Philoctetes’s bow and arrows drive most of the plot of Sophocles’s Philoctetes, and they represent Philoctetes’s power, or “prowess,” as Heracles puts it; however, Philoctetes’s bow and arrows also represent his obligation to the gods. According to myth, Philoctetes is gifted the bow and arrows, which never miss their mark, by Heracles after Philoctetes showed him mercy and compassion. Before Heracles was deified, he was a mortal hero suffering and dying after being injured in battle, and he wished to be placed on his funeral pyre while still alive to end his suffering. However, no one would agree to light to the fire except for Philoctetes, and Heracles gave him the bow and arrows in thanks for his service. Philoctetes’s bow and arrows keep him alive on the deserted island Lemnos after he is abandoned there on account of his wound. Even in his extreme pain and suffering, Philoctetes is able to shoot birds and game and sustain a meager life. But when Neoptolemus effectively steals the bow and arrows, he also strips Philoctetes of his power and the ability to keep himself alive. Without the arrows that never miss, Philoctetes has no hope of surviving in his weakened and injured state. Neoptolemus does eventually give Philoctetes back the bow and arrows, but when Heracles appears at the end of the play, he makes it clear that Philoctetes must take the bow and arrows to Troy and end the Trojan War for the greater good of the Greeks. Not only does Philoctetes have an obligation to serve the greater good of the Greeks, he also has an obligation to obey the gods and use the bow and arrows as they see fit, and so the weapons are symbols of his debt to the gods as well as his power to fend for himself.
Philoctetes’s Bow and Arrows Quotes in Philoctetes
Now let me explain why you can safely meet
This man and secure his trust, when I can not.
You didn’t sail with the main expedition. You weren’t
Committed by oath or forced into taking part.
But every one of these charges applies to me.
If he sights me while the bow’s in his own possession,
I’m finished and you’ll be finished for being with me.
Those weapons can’t be resisted. Our task must be
To contrive a way for you to steal them from him.
I know, my boy, it isn’t part of your nature
To tell untruths or resort to double-dealing.
But victory’s a prize worth gaining. Bring yourself
To do it. We’ll prove our honesty later on.
Now, for a few hours, put yourself in my hands
And forgo your scruples. Then, for the rest of time,
Be called the most god-fearing man in the world!
His dreadful fate’s no wonder to me.
If I have an inkling, his sufferings first
Were sent by the gods, when he entered the shrine
Of cruel Chryse, who dealt him his wound.
So what he endures now, far from his friends.
Must also be due to the will of some god:
He may not aim those god-given shafts,
Which none can resist, at the towers of Troy,
Till the time has come when the prophet declares
Those arrows will prove her destruction.
I’m here because the two Greek generals, backed
By Odysseus, shamefully flung me ashore, alone
And abandoned, to waste away with a raging wound.
Struck down by the savage bite of a deadly snake.
With that for company, son, they marooned me here
And left me to rot on my own. (The fleet had sailed
From the isle of Chryse, and this was their first port of call.)
Then once, to their joy, they’d seen me asleep on the shore
After a stormy passage, they laid me inside
A rocky cave and left, tossing me out
A few beggarly rags, with a small amount of available
Food to keep me alive and avoid pollution.
Death, death, I call on you to my aid
Like this every day. Why can you never come?
My boy, you are nobly born. Seize my body
And burn me in the volcano, the holy fire
Of Lemnos. Be true to your nature. I brought myself
To do the same for Heracles, son of Zeus,
The hero who gave me the arms you now are guarding.
What do you say, my son? Oh, speak!
Why are you dumb? You seem to be lost, boy!
You are not bad, I’m sure. But wicked men
Have taught you this base behavior. Leave it to others
And sail. But first return my weapons to me.
Odysseus: Please tell me why you’re coming back!
What’s all this frantic haste for, man?
Neoptolemus: To undo the wrongs that I did before.
Odysseus: I don’t understand. What wrong have you done?
Neoptolemus: I listened to you and the whole Greek army.
Odysseus: What wicked action did that entail?
Neoptolemus: Guile and deceit to entrap a man.
Odysseus: For god’s sake, whom? What crazy idea . . .
Neoptolemus: Not crazy at all. To give Philoctetes . . .
Odysseus: What do you mean to do? I’m frightened.
Neoptolemus: To restore this bow I stole to its proper . . .
Odysseus: What! Are you going to give it back?
Neoptolemus: Yes, it was shameful and wrong to take it.
Odysseus: For heaven’s sake, are you joking with me?
Neoptolemus: If telling the truth is a joke, I am.
Odysseus: Look here, Neoptolemus! What do you mean?
Neoptolemus: Have I got to repeat it three times over?
Odysseus: I wish I needn’t have heard it once.
Neoptolemus: Well, it’s all that I have to say.
Odysseus: Be careful! You may quite well be prevented.
Neoptolemus: Tell me, Odysseus, who will prevent me?
Odysseus: The whole Greek army, myself included.
Neoptolemus: A foolish remark for a clever man!
Odysseus: Your words and actions are no less foolish.
Neoptolemus: I’d rather my actions were right than wise.
You’ll go with Neoptolemus to Troy,
Where first your painful wound will soon be healed.
Then, chosen for your prowess from the host,
You’ll use my bow and arrows to bring down
Paris, the cause of all this bitter strife.
When you’ve sacked Troy, the army will present
You with the prize of valour, and you’ll bear
Your spoils back to your home on Oeta’s heights
To show your father Poeas. Do not fail,
Whatever spoils the army grants to you,
To lay a portion on my pyre in tribute
To my bow.
My words concern you too. You’ll not take Troy
Without his aid, nor he without your help.
No, each one guard the other, like two lions
Prowling the bush together. [to Philoctetes:] I shall send
Asclepius to heal your wounds in Troy.
The citadel must be captured by my bow
A second time. But when you lay the land
To waste, remember this: show piety
Towards the gods, since nothing ranks so high
With Zeus. For piety does not die with men.
Men live or die, but piety cannot perish.