Achilles’ (Missing) Sister

Reading over Merkelbach and West’s Fragmenta Hesiodea often reminds me of many things I have forgotten. I am too young to blame this forgetfulness on senility; and yet too old to blame it on youthful ignorance.

Today’s particular disturbance comes from fragment 213 which tells us that Achilles, like Odysseus, has a sister (fragment included within the scholia below).

At first, I thought that this was some sort of Lykophrontic fantasy. But, alas, upon looking into the details she is actually mentioned in the Iliad!

Iliad, 16.173-178

“Menestheus of the dancing-breastplate led one contingent,
son of the swift-flowing river Sperkheios
whom the daughter of Peleus, beautiful Poludôrê bore
when she shared the bed with the indomitable river-god, Sperkheios
although by reputation he was the son of Boros, the son of Periêrês
who wooed her openly by offering countless gifts.”

τῆς μὲν ἰῆς στιχὸς ἦρχε Μενέσθιος αἰολοθώρηξ
υἱὸς Σπερχειοῖο διιπετέος ποταμοῖο·
ὃν τέκε Πηλῆος θυγάτηρ καλὴ Πολυδώρη
Σπερχειῷ ἀκάμαντι γυνὴ θεῷ εὐνηθεῖσα,
αὐτὰρ ἐπίκλησιν Βώρῳ Περιήρεος υἷι,
ὅς ῥ’ ἀναφανδὸν ὄπυιε πορὼν ἀπερείσια ἕδνα.

The confusion, shock and horror of this detail—which I presume the vast majority of Homer’s audiences have overlooked or forgotten as with the sad fate of Odysseus’ sister—can be felt as well in the various reactions of the Scholia where we encounter (a) denial—it was a different Peleus!; (b) sophomoric prevarication—why doesn’t Achilles talk about her, hmmm?; (c) conditional acceptance through anachronistic assumptions—she’s suppressed because it is shameful that she is a bastard; (d) and, finally, citation of hoary authorities to insist upon a ‘truth’ unambiguous in the poem.

I have translated the major scholia below. Note that we can see where the ‘fragments’ of several authors come from here (hint: they’re just talked about by the scholiasts). We can also learn a bit about the pluralistic and contradictory voices to be found in the Homeric scholia. The bastard child bit is my favorite part.

Continue reading

War and Peace and Weddings: Two Cities in Siena, Homer and Hesiod

 

In the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, Italy there are a series of Frescoes referred to as “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government” painted from 1338 to 1339 by Abrogio Lorenzetti. One panel shows a good government, and to the right the effects of a city governed well where the people seem free of the threat of war and their lives are full with good things–children, marriages, dancing.

Good government

The other city facing it is ruled by a tyrant; soldiers wander the streets and the law of might seems to be in effect.

Bad government

Here’s a short video giving you an idea of the whole composition. The City of Bad Government is more fragmentary, but the state of all three Frescoes communicates well the oppositions between Good Rule and Bad Rule, what ancient Greeks might call eunomia and dusnomia.

The allegorizing and the strict dichotomy are both rather typical of late Medieval thought, but what struck me about the city of Good Government is the collocation of images in the lower left hand corner:

20150612_172853

The image of the marriage so close to the festive dancing in the context of two contrasted cities made me think of the decoration Hephaestus puts on Homer’s shield in the IliadThe first city’s description starts in the following way (18.489-495):

“On the shield he made two cities of mortal men,
Beautifully. In one there were marriages and feasts
Under the lights of burning torches as they led brides
Through the city from their bedrooms—a great marriage hymn rose up.
And the young men whirled about dancing as among them
The pipes and lyres cried out. Women stood there,
Each at her own doorway, staring in amazement.”

᾿Εν δὲ δύω ποίησε πόλεις μερόπων ἀνθρώπων
καλάς. ἐν τῇ μέν ῥα γάμοι τ’ ἔσαν εἰλαπίναι τε,
νύμφας δ’ ἐκ θαλάμων δαΐδων ὕπο λαμπομενάων
ἠγίνεον ἀνὰ ἄστυ, πολὺς δ’ ὑμέναιος ὀρώρει·
κοῦροι δ’ ὀρχηστῆρες ἐδίνεον, ἐν δ’ ἄρα τοῖσιν
αὐλοὶ φόρμιγγές τε βοὴν ἔχον· αἳ δὲ γυναῖκες
ἱστάμεναι θαύμαζον ἐπὶ προθύροισιν ἑκάστη.

