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THE STORY OF PHILOCTETES, OR THE BOW OF HERCULES.
Prince Philoctetes, who reigned in Methone, which is in the land of
Thessaly, sailed with the other Princes of Greece to make war against
the great city of Troy. For he also had been one of the suitors of Helen
the Fair, and had bound himself with a great oath that he would avenge
her and her husband, whomsoever she should choose, on any man that
should dare to do her wrong. Now Philoctetes had been companion to
Hercules in many of his labours, and also had been with him when he died
upon Mount Æta. For which cause Hercules gave him the bow and the arrows
which he bare, having received them at the first from Apollo. A very
mighty bow it was, shooting arrows so as none other could do, and the
arrows were sure dealers of death, for they had been dipped in the blood
of the great dragon of Lerna, and the wounds which they made no
physician might heal. But it chanced that the Prince, being on his
voyage to Troy, landed at the island of Chrysa, where there was an altar
of Athené, the goddess of the place, and, desiring to show the altar to
his companions, he approached it too nearly; whereupon the serpent that
guarded it lest it should be profaned, bit him in the foot. The wound
was very sore and could not be healed, but tormented him day and night
with grievous pains, making him groan and cry aloud. And when men were
troubled with his complainings, and also with the noisome stench of his
wound, the chiefs took counsel together, and it seemed good to the sons
of Atreus, King Agamemnon and King Menelaüs, who were the leaders of the
host, that he should be left alone on the island of Lemnos. This matter
they committed to Ulysses, who did according to their bidding. But when
the Greeks had laid siege to the city of Troy, nigh upon ten years, they
remembered Prince Philoctetes and how they had dealt with him. For now
the great Achilles was dead, having been slain by Prince Paris with an
arrow in the Scæan Gate, when he was ready to break into the city; and
the soothsayers affirmed that the Greeks should not have their wish upon
Troy, till they should bring against it the great archer to whom they
had done wrong. Then the chiefs took counsel together, and chose
Ulysses, who was crafty beyond all other men, to accomplish this matter,
and with him they sent Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, who excelled in
strength, even as his father had done.
Now when these two were landed upon the island, Ulysses led the way to
the place where in time past he had left Philoctetes. A cave it was in
the cliff, with two mouths to it, of which the one looked to the east
and the other to the west, so that in winter time a man might see the
sun and be warm, but in summer the wind blew through it, bringing
coolness and sleep, and a little below was a spring of fair water to
drink. Then said Ulysses to Neoptolemus, "Go and spy out the place, and
see whether or no the man be there."
And the Prince went up and looked into the cave, and found that it was
empty, but that there were signs of one who dwelt there, a bed of
leaves, and a cup of wood, very rudely fashioned, and pieces of wood
for kindling fires, and also, a very piteous sight, the rags wherewith
the sick man was wont to dress his wound. And when he had told what he
saw, Ulysses said, "That the man dwelleth here is manifest; nor can he
be far away, for how can one that is wounded travel far? Doubtless he is
gone to some place whither the birds resort to slay them, or, haply, to
find some herb wherewith to assuage his pain. But do thou set one who
will wait for his coming, for it would fare ill with me should he find
And when the watch had been set Ulysses said again, "I will tell what it
is needful for thee to say and do. Only thou must be bold, son of
Achilles, and that not only with thy hand, but in heart also, if what I
shall now unfold to thee shall seem new or strange. Hearken then: when
the man shall ask thee who thou art and whence thou comest, thou shalt
answer him that thou art the son of Achilles, and that thou hast left
the host of the Greeks, because they had done thee great wrong, for
that, having prayed thee to come as not being able to take the great
city of Troy without thee, yet they would not deliver to thee the arms
of thy father Achilles, but gave them to Ulysses. And here thou mayest
speak against me all kinds of evil, for such words will not trouble me,
but if thou accomplish not this thing thou wilt trouble the whole host
of the Greeks. For know that without this man's bow thou canst not take
the city of Troy; know also that thou only canst approach him without
peril, not being of the number of those who sailed with him at the
first. And if it please thee not to get the bow by stealth, for this
indeed thou must do--and I know thee to be one that loveth not to speak
falsely or to contrive deceit--yet bethink thee that victory is sweet.
