The agony of Hercules (Book 9: 159–210)

The agony of Hercules (Book 9: 159–210)


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.


This story is taken from a compendium of Greek myths, called Metamorphoses, written by the Roman poet Ovid in the 1st century AD.