair, he would have taken her from her husband; but
Hercules drew his bow and smote him with an arrow.
Now when Nessus knew that he should die of his
wound—for neither man nor beast lived
 that was wounded of these arrows—he thought in his
wicked heart that he would be avenged on this man that
had slain him. Whereupon he said to the woman, "Behold
I die. But first I would give thee a gift. Take of the
blood that cometh from this wound, and it shall come to
pass that if the love of thy husband fail thee, thou
shalt take of this blood and smear it on a garment, and
give him the garment to wear, and he shall love thee
again as at the first."
So the woman took of the blood and kept it by her. And
it came to pass after a time that the two went to the
city of Trachis and dwelt there. Now Trachis is in the
land of Thessaly, near unto the springs of Œta. And
Hercules loved his wife, and she dwelt in peace and
happiness, only that he sojourned not long at home, but
wandered over the face of the earth, doing many
wonderful works at the commandment of Eurystheus, his
brother. For the Gods had made Eurystheus to be master
over him, for all that he was so strong. Now for the
most part this troubled not his wife overmuch; for he
departed from his house as one who counted it certain
that he should return thereto.
 But at the last this was not so. For he left a tablet
wherein were written many things such as a man writeth
who is about to die. For he had ordered therein the
portion which his wife should have as her right of
marriage, and how his possessions should be divided
among his children. Also he wrote therein a certain
space of time, even a year and three months, for when
that was come to an end, he said, he must either be
dead or have finished happily all his labours, and so
be at peace continually. And this he had heard as an
oracle from the doves that dwell in the oaks of Dodona.
And when this time was well-nigh come to an end,
Deďaneira, being in great fear, told the matter to
Hyllus, her son. And even as she had ended, there came
a messenger, saying, "Hail, lady! Put thy trouble from
thee. The son of Alcmena lives and is well. This I
heard from Lichas the herald; and hearing it I hastened
to thee without delay, hoping that so I might please
"But," said the Queen, "why cometh not the herald
"Because all the people stand about him, asking him
questions, and hinder him."
 And not a long while after the herald came; and the
name of the man was Lichas. And when the Queen saw him
she cried, "What news hast thou of my husband? Is he
"Yea," said the herald, "he is alive and in good health."
"And where didst thou leave him? In some country of
the Greeks, or among barbarians?"
"I left him in the land of Eubœa, where he ordereth a
sacrifice to Zeus."
"Payeth he thus some vow, or did some oracle command
"He payeth a vow. And this vow he made before he took
with his spear the city of these women whom thou
"And who are these? For they are very piteous to behold."
"These he led captive when he destroyed the city of
"And hath the taking of the city so long delayed him?
For I have not seen him for space of a year and three
"Not so. The most of this time he was a slave in the
land of Lydia. For he was to Omphalé, who is Queen of
that land, and
 served her. And how this came about I will tell thee.
Thy husband sojourned in the house of King Eurytus, who
had been long time his friend. But the King dealt ill
with him, and spake to him unfriendly. For first he
said that Hercules could not excel his sons in shooting
with the bow, for all that he had arrows that missed
not their aim. And next he reviled him, for that he was
but a slave who served a free man, even King
Eurystheus, his brother. And at the last, at a banquet,
when Hercules was overcome with wine, the King cast him
forth. Wherefore Hercules, being very wroth, slew the
man. For the King came to the land of Tiryns, looking
for certain horses, and Hercules caught him unawares,
having his thoughts one way and his eyes another, and
cast him down from the cliff that he died. Then Zeus
was very wroth because he had slain him by craft, as he
had never slain any man before, and caused that he
should be sold for a year as a bond-slave to Queen
Omphalé. And when the year was ended, and Hercules was
free, he vowed a vow that he would destroy this city
from which there had come to him this disgrace; which
 accomplished. And these women whom thou seest are the
captives of his spear. And as for himself, be sure that
thou wilt see him in no long space."
When Lichas had thus spoken, the Queen looked upon the
captives, and had compassion on them, praying to the
Gods that such an evil thing might not befall her
children, or if, haply, it should befall them, she
might be dead before. And seeing that there was one
among them who surpassed the others in beauty, being
tall and fair exceedingly, as if she were the daughter
of a king, she would fain know who she was; and when
the woman answered not a word, she would have the
herald tell her. But he made as if he knew nothing at
all; only that she seemed to be well born, and that
from the first she had spoken nothing, but wept
continually. And the Queen pitied her, and said that
they should not trouble her, but take her into the
palace and deal kindly with her, lest she should have
sorrow upon sorrow.
But Lichas having departed for a space, the messenger
that came at the first would have speech of the Queen
alone. And when she had
 dismissed all the people, he told her that Lichas had
not spoken truly, saying that he knew not who was this
stranger, for that she was the daughter of King
Eurytus, Iolé by name, and that indeed for love of her
Hercules had taken the city.
