Translation and Introduction Copyright 1966 by Robert M. Torrance; all rights reserved.
This translation of Sophocles’ The Women of Trachis (Trachiniae) was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1966 together with the Philoctetes. It is dedicated to the memory of Cedric Whitman.
CHARACTERS OF THE PLAY
Deianeira, daughter of Oeneus, wife of Heracles.
Hyllus, son of Deianeira and Heracles.
Messenger, an old man of Trachis.
Lichas, herald of Heracles.
Heracles, son of Zeus and Alcména.
Chorus, maidens of Trachis, attendants of Deianeira.
Captive women of Oechalia, including Iole. Attendants of Heracles.
Some other names in the text
Achelóüs, a large river in western Greece.
Cádmus, founder of Thebes, where Heracles was born.
Cenaeum, a promontory of Euboea.
Dodóna, an oracle of Zeus in northwestern Greece.
Euboea, a large island opposite Tráchis.
Éurytus, king of Oechalia and father of Iole.
Evénus, a river between Pleuron and Trachis.
Íphitus, son of Eurytus and brother of Iole.
Krónos, father of Zeus.
Lócris, a region south of Malis.
Mális, a region in southern Thessaly.
Néssus, a centaur.
Oechália, a city of Euboea.
Oeniadai, a city near the mouth of the Achelóüs.
Oeta, a mountain near Tráchis.
Ómphale, queen of Lydia.
Pléuron, birthplace of Deianeira, near the Achelóüs.
Tráchis, a city in Malis.
The Women of Trachis
[Scene: Trachis in front of the palace of
Heracles and Deianeira.]
[Enter Deianeira and Nurse.]
There is an ancient proverb people tell
that none can judge the life of any man
for good or bad until that man is dead;
but I, for my part, though I am still living,
know well that mine is miserable and hard.
Even while I was living with my father
Oeneus in Pleuron I was plagued by fear
of marriage more than any other woman.
My suitor was the river Achelóüs,
who took three forms to ask me of my father:
a rambling bull once – then a writhing snake
of gleaming colors – then again a man
with ox-like face: and from his beard’s dark shadows
stream upon stream of water tumbled down.
Such was my suitor. As I waited there
I prayed my agony might end in death
before I ever shared my bed with him.
But later on, to my great joy, the glorious
child of Alcména, son of Zeus, arrived,
and joined in combat with the river god,
and freed me. How they fought I cannot say,
I do not know: for only he who saw
that sight, yet did not tremble, could describe it;
but I sat petrified with terror, lest
my beauty might bring sorrow down upon me.
Then Zeus the warrior-king brought forth good issue –
if it was good . . . for though I am the wife
of Heracles I nourish fear on fear
in my concern for him, since each night brings
a sorrow which the next night steals away.
We have had children, yet he only sees them
as migrant farmers see their distant crops:
once when they sow and once again at harvest.
Such was his life that he came home but briefly;
then left again to serve his hard taskmaster.
But now that he is free from all his labors,
now I am seized by greater dread than ever.
For since the time he slew strong Iphitus,
we have been exiled here in Trachis, living
in a strange household; and where Heracles
has gone, no one can say. I only know
the bitter pangs his going left with me.
Surely he has endured some grave misfortune;
for no small time has passed since he departed,
but fifteen months already without tidings.
It must be some misfortune – as the tablets
he left with me forewarned. How often I
have prayed to God they would not bring me grief!
Queen Deianeira, many times have I
seen you bewailing Heracles’ departure
and weeping bitter tears of lamentation.
But now, if it is proper that a slave
should teach free people, I will speak up for you:
since you have such a multitude of children,
why not send one of them to seek your husband?
Hyllus should be the first to go, if he
has any care about his father’s welfare.
But here he is, running fast toward the house!
If you believe my words were spoken rightly,
now is the time to try them on your son.
My child, my son, wise sayings sometimes come
even from humble people like this woman.
She is a slave, but what she says rings free.
What, mother? Tell me, if it may be told.
That, since your father has been gone so long,
it is disgraceful for you not to seek him.
There is no need, if what I hear is true.
Child, has some rumor told you where he is?
They say he spent the whole long plowing season
working in bondage for a Lydian woman.
If he has borne this, nothing will surprise me!
But now, I hear, he has escaped that labor.
Where is he living then . . . or is he dead?
They say that he is warring – or soon will –
against Euboea, Eurytus’s city.
Are you aware, my child, that he left with me
sure oracles about that very land?
What are they, mother? I know nothing of them.
Either his days will reach their end, or else,
when he has done this labor, he will live
all his remaining life in peace and calm.
Child, when his fate is hanging in the balance,
will you not help him? Our own safety lies
in his; for if he dies we perish with him.
I will go, mother; and if I had known
these prophecies I would have left much sooner.
My father’s usual fortunes gave no cause
to fear for him or be too deeply troubled;
but now I understand, and I will not
cease till I learn the whole truth in these matters.
Go then, my son! The man who brings good news,
however late, will surely be rewarded.
[Hyllus leaves. The Chorus enter.]
[Strophe A ]
Thou whom the night brings forth, when shorn of splendor,
and lays to rest again in a burst of fire –
tell me, O Sun, I pray thee,
where, oh where is Alcména’s son residing?
Thou who searest with flaming bolts of light,
is he at sea or safe on the mainland shore?
Tell me, thou crowning eye of all the heaven.
She who was fought for once by mighty warriors,
Deianeira, is wasting with desire;
and, like the mournful nightingale,
she cannot cease her tearful yearnings ever,
but thinks with fear on her husband’s distant journey,
racked on her widowed couch of torment, only
waiting to see her direst dreams fulfilled.
Just as the tireless winds from the south and north
scatter the waves before them on the wide sea:
so does the son of Cadmus’s life of travail
whirl him round and exalt him again,
wild as the Cretan sea;
yet always some god unerringly
holds him back from the house of Hades.
I will reproach you with respect, but sternly:
you must not waste your life away in sorrow
hopelessly. Never has Zeus, the king of all things,
granted to mortals life without pain;
but grief and happiness come
to every man in his turn,
like the circling paths of the Bear.
