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  • Chiara Blanco (a1)


Scholars have long grappled with the nature of Heracles’ νόσος and his consequent feminization in Sophocles’ Women of Trachis (= Trachiniae). Despite being triggered by a poisonous garment, which acts by means of magic incantation, the evolution of Heracles’ symptoms is described as a clinical case. Yet, making sense of his feminization from a scientific perspective has proven hard. In this paper, I investigate the symptoms experienced by Heracles, which Sophocles generically refers to as νόσος. The first part focusses on Sophocles’ description of erôs as a disease in Trachiniae. I then move on to dividing Heracles’ symptoms into two categories, which I will call νόσος1 and νόσος2. The erotic passion for Iole which Heracles naturally experiences in the first part of the tragedy will be denoted by νόσος1, whereas νόσος2 will refer to the magic-induced symptoms from which he suffers in the second and final part. In the final section of the paper I will seek to provide a scientific explanation for νόσος2 and, ultimately, to describe the medical reasons behind Heracles’ feminization.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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I wish to express my gratitude to Professor Gábor Betegh, Dr Sophia Connell, Dr Sean Coughlin, Dr Tiziana D'Angelo, Professor Patrick Finglass and the anonymous referee for their very helpful comments on this paper.



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1 Biggs, P., ‘The disease theme in Sophocles’ Ajax, Philoctetes and Trachiniae’, CPh 61 (1966), 223–35, at 228 underlines how Heracles’ disease deprives him of his humanity and condemns him to isolation. Loraux, N., The Experiences of Tiresias: The Feminine and the Greek Man (transl. Wissing, P.) (Princeton, NJ, 1997), 40 claims that Heracles’ pains are those typical of women in childbirth; Faraone, C., ‘Deianira's mistake and the demise of Heracles: erotic magic in SophoclesTrachiniae’, Helios 21 (1994), 115–35 considers Heracles’ feminization to be one of the predictable side effects of Deianira's erotic magic; Segal, C., Sophocles’ Tragic World: Divinity, Nature, Society (Cambridge, MA, 1995), 55 claims that ‘the fire that kindled the poison of the beast’ has ‘reduced Heracles to almost bestial status’. Zeitlin, F.I., Playing the Other: Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature (Chicago, 1996), 350 explains how Heracles’ condition of weakness makes him aware that he has a body, and makes him perceive himself ‘to be most like a woman’. Ceschi, G., ‘Il caso clinico di Eracle nelle Trachinie di Sofocle’, Atti dell'Istituto Veneto di scienze, lettere ed arti: Classe di scienze morali, lettere ed arti 161 (2003), 6593 considers Heracles’ disease a pulmonary pathology. According to Thumiger, C., ‘Mad Erôs and eroticized madness in tragedy’, in Sanders, E., Thumiger, C., Carey, C. and Lowe, N.J. (edd.), Erôs in Ancient Greece (Oxford, 2013), 2740, at 35, Heracles’ νόσος ‘has much to share with the standard phenomenology of erôs’.

2 The garment plays a crucial role in the development of the plot: not only is it the robe that prompts Heracles’ torments, it is often described as a female garment that prompts Heracles’ feminization. Wohl, V., Intimate Commerce: Exchange, Gender, and Subjectivity in Greek Tragedy (Austin, 1998), 195 n. 20 notices how the robe is repeatedly referred to as a peplos (602, 613, 674, 758, 774) and how it is emphasized as a feminine robe (602, 764). Loraux (n. 1), 130 stresses how the peplos in the tragedy ‘serves as well to dramatize the exchange between masculine and feminine that takes place in the hero’. Cawthorn, K., Becoming Female: The Male Body in Greek Tragedy (London, 2008), 85–6 points out how the peplos catalyses and emphasizes Heracles’ feminization.

