The sacrifice of Iphigenia is a pivotal moment in the tale of the House of Atreus—it motivates Agamemnon’s murder and in turn the matricide of Orestes—and the Trojan War, functioning as it does as a strange sacrifice of a virgin daughter of Klytemnestra in exchange for passage for a fleet to regain the adulteress Helen, Iphigeneia’s aunt by both her father and mother. The account is famous in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and the plays Iphigenia at Aulis and Iphigenia among the Taurians by Euripides. Its earliest accounts, however, provide some interesting variations:
Hes. Fr. 23.13-30
“Agamemnon, lord of men, because of her beauty,
Married the dark-eyed daughter of Tyndareus, Klytemnestra.
She gave birth to fair-ankled Iphimede in her home
And Elektra who rivaled the goddesses in beauty.
But the well-greaved Achaeans butchered Iphimede
on the altar of thundering, golden-arrowed Artemis
on that day when they sailed with ships to Ilium
in order to exact payment for fair-ankled Argive woman—
they butchered a ghost. But the deer-shooting arrow-mistress
easily rescued her and anointed her head
with lovely ambrosia so that her flesh would be enduring—
She made her immortal and ageless for all days.
Now the races of men upon the earth call her
Artemis of the roads, the servant of the famous arrow-mistress.
Last in her home, dark-eyed Klytemnestra gave birth
after being impregnated by Agamemnon to Orestes,
who, once he reached maturity, paid back the murderer of his father
and killed his mother as well with pitiless bronze.”
This fragment presents what is possibly the earliest account of the tale of Iphigenia and contains the major elements: the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter is tied to vengeance against Helen; the daughter is rescued by Artemis, made immortal and made her servant. [In some traditions she is either made immortal or made into a priestess of Artemis at Tauris]. Orestes kills the murderer of his father and his mother. Read More
A fragment of the mythographer Pherecydes provides an interesting account for how Odysseus came to be married to Penelope (hint: it wasn’t his choice):
Pherecydes, fr. 90 (= Fowler 129)
“Ikarios, the son of Oibalos, married Dôrodokhês, the daughter of Ortilokhos or, according to Pherecydes, Asterôdia, the daughter of Eurypylos, the son of Telestôr. When Laertes heard about Penelope—that she differed from all women in both her beauty and her intelligence, he arranged for her to marry his son Odysseus. She possessed so much virtue that she surpassed even Helen who was born from Zeus in some degree. This is the account of Philostephanos and Pherecydes.”
This story, of course, runs against a more famous version that isn’t exactly compatible (although one could imagine finding some way to match the two tales):
“When Tyndareus saw the mass of suitors, he feared that once one was selected the rest would start fighting. But then Odysseus promised that if he aided him in marrying Penelope, he would propose a way through which there would be no fight—and Tyndareus promised to help him. Odysseus said that he should have the suitors swear an oath to come to the aid if the man who was selected as bridegroom were done wrong by any other man regarding his marriage. After he heard that, Tyndareus had the suitors swear an oath and he himself chose Menelaos as the bride groom and he suited Penelope from Ikarios’ on Odysseus’ behalf.”
Helen and Penelope, the two most important women of Homeric epic, appear to be cousins! How can this be the case? Their fathers, as one might imagine, were brothers (Apollodorus 3.126):
“There are some who say that Aphareus and Leukippos were sons of Periêrês the son of Aiolos and that Periêrês was the son of Kunortos, but that he himself was the father of Oibalos who fathered Tyndareus, Hippokoôn, and Ikarios.
Hippokoôn had for children Dorykleus, Skaios, Enarophoros, Euteikhes, Boukolos, Lukaithos, Tebros, Hippothoos, Eurytos, Hippokorustês, Alkinoos,and Alkôn. With these sons, Hippokoôn expelled his brothers Ikarios and Tyndareus from Lakedaimôn. The pair fled to Thestios and they allied with him in the war against his neighbors. So, Tyndareus wed Thestios’ daughter, Lêda. And then, when Herakles killed Hippokoôn and his sons, they returned, and Herakles handed over the kingdom of Tyndareus.”
