Classical Mythology: Love and Death

Love and Death

Freed from his obligations to Eurystheus, Heracles set out to win a new bride. He defeated his former teacher Eurytus in an archery contest for the hand of his daughter, Iole. But Eurytus, perhaps recalling the madness of Heracles' youth, refused to honor the wager.

When Eurytus's son Iphitus later suspected Heracles of stealing his father's cattle to avenge this insult, the enraged Heracles threw the young man from a tower to his death. Tormented with bad dreams, Heracles sought guidance from the oracle at Delphi. When the Pythia refused to speak to him, Heracles threatened to raze Delphi and establish his own oracle. Apollo himself came down from Olympus to defend his oracle, engaging in a fierce battle with Heracles. Yet Zeus threw a thunderbolt between his sons and restored order and amicability.

Lydia, Oh Lydia, Oh Have You Seen Lydia?

The oracle advised Heracles to sell himself into slavery for a year and to turn the proceeds over to the heirs of Iphitus. Queen Omphale of Lydia (a land in western Asia Minor), though unaware of Heracles' identity, recognized his worth and quickly purchased him.

While faithfully serving Omphale for one year—or perhaps three—Heracles rid the country of bandits who preyed on its people. He also killed a huge serpent that had been destroying the citizens and crops of Lydia.

It pleased Omphale, according to some accounts, to have her hulking slave wear feminine clothes. Heracles spun thread and did other “woman's work.” The sight of the massive hero in drag did not deter Omphale, who soon brought her slave—who fathered several children by her—into her bed. After finally discovering who was in her service, Omphale released Heracles and allowed him to return to Tiryns.

Vengeance Is Mine

Heracles set out to avenge himself on King Laomedon of Troy, who had reneged on the reward promised for saving his daughter Hesione. Heracles led a small army that easily conquered Troy. He killed Laomedon and all but one of his sons: Priam (see All's Not Fair in Love and War: The Fall of Troy).

Telamon, the hero's most valiant ally, had actually been the first to enter the city in the attack on Troy. Enraged by this breach of protocol, Heracles almost killed Telamon—but the warrior saved himself by quickly building an altar to Heracles in honor of his victory. Heracles rewarded Telamon for this loyalty with the hand of Hesione.

When Heracles left Troy, Hera summoned a storm that blew his ships far off course. Zeus, furious at her constant persecution of his heroic son, hung Hera to the rafters by her wrists and attached anvils to her ankles. He then led Heracles back to Argos.

Before Heracles had embarked on another adventure, a band of giants attacked Mount Olympus. Hera grimly prophesied that no god could defeat these giants. The only one who could kill them was a lion-skinned mortal.

Zeus quickly sent Athena to summon Heracles to the battlefield at Phlegra. Heracles, outfitted in the Nemean lion's hide, single-handedly killed two giants—and dealt the death blows to all the other giants subdued by the gods. (For a more detailed account of this monumental battle, see Friends, Fairies, and Fairy Tale Monsters.)

Having helped his father to victory in the gods' war against the giants, Heracles resumed his quest for vengeance against those who had wronged him. He marched on Elis, where King Augeas had refused to pay him for cleaning his stables. But Augeas had expected this attack, and his army defeated Heracles—who was weakened by illness—and his allies. Among those killed was Heracles' half-brother Iphicles.

Soon after suffering this rare defeat, Heracles mounted a second attack on Elis. This time he emerged victorious, killing Augeas and his sons.

Fatal Attraction: Deianira

Heracles finally settled in Calydon in central Greece, where he began courting Deianira, the daughter of King Oeneus and his wife Althaea. (If truth be told, Dionysus was actually the beautiful Deianira's father.) Heracles' only rival for her hand was the river god Achelous. Achelous appeared sometimes in the form of a bull, sometimes a serpent, and sometimes a man with the head of a bull.

Heracles and Achelous began wrestling for Deianira. Achelous escaped one hold by turning into a serpent. When Heracles grabbed him by the throat, Achelous changed into a bull and charged. But Heracles grabbed the bull by the horns, breaking one of them off as he threw Achelous to the ground again. The river god slunk away in defeat.

Three years after Heracles married Deianira, the couple set out for Trachis, 80 miles northeast of Calydon. When they reached the river Evenus, Nessus—a Centaur who ferried travelers across the river for a small fee—offered to carry Deianira. Heracles agreed to hire the Centaur and began swimming across the river. But instead of following him, Nessus carried off Deianira and tried to rape her. Hearing his wife's screams, Heracles quickly let fly a poisoned arrow that killed the Centaur.

Before he died, however, Nessus feigned remorse. He gave Deianira his blood-stained shirt, claiming it would serve as a love charm to ensure her husband's fidelity. Deianira—who no doubt knew Heracles' reputation—accepted the tunic and stowed it away.

Mythed by a Mile

Nessus may have told Deianira to gather up his spilled blood and semen and smear them on Heracles' shirt. Or, as Sophocles tells it in his tragedy The Women of Trachis, he may have given her some wool soaked in his tainted blood, urging her to weave it into a shirt for her husband.

After settling in Trachis, Heracles set out on his final adventure: seeking vengeance against Eurytus for refusing to yield his daughter Iole after their archery contest. Arriving in Oechalia, Heracles easily defeated King Eurytus and his sons and captured Iole. Iole tried to commit suicide, but failed—and Heracles sent her to Trachis.

To honor Zeus for securing victory in this final battle, Heracles began building an altar and preparing a sacrifice of bulls. He sent his messenger Lichas back to Trachis for a shirt more suitable to the occasion. Naive Deianira, jealous of the newly arrived Iole, sent the shirt smeared with Nessus's blood, hoping to win back his love.


The name “Heracles” means “Glory of Hera.” Although her stand-in, Eurystheus, seemed to cause most of Heracles' problems, Hera's glory lay in creating or initiating all the difficulties the hero ultimately surmounted. Heracles was a larger-than-life reminder of her husband's philandering—and the damage done to her own reputation. Heracles therefore served as Hera's glory (or fame) for both good and ill.

As soon as Heracles put on the shirt, the Hydra's venom that had poisoned Nessus's blood began eating away at his skin. He tore the shirt from his body, but his flesh came off with it. Tormented, Heracles hurled Lichas into the sea, where he turned to stone. (Upon learning what she had done, Deianira killed herself.)

Though writhing with pain, Heracles told his son (by Deianira), Hyllus, to carry him to the top of Mount Oeta. He instructed his son to build a funeral pyre there and burn him alive. When the time came to light the fire, however, neither Hyllus nor any of his companions could do it.

At last, a shepherd ordered his son, Philoctetes, to light the pyre as Heracles had asked. In gratitude, Heracles presented the boy with his bow and the poisoned arrows that had led to his destruction.

The fire burned away the hero's mortality, while releasing the immortal part of him. Heracles ascended to Olympus, where his father warmly welcomed him. Even Hera at last reconciled with Heracles, allowing him to marry her daughter Hebe and regarding him thereafter as her own son.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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