Philoctetes (Greek: Φιλοκτήτης, Philoktētēs; English
pronunciation: /ˌfɪləkˈtiːtiːz/, stressed on the third syllable,
-tet-), or Philocthetes, according to Greek mythology, was the son
Meliboea in Thessaly. He was a Greek hero, famed as
an archer, and a participant in the Trojan War.
Philoctetes was the subject of four different plays of ancient Greece,
each written by one of the three major Greek tragedians. Of the four
Philoctetes is the only one that has survived.
Philoctetes at Troy, Aeschylus'
Philoctetes and Euripides'
Philoctetes have all been lost, with the exception of some fragments.
Philoctetes is also mentioned in Homer's Iliad, Book 2, which
describes his exile on the island of Lemnos, his being wounded 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.
Philoctetes killed three men at
1 The stories
2 Modern depictions
2.7 Modern art
3 See also
Philoctetes on the Island of Lemnos, by Guillaume Guillon-Lethière.
Philoctetes was the son of King
Poeas of the city of
Thessaly. Heracles wore the shirt of Nessus and built his own 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,
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
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
Hera sent to molest him as punishment for his or his
father's service to Heracles. Another tradition says that the Greeks
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,
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.
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.
control of Philoctetes' men, and
Philoctetes himself remained on
Lemnos, alone, for ten years.
Marble slab with the Recall of
Philoctetes – Archeological Museum of
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,
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
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 shot 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, so
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
Philoctetes was among those chosen to hide inside
the Trojan Horse, and during the sack of the city he killed many famed
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The legend of
Philoctetes was used by
André Gide in his play
George Maxim Ross adapted the legend in his play Philoktetes, which
was written in the 1950s and performed off Broadway at One Sheridan
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.
The myth of
Philoctetes is the inspiration for William Wordsworth's
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
Neoptolemus becomes a metaphor for the loneliness of
the human soul and its release when it experiences love for another
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
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
Philoctetes is mentioned in Poem VIII of "21 Love Poems" by Adrienne
"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."
Laurence Lerner's poem
Philoctetes is included in his collection The
Man I Killed (Secker & Warburg, 1980):
"When the pain strikes, I get no warning. Waves
Totter, and overturn; and then my foot
Is foaming metal, and a tangled sound
Bursts in the air. Salt water in my head,
The waves exploding in my foot, then nothing."
The First Death
The First Death is loosely based on Philoctetes's in
its recounting of the experiences of a crippled, marooned protagonist
abandoned on a desert island.
"too you can no longer speak, you are drowning
and the familiar pain touches
outlets in the untrodden body
now you can no longer walk –
you crawl, there where the darkness is deeper
more tender, carcass
of a disemboweled beast
you embrace a handful of bed-ridden bones
and drift into sleep."
In George Eliot's novel The Mill on the Floss, Philip Wakem tells
Maggie and Tom the story of
Philoctetes after Tom injures his foot.
In Iris Murdoch's novel The Green Knight, Harvey Blacket said that to
say he was like
Philoctetes was a perfectly beastly comparison.
The legend of
Philoctetes was, in part, the inspiration for Robert
Silverberg's science fiction novel The Man in the Maze.
In the novel, A Division of the Spoils, the last part of The Raj
Quartet by Paul Scott, filmed as the TV series The Jewel in the Crown
(TV series) in 1984, "Philoctetes" is used as his pen name by Hari
Kumar for his articles in the Ranpur Gazette.
In Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, Hugh Firmin escapes his British
upbringing by enlisting as a sailor on the ship Philoctetes.
In the 1998 novel Sirena by Donna Jo Napoli,
Philoctetes is included
as a main character.
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.
A character named
Philoctetes makes an appearance in the 1997 animated
movie Hercules, although the character is largely based on the centaur
Chiron in the original Greek mythology. In it,
referred to simply as "Phil") is a satyr and Hercules' trainer. He is
voiced by Danny DeVito, and by
Robert Costanzo in the follow-up TV
series and the
Kingdom Hearts video games.
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.
Sophocles' play forms the basis of an essay by
Edmund Wilson The Wound
and the Bow, in the book of the same name.
Philoctetes on the Island of
Lemnos by James Barry, 1770, From A
Series of Etchings by James Barry, Esq. from his Original and Justly
Celebrated Paintings, in the Great Room of the Society of Arts
Philoctetes by Nikolaj Abraham Abildgaard, 1775, now in
Statens Museum for Kunst
Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, which is also used as the
front cover for the Penguin Classics edition of the novel Frankenstein
by Mary Shelley. (Image).
Lemnos by Jean Germain Drouais, 1788, now in the Musée
des Beaux-Arts in
Philoctetes by Vincenzo Baldacci, 1807, now in the Pinacoteca
Philoctetes by Herman Wilhelm Bissen, now in the Ny Carlsberg
Pythagoras (of Rhegium)
^ John C. Wells, Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, 3rd edition (2008),
^ Proklos. p. 3.2. Missing or empty title= (help)
^ 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
^ The Mill on the Floss, Book Second, Chapter 6
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Philoctetes.
Characters in the Iliad
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Mygdon of Phrygia
Rhesus of Thrace