3 Loraux (n. 1), 40 claims that Heracles is here experiencing the pains of a woman in childbirth, yet admits that ‘One could probably object … that Herakles does not suffer in his belly, the feminine site of odunai, but in his side.’ Pozzi, D., ‘Deianira's robe: diction in Sophocles’ Trachiniae’, Mnemosyne 47 (1994), 577–85, at 584 considers that ‘Heracles’ male body being penetrated by the erotic and deadly pharmakon’ smeared by Deianira represents a ‘gender reversal’ in the tragedy. Cawthorn (n. 2), 91 points out that Heracles becomes female through his sufferings, which are caused by a woman.

4 See Burkert, W., Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual (Oakland, 1979), 79, 83, 96; also Loraux (n. 1), 118–22. Segal, C., Tragedy and Civilization: An Interpretation of Sophocles (Norman, OK, 1999), 61 stresses in particular the contradiction between Heracles’ civilizing force, which earns him a divine honour, and his excessive appetites, which relocate him in a wholly human, if not feral, dimension. See also Slater, P.E., The Glory of Hera: Greek Mythology and the Greek Family (Princeton, NJ, 1968), 388; Cawthorn (n. 2), 83.

5 Segal, C., ‘Sophocles’ Trachiniae: myth, poetry, and heroic values’, in Gould, T.F. and Herington, C.J. (edd.), Greek Tragedy (Cambridge, New York and Melbourne, 1977), 99–158, at 113–14 stresses how the notion of disease changes from the first to the second part of the tragedy. Whereas at first it is categorized as erotic passion, it becomes more sinister and nefarious—a ‘destructive physical power’.

6 See von Staden, H., ‘The mind and skin of Heracles’, in Gourevitch, D. (ed.), Maladie et maladies: Historie et conceptualisation, hautes études médiévales et modernes (Geneva, 1992), 131–50.

7 As pointed out by Thumiger (n. 1), 34–5, Erôs in the whole tragedy is consistently conceived as a madness-bringer. Ironically, the sole apparent exception to this rule, the character of Deianira, whose erôs is ‘matured through the years, reflective, controlled’, is the one who ends up committing the most foolish deed in the whole play.

8 Lovesickness has a long-standing literary tradition: see e.g. Sappho, fr. 31.5–16 Voigt; Eur. Hipp. 38–40; Pl. Symp. 185e–188e. However, we do not find any mention of it in Hippocratic texts, which still deal with sexual desire and deem moderate sexual intercourse necessary to prevent diseases in men and, particularly, in women: see McNamara, L., ‘Hippocratic and non-Hippocratic approaches to lovesickness’, in Dean-Jones, L. and Rosen, R.M. (edd.), Ancient Concepts of the Hippocratic. Papers Presented at the XIIIth International Hippocrates Colloquium, Austin, Texas, August 2008 (Leiden and Boston, 2016), 308–27, at 317–22.

9 All the translations from Sophocles’ Trachiniae, unless stated otherwise, are by H. Lloyd-Jones (Cambridge, MA and London, 19982).

10 Compare the news that the messenger brings about the destruction of the city of Oechalia, and how Heracles’ erotic passion, and not Iole, was responsible for it (431–3).

11 See lines 351–7. See also Thumiger (n. 1), 34: ‘Heracles’ passion for Iole is responsible for his deed of arms and the destruction of the city of Oechalia.’

12 On the parallel between the garment destroying Heracles’ skin and the image of the resinous pines, see also Eur. Med. 1200–1 σάρκες δ’ ἀπ’ ὀστέων ὥστε πεύκινον δάκρυ | γνάθοις ἀδήλοις φαρμάκων ἀπέρρεον. The poisonous tunic that Jason's wife wears destroys her flesh, which pours from her bones like resin from a pine.