The gleaming splendor of the night
will not remain with men, nor yet
will grief, nor wealth: all pass away
at once, and soon another man
encounters joy and sorrow.
My Queen, I ask you ever to remember
that this is so; for when has any man
known Zeus to be so careless of his children?
Your words show clearly that my suffering
is known to you. Oh, may you never learn
the heartfelt anguish you are innocent of!
Like you, the young plant grows in sheltered regions
all by itself, and no fierce summer heat
nor any storm nor any wind prevents it
from living peacefully a life of pleasure
till she who was a girl becomes a woman
and learns her share of troubles in the night,
fearful for her loved husband and her children.
By looking on her own plight, such a one
might understand the cares which burden me.
I have wept often for my many sorrows,
but now one greater than before assails me;
for when lord Heracles set forth from home
upon his latest undertaking, he
left tablets here behind, inscribed with words
which he had never deigned to tell me of
in all the previous labors he endured –
so great was his belief that he would triumph.
But this time, like a dying man, he told me
what my inheritance would be, and how
the children should divide their father’s land.
He set a time, and said that when a year
and three months had gone by since his departure,
then it was fated either that he die,
or else, if he survived, that he should live
his life thereafter free of grief and pain.
This was the fate he said the gods had destined
to end the many toils of Heracles:
this was the prophecy the ancient oak tree
spoke through Dodona’s two divining doves.
And now the moment when the oracle
ordained these things to happen has arrived;
and I have started forth from my sweet slumber
trembling with fear, my friends, to think that I
might live without this noblest of all men.
Be silent now: I see a man approaching
whose crown of laurel signifies good tidings.
[Enter an old man of Trachis, acting as a Messenger]
Queen Deianeira, I shall be the first
to free you from your fears; for I can tell you
Alcména’s son is living and has triumphed
to bring home to our gods the spoils of battle.
What is it you are telling me, old man?
That soon the husband whom you long for will
come home victorious in all his might.
What citizen – or stranger – told you this?
Lichas the herald spoke these things to many
in a summer pasture land; and when I heard him
I sprang away to be the first to tell you –
and, hopefully, to profit by your favor.
If he has brought good tidings, then where is he?
Lady, he has but little room to move.
The Malian people have surrounded him
to ask him questions, and will not let him go.
All are intent on learning what they hope for,
and will not set him free until they do.
And so, against his will, he is detained
by theirs; but soon you shall behold him here.
O Zeus who rulest the unshorn plains of Oeta,
after long years thou grantest us great joy!
Raise up your voices, women, in the house
and in the outer court. Come, let us reap
the unenvisioned light this message brings us.
Girls who are brides to be, come, sing in triumph
with shouts, wild shouts of joy for our hearth and home;
and let the voices of men be one
with ours in prayer to the archer-god
Apollo, our defender! Then,
maidens, raise the paean aloft
and cry to his sister
Ortygian Artemis, wielder of torches, slayer of deer,
and the nymphs of the neighboring hills.
I am raised on high, I will not reject
the cry of the flute: thou tyrant of mind and soul!
Behold me: the ivy –
goads me to frenzy and whirls me
round in the strife of Bacchus!
Io io Paean!
My lady, behold,
behold, you may clearly see these things
are taking place before you.
I see, dear friends; my watchful eyes have not
failed to discern this group which is approaching.
All hail the herald, who has now returned
at long last . . . if it is good news you bring.
[Enter the herald Lichas, followed by a group of captive women; among them,Iole]
Gladly do we arrive and gladly hear you,
lady, so fitly welcome us. The man
who prospers merits fair words in return.
Dearest of men, first tell me what I most
desire to know: is Heracles alive?
When I last saw him he was in full strength,
alive and flourishing and free from illness.
Where? In his homeland or some far-off country?
Making his offering to Cenaean Zeus
with fruitful tribute on Euboea’s shore.
To pay a vow or fill some oracle?
A vow made when he captured and despoiled
the country of these women whom you see.
Who are they, tell me, and who were their parents?
I pity them – unless their plight deceives me.
When Heracles sacked Eurytus’s city
he chose them as the gods’ prize, and his own.
Then was it for this city he was gone
till time was meaningless and days lost number?
No. Most of that time he was held in Lydia
as he himself declares, not free, but sold
to servitude. (This word must not offend you,
lady: Zeus was the author of the deed.)
He says he spent a year of thraldom there
slaving for the barbarian Omphale.
So deeply was he injured by this shame,
he placed himself on oath, and swore to vanquish
the perpetrator of his suffering
and force him, with his wife and child, to slavery.
His word was kept. When he had purged himself
he raised a foreign army and advanced
on Eurytus’s city, for he said
that man alone had brought this grief upon him.
He claimed that when he first came to his house
as an old comrade, Eurytus assailed him
with many words born of an evil mind,
and told him that despite those mighty arrows
his own sons could surpass him with the bow;
yes, taunted him that he had sunk to being
a free man’s slave; and then, when drunk with wine,
he cast him out. This maddened Heracles,
and once, when he saw Iphitus approaching
the hill of Tiryns in search of his lost horses,
looking at one thing, thinking of another,
Heracles threw him from the towering peak.
But then Olympian Zeus, the universal
father of all, in anger at this deed,
did not hold back from selling him to bondage,
because he dared to kill this single man
by guile. If his revenge had been but open,
Zeus would have pardoned what he did in justice:
like us, the gods hate reckless violence.
So all those men, who spoke with evil tongues,
are gone to Hades, and their city is
enslaved. These women whom you see, once happy,
have found a life which none will envy now,
and come to you. This was your husband’s bidding,
and I, his faithful servant, have performed it.
Be certain he himself will come, when he
has made pure offering to his father Zeus
for his great conquest. Surely this will be,
of all good tidings you have heard, the sweetest.
My Queen, abundant happiness is yours!
Part is before you, and the rest is promised.
How should I not rejoice with all my heart
when I have learned about my lord’s good fortune?
My pleasure and his happiness are one.
