Koronis’ Death, the Birth of Asclepius, and Contested Maternities

Pausanias, 2.26.6

“There is also another story about [Asclepius], that when Korônis was pregnant with him she had sex with Iskhus, Elatos’ son and that she was killed by Artemis who was defending the insult to Apollo. But when the pyre had been lit, they say that Hermes plucked the child from the flame.

The third story seems to me to be the least true—it makes Asclepius the child of Arsinoê, the daughter of Leucippus. When Apollophanes the Arcadian came to Delphi and asked the god if Asclepius was the child of Arsinoê and thus a Messenian citizen, the oracle prophesied:

Asclepius, come as a great blessing to all mortals,
Whom lovely Korônis bore after having sex with me—
The daughter of Phlegyas in rugged Epidauros.

This oracle makes it abundantly clear that Asclepius is not Arsinoê’s child but that Hesiod or one of those poets who insert lines into Hesiod’s poetry added for the favor of the Messenians.”

λέγεται δὲ καὶ ἄλλος ἐπ’ αὐτῷ λόγος, Κορωνίδα κύουσαν ᾿Ασκληπιὸν ῎Ισχυι τῷ ᾿Ελάτου συγγενέσθαι, καὶ τὴν μὲν ἀποθανεῖν ὑπὸ ᾿Αρτέμιδος ἀμυνομένης τῆς ἐς τὸν ᾿Απόλλωνα ὕβρεως, ἐξημμένης δὲ ἤδη τῆς πυρᾶς ἁρπάσαι λέγεται τὸν παῖδα ῾Ερμῆς ἀπὸ τῆς φλογός. ὁ δὲ τρίτος τῶν λόγων ἥκιστα ἐμοὶ δοκεῖν ἀληθής ἐστιν, ᾿Αρσινόης ποιήσας εἶναι τῆς Λευκίππου παῖδα ᾿Ασκληπιόν. ᾿Απολλοφάνει γὰρ τῷ ᾿Αρκάδι ἐς Δελφοὺς ἐλθόντι καὶ ἐρομένῳ τὸν θεὸν εἰ γένοιτο ἐξ ᾿Αρσινόης ᾿Ασκληπιὸς καὶ Μεσσηνίοις πολίτης εἴη, ἔχρησεν ἡ Πυθία·

ὦ μέγα χάρμα βροτοῖς βλαστὼν ᾿Ασκληπιὲ πᾶσιν,
ὃν Φλεγυηὶς ἔτικτεν ἐμοὶ φιλότητι μιγεῖσα
ἱμερόεσσα Κορωνὶς ἐνὶ κραναῇ ᾿Επιδαύρῳ.

οὗτος ὁ χρησμὸς δηλοῖ μάλιστα οὐκ ὄντα ᾿Ασκληπιὸν ᾿Αρσινόης, ἀλλὰ ῾Ησίοδον ἢ τῶν τινα ἐμπεποιηκότων ἐς τὰ ῾Ησιόδου τὰ ἔπη συνθέντα ἐς τὴν Μεσσηνίων χάριν.

The standard details are reported in the Homeric Hymn to Asclepius:

“I begin to sing of the doctor of diseases, Asclepius,
The son of Apollo whom shining Korônis bore
In the Dotian plain, that daughter of king Phlegyas.
He’s a great blessing to mortal men, a bewitcher of painful troubles.
And hail to you lord. I am beseeching you with this song.”

᾿Ιητῆρα νόσων ᾿Ασκληπιὸν ἄρχομ’ ἀείδειν
υἱὸν ᾿Απόλλωνος τὸν ἐγείνατο δῖα Κορωνὶς
Δωτίῳ ἐν πεδίῳ κούρη Φλεγύου βασιλῆος,
χάρμα μέγ’ ἀνθρώποισι, κακῶν θελκτῆρ’ ὀδυνάων.
Καὶ σὺ μὲν οὕτω χαῖρε ἄναξ· λίτομαι δέ σ’ ἀοιδῇ.

Phlegyas  is the father of Ixion and Corônis.  His son Ixion was exiled as a murder and then, after Zeus cleansed him of his crime, he tried to rape Hera and was punished in Hades for eternity (spinning, crucified, on a wheel). One can easily imagine distancing Asclepius from this family…

The debate is treated by an ancient scholiast:

Schol. ad Pind. Pyth 3.14

“Some say Asklepios is the son of Arsinoê, others say he is the son of Korônis. Asclepiades claims that Arsinoê is the daughter of Leukippus the son of Periêros from whom comes Asklepios from Apollo and a daughter Eriôpis. Thus we have the line: “She bore in the halls Asklepios, marshall of men / after being subdued by Apollo, and well-tressed Eriôpis.” There is also of Arsinoê: “Arsinoê, after having sex withZeus and Leto’s son,bore Asklepios, blameless and strong.”

Socrates also claims that Asklepios is the offspring of Arsinoê and has been interpolated as the child of Korônis. The matters about Korônis have been reported in lines that were added into Hesiodic poetry….”

BDEFGQ τὸν μὲν εὐίππου θυγάτηρ: τὸν ᾿Ασκληπιὸν οἱ μὲν ᾿Αρσινόης, οἱ δὲ Κορωνίδος φασὶν εἶναι. ᾿Ασκληπιάδης δέ φησι τὴν ᾿Αρσινόην Λευκίππου εἶναι τοῦ Περιήρους, ἧς καὶ ᾿Απόλλωνος ᾿Ασκληπιὸς καὶ θυγάτηρ ᾿Εριῶπις· [Hes. 107 Rz.]

BEFGQ          ἡ δ’ ἔτεκ’ ἐν μεγάροις ᾿Ασκληπιὸν ὄρχαμον ἀνδρῶν,
Φοίβῳ ὑποδμηθεῖσα, ἐϋπλόκαμόν τ’ ᾿Εριῶπιν.
καὶ ᾿Αρσινόης ὁμοίως·

᾿Αρσινόη δὲ μιγεῖσα Διὸς καὶ Λητοῦς υἱῷ
τίκτ’ ᾿Ασκληπιὸν υἱὸν ἀμύμονά τε κρατερόν τε.

καὶ Σωκράτης (FHG IV p. 496) γόνον ᾿Αρσινόης τὸν ᾿Ασκληπιὸν  ἀποφαίνει, παῖδα δὲ Κορωνίδος εἰσποίητον. ἐν δὲ τοῖς εἰς ῾Ησίοδον ἀναφερομένοις ἔπεσι (fr. 123) φέρεται ταῦτα περὶ τῆς Κορωνίδος·

Later, the same scholion presents an attempt by a Greek historian to resolve the two narratives.

“Aristeidês in the text on the founding of Knidos reports this: Asclepios is the child of Apollo and Arsinoê but she was called Korônis when she was a maiden. She was the daughter of Leukippus of Amykla in Lakedaimon.”

᾿Αριστείδης δὲ ἐν τῷ περὶ Κνίδου κτίσεως συγγράμματί (FHG IV 324) φησιν οὕτως· ᾿Ασκληπιὸς ᾿Απόλλωνος παῖς καὶ ᾿Αρσι-νόης. αὕτη δὲ παρθένος οὖσα ὠνομάζετο Κορωνὶς, Λευκίππου δὲ θυγάτηρ ἦν τοῦ ᾿Αμύκλα τοῦ Λακεδαίμονος·

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’s Pythian Ode, in Pindar, Korônis is pregnant and takes a new husband without taking her 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.

Photograph of a relief sculpture, a seated and bearded version of Asclepius next to Hygeia, both in profile
Asclepius and Hygeia

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