The Truth about Daedalus and Icarus

Servius Danielis,  Commentary on the Aeneid, 6, 14

“Phanodikos says that Daidalos—on account of the aforementioned reasons—went on a ship as he was fleeing and when those who were pursuing him drew near, he spread wide a piece of cloth for gaining the help of the winds and escaped them in this way. When they got back, those who were following him said he had escaped them with wings.”

Phanodicos Deliacon Daedalum propter supradictas causas fugientem navem conscendisse et, cum imminerent qui eum sequebantur, intendisse pallium ad adiuvandum ventos et sic evasisse: illos vero qui insequebantur reversos nuntiasse pinnis illum evasisse.


Palaephatus, On Unbelievable Things 12

“People claim that Minos imprisoned Daidalos and Ikaros, his son, for a certain reason, but that Daidalos, after he fashioned wings as prosthetics for both of them, flew off with Ikaros. It is impossible to think that a person flies, even one who has prosthetic wings. What it really means, then, is the following kind of thing.

Daidalos, when he was in prison, escaped through a small window and hauled down his son too; once he got on a boat, he left. When Minos found out, he sent ships to pursue him. Then they understood that they were being pursued and there was a furious and driving wind, they seemed to be flying. And while they were sailing with the Kretan wind, they flipped over into the sea. While Daidalos survived onto land, Ikaros died. This is why the sea there is named Ikarion for him. His father buried him after he was tossed up by the waves.”

[Περὶ Δαιδάλου καὶ ᾿Ικάρου.]

     Φασὶν ὅτι Μίνως Δαίδαλον καὶ ῎Ικαρον τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ καθεῖρξε διά τινα αἰτίαν, Δαίδαλος δὲ  ποιήσας πτέρυγας ἀμφοτέροις προσθετάς, ἐξέπτη μετὰ τοῦ ᾿Ικάρου. νοῆσαι δὲ ἄνθρωπον πετόμενον, ἀμήχανον, καὶ ταῦτα πτέρυγας ἔχοντα προσθετάς. τὸ οὖν λεγόμενον ἦν τοιοῦτον. Δαίδαλος ὢν ἐν τῇ εἱρκτῇ, καθεὶς ἑαυτὸν διὰ θυρίδος καὶ τὸν υἱὸν κατασπάσας, σκαφίδι ἐμβάς, ἀπῄει. αἰσθόμενος

δὲ ὁ Μίνως πέμπει πλοῖα διώξοντα. οἱ δὲ ὡς ᾔσθοντο διωκόμενοι, ἀνέμου λάβρου καὶ φοροῦ ὄντος, πετόμενοι ἐφαίνοντο. εἶτα πλέοντες οὐρίῳ Κρητικῷ νότῳ ἐν τῷ πελάγει περιτρέπονται· καὶ ὁ μὲν Δαίδαλος περισῴζεται εἰς τὴν γῆν, ὁ δὲ ῎Ικαρος διαφθείρεται (ὅθεν ἀπ’ ἐκείνου ᾿Ικάριον πέλαγος ἐκλήθη), ἐκβληθέντα δὲ ὑπὸ τῶν κυμάτων ὁ πατὴρ ἔθαψεν.

Image result for daedalus and icarus image

Anthony Van Dyck, 1625 “Daedalus and Icarus”

What Does Helen Look Like?

A twitter friend asked me about the appearance of Helen recently:

This comes at a time when many are talking about the ethnicity of Homeric heroes and rightly arguing that so many of our ideas about race, color, and identity have little to do with the ancient world and everything to do with our own. (See also the discussion on Pharos.) Within this debate is the important realization that ancient concepts of hue and range of color-representation may have been altogether different from our own. In addition to Tim Whitmarsh’s essay (cited above) Maria Michel Sassi’s recent essay does well to explore gaps between how we conceive of color and how the ancients may have.

As @spannycat notes, Greek poetry describes Helen as xanthê and kuanopis. An insensitive and simplistic reading of these facts might claim that she was “blonde” with “blue eyes” (and I am not at all implying that @spannycat is doig this). Not only is the situation far more interesting and complicated than this, but I am pretty sure that even if we accept these two words as applying to Helen they would not be equivalent to the appearance these two terms denote in modern English.

Let’s start with the barest fact. What Helen actually looks like is never stated in Homer. When the Trojans look at her, they say she has the “terrible appearance of goddesses” (αἰνῶς ἀθανάτῃσι θεῇς εἰς ὦπα ἔοικεν). This, of course, is not terribly specific.

