No Consent: The Death of Koronis and Asclepius’ Birth

(Any myth that has to do with Apollo’s ‘lovers’ is probably deserves trigger warnings)

In an earlier post I mentioned the account of Pausanias who discusses the birth of Asclepius after the death of his mother Korônis. Pausanias mentions alternate traditions where Asclepius is made the son of Asinoê instead—locating him among the Messenians in the Peloponnese rather than among the Thessalians.

In the tradition mentioned below, Korônis ‘cheats’ on Apollo with Ischys, the son of Elatus, a king of the Lapiths (Thessaly). Pindar’s version of the narrative (below) locates Ischys in Arcadia (in the Peloponnese) and the death of Korônis near a town called Lakeria which is in Thessaly near Dotium.

The earlier material I cited clearly seems to be negotiating between rival local claims to Asclepius—but Pindar’s account gives the story additional geographical range by making Ischys Arcadian. By the classical period, one of Asclepius’ most important cult sites was in Epidauros. So, it seems that the mythical narratives that develop strain to square its claim to be the god’s birth place with the narrative traditions that place him elsewhere.

The earliest mentions of the tale seem to have the core components:

H. Apollo, 209-211

“Shall I sing of your wooing and sex—
How you went courting Azan’s daughter
Along with godlike Iskhus, the son of well-horsed Elatus.”

ἠέ σ’ ἐνὶ μνηστῇσιν ἀείδω καὶ φιλότητι
ὅππως μνωόμενος ἔκιες ᾿Αζαντίδα κούρην
῎Ισχυ’ ἅμ’ ἀντιθέῳ ᾿Ελατιονίδῃ εὐίππῳ;

Apart from the cryptic “Azan’s daughter”, this is clearly about Koronis. As Allen notes in his commentary on the hymns (1904, 93) Azanida may mean “Arcadian”). Others have suggestion that the text is corrupt and should be Abantida (from Abae, hence Phocian) or Atlantida (referring perhaps instead to the tale of Arsinoe whose father Leucippus was descended from Atlas). This may point to a different father or genealogy, however. According to a scholion to Pindar (Schol Pind O9 78d) there was a child of Lykaon named Azan who caused all the trouble with Zeus leading to the deluge (οἱ δὲ διὰ <τὸ περὶ> τὸν Λυκάονος παῖδα ῎Αζανα ἀσέβημα ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ τοῦ Λυκάονος, τοῦ Διὸς βουλομένου πάντα τῆς γῆς ἀποκαθᾶραι ἀσεβήματα).  Of course, Lykaon is also from Arcadia….

In a fragment from Hesiod, we find the kernel of the popular aetiological narrative where the crow reports the deed—Korônis having sex with someone else—to Apollo:

Hes. Fr. 60

“Then a crow came as a messenger from the sacred feast
To fertile Pythia and announced the reckless deeds
To Apollo of the uncut hair that Iskhus married Korônis
The son of Eilatês, married the daughter of god-related Phlegyas”

τῆμος ἄρ’ ἄγγελος ἦλθε κόραξ ἱερῆς ἀπὸ δαιτὸς
Πυθὼ ἐς ἠγαθέην καί ῥ’ ἔφρασεν ἔργ’ ἀΐδηλα
Φοίβωι ἀκερσεκόμηι, ὅτι ῎Ισχυς γῆμε Κόρωνιν
Εἰλατίδης, Φλεγύαο διογνήτοιο θύγατρα

But the most disturbing and prolonged account from early Greece is presented by Pindar who blames and shames Korônis in a fashion that is entirely disturbing. Whereas both Apollo and Iskhus are suitors of Korônis in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo,in Pindar, Korônis is pregnant and takes a new husband without telling the father. The result? Her and her townspeople are killed. Read this in horror:

Pindar, Pythian 3.8-44

“…Before the daughter of the well-horsed Phlegyas
Came to term with the mother-helper Eilethuia
Struck by the golden
Arrows of Artemis in her bedroom
She went down to Hades according to Apollo’s plans.

The rage of Zeus’ children is no light burden.
But she spurned him in the weaving of her thoughts
And sought a different husband without her father knowing.
Even though she had sex with Phoibos
And was bearing the god’s unsullied seed.
She did not wait for the bride’s banquet to come,
Nor the echo of the many-voiced marriage hymns
So sweet that maidens often sing them at night
To their girlfriends. But she longed for
Absent things—a suffering many have shared.
Among men we find the most foolish tribe
Who shame what is nearby in looking far afield,
Hunting empty things with hopes that go unrealized.

And willful, fine-robed Korônis certainly
Contracted that great delusion
When she stretched out in the bed
Of a man who came from Arcadia.
But she did escape her guard. Even though
Loxias was in flock-bearing Pytho as
King of his temple, he knew it—
Relying on the report from his truest companion,
His all-knowing mind.
He does not touch lies—no god or mortal
Can evade him in deeds or plans.

