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By Kevin L Nenstiel

As depicted by Sophocles, the title character of the play Philoctetes becomes a Job-like figure, an icon of suffering and a conduit through which those around him can experience the reality of God.  Indeed, he is not just a conduit for the divine – by his presence and the reality of his suffering, he actually becomes a divine figure in his own right. Though not born a demigod, his strength and resilience allow him to approach the incarnations of immortality unscathed. In this, he becomes a sort of Biblical prophet, on a first-name basis with the gods themselves.

However, like Jeremiah, he is not recognized for his divinity initially. Indeed, when he is first stricken with his painful malady, as Odysseus shamelessly relates, his miserable moaning and wailing is such that his companions are distracted, and cannot perform their obsequies to the gods. In consequence, he is put ashore untended on the deserted island of Lemnos, to ensure that the other Greeks have liberty to pursue their war on Troy (Philoctetes lines 4-11).

However, the Trojan seer Helenus, a son of Priam, prophesies that if the Greeks do not return Philoctetes to war, Troy will never be taken (lines 603-621). Philoctetes is the inheritor of the great bow and poisoned arrows of his friend Heracles, the son of Zeus, who now is a god in his own right. Only this bow and these arrows, wielded by this man brought willingly from his place of exile, will give the war over to the Greeks, who have been in conflict for nearly ten years and seem no closer to their victory than ever before.

Odysseus knows he has wronged the great warrior Philoctetes, and cannot by rights expect that he should persuade his former companion to leave the island. The Greek general is a vicious and a venal man, interested in the appliances of war, and in gaining a quick victory. The effort of negotiating Philoctetes aboard ship would be taxing and time-consuming.  Well, then, he will use deceit. Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, will do the talking, and victory will be won.

Philoctetes is afflicted with a wound on the heel of his right foot. As Neoptolemus reveals in a lengthy speech (lines 1314-1347), the great warrior happened to step on a patch of ground sacred to the gods and for that was bitten by a snake on the offending foot. Ever since, the wound has been degenerating, dripping hideous matter, occasionally sending Philoctetes into painful fits and thence into sleep. The warrior has lived, and has used his sacred bow and arrows to hunt and preserve himself, but it is a life of pain and deprivation, unrelieved by human companionship.

The wound to the foot undercuts Philoctetes’ confidence in himself as a man. After all, he has defined his life as a warrior in the service of Greece and his home city. He cannot fight, he cannot wield his divine bow against an armored warrior, if he cannot even stand. The wound goes even deeper than that, however. The wound is to the foot, a long-standing symbol of the genitalia in many cultures of the eastern Mediterranean. Therefore, the wound was not just to Philoctetes as a warrior, it was to the core of his masculinity. He is not only wounded as a warrior, he is wounded as a man.

With a broken body and a compromised masculinity, abandoned on a lifeless shore by one he previously thought a friend and brother, Philoctetes cries out against the gods. “Nothing evil has ever perished, but the gods carefully protect it,” he says; “…if we survey the actions of the gods we find that the gods are evil” (lines 446-452). His statement is reminiscent of Job’s misery when God allows Satan to test Job’s faith (Job 3:20-26):

Why is light given to those in misery,
     and life to the bitter soul,
to those who long for death that does not come,
     who search for it more than for hidden treasure,
who are filled with gladness
     and rejoice when they reach the grave?
Why is life given to a man
     whose way is hidden,
     whom God has hedged in?
For sighing comes to me instead of food;
     my groans pour like water.
What I feared has come upon me;
     what I dreaded has happened to me.
I have no peace, no quietness;
     I have no rest, but only turmoil.

The gods have been almost malicious with Philoctetes, punishing him for a crime they didn’t explain to him, nor did they warn him against it. Until Neoptolemus informs him why he’s suffering, Philoctetes has believed the gods are treating him as a game, the way small children will toy with ants before crushing them. Philoctetes didn’t know he’d trespassed on sacred ground. Indeed, in another surviving Sophoclean tragedy, Oedipus at Colonus, the protagonist and his daughter have already seated themselves and flagged down a passer-by before finding out they’re treading on sacred ground. Plainly the plot of land is not labeled as sanctified. It is reasonable to assume that the hallowed ground upon which Philoctetes stepped was also unmarked.

