Pants and shirts: Shirt of Nessus – the poisoned shirt that killed Heracles (Greek mythology)

In Greek mythology, the Shirt of Nessus, Tunic of Nessus, Nessus-robe, or Nessus’ shirt was the poisoned shirt that killed Heracles. It was once a popular reference in literature. In folkloristics, it is considered an instance of the “poison dress” motif.


Fearing that Heracles had taken a new lover in Iole, his wife Deianeira gives him the “shirt” (actually a chiton), which was stained with the blood of the centaur Nessus. She had been tricked by the dying Nessus into believing it would serve as a potion to ensure her husband’s faithfulness. In fact, it contained the venom of the Lernaean Hydra with which Heracles had poisoned the arrow he used to kill Nessus. When Heracles puts it on, the Hydra’s venom begins to cook him alive, and to escape this unbearable pain he builds a funeral pyre and throws himself on it.

Metaphorically, it represents “a source of misfortune from which there is no escape; a fatal present; anything that wounds the susceptibilities” or a “destructive or expiatory force or influence”.

Historical references
Münster Rebellion
During the anabaptist Münster Rebellion of 1534, a fifteen-year-old girl named Hille Feyken (or Feiken) attempted to deceive Münster’s Prince-Bishop Franz von Waldeck who had been commanding a protracted siege of the city. Her plan was to pretend to defect and entice the Bishop with information about the cities’ defenses while giving him a handsome shirt soaked in poison. Before her plan could be carried out she was betrayed by another defector, who warned the bishop, and Feyken was tortured and then killed.

Hitler plot

Major-General Henning von Tresckow, one of the primary conspirators in the July 20 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, famously referred to the “Robe of Nessus” following the realization that the assassination plot had failed and that he and others involved in the conspiracy would lose their lives as a result: “None of us can complain about our own deaths. Everyone who joined our circle put on the ‘Robe of Nessus’.”

References in literature
William Shakespeare
In Act 4.12 of Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra, Mark Antony is in a rage after losing the Battle of Actium and exclaims, “The shirt of Nessus is upon me.”

Alexandre Dumas

In his work The Count of Monte Cristo, after Benedetto reveals in court that the crown prosecutor Monsieur de Villefort was his illegitimate father, he (de Villefort) forfeits his job and he removes his robes because it was a burden and torment to him, using the shirt of Nessus as a metaphor.

T.S. Eliot
In section IV of his poem “Little Gidding”, the final poem of Four Quartets, Eliot alludes to the Nessus myth and the Herculean “Shirt of Flame” in his lines:

… Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.

John Barth
The Shirt of Nessus (1952) is the title of the master’s thesis of noted American postmodern novelist John Barth. Written for the Writing Seminars program at Johns Hopkins University, which Barth himself later ran, The Shirt of Nessus is not a dissertation, but rather a short novel or novella. It can be considered Barth’s first full-length fictional work, and it also is likely to remain his most elusive. Barth, not unlike a fair number of other authors, has revealed himself to be embarrassed by his early unpublished work—in his case, most work before The Floating Opera. The Shirt of Nessus is briefly referenced in both of Barth’s nonfiction collections, The Friday Book and Further Fridays, but little is known of its actual content. The only known copies not held by the author were kept in the Johns Hopkins school library and the Writing Seminars Department thesis copies, but recent inquiries by devoted Barth fans have shown that the copy held by the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins disappeared in the mid-1960s, while the other seems to have mysteriously “walked out” of the school’s special collections division of the library. It is the opinion of some notable JHU faculty members who occasionally talk to Barth that he may have been the mastermind behind these disappearances himself. While that remains speculation, when the special collections division notified Barth in 2002 (when the volume was first found to be missing), Barth responded that he “was not altogether unhappy the library no longer had a copy”. Update: Novelist and scholar David Morell, in the updated, e-book edition of his study of Barth John Barth: An Introduction, notes that he long ago obtained a photocopy of Barth’s “The Shirt of Nessus.”

Robert Duncan

In the “Introduction” to Bending the Bow: “Pound sought coherence in The Cantos and comes in Canto 116 to lament ‘and I cannot make it cohere.’ But the ‘SPLENDOUR, IT ALL COHERES’ of the poet’s Herakles in The Women of Trachis is a key or recognition of a double meaning that turns in the lock of the Nessus shirt.”

In Audit/Poetry IV.3, issue featuring Robert Duncan, in his long polemic with Robin Blaser’s translation of The Chimeres of Gerard de Nerval, which Duncan believes deliberately and fatally omit the mystical and gnostic overtones of the original, Duncan writes: “The mystical doctrine of neo-Pythagorean naturalism has become like a Nessus shirt to the translator, and in the translation we hear Heracles’ tortured cry from Pound’s version of the Women of Trachis from Sophokles: ‘it all coheres.'”

Hyam Plutzik

In Hyam Plutzik’s poem “Portrait”, which appears in his collection Apples From Shinar, the poet writes of a Jewish-American character in the late 1950s who has successfully assimilated, and is able to “ignore the monster, the mountain—/A few thousand years of history.” Except for one problem, “one ill-fitting garment…The shirt, the borrowed shirt, /The Greek shirt.” The last line reveals the “Greek shirt” is “a shirt by Nessus.”

