The Living Shouldn’t Eat Brains: The Story of Tydeus

In the spirit of the week before Halloween, below are the major accounts of Diomedes’ father, Tydeus, who was rejected by Athena after eating brains. The tale has simple symbolism that echoes modern associations with zombies (the dead need to steal life force from the living). The tale is equal parts about the impossibility of immortality and drawing boundaries about proper human behavior.

It is also about eating brains.

Hom. Il. 5.801

“Tydeus was a little man, but a fighter.”

Τυδεύς τοι μικρὸς μὲν ἔην δέμας, ἀλλὰ μαχητής·


Schol. AbT ad Il. 5.126

“They say that when Tydeus was wounded by Melanippos Astakos’ son, he got pretty upset. And Amphiarus, after he killed Melanippus, gave his head to Tydeus. Like a beast, Tydeus ripped it open and slurped up his brains to his fill. Athena happened to be there at that time, bringing some immortal medicine to him from heaven, and she turned back out of disgust. When he saw her, he asked that she favor his son with the divine favor. That’s Pherecydes’ story.”

Τυδέα τρωθέντα ὑπὸ Μελανίππου τοῦ ᾿Αστακοῦ σφόδρα ἀγανακτῆσαι. ᾿Αμφιάρεων δὲ κτείναντα τὸν Μελάνιππον δοῦναι τὴν κεφαλὴν Τυδεῖ. τὸν δὲ δίκην θηρὸς ἀναπτύξαντα ῥοφᾶν τὸν ἐγκέφαλον ἀπὸ θυμοῦ. κατ’ ἐκεῖνο δὲ καιροῦ παρεῖναι ᾿Αθηνᾶν ἀθανασίαν αὐτῷ φέρουσαν ἐξ οὐρανοῦ καὶ διὰ τὸ μύσος ἀπεστράφθαι. τὸν δὲ θεασάμενον παρακαλέσαι κἂν τῷ παιδὶ αὐτοῦ χαρίσασθαι τὴν ἀθανασίαν. ἱστορεῖ Φερεκύδης (FGrHist 3, 97). A b (BC) T


Schol. in Pind. Nem. 11.43b

“That Melanippos was Theban and stood in battle against Tydeus. It seems that Tydeus took his head in rage, smashed it, and gulped up his brains. For this reason, Athena turned back even though she was bringing him a revitalizing drug.”
(FHG I O M, I 117 J). ὁ δὲ Μελάνιππος οὗτος Θηβαῖος ἦν ἐπὶ τοῦ πολέμου συστὰς τῷ Τυδεῖ. τούτου δοκεῖ διὰ τὴν ὀργὴν λαβὼν ὁ Τυδεὺς τὴν κεφαλὴν καὶ ῥήξας ἐκροφῆσαι τὸν ἐγκέφαλον· διὸ καὶ ἀπεστράφη ἡ ᾿Αθηνᾶ τότε κομίζουσα αὐτῷ
τὴν ἀθανασίαν…


Schol. in Theoc. Proleg. 15-18b

“From man-eating Tydeus: For that Tydeus ate Melannipus’ brains down to the marrow.”

Τυδέως τοῦ ἀνδροβρῶτος—ἔφαγε γὰρ οὗτος ὁ Τυδεὺς τὴν κεφαλὴν τοῦ Μελανίππου καταρροφήσας τὸν ἐν αὐτῇ μυελόν.


Schol ad. Lyk. 1066 1-7

of the head-munching Tydeus: the story goes that during the Theban war, Tydeus ate up Melanippus’ head. Thus, Tydeus is called “head-muncher” and his child is Diomedes.”

τοῦ κρατοβρῶτος
τοῦ Τυδέως, ἐπειδὴ ἐν τῷ
Θηβαϊκῷ πολέμῳ λέγεται ὁ
Τυδεὺς τὴν κεφαλὴν τοῦ Μελα-
νίππου κατεδηδοκέναι. κρα-
τοβρῶτος οὖν ὁ Τυδεύς,
παῖς δὲ αὐτοῦ ὁ Διομήδης.


Kallierges (Etym. Magn.)