But we also find an elaborated comparison of two cities in a work ascribed to Hesiod, the “Shield of Herakles”.  In this short ‘epic’ poem, Herakles goes to fight Kyknos. His shield’s description is a central part of the poem.

Hesiod, Aspis [“Shield] 237-247; 270-285; cf. the two Cities in Iliad 18 (below)

“..Beyond them
Men in arms of war were struggling—
Some fought, warding destruction away from their city
and their parent; others were eager to sack it.
Many were dead; but many more still struggled in strife.
On the well-built bronze walls of the city their wives
cried sharply and they tore at their cheeks,
so much like living women, this work of famous Hephaestus.
The elders, the men whom age had bent,
Stood close together outside the walls, holding their hands
To the blessed gods, because they feared for their children….”

…. οἳ δ’ ὑπὲρ αὐτέων
ἄνδρες ἐμαρνάσθην πολεμήια τεύχε’ ἔχοντες,
τοὶ μὲν ὑπὲρ σφετέρης πόλιος σφετέρων τε τοκήων
λοιγὸν ἀμύνοντες, τοὶ δὲ πραθέειν μεμαῶτες.
πολλοὶ μὲν κέατο, πλέονες δ’ ἔτι δῆριν ἔχοντες
μάρνανθ’. αἱ δὲ γυναῖκες ἐυδμήτων ἐπὶ πύργων
χαλκέων ὀξὺ βόων, κατὰ δ’ ἐδρύπτοντο παρειάς,
ζωῇσιν ἴκελαι, ἔργα κλυτοῦ ῾Ηφαίστοιο.
ἄνδρες δ’ οἳ πρεσβῆες ἔσαν γῆράς τε μέμαρπεν
ἀθρόοι ἔκτοσθεν πυλέων ἔσαν, ἂν δὲ θεοῖσι
χεῖρας ἔχον μακάρεσσι, περὶ σφετέροισι τέκεσσι
δειδιότες…

“Next to [that city] was a well-towered city of men,
Seven gates were fitted in gold to their frames around it.
The men were engaged in pleasure at festivals and dances.
Some were conveying a wife home to her husband
On a well-wheeled cart as a great hymn arose;
And in the distance the light of burning torches waved
In maidens’ hands. They walked in front, flushed with joy
At the festival, as the playful choruses followed them.
The men rang out a song to the clear-voiced flutes
With their tender lips, and the echo rang around them.
Others led the lovely dance to the lyre’s songs.
On the other side youths paraded to the aulos;
Others plays in turn in the dancing floor to a song;
More were laughing near them as each went forth
At the flute-player’s lead. And the whole city was full
Of dance, and singing, and pleasure…”

… παρὰ δ’ εὔπυργος πόλις ἀνδρῶν,
χρύσειαι δέ μιν εἶχον ὑπερθυρίοις ἀραρυῖαι
ἑπτὰ πύλαι· τοὶ δ’ ἄνδρες ἐν ἀγλαΐαις τε χοροῖς τε
τέρψιν ἔχον· τοὶ μὲν γὰρ ἐυσσώτρου ἐπ’ ἀπήνης
ἤγοντ’ ἀνδρὶ γυναῖκα, πολὺς δ’ ὑμέναιος ὀρώρει·
τῆλε δ’ ἀπ’ αἰθομένων δαΐδων σέλας εἰλύφαζε
χερσὶν ἐνὶ δμῳῶν· ταὶ δ’ ἀγλαΐῃ τεθαλυῖαι
πρόσθ’ ἔκιον, τῇσιν δὲ χοροὶ παίζοντες ἕποντο·
τοὶ μὲν ὑπὸ λιγυρῶν συρίγγων ἵεσαν αὐδὴν
ἐξ ἁπαλῶν στομάτων, περὶ δέ σφισιν ἄγνυτο ἠχώ·
αἳ δ’ ὑπὸ φορμίγγων ἄναγον χορὸν ἱμερόεντα.
[ἔνθεν δ’ αὖθ’ ἑτέρωθε νέοι κώμαζον ὑπ’ αὐλοῦ.]
τοί γε μὲν αὖ παίζοντες ὑπ’ ὀρχηθμῷ καὶ ἀοιδῇ
[τοί γε μὲν αὖ γελόωντες ὑπ’ αὐλητῆρι ἕκαστος]
πρόσθ’ ἔκιον· πᾶσαν δὲ πόλιν θαλίαι τε χοροί τε
ἀγλαΐαι τ’ εἶχον….

