The agony of Hercules
He was making offerings of incense and reciting prayers over the first flames and pouring a libation bowl of wine on to the marble altar. The power of the venom, warmed and released by the flames, dissolved, dispersing widely through the limbs of Hercules. With his usual courage, he repressed his groans while he could. When his strength to endure the venom was exhausted, he overturned the altar, and filled woody Oeta with his shouts.
He tries at once to tear off the fatal clothing: where it is pulled away, it pulls skin away with it, and, revolting to tell, it either sticks to the limbs from which he tries in vain to remove it, or reveals the lacerated limbs and his massive bones. His blood itself hisses and boils with the virulence of the poison, like incandescent metal, dipped in a cold pool. There is no end to it: the consuming fires suck at the air in his chest: dark sweat pours from his whole body: his scorched sinews crackle.
His marrow liquefying with the secret corruption, he raises his hands to the heavens, crying: ‘Juno, Saturnia, feed on my ruin: feed, cruel one: gaze, from the heights, at this destruction, and sate your savage heart! Or if this suffering seems pitiable even to an enemy, even to you, take away this sorrowful and hateful life, with its fearful torments, that was only made for toil. Death would be a gift to me, a fitting offering from a stepmother.
‘Was it for this I overcame Busiris who defiled the temples with the blood of sacrificed strangers? For this that I lifted fierce Antaeus, robbing him of the strength of his mother Earth? For this that I was unmoved by Geryon’s triple form, the herdsman of Spain, or your triple form, Cerberus? For this, you hands of mine, that you dragged down the horns of the strong Cretan bull, that the stables of King Augeas of Elis know of your efforts - the Stymphalian Lake, and the woods of Mount Parthenius, with its golden-antlered stag? For this, that, by your virtue, the gold engraved girdle of Hippolyte of Thermodon was taken, and the apples of the Hesperides, guarded by the sleepless dragon? Was it for this that the Centaurs could not withstand me, nor the Erymanthian Boar that laid Arcady waste? For this,that it did not help the Hydra to thrive on destruction and gain redoubled strength? What of the time when I saw Thracian Diomede’s horses, fed on human blood, their stalls filled with broken bodies, and, seeing them, overthrew them, and finished off them, and their master? The Nemean Lion lies crushed by these massive arms: and for Atlas these shoulders of mine held up the sky. Jupiter’s cruel consort is tired of giving commands: I am not tired of performing them.
‘But now a strange disease affects me that I cannot withstand by courage, weapons or strength. Deep in my lungs a devouring fire wanders, feeding on my whole body. But Eurystheus, my enemy is well! Are there those then who can believe that the gods exist?’
So saying he roamed, in his illness over the heights of Oeta as a bull carries around a hunting spear embedded in its body, though the hunter who threw it has long gone. Picture him there, in the mountains, in his anger, often groaning, often shouting out, often attempting, again and again, to rid himself of the last of the garment, overturning trees, or stretching his arms out to his native skies.
The death and transformation of Hercules
Then he caught sight of the terrified Lichas, cowering in a hollow of the cliff, and pain concentrated all his fury.
‘Was it not you, Lichas,’ he said, ‘who gave me this fatal gift? Are you not the agent of my death?’
The man trembled, grew pale with fear, and, timidly, made excuses. While he was speaking and trying to clasp the hero’s knees, Alcides seized him and, swinging him round three or four times, hurled him, more violently than a catapult bolt, into the Euboean waters. Hanging in the air, he hardened with the wind. As rain freezes in the icy blasts and becomes snow; whirling snowflakes bind together in a soft mass; and they, in turn, accumulate as a body of solid hailstones: so he, the ancient tradition says, flung by strong arms through the void, bloodless with fright and devoid of moisture, turned to hard flint. Now, in the Euboean Gulf, a low rock rises out of the depths and keeps the semblance of a human shape. This sailors are afraid to set foot on, as though it could sense them, and they call it: Lichas.
But you, famous son of Jove, felled the trees that grew on steep Oeta and made a funeral pyre, and commanded Philoctetes, son of Poeas, who supplied the flame that was plunged into it, to take your bow, your ample quiver, and the arrows that were fated to see, once more, the kingdom of Troy (as they did when you rescued Hesione). As the mass caught light from the eager fire, you spread the Nemean Lion’s pelt on the summit of the pile of logs and lay down, your neck resting on your club, and with an aspect no different from that of a guest reclining amongst the full wine cups, crowned with garlands.
Now the fierce flames, spreading on every side, were crackling loudly and licking at his body, he unconcerned and scornful of them. The gods were fearful for earth’s champion.
Saturnian Jupiter spoke to them, gladly, since he understood their feelings. ‘O divine beings, your fear for him delights me, and I willingly congratulate myself, with all my heart, that I am called father and ruler of a thoughtful race, and that my offspring is protected by your favour also. Though this tribute is paid to his great deeds, I am obliged to you, also. But do not allow your loyal hearts to feel groundless fears. Forget Oeta’s flames! He, who has defeated all things, will defeat the fires you see, nor will he feel Vulcan’s power, except in the mortal part that he owes to his mother, Alcmene. What he has from me is immortal, deathless and eternal: and that, no flame can destroy. When it is done with the earth, I will accept it into the celestial regions, and I trust my action will please all the gods. But if there is anyone, anyone at all, who is unhappy at Hercules’s deification and would not wish to grant this gift, he or she should know that it was given for merit, and should approve it, though unwillingly.’
The gods agreed. Juno, also, appeared to accept the rest of his words with compliance, but not the last ones, upset that she was being censored.
Meanwhile, Mulciber had consumed whatever the flames could destroy, and no recognisable form of Hercules remained, no semblance of what came to him from his mother: he only retained his inheritance from Jove. As a snake enjoys its newness, sloughing old age with its skin, gleaming with fresh scales, so when the Tirynthian hero had shed his mortal body, he became his better part, beginning to appear greater and more to be revered in his high majesty. The all-powerful father of the gods carrying him upwards, in his four-horse chariot, through the substance-less clouds, set him among the shining stars.
Next: Birth of Hercules