“Tydeus, from tuthon (“a little”); for he was small for his age group.”

Τυδεύς: Παρὰ τὸ τυτθόν· μικρὸς γὰρ ἦν τῇ ἡλικίᾳ.


Note the variations in the narrative Apollodorus introduces by bringing all the details together: Amphiarus becomes the villain here!

Apollodorus, 3.76-77

“Melanippus, the last of Astacus’ children, wounded Tydeus in the stomach. While he was lying there half-dead, Athena brought him medicine she had begged from Zeus in order to make him immortal. But when Amphiarus perceived this, because he hated Tydues for persuading the Argives to march against Thebes against his own judgment, he cut off Melanippus’ head and gave it to him (Tydeus killed him when he was wounded). He drew out the brains and gobbled them up. When Athena saw him, she was disturbed, and withheld and kept the medicine.”

Μελάνιππος δὲ ὁ λοιπὸς τῶν ᾿Αστακοῦ παίδων εἰς τὴν γαστέρα Τυδέα τιτρώσκει.
ἡμιθνῆτος δὲ αὐτοῦ κειμένου παρὰ Διὸς αἰτησαμένη ᾿Αθηνᾶ φάρμακον ἤνεγκε, δι’ οὗ ποιεῖν ἔμελλεν ἀθάνατον αὐτόν. ᾿Αμφιάραος δὲ αἰσθόμενος τοῦτο, μισῶνΤυδέα ὅτι παρὰ τὴν ἐκείνου γνώμην εἰς Θήβας ἔπεισε τοὺς ᾿Αργείους στρατεύεσθαι, τὴν Μελανίππου κεφαλὴν ἀποτεμὼν ἔδωκεν αὐτῷ (τιτρωσκόμενος δὲ Τυδεὺς ἔκτεινεν αὐτόν). ὁ δὲ διελὼν τὸν ἐγκέφαλον ἐξερρόφησεν. ὡς δὲ εἶδεν ᾿Αθηνᾶ, μυσαχθεῖσα τὴν εὐεργεσίαν ἐπέσχε τε καὶ ἐφθόνησεν.


An Etruscan relief from Pyrgi

Sextus Empiricus, Pyrrhoniae Hypotyposes 3.208

“We consider eating human flesh to be wrong; but it is a matter of ambivalence among the barbarians. But why should we even speak of ‘barbarians’ when Tydeus is said to have eaten an enemy’s brains and when the Stoics claim it is not strange for someone to eat another’s flesh or his own?”

ἀγαθῷ τινι τούτῳ χρῆσθαι τῷ κακῷ πυνθανόμεθα. ἀλλὰ καὶ τὸ ἀνθρωπείων γεύεσθαι σαρκῶν παρ’ ἡμῖν μὲν ἄθεσμον, παρ’ ὅλοις δὲ βαρβάροις ἔθνεσιν ἀδιάφορόν ἐστιν.

καὶ τί δεῖ τοὺς βαρβάρους λέγειν, ὅπου καὶ ὁ Τυδεὺς τὸν ἐγκέφαλον τοῦ πολεμίου λέγεται φαγεῖν, καὶ οἱ ἀπὸ τῆς Στοᾶς οὐκ ἄτοπον εἶναί φασι τὸ σάρκας τινὰ ἐσθίειν ἄλλων τε ἀνθρώπων καὶ ἑαυτοῦ;

A System of Reading: Vergerio vs. Johnson

Vergerio,de ingenuis moribus et liberalibus adulescentiae studiis, LI:

“To the excessive desire of knowing and learning, there is often joined a disordered curiosity of looking into things. For, when people wish to know many things from individual studies, they look into multiple branches of learning at one time, and are carried away here and there; alternatively, they embrace one study with all of their strength, and then set it aside to look a little into another study, and then another. This approach is not just unproductive, but positively destructive. For, as in reality, so in the proverb: wine which is too often rebottled becomes sour.

Therefore, it is proper to stick to one subject and pursue it eagerly, and to try to receive the subjects in that order in which they were transmitted by their author. There are those who read books without any order by now starting at the end, now reading a bit in the middle, and later receiving what should have come first; these people accomplish nothing but making it appear that they have neglected everything.* It is best that we should turn over very many books of the same discipline, so that we might always have the best ones foremost.”

