A Wish To be Invulnerable: The Rape and Sex-Change of Kaineus

When I presented a selection of intersex stories from Phlegon of Tralles earlier this week, I left out what I find to be the most disturbing story, a rape followed by a sex-change. Ovid tells a version of this tale.

Phlegon, On Amazing Things 5

5 “Others tell the story that in the land of the Lapiths the king Elatos had a daughter whose name was Kainis. After Poseidon had sex with her he promised to make her into whatever she wanted. She said she wanted to be changed into a man who was invulnerable. When Poseidon did this—as was right—he changed her name to Kaineus.”

Οἱ αὐτοὶ ἱστοροῦσιν κατὰ τὴν Λαπίθων χώραν γενέσθαι ᾿Ελάτῳ τῷ βασιλεῖ θυγατέρα ὀνομαζομένην Καινίδα.

ταύτῃ δὲ Ποσειδῶνα μιγέντα ἐπαγγείλασθαι ποιήσειν αὐτῇ ὃ ἂν ἐθέλῃ, τὴν δὲ ἀξιῶσαι μεταλλάξαι αὐτὴν εἰς ἄνδρα ποιῆσαί τε ἄτρωτον. τοῦ δὲ Ποσειδῶνος κατὰ τὸ ἀξιωθὲν ποιήσαντος μετονομασθῆναι Καινέα.

This story is older than Ovid and Phlegon. It is detailed in the fragments of Akousilaus, perhaps alluded to in Homer, definitely indicated by Apollonius Rhodes, and present even in Plato. While the sex-change narrative remains an important element, the main feature of Kaineus’ tale is his hubris–because of his invulnerability he asks to be made into a god.

Akousilaus FGrH 2 fr. 22 [=P.Oxy. 13, 1611, fr. 1, col. 2, 38-96]

“Poseidon has sex with Kainê of Elatos. Then—for it was not right for him [sic] to have children with him nor anyone else—Poseidon turned him into an invulnerable man, who had the greatest strength of the men at that time. Whenever anyone tried to strike him with iron or bronze, [the attacker] was completely defeated.

Then [Kaineus] became king of the Lapiths and was warring with the Centaurs. After he set up his javelin in the agora he was asking to be included in the number of the gods. This was not pleasing to the gods. And when Zeus saw him doing this, he threatened him and raised the Centaurs against him. They struck him straight down into the earth and placed a stone above as assign. Then he died.”

«Καινῆιδὲ τῆι ᾽Ελάτου μίσγεται ΙΙοσειδῶν. ἔπειτα – οὐ γὰρ ἦν αὐτῶι ἱερὸν παῖδας τεκέν οὐτ᾽ ἐξ ἐκείνου οὐτ᾽ ἐξ ἄλλου οὐδενός – ποιεῖ αὐτὸν Ποσειδέων ἄνδρα ἄτρωτον, ἰσχὺν ἔχοντα μεγίστην τῶν ἀνθρώπων τῶν τότε, καὶ ὅτε τις αὐτὸν κεντοίη σιδήρωι ἢ χαλκῶι, ἡλίσκετο μάλιστα χρημάτων. καὶ γίγνεται βασιλεὺς οὗτος Λαπιθέων καὶ τοῖς Κενταύροις πολεμέεσκε. ἔπειτα στήσας ἀκόν[τιον ἐν ἀγορᾶι θεὸν ἐκέλευεν ἀριθμεῖν. θεοῖ]σι δ᾽ οὐκ ἦεν [ἀρεστόν, καὶ] Ζεὺς ἰδὼν αὐτὸν ταῦτα ποιοῦντα ἀπειλεῖ καὶ ἐφορμᾶι τοὺς Κενταύρους, κἀκεῖνοι αὐτὸν κατακόπτουσιν ὄρθιον κατὰ γῆς καὶ ἄνωθεν πέτρην ἐπιτιθεῖσιν σῆμα, καὶ ἀποθνήσκει.»

In this account, Poseidon seems to be changing Kaineus because of his inability to have children. This makes it rather clear what women are good for from this cultural perspective. In addition, it is interesting that Kaineus as an intersex figure is involved in the war between the Lapiths and Centaurs, a conflict which has its origins in a rapes at a wedding and is often seen as a reflection of the civilized Lapiths struggling against the primitive and violent urges of the Centaurs.

But, as can be seen from the relief below which dates to the early Archaic period, the punishment of Kaineus is a primary motif of the story tradition. In a way, if the sex-change and rape were equally ancient, this is a tale about a women who is raped ultimately being punished for surviving and thriving and exacting retribution for her suffering.