The seemingly arbitrary manner of the enforcement of divine codes seems very odd to modern ears. When Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney adapted the play to be read by a modern audience, he felt the need to move the explanation of the beleaguered hero’s affliction much further forward in the play. Philoctetes reveals knowledge of his offense as he is introducing himself to Neoptolemus, shortly after his entrance (Heaney 17):

Did you never hear, son, about Philoctetes?
About the snake-bite he got at a shrine
When the first fleet was voyaging to Troy?
And then the way he broke out with a sore
And was marooned on the commander’s orders?

To modern modes of thought, the concept that God or the gods might willfully inflict injury on a human being without clarification is too far-fetched. Though the Greeks accepted the apparent malignity of the gods as a reality of life, the concept that the divine figures would so callously treat humanity is repugnant today.

An important part of this change is the widespread acceptance of Christian modes of thought. Jesus rejected the notion that God causes harm. In John 13:2-5, Jesus is asked whether the sins of certain Jews precipitated their suffering.

Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

This repeated rejection of earthly punishments, followed by the statement that “you too will all perish,” indicates that to Jesus, divine desserts, whether rewards or reprimands, are for the next life, not this. Such beliefs are the exact opposite of those reflected in Philoctetes’ punishment.

All of this doesn’t negate the fact that Philoctetes is a sinner. He has contravened, however unwillingly, the boundaries established by the gods. Therefore to satisfy their desire for equality of action, he has been afflicted with his persistent injury. This seems like a disproportionate judgment, but the gods have ordained it, and the execution falls outside the scope of mankind to comprehend. In a statement that rings familiar in relation to this position, the Bible also states, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12).

However, the greatest sin that permeates this piece lies not with Philoctetes, despite his unwitting transgression and his railings against the gods. Indeed, since he is more acted upon than acting, his sin is fairly minor. On the other hand, Odysseus, great general among the Greek forces, is deliberately flaunting the will of the gods and the ways of man, and suborning others to the same crimes.

Upon his entry, Odysseus is not shy in declaring his intent to deceive Philoctetes and rob him of his only treasure, the sacred bow and arrows of Heracles (lines 55-69). According to Bowra, this intent is antithetical to the Greek admiration of truthfulness and abjuration of all falsehood (270). From its root, this plan is an affront to the Greek system of morality because it depends on something other than the truth.

But Odysseus isn’t going to sully his own hands with dishonesty. Instead he corrupts his underling Neoptolemus, the son of his fallen friend Achilles, to tell the actual lies. Neoptolemus may be young, but he is not foolish, and he resists Odysseus’ scheme initially, refusing to propagate a lie, offering instead to use force and take Philoctetes against his will (lines 86-95). Odysseus turns down the offer out of hand, stating plainly that falsehood is acceptable “if the lie brings us salvation” (line 110).

Neoptolemus is a moral figure, however, aware that dishonor has repercussions on his soul. Initially he acquiesces to the commands of Odysseus, and applies all manner of lies to his enterprise. By telling Philoctetes what he wants to hear, Neoptolemus wins the lasting affection of the warrior. This affection is so deep that, when Philoctetes is stricken with a seizure that he knows will reduce him to unconsciousness, he entrusts his sacred bow to his new young friend (lines 763-767).

In accepting the bow, Neoptolemus knows he has won, according to the standards of Odysseus. He has gained possession of the bow, which Helenus foretold would secure Greek victory at Troy. However, Neoptolemus has imperiled himself. Not only his soul in the next life, but his body on Earth, is subject to affliction because of the crime he has perpetrated. Moreover, it is a peril he has accepted needlessly. According to the oracle, stated by the supposed Merchant in lines 603-621, and ratified both by Odysseus and by Neoptolemus, the great warrior must be persuaded to bring his bow and arrows with him when he leaves Lemnos of his own free will. Therefore Neoptolemus has put himself at risk for absolutely no benefit, since the will of the gods cannot be subverted.

Neoptolemus’ moral ambiguity is resolved quite easily, since he can revoke his prior acts and return Heracles’ bow to its proper inheritor. Moral failings are a persistent problem for the Greeks, and a problem that cannot be concealed since the gods offer overt punishment to sinners. The bane that Neoptolemus faces, however, is a small blemish compared to the persistent wound that eats at Philoctetes.

