Philoctetes (pronounced “phil-ah-sit-ees,” rhyming with “philosophies”) is the story of a mythical war hero in the Sophocles tragedy.
Sophocles was an Ancient Greek tragedian who wrote his plays with his characters’ suffering being the highlights of the story. In the case of Philoctetes, the wound on his foot was his great suffering. The odor from the injury combined with the subsequent physical weakness led to Philocetetes being stranded on the island of Lemnos for 10 years.
Somehow, Philocetetes managed to stay alive for those 10 years. Then a captured Trojan seer revealed that the bow and arrows in his possession were the keys to winning the Trojan War. Apparently, Philocetetes himself was part of that key as well.
Heracles had been forced to wear the Shirt of Nessus due to suspicion of unfaithfulness by his wife. The Shirt was unbearably painful for Heracles. So in the Philoctetes version, he built his own funeral pyre, and Philoctetes lit it when no one else would. Though according to some versions, his father, King Poeas, did. Before he died, Heracles gave Philocetetes a bow with poison arrows as a gift. Heracles was immediately deified upon his death.
Next, Philocetetes joined the competition for Helen, Princess of Sparta. In order to do so, he had to make an agreement with the King of Sparta, Menelaus, to fight in the Trojan War for her reclaim.
However, he was left stranded on Lemnos when he sustained a wound on his foot. Accounts about the wound on Philocetetes’ foot differ depending on the source. For example, one says that when he refused to reveal where he had put Heracles’ ashes to the Greek citizens, he took them to the spot but put his foot on top of them and was immediately wounded.
The only thing that all accounts agree on is that his wound festered and gave off an odour. That’s why his fleet abandoned him. Odysseus made the proposal.
Odysseus claimed that the odour of Philocetetes’ wound made it impossible even to pray to the gods.
However, after the Trojan seer was coerced into telling the Greeks that they needed the bow and arrows of Heracles in Philocetetes’ possession to capture Troy, Odysseus and his men traveled back to Lemnos. They were convinced that it was almost guaranteed that Philocetetes would be dead by then.
Inevitably, they were shocked that he wasn’t.
As a result, Odysseus immediately tried to hatch a plan to trick Philoctetes into giving up the bow and arrows. However, one of Odysseus’s men, Diomedes, felt that it would be wrong to just trick Philoctetes into giving up the bow and arrow and then leave him stranded again.
Then Heracles appeared to Philocetetes from Mt. Olympus, telling him to rejoin the war in Troy. However, first, Odysseus and his men were to take him to one of the god, Asclepius’ sons, to be healed from his wound.
After he was, he went on to kill Paris, who had eloped with Helen of Sparta and participated in Troy’s destruction.
There is not a lot of extensive coverage about Philocetetes as he’s considered a minor character.
Origins of Philocetetes
It is believed that Philoctetes was originally in four plays.
Unfortunately, only one has survived completely intact, and that’s Sophocles’ Philoctetes. The other three are only in fragments.
However, Philocetetes gets a mention in Homer’s Iliad and Little Iliad. The first tells the snakebite story, and the second describes the recall by Diomedes and of Philocetetes killing three men of Troy.
Otherwise, all we know about Philocetetes is that he’s the son of King Poeas of Methone, Meliboea, or Demonessa.
Philocetetes’ Unlikely Legend
Philoctetes’s story is one of a somewhat unlikely hero.
Before his wound, we don’t know of any particular limitations that he had. If anything, he seems to be the type to go in for the kill when no one else will. Hence, we can safely conclude that he probably went on to do more of the same once he was allowed to go into battle again.
Philoctetes stayed on Lemnos for a decade before Odysseus, and his men went back for his bow and arrows.
The fact that Heracles appeared after Diomedes unselfishly decided not to trick the bow and arrows out of Philocetetes suggests that the war wasn’t meant to be won without Philocetetes himself, either.
In other words, Philoctetes and the bow and arrows had become one upon Heracles’ demise.
While it doesn’t suggest that Heracles put any kind of blessings or curses on the bow and arrows, the fact that he trusted Philocetetes with them was most likely powerful in and of itself.
According to more than one source, Heracles received that bow and arrows from Apollo, the god of archery, healing, and disease.
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