The Deianeira Tradition

For Deianeira see also 94 (importantly).

Diodorus 4.36 and 38 Greek

76 Deianeira kills Heracles with a bogus love potion 36. While he was making his way Heracles arrived at the river Evenus and came across the centaur Nessus ferrying people across the river for a fee. He ferried Deianeira across the river first, fell in love with her because of her beauty, and so tried to rape her. But she shouted out to her husband and Heracles shot the centaur. Nessus, in the midst of congress and dying almost at once because of the severity of the blow, told Deianeira that he would give her a love potion [philtron] to prevent Heracles from desiring sex with any other women. He urged her to take the semen that he had dropped on the ground, blend it into olive oil and the blood that dripped from the arrow, and smear it over Heracles' tunic. Nessus expired at once after giving this advice to Deianeira. She followed his instructions, collected up his semen and put it in a jar, dipped the arrow into it, and kept the jar secret from Heracles. He crossed the river.

38. Heracles planned to make sacrifice at Cenaeum. He sent his servant Lichas to his wife Deianeira in Trachis. He had been entrusted with the order to fetch the tunic and cloak he usually wore for sacrifices. Deianeira learned from Lichas of Heracles's love for Iole. She wished to have more love herself, so she smeared the tunic with the love potion [philtron] given her by the centaur, to his destruction. In ignorance of this Lichas took the clothing to the sacrifice. Heracles put on the smeared tunic. The effect of the corrupting drug was gradual, but he met with great disaster. For the arrow had been armed with the adder's poison. And so as the tunic destroyed his body's flesh with its heat Heracles, in the utmost pain, killed his servant Lichas, disbanded his army, and returned to Trachis. Ever more oppressed by the sickness, Heracles sent Licymnius and Iolaus to Delphi to ask Apollo what he should do about it. But Deianeira was overwhelmed by the magnitude of Heracles' disaster and, feeling guilty about it, ended her life with a noose.

DIODORUS GIVES A SUMMARY ACCOUNT OF the myth of Deianeira, Heracles, and Nessus (see Sophocles's dramatic take on this tale in Trachiniae, especially 531-87, 672-707, 750-93). This myth constitutes what may be considered an archetype for a recurring magical narrative type in the Greek world in which a woman attempting to use a love potion to retain the affection of a man accidentally poisons him instead. Further instances of this narrative type are laid out in 77-81 and 114. The erotic force of semen is self-evident.

77 Daughters of Deianeira (1): The wicked stepmother and the concubine of Philoneos

430-11 B.C. Antiphon 1.14-20 Greek

14. Our house had an upper story, and Philoneos used to occupy it when he was in town; a fine and upstanding man, and a friend of our father. Philoneos had a concubine, whom he was planning to station in a brothel. So my brother's mother made a friend of her. 15. When she learned of how she was about to be maltreated by Philoneos, she sent for her. When she came, she told her that she herself was also maltreated by our father. She told her that if she was willing to follow her instructions, she had the wherewithal to make Philoneos love her and make my father love herself. Her part, she said, had been the making of this discovery; the concubine's part was to do the job. 16. So she asked the concubine if she was willing to do what she said, and she immediately promised to do so, I believe. Later on Philoneos happened to have a sacrifice to perform to Household Zeus. At the time my father was about to sail for Naxos. Philoneos thought it a nice idea to join my father on the journey and escort him as far as Piraeus, since he was his friend, offer sacrifice with him, and feast him. 17. Now Philoneos's concubine came with us for the sacrifice. When they had come to Piraeus, naturally, they made the sacrifice. After the sacrifice, this person deliberated as to how she was to give them the drug [pharmakon], whether, that is, before or after dinner. She decided as a result of her deliberations that it was better to give it to them after dinner, and in this she was also following the instructions of this "Clytemnestra." 18. To give you all the other details about the dinner would require an account too long for me to relate and for you to listen to. But in the remainder of my account I will try to explain to you how the drug was administered, as briefly as I can. When they had finished their meal, the one of them sacrificing to Household Zeus and entertaining the other, and this other one planning to sail and dining with his friend, they made libations and put incense on the altar, for their own safety. 19. Philoneos's concubine poured the wine into their cups for the libation as they made prayers that were destined not to be accomplished, gentlemen, and she poured in the drug. At this point she thought she was doing something clever, and gave more of it to Philoneos, no doubt on the assumption that if she gave him more, Philoneos would love her more. For she did not yet know that she was being deceived by my stepmother, and only realized it when she was already in the midst of the horror. She poured less of the drug for my father. 20. When they had poured their libation, they took hold of their own killer and gulped down their final drink. Philoneos died at once and without delay, but our father succumbed to a sickness, from which he eventually died twenty days later. For this the woman that carried out the instructions and physically did the deed got the punishment she deserved, although she was not at all responsible: she was tortured on the wheel and handed over to the public executioner. But she that was responsible and that actually dreamed up the crime will get her punishment, with the gods' will and yours.

