Stories from the Greek Tragedians - Alfred J. Church

The Story of Philoctetes, or The Bow of Hercules

Prince Philoctetes, who reigned in Methone, which is in the land of Thessaly, sailed with the other Princes of Greece to make war against the great city of Troy. For he also had been one of the suitors of Helen the Fair, and had bound himself with a great oath that he would avenge her and her husband, whomsoever she should choose, on any man that should dare to do her wrong. Now Philoctetes had been companion to Hercules in many of his labours, and also had been with him when he died upon Mount Æta. For which cause Hercules gave him the bow and the arrows which he bare, having received them at the first from Apollo. A very mighty bow it was, shooting arrows so as none other could do, and the arrows were sure dealers of death, for they had been dipped in the blood of the great dragon of Lerna, and the wounds which they made no physician might heal. But it chanced that the Prince, being on his voyage to Troy, landed at the island of Chrysa, where there was an altar of Athené, the goddess of the lace, and, desiring to show the altar to his companions, he approached it too nearly; whereupon the serpent that guarded it, lest it should be profaned, bit him in the foot. The wound was very sore and could not be healed, but tormented him day and night with grievous pains, making him groan and cry aloud. And when men were troubled with his complainings, and also with the noisome stench of his wound, the chiefs took counsel together, and it seemed good to the sons of Atreus, King Agamemnon and King Menelaüs, who were the leaders of the host, that he should be left alone on the island of Lemnos. This matter they committed to Ulysses, who did according to their bidding. But when the Greeks had laid siege to the city of Troy, nigh upon ten years, they remembered Prince Philoctetes and how they had dealt with him. For now the great Achilles was dead, having been slain by Prince Paris with an arrow in the Scæan Gate, when he was ready to break into the city; and the soothsayers affirmed that the Greeks should not have their wish upon Troy, till they should bring against it the great archer to whom they had done wrong. Then the chiefs took counsel together, and chose Ulysses, who was crafty beyond all other men, to accomplish this matter, and with him they sent Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, who excelled in strength, even as his father had done.

Now when these two were landed upon the island, Ulysses led the way to the place where in time past he had left Philoctetes. A cave it was in the cliff, with two mouths to it, of which the one looked to the east and the other to the west, so that in winter time a man might see the sun and be warm, but in summer the wind blew through it, bringing coolness and sleep, and a little below was a spring of fair water to drink. Then said Ulysses to Neoptolemus, "Go and spy out the place, and see whether or no the man be there."

And the Prince went up and looked into the cave, and found that it was empty, but that there were signs of one who dwelt there, a bed of leaves, and a cup of wood, very rudely fashioned, and pieces of wood for kindling fires, and also, a very piteous sight, the rags wherewith the sick man was wont to dress his wound. And when he had told what he saw, Ulysses said, "That the man dwelleth here is manifest; nor can he be far away, for how can one that is wounded travel far? Doubtless he is gone to some place whither the birds resort to slay them, or, haply, to find some herb wherewith to assuage his pain. But do thou set one who will wait for his coming, for it would fare ill with me should he find me."

And when the watch had been set Ulysses said again, "I will tell what it is needful for thee to say and do. Only thou must be bold, son of Achilles, and that not only with thy hand, but in heart also, if what I shall now unfold to thee shall seem new or strange. Hearken then: when the man shall ask thee who thou art and whence thou comest, thou shalt answer him that thou art the son of Achilles, and that thou hast left the host of the Greeks, because they had done thee great wrong, for that, having prayed thee to come as not being able to take the great city of Troy without thee, yet they would not deliver to thee the arms of thy father Achilles, but gave them to Ulysses. And here thou mayest speak against me all kinds of evil, for such words will not trouble me, but if thou accomplish not this thing thou wilt trouble the whole host of the Greeks. For know that without this man's bow thou canst not take the city of Troy; know also that thou only canst approach him without peril, not being of the number of those who sailed with him at the first. And if it please thee not to get the bow by stealth, for this indeed thou must do—and I know thee to be one that loveth not to speak falsely or to contrive deceit—yet bethink thee that victory is sweet. Be thou bold to-day, and we will be righteous to-morrow."

