Philoctetes

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Philoctetes, wounded, is abandoned by the Greek expedition en route to Troy, detail of an Attic red-figure stamnos ca. 460 BC (Musée du Louvre)
Coin, (tetrachalkon) of Homolium, 350 BC, depicting Philoktetes wearing conical pilos. Reverse: Coiled serpent, behind head, small bunch of grapes, ΟΜΟΛΙΕΩΝ "of Homolians"

Philoctetes (Greek: Φιλοκτήτης, Philoctētēs; English pronunciation: /ˌfɪləkˈttz/, stressed on the third syllable, -tet-[1]), or Philocthetes, was, according to Greek mythology, the son of King Poeas of Meliboea in Thessaly. He was a Greek hero, famed as an archer, and was a participant in the Trojan War. He was the subject of at least two plays by Sophocles, one of which is named after him, and one each by both Aeschylus and Euripides. However, only one Sophoclean play survives—Aeschylus' Philoctetes, Euripides' Philoctetes and Sophocles' Philoctetes at Troy are all lost except for some fragments. He is also mentioned in Homer's Iliad; Book 2 describes his exile on the island of Lemnos, his wound by snake-bite, and his eventual recall by the Greeks. The recall of Philoctetes is told in the lost epic Little Iliad, where his retrieval was accomplished by Diomedes.[2] Philoctetes killed three men at Troy.[3]

The stories[edit]

Philoctetes was the son of King Poeas of the city of Meliboea in Thessaly. He was considered one of the lovers of the hero Heracles, and when Heracles wore the shirt of Nessus and built his funeral pyre, no one would light it for him except for Philoctetes or in other versions his father Poeas. This gained him the favor of the newly deified Heracles. Because of this, Philoctetes or Poeas is given Heracles' bow and poisoned arrows.

Philoctetes was one of the many eligible Greeks who competed for the hand of Helen, the Spartan princess; according to legend, she was the most beautiful woman in the world. As such, he was required to participate in the conflict to reclaim her for Menelaus in the Trojan War. Philoctetes was stranded on the Island of Lemnos by the Greeks on the way to Troy. There are at least four separate tales about what happened to strand Philoctetes on his journey to Troy, but all indicate that he received a wound on his foot that festered and had a terrible smell. One version holds that Philoctetes was bitten by a snake that Hera sent to molest him as punishment for his or his father's service to Heracles. Another tradition says that the Greeks forced Philoctetes to show them where Heracles's ashes were deposited. Philoctetes would not break his oath by speech, so he went to the spot and placed his foot upon the site. Immediately, he was injured in the foot that touched the soil over the ashes. Yet another tradition has it that when the Achaeans, en route to Troy at the beginning of the war, came to the island of Tenedos, Achilles angered Apollo by killing King Tenes, allegedly the god's son. When, in expiation, the Achaeans offered a sacrifice to Apollo, a snake came out from the altar and bit Philoctetes. Finally, it is said that Philoctetes received his terrible wound on the island of Chryse, when he unknowingly trespassed into the shrine of the nymph after whom the island was named (this is the version in the extant play by Sophocles). A modern interpretation of the cause of his wound is that he was scratched by a poisoned arrow. Commonly tips of arrows were poisoned with a combination of fermented viper venom, blood or plasma, and feces. Even a scratch would result in death, sometimes drawn out. A person who survives would do so with a festering wound.[4]

Regardless of the cause of the wound, Philoctetes was exiled by the Greeks and was angry at the treatment he received from Odysseus, King of Ithaca, who had advised the Atreidae to strand him. Medôn took control of Philoctetes' men, and Philoctetes himself remained on Lemnos, alone, for ten years.

Marble Slab with the Recall of Philoctetes - Archeological Museum of Brauron

Helenus, the prophetic son of King Priam of Troy, was forced to reveal, under torture, that one of the conditions of the Greeks' winning the war was that they needed the bow and arrows of Heracles. Upon hearing this, Odysseus and a group of men (usually including Diomedes) rushed back to Lemnos to recover Heracles' weapons. (As Sophocles writes it in his play named Philoctetes, Odysseus is accompanied by Neoptolemus, Achilles' son, also known as Pyrrhus. Other versions of the myth don't include Neoptolemus.) Surprised to find the archer alive, the Greeks balked on what to do next. Odysseus tricked the weaponry away from Philoctetes, but Diomedes refused to take the weapons without the man. Heracles, who had become a god many years earlier, came down from Olympus and told Philoctetes to go and that he would be healed by the son of Asclepius and win great honor as a hero of the Achaean army. Once back in military company outside Troy, they employed either Machaon the surgeon (who may have been killed by Eurypylus of Mysia, son of Telephus, depending on the account) or more likely Podalirius the physician, both sons of the immortal physician Asclepius, to heal his wound permanently. Philoctetes challenged and would have killed Paris, son of Priam, in single combat were it not for the debates over future Greek strategy. In one telling it was Philoctetes who killed Paris, he fired four times, the first arrow went wide, the second struck his bow hand, the third hit him in the right eye, the fourth hit him in the heel, there was no need of a fifth shot. Philoctetes sided with Neoptolemus about continuing to try to storm the city. They were the only two to think so because they had not had the war-weariness of the prior ten years. Afterward, Philoctetes was among those chosen to hide inside the Trojan Horse, and during the sack of the city he killed many famed Trojans.

