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Hercules and Deianira circa 1475–80.

An Unfortunate Fate and Nasty Gods: The Tragic Story of Mythical Deianira and Her Lover Hercules

Deianira became a famous heroine after the release of the TV show ''Hercules,'' with Kevin Sorbo, and the Disney movie about the mythical hero. Her real story, although still juicy, isn't the same Harlequin-style romantic tale as the story we know from these sources. The legendary Deianira was originally described as a different type of character than what is presented in pop culture.

Deianira and Hercules (or Heracles) are one of the most popular couples to appear in ancient mythology. The story of their life survived in ancient manuscripts among the tales of gods and heroes. Similar to her famous husband, Deianira was depicted in art as an important character in mythology. However, her story also has different interpretations. Can we give faith to mythology and search for the truth in legends? It is a difficult question. Sadly, the origins of most myths have been lost over time. Mythical stories may contain a dose of truth; it is even possible that real stories inspired them, however, most researchers agree that myths are mostly a mixture of imagination and information that came from real life. Did Deianira exist? It seems unlikely, but she was an important figure in ancient tales.

‘Deianira’ by Evelyn De Morgan.

‘Deianira’ by Evelyn De Morgan. ( Public Domain )

The Girl Who Conquered Hercules’ Heart

The biggest problem in identifying this character is the suspicion that more than one Deianira appears in ancient Greek mythology. The one who is not the subject of this article was an Amazon, murdered by Hercules. He killed her during the quest for the girdle of Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons and the daughter of Ares.

The Deianira we are interested in here was part of a blue-blooded family and grew up in the royal court. Her mother was Althaea, a legendary daughter of King Thestius and Eurythemis. Althaea was a wife of the king of Calydon, Oeneaus. The couple had five sons and two daughters. One of them was Deianira.

Heracles, Deianira, and Nessus, black-figure hydria, 575-550 BC, Louvre (E 803).

Heracles, Deianira, and Nessus, black-figure hydria, 575-550 BC, Louvre (E 803). ( Public Domain )

Deianira was beautiful and intelligent. Her origins brought her much interest from men, both mortal and immortal. It is interesting that the mythical Fates appeared in many different versions of Althaea’s story. It seems that they were interested in the lives of all of her children. Deianira's life could have been typical for a royal girl, but the Fates wrote her a different destiny.

The Legendary Couple Meets

How did Deianira and Hercules meet? It is known that Deianira wasn't very interested in marriage before she met Hercules. According to a description by Joshua J. Mark:

''Once Hercules had completed his labors he then had further adventures, and whether he thought of Meleager and his request is never mentioned. There were certainly many other pressing events to occupy his mind. He killed Prince Iphitus of Oechalia and, to expiate this sin, sold himself as a slave to Queen Omphale who made him dress in women's clothes and do needlework with the ladies of the court. Once Omphale set him free, he then embarked on further adventures such as the conquest of Troy, the war with the Titans, and a mission of revenge against King Augeias whom he felt had cheated him earlier by backing out of an agreement they had made. Some years passed before Hercules came to Calydon and met Deianira.''

Heracles and Omphale, Roman fresco, Pompeian Fourth Style.

Heracles and Omphale, Roman fresco, Pompeian Fourth Style. ( Stefano Bolognini )

Theirs was a romantic love, full of passion and chemistry. But before Deianira married Hercules, she almost married the river god Achelous. According to the myth, Hercules didn’t conquer her with romance. The legend says that he raped Deianira, but later he promised her marriage. However, before they could be wed he had to leave – though Hercules promised he’d return. In the meantime, the centaur Eurytion asked Deianira’s father to marry her. But Hercules came back in time and Deianira became his wife.

The Suicidal Widow

The tragedy started perhaps among the clouds of Olympus where gods without any remorse were creating everyone’s fate. It began when the wild centaur Nessus kidnapped Deianira. Different variations of the story say that he not only captured her but also raped her. Hercules followed Nessus immediately, promising revenge. However, his primary need was rescuing his beloved. Hercules defeated the kidnapper.

Nessus and Deianira.

Nessus and Deianira. ( Public Domain )

When Nessus was dying, he suggested Deianira take a drop of his blood and make a potion mixing it with olive oil. According to his words, it was a magic potion that would stop Hercules from being interested in any other woman. Before the centaur closed eyes forever, he told her to put the potion on Hercules’ cloth. Deianira was naive enough to believe him and followed his words. However, she didn't know that the blood of a centaur was toxic and Hercules died after much suffering.

Deïaneira and Nessus by Vlahos Vaggelis.

Deïaneira and Nessus by Vlahos Vaggelis. ( CC BY 3.0 )

The name Deianira, also known as Deianeira or Dejanira, means ''man-destroyer'' or ''destroyer of her husband''. Classical mythology is full of fate and destinies written by the gods. In the case of Hercules and Deianira they were very cruel. Her naive personality destroyed her life. Deianira couldn't live without her husband, so she committed suicide. Some versions of the story describe her hanging herself; others mention her death by sword.

A Prettier Side in Pop Culture

Now, Deianira is presented in movies and books as a lovely woman. The Disney movie version of Deianira allowed people all around the world to discover her story. Was she truly a destroyer of men? I don't think so.

Hercules and Deianira.

Hercules and Deianira. ( Public Domain )

An unfortunate fate destroyed her life and led Deianira to suicide. Her story is another example of cruel games created by the deities. Moreover, the story of Deianira and Hercules shows that life can quickly turn upside down.

Top image: Hercules and Deianira circa 1475–80. Source: ( Public Domain )

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

Deianira, available at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/Herakles/deianira.html

Deianira by Joshua J. Mark, available at: http://www.ancient.eu/Deianira/

Deianira in Greek Mythology, available at: http://www.greeklegendsandmyths.com/deianira.html

Mythology - The Story of Hercules, Deianira, and Nessus, available at: http://www.mythography.com/myth/mythology-story-of-hercules-deianira-and-nessus

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