The Sons of Odysseus Part 4, Telegonos

(This is a continuation of a search for all the children of Odysseus)

In our version of Hesiod’s Theogony, Telegonos appears in a disputed line as one of the sons of Kirkê and Odysseus. It is thought that the line was interpolated to keep Hesiod ‘current’ with the Cyclic poem the Telegony by Eugammon of Cyrene (which is lost):
“Kirkê, the daughter of Helios, Hyperion’s son,
After having sex with Odysseus, gave birth to
Agrios and Latînos, blameless and strong.
And she also gave birth to Telegonos thanks to golden Aphrodite.
Her sons rule far away in the recess of the holy islands
Among the glorious Tursênians.”

Κίρκη δ’ ᾿Ηελίου θυγάτηρ ῾Υπεριονίδαο
γείνατ’ ᾿Οδυσσῆος ταλασίφρονος ἐν φιλότητι
῎Αγριον ἠδὲ Λατῖνον ἀμύμονά τε κρατερόν τε•
[Τηλέγονον δὲ ἔτικτε διὰ χρυσῆν ᾿Αφροδίτην•]
οἳ δή τοι μάλα τῆλε μυχῷ νήσων ἱεράων
πᾶσιν Τυρσηνοῖσιν ἀγακλειτοῖσιν ἄνασσον.

West (1966, 434-5) considers the line about Telegonos to be a Byzantine interpolation. Though I do not aim to argue strenuously against troubling this line, it is important to note that Telegonos’ name (“born far away”; “begotten far away”) may be echoed in the line after the supposed interpolation (μάλα τῆλε). Both his and Telemakhos’ names in marking their distance, their ‘farness’, seem to echo the far-flung traveling nature of their father.

(And though Telemakhos is obviously in the Odyssey and mentioned in the Iliad, neither he nor Telegonos have a large presence in the larger body of myth. Both are largely absent from Archaic and Classical Greek art…)

Eustathius (Comm. Ad Od.1.142.35) explains such naming for sons: “Concerning being born far off, it is sufficiently clear in the Iliad. And now it will be addressed to an extent. Among the ancients, that someone is far-born is not only about where he was born, as the only son of Menelaos was Megapenthes, but that he was born when he father was far away or grew up in this way after he was born. A first example of this is Telegonos who was born from Kirkê when Odysseus was far away.”

Περὶ δὲ τοῦ τηλύγετος, ἱκανῶς ἡ ᾿Ιλιὰς δηλοῖ. νῦν δὲ εἰς τοσοῦτον ῥητέον. ὡς τηλύγετος παῖς παρὰ τοῖς παλαιοῖς, οὐ μόνον μεθ’ ὃν οὐκ ἔστι τεκνώσασθαι, ἢ ὁ μόνος υἱὸς ὡς ὁ Μεγαπένθης ἐνταῦθα τῷ Μενελάῳ, ἀλλὰ καὶ ὁ τῆλε ὄντι τῷ πατρὶ γεννηθεὶς, ἢ καὶ αὐξηθεὶς μετὰ γέννησιν. παράδειγμα τοῦ πρώτου, Τηλέγονος ὁ ἐκ Κίρκης τῆλέ που γεννηθεὶς τῷ ᾿Οδυσσεῖ.

While there are tidbits about Telegonos spread here and there—and he is certainly the best attested son of Odysseus after Telemachus—his most well-known appearance is in the summary of the Epic Cycle poems to be found in Proclus’ Chrestomathia (“useful knowledge”):
“In that epic [Telegony] Telegonos left home sailing in search of his father and arrived in Ithaca. Odysseus was called out by him and then killed by his own son out of ignorance.
When Telegonos recognized the mistake he transferred the corpse, Telemakhos and Penelope to his mother. She made them immortal and he lived with Penelope while Telemakhos lived with Kirkê.”

κἀν τούτῳ Τηλέγονος ἐπὶ ζήτησιν τοῦ πατρὸς πλέων ἀποβὰς εἰς τὴν ᾿Ιθάκην τέμνει τὴν νῆσον• ἐκβοηθήσας δ’ ᾿Οδυσσεὺς ὑπὸ τοῦ παιδὸς ἀναιρεῖται κατ’ ἄγνοιαν.
Τηλέγονος δ’ ἐπιγνοὺς τὴν ἁμαρτίαν τό τε τοῦ πατρὸς σῶμα καὶ τὸν Τηλέμαχον καὶ τὴν Πηνελόπην πρὸς τὴν μητέρα μεθίστησιν• ἡ δὲ αὐτοὺς ἀθανάτους ποιεῖ, καὶ συνοικεῖ τῇ μὲν Πηνελόπῃ Τηλέγονος, Κίρκῃ δὲ Τηλέμαχος.