Philoctetes erred by stepping on sacred ground, although the sin was purely in ignorance. In modern terms, he is guilty of a sin of omission, a sin of leaving out, rather than a sin of commission, a sin of action. Though there was an action in crossing the shrine, the sin was in not being aware and taking care for the province of the gods. However, the gods, being responsible for a universe of order, knew of Philoctetes’ ultimate redemption even in exacting the punishment. They knew he would be responsible for the ultimate taking of Troy, and expected him to be cleansed of his impurities then.

However, the ongoing moans of agony that Philoctetes wailed greatly offended his comrades in arms. More importantly, the cries distracted them from their sacred obligations to divine ceremony and ritual cleanliness. These obligations could not be disregarded, or the men ran the risk of being guilty of the same crime that earned Philoctetes this punishment.

Therefore, Odysseus put Philoctetes ashore on Lemnos and, while Philoctetes slept, marooned him. Odysseus excuses himself from responsibility for this action on the grounds that he was acting under orders from his superiors, but that argument is no more tenable with the gods than it was with the judges at the Nuremberg trials. For preventing the gods’ intended redemption of Philoctetes, Odysseus is a great sinner, and is punished with a war that drags on for a decade, at profound cost in resources and human life.

Thus Philoctetes is doubly punished, kept under not just byhis own sin, but also the sins of Odysseus. As Nussbaum states, Philoctetes is the tragic figure in his own play, a victim of God and of man. His failure to be vigilant to the gods is compounded by Odysseus’ failure to be vigilant to the needs of his fellow man. Philoctetes mourns his fate and seeks release, if from nothing else then from the solitude. Odysseus, however, is a warrior at heart and almost seems to revel in his punishment. By seeking to subvert the will of the oracle and take Philoctetes, or at least his weapon, from the island unwillingly, Odysseus risks extending his own punishment (one is inclined to recall a certain decade of wandering at the whims of the wind), and placing Philoctetes even more under fortune.

Philoctetes, therefore, receives suffering not at the hands of abstract gods, as he thinks, but from prideful men who pursue selfish ends and quick answers when they should seek the will of the divine. His suffering is a punishment to himself, certainly, but it also punishes Odysseus by trapping him in an ongoing cycle of combat. The actions of the individual have deep-seated repercussions for others, which roll outward and eventually affect all society.

This strange and inscrutable order permeates the Greek cosmology. All people are entwined in a system of cause and effect that exceeds the comprehension of mortal man. Philoctetes, and the punishment that proceeds from him to Odysseus, is an example of how a man can, through no action of his own, mold the destiny of another.

This message that Philoctetes brings away satisfies our need for a revelation from the gods. Like the doomed but ultimately exalted Oedipus, Philoctetes show us both extremes of the human condition, the baseness of our fallen state and the heights to which we can aspire. If we know the intent of the gods and adhere to them, we can be improved and beatified, but only after we have suffered.

Thus, at the root of the equation, though the gods appear to be the root of human suffering, they are merely the first cause that organized man’s behavior. Beneath human suffering, Sophocles subtly indicates, you will not find a wrathful god so much as a blind, impotent man. It is this that the prophet Philoctetes is here to tell mankind. Like the biblical Habakkuk, Philoctetes proves that man punishes man sufficiently for the gods. Then, as the message from his demigod friend Heracles reveals, the gods stand eager to reward the virtuous and the obedient. We are entirely in the hands of the gods, as we learn. Hopefully we are where we need to be.

Works Cited or Referenced

Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Bible Publishers. 1973, 1978, 1984.

Bowra, C.M. Sophoclean Tragedy. London: Oxford University Press. 1944.

Heaney, Seamus. The Cure at Troy: a Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1991.

MacNamee, Gregory. “Philoctetes (Philoktetes) by Sophocles (Sophokles).” Tucson, Arizona: N.Pub. 1986.

Nussbaum, Martha C. “Victims and Agents: What Greek tragedy can teach us about sympathy and responsibility.” Boston Review: Feb/Mar 1998.

Sophocles. Oedipus at Colonus. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. Sophocles I. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1954.

Sophocles. Philoctetes. Trans. Hugh Lloyd-Jones. Sophocles II. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 1994.