13 On the magic nature of Deianira's intervention, see Faraone (n. 1), 115–35.

14 See Faraone, C., Ancient Greek Love Magic (Cambridge, MA, 1999), 50: ‘In both curses and erotic magic, for instance, Greeks destroyed wax effigies or other special materials in fire in hopes of projecting the pain and discomfort of fire onto the victim.’ Segal (n. 5), 110 claims that the warming effect of the venomous garment evokes ἐντεθέρμανται πόθῳ at line 368. On the erotic feeling experienced as warmth and sweat, see Peponi, A.E., ‘Mixed pleasures, blended discourses: poetry, medicine and tragedy in Plato's Philebus 46–47c’, ClAnt 21 (2002), 135–60, at 143; McNamara (n. 8), 315–16.

15 Mazon translates ὀδαγμὸς ἀντίσπαστος ‘prurit spasmodique’; Dain, A. and Mazon, P., Sophocle. Tragédies. Tome 1: Les Trachiniennes, Antigone (Paris, 1955), 42.

16 Photius α 39 (i 322 Theodoridis) reads ἀδαγμός⋅ ὀδαξησμός, ὅπέρ ἐστὶ κνησμός. οὕτως Σοφοκλῆς.

17 e.g. Hippoc. Aph. 3.25, where the noun expresses the gums’ irritation when approaching dentition. See Long, A.A., Language and Thought in Sophocles. A Study of Abstract Nouns and Poetic Technique (London, 1968), 133–4 and Ceschi (n. 1), 70.

18 Xenis, G.A. (ed.), Scholia vetera in Sophoclis Trachinias (Berlin and New York, 2010), 770a.2.

19 The Suda's definition of ψώρα is κνησμονή, namely ‘itching’ (ψ 137 Adler). Likewise, Orion (ψ 167.23 Sturz) seeks to explain the etymology of the word by connecting it to ψῶ, namely ‘to scratch’. Lucian (Bis Accus. 34) refers to the pleasure experienced by people affected by ψώρα when they scratch the diseased parts. As for clinical descriptions of ψώρα, the Hippocratic Corpus (Aff. 35) lists ψώρα among ἀεικέα ‘disfigurements’ rather than among νοσήματα ‘pathologies’, together with λέπρη, κνισμός, λειχῆνες, ἀλφός and ἀλώπεκες. See Grmek, M., Diseases in the Ancient Greek World (transl. M. Muellner–L. Muellner) (Baltimore, 1989), 166: ‘In a stationary—that is, chronic and not evolving—state, the skin's “leprous” appearance betokens neither abscession (apóstasis) nor disease (nósēma) but merely represents an aesthetic blemish (aîschos).’ The author of the Pseudo-Aristotelian Problems (7.887a34–7) lists ψώρα among τὰ κνησμώδη, ‘itching diseases’, also specifying that it is an infective disease. Galen (De tumoribus praeter naturam 13 [K. 7.727]) explains that both ψώρα and λέπρα are conditions arising from black bile, which uniquely affect the skin. If either affliction affects veins or flesh, then it is to be classified as καρκίνος instead.

20 Zen. 6.49.

21 Fr. 7 West.

22 von Staden (n. 6), 146–7.

23 e.g. Ibyc. fr. 300 Page.

24 e.g. Diod. Sic. 4.23.1.

25 Strabo 8.3.19.c346–7. Transl. H.L. Jones (Cambridge, MA, and London, 1927), slightly modified.

26 See n. 19 above, in particular Hippoc. Aff. 35.

27 In Pausanias there is no mention of λειχήν, which features in Strabo's account.

28 Paus.–11. Transl. W.H.S. Jones (Cambridge, MA, and London, 1926).

29 According to other versions of the myth, Melampus healed the raging girls at Sicyon (Paus. 2.7.8–9; Apollod. Bibl. 2.2.2). For a detailed account of the myth, see Marzari, F., ‘Paradigmi di follia e lussuria virginale in Grecia antica: le Pretidi tra tradizione mitica e medica’, I quaderni del ramo d'oro online 3 (2010), 4774.

30 For a discussion of the clinical picture of the daughters of Proetus and possible remedies, see Olivieri, M.F. et al. , ‘Pharmacology and psychiatry at the origins of Greek medicine: the myth of Melampus and the madness of the Proetides’, Journal of the History of Neuroscience 26 (2017), 193215.

