In The Women of Trachis, also called the Trachiniae, Sophocles exposes the audience to the recollections of a domestic woman, Deianira (Greek for “destroyer of husband”), and wife of the great Heracles (Romanized as Hercules). In contract to Aeschylus’s portrayal of Clytemnestra at the end of the Trojan War in his Oresteia, the audience is compelled to sympathize with, and perhaps even pity, Deianira. Women of Trachis is a defense of Heracles’s tragic wife, Deianira.
Notes on the Story of the Women of Trachis
In her opening lines, she indirectly cites the Solon of Herodotus, and disagrees. She claims that a man’s life can be determined if good or bad before death, and that hers is “sorrowful and heavy” (1-5). She recalls the early years of marrying Heracles, but now he is rarely home, and has been gone for more than one year. She calls their son, Hyllus, to venture out after Heracles. Hyllus has heard that his father is in campaign against the city of Eurytus in Euboea. Deianira recounts a prophecy, that it is said Heracles would iether come to his life’s end or live a happy life after the end of this campaign. Upon learning of this propechy, Hyllus leaves to discover the fate of his father. Heracles has left behind a tablet detailing how he would like his estate divided upon his death. Messengers arrive and alert Deianira that Heracles has been held captive as a slave, and then turned against the city but fell under the spell of a younger woman, Iole (we recall the spell under which Odysseus was held after the Trojan War). Initially, Heracles’s messneger, Lichas, was dishonest, but another messenger appears with Iole as a captured slave and reveals the whole affair to Deianira.
Heracles has sent this woman home to be wife, and share his marriage with Deianira. Furious, Deianira, recalls a gift from a centaur -the dying hairy-chested Nessus, ferrier of the river of Evenus, who tried to force himself on Deianira, but Heracles had shot him with an arrow from afar. While he lay dying, he gave Deianira his tunic, dipped in his blood, and told Deianira this tunic with his blood would compel Heracles to love no other woman but her. She had hidden it in a copper urn for years, until the moment when her feelings of jealousy for Ione were aroused.
After sending Heracles’s messenger away with the urn with the robe in it, instructing him that no man nor the light of the sun may touch the tunic, Lichas departs. However, Deianira accidentally spills some of the blood on the ground and it burns through the wood of her house, and she discovers the centaur meant it was poison for Heracles. Suddenyl, Hyllus comes in laments what his mother has done to Heracles. Heracles had just finished sacking Eurytus and in celebration, wore the robe from Deianira, and it began to consume him, causing him spasms of pain. The Chorus then reveals to the audience that Deianira retires to her bed chamber and cuts herself open in suicide. Moments later Heracles arrives by boat to his homeland
This story of the demise of Heracles is also recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book IX. The villainous centaur also appears in Dante’s Inferno as the river guide for Virgil and Dante across the river Phlegethon. Recall in the Odyssey, that Odysseus encounters the phantom of Heracles in Hades. This encounter posed problems in the classical world, as Heracles was considered part of the pantheon of demigods on Mount Olympus, however a close inspection of the Homeric text reveals that Odysseus merely ‘perceived’ or ‘conceived of’ Heracles, he did not in actuality ‘see’ Heracles in the Underworld. Herodotus thought Heracles lived about 900 years before himself.
Background on Heracles
Heracles was hated from birth by Hera, as he was the illicit son of Zeus and his affair with a mortal, Alcmene (pronounced Allk-may-nay). Zeus came down to Thebes and disguised himself as Alkmene’s husband, Amphitryon, and consummated with Alkmene. Shortly thereafter, Amphitryon returned from battle and also consummated with his wife, yielding twins in her belly. These were hetero-paternal twins, a rare condition whereby a woman conceives of two separate twins by different men. Heracles’s twin brother was Iphicles. On the eve of the birth of Heracles, Hera persuaded Zeus to declare the child born this day in the line of Perseus was to rule over all men. She did this knowing that Eurystheus was also to be born. She delayed the birth of Heracles and prematurely forced the birth of Eurystheus. Eventually, Heracles was unknowingly raised by Hera, but his bite on her teat was so strong and it caused her such agony that she threw him down, but the milk from her breast sprayed across the heavens, creating the Milky Way. He was originally given the name, Alcides, by his parents. At one point Hera sent large serpents into the children’s bed. While Heracles’s twin, Iphicles shrunk in fear, Heracles strangled them both and played with them as if they were toys. In astonishment Amphitryon sent for Tiresias, the blind seer, who prophesied many monsters to be vanquished by the young boy.
He was known for his courage and strength. There are many various mythological accounts of delays in Alcmene’s delivery of Heracles. In his youth, Heracles killed his music teacher with his Lyre in anger. He as then sent away to tend cattle on a mountain, and per Xenophon, Heracles was visited by both Vice and Virtue. He was offered an easy but forgettable life, or a strenuous but glorious life (recall the choice offered to Achilles), and Heracles chose the latter. He went back to Thebes and married Megara, but was soon given a fit of madness by Hera and killed all of his children by her. When he realized what he had done he fled to the Oracle of Delphi, under the control of Hera, who convinced him to go to Eurystheus, where Heracles served him for ten years. Eurystheus initially developed ten labors for Heracles to win his freedom, however he cheated Heracles and included two more, leading to the famous twelve labors of Heracles.
Other adventures are recounted in the Argonautica in the search for the golden fleece and the Bibliotecha, most clearly outlined by Apollodorus. He also sacked Troy before the Iliad, as was alluded to in several passages by Homer. Both Hesiod and Aeschylus recount the tale of Heracles shooting and killing the eagle tormenting Prometheus, and Heracles freed the titan from his bondage. His tragic end is most memorably recounted in Sophocles’s Women of Trachis.
For this reading I used the Richmond Lattimore and David Grene edition with a translation by Michael Jameson.