The Story of Hercules

Ovid, The Metamorphoses, Bk IX














































[At the beginning of Book IX, Hercules fights Achelous for
the hand of Dejanira, whom he wins as his wife.]


[The centaur Nessus, who offers violence to Dejanira, is killed
by the shafts of Hercules. Before he expires, he presents a
poisoned tunic to the woman he has injured, assuring her of its
efficacy to recall the affections of a faithless husband.]

THIS virgin too, thy love, O Nessus found;
To her alone you owe the fatal wound.
As the strong son of Jove his bride conveys,
Where his paternal lands their bulwarks raise
Where from her slopy urn Evenus pours
Her rapid current, swell'd by wintry showers,
He came. The frequent eddies whirl'd the tide,
And the deep rolling waves all pass denied.
As for himself, he stood unmoved by fears,
For now his bridal charge employ'd his cares.
The strong limb'd Nessus thus officious cried,
(For he the shallows of the stream had tried,)
Swim thou, Alcides, all thy strength prepare,
On yonder bank I'll lodge thy nuptial care.'

The Aonian chief to Nessus trusts his wife,
All pale and trembling for her hero's life.
Clothed as he stood in the fierce lion's hide,
The laden quiver o'er his shoulder tied,
(For 'cross the stream his bow and club were cast,)
Swift he plunged in: 'These billows shall be pass'd,'
He said, nor sought where smoother waters glide,
But stemm'd the rapid dangers of the tide.
The bank he reach'd, again the bow he bears,
When, hark! his bride's known voice alarms his ears.
'Nessus, to thee I call,' aloud he cries,
'Vain is thy trust in flight, be timely wise:
Thou monster double-shaped, my right set free
If thou no rev'rence owe my fame and me,
Yet kindred should thy lawless lust deny.
Think not, perfidious wretch, from me to fly
Though wing'd with horses' speed, wounds shall pursue.'
Swift as his words the fatal arrow flew
The Centaur's back admits the feathered wood,
And through his breast the barbed weapon stood,
Which when, in anguish, through the flesh he tore,
From both the wounds gush'd forth the spumy gore,
Mix'd with Lernaean venom ; this he took,
Nor dire revenge his dying breast forsook.
His garment, in the reeking purple dyed,
To rouse love's passion, he presents the bride.


[DEJANIRA sends the poisoned tunic of Nessus, by the
hands of Lychas, to recall the hero from the attractions of a

Now a long interval of time succeeds,
When the great son of Jove's immortal deeds,
And stepdame's hate, had fill'd earth's utmost round,
He from Oechalia, with new laurels crown'd,
In triumph was return'd: he rites prepares,
And to the king of gods directs his prayers:
When Fame (who Falsehood clothes in Truth's disguise,
And swells her little bulk with growing lies)
Thy tender ear, O Dejanira, moved,
That Hercules the fair Iole loved.'
Her love believes the tale; the truth she fears
Of his new passion, and gives way to tears.
The flowing tears diffused her wretched grief,
'Why seek I thus, from streaming eyes, relief?'
She cries; 'indulge not thus these fruitless cares,
The harlot will but triumph in thy tears:
Let something be resolved, while yet there's time;
My bed not conscious of a rival's crime.
In silence shall I mourn, or loud complain?
Shall I seek Calydon, or here remain?
What though allied to Meleager's fame,
I boast the honors of a sister's name?
My wrongs, perhaps, now urge me to pursue
Some desp'rate deed, by which the world shall view
How far revenge, and woman's rage can rise,
When welt'ring in her blood the harlot dies.'

Thus various passions ruled by turns her breast.
She now resolves to send the fatal vest,
Dyed with Lernaean gore, whose power might move
His soul anew, and rouse declining love.
Nor knew she what her sudden rage bestows,
When she to Lychas trusts her future woes;
With soft endearments she the boy commands
To bear the garment to her husband's hands.
The unwitting hero takes the gift in haste,
And o'er his shoulders Lerna's poison cast:
As first the fire with frankincense he strows,
And utters to the gods his holy vows
And on the marble altar's polish'd frame
Pours forth the grapy stream; the rising flame
Sudden dissolves the subtle pois'nous juice,
Which taints his blood, and all his nerves bedews.
With wonted fortitude he bore the smart,
And not a groan confess'd his burning heart.
At length his patience was subdued by pain;
He rends the sacred altar from the plain
Oete's wide forests echo with his cries:
Now to rip off the deathful robe he tries.
Where'er he plucks the vest, the skin he tears,
The mangled muscles and huge bones he bares,
(A ghastful sight!) or raging with his pain,
To rend the sticking plague he tugs in vain.
As the red iron hisses in the flood,
So boils the venom in his curdling blood.
Now with the greedy flame his entrails glow,
And livid sweats down all his body flow;
The cracking nerves burnt up are burst in twain,
The lurking venom melts his swimming brain.