Huic autem nimiae sciendi discendique cupiditati coniuncta solet esse inordinata quaedam curiositas investigandi. Cum enim multa de singulis asciscere student, variis uno tempore disciplinis incumbunt, et nunc illac, nunc hac referuntur, aut nunc quidem unam viribus totis amplectuntur, inde vero ad modicum illa reiecta aliam atque aliam. Quae res non modo prorsus inutilis est, sed vehementer etiam damnosa. Nam ut in re est et proverbio dicitur: acescunt vina quae saepius transvasantur. Itaque immorari uni rei decet et eam omni studio prosequi, disciplinasque eo ordine capere tentare, quo sunt a suis auctoribus traditae. Nam qui libros inordinate legunt, nunc a fine facientes initium, nunc media interlegentes, et quod primum esse debuerat, postremum accipiunt, hi autem temere nihil aliud proficiunt quam ut omnia neglexisse videantur. De libris autem qui sunt eiusdem disciplinae, ita quidem permultos versari convenit, ut meliores semper praecipuos habeamus.

*This approach is markedly different from that advocated by Samuel Johnson in Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 

“He said, that for general improvement, a man should read whatever his immediate inclination prompts him to; though, to be sure, if a man has a science to learn, he must regularly and resolutely advance. He added, ‘what we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read.’ He told us, he read Fielding’s Amelia through without stopping. He said, ‘if a man begins to read in the middle of a book, and feels an inclination to go on, let him not quit it, to go to the beginning. He may perhaps not feel again the inclination.'”

A Week Until Halloween? Time for some Werewolves!

Last year, before Halloween, we got all excited about ancient Werewolves. This year, we are doing it all over again. We will talk about therapeutic treatments for lycanthropy, the ritual origins of some Greek beliefs, and a Roman ghost story from Petronius.  Butlet’s start with the oldest reference to werewolves from classical antiquity, Herodotus’ description of the Neuroi.

Histories, 4.105

The Neuroi are Skythian culturally, but one generation before Darius’ invasion they were driven from their country by snakes. It happens that their land produces many snakes; and even more descended upon them from the deserted regions to the point that they were overwhelmed and left their own country to live with the Boudinoi.

These men may actually be wizards. For the Skythians and even the Greeks who have settled in Skythia report that once each year the Neurian men turn into wolves for a few days and then transform back into themselves again. People who say these things don’t persuade me, but they tell the tale still and swear to it when they do.”

Some Skythians were less civilized...

Some Skythians were less civilized…

Νευροὶ δὲ νόμοισι μὲν χρέωνται Σκυθικοῖσι. Γενεῇ δὲ μιῇ πρότερόν σφεας τῆς Δαρείου στρατηλασίης κατέλαβε ἐκλιπεῖν τὴν χώρην πᾶσαν ὑπὸ ὀφίων· ὄφις γάρ σφι πολλοὺς μὲν ἡ χώρη ἀνέφαινε, οἱ δὲ πλέονες ἄνωθέν σφι ἐκ τῶν ἐρήμων ἐπέπεσον, ἐς ὃ πιεζόμενοι οἴκησαν μετὰ  Βουδίνων τὴν ἑωυτῶν ἐκλιπόντες.

Κινδυνεύουσι δὲ οἱ ἄνθρωποι οὗτοι γόητες εἶναι. Λέγονται γὰρ ὑπὸ Σκυθέων καὶ ῾Ελλήνων τῶν ἐν τῇ Σκυθικῇ κατοικημένων ὡς ἔτεος ἑκάστου ἅπαξ τῶν Νευρῶν ἕκαστος λύκος γίνεται ἡμέρας ὀλίγας καὶ αὖτις ὀπίσω ἐς τὠυτὸ κατίσταται· ἐμὲ μέν νυν ταῦτα λέγοντες οὐ πείθουσι, λέγουσι δὲ οὐδὲν ἧσσον, καὶ ὀμνύουσι δὲ λέγοντες.