This is, as most would admit, both a conventional and an odd tale. First, the son unknowingly killing a father is a reflex of paternal replacement anxiety (and a replay of the family drama). And there is a way in which the second step—where the sons marry the stepmothers—fulfills the son’s taking of the father’s place rather literally but without the actual incest of the Oedipus tale.
Telegonos’ killing of his father, not dissimilar to Perseus’s accidental killing of his, is not just a form of the paternal replacement myth; it is also connected in more than one way to our Odyssey. In book 11 of the Odyssey, Teiresias prophesies Odysseus’ death: (11.134-137):
“A gentle death will come to you from the sea
The sort which will take you when you are already
hard-pressed by a comfortable old age. Your people
will be prosperous. I have spoken these things truly.”

… θάνατος δέ τοι ἐξ ἁλὸς αὐτῷ
ἀβληχρὸς μάλα τοῖος ἐλεύσεται, ὅς κέ σε πέφνῃ
γήρᾳ ὕπο λιπαρῷ ἀρημένον• ἀμφὶ δὲ λαοὶ
ὄλβιοι ἔσσονται. τὰ δέ τοι νημερτέα εἴρω.’

A simple interpretation of Proclus’ summary of the Telegony makes it the fulfillment of the prophecy: Telegonos comes “sailing” (πλέων) from the sea and kills his father without either of them knowing the truth. A little harsh, maybe, but deaths in Greek myth are rarely pleasant. Lucian, in his True History, places Odysseus in the Islands of the Blessed and has him tell the story quite simply: “After I killed everyone else, I was later killed by Telegonos who was born from me and Kirkê. And now I am in the Islands of the Blessed!” (2.35.13: ἀποκτείνας δὲ ἅπαντας ὑπὸ Τηλεγόνου ὕστερον τοῦ ἐκ Κίρκης μοι γενομένου ἀνῃρέθην, καὶ νῦν εἰμι ἐν τῇ Μακάρων νήσῳ πάνυ).

Telegonos’ involvement in Odysseus’ death is not just attested in Proclus’ summary: Aristotle refers to it in the Poetics (1453b ὁ Τηλέγονος ὁ ἐν τῷ τραυματίᾳ ᾿Οδυσσεῖ). But it also seems that in some traditions it was not enough that Odysseus be killed by someone who came from the sea. Against the variant tradition (preferred by West 2013!) that Odysseus died from some kind of an infection caused by bird feces, a secondary feature of Telegonos’ narrative is that he had a special sting-ray spear made either by Kirkê or by Hephaistos.

A scholiast to the Odyssey glosses the “death will come to you from the sea” line as follows: “Some also say that Hephaistos at the bidding of Kirkê fashioned a spear from Telegonos from a sea sting-ray’s stinger, which Phorkys had killed while it was trying to eat fish in his harbor. The spear-base was adamantine and the handle was gold and that killed Odysseus.” (καί φασιν ὡς ἐντεύξει τῆς Κίρκης ῞Ηφαιστος κατεσκεύασε Τηλεγόνῳ δόρυ ἐκ τρυγόνος θαλασσίας, ἣν Φόρκυς ἀνεῖλεν ἐσθίουσαν τοὺς ἐν τῇ Φορκίδι λίμνῃ ἰχθῦς• οὗ τὴν μὲν ἐπιδορατίδα ἀδαμαντίνην, τὸν δὲ στύρακα χρυσοῦν εἶναι, τὸν ᾿Οδυσσέα ἀνεῖλεν, Schol. ad. Od. 11.134).

This is the story recorded in Apollodoros’ Epitome 7.36:

“Telegonos, after learning from Kirkê that he was the child of Odysseus, sailed out looking for him. After he arrived in Ithaka, he began to steal some of the Island’s cattle and he wounded Odysseus in the hand, who came out to help against him, with a spear that had a point made of a sting-ray’s spine. Then Odysseus died.”
[36] Τηλέγονος δὲ παρὰ Κίρκης μαθὼν ὅτι παῖς Ὀδυσσέως ἐστίν, ἐπὶ τὴν τούτου ζήτησιν ἐκπλεῖ. παραγενόμενος δὲ εἰς Ἰθάκην τὴν νῆσον ἀπελαύνει τινὰ τῶν βοσκημάτων, καὶ Ὀδυσσέα βοηθοῦντα τῷ μετὰ χεῖρας δόρατι Τηλέγονος τρυγόνος κέντρον τὴν αἰχμὴν ἔχοντι τιτρώσκει, καὶ Ὀδυσσεὺς θνήσκει.

