The Trachiniae

By Warren Palmer,2014-11-30 10:36
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     430 BC


     by Sophocles

     transalated by R. C. Jebb






     LICHAS, the herald of HERACLES





     (SCENE:- At Trachis, before the house of HERACLES.

     Enter DEIANEIRA from the house, accompanied by the NURSE.)


    THERE is a saying among men, put forth of old, that thou canst not rightly judge whether a mortal's lot is good or evil, ere he die. But I, even before I have passed to the world of death, know well that my life is sorrowful and bitter; I, who in the house of my father Oeneus, while yet I dwelt at Pleuron, had such fear of bridals as never vexed any maiden of Aetolia. For my wooer was a river-god, Achelous, who in three shapes was ever asking me from my sire,- coming now as a bull in bodily form, now as serpent with sheeny coils, now with trunk of man and front of ox, while from a shaggy beard the streams of fountain-water flowed abroad. With the fear of such a suitor before mine eyes, I was always praying in my wretchedness that I might die, or ever I should come near to such a bed.

     But at last, to my joy, came the glorious son of Zeus and Alcmena; who dosed with him in combat, and delivered me. How the fight was waged, I cannot clearly tell, I know not; if there be any one who watched that sight without terror, such might speak: I, as I sat

    there, was distraught with dread, lest beauty should bring me sorrow at the last. But finally the Zeus of battles ordained well,- if well indeed it be: for since I have been joined to Heracles as his chosen bride, fear after fear hath haunted me on his account; one night brings a trouble, and the next night, in turn, drives it out. And then children were born to us; whom he has seen only as the husbandman sees his distant field, which he visits at seedtime, and once again at harvest. Such was the life that kept him journeying to and fro, in the service of a certain master.

     But now, when he hath risen above those trials,- now it is that my anguish is sorest. Ever since he slew the valiant Iphitus, we have been dwelling here in Trachis, exiles from our home, and the guests of

    stranger; but where he is, no one knows; I only know that he is gone, and hath pierced my heart with cruel pangs for him. I am almost sure that some evil hath befallen him; it is no short space that hath passed, but ten long months, and then five more,- and still no message from him. Yes, there has been some dread mischance;- witness that tablet which he left with me ere he went forth: oft do I pray to the gods that I may not have received it for my sorrow.


     Deianeira, my mistress, many a time have I marked thy bitter tears and lamentations, as thou bewailedst the going forth of Heracles; but now,- if it be meet to school the free-born with the counsels of a

    slave, and if I must say what behoves thee,- why, when thou art so rich in sons, dost thou send no one of them to seek thy lord;- Hyllus, before all, who might well go on that errand, if he cared that there should be tidings of his father's welfare? Lo! there he comes, speeding towards the house with timely step; if, then, thou deemest that I speak in season, thou canst use at once my counsel, and the man.

     (HYLLUS comes in from the side.)


     My child, my son, wise words may fall, it seems, from humble lips; this woman is a slave, but hath spoken in the spirit of the free.


     How, mother? Tell me, if it may be told.


     It brings thee shame, she saith, that, when thy father hath been so long a stranger, thou hast not sought to learn where he is.


     Nay, I know,- if rumour can be trusted.


     And in what region, my child, doth rumour place him?


     Last year, they say, through all the months, he toiled as bondman to Lydian woman.


     If he bore that, then no tidings can surprise.


     Well, he has been delivered from that, as I hear.


     Where, then, is he reported to be now,- alive or dead?


     He is waging or planning a war, they say, upon Euboea, the realm of Eurytus.


     Knowest thou, my son, that he hath left with me sure oracles touching that land?


     What are they, mother? I know not whereof thou speakest.


     That either he shall meet his death, or, having achieved this task, shall have rest thenceforth, for all his days to come.

     So, my child, when his fate is thus trembling in the scale, wilt thou not go to succour him? For we are saved, if he find safety, or we

    perish with him.


     Ay, I will go, my mother; and, had I known the import of these prophecies, I had been there long since; but, as it was, my father's wonted fortune suffered me not to feel fear for him, or to be anxious overmuch. Now that I have the knowledge, I will spare no pains to learn the whole truth in this matter.


     Go, then, my son; be the seeker ne'er so late, he is rewarded if he learn tidings of joy.

     (HYLLUS departs as the CHORUS OF TRACHINIAN MAIDENS enters. They are free-born young women of Trachis who are friends and confidantes of DEIANEIRA. She remains during their opening choral song.)

