The shirt of Nessus (Book 9: 89–158)

The shirt of Nessus (Book 9: 89–158)


Nevertheless he only had the loss of that treasured horn, which had been taken
from him, to lament: he was otherwise unhurt. Also he hid his loss with a wreath
of willow leaves or reeds. But you, fierce Nessus, the centaur, a passion for that
same virgin girl destroyed you, hit in the back by a flying arrow.

Hercules, son of Jupiter, on his way to his native city with Deianira, his new bride,
came to the swift waters of the River Euenus. The flood was higher than normal,
increased by winter rains, with frequent whirlpools, and impassable. He had no
fear of going on himself, but was anxious for his bride, when Nessus approached,
strong of limb, and knowing the fords. ‘With my help, Alcides,” he said, “she will
be set down on the far bank. Use your strength to swim!” The Theban handed
over the Calydonian girl, she, pale with fear, frightened of the river and of the
centaur himself.

Straight away, weighed down as he was by his quiver and his lion’s skin – he
had thrown his club and his curved bow across to the other bank – the hero
said: ‘Let me endure the river since I have started to cross.’ He did not hesitate,
and did not search for where the river was calmest, scorning to claim the
water’s allegiance. He had gained the bank, and was picking up the bow he
had thrown, when he heard his wife’s voice, and shouted to Nessus, who was
preparing to betray his trust: ‘Where are you carrying her off to, you predator,
trusting in vain to your swiftness of foot? I am speaking to you, Nessus, the
twice-formed. Listen: do not steal what is mine. If you have no respect for
me, the thought of your father, Ixion, on his whirling wheel might prevent this
illicit union. However much you trust in your horse-craft, you will not escape.
With wounds, not feet, I will follow you.’ He made good his last words with his
actions, shooting the arrow he fired, across, at the fleeing back. The barbed tip
jutted from the centaur’s chest. When the shaft was pulled out, blood, mixed
with the deadly arrow-poison of the Lernean Hydra, gushed out simultaneously
from the entry and exit wounds. Nessus trapped this, and murmured, to himself
of course: ‘I will not die without revenge’ and gave his tunic soaked with warm
blood to Deianira, whom he had abducted, presenting it to her as if it were a gift
for reviving a waning love.

A long space of intervening time passed by, and the tales of mighty Hercules
had filled the world, and overcome his stepmother’s hatred. As the victor at
Oechalia, in Euboea (where he had avenged an insult offered him by King
Eurytus) he was preparing to sacrifice to Jupiter at Cenaeum, when loquacious
Rumour, who loves to add lies to fact, and expands from the tiniest truth by her
falsehoods, brought her tale on ahead, to your ears, Deianira. She claimed that
Hercules, reputed son of Amphitryon, was filled with passion for Iole, daughter of

The loving wife believes it, and terrified at first by the rumour of this new affair,
she indulges in tears, and the poor girl vents her misery in weeping. But she
soon says ‘Why do I weep? That adulteress will laugh at my tears. Since she is
coming here, I must plan quickly, while I can, while another has not yet taken
my place. Should I complain, or keep silent? Return to Calydon or stay? Should
I leave my house? Or, if I can do nothing else, should I at least stand in their way?
What if, remembering I am your sister, Meleager, I prepare, boldly, to commit
a crime, and, by cutting that adulteress’s throat, show what revenge and a
woman’s grief can do?’

Her thought traced various courses. Of all of them she preferred that of
sending the shirt, imbued with Nessus’s blood, to restore her husband’s waning
love. Unwittingly, she entrusted what became her future grief, to the servant,
Lichas, he not knowing what he had been entrusted with: and the unfortunate
woman, ordered him, with persuasive words, to give the present to her husband.
Hercules, the hero, took it, without a thought, and put on the shirt of Nessus,
soaked in the poison of the Lernean Hydra/p>


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