The three sets of images (the Shields and the Frescoes) obviously convey different specific values and draw on separate moralizing traditions, but the attendant imagery and the distinction between a city governed-well and one beset by strife is striking. I do not mean to imply in any way that I think there is a direct relationship between the two, but rather that they are both the natural outcome of cultures steeped in dichotomous representations.

But that corner image of the weddings and dances when coupled with the opening of the peaceful city in the Iliad really started me wondering…

Fathers Who Cheat Have Daughters Who Cheat: On Helen and Clytemnestra

Ever wondered why Helen left Menelaos or why her sister cheated on Agamemnon (other than the obvious)? Ancient poetry traced it back to a sin of their father: Schol. Ad Euripides’ Orestes 249):

“Stesichorus says that when Tyndareus was sacrificing to the gods he overlooked Aphrodite. For this reason, the angry goddess made his daughters thrice and twice married abandoners of husbands. The segment reads like this:

“Because when Tyndareus was sacrificing to all the gods
He neglected only the gentle-giving Kyprian
She was enraged and she made the daughters of Tyndareus
Twice and thrice married deserters of husbands.”

A fragment of Hesiod agrees with this (fr. 176):

“Smile-loving Aphrodite
Was enraged when she saw them: then she hung bad fame upon them.
After that, Timandra abandoned Ekhemos and left;
She went to Phyleus who was dear to the holy gods.
And so Klytemnestra abandoned shining Agamemnon
To lie alongside Aigisthos as she chose a lesser husband;
In the same way, Helen shamed the marriage-bed of fair Menelaos…”

Στησίχορός φησιν ὡς θύων τοῖς θεοῖς Τυνδάρεως ᾿Αφροδίτης ἐπελάθετο• διὸ ὀργισθεῖσαν τὴν θεὸν διγάμους τε καὶ τριγάμους καὶ λειψάνδρους αὐτοῦ τὰς θυγατέρας ποιῆσαι. ἔχει δὲ ἡ χρῆσις οὕτως [frg. 26]•
‘οὕνεκά ποτε Τυνδάρεως
ῥέζων πᾶσι θεοῖς μόνης λάθετ’ ἠπιοδώρου
Κύπριδος, κείνα δὲ Τυνδάρεω κούραις
χολωσαμένη διγάμους τε καὶ τριγάμους τίθησι
καὶ λιπεσάνορας’.

καὶ ῾Ησίοδος δέ [frg. 117]•
τῆισιν δὲ φιλομμειδὴς ᾿Αφροδίτη
ἠγάσθη προσιδοῦσα, κακῆι δέ σφ’ ἔμβαλε φήμηι.
Τιμάνδρη μὲν ἔπειτ’ ῎Εχεμον προλιποῦσ’ ἐβεβήκει,
ἵκετο δ’ ἐς Φυλῆα φίλον μακάρεσσι θεοῖσιν•
ὣς δὲ Κλυταιμνήστρη <προ>λιποῦσ’ ᾿Αγαμέμνονα δῖον
Αἰγίσθῳ παρέλεκτο, καὶ εἵλετο χείρον’ ἀκοίτην.
ὣς δ’ ῾Ελένη ᾔσχυνε λέχος ξανθοῦ Μενελάου…

This passage provides an explanation for why the daughters of Tyndareus—Helen and Andromache—were unfaithful: it was Aphrodite’s game from the beginning because their father did not worship her correctly. A few interesting aspects here: first, Helen is “thrice-married” because after Paris dies, she marries Deiphobus (although some accounts associate her with Theseus too). Second, Hesiod’s fragmentary poems seems to be in the process of cataloging women who leave their husbands.