Then the Prince made reply, " 'Tis not in me, son of Laertes, to work by craft and guile, neither was it in my father before me. I am ready to carry off this man with a strong arm; and how, being a cripple, shall he stand against us? but deceit I will not use. And though I should be loath to fail thee in this our common enterprise, yet were this better than to prevail by fraud."

Then said Ulysses, "And I, too, in my youth would do all things by the hand and not by the tongue; but now I know that the tongue hath alone the mastery."

And the Prince replied, "But thou biddest me speak the thing that is false."

"I bid thee prevail over Philoctetes by craft."

"But why may I not persuade him, or even constrain him by force?"

"To persuasion he will not hearken, and force thou mayest not use, for he hath arrows that deal death without escape."

"But is it not a base thing for a man to lie?"

"Surely not, if a lie save him."

"Tell me what is the gain to me if this man come to Troy."

"Without this bow and these arrows Troy falleth not. For though it is the pleasure of the Gods that thou take the city, yet canst not thou take it without these, nor indeed these without thee."

And when the Prince had mused awhile, he said, "If this be so with the arms, I must needs get them."

Then Ulysses said, "Do this, and thou shalt gain a double honour."

And the Prince said, "What meanest thou by thy 'double honour'? Tell me, and I refuse no more."

"The praise of wisdom and of courage also."

"Be it so: I will do this deed, nor count it shame."

" 'Tis well," said Ulysses, "and now I will despatch this watcher to the ship, whom I will send again in pilot's disguise if thou desire, and it seems needful. Also I myself will depart, and may Hermes, the god of craft, and Athené, who ever is with me, cause us to prevail."

After a while Philoctetes came up the path to the cave very slowly, and with many groans. And when he saw the strangers (for now some of the ship's crew were with Prince Neoptolemus) he cried, "Who are ye that are come to this inhospitable land? Greeks I know you to be by your garb; but tell me more."

And when the Prince had told his name and lineage, and that he was sailing from Troy, Philoctetes cried, "Sayest thou from Troy? Yet surely thou didst not sail with us in the beginning."

"What?" cried the Prince. "Hadst thou then a share in this matter of Troy?"

And Philoctetes made reply, "Knowest thou not whom thou seest? Hast thou not heard the story of my sorrows?" And when he heard that the young man knew nothing of these things: "Surely this is sorrow upon sorrow if no report of my state hath come to the land of Greece, and I lie here alone, and my disease groweth upon me, but my enemies laugh and keep silence!" And then he told his name and fortunes, and how the Greeks had left him on the shore while he slept, and how it was the tenth year of his sojourning in the island. "For know," he said, "that it is without haven or anchorage, and no man cometh hither of his free will; and if any come unwilling, as indeed it doth sometimes chance, they speak soft words to me and give me, haply, some meat; but when I make suit to them that they carry me to my home, they will not. And this wrong the sons of Atreus and Ulysses have worked against me; for which may the Gods who dwell in Olympus make them equal recompense."

"And I," said the Prince, "am no lover of these men. For when Achilles was dead——"

"How sayest thou? Is the son of Peleus dead?"

"Yea; but it was the hand of a God and not of a man that slew him."

"A mighty warrior slain by a mighty foe! But say on."

"Ulysses, and Phœnix who was my sire's foster-father, came in a ship to fetch me; and when I was come to the camp they even greeted me kindly, and sware that it was Achilles' self they saw, so like was I to my sire. And, my mourning ended, I sought the sons of Atreus and asked of them the arms of my father, but they made answer that they had given them to Ulysses; and Ulysses, chancing to be there, affirmed that they had done well, seeing that he had saved them from the enemy. And when I could prevail nothing, I sailed away in great wrath."

" 'Tis even," Philoctetes made reply, "as I should have judged of them. But I marvel that the Greater Ajax endured to see such doings."

"Ah! but he was already dead."

"This is grievous news. And how fares old Nestor of Pylos?"

"But ill, for his eldest born, Antilochus, is dead."

"I could have spared any rather than these two, Ajax and Antilochus. But Patroclus, where was he when thy father died?"

