This painting, by the American artist Samuel Finley Breese Morse (c. 1791–1872), was inspired by stories of the death of the mythical hero, Hercules (the Roman name for the mighty Greek figure, Heracles). Naturally, as it is a death scene, the painting is set long after Hercules’ Famous Twelve Labors for King Eurystheus of Tiryns, which included many of the hero’s most famous deeds, such as slaying the Nemean Lion and the Lyrnaean Hydra, as well as fetching the golden apples of the Hesperides and taking Cerberus out of the Underworld. In the past, too, were Hercules’ expeditions to the land of the Trojans, as well as his destructive rampage of warfare against several Peloponnesian city-states. Yes, by this point in Hercules’ career, he seemed to be unstoppable by any powers, mortal or divine, except for maybe his father, Zeus, who always took Hercules’ sides in conflicts. Yet, while men and gods had been unable to take down formidable Hercules, the hero was still vulnerable in one particular area of his life. It would be women who brought about the death of Hercules.
By the time of his final years, Hercules may have been married two or three times, and Princess Deianeira (or Deianira) of Calydon was the last of his mortal wives. Being the significant other of Hercules was a rough occupation, for the mighty warrior was a flighty individual who, like his father Zeus, had the tendencies of a lecherous rapist. Deianeira’s justified paranoia about her unscrupulous husband’s lustful affairs was especially piqued when Hercules sacked the city of Oichalia in order to capture a beautiful woman named Iole (whose family was unfortunately massacred by Hercules during her abduction). When Deianeira discovered that Hercules was infatuated with Iole, the revelation caused Deianeira to fear that she would soon be replaced and abandoned. This fear and jealously would be pivotal to the downfall of Hercules.
Although Deianeira would eventually cause the death of Hercules, the real key to what was about to unfold was a chance encounter that Hercules and Deianeira had with a centaur named Nessus (or Nessos). This lusty centaur tried to assault Deianeira and, as the story goes, he was excitedly close to accomplishing his goal when Heracles rescued his wife by shooting the centaur with a poisoned arrow (which was coated in deadly hydra venom). Deianeira, who was beside Nessus as the centaur lay dying, unfortunately heard the creature’s mischievous last words. Nessus told her that if his blood and, ahem, other bodily fluids that he had spilled on the ground were combined, it would make a powerful love potion that would turn Heracles into a faithful and devoted husband if it was exposed to the hero’s skin. Believing Nessus’ words, Deinaeira secretly scooped up and bottled the suspicious substances that had leaked out of the centaur. Unfortunately for Hercules, it was not a love potion that Deinaeira had obtained, but a terrible and deadly poison. After all, the centaur’s spilled blood was poisoned with the very same Hydra venom that had coated Hercules’ arrows.
Refocusing on the aforementioned Iole, when Deinaeira realized that she had competition for Hercules’ affection, she decided to employ the ‘love potion’ that she had obtained from Nessus. As the story goes, Hercules one day requested that Deinaeira send him a garment of clothing that he could use during a sacrifice to Zeus. To Deinaeira, it was an ideal moment to use her potion—she applied the centaur’s liquid to Hercules’ garments and had a messenger named Lichas carefully bring the clothing to the unsuspecting hero. A scholar named Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century) described what happened next:
“Deianeira, learning from Lichas how matters stood with regard to Iole, was afraid that Heracles might be more in love with Iole than with herself, and thinking that the blood that had flowed from Nessos really was a love-potion, she rubbed it into the tunic. So Heracles put it on, and proceeded with the sacrifice. But as soon as the tunic grew warm, the poison from the hydra began to bite into his skin” (Apollodorus, Library, 2.7.7).
Such is the scene that is playing out in the painting created by Samuel Finley Breese Morse. It shows Hercules writhing in pain after being exposed to the poisonous garment sent by Deianeira. After being covered in the hydra venom, Heracles ultimately decided to burn himself to death in order to stop the pain.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.