The Bucket List Book Adventure: Book 10 - Philoctetes


Dear Henry,

Book Ten, Sophocles's Philoctetes, of the Bucket List Book Adventure (read about that here), is done! Let me tell you all about it.

Sophocles wrote Philoctetes during the Peloponnesian War, probably around 410 BC. The play was first performed at the Festival of Dionysus in 409 BC and won the festival.  

The story is about Philoctetes, a Greek archer gifted by Hercules his bow after Hercules slowly dying in agony after wearing the shirt of Nessus (a gift from his wife, Deianeira), had kindled his own funeral pyre to hasten his death. No one but Philoctetes would light the fire, and as a reward, Hercules gave him the bow.  

Philoctetus sailed with Odysseus's Greek army to battle at Troy, but while on the isle of Chryse, he inadvertently trespassed at the shrine of a nymph and was bitten on the foot by a snake. The wound turned necrotic, laming Philoctetus, and created a terrible smell. Unable to cope with Philoctetus's illness, Odysseus abandoned him on the island of Lemnos.  

It was an unfortunate choice for Odysseus and the Greek armies because, after Achilles's death and before Troy fell, the Greeks received a prophecy from Priam's son Helenus and learned that only the bow of Hercules could defeat the city.


Odysseus was forced to return to Lemnos with Neptolemus (Achilles's son) to get the bow back.

The play begins with Odysseus enlisting Neptolemus to convince Philoctetus to surrender the bow. Odysseus (rightly) feels that Philoctetus will be holding a grudge and would refuse to help. It takes some argument, but in the end, Neptolemus finally agrees to help. 

Neptolemus approaches Philoctetus and, using the story of losing his father's armor (if you remember from The Iliad, Hector took the first set from Patrocles, and Odysseus won the second set), wins Philoctetus's trust. Neptolemus agrees to take him home to Greece and is allowed to hold the bow, while Philoctetus is overwhelmed with pain. At that moment, Odysseus appears, and Philoctetus realizes he has been betrayed again.

Or has he?

Neptolemus is not like Odysseus; he refuses to steal the bow from Philoctetus and still agrees to return him to Greece, despite the anger of the armies, which, having served away from home for 10 years, was pretty pronounced, wanted the war to be over, and saw the theft of the bow as their only chance. 

However, as they begin to leave, Hercules, now a demigod/angel, appears to Philoctetus and tells him that if he goes to Troy, he will be cured, the Greeks will win the war, and Philocteus will have glory. Philoctetus agrees then, and the play closes.

This play, like Antigone, spoke quite a bit to me. As someone who has suffered from a disabling injury (see "The Accident"), and because illness is repellent to many, I have felt "left behind" quite a bit. And let's be honest, Odysseus is a jerk who has zero qualms about sacrificing others to obtain his goals and, in the Odyssey, surrenders the lives of his entire crew to make it home. I was happy that Neptolemus refused to play along.

I did admire Neptolemus, who, like his father Achilles, had a sense of honor, particularly about "leaving men behind," He is an excellent example of doing the right thing. I like how the legend reinforces that message and proves that resorting to tricks is unnecessary. 

Next up is Ajax. The last of Sophocles's plays on the list. I'll let you know what I think.

xoxo a.d. elliott 


a.d. elliott is a wanderer, writer, and photographer currently living in Salem, Virginia. 

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