"He was already slain. For 'tis ever thus that war taketh the true man and leaveth the false. But of these things I have had enough and more than enough. Henceforth my island of Scyros, though it be rocky and small, shall content me. And now, Prince Philoctetes, I go, for the wind favours us, and we must take the occasion which the Gods give us."

And when Philoctetes knew that Neoptolemus was about to depart, he besought him with many prayers that he would take him also on his ship; for the voyage, he said, would not be of more than a single day. "Put me," he said, "where thou wilt, in forecastle, or hold, or stern, and set me on shore even as it may seem best to thee. Only take me from this place." And the sailors also made entreaty to the Prince that he would do so; and he, after a while, made as if he consented to their prayers.

But while Philoctetes was yet thanking him, and his companions, there came two men to the cave, of whom one was a sailor in the Prince's ship, and the other a merchant. And the merchant said that he was sailing from Troy to his home, and that chancing to come to the island, and knowing that the Prince was there, he judged it well to tell him his news; 'twas briefly this, that Phœnix and the sons of Theseus had sailed, having orders from the sons of Atreus that they should bring the Prince back; and also that Ulysses and Diomed were gone on another errand, even to fetch some one of whom the rulers had need. And when the Prince would know who he might be, the merchant bade him say who it was standing near, and when he heard that it was Philoctetes, he cried, "Haste thee to thy ship, son of Achilles, for this is the very man whom the two are coming to fetch. Haply thou hast not heard what befell at Troy. There is a certain Helenus, son of King Priam, and a famous soothsayer. Him Ulysses, the man of craft, took a prisoner, and brought into the assembly of Greeks; and the man prophesied to them that they should never take the city of Troy, unless they should bring thither the Prince Philoctetes from the island whereon he dwelt. And Ulysses said, 'If I bring not the man, whether willing or unwilling, then cut off my head."

And when Philoctetes heard this his anger was very great, and he became yet more eager to depart. But first he must go into the cave and fetch such things as he needed, herbs with which he was wont to soothe the pains of his wounds, and all the furniture of his bow. And when he spake of the bow, the Prince asked whether it was indeed the famous bow of Hercules that he carried in his hand, and would fain, he said, touch it, if only it were lawful so to do. And Philoctetes answered, "Yes, thou shalt touch it and handle it, which, indeed, no other man hath ever done, for thou hast done a good deed to me, and it was for a good deed that I myself also received it."

But when they would have gone towards the ship, the pangs of his wound came upon Philoctetes. And then at first he cried, saying, that it was well with him; but at the last, he could endure no more, and cried to the Prince that he should draw his sword and smite off the foot, nor heed if he should slay him; only he would be rid of the pain. And then he bade him take the bow and keep it for him while he slept, for that sleep came ever upon him after these great pains. Only he must keep it well, especially if those two, Ulysses and Diomed, should chance to come in the meanwhile. And when the Prince had promised this, Philoctetes gave him the bow, saying, "Take it, my son, and pray to the jealous Gods that it bring not sorrow to thee as it hath brought sorrow to me, and to him that was its master before me."

And after a while the sick man slept. And the Prince, with the sailors that were his companions, watched by him the while.

But when the sailors would have had the Prince depart, seeing that he had now the great bow and the arrows, for whose sake he had come, he would not, for they would be of no avail, he said, without the archer himself. And in no long space of time the sick man woke. Right glad was he to see that the strangers had not departed, for, indeed, he had scarce hoped that this might be. Therefore commending the young man much for his courage and loving kindness, he would have him help him straightway to the ship, that his pain having now ceased awhile, they might be ready to depart without delay. So they went, but the Prince was sorely troubled in his mind and cried, "Now what shall I do?" and "now am I at my wits' end so that even words fail me." At which words, indeed, Philoctetes was grieved, thinking that it repented the Prince of his purpose, so that he said, "Doth the trouble of my disease then hinder thee from taking me in thy ship?"

Then said the Prince, "All is trouble when a man leaveth his nature to do things that are not fitting."

And Philoctetes made answer, "Nay, is not this a fitting thing, seeing of what sire thou art the son, to help a brave man in his trouble?"

