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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Philoctetes, or Philocthetes, was, according to Greek mythology, the son of King Poeas of Meliboea in Thessaly. He was a Greek hero, famed as an archer, and was a participant in the Trojan War. He was the subject of at least two plays by Sophocles, one of which is named after him, and one each by both Aeschylus and Euripides. However, only one Sophoclean play survives—Aeschylus' Philoctetes, Euripides' Philoctetes and Sophocles Philoctetes at Troy are all lost except for some fragments. He is also mentioned in Homer's Iliad; Book 2 describes his exile on the island of Lemnos, his wound by snake-bite, and his eventual recall by the Greeks. The recall of Philoctetes is told in the lost epic Little Iliad, where his retrieval was accomplished by Diomedes.


Modern depictions


  • The legend of Philoctetes was used by André Gide in his play Philoctète.
  • The East German postmodern dramatist Heiner Müller produced a successful adaptation of Sophocles' play in 1968 in Munich. It became one of his most-performed plays.
  • Philoctetes appears in Seamus Heaney's play The Cure at Troy, a "version" of Sophocles' Philoctetes.
  • John Jesurun wrote the Philoktetes-variations in 1993 on Ron Vawter's request, it was the actor's last piece of work, considered his artistic testament, being performed while the actor was dying of AIDS. The play has consequently also become a metaphor for AIDS, with Philoktetes as a plagued outcast.


  • The myth of Philoctetes is the inspiration for William Wordsworth's sonnet "When Philoctetes in the Lemnian Isle," though here the thematic focus is not the Greek warrior's magical bow or gruesome injury, but his abandonment. The poem is about the companionship and solace provided by Nature when all human society has been withdrawn.
  • Philoctetes being retrieved by Neoptolemus is the subject of the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos' long poem "Philoctetes" (1963–1965), a monologue in which the youth Neoptolemus convinces Philoctetes to follow him back to the war that will be won by the ruse of the Trojan Horse. Disguise and seeming are the subject of the poem:
<poem>"No one will comprehend your freedom's unmarred joy or be frightened by it ever. The mask of action, / which I have brought you hidden in my pack, will conceal your remote, transparent face. Put it on. Let's be going." {Translated by Peter Bien)</poem>
  • Philoctetes appears as a character in two Michael Ondaatje poems, entitled "The Goodnight" and "Philoctetes On The Island." Both appear in his 1979 book, There's a trick with a knife I'm learning to do.
  • Derek Walcott's modern Caribbean epic, Omeros, includes a character named Philoctete; he receives a wound and clearly alludes to the Greek narrative.
  • Philoctetes is mentioned in Poem VIII of "21 Love Poems" by Adrienne Rich:
<poem> "I can see myself years back at Sunion, hurting with an inflated foot, Philoctetes in woman's form, limping the long path, lying on a headland over the dark sea, looking down the red rocks to where a soundless curl of white told me a wave had struck, imagining the pull of that water from that height, knowing deliberate suicide wasn't my metier, yet all the time nursing, measuring that wound." </poem>
  • Chapter 11 of Ursula Krechel's long poem Stimmen aus dem harten Kern (2005) focuses on Philoctetes. (Bilingual edition Voices from the Bitter Core, trans. Amy Kepple Strawser 2010.)


  • In the 1998 novel Sirena by Donna Jo Napoli, Philoctetes is included as a main character. The book focuses on the title character Sirena, a mermaid who falls in love with Philoctetes, during his stay on Lemnos. The main conflict of the book is overcoming the differences between species, and the differences in longevity, by his love she gains immortality. and Sirena's doubts of whether his love is true or a result of her enchanted song. She cared for him and tended to his wounds, caused by a serpent of Hera. They would heal during the day, and return at night. In the novel it is Achilles's son, Neoptolemus, who refuses to leave Philoctetes behind, but after having them returned, he leaves a single arrow with her, and returns to Greece.
  • Mark Merlis features a version of Philoctetes in his 1998 AIDS-themed novel An Arrow's Flight.
  • Philoctetes makes several appearances in the 2007 French novel/collection of linked short stories La chaussure sur le toit by Vincent Delecroix. In "L'élément tragique", Philoctète is a character who has been abandoned with a weapon and a festering leg wound on the roof of Parisian apartment building; a Ulysse and a young Néoptolème are also part of the story. In another related story,"Caractère de chien", a dog narrates the story of his master, a writer so obsessed with the story of Philoctéte and overcome by the notion of abandonment that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.


  • Philoctetes makes an appearance in the 1997 animated movie Hercules. In it, Philoctetes (usually referred to simply as "Phil") is a satyr and Hercules' trainer. He is voiced by Danny DeVito.


  • The Torchwood episode "Greeks Bearing Gifts" has the alien serial-killer Mary (played by Daniella Denby-Ashe) refer to herself as Philoctetes, in reference to his exile on Lemnos. She was transported to Earth for crimes which she described as "political" but her testimony is probably untrustworthy. Unlike classical Philoctetes, she is not recalled to her home but, rather, consigned by Captain Jack to the center of the Sun.


  • Sophocles' play forms the basis of an essay by Edmund Wilson The Wound and the Bow, in the book of the same name.

Modern art



See also

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