Yet one who looks afar may even fear
for him who prospers, lest he fall thereafter.
And as for me, my friends, a strange compassion
came over me when I saw these poor women
orphaned and homeless in a foreign land.
They too were once the daughters of free men,
perhaps; but now they lead a life of slavery.
O Zeus, god of reverses, may I never
behold thee thus advance against my offspring –
or, if thou dost, let me not live to see it!
Such is my fear on looking at these women.
Unhappy girl, come tell me who you are:
unmarried, or a mother? Your appearance
seems innocent of all these things, and noble.
Lichas, whose daughter is this stranger here?
Who is her father, and what mother bore her?
Tell me. I pitied her most when I saw her,
for she alone knows how to feel her hardship.
How should I know? Why do you question me?
It seems she was not born of humble parents.
Perhaps from kings. Did Eurytus have children?
I do not know. My inquiries were brief.
Did you not learn her name from her companions?
No. I have carried out my task in silence.
Tell me yourself, unhappy girl. Not knowing
who you are is a great misfortune for me.
If she behaves the way she has till now
she will not move her tongue; for she has spoken
not once in all this time of anything.
She labors with the weight of her misfortune;
and ever since she left her wind-swept country
she has wept bitter streams of tears. Her fate,
surely, is hard for her, and claims our pardon.
Then let her be, and let her go inside
if she so wishes, for I would not add
more suffering to what she now possesses:
that is enough already. Let us enter
the palace. You may hasten where you will,
and I will try to put my house in order.
[Lichas and the captive women start toward the palace.
Deianeira turns to follow.]
Stay here a moment first, and I will tell you,
apart from these whom you are taking in,
things which you ought to know but have not heard;
for I know everything there is to tell.
What do you want? Why have you stopped me here?
Wait, hear me. What I told you of before
you learned with profit, and so will you now.
Then shall I call the others back again,
or will you speak to me and to my maidens?
To you and them, yes; let the others be.
Now they have gone, and you may tell your story.
Nothing this man has said to you just now
was spoken truly! Either this was false
or what he said before had no truth in it.
What are you saying? Tell me all you know,
for I am ignorant of what you mean.
Why, I heard this man say – and there were many
witnesses there – that for the girl’s sake only
did Heracles slay Eurytus and conquer
Oechalia’s high towers. Love alone,
of all the gods, enticed him into battle,
and not his irksome toil for Omphale
in Lydia, or Iphitus’s death.
When Lichas tells his tale, he leaves out Love.
Heracles could not make her father give
his daughter to him for his concubine,
and so, with some small pretext as his cause,
he fought against her native city, where
this Eurytus, he said, sat on the throne,
and killed the king her father, and destroyed
her country. Now he comes home bringing her,
as you see, lady – and not without purpose,
nor as his slave. Do not think that will happen,
not when a man is burning with desire!
I thought it best to tell you everything
which I, my Queen, had learned of from this man.
For many other men of Trachis heard him,
as I did, speaking in the public place:
they will bear witness. If my words are bitter,
then I am sorry. But I speak the truth.
Oh wretched that I am, where do I stand?
What secret grief awaits me in my house
now, in my misery? Was this girl really
without a name, as Lichas swore to me?
No, she is glorious in name and birth.
Eurytus was her father; and her name,
Iole. This was she whose birth the herald
told nothing of, because he had not asked!
May the false man who fashions evil secrets
perish before all other wicked men!
What must I do my friends? These words which I
have heard have frightened me out of my senses.
Go question Lichas, for he may reply
truthfully if you press him to make answer.
Yes, I will go; your words are spoken wisely.
What shall I do? Remain here or depart?
Stay – for without my calling him the man
is coming from the house of his own will.
[Lichas returns from the palace.]
Madam, what shall I say to Heracles?
Tell me; for I am going, as you see.
How quickly you are leaving, when your visit
has been so short, and we have talked so little.
If you have questions for me, I will stay.
Will what you tell me be the honest truth?
Yes, by great Zeus, in anything I know of.
Who is the woman you have brought here with you?
She is Euboean; I know nothing more.
Look here: to whom do you think you are speaking?
And who are you to question me like that?
Answer me, if you understand my meaning.
To royal Deianeira, if my eyes
do not deceive me – Oeneus’s daughter,
Heracles’ wife, and, furthermore, my queen.
That is the very word I wished to hear.
You say she is your queen?
And rightly so.
Well then, what punishment will you be willing
to undergo if you are proved dishonest?
What do you mean, “dishonest”? Are these riddles?
No, it is you instead whose words are riddles.
Farewell. I was a fool to listen to you.
Stay here until you answer one brief question.
Speak if you wish – and you will not be silent!
That captive whom you brought here to the palace –
you know her, surely?
Yes. Why do you ask?
Did you not say that she, whom you cannot
now name, was Eurytus’ child Iole?
To whom did I say that? Where is the man
who will bear witness that you heard it from me?
Many good citizens of Trachis heard you
proclaim it in our public meeting place.
they say so, but it is a different thing
to state one’s fancy and to speak correctly.
Fancy! Did you not swear that you were bringing
this girl to be the wife of Heracles?
To be his wife? In God’s name, my dear mistress,
tell me, I pray you, who this stranger is.
One who was there when you said that desire
destroyed the city – not the Lydian woman
Omphale, but his passion for this girl.
Madam, let this man be dismissed. To prate
with such a madman suits not my discretion.
Do not, by Zeus I pray, whose lightning flashes
on Oeta’s highest woodlands, hide the truth!
You are not speaking to an evil woman,
nor one who does not know that men were not
born to enjoy the same delights forever.
Whoever stands opposed to Love, with fists
clenched like a boxer, does not understand him;
for he rules over gods as he desires,
and over me. Why not another like me?
So if I blamed my husband for the passion
which has afflicted him, I would be mad –
or this girl either, who has shared with him
what is no shame for them, no wrong to me.
I could not do that. But if he has taught you
to lie, then you have learned a wicked lesson;
and if you have taught yourself these ways, then you
will seem most evil when desiring good.