Modern depictions[edit]

Drama[edit]

  • The legend of Philoctetes was used by André Gide in his play Philoctète.
  • George Maxim Ross adapted the legend in his play Philoktetes, which was written in the 1950s and performed off Broadway at One Sheridan Square.
  • The East German postmodern dramatist Heiner Müller produced a successful adaptation of Sophocles' play in 1968 in Munich. It became one of his most-performed plays.
  • Philoctetes appears in Seamus Heaney's play The Cure at Troy, a "version" of Sophocles' Philoctetes.
  • John Jesurun wrote the Philoktetes-variations in 1993 on Ron Vawter's request, it was the actor's last piece of work, considered his artistic testament, being performed while the actor was dying of AIDS. The play has consequently also become a metaphor for AIDS, with Philoktetes as a plagued outcast.

Poetry[edit]

  • The myth of Philoctetes is the inspiration for William Wordsworth's sonnet "When Philoctetes in the Lemnian Isle," though here the thematic focus is not the Greek warrior's magical bow or gruesome injury, but his abandonment. The poem is about the companionship and solace provided by Nature when all human society has been withdrawn.
  • In Richard Aldington's "The Eaten Heart" (1929) the rescue of Philoctetes by Neoptolemus becomes a metaphor for the loneliness of the human soul and its release when it experiences love for another human being.
  • Philoctetes being retrieved by Neoptolemus is the subject of the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos' long poem "Philoctetes" (1963–1965), a monologue in which the youth Neoptolemus convinces Philoctetes to follow him back to the war that will be won by the ruse of the Trojan Horse. Disguise and seeming are the subject of the poem:

"No one will comprehend your freedom's unmarred joy
or be frightened by it ever. The mask of action, /
which I have brought you hidden in my pack, will conceal
your remote, transparent face. Put it on. Let's be going."
{Translated by Peter Bien)

  • Philoctetes appears as a character in two Michael Ondaatje poems, entitled "The Goodnight" and "Philoctetes On The Island." Both appear in his 1979 book, There's a trick with a knife I'm learning to do.
  • Derek Walcott's modern Caribbean epic, Omeros, includes a character named Philoctete; he receives a wound and clearly alludes to the Greek narrative.
  • Philoctetes is mentioned in Poem VIII of "21 Love Poems" by Adrienne Rich:

"I can see myself years back at Sunion,
hurting with an infectedfoot, Philoctetes
in woman's form, limping the long path,
lying on a headland over the dark sea,
looking down the red rocks to where a soundless curl
of white told me a wave had struck,
imagining the pull of that water from that height,
knowing deliberate suicide wasn't my metier,
yet all the time nursing, measuring that wound."

  • Chapter 11 of Ursula Krechel's long poem Stimmen aus dem harten Kern (2005) focuses on Philoctetes. (Bilingual edition Voices from the Bitter Core, trans. Amy Kepple Strawser 2010.)

Novels[edit]

  • In the 1998 novel Sirena by Donna Jo Napoli, Philoctetes is included as a main character. The book's narrator and main character, Sirena, is a Siren who has abandoned her sisters because she refuses to kill men with her songs, though she needs the love of a man to gain immortality. She has taken the island of Lemnos for her home when Philoctetes is marooned there. She cares for him and tends to his wounds, caused by a serpent of Hera, and they fall in love. However, Sirena is left uncertain whether his love is real or the result of him accidentally hearing her sing. The Greeks return to the island when they realize that they need Heracles' weapons. In the novel it is Achilles's son, Neoptolemus, who refuses to leave Philoctetes behind. Sirena is given the task to convince Philoctetes to go, as she is the only one who can do so. She discovers his love is true when he reveals he had fallen in love with her long before he heard her sing. Deciding it is for the best, she convinces him to return to humanity. He leaves a single arrow with Sirena, as a symbol of his love for her, and returns to Greece.
  • Mark Merlis features a version of Philoctetes in his 1998 AIDS-themed novel An Arrow's Flight.
  • Philoctetes makes several appearances in the 2007 French novel/collection of linked short stories La chaussure sur le toit by Vincent Delecroix. In "L'élément tragique", Philoctète is a character who has been abandoned with a weapon and a festering leg wound on the roof of Parisian apartment building; a Ulysse and a young Néoptolème are also part of the story. In another related story,"Caractère de chien", a dog narrates the story of his master, a writer so obsessed with the story of Philoctéte and overcome by the notion of abandonment that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Cinema[edit]

Television[edit]

  • The Torchwood episode "Greeks Bearing Gifts" has the alien serial-killer Mary (played by Daniella Denby-Ashe) refer to herself as Philoctetes, in reference to his exile on Lemnos. She was transported to Earth for crimes which she described as "political" but her testimony is probably untrustworthy. Unlike classical Philoctetes, she is not recalled to her home but, rather, consigned by Captain Jack to the center of the Sun.

Essays[edit]

  • Sophocles' play forms the basis of an essay by Edmund Wilson The Wound and the Bow, in the book of the same name.

Modern art[edit]

Painting[edit]

Sculpture[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ John C. Wells, Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, 3rd edition (2008), entry Philoctetes.
  2. ^ Proklos. p. 3.2.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  3. ^ Hyginus, Fabulae 114.
  4. ^ Mayor, Adrienne (2008). Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs: Biological & Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World.. New York: The Overlook Press. ISBN 1-58567-348-X. Retrieved December 17, 2012. 
  5. ^ The Mill on the Floss, Book Second, Chapter 6