Comparing And Contrasting The Hercules Myth Essay
The tale of Deineira and her husband Hercules has been told many times throughout Greek myth; two of its most popular iterations are in Ovid’s Heroides (part IX) and in Sophocles’ play The Women of Trachis. Sophocles wrote The Women of Trachus around approximately 450 BCE, while Ovid wrote The Heroides roughly around 25 BCE. Both works roughly elucidate on the tale of Hercules’ wife Deineira discovering that her husband Hercules, who was taken off to war, has been delayed in returning to her side because he has taken his prisoner Iole as his lover. The two versions of the tale take significantly different stances on the reasoning and justification behind this betrayal; in Sophocles’ work, Hercules is taught a bitter lesson (and threatened with impending doom) by the death of his wife following his betrayal, while Ovid sees Deineira as much more filled with regret and sadness regarding her actions towards Hercules.
In the passage from The Women of Trachis, Deineira is clearly shown to be the victim of this situation. From the start, Hercules is portrayed as a lying, cheating manipulator, as the Messenger who is sent to Deineira is told to lie to her about Hercules’ true life; rather than tell of Iole’s role as Hercules’ new lover, he reassures her that “soon your most beloved husband will appear before your home, a victor in all his might!” (Sophocles). However, soon afterward, she learns from another messenger that the real reason he has gone to war is because he had fallen in love with Iole and conquered her people in order to take her as his mistress. Hoping to restore Hercules’ affections, she uses a love charm made from Nessus’ blood, which turns out to be deadly poison, leading her to kill herself in shame. In Ovid’s passage, a similar thing occurs, with the context being her final suicide note after having heard that Hercules has been poisoned and is set to die. In addition to the basic story involving Hercules and Deineira, the tales involve many other elements of the Hercules myth. In The Women of Trachis, the Messenger himself relays many of Hercules’ own mythical feats, including his conquering of Eurytus and Iphitus. Deineira, in Heroides IX, makes great mention of the many feats of Hercules, including the Tegeaean boar, “the Nemean pest, whose skin now covers your left side!” (Ovid).
The style of these two works largely determines their effect on the reader; the Sophocles passage is in the form of a play, with many different characters and situations for Deineira to react to, thus making her indignation feel more reasonable by comparison to the concern of others. However, Ovid’s passage takes the form of a single suicide note from Deineira to her family, announcing her crimes and the shame that will bring her to suicide. This format makes her perspective uniquely important, and as she feels great shame, her culpability is more acutely highlighted.
Sophocles’ particular version of this tale heavily emphasizes Deineira’s righteous indignation, and the linking of her fury with that of the gods: “Gods, just like mortals, will also not endure unjust crime” (Sophocles). Because of the use of the other characters (such as the Messengers), we get to see firsthand Hercules’ own betrayals and underhandedness, as the second Messenger talks openly about how “Heracles had failed to persuade her father to give him his daughter to have as a secret love so he made up some ridiculous excuse to attack her city” (Sophocles). This paints Hercules in a negative light, making his decisions more personal failures than mere misunderstandings related to man’s lust for sex (as Ovid implies: “More than Juno, Venus has been your bane. The one, by crushing you down, has raised you up; the other has your neck beneath her humbling foot”) (Ovid). The crimes of Hercules are seen as decidedly unreasonable and unforgiveable by Deineira, whom we see reacting to the initial receiving of this news with anger and frustration: “Curse them! Not all the evil doers but those who practice evil in the shadows” (Sophocles).
Sophocles’ goal in this particular passage was to illustrate the agency of women and to teach others not to underestimate them, as Deineira is strong-willed and independent: “You’re not talking to some weak woman nor to some mindless woman who doesn’t know that natures’ creatures are all the same and seek the same ends” (Sophocles). At the same time, Sophocles gives Deineira a suitably unrewarding and repressive ending, as women are said to need to understand men’s affections and desires, calling her indignation dishonorable: “for a reasonable woman it is not honourable to be angry at someone who suffers from such an affliction” (Sophocles). By the end of the work itself, she and her family name are shamed, mostly because of her womanly mistake in accidentally sending the poison to Hercules: “If my husband dies so shall I die in the same manner because it is insufferable for a woman of long-standing virtue to live with a stained reputation” (Sophocles) Even her son Hyllus is unforgiving of her, seeing her betrayal of Hercules as heinous: “How could she gain the grand name of mother, she who’s so unworthy of it?” (Sophocles). Despite these harsh words, Deineira’s problems are not incredibly unreasonable, and by seeing the dissembling and manipulation Hercules goes through to hide his secret from her, it is harder to excuse his actions for being the work of Venus.
Ovid’s tale is similarly sympathetic to Deineira, though she shows less righteous anger and more desperate sadness and contrition for her deeds. Deineira describes herself as being inferior to Hercules, something which frustrates her: “As the ill-mated steer yoked miserably at the plough, so fares the wife who is less than her mighty lord” (Ovid). The confessional nature of the passage itself maintains a consistent tone throughout, offering a sense of foreboding and regret that contrasts with Sophocles’ maintenance of Deineira’s righteous fury and feelings of betrayal. Here, Ovid instead attributes her anger and madness to impotent jealousy and suffering: “I could distrust men’s words, and the pain hit on my senses softly, through the ear – but now my very eyes must look upon a stranger-mistress led before them, nor may I now dissemble what I suffer!” (Ovid). To that end, Deineira’s feelings about her actions are one of regret, never truly blaming Hercules for the will of the gods, and the natural feelings of men toward young, beautiful women.
Comparing these two passages, Ovid’s take on the Deineira/Hercules story is somewhat more regressive than Sophocles’, in that Ovid still offers Hercules as the better person by virtue of his accomplishments, whereas Sophocles depicts Hercules as a lying, cheating manipulator who nonetheless still has the social advantage of being a man and a god. In both cases, it is still Deineira who suffers, though in Ovid’s case it is a bit more justified. Deineira’s progression from justifiable anger to passionate shame in Sophocles’ work allows a bit more of Hercules’ dark side to shine through, before the social pressures and mystic poison turn her desire for payback into contrition. Ovid, however, allows Deineira to pen a suicide note while essentially pinning the whole unfortunate mess on herself. In this way, two distinctly different takes on godhood and the supremacy of mankind in Greek myth are shown; while both show Hercules as a demigod and hero, only Sophocles gives him any flaws given the way he hurts Deineira.
Sophocles. The Women of Trachis.