Tell me the truth! It is a foul disgrace
for a free man to be known as a liar.
And do not think you will escape detection,
for many heard you speaking, and will tell me.
If you have fears, dismiss them, for to me
the greatest pain is not to learn the truth.
What harm in knowing? Has not Heracles
taken more brides than any other man?
And yet none of them ever was reproached
by me, or slandered. She will not be either,
not even if she melts with passion, for
I pitied her most when I first beheld her
because her beauty has destroyed her life,
and she, against her will, has sacked and ravaged
her native country. But let all this be
cast to the winds: to you I say, deceive
anyone else, but do not lie to me!
She counsels well: obey her. You will never
have cause to blame her, and will win our thanks.
Dear mistress, since I see that you are human,
thinking as men should think, and are not proud,
I will no longer hide the truth from you:
everything is as this man has declared.
A dreadful craving for the girl came over
Heracles; and for her sake he destroyed
and sacked Oechalia, her father’s city.
He, in all fairness to him, never told me
to hide these facts from you, never denied them;
but I myself, my Queen, in fear that I
might grieve your heart by telling you such things,
erred – if indeed you count it as an error.
Now, since you understand at last the truth,
for your sake and for his as well, I pray you
to treat this woman kindly, and to stand
firmly upon the word which you have spoken.
For he whose hand was mighty in all else
is vanquished by his passion for this woman.
Believe me, that is my sincere intent.
I do not wish to add to my affliction
by vain war with the gods. Come, let us enter
the palace, where you may receive your message –
and, since a gift should always be repaid,
take one from me. You ought not to return
with nothing, when you brought so large a train.
[Deianeira and Lichas enter the palace.]
Great is the power of Aphrodite’s triumph!
I will not mention
the gods, nor how she deceived the son of Kronos,
nor Hades the lord of night,
no, nor Poseidon, shaker of earth.
But when this woman was wedded,
what mighty-limbed men came to claim her in marriage?
Who were they who entered the hard-hitting, dust-clouded conflict of battle?
One was a violent river in a bull’s form,
Achelóüs from Oeniadae; the other came from
Bacchian Thebes, and his bow
was bent and he wielded the spear and cudgel –
Zeus’s son; and they came together
in battle, desiring to win her in wedlock,
while Aphrodite the blesser of marriage sat in the middle and judged them.
Then was the clash of fists and arrows
mingled with the clatter of bull’s horns;
intricate grapplings were joined;
there were deadly blows of the forehead,
and groaning was heard from both.
But she, in tender beauty,
on a far-seen hilltop,
sat and waited for her husband
even as the battle raged.
The bride these men had fought for
and then she left her mother
like a lost and helpless calf.
[Deianeira returns from the palace.]
Friends, while our visitor inside the palace
is bidding farewell to the captive maidens,
I have come forth to you in secret, partly
to tell you what I have contrived, but also
to win your sympathy for what I suffer.
I have received this maiden – no, not maiden –
this mistress, as a sailor welcomes freightage:
a burden which my heart finds hard to bear.
For now he will have two of us to clasp
under one blanket; this is the reward
Heracles, whom we call the good and faithful,
has given me for waiting all this time!
I cannot find it in me to be angry,
often as this disease has come upon him;
but then, to live together with her, sharing
my marriage-bed – what woman could endure it?
I see her youthful beauty blooming; mine
is vanishing: his eye will love to pluck
those blossoms, but will turn away from me.
I fear that Heracles will soon be called
my husband, but this younger woman’s man.
Yet anger, as I said, is wrong for women
of understanding. Let me tell you, friends,
the solacing release that I have found.
I have long had a present, which a beast
once gave me, hidden in an urn of bronze.
While still a child I took it from the blood
of shaggy-breasted Nessus as he died –
Nessus, a centaur who would carry men
for pay across the deep Evenus river,
using no oars or sails to help convey them.
So, when my father sent me forth to follow
Heracles, as his bride, this monster bore me
upon his back and, when we reached midstream,
touched me with lusting hands: I screamed aloud:
then Zeus’s son immediately turned round
and shot a feathered arrow whizzing through
his breast into his lungs. As he lay dying
the beast said, “Daughter of old Oeneus, listen
to me, and you will profit from this voyage,
for I will never carry any other.
Take in your hands the clotted blood around
my wound, in which the monstrous beast of Lerna,
Hydra, once dipped his arrows of black gall;
and this will be a love-charm for the heart
of Heracles, so that he will not ever
love anyone he looks on more than you.”
I thought of this just now, my friends, for since
he died I have concealed it in my house;
and I have dipped this tunic in it, as
he said when living. Yes, I have performed it.
Oh, may I never come to know the meaning
of wickedness or women who are wicked;
but if I am able to excel this girl
by using magic charms on Heracles,
the means are ready. Do you think my actions
are rash? For if you do, I will not try them.
If there is any promise of success,
why then, I think that you have counseled wisely.
The only promise is that it seems best –
and yet, I cannot know until I try.
Knowledge must come through action. You will never
be sure unless you put it to the test.
Ah, we will soon know, for I see the herald
leaving the house. He will be going shortly.
Please keep my secret! Even shameful deeds,
when done in darkness, never bring disgrace.
[Lichas returns from the palace.]
Tell me what I must do now, child of Oeneus,
for I have been delayed here far too long.
Lichas, while you were speaking with the maidens
inside, I have been making ready for you
a long robe to take back to Heracles –
a gift for him which my own hands have woven.
Give it to him and tell him to allow
no other man to put it on before him.
He must not let the sunlight or the fire
beside the altar or the hearth shine on it
until he stands forth visible to all,
showing it to the gods while bulls are slaughtered.
This was my vow: that if I ever saw
or heard that he was coming, I would dress him
properly in this robe, and so present
a new man sacrificing in new garments.
Take him the seal stamped on this signet ring
as token – he will quickly recognize it.
Now go. Remember, first of all, the law
that messengers must not exceed their calling;
and then conduct yourself in such a way
that you may win my thanks as well as his.
