Deianeira gives poisoned robe to Heracles Background and Images for the
Women of Trachis

Birth of Heracles: While the warrior Amphitryon was away avenging the slaying of his wife Alcmena’s brothers, Zeus took on the appearance of Amphitryon and deceived Alcmena into sleeping with him. The next day the real Amphitryon returned home to a somewhat less enthusiastic welcome than he had expected. In one version of the story, Amphitryon attempted to burn Alcmena for unfaithfulness, but Zeus and some water-pouring nymphs put out the fire. In nine months Alcmena gave birth to twin sons—Heracles, the son of Zeus, and Iphicles, the son of Amphitryon. Hera, who was always jealously vindicative against Zeus’s offspring with other females, sent two serpents into the infants’ cradle. Iphicles was terrified, but Heracles was very calm and easily strangled the serpents. Athena, protectress of heroes, wished to make the young demigod immortal, so she tricked Hera into suckling the infant. Heracles sucked so powerfully that he hurt the goddess, and when she pulled her breast away the milk sprayed into the sky, creating the milky way. Hera was even more enraged with the young son of Zeus, and some say this is how he got his name, which ironically means “glory of Hera.”

Labors of Heracles: Heracles was stronger than any other man alive; he was also quick-tempered and not particularly quick-witted. He was known for his appetites—eating, drinking, carousing, and seducing women. He married Megara, princess of Thebes, after saving that city from attack. They had several children, but Heracles, in a fit of madness sent by Hera, killed his children. In some versions, he also killed his wife; in others, he divorced her and married her to his nephew and companion Iolaus, son of Iphicles. When he sought purification for that terrible deed at Delphi, he was ordered by the oracle to perform twelve labors at the command of King Eurystheus of Mycenae (this 1640 etching illustrates many of these). He was able to complete his first labor, slaying the Nemean lion, whose pelt was impervious to weapons, by clubbing the beast to death. After that he wore the lion-skin instead of a helmet and armor. His second task, slaying the hydra of Lerna, was extremely difficult. She had nine snaky heads whose venom was exceedingly potent, and whenever one head was cut off two would grow in its place. With the help of Iolaus, he burned the necks to prevent more heads from growing and eventually killed the monster. He then dipped his arrows in the hydra's venom, so that they would inevitably kill whatever they pierced, even if it was only a scrape. Thus Heracles’ characteristic weapons were his club and bow and arrow. For more about these labors, see the Perseus Project's Labors of Hercules.

Deianeira and the Women of Trachis:

Heracles now had no sons and no wife, so he courted Deianeira (whose name, prophetically, means “man-slayer”), daughter of King Oineus of Calydon. Her other suitor was the river god Achelous, a fearsome figure who could assume the shape of a serpent, a bull, or a man with the horns of a bull. Heracles eventually defeated Achelous in a fierce wrestling contest by breaking off one of his horns.

He and Deianeira moved to far-off Trachis, but on the way they had to cross a flooding river. Heracles swam across, but he engaged the centaur Nessus to carry Deianeira. When Heracles was already across the river, Nessus attempted to rape Deianeira, but Heracles shot him with one of his poisoned arrows. The dying Nessus instructed the naive and gullible Deianeira to collect some of his blood and carefully preserve it in case she should ever need a love charm to keep Heracles attracted to her.

Deianeira carried off by Nessus

Heracles and Deianeira had many children, but the hero was mostly away from home carrying out various exploits. At the time the play opens, he has been away from Trachis for fifteen months. Unbeknownst to Deianeira, Heracles had been seeking to take Iole, daughter of King Eurytus of Oechalia, as a concubine. When Eurytus refused, Heracles treacherously killed his son Iphitus; this vase pictures Heracles, Iole, and Iphitus at a banquet in happier times. For this murder Heracles was condemned by the Delphic oracle to be enslaved to Omphale, queen of Lydia, for a year. Heracles slept with the queen and carried out some heroic deeds for her, but he was also humiliated by having to wear women's clothes (while she wore his lion-skin) and to perform women's tasks such as spinning and weaving. This exchange of masculine and feminine roles was a favorite subject of artists; see, for example, a Roman woman depicted as Omphale, and paintings by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli and Lucas Cranach.

