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MythBlast | The Afflictions of Philoctetes: The Work of Some Rude Hand

BY Bradley Olson June 27, 2017

It seems to me, life on this planet displays a disturbing propensity for the powerful to further afflict the already afflicted. The personae non-grata, the sick, the powerless, the poor, are forced to live in the margins of society, a Hobbesian existence that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Not surprisingly, the temptation to “punch down” seems to be a primordial, enduring, and ineradicable strain of human nature, which Sophocles brilliantly described in his 409 B.C.E. tragedy titled, simply, Philoctetes.

Sophocles was the defender and patron of those whom society had tossed aside, and writes movingly about betrayal, abandonment, and that last moral voice standing in opposition to unprincipled tradition or overwhelming force. Philoctetes was with the armada sailing to Troy (he was already famous for assisting Hercules to die as the latter suffered horribly from Nessus’ poisoned shirt, and for this assistance was rewarded with Hercules’ bow and arrows) when they stopped at a tiny island along the way to sacrifice to a local deity and Philoctetes is bitten by a snake. His groans of pain make the performance of the ritual impossible, spoiled by the ill-omened sounds of agony. Additionally, Philoctetes’ wound begins to suppurate and emit such a horribly foul odor that he is abandoned on a nearby deserted island where he spends the next ten years in tremendous pain and suffering: “On every side I looked, and nothing saw but woe.”

Eventually, the Argives learn they can only defeat Troy with the aid of Hercules’ bow and arrows, and presumably, Philoctetes; they also learn that Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus, must be summoned, given his father’s armor, and help secure the unsurpassable armaments. Neoptolemus and Odysseus set out to retrieve the bow of Hercules, but Odysseus has no intention to retrieve Philoctetes and is instead intent on gaining the bow through deceit, trickery, or force. Initially, cunning Odysseus convinces Neoptolemus to work with him to deceive Philoctetes. But the more Neoptolemus watches Philoctetes bravely bear his grotesque wound, his betrayal, and his suffering, the more he realizes he cannot treat so shabbily this noble soul, whom he is beginning to love. Neoptolemus decides he will lie no longer and tells Philoctetes about their mission to exploit him, and returns to him the bow and arrows of Hercules, an act of honesty and atonement that enrages Odysseus, but further endears Neoptolemus to Philoctetes. After some hesitation Philoctetes eventually agrees to return to Troy with Neoptolemus and Odysseus after a too tidy deus ex machina intervention by Hercules (who after his death became a god), directing Philoctetes to return to Troy, win the war, and be healed of his wound by the sons of Asclepius.

All the ruined, broken-yet-unbowed, heroes of Sophocles’ greatest plays, AjaxOedipus at Colonus, and Philoctetes, remain—against all odds—people of remarkable virtue, virtue made all the more remarkable by their humiliating circumstances, and one has no alternative but to admire them. Due to their ghastly suffering, they no longer have regard for the demands or opinions of others; they are, in a moral sense, free. It is the nature of the powerful, like Odysseus, to focus solely on what materially serves their power and disregard values, humanity, and pathos; people like Philoctetes, the human, the invalid, the desperately needy.  Dissolving the deontological divide between Philoctetes and Odysseus is the young, guileless, humane, young man who sees another, not as a means to an end, but as a fellow human being whose suffering elicits empathy and whose dignity elicits love. To think generously and kindly toward others, not acting as though people are tools employed for naked self-interest, is our charge. If we fail, then as Philoctetes said,” I dread the woes to come; for well I know when once he mind’s corrupted it brings forth unnumbered crimes, and ill to ills succeed.”


Campbell writes powerfully about compassion in Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation. You can order a hardcopy version here and a soft copy easy-to-read large print version here on the JCF website.

A favorite quote on compassion from from Pathways to Bliss:
“To expect too much compassion from yourself might be a little destructive of your own existence. Even so, at least make a try, and this goes not only for individuals but also for life itself. It’s so easy. It’s a fashionable idiocy of youth to say the world has not come up to your expectations. ‘What? I was coming, and this is all they could prepare for me?’ Throw it out. Have compassion for the world and those in it.” (2004 p. 77)

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