As I am true to Hermes, god of heralds,
and to my sacred craft, I will not fail
to take this casket to him, as it is,
adding your message to attest your gift.
Then you may leave us now, for you have seen
how matters stand with me here in the palace.
I have, and I shall say that all is well.
You know the greeting that I gave the stranger –
you saw that I have welcomed her in friendship?
Yes; and my heart was deeply struck with pleasure.
Then what else can you tell him? For I fear
it is too soon to speak of my desire,
until I know if he desires me also.
[Deianeira enters the palace. Lichas leaves.]
O you who dwell by the warm-flowing streams
between the rocks and the harbor
near Oeta’s mountain, and you
of the innermost reach of Malis’s gulf,
by the shore of the golden-arrowed goddess,
there where the Greeks hold famous council
near Thermopylae’s gateway;
for you the sound of the sweet-voiced flute
will soon arise, and not with a cry
of grating agony, but
with the lyrical tones of sacred song!
For the child of Alcména, Zeus’s son,
is speeding his way toward home, and bringing
trophies of might and valor.
He was gone far away from our city
at sea, while we waited for him
twelve long months, and heard nothing.
Meanwhile his loving wife
with an enduring heart
tearfully wasted away;
but now the furious god of war
has freed her from her time of sorrow.
May he come, may he come! May his vessel,
his many-oared ship, not tarry
until he has reached our city,
leaving the island altar
where he is sacrificing.
May he arrive full of longing,
all fused in one with his specious garb,
his robe smeared over with persuasion.
[Deianeira returns from the palace.]
My friends, I am afraid that I have gone
too far in everything I have just done.
What is it, Deianeira, child of Oeneus?
I am not certain, yet I deeply fear
my hopes of good have brought about great harm.
Does it concern your gift to Heracles?
It does. Oh, never recommend that any
be hasty when his action is uncertain!
Tell me your worries, if they may be told.
So strange a thing has happened, friends, that if
I tell you, you will marvel at my words.
The tuft of white wool from a fleecy sheep
with which I smeared that stately robe just now,
has vanished – not consumed by anything
within the house; no, self-devoured it crumbled
down from the stone it lay on. I will tell you
more fully how this wonder came to pass.
None of the precepts which the savage Centaur
spoke when the bitter arrow pierced his side
did I forget, but held them in my mind
like words indelibly inscribed in bronze.
I did exactly as he told me to,
and kept the ointment in a hidden place
far from the warmth of sunlight or of fire
until the time should come to smear it on.
I did just so. And then, when I was ready,
I spread it secretly inside the palace
with wool which I had plucked from our own sheep,
and folded up the gift, and placed it in
a hollow, sunless casket, as you saw.
But when I went back in, I saw a sight
beyond the power of speech or understanding.
By chance I had thrown the piece of wool with which
I smeared the robe into the blazing heat
where sunlight fell; and as it warmed, it melted
away to nothing, crumbling into earth
exactly like the little particles
of sawdust which we see when trees are leveled.
It lies there still. And from the place it fell
a curdled clot of bubbling foam seethed up,
like the rich juice squeezed from the purple fruit
of Bacchus’ vine, when poured upon the ground.
And so I know not what to think. I see
only that I have done a dreadful deed.
Why – for what reason – should the beast whose death
I caused have shown me kindness as he died?
It cannot be! No, wishing to destroy
his slayer, he deceived me. I have learned
too late, when learning can avail no longer!
For I alone – unless my mind deceives me –
I, to my grief, will bring about his ruin.
That very arrow, I am certain, wounded
Cheiron, a god; and it destroys whatever
creature it touches. The dark blood which flowed
from Nessus’ wound contained that poison. Oh,
how can it not kill Heracles? It must!
And yet I am resolved, if he should fall,
to perish with him in the selfsame onslaught.
One who takes pride in being good by nature
will not endure a life marred by dishonor.
We must shun dreadful deeds; and yet must never
condemn our hopes until those deeds occur.
In plans unwisely made there is no place
for hope, which might lend courage even now.
Men’s wrath is softened toward those who have erred
unwittingly; and so it is with you.
One who has known misfortune would not utter
such words, but only one who feels no sorrow.
It would be best if you were silent now
except in speaking to your son; for he
who left to seek his father has returned.
Mother, I wish one of three things would happen:
either that you were dead; or, if you live,
that you were not my mother; or that you
would change the heart you now have for a better!
What have I done, my child, to cause your hatred?
You need not doubt that on this very day
you have destroyed your husband and my father.
My son, what word is this which you have spoken?
One which shall be confirmed; for who can render
unborn what has already seen the light?
What are you saying, child? What man has told you
that I am guilty of so foul a deed?
I saw my father’s grievous fall myself,
with my own eyes, not heard it from some other.
Where did you come upon him and stand by him?
If you must know, then I shall tell you all.
After he plundered Eurytus’s city
he carried off the choicest spoils of battle;
and, by a wave-washed headland of Euboea,
Cenaeum, he was dedicating altars
and woodland precincts to his father Zeus
when I, with joyous longing, first beheld him.
He was about to make great sacrifice
when his own herald Lichas came from home
bearing your gift to him, the robe of death.
He put it on as you had told him to,
and held and slaughtered twelve unblemished bulls,
the finest of the spoil; for he had brought
a hundred varied oxen to the altar.
At first – oh wretched man! – he prayed in calm
of mind, rejoicing in his lovely garment;
but when the gory flame began to blaze
up from the offerings on the sappy pine,
sweat covered all his body, and the robe
clung to his sides as if glued by a craftsman
to every joint; and from his very bones
shot up spasmodic, stinging pangs: the poison,
like some detested, bloody snake’s, devoured him.
Then he cried out aloud for ill-starred Lichas,
who was in no way guilty of your crime,
to ask what treachery made him bring the robe;
but he, unlucky man! knew not, and answered
he had but brought the gift which you had given.
When Heracles heard this a penetrating
convulsive spasm clutched his lungs, and he
seized Lichas where the ankle joins the foot
and dashed him on a rock swept by the sea
so that the white brain seeped among his hairs,
and all his shattered skull was bloodied over.
