Heracles and Nessus

After Heracles’s victory at Oechalia, where he conquered King Eurytus, he and his new wife, Deianeira, began to travel back to the home city of Heracles. Eventually, the two reached the River Euenus, which was very difficult to cross because of its rapid currents. Also at the river was Nessus the centaur, and he too had a passion for Deianeira. Heracles was confident in his own ability to cross the river, but he was worried that his bride would have a more difficult time. Nessus could sense this, so he offered to carry the woman across the river. Nessus was familiar with the river and its ways, as he had crossed it many times, so Heracles agreed to let him carry his wife to the other side. Heracles decided to pass first, reaching the other side with ease. When he looked back, though, he saw Nessus carrying his wife away. Heracles shouted "Where are you taking her away to, you rapist? I am speaking to you, Nessus. Do not steal what is mine. However much you trust in your horsecraft, you will not escape." Despite Heracles’s comments, Nessus continued away with Deianeira. Heracles knew that the centaur and his bride would soon be out of sight, so he picked up his bow and fired an arrow through Nessus’s chest. When Nessus yanked the arrow out of his own flesh, the deadly Hydra poison on the arrow mixed with his blood and soaked his tunic. As he lay there dying, he muttered to himself, “I will not die without revenge” and he gave the tunic to Deianeira. At first she was reluctant to accept the tunic, but when Nessus told her that it would make Heracles love her forever she was happy to take it. 

After this event, Heracles and Deianeira completed their journey and settled down in their hometown. Their lives returned to normal as the tales of Heracles were circulating the cities and bringing him fame when the infamous Rumor decided to have a conversation with Deianeira. She told Deianeira that Heracles loved Iole, King Eurytus’s daughter that Heracles took as a concubine after defeating him. This saddened Deianeira and she began to think about what she could do to win her husband’s love back. She thought of many different actions, but of all the possible options she chose to give him the bloody shirt of Nessus as a gift, which Heracles accepted without any thought and put it on. Not long afterwards, Heracles began to feel very ill. He used all of his strength to combat the pain while he could, but that strength soon ran out. As he tried to rip off the bloody shirt, it pulled his skin away with it while his blood boiled and hissed. The fire burning inside of him caused so much pain that he even asked the Gods for death. The gods saw what was happening to him, and it is said that even they were fearful for earth’s champion. Jupiter knew that Heracles was his own son, so no flame could destroy him, but he could still feel the pain that they caused him. "What he has from me is immortal, deathless, and eternal" Jupiter said to the other gods and goddesses. "When his time on earth is done, I will accept him into the celestial regions. This tribute is paid to his great deeds. If there is anyone who is unhappy at his deification and wishes that this gift not be granted, he or she should know that it is given for merit and should approve it, though unwillingly". The others agreed that Heracles was fit to be a god, and so his body was consumed by the flames while the father of the gods carried the new body of Heracles upward into the sky. So in the end, it was Heracles whose suffering was caused by revenge, but his great deeds allowed him to overcome that suffering as he took his place among the gods.
(Painting of Heracles killing Nessus with an arrow. Source: Wikimedia)

Ovid's Metamorphoses III (Books 8-10) edited by Tony Kline. Mythology and Folklore Un-Textbook. Website: Mythology and Folklore Un-Textbook


Author’s Note: All of the information used for this story came from the Ovid's Metamorphoses unit in the Mythology and Folklore course Un-Textbook. I kept the majority of the plot as close to the original as I could, only adding a few minor details in my own writing. I chose to end my storybook with the story of Heracles and Nessus because it is all about revenge and it is also includes the downfall of Heracles. It works well because it gives the storybook a more complete feel than any other story involving Heracles would have. For my picture, I chose a painting that depicts Heracles shooting Nessus through the back with an arrow soaked in the poisonous Hydra blood. I chose this image because it shows Heracles taking revenge on Nessus, which also happens to be when Nessus stated that he would get revenge on Heracles. I did find a few other online resources that included the story of Heracles and Nessus, but they were slightly different than the one told by Ovid. I chose to use the Un-Textbook version because I was more familiar with it and I think it fit into my storybook better than any of the other versions did.