The story according to a Homeric scholiast is presents even more family dysfunction (Schol. b in Il.2.581-6):
“Oibalos, the son of Perierês, ruled the Lakadaimonians and his children were Tyndareus, Ikarios, Arênê and the bastard Hippokoôn who conspired with Ikarios and drove Tyndareus away. He was ruling with his many sons.”
According to the rest of this tale, Herakles came and killed Hippokoôn and his sons after he sacked Pylos. Menelaos was only in charge of the contingent, according to the scholiast, because Helen’s brothers were not there.
Some of these details are confirmed by a scholiast writing on Euripides, Schol. In Euripides Orestes 457
“These are the children of Oibalos,the son of Periêrês: Tyndareus, Ikarios, Arênê, and Hippokoôn, a bastard from Nikostratê. After the death of Oibalos, the children struggled over who would rule. Ikarios made a pact with Hippokoôn and drove Tyndareus out of Sparta. Tyndareus lived afterwards in the farthest reaches of Lakedaimonia and married Leda, the daughter of Thestios the Aitolian.
She gave birth to Kastor and Polydeukes, Timandra, Klytemnestra, and Helen. Later, Herakles killed Hippokoôn and his sons in exchange for the murder of Oiônos; then he returned Tyndareus from Phrixê and Pellênê and entrusted the rule of Sparta to him. For Herakles married Leda’s niece, Deineira.”
[Leda is not universally a daughter of Thestios. Thestios’ other daughter was Althaia, who married Oineus and gave birth to Meleager and Deineira. According to another tradition, attributed to Eumelos of Corinth, Leda was the daughter of Glaukos and Panteiduia. And let’s not even bring Pherecydes into this. Because, well, there are even more accounts to consider…]
Reading over Merkelbach and West’s Fragmenta Hesiodeaoften 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!
“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.”
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.
Schol A. ad Il. 16.175
“Pherecydes says that Polydora was the sister of Achilles. There is no way that this has been established in Homer. It is more credible that this is just the same name, as in other situations, since [the poet] would have added some sign of kinship with Achilles.”
” “Daughter of Peleus”: A different Peleus, for if he were a nephew of Achilles, this would be mentioned in Hades when they speak about his father and son or in the allegory of the Litai when he says “a great spirit compelled me there” or “my possessions and serving women” he might mention the pleasure of having a sister. The poet does not recognize that Peleus encountered some other woman. Neoteles says that Achilles’ cousin leads the first contingent and gives evidence of knowledge of war. And he gave countless gifts to marry the sister of Achilles. Should he not mentioned her in Hades? Odysseus does not mention Ktimene [his sister].
Pherecydes says that [Polydore] was born from Antigonê, the daughter of Eurytion; the Suda says her mother was Laodameia the daughter of Alkmaion; Staphulos says she was Eurudikê the daughter of Aktôr. Zenodotos says the daughter’s name was Kleodôrê; Hesiod and everyone else calls her Poludôrê.”
“They say that she is from another Peleus. For if he were a nephew of Achilles wouldn’t this be mentioned or wouldn’t he ask about his sister in Hades along with his father and son? At the same time, the poet does not know that Peleus encountered some other women. More recent poets say that Menestheus is his nephew and that this is the reason he leads the first contingent and shows knowledge of war and that ‘he gave countless gifts to marry the sister of Achilles’. But if he does not mention it, it is not necessarily foreign to him. For the poet is rather sensitive to certain proprieties.”
“Did Peleus have a daughter Polydôrê from another? Staphulos says in the third book of his Thessalika that she was born from Eurydike the daughter of Aktôr. Pherecydes says it was the daughter of Eurytion; others says Laodameia, the daughter of Alkmaion.”
