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The wounded Philoctetes in Lemnos. 4619: Jean Germain Drouais 1763-1788: Philoctète dans l'île de Lemnos. Musée des beaux arts, Chartres.

"Only Philoctetes excelled me with the bow in the land of the Trojans, when we Achaeans shot." (Odysseus to the Phaeacians. Homer, Odyssey 8.220).

"Destruction shall have end when you are dead, the author of our bane." (Philoctetes to Paris. Quintus Smyrnaeus, The Fall of Troy 10.229).

Philoctetes, who is counted among the ARGONAUTS, among the SUITORS OF HELEN, among the ACHAEAN LEADERS, and among those who hid inside the WOODEN HORSE, is the archer who inherited the bow and arrows of Heracles 1. Because of a wound he did not participate in the Trojan War during several years, staying in the island of Lemnos. But he was fetched by the Achaeans, and having being cured of his wound, he killed Paris near the end of the war.

I. Death of Heracles 1 

Appearance of Philoctetes

Philoctetes comes into the story at the moment when Heracles 1 was about to die. It is said that Heracles 1 wished to perform a sacrifice in the sanctuary at Cenaeon, which is in Euboea, and for that purpose he sent his attendant Lichas 1 to ask his wife Deianira 1 for the shirt and robe that he used to wear in his rituals. But Lichas 1, having a very long tongue, told Deianira 1 about the love affair between her husband Heracles 1 and Iole, daughter of Eurytus 4, son of Melaneus 5, son of Apollo, all of them splendid archers, being as they were guided by this god. Eurytus 4 is also known for having owned the bow that later became Odysseus', and with which the SUITORS OF PENELOPE were massacred.

Deianira 1 uses love-charm

So when Deianira 1 learned from Lichas 1 about her husband's fancies, she thought the time had come to make use of the supposed love-charm, which the centaur Nessus 2 had given her, and she anointed with it the shirt of Heracles 1. Now, this centaur had been hired by Heracles 1 to ferry his wife across a river. But the CENTAURS being unreliable in these and other matters, Nessus 2 took the chance to violate the woman he was carrying on his back. However, when Heracles 1 noticed the trick, he shot the centaur with one of his arrows, which carried the poison of the Hydra, a monster killed by him years ago. The clever centaur then, feeling death coming upon him, made a charm and soaked it in his own poisoned blood, telling Deianira 1 to use it whenever she felt Heracles 1's love had diminished. And this ridiculous tale the naïve wife swallowed, keeping the charm to save some future day.

Lichas 1 victim of Heracles 1's temper

Now Lichas 1, of the long tongue and the short wits, brought with him the garments, and gave them to his master. And when Heracles 1 put them on, the toxic drug began immediately its destructive work, corroding his skin. Now Heracles 1, who did not become famous for his good temper, ended Lichas 1's life right away, hurling him down into the Euboean sea, where he turned into a rock, as they say. But Lichas 1's death could not provide a cure for him, and he disbanded his army and crossed to Trachis, which is in Thessaly. And while his friends were dispatched to Delphi in order to receive advice, Deianira 1, seeing that the sufferings of her husband only increased, and being ashamed of her fatal error, hanged herself. The oracle at Delphi replied that Heracles 1 should be taken with all his arms to Mount Oeta, which is in Trachinian territory between Thessaly and Aetolia, where a huge pyre should be built near him, leaving all other arrangements to Zeus.

Philoctetes helps Heracles 1 to die

So they did and Heracles 1, having abandoned all hope, ascended the pyre. And resting there, he asked every one who passed by or came up to see him, to put torch to the pyre. But no one wished to obey him, until Philoctetes came by. And for having the disposition to comply with his wishes, Philoctetes received as a gift the bow and arrows of Heracles 1, and then lighted the pyre.

II. Philoctetes' subsequent deeds 

Philoctetes acquires the bow and arrows

That is how Philoctetes came into the story, and he not only gained Fame for helping a famous man to die, but he also acquired the weapons of the same man, who, as they say, was immediately after his death received in heaven, not leaving behind him a single bone. For Iolaus 1, his charioteer, came to gather them when the pyre was wholly consumed, and found nothing. Yet others have said that it was not Philoctetes who set a light to the pyre, but his father Poeas.


Years after the death of Heracles 1, the seducer Paris came to Sparta and abducted, with or without her consent, Queen Helen, taking her to Troy. And because of this, a powerful fleet and army gathered in Aulis in order to sail against that city and claim Helen back. And among the ACHAEAN LEADERS who joined the coalition and fought in the Trojan War, was Philoctetes, lord of Olizon, Meliboea, and other Thessalian places. For he, as many other leaders, had sworn The Oath of Tyndareus (see SUITORS OF HELEN). Philoctetes contributed with seven warships to the alliance, but he did not reach Troy until much later, being replaced as chief by Medon 1, son of Oileus 1 and Rhene 1, and therefore brother of Ajax 2, according to some reports. Medon 1 died in the war, killed by Aeneas.