31 Faraone (n. 1), 123 claims that Deianira is well aware that poison is contained in the magic ointment, and her mistake rather consists in the dosage. Note the ambiguity of the word φάρμακον, meaning both ‘enchantment’, ‘poison’ and also ‘cure’, ‘remedy’ (LSJ s.v.). See McNamara (n. 8), 312.

32 Ancient Greek literature provides evidence of women causing the death of their husbands through an overdose of love potions: Faraone (n. 1), 119. See also Eidinow, E., Envy, Poison, and Death: Women on Trial in Classical Athens (Oxford, 2018), 31: ‘The figure of a woman standing trial for supernatural activities may have become a stock figure of the cultural imaginary of ancient Greek society.’

33 Apollod. Bibl. 2.5.4.

34 This is particularly evident in Hellenistic epigrams. See, for instance, Pomp. Anth. Pal. 7.219 (3965–6 Gow–Page, GP), where the torments of love are called κνίσματα, namely ‘itches’. See also Mel. Anth. Pal. 12.126 (4464–9 Gow–Page, HE), where Erôs is said to scratch with the tips of his nails the heart of the poet, and the lover is said to have a ‘sweet wound’ (τὸ γλυκὺ τραῦμα), burnt by ‘fierce honey’ (λάβρῳ μέλιτι).

35 See Peponi (n. 14), 152–3. On scratching and erotic pleasure in Plato, see Grg. 494d–e; also Frede, D., ‘Disintegration and restoration: pleasure and pain in Plato's Philebus’, in Kraut, R. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plato (Cambridge, 1992), 425–63; Benardete, S., The Tragedy and Comedy of Life: Plato's Philebus (Chicago and London, 1993), 194–7.

36 Peponi (n. 14), 153–5. She also refers to Arist. Gen. an. 1.18.723b34–724a and [Pr.] 4.878b.

37 Translations of Hippocrates’ On Generation are by Potter, P. (Cambridge, MA, and London, 2012). See Lonie, I.M., The Hippocratic Treatises “On Generation”, “On the Nature of the Child”, “Diseases IV” (Berlin and New York, 1981), 106: ‘The word κνησμός … refers to the itch and irritation caused by a loss of small particles of tissue.’ See also Arist. Gen. an. 1.20.728a9–14. According to V. Longhi (‘L'amour médecin de l’âme dans le Phèdre de Platon [250e1–252c3]: rapprochements avec la Collection hippocratique’, Études platoniciennes [online] 10 [2013], URL:, this passage has much in common with the description of the effect of erotic desire on the soul in Pl. Phdr. 251a7–c5. In particular, he notices how the reference to the κνησμός in the Hippocratic text corresponds to the κνῆσις that the soul experiences when it becomes winged.

38 Aret. De causis et signis diuturnorum morborum 2.13.

39 According to Aristotle (Gen. an. 4.3.768b30–6), satyriasis would be rather due to a bulk of unconcocted pneuma, which becomes settled in the animals’ faces, giving them the typical appearance of a satyr. On satyriasis, see also Thumiger, C., ‘A most acute, disgusting and indecent disease: satyriasis in ancient medicine’, in Thumiger, C. and Singer, P. (edd.), Mental Illness in Ancient Medicine: From Celsus to Paul of Aegina (Leiden and Boston, 2018), 269–84.

40 As Pozzi (n. 3), 583 n. 15 notices, the poison is a compound of two elements: Nessus’ clotted blood (ἀμφίθρεπτον αἷμα, 572) and Hydra's poisonous black bile (μελάγχολος ἰός, 573–4). There is no mention in Sophocles of Nessus’ sperm, which is listed among the ingredients of the poison by Diodorus Siculus (4.36.5).

41 Ormand, K., ‘More wedding imagery: Trachiniae 1053ff.’, Mnemosyne 42 (1993), 224–7, at 225: ‘The robe, unlike either Deianira or Iole, has an absolutely exclusive relationship with Heracles’ body.’