ANTIPHON'S FORENSIC SPEECH APPEARS TO HAVE been a fictional one designed for show purposes. This is indicated by (among other things) the correspondence of the events narrated with the Deianeira myth, and by the traditional folktale role assigned to the stepmother. The mythical atmosphere is enhanced by the allusion to the unnamed stepmother as ""Clytemnestra"; she had famously butchered her husband, as told in Aeschylus's Agamemnon. Evidently the concubine was unfamiliar with the notion that love potions were dilute poisons (Faraone 1999a), or she would not have been tempted to increase its effectiveness through an extra large dose. While the speaker is somewhat sympathetic toward the concubine, he does not doubt that she was properly executed for her actions; see 78-9.

78 Daughters of Deianeira (2): "Deianeiras" should They say that a woman once gave some-be forgiven one a love potion [philtron] to drink, and that the man was consequently killed ii B.C. by it. So she was tried before the Areopagus court. But they let her off precisely

Pseudo-Aristotle Magna because she had not acted with malice aforethought. For she had given the Moralia 1188b potion out of love, but failed in her project. Therefore, the killing was judged

Greek involuntary, because she had given him the potion without the intention of killing him.

THE COURT THAT SUPPOSEDLY HEARD THIS charge, the Areopagus in Athens, would have been the court that would have heard the charges against Philo-neos's concubine, 77, but here it is said to have fallen the other way.

79 Daughters of Deianeira (3): "Deianeiras" should not be forgiven iv A.D.

St. Basil of Caesarea Letters 188.8


However, even if someone concocts a magical drug [periergon pharmakon] for some other purpose, but kills with it, we consider such a deed to be intentional. For women are always doing this. They try to induce men to love them with their incantations [epaoidai] and binding spells [katadesmoi] and they give them drugs that defy their intentions. The deeds of such killers do not match their purpose. Even so, they are classified in the category of premeditated murderers because of the magical [periergon] and forbidden nature of their practice. Similarly, women who supply abortifacient drugs are also murderesses, as are those that take the destructive, child-killing drugs from them. So much for this subject.

Basil TAKES the SEVERE VIEW IN the "Deianeira" debate, which had evidently become a commonplace. For binding spells see 168-84, 197-213; for aborti-facients see 82, 233-4.

80 Daughters of Deianeira (4): The principle that love potions destroy the mind i/ii A.D.

Plutarch Advice to Bride and Groom, Moralia 139a


If one goes fishing with poison, one quickly captures and easily lands the fish, but the poison renders the fish inedible and disgusting. In the same way those women who devise love potions [philtra] and sorceries [goeteiai] against their husbands and control them through pleasure share their lives with bewildered, mindless, and ruined men. For the men enchanted by Circe were of no benefit to her, nor did she use them for anything after transforming them into pigs and asses, but she cherished a surpassing love for Odysseus, who retained his mind and shared her life in prudent fashion.

THE NOTION THAT WOMEN USED LOVE potions of deleterious effect on their men in the context of existing relationships was evidently widespread. The Circe analogy implies that her animal transformations were the results of failed love potions; this is not something that emerges easily from the Homeric text, 72. It is of interest that women's magical activity should be embraced under the term goeteia.

81 Daughters of Deianeira (5): Caesonia turns her husband the emperor Caligula, mad with a love potion

Early ii A.D. Suetonius Caligula 50 Latin

[Caligula] had himself realized that his mind was not very healthy and from time to time considered going on retreat to clear his brain. He is believed to have been given a love potion by his wife Caesonia, but it turned him mad. He was tormented by sleeplessness. He could not get more than three hours' rest in a night, and even then these would be troubled, as he was terrorized by outlandish apparitions. For example, he once imagined that he was holding conversation with a vision of the sea.

AS WITH PLUTARCH'S GENERALIZATION, A LOVE potion administered to an existing partner turns him mad, here via sleeplessness. Love spells did indeed often seek to work by torturing their victims with sleeplessness: see 200, 207, 209, 211. Further passages of interest on the "daughters of Deianeira" theme include: Polyaenus Stategemata 8.38, Plutarch Moralia 256c, and Quintilian Institutio 9.2.105.

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