What happened to Peleus’ first wife—if they were married? According to John Tzetzes (see Fowler 2013, 444) Peleus accidentally killed his father-in-law during the Kalydonian Boar Hunt, so he had to go abroad and in Iolkos the king’s wife tried to seduce him and told Antigone that Peleus would abandon her. Antigone killed herself, leaving Peleus free to marry Thetis. (But who took care of their daughter?).
It can get more confusing: some traditions (Apollodorus, 3.163 and 168) make a Polymele the daughter of Peleus and Patroklos’ mother whereas Polydora is Peleus’ wife in between Antigone and Thetis. Whatever the case, we can do our own scholiastic justification for Achilles not talking about his sister without creating a second Peleus. She must have been a bit older than Achilles since by all accounts Peleus fathered her before (1) the Kalydonian Boar Hunt, (2) the sacking of Iolkos and (3) the Voyage of the Argo. She would likely have been raised in a separate household from Achilles and married off before he went to study with the centaur Cheiron!
(More importantly: In the poetic world of Homer, sisters just don’t matter. Brothers do. Helen does not mention missing her sisters. Hektor talks to multiple brothers, but where are his sisters? In the Odyssey, Achilles asks about his father and son because Odysseus is interested in fathers and sons. This may make it more, not less, appropriate that Achilles says nothing of his sister: Odysseus just doesn’t care about sisters. Nor, it seems, does Homer.)
Works Consulted (apart from the Greek Texts).
Timothy Gantz. Early Greek Myth. Baltimore, 1993.
Robert Fowler. Early Greek Mythography. Vol. 2:Commentary, 2013.
Joannes Malalas, Chronographia, 5.21 6-7 (=Diktys BNJ 49 F 10)
“Some time passed and Odysseus began to see dreams which told of his death. After he woke, he summoned everyone who had experience in interpreting dreams—among whom was Kleitophon of Ithaka and Polyphemos of Argos. He told the dream to them and said what he thought:
“I was not lying on my own bed but instead there was a beautiful and frightening divine creature which could not keep the shape of a grown man. I saw it happily. But I was also disoriented by it. That bed from which it took life was no longer obvious to me from my familiarity with it or by knowledge. Therefore, once I recognized this, I wanted to throw my arms around it eagerly. But it spoke using a human voice and said there was a connection and binding of relationship between us and that it was my fate to be destroyed by him. As I was thinking about this a sudden stab came at me from the sea, targeted at me by his order. I became paralyzed by my great panic and I died shortly. These are the things I saw and you need to fear nothing when you offer me an interpretation. I know well that the vision is not a good one.
Then those who were there were examining the interpretation and they said that Telemachus should not be there. When he left, they said that Odysseus would be struck by his own child and die. He immediately rushed toward Telemachus because he wanted to kill him. But when he saw his son crying and begging him and he returned to a paternal mindset, he decided to have his son sent away and he ordered him to guard himself. Then he himself returned to the farthest part of Kephalenia, believing he would protect himself from fear of death.”
The Lamia (or, just Lamia to her friends) is one of the figures from Greek myth who seems like a frightening monster but really is a particular distillation of misogyny. She is often called a Greek ‘vampire’ along with Empousa. Unlike the latter, however, Lamia is specifically associated with killing children.
Diodorus Siculus, 20.40
“At the rock’s root there was a very large cave which was roofed with ivy and bryony in which the myths say the queen Lamia, exceptional for her beauty, was born. But, because of the beastliness of her soul, they say that her appearance has become more monstrous in the time since then.
For, when all her children who were born died, she was overwhelmed by her suffering and envied all the women who were luckier with their children. So she ordered that the infants be snatched from their arms and killed immediately. For this reason, even in our lifetime, the story of that women has lingered among children and the mention of her name is most horrifying to them.
But, whenever she was getting drunk, she would allow people to do whatever pleased them without observation. Because she was not closely watching everything at that time, the people in that land imagined that she could not see. This is why the myth developed that she put her eyes into a bottle, using this story a metaphor for the carelessness she enacted in wine, since that deprived her of sight.”