Elsewhere, she is “argive Helen, for whom many Achaeans [struggled]” (᾿Αργείην ῾Ελένην, ἧς εἵνεκα πολλοὶ ᾿Αχαιῶν, Il. 2.161) she has “smooth” or “pale/white” arms (῏Ιρις δ’ αὖθ’ ῾Ελένῃ λευκωλένῳ ἄγγελος ἦλθεν, 3.121), but this likely has to do with a typical depiction of women in Archaic Greece (they are lighter in tone than men because they don’t work outside) or because of women’s clothing (arms may have been visible). Beyond that? In the Odyssey, She has “beautiful hair” (῾Ελένης πάρα καλλικόμοιο, 15.58) and a long robe (τανύπεπλος, 4.305).

If anyone is looking for a hint of the ideal of beauty from the legend who launched a thousand ships, they will be sorely disappointed. Why? I think the answer to this partly has to do with the nature of Homeric poetry and with good art in general. Homeric poetry developed over a long duration of time and appealed to many different peoples. To over-determine Helen’s beauty by describing it would necessarily adhere to some standards of beauty while alienating others.

In addition, why describe her beauty at all when the audience members themselves can craft an ideal in their mind. As a student of mine said while I mused over this, Helen “Cannot have descriptors because she is a floating signifier”. She is a blank symbol for desire upon which all audience members (ancient and modern, male and female) project their own (often ambiguous) notions of beauty. To stay with the ancient world, think of that seminal first stanza in Sappho fr. 16:

Some say a force of horsemen, some say infantry
and others say a fleet of ships is the loveliest
thing on the dark earth, but I say it is
[whatever] you love

Οἰ μὲν ἰππήων στρότον, οἰ δὲ πέσδων,
οἰ δὲ νάων φαῖσ’ ἐπὶ γᾶν μέλαιναν
ἔμμεναι κάλλιστον, ἐγὼ δὲ κῆν’ ὄτ-
τω τις ἔραται

As long as beauty is relative and in the eye of the beholder any time we disambiguate it by saying that it is one thing and not another we depart from an abstract timeless idea and create something more bounded and less open to audience engagement. I think that part of what makes Homeric poetry work so well is that it combines a maximum amount of specificity within a maximized amount of ambiguity.

Outside of Homer, Helen is described with a little more detail, but in each case the significance of the signifier is less than it appears. In Hesiod, she has nice hair again (῾Ελένης ἕνεκ’ ἠυκόμοιο,Works and Days 165; this is repeated a lot in the fragmentary Hesiodic Catalogue). In fr. 9 of the Cypria she is merely a “Wonder for mortals” (θαῦμα βροτοῖσι·). Much later she has “spiraling eyebrows/lashes” (῾Ελένης ἑλικοβλεφάροιο, Quintus Smyrnaeus, 13.470).

If we want to learn more about Helen, she has additional features outside of epic poetry in lyric. I would be bold enough to claim that the more personal and erotic character of the genre is a better explanation for this specificity than anything else.

In lyric (e.g. Mesomedes, κυανῶπι θεά, θύγατερ Δίκας,) Helen is “cyan-eyed”, but if we look at the semantic range of this nominal root—which describes dark stones and eyes of water divinities—I think we can argue fairly that this indicates a dark and shiny, even watery texture (like lapis lazuli). I suspect this is about the sheen of eyes rather than their hue.

Eustathius remarks that the epithet κυανώπιδα is common (κατὰ κοινὸν ἐπίθετον) and is often used for dark sea creatures, describing as well his hair (Ποσειδῶνα κυανοχαίτην, Ad Hom. Il 1.555.23). Indeed, nymphs in general are “dark-eyed” in lyric (καὶ Νύμφαι κυανώπιδες, Anacr. fr. 12.2) and water deities remain so in Homer (κῦμα μέγα ῥοχθεῖ κυανώπιδος ᾿Αμφιτρίτης, Il. 12.60). Outside of Homer marriageable women also receive this epithet, including Helen’s sister Klytemnestra (Hes. Fr. 23a κού[ρην Τυνδαρέοιο Κλυταιμήσ]τρην κυανῶπ[ιν· cf. fr. 23.27 and for Althaia, 25.14, Elektra (169).