At this the people raised a mournful cry
that one was maddened and the other slain;
and no one dared to go near Heracles.
For he was dragged to earth and drawn toward heaven
screaming and wailing: all around, the cliffs
and capes of Locris and Euboea thundered.
After his anguished tossing on the ground
and frequent cries of lamentation tired him –
cursing the ill-matched marriage he had made
with you at Oeneus’ wedding ceremony,
where he had mated with his life’s destruction –
then, through the circling shroud of smoke, he raised
his rolling eyes, and saw me in the crowd
sobbing, and fixed his gaze upon me, crying:
“Oh child, come to me, do not flee my torment
even if you must die along with me.
Take me away and put me in a place
where no one living may set eyes upon me;
or if you shrink from that at least convey me
elsewhere, so that I may not perish here.”
We carried out his words and placed him in
our ship, and, with a struggle, brought him here
bellowing in his agony. Soon you
will see him – living, or but lately dead.
These are the plots and deeds against my father
which you stand guilty of. May vengeful Justice
and Furies pay you, if my prayer be sanctioned!
It shall! for you have spurned all sanctity
by killing him who was the best of men
on earth – whose equal you will never see!
[Deianeira silently turns and enters the palace.]
Why do you leave in silence? You must know
that silence pleads the cause of your accuser.
Let her depart. And may some fair wind sweep her
far from the place where I must look upon her!
Why should a mother’s name bring dignity
to her, whose deeds are nothing like a mother’s?
Good riddance to her! May she find such pleasures
as she herself has given to my father.
[Hyllus goes into the palace.
Maidens, behold how suddenly the word
spoken of old by the oracle
has now descended upon us!
It said that after the dozenth plowing season
had filled its quota of months the son of Zeus would
bring his toils to an end. That prophecy
comes firmly home: for how can a man whose eyes
are shadowed in death be a slave to toils thereafter?
For if the guileful doom wrought by the Centaur
goads his sides and a cloud of blood surrounds him,
and poison clings to him, poison
whose father was Death and whose nurse was a gleaming serpent,
then how shall he ever behold another sunrise?
Gripped in the monstrous hydra’s dreadful grasp,
he feels the vengeful torments, the stinging pangs,
the seething, treacherous lash of black-haired Nessus.
Our wretched mistress could not foretell this pain.
She only saw what grief was coming upon her
from Heracles’ new marriage; she acted;
and now, because she has heeded
the words of a stranger in fatal converse,
surely she groans in anguish;
surely soft droplets moisten
her cheeks with numerous tears.
And the fate which is coming foreshadows a fall,
mighty, and born of deception.
And now a torrent of tears has broken forth;
disease has assaulted Heracles, to our sorrow –
a plague more dire than his foes had ever
inflicted upon him in combat.
O dark steel point of the battle spear,
swiftly thou carriedst the bride
down from Oechalia’s heights
by virtue of warlike prowess.
But the Goddess of Love has been present among us,
working these deeds in silence.
[The Nurse screams inside the palace.]
Was it my fancy or did I indeed
hear someone wailing in the house just now?
What can it be?
Someone whose scream is clearly full of anguish,
boding some new disaster for this palace.
with what strange, darkened aspect this old woman
comes from the house: she means to tell us something.
My children, great indeed were the misfortunes
the gift to Heracles has brought upon us.
Old woman, tell us what new thing has happened.
Queen Deianeira has departed now
upon her final journey, without stirring.
You do not mean that she has died?
Poor woman, is she dead?
Twice I have told you.
Oh, poor lost mistress! Tell me now the manner of her death.
The deed was cruel.
Come tell me, woman, how she met her fate.
She brought her own life to an end.
What passion or what madness
led her to wield the evil blade? How could she plan this death
after the other death which she had caused?
With a stroke of the mournful steel.
Ah, foolish woman! did you see it then?
I saw it, yes; for I was standing near.
What happened? Come now, speak.
By her own hand she wrought the deed.
What are you saying?
Only what is true.
This new bride, Iole, has brought to being
her first-born child –
a Fury wreaking vIolence on our house!
Too true! If you had been nearby and seen
her death, your pity would be greater still.
And did a woman’s hand dare do this deed?
Most horribly, as I will tell you now.
After she went, alone, into the palace
and saw her son strewing a hollow litter
outside, with which to go and meet his father,
she hid herself, lest anyone should see her,
and, falling near the altars, moaned aloud
that they were empty now; and wept whenever
she touched the objects she had known so well.
Then, as she roamed at random through the house,
if she but saw one of her own attendants,
she looked at him in misery, and sobbed,
calling upon the fate which now was hers
and on her childless state forever after.
But then she ceased, and suddenly I saw her
rush to the room which Heracles had slept in.
There I concealed myself and watched her actions
in secret, and beheld the woman spreading
coverlets on the couch of Heracles.
When she had finished this, she leapt upon them
and sat there in the middle of the bed,
where, bursting into streams of molten tears,
she called upon her couch and bridal chamber,
crying, “Farewell forever! In the future
you will not hold me as a bride again.”
She spoke no more, but with a vehement motion
she loosed her tunic, where the golden brooch
was fastened, just above her breast; and then
uncovered all her left side and her arm.
I ran away as fast as I had strength
and told her son of what she had contrived;
but by the time we reached her room again
we saw her with a two-edged sword stuck through her,
piercing her side and cleaving to her heart.
Her son screamed when he saw her, for he knew
that he had driven her to this in anger,
learning too late from servants that her deed
was done in ignorance, at the Centaur’s bidding.
And then the wretched boy showed no restraint
in sobbing and lamenting for her death,
caressing her with kisses; he fell down
and lay there by her side, and groaned that he
had falsely charged her with a wicked crime.
He wept that he must be deprived of both
her and his father, orphaned for his life.
Thus have these things occurred. And so, whoever
counts on the morrow or the days beyond,
thinks foolishly. Tomorrow will not come
until the present day is safe behind us.
Which woe shall I first lament?
Which misery is the greater?
Alas, it is hard to discern.