The story of why Lamia killed children gets a little more depressing in the Fragments of the Greek Historians
Duris, BNJ 76 F17 [= Photios s.v. Lamia]
“In the second book of his Libyan History, Duris reports that Lamia was a fine looking woman but after Zeus had sex with her, Hera killed the children she bore because she was envious. As a result she was disfigured by grief and would seize and kill the children of others.”
Elsewhere, the evidence of narratives about Lamia are rather limited. She becomes just another negative, female monster.
Suda, Lambda 85
“Lamia: a monster. The name comes from having a gaping throat, laimia and lamia. Aristophanes: “It has the smell of a seal, the unwashed balls of a Lamia.” For testicles are active—and he is making a fantasy image of Lamia’s balls, since she is female.
“There is a crag rising up over the ground on which the Delphians claim that a woman stood singing oracles, named Hêrophilê but known as Sibyl. There is the earlier Sibyl, the one I have found to be equally as old as the others, whom the Greeks claim is the daughter of Zeus and Lamia, the daughter of Poseidon. She was the first woman to sing oracles and they say that she was named Sibyl by the Libyans. Hêrophilê was younger than here, but she was obviously born before the Trojan War since she predicted Helen in her oracles, that was raised up in Sparta as the destruction for Asia and Europe and that Troy would be taken by the Greeks because of her.”
“Foremost he differed from previous authors in this, by which I mean how he took on a subject that was not a single thread nor one divided in many different and also disconnected parts. And then, because did not include mythical material in his work and he did not use his writing for the deception and bewitchment of many, as every author before him did when they told the stories of certain Lamiai rising up from the earth in groves and glens and of amphibious Naiads rushing out of Tartaros, half-beasts swimming through the seas and then joining together in groups among humans, and producing offspring of mortals and gods, demigods—and other stories which seem extremely unbelievable and untrustworthy to us now.”
Mormô, in the genitive Mormous, declined like Sappho. There is also the form Mormôn, genitive Mormonos. Aristophanes says “I ask you, take this Mormo away from me”. This meant to dispel frightening things. For Mormo is frightening. And again in Aristophanes: “A Mormo for courage”. There is also a mormalukeion which they also call a Lamia. They also frightening things this.
Plutarch, De Curiositate [On Being a Busybody] 516a
“Now, just as in the myth they say that Lamia sleeps at home, putting her eyes set aside in some jar, but when she goes out she puts them back in and peers around, in the same way each of us puts his curiosity, as if fitting in an eye, into meanness towards others. But we often stumble over our own mistakes and faults because of ignorance, since we fail to secure sight or light for them.
For this reason, a busybody is rather useful to his enemies, since he rebukes and emphasizes their faults and shows them what they should guard and correct, even as he overlooks most of his own issues thanks to his obsession with everyone else. This is why Odysseus did not stop to speak with his mother before he inquired from the seer about those things for which he had come to Hades. Once he had made his inquiry, he turned to his own mother and also the other women, asking who Tyro was, who beautiful Khloris was, and why Epikaste had died.”
“A bit farther along among the final souls, he saw that of the ridiculous Thersities taking on the form of a monkey. By chance, he came upon the soul of Odysseus last of all as it made its choice still remembering its previous sufferings and, having decided to rest from the pursuit of honor, was spending an excessive among of time seeking the life of an untroubled private citizen. He found it barely situated somewhere and ignored by the rest of the souls. When he saw it, he said that he would have made the same choice even had he drawn the first lot and was happen to make this choice.”
“Accordingly, then, they differ from one another in magnitude of more or less, just as the whiteness in show compares to the whiteness of milk: it is white for each it is not different in this, but it contrasts in being more or less white. In the same manner, if you will allow me to say, the health of Achilles does not differ from that of Thersites: inasmuch as it is health, it is the same, but it differs in another thing.”