"Can I endure to be so base," said the Prince, "hiding that which I should declare, and speaking the thing that is false?" And while Philoctetes still doubted whether he repented not of his purpose, he cried aloud, "I will hide the thing no longer. Thou shalt sail with me to Troy."

"What sayest thou?"

"I say that thou shalt be delivered from these pains, and shalt prevail together with me over the great city of Troy."

"What treachery is this? What hast thou done to me? Give me back the bow."

"Nay, that I cannot do, for I am under authority, and must needs obey."

And when Philoctetes heard these words, he cried with a very piteous voice, "What a marvel of wickedness thou art that hast done this thing. Art thou not ashamed to work such wrong to a suppliant? Give me my bow, for it is my life. But I speak in vain, for he goeth away and heedeth me not. Hear me then, ye waters and cliffs, and ye beasts of the field, who have been long time my wonted company, for I have none else to hearken to me. Hear what the son of Achilles hath done to me. For he sware that he would carry me to my home, and lo! he taketh me to Troy. And he gave me the right hand of fellowship, and now he robbeth me of the bow, the sacred bow of Hercules. Nay—for I will make trial of him once more—give back this thing to me and be thy true self. What sayest thou? Nothing? Then am I undone. O cavern of the rock wherein I have dwelt, behold how desolate I am! Never more shall I slay with my arrows bird of the air or beast of the field; but that which I hunted shall pursue me, and that on which I fed shall devour me."

And the Prince was cut to the heart when he heard these words, hating the thing which he had done, and cursing the day on which he had come from Scyros to the plains of Troy. Then turning himself to the sailors, he asked what he should do, and was even about to give back the bow, when Ulysses, who was close at hand, watching what should be done, ran forth crying that he should hold his hand.

Then said Philoctetes, "Is this Ulysses that I see? Then am I undone."

" 'Tis even so: and as for what thou askest of this youth, that he should give back the bow, he shall not do it; but rather thou shalt sail with us to Troy; and if thou art not willing, these that stand by shall take thee by force."

"Lord of fire, that rulest this land of Lemnos, hearest thou this?"

"Nay, 'tis Zeus that is master here, and Zeus hath commanded this deed."

"What lies are these? Thou makest the Gods false as thyself."

"Not so. They are true and I also. But this journey thou must take."

"Methinks I am a slave, and not freeborn, that thou talkest thus."

"Thou art peer to the bravest, and with them shalt take the great city of Troy."

"Never; I had sooner cast myself down from this cliff."

Then Ulysses cried to the men that they should lay hold on him; and this they straightway did. Then Philoctetes in many words reproached him with all the wrongs that he had done; how at the first he had caused him to be left on this island, and now had stolen his arms, not with his own hands, indeed, but with craft and deceit, serving himself of a simple youth, who knew not but to do as he was bidden. And he prayed to the Gods that they would avenge him on all that had done him wrong, and chiefly on this man Ulysses.

Then Ulysses made reply, "I can be all things as occasion serveth; such as thou sayest, if need be; and yet no man more pious if the time call for goodness and justice. One thing only I must needs do, and that is to prevail. Yet here I will yield to thee. Thou wilt not go; so be it. Loose him! We need thee not, having these arms of thine. Teucer is with us, an archer not one whit less skilful than thou. And now I leave thee to this Lemnos of thine. May be this bow shall bring me the honour which thou refusest."

When he had thus spoken he departed, and the Prince Neoptolemus with him. Only the Prince gave permission to the sailors that they should tarry with the sick man till it was time to make ready for the voyage.

Then Philoctetes bewailed himself, crying to his bow, "O my bow, my beloved, that they have wrested from my hands, surely, if thou knowest aught, thou grievest to see that the man who was the comrade of Hercules will never hold thee more, but that base hands will grasp thee, mixing thee with all manner of deceit." And then again he called to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field, that they should not fly from him any more, seeing that he had now no help against them, but should come and avenge themselves upon him and devour him. And still the sailors would have comforted him. Also they sought to persuade him that he should listen to the chiefs; but he would not, crying that the lightning should smite him before he would go to Troy and help them that had done him such wrong. And at the last he cried that they should give him a spear or a sword, that he might be rid of his life.