One we have seen in our home;
we dread the approach of the other.
What we have and await are the same.
Would that a favoring breeze
might come to my house with power
to waft me far from these regions, lest
I die from terror
as soon as I see
Zeus’s glorious son.
For they say he is coming home
racked by unshakable pain –
a wonder not to be spoken!
Behold! the grief I bewailed
like a clear-toned nightingale, nears us.
These men who approach us are strangers.
How do they bring him? They move,
sorrowing as for a friend,
slowly, with noiseless tread.
Ah ah! he is carried in silence!
What must we think? Is he dead
or is he only sleeping?
[Enter Hyllus and an Old Man, followed by Heracles, borne upon a litter.]
Ah ah, I mourn,
father, I mourn for your misery!
How can I hope to assist you? Ah ah!
Be silent, my son, and do not arouse
the savage pain of your frenzied father.
He lives though fallen; so bite your lip
Old man, is he living still?
You must not waken him out of his slumber
by stirring up and reviving
the terrible, pulsing
disease, O my child.
But a burdensome weight
lies on me: my mind is in turmoil.
What land have I come to? What men are these
who stand around me while ceaseless pains
torment me? Ah ah! Oh, wretch that I am!
The putrid disease devours me. Oh!
Did I not tell you it would be better
by far to remain in silence, and not
to scatter abroad
the sleep from his brain and eyes?
be still when I see him suffer.
O Cenaean rock where I built my altars,
how harshly you favor the sacrifice
I made in my wretchedness – O Zeus!
How great is the outrage you lay upon me!
I would that my eyes had never beheld you –
ah, woe is me! – for now I must glimpse
the inexorable flower of madness.
Oh where is the sorcerer, where is the healer –
save only Zeus – who has power enough
to soothe the destruction upon me?
If any should come, I would marvel
Let me now, let me now finish my anguish,
let me sleep for the last time!
Why do you touch me? Where will you move me?
You are killing me, killing me!
You have wakened the pain that was quiet.
Now it has seized me – ah ah! – it is coming upon me: where are you,
Greeks, most ungrateful of men, for whom so long I have labored,
toiling far on the sea and deep in the forest to cleanse you
of many plagues – oh oh, I perish! – and now, in my illness,
will you not bring me fire or a spear, and turn them upon me?
Is no one willing to strike off my head
from my loathsome body? Ah ah!
O child of Heracles, this task I am facing surpasses
the strength of my hands; come now, you must help me, for you have the power,
far more than I have, to bring him relief.
My hands are upon him,
yet they cannot avail, in themselves, or with others’ assistance,
to bring relief to his anguished life: so Zeus has ordained it.
O my child, where are you?
Come and take me now;
lift me up, thus, thus.
Oh, oh, my cruel fate!
It is leaping upon me, fearfully leaping!
This savage, incurable
sickness will be my destruction.
Pallas, ah Pallas, it strikes me again! O child, I beseech you,
pity your father: draw forth your blameless sword from its scabbard:
strike off my head and end the distress which your impious mother
gave me, to drive me insane. I only pray that she perish
soon in the very way she has caused my ruin. Sweet Hades,
brother of Zeus himself,
put me to sleep, to sleep,
ending my wretched life
with swift-wingèd death.
My friends, I shudder when I hear how great
a suffering afflicts so great a prince.
Many fierce toils, hard not in name alone,
my hands and shoulders have endured before;
but never did the wife of Zeus or hateful
Eurystheus lay so great a burden on me
as this one which the false-faced child of Oeneus
has fastened on my back – a binding net
woven by furies, in which I am dying.
Glued to my sides, it eats my flesh away
deep down within, and dwells inside my lungs
choking my breath: already it has drunk
my fresh warm blood and wasted my whole body,
binding me with unutterable chains.
And yet, no spearman on the battlefield,
no earth-born troop of Giants, no wild beast,
nor Greece, nor any foreign land which I
purged in my wanderings, could do this to me!
A woman – weak, not masculine by nature –
alone, without a sword, has vanquished me!
O child, now show you are my true-born son:
do not revere your mother more than me!
Go in the house and bring her here outside
and place her in my hands, so I may know
if you will grieve more at my tortured body
or hers, when I have wrought my just revenge.
Go, child, be bold! And pity me, for I
am pitiful indeed as I lie sobbing
and moaning like a virgin! No one living
has ever seen me act like this before;
for I have never groaned at my misfortunes
till now, when I have proved myself a woman.
Come now, approach and stand beside your father;
behold how I have suffered from my hardships.
For I will lift this covering and show you.
There, look! You all may see my mangled frame
and know how poor and pitiful I am.
Ah ah! the pain! ah ah!
Once more I feel the burning pangs convulse me,
piercing my side; I must again contend
with this unmerciful, devouring illness.
Prince Hades, take me;
come, lightning, strike me!
O Zeus, my father, hurl the thunderbolt
down on me! Yet again the plague consumes me,
blazing in fury. O my hands, my hands,
my back, my chest, and O my own dear arms,
you are the same as in the past, when you
vanquished and slew the Lion of Nemea,
the scourge of herdsmen, creature none approached
or spoke to, and brought low Lernaean Hydra;
you checked the savage tribe of beasts, half horse,
half man, the lawless, mighty, violent Centaurs,
subdued the Erymanthian Boar, and tamed
Hades’ invincible three-headed Dog,
the Serpent’s child, and killed the Dragon guarding
the golden apples at the ends of earth.
Countless have been the labors I endured,
and none has ever triumphed over me.
But now, my limbs disjointed, torn to shreds,
I lie here vanquished by an unseen ruin –
I whom they say a noble mother bore,
I who am called the son of starry Zeus.
And yet, be sure of this: though I am nothing,
and cannot move a step, yet I will punish
her who has done this deed. Let her but come:
she will discover and proclaim that I
in death, as in my life, destroyed the wicked.
O wretched Greece, what sorrow I foresee
coming upon you if you lose this man.
Since you are silent, father, I will answer:
listen to what I say, sick though you are.