How and Wells’ Comment as follows on this passage (available on Perseus):

λύκος γίνεται. This earliest reference to the widespread superstition as to werewolves (cf. Tylor, P. C. i. 308 seq., and Frazer, Paus. iv. 189, for Greek parallels) is interesting, as the evidence is so emphatic. Others (e. g. Müllenhoff iii. 17) see in this story a reference to some festival like the Lupercalia.

Johnson’s Knowledge of Greek

From Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson:

“A very erroneous notion has circulated as to Johnson’s deficiency in the knowledge of the Greek language, partly owing to the modesty with which, from knowing how much there was to be learnt, he used to mention his own comparative acquisitions. When Mr. Cumberland talked to him of the Greek fragments which are so well illustrated in The Observer, and of the Greek dramatists in general, he candidly acknowledged his insufficiency in that particular branch of Greek literature. Yet it may be said, that though not a great, he was a good Greek scholar. Dr. Charles Burney, the younger, who is universally acknowledged by the best judges to be one of the few men of this age who are very eminent for their skill in that noble language, has assured me, that Johnson could give a Greek word for almost every English one; and that although not sufficiently conversant in the niceties of the language, he upon some occasions discovered, even in these, a considerable degree of critical acumen. Mr. Dalzel, Professor of Greek at Edinburgh, whose skill in it is unquestionable, mentioned to me, in very liberal terms, the impression which was made upon him by Johnson, in a conversation which they had in London concerning that language. As Johnson, therefore, was undoubtedly one of the first Latin scholars in modern times, let us not deny to his fame some additional splendour from Greek.”

Ancients vs. Moderns

From Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson:

‘Sir, it has not been less admired since his death; no authours ever had so much fame in their own life-time as Pope and Voltaire; and Pope’s poetry has been as much admired since his death as during his life; it has only not been as much talked of, but that is owing to its being now more distant, and people having other writings to talk of. Virgil is less talked of than Pope, and Homer is less talked of than Virgil; but they are not less admired. We must read what the world reads at the moment. It has been maintained that this superfoetation, this teeming of the press in modern times, is prejudicial to good literature, because it obliges us to read so much of what is of inferiour value, in order to be in the fashion; so that better works are neglected for want of time, because a man will have more gratification of his vanity in conversation, from having read modern books, than from having read the best works of antiquity. But it must be considered, that we have now more knowledge generally diffused; all our ladies read now, which is a great extension. Modern writers are the moons of literature; they shine with reflected light, with light borrowed from the ancients. Greece appears to me to be the fountain of knowledge; Rome of elegance.’

Start with the Best Teachers

Vergerio, de ingenuis moribus et liberalibus adulescentiae studiis, XLIX:

“It seems right here to lay out some definitions of learning and intelligence and the types of each. In which it should first be noted that it is proper to receive not only those lessons which are given to advanced students, but even the very first elements of knowledge from the best teachers; and, that it is proper not to waste time on any random authors, but to look into the best ones. For this reason Philipp, the king of the Macedonians, wanted his son Alexander to learn his first lessons from Aristotle; for this reason, the ancient Romans took care that when they sent their children to school, they would first be brought up on Vergil. Each of these choices was made with the best reason. For, that which is instilled into young minds will set deep roots, and will not easily be removed by any force afterward.

Therefore, if students accustom themselves to the best authors at the beginning, they will always have them foremost and will always use them as guides. If, however, they should drink in any draught of error along the way, they will require twice as much time in their education – they must first get rid of their errors, and then they can partake of true learning. For this reason Timotheus, a famous musician in his own time, who was ordered into exile from Sparta because he increased the number of strings on the cithara and discovered new musical modes, used to charge a fixed price from those students who had never learned anything before; yet he charged a double price from those who had learned something from other teachers.”