42 Segal (n. 5), 111 points out that, even in the case of his passion for Iole, Heracles is said to be charmed (354–5). Yet, in this circumstance, it is Erôs himself who charmed Heracles—there is no magic involved.

43 As Onians, R.B., The Origins of European Thought about the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate (Cambridge, 1954 2), 37 claims, the lungs were believed to be one of the main physical targets of Erôs. He refers to Sophocles, fr. 941 Radt, where Erôs is said to melt the lungs of those who have a soul in them (ἐντήκεται γὰρ πλευμόνων ὅσοις ἔνι ψυχή); and to Hesychius (π 2530 Hansen) and Photius π 237 (i 939 Theodoridis), who define lung disease (πλευμονία) as νόσος ἡ ἐρωτική.

44 Dillon, M., Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion (London and New York, 2002), 140–3. On the term σπαραγμός, see also Long (n. 17), 134–5.

45 As Loraux (n. 1), 128–9 points out, ‘Dionysos “the Lydian” was officially feminized’, and Dionysus and Heracles are often linked (e.g. Ar. Ran. 45–7, 108–9).

46 Faraone (n. 1), 126 claims that among the side effects of aphrodisiacs was also the feminization of the men, whose erotic desire increased at the expense of their masculinity, as ‘an “unnatural” usurpation of male power’.

47 See Biggs (n. 1), 229.

48 See Pozzi (n. 3), 584, who claims that Heracles’ feminization resides in having his heroic body penetrated by the erotic philtre smeared by his wife, which ‘paints the very image of gender reversal’.

49 All the translations from Diseases of Women are by Potter, P. (Cambridge, MA, 2018). On mental derangement as a consequence of uterine displacement, see also Mul. 2.24 (133 L.).

50 Mul. 2.40 (149 L.). See also Hippoc. Nat. mul. 44.

51 Sexual abstinence was not the only alleged cause of womb displacement. The womb was ‘liable to move in situations of menstrual suppression, exhaustion, insufficient food, sexual abstinence, and excessive dryness or lightness of the organ itself’: King, H., Hippocrates’ Woman: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece (London and New York, 1998), 214.

52 The passage also specifies that the patient resembles those suffering from Heracles’ disease (καὶ ἐοίκασι τοῖσιν ὑπὸ τῆς Ἡρακλείης νούσου ἐχομένοισι), which has been traditionally interpreted as a reference to epilepsy: von Staden (n. 6), 134–9.

53 See line 1103, where Heracles says that he is ἄναρθρος καὶ κατερρακωμένος. On motor coordination and its connection with emotional and mental state, see Thumiger, C., A History of the Mind and Mental Health in Classical Greek Medical Thought (Cambridge, 2017), 170–4.

54 Speechlessness is another common symptom in descriptions of uterine displacement (see e.g. Mul. 2.18 [127 L.]), which, understandably for the sake of the drama, is left out of Heracles’ clinical picture.

55 On rest as prescribed therapy in cases of womb displacement, see also Mul. 2.44 (153 L.).

56 See Soph. OT 726–7 οἷόν μ’ ἀκούσαντ’ ἀρτίως ἔχει, γύναι, | ψυχῆς πλάνημα κἀνακίνησις φρενῶν. To refer to Oedipus’ irrational reaction, Sophocles assigns to his ψυχή the metaphor of wandering, which appears to be the male transposition of cases of wandering wombs, as shown in Hippocratic treatises. Long (n. 17), 130 n. 55 highlights how the term κἀνακίνησις is consistent with the verb ἀνακινῆσαι, which refers to Heracles’ νόσος in Trach. 1259.

57 Hanson, A.E., ‘Continuity and change: three case studies in Hippocratic gynecological therapy and theory’, in Pomeroy, S. (ed.), Women's History and Ancient History (Chapel Hill and London, 1991), 83–4; King (n. 51), 36–7.

