Heracles is perhaps the most famous human figure from ancient Greek myth. Despite this, there was no known definitive copy or original author of the great hero’s story. Instead, the famous character of Heracles randomly made appearances in separate tales developed by different authors. The many separate stories about Heracles were thankfully gathered and combined in the poetic works of Euripides and Sophocles, and even more so in the scholarly texts of Apollodorus and Diodorus Siculus. Yet, even after the hard work of these aforementioned writers, it is difficult to place the different accounts of Heracles’ feats in a chronological order.
Of all of the events that occurred in the tale of Heracles, his death and ascendance to godhood is likely the easiest point to place on a chronological table, as those chapters of the tale usually served as the ending of the Heracles myth. As the story goes, the downfall of Heracles came not long after he married his second (or possibly third) wife, Deianeira. Sometime after their marriage, Deianeira was kidnapped by a lusty centaur by the name of Nessus. Heracles easily caught up to the centaur and downed the creature with a poisoned arrow shot from his bow. Yet, before the centaur died, Nessus tricked Deianeira into believing that his spilled blood would act as a love potion powerful enough to keep Heracles from straying to other women. Convinced by the centaur’s dying words, Deianeira collected some of the centaur’s poisoned blood, thinking it to be a simple love charm. Unfortunately for Deianeira and Heracles, the centaur’s poisoned blood was anything but harmless.
Deianeira’s fear became reality several years into her marriage with Heracles. She felt powerless as her husband grew to love another woman by the name of Iole. In an effort to regain her husband’s affection, Deianeira laced one of Heracles’ shirts with the poisoned blood of the centaur, hoping the bloodied shirt would rekindle her husband’s fading love. Tragically, the shirt did not restore Heracles’ love for Deianeira, but instead it gave the hero a fatal dose of painful poison. After putting on the poisoned shirt, Heracles felt such constant anguish that he eventually burned himself alive.
As the story goes, upon his self-immolation, Heracles ascended to Mount Olympus, was accepted into the community of the gods, and took the goddess of youth, Hebe, as his godly wife. Yet, according to Homer, something strange occurred during that time of mortal death and immortal transcendence. As told in The Odyssey, a bloodthirsty wraith bizarrely split from the burning demigod and was sent down to the realm of Hades. The wraith was said to have been “like black night” and he could be found prowling the underworld with bow in hand, stalking the souls of the dead as if they were wild game. The wraith comes across as a conscious being—it had memory, speech, and personally identified as Heracles. Yet, it also had knowledge that another less wild version of Heracles was also present on Mount Olympus.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (heavily modified adaptation of an image from “A classical dictionary of Greek and Roman biography…revised..” (1894), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and Flickr).
- The Odyssey by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by D. C. H. Rieu. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.