Neptune-sired Theseus asked the groaning river-god Achelous how he had been mutilated by the loss of a horn. The Calydonian river, his hair bound by a reed with no adornment, said, “You ask me to revisit a sad occasion, for who likes to talk about battles in which they were conquered? Nevertheless I will go through the whole business, for it was not so much embarrassing to be defeated as it was an honor to have been able to have been able to struggle; to be defeated by one so great is medicine to my soul.
“You may have heard of Deianira: she was once the most beautiful of maidens, and the thwarted hope of a multitude of young noblemen. I was one who entered the home of Oeneus, whom I hoped would become my father-in-law, saying, ‘Take me as son-in-law, son of Parthaon!’
“Hercules, son of Alcaeus, said the same. All others gave way to the pair of us.
“Hercules offered Deianira Jupiter for a father-in-law and the fame of the labors which he had carried out, fulfilling the orders of Juno, his stepmother. I responded, ‘It would be disgraceful for a god to give way to a mortal’ (for Hercules was not yet a god). ‘I rule of the waters which slant through your kingdom, Oeneus. Neither you nor I is a stranger to this land. I come as a fellow native who is already involved in your affairs.
“‘You might also recall that Queen Juno does not hate me and that she has never punished me by compelling me to labor. As for the descent from Jupiter you boast of, son of Alcmene–either you’re lying or you’re bragging that you’re a bastard. You seek to claim a father by proving your mother is an adulteress! Do you prefer to admit you invented your descent from Jupiter or to admit that you sprang from your mother’s dishonor?’
“Hercules stared at me fierce-eyed for some time after I spoke. Without trying to hide his wrath, he replied, ‘I’m better with my right arm than with my tongue. I have always won by fighting, while you talk your way to victory.’ So speaking, he came for me fiercely.
“It would have been shameful for me to flee after the way I’d boasted. Instead, I shrugged off my blue-green garment, brought up my arms, and held my fists out from my chest in readiness to fight.
“He scooped up dust in his hands and threw it over me; I covered him in turn with tawny sand. Now he grasped or tried to grasp now my neck, now my glittering shins, attacking me at all points. My bulk protected me, frustrating him completely. I was like a seawall, throwing back the thunderous surf: it stands unmoved because of its own great mass.
“We stepped a little apart, then joined again. We didn’t move from our places: foot joined to foot, breasts shoved against one another, fingers linked with fingers, and forehead pressed to forehead. We looked like a pair of bulls who have crashed together, awaited by the prettiest heifer in the whole pasture: the prize of victory. The whole herd watches and fears, doubtful as to whom victory will crown over the whole herd.
“Thrice without success the Alcides tried to hurl me back. On the fourth he broke the clinch and loosed our locked arms. Driven back by my hand–I’m telling the truth here–he withdrew and climbed onto my back as an enormous burden.
“If ever I have told the flat truth with no lie or boasting, it is now: I felt as though a mountain were crushing me down. With the greatest difficulty I was able to slip my arms, slick with sweat, beneath his; with difficulty I was able to free my torso from his embrace.
“He continued to press me as I gasped, refusing to give me a chance to recruit my strength, and finally gripped me by the neck. Then at last my knee pressed the earth and my mouth chewed sand.
“He had proved that I was inferior in strength, so I turned to art: forming myself into a long serpent, I slipped away. I twisted my new body into tight coils, then hissed at him fiercely with my forked tongue.
“Laughing in mockery of my trick, the hero from Tiryns said, ‘Strangling snakes was a feat of my cradle; and in comparison to other serpents, Achelous–how does any single snake compare with the Lernean hydra? It grew by the wounds it received, for no head of its many could be cut off without that neck sprouting stronger yet with two heads in place of the one.
“‘Yet I mastered the creature branching with its offspring, increasing in evil through the slaughter of its viper heads; I closed it away defeated. How do you think you will fare, sporting the form of a snake and threatening me with the fangs of the body you have chosen to hide yourself in?’
“As he spoke, he threw the bonds of his fingers about the top of my neck, crushing me as if with a blacksmith’s tongs. I struggled to force his thumbs from my jaws. Beaten a third time, I changed my form into that of a fierce bull. In this guise I broke his grip.
“Hercules wrapped his arms about my left horn and used his strength to drag it after him, twisting it until he drove it into the hard ground as he threw me on the sand. And that wasn’t all: the grip of his fierce right hand broke my stiff horn and ripped it from my forehead. Now the goddess Bona Copia [Plentiful Goodness] is enriched by my horn, which the Naiads filled with fruit and sweet-smelling flowers.”
As Achelous spoke, one of his servants–a nymph dressed as for the rites of Diana with her hair loose and flowing–approached, bearing the horn full of all the delicious fruits, the riches of autumn and the dessert table.