58 ἀνεπίφθονον εἴρυσον ἔγχος (‘a sword that none can blame’) at 1034 underlines how more honourable and manlike it would be for Heracles to die wounded by a sword rather than among spasms caused by a feminine disease. As if to reiterate the inversion of roles between Heracles and Deianira, Sophocles lets her kill herself with a sword (925–31).

59 e.g. Mul. 2.16 (125 L.), 24 (133 L.), 92 (201 L.), 94 (203 L.).

60 Grensemann, H., Knidische Medizin. Teil II. Versuch einer weiteren Analyse der Schicht A in den pseudohippokratischen Schriften De natura muliebri und De muliebribus I und II (Stuttgart, 1987), 6672 and 90–1. Sections 2.15 (124 L.) and 40 (149 L.) would belong to the A1 stratum, while 2.18 (127 L.) to the A2.

61 On the dating of Hippocratic gynecological works, see Grensemann, H., Knidische Medizin. Teil 1. Die Testimonien zur ältesten knidischen Lehre und Analysen knidischer Schriften im Corpus Hippocraticum (Berlin and New York, 1975), 80145. See also Hanson (n. 57), 73–110.

62 According to Grensemann (n. 61), 86–9, it belongs to the C stratum.

63 On the (debated) issue of the dating of Trachiniae, see Easterling, P.E., Sophocles: Trachiniae (Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics) (Cambridge, 1982), 1923 and Finglass, P.J., Sophocles: Ajax (Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries 48) (Cambridge and New York, 2011), 16.

64 Mitchell-Boyask, R., ‘Heroic pharmacology: Sophocles and the metaphors of Greek medical thought’, in Ormand, K. (ed.), A Companion to Sophocles (Malden, MA – Oxford – Chichester, 2012), 316–30.

65 Hanson (n. 57), 74.

66 On the devouring disease in the Hippocratic Corpus, see Jouanna, J., Greek Medicine from Hippocrates to Galen. Selected Papers (transl. Allies, N.) (Leiden and Boston, 2012), 8196, and 89 in particular on Sophocles’ Trachiniae. See also διάβορος νόσος, line 1084.

67 e.g. PGM VII.260–71.

68 Seaford, R., ‘Wedding ritual and textual criticism in Sophocles’ “Women of Trachis”’, Hermes 114 (1986), 50–9, at 57.

69 Loraux (n. 1), 40.

70 Cawthorn (n. 2), 86.

71 Loraux (n. 1), 40 seeks to solve this inconsistency by claiming that ‘Herakles, wounded in his side (or in the lung), feels pain throughout his entire thoracic cavity.’

72 e.g. Nat. mul. 8; also Mul. 2.19 (128 L.), 20 (129 L.), 25 (134 L.), 26 (135 L.), 31 (140 L.).

73 See Hanson (n. 57), 83. See Mul. 1.32, where suffocation is caused by the baby acting like a womb, and seeking moisture.

74 Cawthorn (n. 2), 83.

75 Here I disagree with Cawthorn (n. 2), 91.

76 See lines 523–30, where Heracles actively engages in a ferocious fight with the river-god Achelous for Deianira, who passively witnesses the scene. See also the discussion in Wohl (n. 2), 17–29. By killing himself on the pyre and imposing the marriage of Hyllus and Iole in the final part of the tragedy, Heracles reaffirms his male superiority over the female characters.

77 See Dean-Jones, L., ‘The politics of pleasure: female sexual appetite in the Hippocratic Corpus’, in Stanton, D.C. (ed.), Discourses of Sexuality from Aristotle to AIDS (Ann Arbor, 1992), 51: ‘The female sexual appetite described in the Hippocratic gynecology precludes directed desire and the exercise of self-control over the body's imperative to intercourse.’

I wish to express my gratitude to Professor Gábor Betegh, Dr Sophia Connell, Dr Sean Coughlin, Dr Tiziana D'Angelo, Professor Patrick Finglass and the anonymous referee for their very helpful comments on this paper.


  • Chiara Blanco (a1)


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