And when the Queen heard this she was sore troubled,
fearing lest the heart of her husband should now have
been turned from her. But first she would know the
certainty of the matter. So when Lichas came, being now
about to depart, and inquired what he should say, as
from the Queen to Hercules, she said to him, "Lichas,
art thou one that loveth the truth?"
"Yea, by Zeus!" said he, "if so be that I know it."
"Tell me, then, who is this woman whom thou hast
"A woman of Eubœa; but of what lineage I know not."
"Look thou here. Knowest thou who it is to whom thou
"Yea, I know it; to Queen Deďaneira, daughter of Œneus
and wife to Hercules, and my mistress."
 "Thou sayest that I am thy mistress. What should be
done to thee if thou be found doing wrong to me?"
"What wrong? What meanest thou? But this is idle talk,
and I had best depart."
"Thou departest not till I shall have inquired somewhat
further of thee."
So the Queen commanded that they should bring the
messenger who had set forth the whole matter to her.
And when the man was come, and had told what he knew,
and the Queen also spake fair, as bearing no wrath
against her husband, Lichas made confession that the
thing was indeed as the man had said, and that the
woman was Iolé, daughter of King Eurytus.
Then the Queen took counsel with her companions,
maidens that dwelt in the city of Trachis, and told
them how she had a charm with her, the blood of Nessus
the Centaur; and that Nessus had given it to her in old
time because she was the last whom he carried over the
river Evenus; and that it would win back for her the
love of her husband. So she called Lichas, the herald,
and said to him that he
 must do a certain thing for her. And he answered,
"What is it, lady? Already I have lingered too long."
And she said, "Take now this robe, which thou seest to
be fair and well woven, and carry it as a gift from me
to my husband. And say to him from me that he suffer no
man to wear it before him, and that the light of the
sun touch it not, no, nor the light of a fire, till he
himself shall clothe himself with it on a day on which
he doeth sacrifice to the Gods. And say that I made
this vow, if he should come back from this journey,
that I would array him in this robe, wherein to do
sacrifice. And that he may know thee to be a true
messenger from me, take with thee this seal."
And Lichas said, "So surely as I know the craft of
Hermes, who is the god of heralds, I will do this thing
according to thy bidding."
Now the Queen had anointed the fair garment which she
sent with the blood of Nessus the Centaur, that when
her husband should clothe himself with it, his heart
might be turned to her as at the first.
So Lichas the herald departed, bearing the
 robe. But after no long time the Queen ran forth from
the palace in great fear, wringing her hands, and
crying to the maidens, her companions, that she was
sore afraid lest in ignorance she had done some great
mischief. And when they would know the cause of her
grief and fear, she spake, saying, "A very marvellous
and terrible thing hath befallen me. There was a morsel
of sheep's wool which I dipped into the charm, even the
blood of the Centaur, that I might anoint therewith
the robe which ye saw me send to my husband.
Now, this morsel of wool hath perished altogether. But
that ye may understand this thing the better, I will
set it forth to you at length. Know then that I have
not forgotten aught of the things which the Centaur
commanded me when he gave me this charm, but have kept
them in my heart, even as if they were written on
bronze. Now he bade me keep the thing where neither
light of the sun nor fire might touch it. And this have
I done; and when I anointed the robe, I anointed it in
secret, in a certain dark place in the palace; but the
morsel of wool wherewith I anointed it I threw, not
 heeding, into the sunshine. And, lo! it hath wasted
till it is like unto dust which falleth when a man
saweth wood. And from the earth whereon it lay there
arise great bubbles of foam, like to the bubbles which
arise when men pour into the vats the juice of the
vine. And now I know not what I should say; for indeed,
though I thought not so of the matter before, it
seemeth not a thing to be believed that this Centaur
should wish well to the man that slew him. Haply he
deceived me, that he might work him woe. For I know
that this is a very deadly poison, seeing that Chiron
also suffered grievously by reason of it, albeit he was
a god. Now if this be so, as I fear, then have I, and I
only, slain my husband."
THE BURNING WOOL.
And she had scarce finished these words when Hyllus her
son came in great haste; and when he saw her, he cried,
"O my mother! would that I had found thee dead, or that
thou wert not my mother, or that thou wert of a better
mind than I know thee to be of."
But she said, "What have I done, my son, that thou so
"This day thou hast done my father to death."
 "What sayest thou? Who told thee this horrible thing
that thou bringest against me?"
"I saw it with mine own eyes. And if thou wilt hear the
whole matter, hearken. My father, having taken with his
spear the city of Eurytus, went to a certain place hard
by the sea, that he might offer sacrifices to Zeus,
according to his vow. And even as he was about to
begin, there came Lichas the herald bringing thy gift,
the deadly robe. And he put it upon him as thou badest,
and slew the beasts for the sacrifice, even twelve oxen
chosen out of the prey, and one hundred other beasts.