I will request no more than justice bids,
so hear me freely: do not yield to passion
goaded by wrath, or you will never learn
how empty is the vengeful joy you seek.
Say what you mean, no more; for in my illness
I cannot understand your riddling words.
I only mean to tell you how my mother
fares now, and how unwillingly she sinned.
O villain! do you dare to name the woman
who has destroyed your father in my presence?
The circumstance will not permit my silence.
Nor will the dreadful deed she has committed!
Hear what she did today before you judge her.
Then speak – but do not prove yourself a traitor.
Hear me – she has just now died, newly slain.
By whom? What marvels your dire words make known!
She died by her own hand, not by another’s.
Ah, has she fled her just death at my hands?
Even your wrath would change if you knew all.
You start off strangely: tell me what you mean.
The truth is this: she erred, yet she meant good.
Base villain! was it good to kill your father?
When she beheld your new bride she endeavored
to win you with a love charm, but she erred.
What man of Trachis deals in drugs so strong?
The Centaur Nessus long ago convinced her
to use this potion to inflame your passion.
Oh oh! Wretch that I am! Oh, I am dying!
I perish; I can see the light no longer!
Alas, I understand my plight too well.
Go, child – your father is no longer living –
go call your brothers and your sisters here,
and call ill-starred Alcména, who in vain
was Zeus’s wife, so that you all may learn
the oracles I know before I perish.
Your mother is not here, for she has gone
to make her home in Tiryns by the sea.
Some of your children went to live with her,
while others, you will find, now dwell in Thebes.
We who remain here, father, will attempt
to help you as we can, and do your bidding.
Then hear your task: the time has come for you
to show what breed of man is called my son.
My father prophesied to me of old
that none who breathed would ever take my life,
but one already dead and gone to Hades.
And now this beast, the Centaur, as the god
foretold, though dead, has torn my life away.
Now I will tell you of new oracles
confirming those delivered long ago.
I wrote them in the forest of the Selli –
a mountain tribe that sleeps upon the ground –
where Zeus’s multi-tongued prophetic oak-tree
told me that in the time which has now come
the many toils that I had long endured
would reach an end. I thought I would then prosper –
and yet, it only meant that death was waiting.
In death there is no toil for anyone.
Child, since these words are clearly coming true,
you must stand by me and support me now,
and not provoke my anger by delaying.
Help me by doing what I say, and learn
the best of laws, which is to serve your father.
Father, I dread the purpose which your words
portend, but I will do as you think best.
Then first of all place your right hand in mine.
Why do you urge this needless pledge upon me?
Give me your hand, and do not disobey me.
Here: I cannot refuse you anything.
Swear by the head of Zeus, who is my father…
To do what? Will you tell me this as well?
To carry out the task which I command you.
I swear it then – and may Zeus be my witness!
Pray, if you break your oath, that you may suffer.
I shall not break my oath; yet I so pray.
Now . . . do you know Zeus’ sacred mountain Oeta?
Yes. I have often sacrificed upon it.
That is the place where you must carry me
with your own hands, and with what friends you choose.
There hew the wood of deeply-rooted oaks
and slash the trunks of wild male olive trees,
placing my body on a pyre made from them;
then take a brightly blazing torch of pine
and light the pyre. And do not moan and weep,
for if you are my son you will perform this
without a sigh or tear. If not, my curse,
even when I am dead, will weigh upon you.
Father, think what your words are doing to me!
Obey! or else go find another father,
and cease to call yourself my son hereafter.
Alas, what are you asking of me, father –
to murder you and take your blood upon me?
No, but to be the healer of my illness
and sole physician of my agony.
How can I heal you if I burn your body?
If you fear that, at least perform the rest.
Yes. I will not refuse to take you there.
And will you build the pyre, as I have told you?
Only if I must not lay hands upon it.
Otherwise I will carry out your wishes.
Then that is all I ask. Now only add
to these great benefits one little favor.
However great it is, it shall be done.
You know the daughter of king Eurytus?
Iole? Do I understand your meaning?
Yes, child. This is the charge I lay upon you:
if you revere my memory when I
have died, remembering the oath you swore,
make her your wife, and do not scorn my wish.
No other man but you must ever marry
this woman who has lain with me in love;
no, you, my son, must take her for your own.
Consent! To disrespect me in small matters
destroys the greater favors you have done.
Ah me! You are too sick to rouse my anger,
but how could any bear to hear such thoughts?
Your words show no intent to do my bidding.
How can I? She alone has killed my mother
and brought you to the plight you are now in.
Who but a man possessed of vengeful spirits
could want this? Father, let me die with you
rather than live with her whose sight I loathe.
It seems you are unwilling to respect
my dying wish! The curses of the gods
will hound you if you disregard my words.
Oh, you will soon make clear how mad you are!
Yes, for you have stirred up my sleeping plague.
Wretch that I am, I know not what to do.
Will you not deign to listen to your father?
But need you teach me, father, to be godless?
It is not godless to delight my heart.
Do you consider what you ask me just?
I do; and call the gods to bear me witness.
Then I will not refuse you – but I pray
the gods may look upon your deed. I cannot
be blamed for doing what you tell me, father.
At last you speak well! Now perform this favor
swiftly, my child, and place me on the pyre
before the stinging spasm comes again.
Make haste and lift me. Now I feel release
from troubles, for my final end is here.
Nothing prevents fulfillment of these deeds,
since you command it and compel us, father.
O my stalwart spirit, before you arouse
this madness again, come, give me a bridle
of steel to fasten my lips like stones;
and hold back your cries, for the deed forced upon you
brings joy to my sorrowing heart.
My followers, lift him up now, and grant me
your full forgiveness for what I must do.
But mark how the distant insensitive gods
have permitted these things to occur.
They bring forth children, they call themselves parents,
and yet they can look on this anguish and pain.
There is none who knows what the future may hold;
but the present is hard for us who are here –
for the gods it is shameful –
and for him who must bear the weight of destruction
this fate is cruelest of all.
Maidens, you must not stay by the palace,
where you but lately have seen dreadful deaths
with many sorrows unheard of before –
and none of these things without Zeus.
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