From Robert Beekes. Etymological Dictionary of Greek. Leiden: Brill, 2010


So, in lyric, Helen has dark pools for eyes. But what about her hair? At Sappho fr. 23 Helen is described as “xanthai” ([ ] ξάνθαι δ’ ᾿Ελέναι σ’ ἐίσ[κ]ην; cf. Stesichorus Fr. S103: [ξ]α̣νθὰ δ’ ῾Ελένα̣ π̣ρ[ ; Ibycus, fr. 1a.5: ξα]νθᾶς ῾Ελένας περὶ εἴδει ). But it is important to note that in this context there is a first-person narrator speaking (“I liken you to fair Helen…”). Note as well that there is something formulaic in these lyric lines: the epithet seems to begin the phrase each time.

When it comes to Hair color, xanthus is used in Homer to describe heroes, but not Helen (Menelaos is Xanthus, for example). A byzantine etymological dictionary suggests that the core meaning of this root has something to do with fire (Ξανθὴν, πυῤῥοειδῆ) and argues that the hair “symbolizes the heat and irascibility of the hero” (αἰνίττεται, τὸ θερμὸν καὶ ὀργίλον τοῦ ἥρωος, Etym. Gud, s.v.). But outside the Iliad and Odyssey the adjective is applied to goddesses: both Demeter (H. Dem. 302) and Aphrodite (Soph. fr. 255) are called Xanthê. Modern etymology sees this as anywhere from yellow to brown. But this is altogether relative again. “Light hair” in a group of people who are blond is almost white; among black/brown haired people, light hair can merely be a different shade of brown.

Again, from Beekes 2010:


In the second book of Liu Cixin’s “Three Body Problem Trilogy” The Dark Forest, one of the main characters Luo Ji creates an ideal woman to love in his mind and goes so far as to converse with her, leave his actual girlfriend for her, and go on a trip with her. When he consults a psychologist about this, his doctor tells him his is lucky because everyone is in love with an idea–where the rest of the world will inevitably be disillusioned when they realize this, Luo Ji will never suffer this loss.

Trying to make Helen look like an actual person is not only impossible, but it is something which Homeric epic avoids for good reason.

Special thanks to .@spannycat for asking the question. Her own conclusions on the topic are pretty much the same.


Apollo Makes A Toy Aeneas

Iliad, 5.449-453

αὐτὰρ ὃ εἴδωλον τεῦξ’ ἀργυρότοξος ᾿Απόλλων
αὐτῷ τ’ Αἰνείᾳ ἴκελον καὶ τεύχεσι τοῖον,
ἀμφὶ δ’ ἄρ’ εἰδώλῳ Τρῶες καὶ δῖοι ᾿Αχαιοὶ
δῄουν ἀλλήλων ἀμφὶ στήθεσσι βοείας
ἀσπίδας εὐκύκλους λαισήϊά τε πτερόεντα.

“Then silver-bowed Apollo made an eidolon
Which was similar to Aeneas and armed in that way,
And the Trojans and shining Achaeans were struggling
Over the eidolon, striking around their chests
Their oxhide well-rounded shields and their winged light ones*.”

Schol. Ad Il. 5.449-50b

[“but he made an eidolon] On the one hand, the eidolon represents the entire framework of the cosmos which is the model of everything as it truly is when crafted by the generative gods, but beforehand by Helios, who is the lord of all that is born and seen.

The eidolon is nothing less than Aeneas, the son of Aphrodite and Trôos, which was the first native beauty. For all beauty comes from Aphrodite, around which the fundamental material of the soul does not depart when it is pressed.”

[but he made an eidolon]: [he did this] in order that the Trojans might fight more bravely because they want to save the body.”

ex. αὐτὰρ ὁ εἴδωλον<—τοῖον>: εἴδωλον μὲν ἄκουε πᾶν τὸ δημιούργημα τοῦ κόσμου, ὅπερ τύπος ὂν τοῦ ὄντως ὄντος ὑπὸ πάντων μὲν τῶν ἐγκοσμίων θεῶν κοσμεῖται, προηγουμένως δὲ ὑπὸ τοῦ ῾Ηλίου, ὅς ἐστιν ἡγεμὼν παντὸς γεννητοῦ τε καὶ ὁρατοῦ. οὐδὲν δὲ ἧττον Αἰνείου ἐστὶ τὸ εἴδωλον, υἱοῦ ᾿Αφροδίτης καὶ Τρωός, ὅ ἐστι τὸ ἐγχώριον κάλλος· πᾶν γὰρ ἐξ ᾿Αφροδίτης κάλλος ἐστι, περὶ ὃ αἱ ὑλικώτεραι τῶν ψυχῶν οὐκ ἀπαλλάσσονται συντριβόμεναι. b(BCE3E4)T

ex. αὐτὰρ ὁ εἴδωλον τεῦξε<—τοῖον>: ἵνα φιλοτιμοτέρως μάχωνται Τρῶες τὸ πτῶμα σῶσαι θέλοντες. b(BCE3E4)T

