How Did the Greek Hero Hercules Die?

Hunkules Didn't Have a Happy Ending

Heracles, Nessus and Deianira
"Heracles, Nessus and Deianira" by Gaspare Diziani (1746). DEA / VENERANDA BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA / Getty Images

The demi-god Hercules withstood many life-threatening events and monsters, but even he eventually died. Thankfully for him, he eventually turned into a god!

Hercules got married a couple of times: Megara was his first bride, but he killed her and their kids. He figured the second time was the charm, wooing and winning Deianeira. But when Hercules was trying to take his bride home, he had to cross the Evenus River. Nessus, a centaur, served as the ferryman.​ First, he rowed Hercules across and then, as he started to row Deianeira across, he tried to rape her.

Hercules, justly enraged, drew one of his poisoned arrows [see Hercules Labor 2] and shot the centaur. Before he died, the centaur persuaded Deianeira to take some of his blood - which, unbeknownst to her, was tainted with poison - to give her hubby as a love potion if he ever tried to stray. As Diodorus Siculus claims:

He urged her, accordingly, to take the seed which had fallen from him and, mixing it with olive oil and the blood which was dripping from the barb of the arrow, to anoint with this the shirt of Heracles.

And with a guy like Hercules, that was a legitimate concern!

In time, Deianeira became suspicious of Hercules' interest in another woman, his ex, Iole. So she smeared some of the carefully-saved centaur blood on a tunic and gave it to Hercules, trusting that it would act as a love potion and return him to her.

Of course, the centaur had lied. The blood contained not a love potion, but a powerful toxin from the poison with which Hercules had tipped his arrows. It had come from the Lernaean hydra that the hero had killed in his second labor. This was Nessus's ultimate revenge.

When Hercules put on the tunic, it burned his skin. He was in such excruciating pain that he wanted to die. Note that the burning would have killed an ordinary human, but Hercules was not such a one [see Apotheosis of Hercules]. After consulting an oracle for advice, he had a funeral pyre built for himself. He then mounted it and eventually persuaded a friend to light it. He was then allowed to die and went to the gods where he was reconciled with his tormenter, the queen of the gods, Hera. She event adopted him and allowed him to marry her daughter Hebe; they lived among the gods thereafter.

-Edited by Carly Silver