When the year of slavery was over, Herakles returned to Oechalia with hired soldiers, attacked and killed King Eurytus and his other sons, and enslaved the women of the city, sending them back to Deianeira along with his concubine, Iole. Deianeira realized that this was the time to use the “love charm” provided by Nessus, so she rubbed the preserved blood of the centaur on a fine tunic and sent it to Heracles to wear at his sacrifice of thanksgiving to Zeus. When the heat of the flame activated the venom of the hydra, the tunic clung to his flesh and ate it away like acid. When Deianeira heard what had happened, she killed herself with a sword on the bed she had shared with Heracles. Hyllus, Heracles’ eldest son, brought Heracles back to Trachis on a stretcher, suffering terrible agonies because of the poison. After forcing his son to promise to marry Iole, Heracles commanded that his wracked body be placed on a huge funeral pyre. As the flames consumed his poisoned, mortal body, Athena took his immortal spirit to Olympus in a chariot and introduced him into the society of the gods.

Masculine / Feminine Symbolism: Both the myth of Heracles and the play Women of Trachis can be profitably analyzed in terms of the contrast and opposition of masculine and feminine symbolism and male and female spheres. Heracles is, above all else, a he-man, with a striking emphasis on physical masculinity and machismo. His preferred companion is a subordinate male, Iolaus, and he is constantly aided by Athena, the goddess who supports patriarchy (so much so that she is sometimes depicted on vases serving Heracles). His major divine opponent is the matriarchal goddess Hera, and he is constantly battling female and/or matriarchal monsters. The antagonistic nature of his relationships with women is often depicted by artists as battles with amazons; for example, the violence in this ancient vase or this sculpted relief is echoed in this Renaissance sculpture. The mortal Heracles is ultimately defeated by the feminine, in the form of the weaving of his wife Deianeira and the venom of the hydra. However, with the help of the patriarchal Athena, he achieves a purely masculine form of immortality (note this 1703 etching by Johann Wilhelm Bauer illustrating the following quote). In the words of the poet Ovid (Metamorphoses 9. 262-65):

Meanwhile, Vulcan consumed whatever was destructible by fire.
The appearance of Hercules is no longer recognizable;
he retains nothing drawn from the likeness of his mother
and preserves only the traces of Jupiter.

Sophocles presents Deianeira, on the other hand, as extremely feminine. She is so timid and terrified that she cannot watch the battle between Heracles and Achelous for her hand. She cannot read the will Heracles leaves with her. All of her activities are maternal and domestic, including the way she unwittingly destroys Heracles—through the weaving of a garment for her husband—and she does this in an effort to protect her position as wife within the house. Throughout the play, she consistently speaks of herself as representative of the typical woman and wife. Before she dies, she says farewell to all the servants and parts of the house where she had lived and worked, and she stabs herself with a phallic sword on the very bed where she had been repeatedly penetrated by Heracles. The fact that Heracles and Deianeira never meet in the course of the play symbolizes the extreme separation of the feminine and masculine spheres, which is reinforced by the way each dies. For me, the detail from the Nessus vase painting above also symbolizes the situation of Deianeira. Dressed like an Athenian housewife and looking frightened and bewildered, she reaches out to Heracles but will never be able to bridge the gap between them. In the Women of Trachis, Sophocles dramatizes the problematic nature of a radical separation of the public and domestic, of the Greek habit of conceptualizing the masculine and feminine as polar opposites, but he does not offer any solution (as Aeschylus does in the conclusion of the Oresteia).

Finally, here's a concrete benefit to be derived from a thorough knowledge of Greek mythology—you can avoid the supremely ridiculous nature of the following advertising campaign:

1973 Herculon Advertisement
1973 Herculon fabric ad

The advertising executives who wrote this ad should have remembered more of their mythology than the simple fact that Hercules was strong. Would you buy a garment made of a fabric named Herculon after reading the second half of the Women of Trachis?


November, 1999
Barbara F. McManus
CLS 267 Topics Page