The sun rose. When its first rays touched the peaks, the youths departed, for when the rivers are peaceful and the waters wend their courses placidly, they wait. Achelous slid his brutal features and his mutilated head beneath the waves.
Though the injury had humbled the river god’s pride, he was otherwise healthy. By binding his head with a willow frond and a crown of reeds, he could hide his loss.
But lust for the same maiden slew you, savage Nessus, causing you to be shot through the back by a winged arrow. For Hercules, the son of Jupiter, came to the wild rapids of the River Euenus while he was carrying his new bride to the city of his forefathers. Winter storms had swelled the stream fuller than usual, and rocks hidden in the channel made it impassible. Hercules wasn’t concerned about getting across himself, but he worried about taking his bride.
Nessus approached them, pointing out his four legs and his knowledge of the fords. “Let her wait with me on this bank, son of Alcaeus,” he said, “while you swim across first.”
The Aonian hero handed the Calydonian princess over to Nessus. She was pale with fear of the river but trembling from fear of the centaur as well.
Hercules boasted, “As soon as I start, the rivers are beaten.” He never deigned to pray that a river be gentle with him but immediately plunged in just as he was, wearing his quiver and the skin he had taken from a massive lion. He’d thrown his club and curved bow across to the other side.
Hercules reached the far bank and retrieved the bow he had thrown there. As he did so, he heard the cries of his wife and saw Nessus preparing to abscond with the deposit.
“What has your vain faith in your feet brought you to, reaver!” Hercules cried. “I’m talking to you Nessus, you half-breed! Listen to me and don’t try to carry off my property! Even if you don’t have any respect for me, the torture your father Ixion bears on the wheel for attempted rape ought to stop you.
“Besides, you don’t have a chance of getting away, despite your confidence in your horse body. I’ll bring you down with a blow, not my feet!”
As he spoke the final warning, he suited his action to his words and sent an arrow through the back of the fleeing centaur; the barbed point stuck out in front. Nessus jerked the missile free and, with his shirt, he mopped up the gleaming blood mixed with Hydra’s venom which poured from either wound.
“I will not die unavenged!” the centaur said. He gave the garment stained with blood as a gift to the girl he had carried off, claiming it would be a love charm.
Nothing came of the matter for a long time, during which the whole world learned of the great deeds of Hercules and how his stepmother Juno hated him. Then, after Hercules had defeated Cenaeus, offspring of Oechalos, he prepared to carry out the sacred rites of Jupiter. Rumor rushed to you, Deianira, chattering a mix of truth and fiction into your ears, and building a molehill into a lying mountain: that Hercules, son of Amphitrion, was besotted with love for Iole.
Loving Deianira gave terrified belief to the rumor of her husband’s new lust. First she wept, pouring out her miserable grief with her tears. Then she said, “Why am I weeping? The tramp will be delighted to hear of my tears. The time has come for me to act swiftly before the other woman takes possession of my marriage bed!
“Should I wail or be silent? Should I go back to Calydon or remain here? Should I leave this house or stay in it, even if I do nothing more to oppose my rival? Shall I recall that I am your sister, Meleager, and perhaps equal your grim deed as nearly as a woman’s anger can, leaving the slut dead in witness?”
Thus Deianira’s mind danced over possibilities. Finally she decided that the best choice was to send to Hercules the shirt dyed with the blood of Nessus, which would return vigor to her husband’s failing love for her.
Ignorant of the misery she was creating for herself, Deianira gave the garment to Hercules’ servant Lichas, begging him to take it to her husband. Lichas did as she asked, with no idea of what he was carrying. Unwittingly Hercules took it and draped his shoulders with the poison of the Lernean hydra.
Hercules put frankincense on the just-lighted flames with words of prayer, then poured wine from a cup onto the marble altar. The evil power warmed in the flames and oozed out, spreading down over his limbs.
For as long as he was able, the hero’s well-known will power suppressed his groan of pain. Finally, though, the agony overcame his ability to bear it: he pushed over the altar and filled the wooded slopes of Oeta with his cries.
Immediately he tried to rip off the lethal garment. Though he tugged, it continued to stick to his skin. Either it clung fast to his limbs when he vainly tried to tear it away, or–horrible to say–it pulled his muscles loose and left his great bones exposed. His very blood, like chill lake water poured into a white-hot vessel, screamed and boiled in the blazing poison.
There was no end to the pain: the greedy flames consumed his bosom, clear sweat started out over his whole body, his shrinking tendons twanged, and the marrow of his bones melted.
Raising his hands to the stars he cried, “Feast your eyes on our dying, Juno, daughter of Saturn! Feast them from on high, cruel one, and satisfy your savage heart as you watch this foulness. For if ever a man was to be pitied by his enemy, I am that man! Take this miserable spirit, worn out by torture and born only for labors! Let this be my monument. It is a proper gift even for my stepmother to give!