Be thou bold to-day, and we will be righteous to-morrow."
Then the Prince made reply, "'Tis not in me, son of Laertes, to work by
craft and guile, neither was it in my father before me. I am ready to
carry off this man with a strong arm; and how, being a cripple, shall he
stand against us? but deceit I will not use. And though I should be
loath to fail thee in this our common enterprise, yet were this better
than to prevail by fraud."
Then said Ulysses, "And I, too, in my youth would do all things by the
hand and not by the tongue; but now I know that the tongue hath alone
And the Prince replied, "But thou biddest me speak the thing that is
"I bid thee prevail over Philoctetes by craft."
"But why may I not persuade him, or even constrain him by force?"
"To persuasion he will not hearken, and force thou mayest not use, for
he hath arrows that deal death without escape."
"But is it not a base thing for a man to lie?"
"Surely not, if a lie save him."
"Tell me what is the gain to me if this man come to Troy."
"Without this bow and these arrows Troy falleth not. For though it is
the pleasure of the Gods that thou take the city, yet canst not thou
take it without these, nor indeed these without thee."
And when the Prince had mused awhile, he said, "If this be so with the
arms, I must needs get them."
Then Ulysses said, "Do this, and thou shalt gain a double honour."
And the Prince said, "What meanest thou by thy 'double honour'? Tell
me, and I refuse no more."
"The praise of wisdom and of courage also."
"Be it so: I will do this deed, nor count it shame."
"'Tis well," said Ulysses, "and now I will despatch this watcher to the
ship, whom I will send again in pilot's disguise if thou desire, and it
seems needful. Also I myself will depart, and may Hermes, the god of
craft, and Athené, who ever is with me, cause us to prevail."
After a while Philoctetes came up the path to the cave very slowly, and
with many groans. And when he saw the strangers (for now some of the
ship's crew were with Prince Neoptolemus) he cried, "Who are ye that are
come to this inhospitable land? Greeks I know you to be by your garb;
but tell me more."
And when the Prince had told his name and lineage, and that he was
sailing from Troy, Philoctetes cried, "Sayest thou from Troy? Yet surely
thou didst not sail with us in the beginning."
"What?" cried the Prince. "Hadst thou then a share in this matter of
And Philoctetes made reply, "Knowest thou not whom thou seest? Hast thou
not heard the story of my sorrows?" And when he heard that the young man
knew nothing of these things: "Surely this is sorrow upon sorrow if no
report of my state hath come to the land of Greece, and I lie here
alone, and my disease groweth upon me, but my enemies laugh and keep
silence!" And then he told his name and fortunes, and how the Greeks had
left him on the shore while he slept, and how it was the tenth year of
his sojourning in the island. "For know," he said, "that it is without
haven or anchorage, and no man cometh hither of his free will; and if
any come unwilling, as indeed it doth sometimes chance, they speak soft
words to me and give me, haply, some meat; but when I make suit to them
that they carry me to my home, they will not. And this wrong the sons of
Atreus and Ulysses have worked against me; for which may the Gods who
dwell in Olympus make them equal recompense."
"And I," said the Prince, "am no lover of these men. For when Achilles
"How sayest thou? Is the son of Peleus dead?"
"Yea; but it was the hand of a God and not of a man that slew him."
"A mighty warrior slain by a mighty foe! But say on."
"Ulysses, and Phoenix who was my sire's foster-father, came in a ship
to fetch me; and when I was come to the camp they even greeted me
kindly, and sware that it was Achilles' self they saw, so like was I to
my sire. And, my mourning ended, I sought the sons of Atreus and asked
of them the arms of my father, but they made answer that they had given
them to Ulysses; and Ulysses, chancing to be there, affirmed that they
had done well, seeing that he had saved them from the enemy. And when I
could prevail nothing, I sailed away in great wrath."
"'Tis even," Philoctetes made reply, "as I should have judged of them.
But I marvel that the Greater Ajax endured to see such doings."
"Ah! but he was already dead."
"This is grievous news. And how fares old Nestor of Pylos?"
"But ill, for his eldest born, Antilochus, is dead."
"I could have spared any rather than these two, Ajax and Antilochus. But
Patroclus, where was he when thy father died?"
