Hercules and the Cloak of Nessus

Publication Year: 
2011

Image retrieved from bestmoodle.net on September 16th, 2013.

Reflecting this classical obsession with poisons is the story of Hercules, the greatest of all the Greek heroes. For example, the twelfth of his famous labors, the task of retrieving Cerberus from Hades, was said to have engendered the deadly herb aconite, or wolfsbane, Ovid's Metamorphoses relates that:

"The dog struggled, twisting its head away from the daylight and the shining sun. mad with rage it filled the air with its triple barking, and sprinkled the green fields with flecks of white foam. These flecks are bought to have taken root and , finding nourishment in the rich and fertile soil, acquired harmful properties. Since they flourish on hard rock, the country folk call them aconites, rock-flowers."

Hercules' second labour had been the destruction of the Lernean Hydra, a terrible many-headed serpent monster, offspring of Echidna, "Mother of All Monsters," which was so poisonous that its bite, blood, and even breath were deadly. After he successfully overcame the beast--thanks to some quick thinking on the part of his companion, Iolaous, who cauterized the stumps of its severed heads so that they could not grow back, and a heavy rock, with which he immobilized the Hydra's remaining, immortal, head--Hercules dipped his arrows into its blood, thus creating what classical folklorist Adrienne Mayor describes as the first biological weapon in the Western literature. However, Hercules' poison arrows proved double-edged. Although they helped him to slay innumerable enemies, including an entire horde of enraged centaurs, they also claimed the lives of friends and allies such as the wise centaur Chiron. Inquisitive to examine one of Hercules' arrows, Chiron scratched his foot in doing so and died instantly, arguably becoming the first in a long line of toxicologists killed by the object of their study.
Subsequently, Hercules tangled with another centaur, Nessus. Catching Nessus attempting to take liberties with his wife, Deianira, Hercules shot him with two poisoned arrows, but even as he died the centaur hatched a plan for revenge. With his dying breath he told Deianira that his blood-soaked cloak would help to ensure that Hercules would remain faithful to her, but what she didn't realize was that the centaur's blood was now contaminated with the deadly poison. Years later when she feared the hero was bestowing his favors upon another, she sent him the cloak, and Hercules slipped it on with horrific consequences: as Ovid relates it "ripped his skin from his burning flesh. As his great strength pulled, it stripped the great muscles from his limbs, leaving his huge bones bare, Even his blood audibly hissed...."

pp. 74-75, of Poison an Illustrated History by Joel Levy (2011)

hercules, haracles, nessus, poison arrow,
ShareThis