“For I overcame Busiris, who fouled temples with the blood of travellers. I tore savage Antaeus from the sustenance of his mother. The triple form of the Iberian herdsman Geryon did move me–nor did your triple form, Cerberus. And did not these my hands force down the horns of the mighty bull?
“Elis knows the work of my hands, and the Stymphalian waters, and the Arcadian grove of Virgin Athena. By their strength I brought the gold-relieved belt back from the Thermodon and brought the apples guarded by the sleepless serpent.
“The Centaurs were not able to withstand me, nor was the boar that had been ravaging the Erymanthian hills. Not even the hydra could avail against me, though for every lost head it grew two more.
“When I saw the Thracian king’s horses which had grown fat drinking human blood and whose mangers were filled with chopped up corpses, did I not at once hurl their master to them to be slaughtered in turn? By the strength of these shoulders the monstrous Nemean lion fell; with his hide as a pad for my neck, I bore the weight of the heavens!
“The vicious wife of Jupiter has exhausted herself inventing labors for me, but I am unwearied from accomplishing them. This is a new curse, however, which can neither be resisted by strength nor conquered by force of arms. Fire ripples through the chambers of my lungs and eats its way along all my limbs. Through this shall King Eurytheus succeed! How therefore can anyone believe in heavenly justice?”
Having spoken, Hercules dragged his wounded body to the peak of Mount Oeta, like a tiger with a hunting spear through its body fleeing the hunter. Often he groaned, often he paused shaking; often he tried to scrape off the remainder of his garments, throwing down trees and raging at the rocks, then raising his arms to the heavens his father ruled.
On the way he saw the terrified Lichas, hiding beneath the overhang of a cliff. With pain twisting everything into madness, Hercules cried, “Was it not you who brought me this deadly gift, Lichas? Are you not the cause of my death?”
Lichas trembled, pale with terror. He tried fearfully to mutter excuses. Kneeling, he tried to raise his hands to stave off the inevitable. Hercules snatched him up, spun him three or four times, and hurled him swifter than a catapult shot into the sea off Euboea. The servant froze as he plunged through the misty air, as raindrops congeal on the chill winds. Thus snow freezes, and soft snow forms dense hailstones when spun and packed together.
According to ancient tradition, Lichas’ body–bloodless with fear and drained of all fluids when Hercules’ strong arms flung it through empty air–was turned to rock. Even now there is a small rock in the sea near Euboea which preserves its former human shape. Sailors call it Lichas and fear to tramp upon it lest it feel their feet.
But you, distinguished offspring of Jupiter, cut down the trees growing on steep Oete and gathered them into a pyre. You took off your bow and the great quiver filled with arrows. They would eventually return to the kingdom of Troy, for you ordered them given to Philoctetes, who was descended from Apollo.
Then, when a servant had brought flame and this whole heaped-up forest was involved in fire, Hercules lay down with the skin of the Nemean lion on his back and the club on his shoulder. His face was as composed as if he had fallen asleep amidst the cups of wine at a drinking party; flames encircled his head like a garland.
Then the blaze swelled on all sides, taking hold of Hercules’ limbs and seeking the very life of the man who scorned them. The gods themselves feared for the champion of the world. When Jupiter, son of Saturn, realized that, he laughed and told them, “Your fear pleases me, oh highborn! I delight to see that I am remembered as the guide and father of a people mindful of my deeds. I was duty bound to raise my son to Olympus for his great deeds, but I am pleased that he also is protected by your favor.
“Let not his heart fear needlessly nor may he spurn the flames! The fire that conquers all you see will not conquer Hercules, for he knows that Vulcan has power only over his mother’s part. The eternal portion of him is mine: untouched by and immune to violent death, unmasterable by flames.
“I will accept that part of him, washed clean of earth, on these celestial shores in full confidence that my action will be a cause for rejoicing to all the gods. Nevertheless, if anyone perchance regrets that Hercules will be raised to godhead as a gift of his birth–even that person will unwillingly accept that Hercules has earned divinity through his deeds.”
The gods agreed. Even royal Juno accepted most of the decree without objection, though she glared and grieved in her heart at Jupiter’s final words.
Meanwhile, the fire god Mulciber had flensed away all that could be destroyed by flame. What remained was no longer recognizable as the former Hercules, for any features that he had gotten from his mother were gone; now he had the appearance of Jupiter.
When a serpent sloughs the appearance of age with its old skin, it stretches itself in delight and its new scales glitter. Thus, when Tirynthian Hercules doffed his mortal flesh, the better remainder of him flourished. He appeared to swell and become a figure of awe and wisdom.
The omnipotent father wrapped Hercules in a cloak of clouds, then snatched him up and bore him in his four-horsed chariot to the shining stars.