"He was already slain. For 'tis ever thus that war taketh the true man
and leaveth the false. But of these things I have had enough and more
than enough. Henceforth my island of Scyros, though it be rocky and
small, shall content me. And now, Prince Philoctetes, I go, for the wind
favours us, and we must take the occasion which the Gods give us."
And when Philoctetes knew that Neoptolemus was about to depart, he
besought him with many prayers that he would take him also on his ship;
for the voyage, he said, would not be of more than a single day. "Put
me," he said, "where thou wilt, in forecastle, or hold, or stern, and
set me on shore even as it may seem best to thee. Only take me from this
place." And the sailors also made entreaty to the Prince that he would
do so; and he, after a while, made as if he consented to their prayers.
But while Philoctetes was yet thanking him and his companions, there
came two men to the cave, of whom one was a sailor in the Prince's ship,
and the other a merchant. And the merchant said that he was sailing from
Troy to his home, and that chancing to come to the island, and knowing
that the Prince was there, he judged it well to tell him his news; 'twas
briefly this, that Phoenix and the sons of Theseus had sailed, having
orders from the sons of Atreus that they should bring the Prince back;
and also that Ulysses and Diomed were gone on another errand, even to
fetch some one of whom the rulers had need. And when the Prince would
know who he might be, the merchant bade him say who it was standing
near, and when he heard that it was Philoctetes, he cried, "Haste thee
to thy ship, son of Achilles, for this is the very man whom the two are
coming to fetch. Haply thou hast not heard what befell at Troy. There is
a certain Helenus, son of King Priam, and a famous soothsayer. Him
Ulysses, the man of craft, took a prisoner, and brought into the
assembly of Greeks; and the man prophesied to them that they should
never take the city of Troy, unless they should bring thither the
Prince Philoctetes from the island whereon he dwelt. And Ulysses said,'
If I bring not the man, whether willing or unwilling, then cut off my
And when Philoctetes heard this his anger was very great, and he became
yet more eager to depart. But first he must go into the cave and fetch
such things as he needed, herbs with which he was wont to soothe the
pains of his wounds, and all the furniture of his bow. And when he spake
of the bow, the Prince asked whether it was indeed the famous bow of
Hercules that he carried in his hand, and would fain, he said, touch it,
if only it were lawful so to do. And Philoctetes answered, "Yes, thou
shalt touch it and handle it, which, indeed, no other man hath ever
done, for thou hast done a good deed to me, and it was for a good deed
that I myself also received it."
But when they would have gone towards the ship, the pangs of his wound
came upon Philoctetes. And then at first he cried, saying, that it was
well with him; but at the last, he could endure no more, and cried to
the Prince that he should draw his sword and smite off the foot, nor
heed if he should slay him; only he would be rid of the pain. And then
he bade him take the bow and keep it for him while he slept, for that
sleep came ever upon him after these great pains. Only he must keep it
well, especially if those two, Ulysses and Diomed, should chance to come
in the meanwhile. And when the Prince had promised this, Philoctetes
gave him the bow, saying, "Take it, my son, and pray to the jealous Gods
that it bring not sorrow to thee as it hath brought sorrow to me, and to
him that was its master before me."
And after a while the sick man slept. And the Prince, with the sailors
that were his companions, watched by him the while.
But when the sailors would have had the Prince depart, seeing that he
had now the great bow and the arrows, for whose sake he had come, he
would not, for they would be of no avail, he said, without the archer
himself. And in no long space of time the sick man woke. Right glad was
he to see that the strangers had not departed, for, indeed, he had
scarce hoped that this might be. Therefore commending the young man
much for his courage and loving kindness, he would have him help him
straightway to the ship, that his pain having now ceased awhile, they
might be ready to depart without delay. So they went, but the Prince was
sorely troubled in his mind and cried, "Now what shall I do?" and "now
am I at my wits' end so that even words fail me." At which words,
indeed, Philoctetes was grieved, thinking that it repented the Prince of
his purpose, so that he said, "Doth the trouble of my disease then
hinder thee from taking me in thy ship?"
Then said the Prince, "All is trouble when a man leaveth his nature to
do things that are not fitting."
And Philoctetes made answer, "Nay, is not this a fitting thing, seeing
of what sire thou art the son, to help a brave man in his trouble?"