4905: Hermann Wilhelm Bissen 1798-1868: The wounded Philoctetes, 1855. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.

Trouble in Tenedos

After putting to sea from Aulis, the Achaean army came to the island of Tenedos, which is off the coast of the Troad. There a number of unpleasant things took place. For Achilles killed King Tenes, disregarding his own mother Thetis, who had warned him not to kill that king, or otherwise he would himself die by the hand of Apollo, who allegedly was Tenes' father. So when Achilles, after losing his temper, had sent the king to another world, the Achaeans found it necessary to offer a sacrifice to Apollo. And while they were offering to the god, a water-snake came out from the altar and bit Philoctetes. Others have said that this was the tutelary snake of the nymph Chryse 2, who punished Philoctetes for having profaned the soil of the shrine, and this happened, they say, not in Tenedos but in the small island of Chryse, off the coast of the Troad, which was later overwhelmed by the waves, disappearing in the depths. Still others affirm that the snake struck Philoctetes in the island of Lemnos, and that it was Hera who sent it against him, the reason being that Philoctetes alone had dared to build the funeral pyre of Heracles 1, whom Hera disliked for being the living proof of her husband's love affair with Alcmena. In any case, the wound caused by the snake proved to be incurable, and the stench which it produced was so difficult to endure that the commander in chief of the army, Agamemnon, decided to get rid of Philoctetes, putting him ashore in the island of Lemnos, where the fleet came after leaving Tenedos.

Philoctetes abandoned

This is how Philoctetes, instead of fighting at Troy, spent many years in Lemnos, using the deadly weapon he had received from Heracles 1, not to slay Trojans but to shoot birds in the wilderness which he turned into meals in order to survive. For the army abandoned him, setting out but a few rags, as though for a beggar, and leaving very little food. As he later recalls:

"For my stomach's needs this bow provided, bringing down doves on the wing. And whatever my string-sped arrow might strike, in pain I would crawl to it myself, dragging my wretched foot behind me." (Philoctetes to Neoptolemus. Sophocles, Philoctetes 290).

Others say, however, that the Lemnian shepherd Iphimachus, son of Dolops 3, took care of the sick Philoctetes.

The need for his bow

As time went by, the difficulties of the Achaeans in the war were at least as hard as the solitude of Philoctetes. For many years had passed and Troy could not be taken. So in the tenth year, the seer Calchas declared that the city would be taken if the Achaeans had the bow and arrows of Heracles 1 fighting on their side. Others have said that this prophecy was uttered by the Trojan seer Helenus 1 when he was captured by Odysseus. When what had been prophesied was known to all, the Achaeans sent Odysseus and Diomedes 2 (or as some say Neoptolemus instead of Diomedes 2) to fetch the bow, which they did, either through persuasion or by force. And when the embassy (some have said it was just Diomedes 2) had in some way or another accomplished its mission, Philoctetes, following the bow and the arrows, joined the fight at Troy, after being healed either by Podalirius or by Machaon, both sons of Asclepius.

Those killed by Philoctetes

Some say that Philoctetes shot Acamas 3, son of the Trojan Elder Antenor 1, but others have said that Acamas 3 was killed by Meriones, the squire of King Idomeneus 1 of Crete. One Admetus 2 is also reported to have been shot by Philoctetes, and the same is said of the Trojan warriors Deioneus 3, Peirasus 2, and Medon 4, another son of Antenor 1. But his greatest achievement in the war was the shooting of Paris, who died a painful death because of Philoctetes' poisoned arrow.

Last adventures

After the war, Philoctetes was among those who were dispersed by the naval disaster at cape Caphareus (see Map: The Returns). He then reached home at Meliboea in northern Hellas, but having been expelled by a sedition, he emigrated to Campania in Italy. There he fought the Lucanians, settling finally in Crimissa near Croton and Thurium, in the southern part of the country, where he founded a sanctuary of Apollo, to whom he dedicated his famous bow. And the Lucanians, they say, were of the same race as the Samnites, and were later conquered by Rome. The death of Philoctetes has not been reported.



Poeas & Demonassa 2

Poeas is known for having kindled the pyre of Heracles 1. For that service he received his bow. Poeas, who some count among the ARGONAUTS, is son of Thaumacus. Demonassa 2 is otherwise unknown.

Related sections

Apd.3.10.8; Apd.Ep.3.14, 3.27, 5.8-9, 6.15; CYP.1; Dio.4.38.4; Hom.Il.2.720; Hyg.Fab.14, 36, 97, 102; LI.1; Ov.Met.9.233; Pau.8.33.4; Pin.Pyth.1.51ff.; QS.8.487, 12.314ff.; Soph.Phi. passim; Val.1.391; Stra.6.1.3.