The first woman in the tale is Timandra, who, according to only this passage, was a third daughter of Tyndareus who left her husband Ekhemos, a king of Arcadia. They had a son together, named Leodocus before she eloped with Phyleus. In another fragment from Hesiod (fr. 23) we learn more about the family of Tyndareus and Leda:

“After climbing into the lush bed of Tyndareus
Well-tressed Leda, as fair as the rays of the moon,
Gave birth to Timandra, cow-eyed Klytemnestra,
And Phylonoe whose body was most like the immortal goddesses.
Her…the arrow bearing goddesss
Made immortal and ageless for all days.”

ἣ μὲν [Τυνδαρέου θαλερὸν λέχο]ς εἰσαναβᾶσα
Λήδη ἐ̣[υπλόκαμος ἰκέλη φαέεσσ]ι σελήνης
γείνατ[ο Τιμάνδρην τε Κλυταιμήστρ]ην τε βοῶπ[ιν
Φυλο̣[νόην θ’ ἣ εἶδος ἐρήριστ’ ἀθαν]άτηισι.
τ̣ὴ̣ν[ ἰο]χέαιρα,
θῆκ[εν δ’ ἀθάνατον καὶ ἀγήραον ἤ]ματα πάντ̣[α. (7-12)

Later on in the same fragment –after hearing about the marriage and children of Klytemnestra—we learn about Timandra:

“Ekhemos made Timandra his blooming wife,
The man who was the lord of all Tegea and Arcadia, wealthy in sheep,
A rich man who was dear to the gods.
She bore to him Laodakos, the horse-taming shepherd of the host,
After she was subdued by golden Aphrodite.”

Τιμάνδρην δ’ ῎Εχεμος θαλερὴν ποιήσατ’ ἄκοιτιν,
ὃς πάσης Τεγ[έης ἠδ’ ᾿Αρκαδίης] πολυμήλου
ἀφνειὸς ἤνασ[σε, φίλος μακάρεσσι θ]ε̣ο[ῖ]σ̣ιν•
ἥ οἱ Λαόδοκον̣ μ[εγαλήτορα ποιμέν]α̣ λαῶν
γ]είνα[θ]’ ὑποδμη[θεῖσα διὰ] χρυσῆν ᾿Αφ[ροδίτην (28-31)

This section of the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women seems to be mentioning only Leda’s children with Tyndareus and not those possibly fathered by Zeus (Helen, Kastor, Polydeukes). But we hear nothing of the future of Leda’s attractive daughter Phylonoe (also spelled Philonoe) other than that Artemis made her immortal. The ancient sources? Nothing at all to explain this.

Continue reading

Fragmentary Friday: The Thebais

We have the remains of an ancient epic called the Thebais that was attributed to ‘Homer’ by multiple sources in antiquity (although most scholars today, following Aristotle, agree that ‘Homer’ = Iliad and Odyssey or something like that). This epic seems to have told the Theban tale from the cursing of Polyneices and Eteocles by Oedipus through the events of the Seven Against Thebes.

“The epic called Thebais was composed about this war. Kallinos, when he comes to mention this epic, says that Homer composed it. Many authors of considerable repute have believed the same thing. And I like this poem especially, after the Iliad and Odyssey at least.”

