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Hercules, Deianira, Nessus
From Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book IX
There was absolutely no reason after the centaur had pawed her and
tried to mount her,
after Hercules waiting across the raging river for the creature to carry her
heard her cry out and launched an arrow soaked in the hydra’s incurable
venom into the monster,
that Deianira should have believed him, Nessus, horrible thing, as he
died but she did.
We see the end of the story: Deianira anguished, aghast, suicide-sword
in her hand;
Hercules’ blood hissing and seething like water in which molten rods are
plunged to anneal,
but how could a just-married girl hardly out of her father’s house have
envisioned all that,
and even conjecturing that Nessus was lying, plotting revenge, how
could she have been sure?
We see the centaur as cunning, malignant, a hybrid from the savage time
when emotion always was passion and passion was always unchecked by
commandment or conscience;
she sees only a man-horse, mortally hurt, suddenly harmless, eyes sud-
denly soft as a foal’s,
telling her, “Don’t be afraid, come closer, listen”: offering homage,
friendship, a favor.
In our age or scrutiny and dissection we know Deianira’s mind better
than she does herself:
we know the fortune of women as chattel and quarry, objects to be won
then shunted aside;
we understand the cost of repression, the repercussions of unsatisfied
rage and resentment,
but consciousness then was still new, Deianira inhabited hers like the
light from a fire.
Or might she have glimpsed with that mantic prescience the gods hadn’t
yet taken away
her hero a lifetime later on the way home with another king’s daughter,
callow, but lovely,
lovely enough to erase from Hercules’ scruples not only his vows but the
that tells you you don’t bring a rival into your aging wife’s weary, sorrow-
…No, more likely the centaur’s promise intrigued in itself: an infalli-
ble potion of love.
“Just gather the clots of blood from my wound: here, use my shirt, then
hide it away.
Though so exalted, so regal a woman as you never would need it, it
might still be of use:
whoever’s shoulders it touches, no matter when, will helplessly, hope-
lessly love you forever.”
See Hercules now in the shirt Deianira has sent him approaching the
fire of an altar,
the garment suddenly clinging, the hydra, his long-vanquished foe, alive
in its threads,
each thread a tentacle clutching at him, each chemical tentacle acid,
charring before his horrified eyes skin from muscle, muscle from tendon,
tendon from bone.
Now Deianira, back then, the viscous gouts of Nessus’ blood dyeing her
if she could imagine us watching her there in her myth, how would she
want us to see her?
Surely as symbol, a petal of sympathy caught in the perilous rift between
culture and chaos,
not as the nightmare she’d be, a corpse with a slash of tardy self-
knowledge deep in its side.
What Hercules sees as he pounds up the bank isn’t himself cremated
alive on his pyre,
shrieking as Jove his Olympian father extracts his immortal essence from
its agonized sheathing¾
he sees what’s before him: the woman, his bride, kneeling to the dark,
obsessively scrubbing away, he must think, the nocuous, mingled reek
of horse, hydra, human.
TheVigil, 1997Also available in Collected Works