Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

From Sophocles to the frontline

Alexandra Pliakopanou
Ioannina, Greece


Ulysses and Neoptolemus Taking Hercules’ Arrows from Philoctetes. François-Xavier Fabre, 1800, Musée Fabre. Via Wikimedia.

In the deserted misty land of Lemnos, a wailing voice echoes, emanating from a wounded warrior abandoned by his comrades nine years ago. Philoctetes, the titular character of Sophocles’ 409 BC play and once a great hero of the Greeks, now lies in misery with a festering wound that oozes pus and a foul stench that keeps everyone away.1,2 But he still has with him the legendary bow and arrows of Hercules, without which the Greeks have been told by a seer that they cannot win the Trojan War. Because of this, the great Odysseus, king of Ithaca and one of the main Greek war leaders, sails to Lemnos to bring back the bow and arrows by force or fraud. He has under his command Neoptolemus, a young Greek soldier whom he sends to carry out his designs.

Neoptolemus at first hesitates to use the deception and trickery ordered by his commander.2 His stance shifts, since Odysseus—supporting the notion “the end justifies the means”—feeds Neoptolemus’ youthful ambition for honor and glory. But as the play progresses, Neoptolemus struggles with the guilt of having deceived Philoctetes. It is an ethical dilemma, relevant to the modern world, the recent COVID-19 pandemic, and medical ethics.3

Like for Philoctetes, the recent pandemic unpredictably reversed our fates, limiting our control over our freedoms and making themes of isolation and conflict between individual and collective interests all too relevant. Under these circumstances, medical professionals have faced difficult decisions about allocating scarce medical resources and prioritizing some patients over others.3 Yet the legendary bow and arrows handed to Philoctetes by Hercules for his bravery can be symbols too, representing the power of medical interventions in the right hands, governed by moral standards, to alter fate for the better.

Another issue raised is the role of empathy when efficiency and detachment may be considered more important than providing compassionate care. The play emphasizes the importance of treating patients with compassion and understanding. Philoctetes’ suffering after being abandoned for years, with no human element other than his echo, is exacerbated by his loneliness. Cut off from the rest of the world,4 he experiences immense emotional pain, depression, despair, and loss of sense of self, flirting with insanity. Neoptolemus’ empathy is finally triggered when Philoctetes, in intense suffering, asks him to amputate his leg,2,5 eliminating the distance between the two and leading Neoptolemus to reveal having been coerced to deceive him. Doctors witness suffering daily; Philoctetes’ screams of pain could be the screams of a patient in the emergency department. The answer to his screams could have been indifference or violence, but instead, it was words of appeasement and promise.

The play ultimately emphasizes the potential for healing and recovery even in the face of difficult circumstances. Neoptolemus, while at first indignant at Odysseus’ command to entice Philoctetes, feigns animosity towards the Greeks and thus gains Philoctetes’ trust. They are about to leave Lemnos when Philoctetes is seized with a paroxysm of pain and entrusts his valuable bow and arrows to Neoptolemus. Odysseus appears and tries to prevent him from giving it back to Philoctetes. In the end, Neoptolemus follows his conscience. He hands back the bow to Philoctetes and defies the anger of his comrades by intending to escort him back to Greece. However, as they depart, Hercules appears as a deus ex machina, assuring Philoctetes that his coming to Troy will heal his pain and grant victory for the Greeks. He persuades him to sail with Neoptolemus to Troy, where his wound will be healed with the help of Asclepius’ sons.2 Sophocles’ Philoctetes may be a tragedy, but in the end, both collective and individual interests are addressed, as though all according to divine plan. When the patient is treated with empathy, catharsis will follow.

Thus, the timeless play of Sophocles, though not a medical text per se, adds to the narrative corpus of medicine. It has traversed centuries with its resonant themes of suffering and healing, and it provides valuable insight into the realms of medical education, ethical decision-making, mental health, and the importance of empathy and compassion. Philoctetes thus comprises a testament to the enduring power of storytelling.



  1. Storr F. Sophocles: With an English Translation, Vol 2. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press; 1967.
  2. Johnston I. Philoctetes by Sophocles (translation). Arlington, VA: Richard Resources Publications; 2008.
  3. Kampourelli V. Historical empathy and medicine: Pathography and empathy in Sophocles’ Philoctetes. Med Health Care Philos. 2022;25(3):561-75.
  4. Leder D. Illness and Exile: Sophocles’ Philoctetes. Literature and Medicine. 1990;9(1):1-11.
  5. Allen-Hornblower E. Sounds and Suffering in Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Gide’s Philoctète. Studi italiani di filologia classica. 2013;11:5-41.



ALEXANDRA PLIAKOPANOU is a third-year medical student at the University of Ioannina, Greece. She has a strong interest in neuroscience and bioethics and aspires to combine the practice of medicine and research with a patient-centered approach to caregiving.


Submitted for the 2022–23 Medical Student Essay Contest

Spring 2023  |  Sections  |  Ethics

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