The Death of Heracles

Released at last, Heracles returned to Greece, where – after many wars against cities such as Elis, Pylos and Troy – he married Deineira, Meleager’s sister from Calydon, the woman who unwittingly would kill him Leaving Calydon, they soon came to the roaring River Evenos, swollen with melted snow from the high Vardousia mountains. Here, a Centaur, Nessus, approached them, claiming to be a god-appointed ferryman and offering to convey Deineira across while Heracles swam It was a ruse. Nessus was intent on rape.

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Reaching the far bank, Nessus galloped off with Deineira, terrified, clinging to his back. But Heracles shot at the escaping Centaur and, despite the distance, felled him As Nessus lay dying, he whispered to Deineira to save some of his blood, and, if she ever suspected Heracles of straying, to smear it on his tunic. It would give the garment magic properties: Heracles would never be unfaithful again.

Years later Heracles returned from battle to his adopted home in Trachis (north of Delphi), with a beautiful slave girl, Iole, to be his mistress. Now Deineira recalled Nessus’ words. She rubbed the Centaur’s blood on a new tunic, and gave it to Heracles to wear at his victory celebrations. But the blood was infected with the Hydra’s bile, in which Heracles had once dipped his arrows. Heracles’ flesh began to blister and bubble. He tried in vain to tear off the tunic, and when he dived into a nearby pool he merely made the poison work more quickly. (Ever afterwards the waters boiled with sulphur, which gave them their name: Thermopylae, ‘Hot Gates’.)

In agony Heracles crawled up Mount Oeta. Reaching the summit he ordered his son Hyllus – or, in some accounts, his friend Philoctetes – to burn him alive on a pyre of oak and olive branches. But before the flames caught fully, Zeus consumed the hero in a lightning flash and conveyed his soul to Mount Olympus, where, married to Hebe, the goddess of youth, Heracles lived forever, an immortal. Meanwhile in Trachis, Deineira hanged herself.

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