ἐποιήθη δὲ ἐς τὸν πόλεμον τοῦτον καὶ ἔπη Θηβαΐς• τὰ δὲ ἔπη ταῦτα Καλλῖνος ἀφικόμενος αὐτῶν ἐς μνήμην ἔφησεν ῞Ομηρον τὸν ποιήσαντα εἶναι, Καλλίνῳ δὲ πολλοί τε καὶ ἄξιοι λόγου κατὰ ταὐτὰ ἔγνωσαν• ἐγὼ δὲ τὴν ποίησιν ταύτην μετά γε ᾿Ιλιάδα καὶ τὰ ἔπη τὰ ἐς ᾿Οδυσσέα ἐπαινῶ μάλιστα.
Pausanias, IX 9.5

Fr. 1 (found in The Contest of Homer and Hesiod)

“Goddess, sing of very-thirsty Argos, from where the Leaders [departed for Thebes]”

῎Αργος ἄειδε, θεά, πολυδίψιον, ἔνθεν ἄνακτες

Fr. 2 (Found in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists)

“Then the god-bred hero, blond Polyneices,
First placed before Oedipus a fine silver platter,
A thing of god-minded Kadmos. And then
He filled a fine golden cup with sweet wine.
But when he noted that lying before him were the
Honored gifts of his own father, a great evil filled his heart.
Quickly he uttered grievous curses against both
Of his own sons—and he did not escape the dread Fury’s notice—
That they would not divide their inheritance in friendship
But that they would both have ceaseless war and battles.”

αὐτὰρ ὁ διογενὴς ἥρως ξανθὸς Πολυνείκης
πρῶτα μὲν Οἰδιπόδηι καλὴν παρέθηκε τράπεζαν
ἀργυρέην Κάδμοιο θεόφρονος• αὐτὰρ ἔπειτα
χρύσεον ἔμπλησεν καλὸν δέπας ἡδέος οἴνου.
αὐτὰρ ὅ γ’ ὡς φράσθη παρακείμενα πατρὸς ἑοῖο
τιμήεντα γέρα, μέγα οἱ κακὸν ἔμπεσε θυμῶι,
αἶψα δὲ παισὶν ἑοῖσιν ἐπ’ ἀμφοτέροισιν ἐπαρὰς
ἀργαλέας ἠρᾶτο• θοὴν δ’ οὐ λάνθαν’ ᾿Ερινύν•
ὡς οὔ οἱ πατρώϊ’ ἐνηέι φιλότητι
δάσσαιντ’, ἀμφοτέροισι δ’ ἀεὶ πόλεμοί τε μάχαι τε

Fr.4 (Found in Scholion to Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, 1375)

“When [Oedipus] noticed the cut of meat, he hurled it to the ground and spoke:
‘Alas, my children have sent this as a reproach to me…’
He prayed to King Zeus and the other gods
That they would go to Hades’ home at each other’s hands.

ἰσχίον ὡς ἐνόησε, χαμαὶ βάλεν εἶπέ τε μῦθον•
‘ὤ μοι ἐγώ, παῖδες μέγ’ ὀνειδείοντες ἔπεμψαν …’
*
εὖκτο Διὶ βασιλῆϊ καὶ ἄλλοις ἀθανάτοισι
χερσὶν ὑπ’ ἀλλήλων καταβήμεναι ῎Αιδος εἴσω.

Wealth and Wisdom: Did We Get it Wrong?

Teachers and students: the semester is just old enough now that many are questioning their life choices.

From the fragments of Theognetus, another poet so forgotten that he has no home on Wikipedia. But Athenaeus preserves a fragment (3.63)

“Theognetus is responding to these kinds of people when he writes in the Phantom or the Money-Lover:

‘Man, you’re killing me! You are packed full of little speeches
From the Stoa Poikile and you’re sick.
“Wealth is not any man’s possession, it is frost.
Wisdom is truly yours, it is ice, No one ever
Lost wisdom once he found it.” Fuck me!
What kind of a philosopher has god housed me with?
You learned your letters in reverse, wretch.
Your books have turned your life upside down.
You have philosophized nonsense to heaven and earth.
They don’t give a shit about your words.’

reading

πρὸς οὓς καὶ Θεόγνητος ἐν Φάσματι ἢ Φιλαργύρῳ φησὶν ἐκ τούτων (IV 549 M)·

ἄνθρωπ’, ἀπολεῖς με. τῶν γὰρ ἐκ τῆς ποικίλης
στοᾶς λογαρίων ἀναπεπλησμένος νοσεῖς·
‘ἀλλότριόν ἐσθ’ ὁ πλοῦτος ἀνθρώπῳ, πάχνη·
σοφία δ’ ἴδιον, κρύσταλλος. οὐθεὶς πώποτε
ταύτην λαβὼν ἀπώλεσ’.’ ὦ τάλας ἐγώ,
οἵῳ μ’ ὁ δαίμων φιλοσόφῳ συνῴκισεν.
ἐπαρίστερ’ ἔμαθες, ὦ πόνηρε, γράμματα·
ἀντέστροφέν σου τὸν βίον τὰ βιβλία·
πεφιλοσόφηκας γῇ τε κοὐρανῷ λαλῶν,
οἷς οὐθέν ἐστιν ἐπιμελὲς τῶν λόγων.’