     CHORUS (singing)

     strophe 1

     Thou whom Night brings forth at the moment when she is despoiled of her starry crown, and lays to rest in thy splendour, tell me, pray thee, O Sun-god, tell me where abides Alcmena's son? Thou glorious lord of flashing light, say, is he threading the straits of the sea, or hath he found an abode on either continent? Speak, thou who seest as none else can see!

     antistrophe 1

     For Deianeira, as I hear, hath ever an aching heart; she, the battle-prize of old, is now like some bird lorn of its mate; she can never lull her yearning, nor stay her tears; haunted by a sleepless fear for her absent lord, she pines on her anxious, widowed couch, miserable in her foreboding of mischance.

     strophe 2

     As one may see billow after billow driven over the wide deep by the tireless south-wind or the north, so the trouble of his life, stormy as the Cretan sea, now whirls back the son of Cadmus, now lifts him to honour. But some god ever saves him from the house of death, and suffers him not to fail.

     antistrophe 2

     Lady, I praise not this thy mood; with all reverence will I speak, yet in reproof. Thou dost not well, I say, to kill fair hope by fretting; remember that the son of Cronus himself, the all-disposing king, hath not appointed a painless lot for mortals. Sorrow and joy come round to all, as the Bear moves in his circling paths.


     Yea, starry night abides not with men, nor tribulation, nor wealth; in a moment it is gone from us, and another hath his turn of gladness, and of bereavement. So would I wish thee also, the Queen, to

    keep that prospect ever in thy thoughts; for when hath Zeus been found so careless of his children?


     Ye have heard of my trouble, I think, and that hath brought you here; but the anguish which consumes my heart- ye are strangers to that; and never may ye learn it by suffering! Yes, the tender plant grows in those sheltered regions of its own! and the Sun-god's heat

    vexes it not, nor rain, nor any wind; but it rejoices in its sweet, untroubled being, til such time as the maiden is called a wife, and finds her portion of anxious thoughts in the night, brooding on danger to husband or to children. Such an one could understand the burden of my cares; she could judge them by her own.

     Well, I have had many a sorrow to weep for ere now; but I am going to speak of one more grievous than them all.

     When Heracles my lord was going from home on his last journey, he left in the house an ancient tablet, inscribed with tokens which he

    had never brought himself to explain to me before, many as were the ordeals to which he had gone forth. He had always departed as if to conquer, not to die. But now, as if he were a doomed man, he told me what portion of his substance I was to take for my dower, and how he would have his sons share their father's land amongst them. And he fixed the time; saying that, when a year and three months should have passed since he had left the country, then he was fated to die; or, if he should have survived that term, to live thenceforth an untroubled life.

     Such, he said, was the doom ordained by the gods to be accomplished in the toils of Heracles; as the ancient oak at Dodona had spoken of yore, by the mouth of the two Peleiades. And this is the precise moment when the fulfilment of that word becomes due; so that I

    start up from sweet slumber, my friends, stricken with terror at the thought that I must remain widowed of the noblest among men.


     Hush- no more ill-omened words; I see a man approaching, who wears a wreath, as if for joyous tidings.

     (A MESSENGER enters.)


     Queen Deianeira, I shall be the first of messengers to free thee from fear. Know that Alcmena's son lives and triumphs, and from battle brings the first-fruits to the gods of this land.


     What news is this, old man, that thou hast told me?


     That thy lord, admired of all, will soon come to thy house, restored to thee in his victorious might.


     What citizen or stranger hath told thee this?


     In the meadow, summer haunt of oxen, Lichas the herald is proclaiming it to many: from him I heard it, and flew hither, that I

    might be the first to give thee these tidings, and so might reap some guerdon from thee, and win thy grace.


     And why is he not here, if he brings good news?


     His task, lady, is no easy one; all the Malian folk have thronged around him with questions, and he cannot move forward: each and all are bent on learning what they desire, and will not release him until they are satisfied. Thus their eagerness detains him against his will; but thou shalt presently see him face to face.


     O Zeus, who rulest the meads of Oeta, sacred from the scythe, at last, though late, thou hast given us joy! Uplift your voices, ye women within the house and ye beyond our gates, since now we are gladdened by the light of this message, that hath risen on us beyond my hope!


     Let the maidens raise a joyous strain for the house, with songs of triumph at the hearth; and, amidst them, let the shout of the men go up with one accord for Apollo of the bright quiver, our Defender! And at the same time, ye maidens, lift up a paean, cry aloud to his sister, the Ortygian Artemis, smiter of deer, goddess of the twofold torch, and to the Nymphs her neighbours!