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Philoctetes on Lemnos (Jean Germain Drouais, 1788, oil on canvas)

Philoctetes is one of the great missing heroes of the classical world. Not only was there was an entire epic poem from the Homeric era about the quest to find him Aeschylus and Euripides are both known to have written entire plays about him, and the great  Sophocles wrote two.  Only one of the plays by Sophocles now survives.

Philoctetes was a great archer and a “companion” of Heracles.  When through the treachery of Nessus, Heracles was poisoned with blood of the hydra, only Philoctetes has the courage to light his funeral pyre.  This earned him tremendous esteem from the dying hero, who presented Philoctetes with his bow and poisoned arrows.

Hercules Burning Himself on the Pyre in the Presence of His Friend Philoctetes (Ivan Akimovich Akimov, 1782)

Philoctetes unsuccessfully sought the hand of Helen of Troy which meant that he was “called up” by Menelaus to win her back from Paris after she was abducted. It would seem Philoctetes also made some powerful enemies during his time with Heracles because as he hastened to the war he was stung by a poison snake while on the Island of Chryse.  The wound suppurated and produced such a foul odor that Odysseus tricked the unhappy archer into being left behind in agony.

 

Philoctetes Being Bitten by the Snake (Gotthard Ringgli, early 17th century)

This proved to be a mistake. After years of war, an oracle (being tortured by the Greeks) revealed that the Greeks could not prevail in the Trojan War without the bow of Heracles.    Odysseus and a group of soldiers including the hero Diomedes were dispatched to find the weapon.  In doing so they found the still injured (still reeking) Philoctetes, and, only through intervention from the deified Heracles, were the angry group of men able to come to a satisfactory resolution.

Ulysses and Neoptolemus Taking Hercules’ Arrows from Philoctetes (François-Xavier Fabre, 1800 Oil on Canvas)

For some reason, Philoctetes remained a favorite subject of painters for a long time.  Something about the beautiful warrior’s agony, and the dramatic wound (to say nothing of the divinely sent snake which alternately came from Apollo, Hera, or the nymph Chryse) has kept artists from different eras returning to the story—even if the poetry, plays, and epics which truly explain the drama have vanished.

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