Think We Have to Accomplish A Lot in the Classroom?

In his speech to Achilles in Iliad 9, Phoinix laments the idea that he may be separated from Achilles. Part of his sorrow, it seems, resides in the fact that he has work still to do (437-443):

“How could I be left here without you, dear child,
alone? The old man and horse-trainer Peleus assigned me to you
on that day when he sent you from Phthia with Agamemnon
still a child, not yet educated in the ways of crushing war
or assemblies where men become most prominent.
He sent me for this reason: to teach you all these things,
how to be a speaker of words and a doer of deeds.”

πῶς ἂν ἔπειτ’ ἀπὸ σεῖο φίλον τέκος αὖθι λιποίμην
οἶος; σοὶ δέ μ’ ἔπεμπε γέρων ἱππηλάτα Πηλεὺς
ἤματι τῷ ὅτε σ’ ἐκ Φθίης ᾿Αγαμέμνονι πέμπε
νήπιον οὔ πω εἰδόθ’ ὁμοιΐου πολέμοιο
οὐδ’ ἀγορέων, ἵνα τ’ ἄνδρες ἀριπρεπέες τελέθουσι.
τοὔνεκά με προέηκε διδασκέμεναι τάδε πάντα,
μύθων τε ῥητῆρ’ ἔμεναι πρηκτῆρά τε ἔργων.

A Scholiast (Schol. bT in Il. 9.443 ex 1-4) suggests that what Achilles needs to have learned is “rhetoric” (φαίνεται οὖν καὶ τὸ τῆς ῥητορικῆς ὄνομα εἰδώς) whereas another scholion (Schol. AT in Il. 9.443 c1) emphasizes the fact that the execution of both deeds and words requires “good counsel” (εὐβουλία: σημείωσαι ὅτι τὸ ὁμοιοτέλευτον ἔφυγε μεταβαλὼν τὴν φράσιν· οὐ γὰρ εἶπε ‘μύθων τε ῥητῆρα καὶ ἔργων πρακτῆρα’. καὶ ὅτι πάντων διδακτικὸν εὐβουλία).

This passage is popular in later antiquity as well, where Plutarch cites it several times. He uses it almost in passing in discussing whether or not the elderly should rule the state:

An seni respublica gerenda sit, Plutarch, 795e5-796a7
“It is not possible for the overseer to contend for a prize when others are competing; and the one who trains the youths in common affairs and public contexts prepares them for their country: “To be speakers of speeches and doers of deeds”, which is useful in no small or minor part for a government: for this reason first and foremost, Lykourgos exerted himself to make sure that the youths obeyed every elder as if he were a law-giver.”

τὸν μὲν γὰρ ἐπιστάτην ἀθλοῦσιν ἑτέροις οὐκ ἔστιν αὐτὸν ἀθλεῖν, ὁ δὲ παιδοτριβῶν
νέον ἐν πράγμασι κοινοῖς καὶ δημοσίοις ἀγῶσι καὶ παρασκευάζων τῇ πατρίδι

μύθων τε ῥητῆρ’ ἔμεναι πρηκτῆρά τε ἔργων

ἐν οὐ μικρῷ μέρει πολιτείας οὐδὲ φαύλῳ χρήσιμός ἐστιν, ἀλλ’ εἰς ὃ μάλιστα καὶ πρῶτον ὁ Λυκοῦργος ἐντείνας ἑαυτὸν εἴθισε τοὺς νέους παντὶ πρεσβύτῃ καθάπερ νομοθέτῃ πειθομένους διατελεῖν.