Then, lifting both his hands aloft, he cries,
'Glut thy revenge, dread empress of the skies;
Sate with my death the rancor of thy heart,
Look down with pleasure, and enjoy my smart.
Or, if e'er pity moved a hostile breast,
(For here I stand thy enemy profess'd)
Take hence this hateful life, with tortures torn,
Inured to trouble, and to labors born.
Death is the gift most welcome to my woe,
And such a gift a stepdame may bestow.
Was it for this Busiris was subdued,
Whose barbarous temples reek'd with strangers' blood?
Press'd in these arms his fate Antaeus found,
Nor gain'd recruited vigor from the ground.
Did I not triple-form'd Geryon fell?
Or did I fear the triple dog of hell?
Did not these hands the bull's arm'd forehead hold?
Are not our mighty toils in Elis told?
Do not Stymphalian lakes proclaim thy fame?
And fair Parthenian woods resound thy name?
Who seized the golden belt of Thermodon?
And who the dragon-guarded apples won?
Could the fierce Centaur's strength my force withstand,
Or the fell boar that spoil'd the Arcadian land?
Did not these arms the Hydra's rage subdue,
Who from his wounds to double fury grew?
What if the Thracian horses, fat with gore,
Who human bodies in their mangers tore,
I saw, and with their barb'rous lord o'erthrew?
What if these hands Nemaea's lion slew?
Did not this neck the heavenly globe sustain?
The female partner of the Thunderer's reign
Fatigued at length suspends her harsh commands,
Yet no fatigue hath slack'd these valiant hands.
But now new plagues pursue me, neither force,
Nor arms, nor darts, can stop their raging course.
Devouring flame through my rack'd entrails strays,
And on my lungs and shrivelled muscles preys.
Yet still Eurystheus breathes the vital air.
What mortal now shall seek the gods with prayer?'


[LYCHAS is thrown into the Euboean sea by his angry
master, and is changed into a rock by the compassion of the

THE hero said; and with the torture stung,
Furious o'er Oete's lofty hills he sprung.
Stuck with the shaft, thus scours the tiger round,
And seeks the flying author of his wound.
Now might you see him trembling, now he vents
His anguished soul in groans, and loud laments
He strives to tear the clinging vest in vain,
And with uprooted forests strows the plain
Now kindling into rage, his hands he rears,
And to his kindred gods directs his prayers.
When Lychas, lo, he spies; who trembling flew,
And in a hollow rock concealed from view,
Had shunned his wrath. Now grief renewed his pain,
His madness chafed, and thus he raves again:

'Lychas, to thee alone my fate I owe,
Who bore the gift, the cause of all my woe.'
The youth all pale with shiv'ring fear was stung,
And vain excuses falter'd on his tongue.
Alcides snatch'd him, as with suppliant face
He strove to clasp his knees, and beg for grace:
He toss'd him o'er his head with airy course,
And hurl'd with more than with an engine's force
Far o'er the Euboean main aloof he flies,
And hardens by degrees amid the skies.
So show'ry drops, when chilly tempests blow,
Thicken at first, then whiten into snow,
In balls congeal'd the rolling fleeces bound,
In solid hail result upon the ground.
Thus, whirl'd with nervous force through distant air,
The purple tide forsook his veins with fear;
All moisture left his limbs. Transform'd to stone,
In ancient days the craggy flint was known:
Still in the Eubaean waves his front he rears,
Still the small rock in human form appears,
And still the name of hapless Lychas bears.


[Hercules, finding his end approaching, bestows his bow and
arrows on his friend Philoctetes, and expires on Mount
Oeta; after which the hero is enrolled in the number of the gods.

BUT now the hero of immortal birth
Fells Oete's forests on the groaning earth
A pile he builds; to Philoctetes' care
He leaves his deathful instruments of war;
To him commits those arrows, which again
Shall see the bulwarks of the Trojan reign.
The son of Paeon lights the lofty pyre,
High round the structure climbs the greedy fire;
Placed on the top, thy nervous shoulders spread
With the Nemaean spoils, thy careless head
Raised on the knotty club, with look divine,
Here thou, dread hero of celestial line,
Wert stretch'd at ease; as when a cheerful guest,
Wine crown'd thy bowls, and flowers thy temples dress'd.

Now on all sides the potent flames aspire,
And crackle round those limbs that mock the fire.
A sudden terror seized the immortal host,
Who thought the world's profess'd defender lost.
This when the Thunderer saw, with smiles he cries,
'Tis from your fears, ye gods, my pleasures rise;
Joy swells my breast, that my all-ruling hand
O'er such a grateful people boasts command,
That you my suffering progeny would aid;
Though to his deeds this just respect be paid,
Me you've obliged. Be all your fears forborn,
The Oetean fires do thou, great hero, scorn.
Who vanquished all things shall subdue the flame.
That part alone of gross material frame
Fire shall devour; while what from me he drew
Shall live immortal, and its force subdue;
That, when he's dead, I 'll raise to realms above
May all the powers the righteous act approve!
If any god dissent, and judge too great
The sacred honors of the heavenly seat,
Ev'n he shall own his deeds deserve the sky,
Ev'n he reluctant shall at length comply.'
The assembled powers assent. No frown till now
Had mark'd with passion vengeful Juno's brow.
Meanwhile whate'er was in the power of flame
Was all consumed; his body's nervous frame
No more was known; of human form bereft,
The eternal part of Jove alone was left.
As an old serpent casts his scaly vest,
Writhes in the sun, in youthful glory dress'd;
So when Alcides mortal mold resign'd,
His better part enlarged, and grew refined;
August his visage shone; almighty Jove
In his swift car his honor'd offspring drove
High o'er the hollow clouds the coursers fly,
And lodge the hero in the starry sky.

From Ovid, tr. by Dryden, Pope, Congreve, Addison, and Others, London, 1833, Vol I, pp. 280-287. Note that the line numbers refer to this edition, not to Ovid's Latin text.