Ac de doctrinis quidem et ingeniis ac utrorumque generibus ita videtur definiendum. In quibus est id ante omnia animadvertendum, quod non modo maiora illa praecepta quae provectoribus traduntur, sed et prima quoque atrium elementa ab optimis praeceptoribus accipere convenit, et ex auctoribus librorum, non quibuslibet passim immorari, sed optimis. Qua ratione et Philippus, rex Macedonum, primas litteras ab Aristotele discere Alexandrum voluit, et veteres Romanos suos liberos scholae mancipantes in Vergilio primum erudiri curabant; optima utrique ratione. Nam quod teneris mentibus insitum est, alte radices mittit, nec facile postea divelli ulla vi potest. Ergo si melioribus initio assueverint, illos habebunt praecipuos et veluti ducibus semper utentur. Sin vero errores ullos imbiberint, his duplici tempore opus erit, primum ut errores excutiant, ac deinde ut vera praecepta condiscant. Quamobrem Timotheus, musicus suo tempore illustris, qui ob multiplicatas in cithara chordas et novorum modorum adinventionem Sparta iussus est exulare, ab discipulis quidem, qui nihil apud alios profecissent, certam paciscebatur mercedem, ab iis vero, qui ex aliis quippiam edidicerant, duplam exigebat.

Invisibility Magic from Gellius and Pliny

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 10.12

12 Concerning the miraculous tales which Pliny the Elder ascribes most unworthily to the philosopher Democritus; and also about the image of a flying dove

In the twenty-eighth book of his Natural Histories, Pliny the Elder reports that there was a book by the most noble Philosopher Democritus On the Power and Nature of the Chameleon and that he had read it himself. He ascribes to it many silly and ridiculous things, allegedly written by Democritus—a few of which I remember, unwillingly, since they are so repulsive. For instance, that Democritus claimed that a hawk, the fastest of all birds, if he flies over a chameleon by chance, is suddenly dragged to the ground by a chameleon crawling below it and that after it comes down by some force offers itself willingly on the ground to be taken and torn to pieces by other birds!

Another thing that is beyond all human belief: if the head and neck of a chameleon is burned with the wood which we call oak, rain and thunder occur suddenly; the same thing, allegedly, happens if that animal is burned on the top of a house. There is still another tale which, by Hercules, I doubted that I should include since it is so absurd. But I have decided clearly that it is necessary that we speak what we think about the false incitements that come from this type of wonder—the types of things by which many sharp minds—indeed, those which are most desirous of knowledge—are often possessed and which lead them especially to ruin. But I return to Pliny. He says to roast the chameleon’s left foot with iron heated in a fire along with a herb  which bears the same name (“chameleon”), and to mix both into an ointment and to rub it into paste and place it in a wooden container. Whoever carries that, even if he is in the middle of a crowd, can be seen by no one.”


12De portentis fabularum, quae Plinius Secundus indignissime in Democritum philosophum confert; ibidem de simulacro volucri columbae.


1 Librum esse Democriti, nobilissimi philosophorum, de vi et natura chamaeleontis eumque se legisse Plinius Secundus in naturalis historiae vicesimo octavo refert multaque vana atque intoleranda auribus deinde quasi a Democrito scripta tradit, ex quibus pauca haec inviti meminimus, quia pertaesum est: 2 accipitrem avium rapidissimum a chamaeleonte humi reptante, si eum forte supervolet, detrahi et cadere vi quadam in terram ceterisque avibus laniandum sponte sua obicere sese et dedere. 3 Item aliud ultra humanam fidem: caput et collum chamaeleontis si uratur ligno, quod appellatur “robur”, imbres et tonitrus fieri derepente, idque ipsum usu venire, si iecur eiusdem animalis in summis tegulis uratur. 4 Item aliud, quod hercle an ponerem dubitavi, – ita est deridiculae vanitatis – nisi idcirco plane posui, quod oportuit nos dicere, quid de istiusmodi admirationum fallaci inlecebra sentiremus, qua plerumque capiuntur et ad perniciem elabuntur ingenia maxime sollertia eaque potissimum, quae discendi cupidiora sunt. 5 Sed redeo ad Plinium. Sinistrum pedem ait chamaeleontis ferro ex igni calefacto torreri cum herba, quae appellatur eodem nomine chamaeleontis, et utrumque macerari unguento conligique in modum pastilli atque in vas mitti ligneum et eum, qui id vas ferat, etiamsi is in medio palam versetur, a nullo videri posse.