This poisonous sting-ray weapon, as you might imagine, is exactly the type of thing Hellenistic authors might get excited about. The fragmentary historian Dictys tells a bit of a more complicated story: he has Odysseus send Telemachus away because dream-interpreters told him he would be killed by his son. According to Dictys, Telegonos struck him in the lung (τιτρώσκει τὸν ᾿Οδυσσέα κατὰ τοῦ πλευροῦ) “with a sting-ray’s point given to him by Kirkê” (ὅπερ ἔδωκε κέντρον θαλάσσιον τῆι Κίρκηι, FGH 1a49F fr. 10).

When Eustathius discusses Odysseus’ death from the sea (Comm. ad Od. 1.404) he first makes it clear that what is interesting is that Odysseus doesn’t die on the sea (ἀλλ’ ὁ θάνατός σοι οὐκ ἐν αὐτῇ ἔσται ἀλλ’ ἔξω αὐτῆς.) He then presents features both from the scholia (the special stin-ray spear) and Dictys while also explaining that Oppian tells us more about this in the Halieutica. Eustathius explains that the spear-point made from a sting-ray was considered especially sharp by some (αἰχμὴ δὲ τρυγόνος τὸ ἐπὶ τῷ ἀδάμαντι ὀξύτατον). A basic point to be drawn from his extensive discussion is that the sting-ray spear was a generally well-known motif.

It is so well-known, of course, that the Scholia to Lykophron must present an alternative. There, Telegonos does kill Odysseus but Kirkê resurrects him with her drugs, only after which was Telegonos married to Penelope and Telemakhos was married to Kassiphone, his half-sister. (ἄλλοι δέ φασιν ὅτι ἀναιρεθεὶς ὁ ᾿Οδυσσεὺς ὑπὸ Τηλεγόνου πάλιν ὑπὸ τῆς Κίρκης φαρμάκῳ ἀνέστη καὶ ἐγήματο *Κασσιφόνην* Τηλεμάχῳ, Πηνελόπη δ’ ἐν Μακάρων νήσοις ἐγήματο Τηλεγόνῳ, Schol ad. Lykophron 805). But that’s a story for another day.

As with Latinus, Telegonos has some diverse geographical and genealogical associations. According again to the cabinet of the strange (the Scholia to Lykophron, 115), Proteus was married to a Thracian named Torônê who gave birth to Tmolos, and Telegonos. It is not clear that this has to be the same Telegonos as the one who kills Odysseus, but it is worth

Schol ad. Lykophron 115:

“Husband of the Phlegarian woman”: Thrace used to be called Phlegaria because the giants were burned there. Proteus’ wife, Torônê, was Phlegarian by birth and from them, I mean Proteus and Torônê, two children were born, Tmolos and Telegonos. It is said that Proteus married her after he came from Egypt.”

Φλεγραίας πόσις• Φλεγραία τὸ πρὶν ἐκαλεῖτο ἡ Θρᾴκη διὰ τὸ τοὺς Γίγαντας ἐκεῖ πεφλέχθαι, Τορώνη δὲ γυνὴ Πρωτέως Φλεγραία τὸ γένος οὖσα ἐξ ὧν γεγέννηνται παῖδες, τοῦ Πρωτέως λέγω καὶ Τορώνης, Τμῶλος καὶ Τηλέγονος• λέγεται γὰρ ταύτην γεγαμηκέναι ἀπὸ Αἰγύπτου ἐλθών.

This association with the name Telegonos (for this is probably not intended to be the ‘same’ Telegonos as Odysseus’ son) and the geographical periphery occurs in other genealogical variants. A scholion to Euripides’ Orestes connects a Telegonos with the Eastern Mediterranean: he makes him the son of Epaphos and brother of Libya (Επάφου δὲ Λιβύη καὶ Τηλέγονος, Λιβύης Βῆλος καὶ ᾿Αγήνωρ• Βήλου δὲ Αἴγυπτος ἐγένετο καὶ Δαναός, Schol. In Eurip. Orestes 932). Like his brothers Latinus and Ausôn (or even Rhomos, Antias and Ardeas), Telegonos is associated with founding a city in Italy:

Aristocles, Paradoxa fr. 2: Telegonos founded a city in Italy?