In the Pseudo-Plutarchean Life of Homer, these lines are used to assert (1) that virtue is teachable and (2) that Homer was the first philosopher (Ps-Plutarch Vita Homeri 1736-1739):

“For life is sustained by means of actions and words, and he says that he was made a teacher of the young man about both. From these lines he asserts clearly that every kind of virtue is teachable. Thus Homer was therefore first to philosophize concerning ethical and natural affairs.”
ἐπεὶ γὰρ ὁ βίος ἐκ πράξεων καὶ λόγων συνέστηκε, τούτων φησὶ διδάσκαλον ἑαυτὸν τοῦ νεανίσκου γεγονέναι. ἐκ δὲ τῶν εἰρημένων δῆλον ὅτι πᾶσαν ἀρετὴν ἀποφαίνει διδακτήν. οὕτω μὲν οὖν πρῶτος ῞Ομηρος ἔν τε ἠθικοῖς καὶ φυσικοῖς φιλοσοφεῖ.

Teiresias the Trans-Prophet: Origins of Prophecy and A Long-life, Not Requested

Book 3 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses offers a delightful tale about Teiresias’ blindness and power of prophecy. The Theban was born as a man but changed into a woman when he saw two snakes copulating in the forest. Years later—after getting married and having at least one child—she happened to be walking in the forest and witnessed the same thing. Wham! Teiresias was a man again.

Sometime after that, Teiresias was summoned to Olympus to adjudicate a marital dispute between Zeus and Hera who had been arguing about whether sex was better for males or females. Teiresias gave an enigmatic answer (1 part enjoyment far a man to 10 for women) and Hera blinded him in rage. Zeus compensated for this by giving him the power of prophecy.

What most people don’t know is that this tale is not at all an Ovidian innovation. A few fragments attributed to Hesiod preserve the answer and Teiresias’ reaction to Zeus’ “gift”.

The first few lines present Hesiod’s answer (Fr. 275):

[Teiresias described how]

“A man delights only in one portion of ten
While a woman delights her thoughts filling out the other ten.”

οἴην μὲν μοῖραν δέκα μοιρέων τέρπεται ἀνήρ,
τὰς δὲ δέκ’ ἐμπίπλησι γυνὴ τέρπουσα νόημα.
Another fragment appears to have Teiresias addressing Zeus (fr. 276):

“Zeus father I wish that you would give me a shorter life
And grant that I might know only the things equal to the thoughts
Of mortal men. Now you have not honored me at all,
You who have made my lifetime so long,
That I will live on through seven generations of mortal men.”

Ζεῦ πάτερ, εἴθε μοι †εἴθ’ ἥσσω μ’† αἰῶνα βίοιο
ὤφελλες δοῦναι καὶ ἴσα φρεσὶ μήδεα ἴδμεν
θνητοῖς ἀνθρώποις· νῦν δ’ οὐδέ με τυτθὸν ἔτισας,
ὃς μακρόν γέ μ’ ἔθηκας ἔχειν αἰῶνα βίοιο
ἑπτά τ’ ἐπὶ ζώειν γενεὰς μερόπων ἀνθρώπων

Tiresias_striking_the_snakes

Teiresias is right to lament. As he probably knows from his recent power of prophecy, he will witness Dionysus’ return to Thebes (and subsequent bloodshed); the exposure of Oedipus and his parricidal, incestuous return; the deaths of Oedipus’ sons Eteokles and Polyneices at each other’s hands; and the sack of Thebes in the next generation. And even then his story isn’t over: Odysseus will wake up his tired ghost in the Odyssey for one more prophecy.

As for Teiresias’ answer to Zeus and Hera? When I teach this story I joke that he’s more afraid of Zeus than his wife. But his answer is part of a general Greek misogyny that justifies the cloistering of woman by characterizing them as libidinous by nature. The number 10 seems significant here: there may be an irony in the use of “enjoy”. In the Greek world, babies are born after 10 lunar months. If I had to give an answer to why “10:1” to save my life, that would be all I would have.

Fortunately, no Olympian beings will be seeking my advice…