When he knew that of her
Shared bed and criminal deceit
With Elatos’ son Iskhus,
He sent his sister rushing with
Unquenchable force
To Lakeria, since the maiden was lived there
Near the shore of Lake Boibiades.
A changeful spirit
turned her to evil and damned her—many neighbors
shared her punishment and died with her,
Fire may leap from one flame on a mountain
And burn a great forest.

But when her relatives set the girl
In a wooden circle and the flickering flame
Of Hephaistos rushed around it, then Apollo said:
“I will not endure in my heart that my child
Should perish in this most pitiful death with his mother’s heavy suffering.”
So he said. With one stride he approached and ripped the child
From the corpse as the burning flame split for him.

τὸν μὲν εὐίππου Φλεγύα θυγάτηρ
πρὶν τελέσσαι ματροπόλῳ σὺν ᾿Ελειθυί-
ᾳ, δαμεῖσα χρυσέοις
τόξοισιν ὕπ’ ᾿Αρτέμιδος
εἰς ᾿Αΐδα δόμον ἐν θαλάμῳ κατέβα,
τέχναις ᾿Απόλλωνος. χόλος δ’ οὐκ ἀλίθιος
γίνεται παίδων Διός. ἁ δ’ ἀποφλαυρίξαισά νιν
ἀμπλακίαισι φρενῶν,
ἄλλον αἴνησεν γάμον κρύβδαν πατρός,
πρόσθεν ἀκερσεκόμᾳ μιχθεῖσα Φοίβῳ,
καὶ φέροισα σπέρμα θεοῦ καθαρόν
οὐκ ἔμειν’ ἐλθεῖν τράπεζαν νυμφίαν,
οὐδὲ παμφώνων ἰαχὰν ὑμεναίων, ἅλικες
οἷα παρθένοι φιλέοισιν ἑταῖραι
ἑσπερίαις ὑποκουρίζεσθ’ ἀοιδαῖς• ἀλλά τοι
ἤρατο τῶν ἀπεόντων• οἷα καὶ πολλοὶ πάθον.
ἔστι δὲ φῦλον ἐν ἀνθρώποισι ματαιότατον,
ὅστις αἰσχύνων ἐπιχώρια παπταίνει τὰ πόρσω,
μεταμώνια θηρεύων ἀκράντοις ἐλπίσιν.
Β′ ἔσχε τοι ταύταν μεγάλαν ἀυάταν
καλλιπέπλου λῆμα Κορωνίδος• ἐλθόν-
τος γὰρ εὐνάσθη ξένου
λέκτροισιν ἀπ’ ᾿Αρκαδίας.
οὐδ’ ἔλαθε σκοπόν• ἐν δ’ ἄρα μηλοδόκῳ
Πυθῶνι τόσσαις ἄϊεν ναοῦ βασιλεύς
Λοξίας, κοινᾶνι παρ’ εὐθυτάτῳ γνώμαν πιθών,
πάντα ἰσάντι νόῳ•
ψευδέων δ’ οὐχ ἅπτεται, κλέπτει τέ μιν
οὐ θεὸς οὐ βροτὸς ἔργοις οὔτε βουλαῖς.
καὶ τότε γνοὺς ῎Ισχυος Εἰλατίδα
ξεινίαν κοίταν ἄθεμίν τε δόλον, πέμ-
ψεν κασιγνήταν μένει
θυίοισαν ἀμαιμακέτῳ
ἐς Λακέρειαν, ἐπεὶ παρὰ Βοιβιάδος
κρημνοῖσιν ᾤκει παρθένος• δαίμων δ’ ἕτερος
ἐς κακὸν τρέψαις ἐδαμάσσατό νιν, καὶ γειτόνων
πολλοὶ ἐπαῦρον, ἁμᾶ
δ’ ἔφθαρεν• πολλὰν δ’ ἐν ὄρει πῦρ ἐξ ἑνός
σπέρματος ἐνθορὸν ἀΐστωσεν ὕλαν.
ἀλλ’ ἐπεὶ τείχει θέσαν ἐν ξυλίνῳ
σύγγονοι κούραν, σέλας δ’ ἀμφέδραμεν
λάβρον ῾Αφαίστου, τότ’ ἔειπεν ᾿Απόλλων• ‘Οὐκέτι
τλάσομαι ψυχᾷ γένος ἁμὸν ὀλέσσαι
οἰκτροτάτῳ θανάτῳ ματρὸς βαρείᾳ σὺν πάθᾳ.’
ὣς φάτο• βάματι δ’ ἐν πρώτῳ κιχὼν παῖδ’ ἐκ νεκροῦ
ἅρπασε• καιομένα δ’ αὐτῷ διέφαινε πυρά.

Asclepius and Hygeia

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