And for a while he did worship to the Gods with a glad
heart, rejoicing in the beauty of his apparel. But when
the fire grew hot, and the sweat came out upon his
skin, the robe clung about him as though one had fitted
it to him by art, and there went a great pang of pain
through him, even as the sting of a serpent. And then
he called to Lichas the herald, and would fain know for
what end he had brought this accursed raiment. And when
the wretch said that it was thy gift, he caught him by
the foot, and cast him on a rock that was in the sea
hard by, and
 all his brains were scattered upon it. And all the
people groaned to see this thing, that the man perished
so miserably, and that such madness wrought in thy
husband. Nor did any one dare to draw near to him, for
he threw himself now into the air, and now upon the
ground, so fierce was the pain; and all the rocks about
sounded again with his groaning. But after a while he
spied me where I stood waiting in the crowd, and called
to me, and said, 'Come hither, my son; fly not from me
in my trouble, even if it needs be that thou die with
me. But take me, and set me where no man may see me;
but above all carry me from this land, that I die not
here.' Whereupon we laid him in the hold of a ship, and
brought him to this place, where thou wilt see him
soon, either newly dead or on the point to die. This is
what thou hast done, my mother; for thou hast slain thy
husband, such a man as thou shalt never more see upon
And when the Queen heard this, she spake not a word,
but hasted into the palace, and ran through it like
unto one that is smitten with madness. And at the last
she entered the
 chamber of Hercules, and sat down in the midst and wept
piteously, saying, "O my marriage-bed, where never more
I shall lie, farewell!" And as she spake she loosed
the golden brooch that was upon her heart, and bared
all her left side; and before any could hinder her—for
her nurse had seen what she did, and had run to fetch
her son—she took a two-edged sword and smote herself to
the heart, and so fell dead. And as she fell there came
her son, that now knew from them of the household how
she had been deceived of that evil beast the Centaur,
and fell upon her with many tears and cries, saying
that now he was bereaved both of father and of mother
in one day.
But while he lamented, there came men bearing Hercules
in a litter. He was asleep, for the pain had left him
for a space, and the old man that was guide to the
company was earnest with Hyllus that he should not wake
his father. Nevertheless, Hercules heard the young
man's voice, and his sleep left him. Then he cried
aloud in his agony, complaining to Zeus that he had
suffered such a torment to come upon him,
 and reproaching them that stood by that they gave him
not a sword wherewith he might make an end to his pain.
But most of all he cursed his wife that she had wrought
him such woe, saying to Hyllus—
"See now, my son, how that this treacherous woman hath
worked such pain to me as I have never endured before
in all the earth, through which, as thou knowest, I
have journeyed, cleansing it from all manner of
monsters. And now thou seest how I, who have subdued
all things, weep and cry as doth a girl. And these
hands and arms, with which I slew the lion that wasted
the land of Nemea and the great dragon of Lerna, and
dragged into the light the three-headed dog that
guardeth the gate of hell, see how these, which no man
yet hath vanquished in fight, are wasted and consumed
with the fire. But there is one thing which they shall
yet do, for I will slay her that wrought this deed."
Then Hyllus made answer, "My father, suffer me to
speak, for I have that to tell thee of my mother which
thou shouldest hear."
"Speak on; but beware that thou show not thyself vile,
 "She is dead."
"Who slew her? This is a strange thing thou tellest."
"She slew herself with her own hand."
" 'Tis ill done. Would that I had slain her myself!"
"Thy heart will be changed towards her when thou
"This is strange indeed; but say on."
"All that she did she did with good intent."
"With good intent, thou wicked boy, when she slew her
"She sought to keep thy love, fearing that thy heart
was turned to another."
"And who of the men of Trachis is so cunning in
"The Centaur Nessus gave her the poison long since,
saying that she might thus win back thy love."
And when Hercules heard this he cried aloud, "Then is
my doom come; for long since it was prophesied to me
that I should not die by the hand of any living
creature, but by one that dwelt in the region of the
dead. And now this Centaur, whom I slew long ago, hath
 in turn. And now, my son, hearken unto me. Thou knowest
the hill of Œta. Carry me thither thyself, taking also
such of thy friends as thou wilt have with thee. And
build there a great pile of oak and wild olive, and lay
me thereon, and set fire thereto. And take heed that
thou shed no tear nor utter a cry, but work this deed
in silence, if, indeed, thou art my true son: and if
thou doest not so, my curse shall be upon thee for
HERCULES ON MOUNT OETA.
And Hyllus vowed that he would do this thing, only that
he could not set fire to the pile with his own hand. So
they bare Hercules to the top of the hill of Œta, and
built a great pile of wood, and laid him thereon. And
Philoctetes, who was of the companions of Hyllus, set
fire to the pile. For which deed Hercules gave to him
his bow and the arrows that missed not their aim. And
the tale of this bow, and how it fared with him that
had it, may be read in the story of Philoctetes.
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