But while they thus talked together, the Prince came back like one that is in haste, with Ulysses following him, who cried, "Wherefore turnest thou back?"

[Illustration] from Stories from Greek Tragedians by Alfred J. Church


"To undo what I did amiss."

"How sayest thou? When didst thou thus?"

"When I listened to thee, and used deceit to a brave man."

"What wilt thou then? (I fear me much what this fool may do.)"

"I will give back this bow and these arrows to him from whom I took them by craft."

"That shalt thou not do."

"But who shall hinder me?"

"That will I, and all the sons of the Greeks with me."

"This is idle talk for a wise man as thou art."

"Seest thou this sword whereto I lay my hand?"

"If thou talkest of swords, thou shalt see right soon that I also have a sword."

"Well—I let thee alone. To the host will I tell this matter; they shall judge thee."

"Now thou speakest well; be ever as wise; so shalt thou keep thy foot out of trouble."

Then the Prince called to Philoctetes, who, being loosed by the sailors, had hidden himself in the cave, and asked of him again whether he were willing to sail with him, or were resolved to abide in the island.

And when the man had denied that he would go, and had begun again to call down a curse on the sons of Atreus, and on Ulysses, and on the Prince himself, then the Prince bade him stay his speech, and gave him back the bow and the arrows.

And when Ulysses, seeing this deed, was very wroth, and threatened vengeance, Philoctetes put an arrow to the string, and drew the bow to the full, and would have shot at the man, but the Prince stayed his hand.

And then again the Prince was urgent with him that he should cease from his anger, and should sail with him to Troy, saying that there he should be healed by the great physician, the son of Asclepius, and should also win great glory by taking the city, and that right soon; for that the soothsayer Helenus had declared that it was the will of the Gods that the city of Troy should be taken that same summer.

But for all this he prevailed nothing; for Philoctetes was obstinate that he would not go to Troy, nor do any pleasure to the chiefs who had done him such wrong. But he would that the Prince should fulfil the promise which he had made, that he would carry him in his ship to his own country. And this the Prince said that he would do.

And now the two were about to depart to the ship, when lo! there appeared in the air above their heads the great Hercules. Very wonderful was he to behold, with bright raiment, and a great glory shining from his face, even as the everlasting Gods beheld him with whom he dwelt in the place of Olympus. And Hercules spake, saying—

"Go not yet, son of Pœas, before thou hearest what I shall say to thee. For 'tis Hercules whom thou seest and hearest; and I am come from my dwelling in heaven to declare to thee the will of Zeus. Know then that even as I attained to this blessedness after much toil, so shall it be with thee. For thou shalt go to the land of Troy; and first thou shalt be healed of thy grievous sickness, and afterwards thou shalt slay Paris with thine arrows, and shalt take the city of Troy, whereof thou shalt carry the spoils to thy home, even to Pœas thy father, having received from thy fellows the foremost prize for valour. But remember that all that thou winnest in this warfare thou must take as an offering to my tomb. And to thee, son of Achilles, I say; thou canst not take the city of Troy without this man, nor he without thee. Whereof, as two lions that consort together, guard ye each other. And I will send Asclepius to heal him of his sickness; for it is the will of the Gods that Troy should yet again be taken by my bow. And remember this, when ye lay waste the land, to have the Gods and that which belongeth to them in reverence."

Then said Philoctetes, "O my master, whom I have long desired to hear and see, I will do as thou sayest."

And the Prince also gave his consent.

Then Philoctetes bade farewell to the island in these words—

"Home that hast watched with me, farewell!

And nymphs that haunt the springs or dwell

In seaward meadows, and the roar

Of waves that break upon the shore;

Where often, through the cavern's mouth,

The drifting of the rainy South

Hath coldly drenched me as I lay;

And Hermes' hill, whence many a day,

When anguish seized me, to my cry

Hoarse-sounding echo made reply.

O fountains of the land, and thou,

Pool of the Wolf, I leave you now;

Beyond all hope I leave thy strand,

O Lemnos, sea-encircled land!

Grant me with favouring winds to go

Whither the mighty Fates command,

And this dear company of friends,

And mastering Powers who shape our ends

To issues fairer than we know."