D Scholia ad Il. 264

“Kaineus was a son of Elatos and king of the Lapiths. He was a very beautiful virgin girl before. But after Poseidon had sex with her, she asked to be changed from a young woman into a man. And he became invulnerable, and the most excellent of those alive at the time. And after he stuck his javelin into the middle of the agora, he demanded to be entered into the number of the gods for this reason.

Zeus was annoyed by this request and he arranged the following type of payback from him for impiety. For, even though he was invincible, he made him less while he was fighting the Centaurs. For they were hurling and striking him with pines and oak trees and they drove him into the ground. Apollonius recalls this in the Argonautica saying this, “For the singers used to report the fame that Kaineus was killed by Centaurs, when he alone from the rest of the best drove them, they surged back. They were not strong enough to repel him nor to kill him, but he went under the earth, unbroken, unbent, pummeled by the striking force of powerful pines.”

Καινέα τε. Καὶ τὸν Καινέα. ὁ δὲ Και-
νεὺς ᾿Ελάτου μὲν παῖς, Λαπίθων δὲ βα-
σιλεὺς, πρότερον ἦν παρθένος εὐπρεπής.
μιγέντος δὲ αὐτῇ Ποσειδῶνος, αἰτησα-
μένη μεταβαλεῖν εἰς ἄνδρα ἡ νεᾶνις, ἄ-
τρωτος γίγνεται, γενναιότατος τῶν καθ’
αὑτὸν ὑπάρξας· καὶ δή ποτε πήξας ἀ-
κόντιον ἐν τῷ μεσαιτάτῳ τῆς ἀγορὰς,
θεοῖς τοῦτο προσέταξεν ἀριθμεῖν. δι’ ἣν
αἰτίαν ἀγανακτήσας ὁ Ζεὺς, τιμωρίαν
τῆς ἀσεβείας παρ’ αὐτοῦ εἰσεπράξατο.
μαχόμενον γὰρ αὐτὸν τοῖς Κενταύροις
καὶ ἄτρωτον ὄντα ὑποχείριον ἐποίησε.
βάλλοντες γὰρ αὐτὸν οἱ προειρημένοι δρυ-
σί τε καὶ ἐλάταις, ἤρεισαν εἰς γῆν.
μέμνηται δὲ αὐτοῦ καὶ ᾿Απολλώνιος ἐν
τοῖς ᾿Αργοναυτικοῖς λέγων οὕτως· Καινέα
γὰρ τὸν πρόσθεν ἐπικλείουσιν ἀοιδοὶ Κεν-
ταύροισιν ὀλέσθαι, ὅτε σφέας οἶος ἀπ’
ἄλλων ῎Ηλασ’ ἀριστήων· οἱ δ’ ἔμπαλιν
ὁρμηθέντες, Οὔτε μιν ἀγκλῖναι προτέρω
σθένον, οὔτε δαΐξαι· ᾿Αλλ’ ἄῤῥηκτος,
ἄκαμπτος ἐδύσσατο νειόθι γαίης, Θεινό-
μενος στιβαρῆσι καταΐγδην ἐλάτῃσιν.

This story is held up as a wistful impossibility by Plato in the laws. This passage is, well, upsetting.

Plato’s Laws 944d-c

“What then would be the right punishment for someone who has thrown away this kind of a power of a defensive weapon for the opposite? For it is not possible for a person to do the opposite of what they say the god did when he changed the Thessalian Kaineus from a women into a man. For one who throws away his shield, the opposite of this transformation, changing from a man into a women, in some way would be the best of all punishments for this.”

ζημία δὴ τῷ τὴν τοιαύτην ἀμυντηρίων ὅπλων εἰς τοὐναντίον ἀφέντι δύναμιν τίς ἄρα γίγνοιτ᾿ ἂν πρόσφορος; οὐ γὰρ δυνατὸν ἀνθρώπῳ δρᾷν τοὐναντίον <ἢ> ὥς2 ποτε θεόν φασι δρᾶσαι, Καινέα τὸν Θετταλὸν ἐκ γυναικὸς μεταβαλόντα εἰς ἀνδρὸς φύσιν ἦν γὰρ ἂν ἀνδρὶ ῥιψάσπιδι τρόπον τινὰ πρέπουσα πασῶν Εμάλιστα ἡ ᾿κείνῃ τῇ γενέσει ἐναντία γένεσις, εἰς γυναῖκα ἐξ ἀνδρὸς μεταβαλοῦσα, τιμωρία τούτῳ γενομένη.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Sex Prophet: The Origin of Teiresias’ Power « SENTENTIAE ANTIQUAE

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