Other appearances in fiction

In Robertson Davies’s novel Fifth Business, Dunstan buys an expensive silk shirt at a cost beyond his means. He purchases it out of envy for his rival, Boy Staunton, who is living a life of wealth while attending the same university. “It burned me like the shirt of Nessus, but I wore it to rags, to get my money out of it, garment of the guilty luxury that it was.”
In H. Rider Haggard’s Montezuma’s Daughter, when Otomie the princess is made to wear the garb of a low-class woman in order to escape imprisonment, the narrator states that “for her proud heart, that dress was the very shirt of Nessus.”
In James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen, the title character dons the shirt of Nessus and is transported by it on his travels, in the end of the story he is allowed to take it off, in contradiction to the usual conventions.
Also in Mihai Eminescu’s poem, “Ode (In ancient meter)”, 883, Romanian to English]
Or like Hercules by his garment poisoned;
By my own illusion consumed I’m wailing
On my own grim pyre in flames I’m melting…
In Patrick O’Brian’s novel The Surgeon’s Mate, Stephen Maturin reflects on his friend Sir Joseph Blain’s lament for his diminished sexual appetite. Blaine comments “You are a younger man than I am, Maturin, and it may be that you do not know from experience that the absence of torment may be a worse torment still: you may wish to throw a hair shirt aside, not realizing that it is the hair shirt alone that keeps you warm. ‘A Nessus’ Shirt might be more apt’ said Stephen, quite unheard.”
In Mary Renault’s novel The Charioteer, the matron of the ward of the military hospital where Laurie ‘Spud’ Odell is convalescing is introduced as follows:
Matron had just arrived, and done a round. She came poking into the ward, her petticoat showing slightly, defensively frigid; she had been promoted beyond her dreams and it had been a Nessus’ shirt to her. Homesick for her little country nursing home, she peered down the line of beds, noting with dismay how many men were up and at large, rough men with rude, cruel laughter, who wrote things on walls, who talked about women, who got VD (but then one was able to transfer them elsewhere). She was wretched, but her career was booming.
In Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series of books a vague reference is made to the Shirt of Nessus as the brothers Travis and Connor Stoll give a T-shirt coated in Centaur blood to one of Artemis’ Hunters. While in this telling the pain caused is not insufferable, the immortal hunter was laid up with a bad case of hives as a result of the brothers’ prank.
In Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series, the city from which Severian, the main character, originates is called Nessus. The main character himself is referred to as “The New Sun”, and ultimately his attempt to revive the Urth/Earth with a new sun causes a gravitational distortion that floods the whole of the Earth and destroys his home city.
In Assia Djebar’s Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade the author assumes her own voice and writes that acquiring and using the French language has been like donning the Shirt of Nessus.
In Yasmina Khadra’s The Swallows of Kabul a character despising the use of the burqa by Muslim extremists compares it to donning the Shirt of Nessus
Lucy Larcom’s anti-war and anti-slavery ballad “Weaving” is a soliloquy of a northern factory woman working at her loom who compares the cloth she weaves with a Nessus-robe for the Southern slave women who suffered to produce the cotton.
References in Film and Television
In the 1994 movie Hercules in the Underworld, similar to the original myth, Nessus tricks Deianeira into believing his blood will keep Hercules faithful. When she suspects Hercules is having an affair with Iole, she sends him a cloak smeared with the blood. When he puts it on, it comes to life and tries to strangle him, but he manages to tear it off and destroy it.
In an episode of the crime drama Criminal Minds, “Heathridge Manor”, where the BAU hunts a serial killer who kills women with dresses (based on ones used in a local production of The Merry Wives of Windsor) soaked in nicotine. Spencer Reid mentions the Shirt of Nessus as an example of poisoned clothing.
In the 2010 movie Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, King Sharaman is assassinated by a gifted poisoned robe.
References in non-fiction
It is also the title of a 1956 non-fiction book dealing with anti-Nazi groups in Germany during World War II.
The Polish dissident writer Jan Józef Lipski published a collection of essays called Tunika Nessosa (“The Shirt of Nessos”), dealing with, and critical of, Polish Catholic nationalism. Lipski called nationalism the shirt of Nessos, which destroys the cultural genius of a nation.
In Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, an Autobiography of Faith, he writes about the false humility of hell:
There is a certain kind of humility in hell which is one of the worst things in hell, and which is infinitely far from the humility of the saints, which is peace. The false humility of hell is an unending, burning shame at the inescapable stigma of our sins. The sins of the damned are felt by them as a vesture of intolerable insults from which they cannot escape. Nessus shirts that burn them up forever and which they can never throw off.
As referenced in Robert Massie’s tome Catherine The Great, A Portrait Of A Woman, Catherine’s former lover, Stanislau Poniatowski the King of Poland, writes to Catherine that the crown she procured for him would become a shirt of Nessus: “I shall be burned alive and my end frightful.” Catherine’s support for dissident Russian Orthodox believers, a Polish minority, against the majority Catholic rulers created an untenable situation in Polish politics that led to many uprisings against the Russian interference in Polish domestic squabbles.

In Lily Briscoe: A Self Portrait, An Autobiography by Mary Meigs, she writes: “The ideas people have of us are saturated with a kind of burning poison, like the shirt of Nessus, and they stick to the skin of our “selves,” for although there is an affirmative voice that cries, “Can’t you see that this is my real self?” another self-doubting voice is slyly whispering, “Could it be true?”

This artifact is a part of SwordTemple Library

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