“Telegonos the son of Odysseus and Kirkê after he was sent in search of his father learned that he was to found a city where he saw farmers who were crowned and dancing. Once he came to a certain part of Italy and saw farmers crowned with holm-oak [prinion] branches and dancing, he founded a city which he named Prinistos after this incident, a name the Romans interpreted as Praenestos, as Aristocles records in the third book of his Italian histories.”

Τηλέγονος ᾿Οδυσσέως καὶ Κίρκης, ἐπ’ ἀναζήτησιν τοῦ πατρὸς πεμφθεὶς, ἔμαθε πόλιν κτίσαι, ἔνθα ἂν ἴδῃ γεωργοὺς ἐστεφανωμένους καὶ χορεύ-οντας. Γενόμενος δὲ κατά τινα τόπον τῆς ᾿Ιταλίας, καὶ θεασάμενος ἀγροίκους πρινίνοις κλάδοις ἐστεφανωμένους καὶ ὀρχήσει προσευκαιροῦντας, ἔκτισε πόλιν, ἀπὸ τοῦ συγκυρήματος Πρίνιστον ὀνομάσας, ἣν ῾Ρωμαῖοι παραγώγως Πραίνεστον καλοῦσιν, ὡς ἱστορεῖ ᾿Αριστοκλῆς ἐν τρίτῳ ᾿Ιταλικῶν.

With Telegonos, then, we retain some of the geographical associations and separations given to the other sons of Kirkê but we also find a family drama that brings Odysseus’ Homeric nuclear family into its orbit. The constellation of details in other authors provides hints of a rich tale replete with oracles from both father and son, a tragic case of mistaken identities and a fantastic ‘happy ending’ in the afterlife. Many of these details are common to other families from the end of the heroic age, including the house of Atreus and the family of Achilles. It is not difficult to imagine some of the plot elements coalescing around Odysseus’ ‘clan’ too and the antiquity of the Telegonos details in generals indicates that this happened at a rather early period.

5 thoughts on “The Sons of Odysseus Part 4, Telegonos

  1. Pulchre, bene, recte! Aurum enim splendidissimum e stercore putidissimo ceperis! Equidem credo Teiresiam nugatorem fuisse – necesse fuit Ulixem accipere mortem ‘ex thalasses.’ Neque enim quisquam in Ithacam venit nisi per mare, ut Ithaci ipsi dicere solebant: οὐ μὲν γάρ τί σε πεζὸν ὀΐομαι ἐνθάδ’ ἱκέσθαι. (Odysseia 1.174) Omnia quae de filiis Ulixis scripseris hoc praecipue demonstrant: Ulixes feminas amabat quas futuere solebat. Ad Laocoontem ergo respondamus, “Etiam, SIC notus Ulixes!”

  2. This is really fantastic stuff. I’d just like to comment on the quote from Eustathius. He doesn’t use the word Telegonos but Telygetos which he assumes has the same meaning as Telegonus. Now the meaning that he assigns to it is someone born or who grew up when his father was far away. This would equally apply to Telemachus. One could imagine that Telemachus was named before Odysseus went off but then could have acquired a nickname Telegonos later when he was growing up. Later hearers might have thought this referred to a separate person and once this separate person had been created then a history was invented around him.

    But back to Telygetos. This appears to be a much disputed word meaning either darling son, last born, only born or born far away from his homeland. Some of these meanings are referred to by  Eustathios but Leaf and Bayfield say “a much disputed word. The best explanation is that it means adolescens, lit grown big, from τηλυς=great; and that it indicates an age of thirteen to twenty or thereabouts”. In other words these commentators would dispute Eustathios’ explanation of the word as used by Homer although not by later writers.

    Homer uses this word in the Odyssey when Telemachus visits the swineherd where it could have any of these meanings. It is applied indirectly to Telemachus.

    ὡς δὲ πατὴρ ὃν παῖδα φίλα φρονέων ἀγαπάζῃ
    ἐλθόντ᾽ ἐξ ἀπίης γαίης δεκάτῳ ἐνιαυτῷ,
    μοῦνον τηλύγετον, τῷ ἔπ᾽ ἄλγεα πολλὰ μογήσῃ,
    ὣς τότε Τηλέμαχον θεοειδέα δῖος ὑφορβὸς

    As a kindly father embraces his son coming from a distant land in the tenth year, his only darling (or whatever) son for whom he had suffered many pains so then did the good swineherd hug the godlike Telemachus ….

     Odysseus 16.17

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