I have had The Trachiniae by Sophocles sitting on my desk for months awaiting its turn to be read. I borrowed it from the University library and my time with it was drawing to a close, so this morning I sat down to read it. I opened the book and discovered that I had borrowed the untranslated Greek play with commentary in English. The commentary would do me no good if I couldn’t read the play. Drat! I felt defeated, but then decided I would see if I could find the play online somewhere. Project Gutenberg came through for me. Granted, the play, in this case called The Women of Trachis, is a 1906 translation by Lewis Campbell Emeritus Professor of Greek in the University of St. Andrews and Honorable Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, which is to say, not exactly modern or particularly poetically rendered, but it suited me just fine.
Heracles has been away for over a year and Deinareira, his wife, is growing increasingly worried because she has not had any word of him in all that time. When he left, he had given her a scroll that contained his will and told her to open it in 15 months if she had not heard anything from him. It’s too soon to open the scroll but not too soon to worry. She voices her fears and the helpful Chorus (a.k.a. the women of Trachis) suggest she sends Hyllus, one of her sons, to see if he can find out anything about his father. Brilliant!
Hyllus is summoned and as his mother is asking him to go look for Heracles he says, “Oh! I am so glad to be able to tell you I’ve heard recently that dad’s in Euboea and doing A-OK.” If I were Deinaneira I’d have been tempted to backhand the kid across the face and break some pieces of pottery over his head for not bothering to impart such good news until asked. But Deinaneira is too happy that her husband is alive and well to resort to such violence especially since in the weirdness of time that is a Greek play, a messenger arrives to say Heracles is coming home. In even weirder Greek play time, Lichas, a herald of Heracles immediately appears with a bunch of women in tow.
These women are booty, Lichas explains, from the taking of the city of Oechalia in revenge for Heracles having been enslaved there. Deinaneira immediately takes pity on the women who will now become slaves in her household. There is one girl in particular whose name she learns is Iole, who looks especially sad and refuses to speak. The women are taken into the house and the messenger appears again, this time telling Deinaneira that Lichas is a big fat liar. Lichas tries to play dumb but the messenger finally forces him to admit that Heracles actually laid seige to the city of Oechalia not for revenge but because he is in love with Iole who happens to be the king’s daughter and who, said king had promised Heracles for a wife.
You can imagine Deinaneira is a little upset by this news since she’s no longer a spring chicken and Iole is a sweet young thing:
But who that is a woman could endure
To dwell with her, both married to one man?
One bloom is still advancing, one doth fade.
The budding flower is cropped, the full-blown head
Is left to wither, while love passeth by
Unheeding. Wherefore I am sore afraid
He will be called my husband, but her mate,
For she is younger.
What’s a spurned wife to do? She sends a finely woven robe soaked in what she thinks is a love potion to Heracles as a welcome home gift. But little does she know, it is actually poison from the Hydra that Heracles had killed all those years ago that she put on the robe. Way back when she married Heracles on the journey from her home to his, they had to cross a big river. The crossing was kept by Nessus the centaur. He had no boat, he just carried people across. Heracles being who he is didn’t need any help crossing, so Nessus carried his new wife (why Heracles couldn’t carry her I have no idea). But Nessus copped a feel (some stories say he tried to rape her but in Sophocles’ play Deinaneira says Nessus touched her inappropriately) so Heracles shot Nessus with an arrow tipped in Hydra poison. As Nessus was dying, he told Deinaneira to collect his blood as it might come in handy some day as a love potion. Nessus knew his blood was poison but Deinaneira believed him, and who can blame her?
Deinaneira realizes too late that she sent her husband a poisoned gift so she kills herself. Heracles is brought home in writhing pain and both he and Hyllus accuse the now dead Deinaneira of murder. But the chorus sets them straight and they forgive her and Heracles gets to moan and groan because the prophecy of his death has come true – he was to be killed by someone who was already dead. But he wouldn’t have died at all if he hadn’t gone wandering so to speak. I mean, what does he expect, gone for over a year without word to the heartsick wife at home and then he shows up, “Hi honey! I’m home! Meet Iole, my new wife, ain’t she pretty?” Like that’s going to end well.
The play concludes with Heracles making Hyllus promise to marry Iole. He also makes Hyllus promise to build a pyre and place him on it alive because he is in so much pain. Hyllus agrees to build the pyre but he refuses to light it. What happens next is another story.
I felt really bad for Deinaneira. I looked up Heracles in Wikipedia trying to figure out where this story fit in with the whole mythos and ended up even more confused – there is no straightforward narrative of Heracles, it’s all stories pieced together from a variety of sources that are sometimes contradictory. Deinaneira is his third wife apparently. He may or may not have killed his first wife depending on which story you go with but he did kill all the children he and first wife had together. Second wife was a queen to whom he was enslaved at one point. So, you know, given his history, Deinaneira had every reason to worry when Heracles brought home Iole. And would you be silly enough to believe a dying centaur who touched you inappropriately? Poor Deinaneira never had a chance from the beginning but just didn’t know it.
I have now managed to read all of Sophocles’ complete plays. He’s good but I like Aeschylus better. Euripides is going to get a chance though. Since he wrote Medea, one of my favorites, Aeschylus might end up in second place when all is said and done.