"Can I endure to be so base," said the Prince, "hiding that which I
should declare, and speaking the thing that is false?" And while
Philoctetes still doubted whether he repented not of his purpose, he
cried aloud, "I will hide the thing no longer. Thou shalt sail with me
"What sayest thou?"
"I say that thou shalt be delivered from these pains, and shalt prevail
together with me over the great city of Troy."
"What treachery is this? What hast thou done to me? Give me back the
"Nay, that I cannot do, for I am under authority, and must needs obey."
And when Philoctetes heard these words, he cried with a very piteous
voice, "What a marvel of wickedness thou art that hast done this thing.
Art thou not ashamed to work such wrong to a suppliant? Give me my bow,
for it is my life. But I speak in vain, for he goeth away and heedeth me
not. Hear me then, ye waters and cliffs, and ye beasts of the field, who
have been long time my wonted company, for I have none else to hearken
to me. Hear what the son of Achilles hath done to me. For he sware that
he would carry me to my home, and lo! he taketh me to Troy. And he gave
me the right hand of fellowship, and now he robbeth me of the bow, the
sacred bow of Hercules. Nay--for I will make trial of him once
more--give back this thing to me and be thy true self. What sayest
thou? Nothing? Then am I undone. O cavern of the rock wherein I have
dwelt, behold how desolate I am! Nevermore shall I slay with my arrows
bird of the air or beast of the field; but that which I hunted shall
pursue me, and that on which I fed shall devour me."
And the Prince was cut to the heart when he heard these words, hating
the thing which he had done, and cursing the day on which he had come
from Scyros to the plains of Troy. Then turning himself to the sailors,
he asked what he should do, and was even about to give back the bow,
when Ulysses, who was close at hand, watching what should be done, ran
forth crying that he should hold his hand.
Then said Philoctetes, "Is this Ulysses that I see? Then am I undone."
"'Tis even so: and as for what thou askest of this youth, that he should
give back the bow, he shall not do it; but rather thou shalt sail with
us to Troy; and if thou art not willing, these that stand by shall take
thee by force."
"Lord of fire, that rulest this land of Lemnos, hearest thou this?"
"Nay, 'tis Zeus that is master here, and Zeus hath commanded this deed."
"What lies are these? Thou makest the Gods false as thyself."
"Not so. They are true and I also. But this journey thou must take."
"Methinks I am a slave, and not freeborn, that thou talkest thus."
"Thou art peer to the bravest, and with them shalt take the great city
"Never; I had sooner cast myself down from this cliff."
Then Ulysses cried to the men that they should lay hold on him; and this
they straightway did. Then Philoctetes in many words reproached him with
all the wrongs that he had done; how at the first he had caused him to
be left on this island, and now had stolen his arms, not with his own
hands, indeed, but with craft and deceit, serving himself of a simple
youth, who knew not but to do as he was bidden. And he prayed to the
Gods that they would avenge him on all that had done him wrong, and
chiefly on this man Ulysses.
Then Ulysses made reply, "I can be all things as occasion serveth; such
as thou sayest, if need be; and yet no man more pious if the time call
for goodness and justice. One thing only I must needs do, and that is to
prevail. Yet here I will yield to thee. Thou wilt not go; so be it.
Loose him! We need thee not, having these arms of thine. Teucer is with
us, an archer not one whit less skilful than thou. And now I leave thee
to this Lemnos of thine. May be this bow shall bring me the honour which
When he had thus spoken he departed, and the Prince Neoptolemus with
him. Only the Prince gave permission to the sailors that they should
tarry with the sick man till it was time to make ready for the voyage.
Then Philoctetes bewailed himself, crying to his bow, "O my bow, my
beloved, that they have wrested from my hands, surely, if thou knowest
aught, thou grievest to see that the man who was the comrade of Hercules
will never hold thee more, but that base hands will grasp thee, mixing
thee with all manner of deceit." And then again he called to the birds
of the air and the beasts of the field, that they should not fly from
him any more, seeing that he had now no help against them, but should
come and avenge themselves upon him and devour him. And still the
sailors would have comforted him. Also they sought to persuade him that
he should listen to the chiefs; but he would not, crying that the
lightning should smite him before he would go to Troy and help them that
had done him such wrong. And at the last he cried that they should give
him a spear or a sword, that he might be rid of his life.
