Nessos painter ‘Herakles and Nessos’ (Athens) c.620

Nessos painter ‘Herakles and Nessos’ (Athens) c.620


Nessos painter ‘Herakles and Nessos’ (Athens) c.620

Once, when Herakles was traveling with his wife, Deianeira, they came to and had to cross the river Euenos. The river was swollen by rain, but the Centaur Nessos was ferrying people across, for a price. Herakles could ford the river with little trouble, but he agreed to let the Centaur carry Deianeira across. In the middle of the river, though, Nessos attempted to accost, or make off, with his passenger. Herakles, responding to his wife ‘s screams, shot the Centaur with an arrow. However, as he was dying, Nessos told Deianeira that, if she ever suspected her husband of infidelity, a shirt soaked in his (Nessos ‘s) blood would be a love charm, and bring him back to her. She had reason to be suspicious, and soaked a shirt in the centaur ‘s blood. When her suspicions came to pass, she sent Herakles the blood – soaked shirt. When he put it on, the poison, from the Hydra, that he had dipped his arrows in, burned him so that the only cure was his apotheosis.

This is the story as it has come down to us, but many depictions in Greek art do not agree with this

version in all details. For example, the Nessos Amphora (left) shows Herakles and Nessos, both identified by inscriptions, in close combat, with the hero dispatching the centaur with his sword. Deianeira is not present in this portrayal. It is supposed there were a number of versions of the story current at one time or another, and the differing portrayals reflect this. There are also depictions with only Nessos and Deianeira, at various stages of the assault. In some, she ‘s contentedly riding, in others, he’s making his move. Besides Nessos, a centaur identified as Eurytion is also frequently shown as being chastised for an assault on Herakles ‘s wife (e.g., London 96.7 – 16.5), and, on a stamnos from Polygnotos ‘s workshop, Naples 3089, a centaur inscribed Dexamenos, perhaps in error for Eurytion, is in similar straits.

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