But while they thus talked together, the Prince came back like one that
is in haste, with Ulysses following him, who cried, "Wherefore turnest
"To undo what I did amiss."
"How sayest thou? When didst thou thus?"
"When I listened to thee, and used deceit to a brave man."
"What wilt thou then? (I fear me much what this fool may do.)"
"I will give back this bow and these arrows to him from whom I took them
"That shalt thou not do."
"But who shall hinder me?"
"That will I, and all the sons of the Greeks with me."
"This is idle talk for a wise man as thou art."
"Seest thou this sword whereto I lay my hand?"
"If thou talkest of swords, thou shalt see right soon that I also have a
"Well--I let thee alone. To the host will I tell this matter; they shall
"Now thou speakest well; be ever as wise; so shalt thou keep thy foot
out of trouble."
Then the Prince called to Philoctetes, who, being loosed by the sailors,
had hidden himself in the cave, and asked of him again whether he were
willing to sail with him, or were resolved to abide in the island.
And when the man had denied that he would go, and had begun again to
call down a curse on the sons of Atreus, and on Ulysses, and on the
Prince himself, then the Prince bade him stay his speech, and gave him
back the bow and the arrows.
And when Ulysses, seeing this deed, was very wroth, and threatened
vengeance, Philoctetes put an arrow to the string, and drew the bow to
the full, and would have shot at the man, but the Prince stayed his
And then again the Prince was urgent with him that he should cease from
his anger, and should sail with him to Troy, saying that there he should
be healed by the great physician, the son of Asclepius, and should also
win great glory by taking the city, and that right soon; for that the
soothsayer Helenus had declared that it was the will of the Gods that
the city of Troy should be taken that same summer.
But for all this he prevailed nothing; for Philoctetes was obstinate
that he would not go to Troy, nor do any pleasure to the chiefs who had
done him such wrong. But he would that the Prince should fulfil the
promise which he had made, that he would carry him in his ship to his
own country. And this the Prince said that he would do.
And now the two were about to depart to the ship, when lo! there
appeared in the air above their heads the great Hercules. Very wonderful
was he to behold, with bright raiment, and a great glory shining from
his face, even as the everlasting Gods beheld him with whom he dwelt in
the place of Olympus. And Hercules spake, saying--
"Go not yet, son of Poeas, before thou hearest what I shall say to
thee. For 'tis Hercules whom thou seest and hearest; and I am come from
my dwelling in heaven to declare to thee the will of Zeus. Know then
that even as I attained to this blessedness after much toil, so shall it
be with thee. For thou shalt go to the land of Troy; and first thou
shalt be healed of thy grievous sickness, and afterwards thou shalt slay
Paris with thine arrows, and shalt take the city of Troy, whereof thou
shalt carry the spoils to thy home, even to Poeas thy father, having
received from thy fellows the foremost prize for valour. But remember
that all that thou winnest in this warfare thou must take as an offering
to my tomb. And to thee, son of Achilles, I say; thou canst not take the
city of Troy without this man, nor he without thee. Whereof, as two
lions that consort together, guard ye each other. And I will send
Asclepius to heal him of his sickness; for it is the will of the Gods
that Troy should yet again be taken by my bow. And remember this, when
ye lay waste the land, to have the Gods and that which belongeth to them
Then said Philoctetes, "O my master, whom I have long desired to hear
and see, I will do as thou sayest."
And the Prince also gave his consent.
Then Philoctetes bade farewell to the island in these words--
"Home that hast watched with me, farewell!
And nymphs that haunt the springs or dwell
In seaward meadows, and the roar
Of waves that break upon the shore;
Where often, through the cavern's mouth,
The drifting of the rainy South
Hath coldly drenched me as I lay;
And Hermes' hill, whence many a day,
When anguish seized me, to my cry
Hoarse-sounding echo made reply.
O fountains of the land, and thou,
Pool of the Wolf, I leave you now;
Beyond all hope I leave thy strand,
O Lemnos, sea-encircled land!
Grant me with favouring winds to go
Whither the mighty Fates command,
And this dear company of friends,
And mastering Powers who shape our ends
To issues fairer than we know."
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