Strangeness here:  (1) What in the world is going on in the first scholion? I think it is an allegorical reading of the passage, but still.
(2) Is the scholion providing a different father for Aeneas?


There was also an eidolon for Helen.


Storage Jar with Aeneas and Anchises  Greek, Athens, about 510 B.C.   Terracotta

Re-Telling Myths as Experiential Learning

“Many words of the ancients still ring true:
Their stories are fine medicine for mortal fear.”

καὶ τῶν παλαιῶν πόλλ’ ἔπη καλῶς ἔχει·
λόγοι γὰρ ἐσθλοὶ φάρμακον φόβου βροτοῖς. –Euripides, fr. 1065

We all know that the young readers–and many older ones–are moved by and identify with stories that draw on myth. Modern authors are part of an ancient tradition of reception, participating in the tradition of giving myth new life by adapting it for new contexts. And students can benefit from engaging in this process on their own.

In partnership with my campus’ Office of Experiential Learning and Teaching I re-designed my myth course this semester to focus more on myth as discourse and training for coping with or responding to discourse. Here is the statement I included on my syllabus:

[Myth] is designated as an experiential learning course. In the pursuit of storytelling as a discourse that shapes the way we think, see, and impact our world, the study of Classical Myth facilitates a reconsideration of where we come from as a human community and a reconfiguration of our understanding of how we shape where we will and can go. The study of myth in this capacity is fundamentally experiential: as a type of cooperative learning, it shows how storytellers and audiences—alongside teachers and students—are partners in the creation and perpetuation of the narratives that define their worlds; it is both relevant and authentic in providing students with the ability to understand the impact of mythmaking on the ancient world and in their own lives. From this perspective, the study of myth can also be transformative in providing students with the ability to sense, to decode and to reuse storytelling to understand and act as participants in their own world.

In keeping with the spirit of mythmaking and reception, this class will also engage in active learning frameworks which include, in addition to regular individual and group interpretation of myth, the telling and retelling of stories for different audiences. The process of interrogating the use of storytelling in the ancient world helps us gain agency over narratives in our own lives, understand our place in a larger human community connected by discourse, and develop greater competence in identifying the social effects of storytelling.

Image result for Ancient GReek myth performance

Periodically during the semester I would break from the typical myth course’s reading and lectures to have students work in groups or individually (1) discussing myths they liked; (2) isolating myths that made them uncomfortable; (3) discussing different versions of myths and reasons for their development; and (4) identifying narratives that had been influential in their lives. In the final weeks of the semester, I used a grant from the Experiential Learning committee to bring a storyteller to campus to work with students of different approaches to storytelling.

This work culminated in a final assignment that had students re-author an ancient myth for a modern context. In this process, I have been influenced by the work of psychologist Michael White who has focused on the importance of identifying the effects of discourse on our lives and regaining control (agency) over our own narratives by retelling our own stories.

Here’s the assignment:

Final Project

Stories (‘myths’) influence our lives from our earliest moments by shaping our expectations about the world and our own lives. Who tells what story has a profound effect on the choices we can make in our lives and the roles we think we may play in the world. In this course we have focused on the variability and reception of myth, emphasizing as well myth’s function as discourse. Cultural discourse is not just an important aspect of our identities vis à vis one another, but it also shapes our sense of agency. Philosophers, social theorists, and psychologists have argued that a sense of agency—most often mediated by types of storytelling—influences the way we interpret past events, impacts our behavior in the present, and constricts our ability to make plans for the future. Retelling stories—both personal narratives and cultural discourses—provides an opportunity for individuals and groups to reconsider and reclaim agency.

This final assignment will ask students to retell stories from Ancient Greece from their own perspectives (meaning individual, temporal, cultural etc.) as part of a practice of reclaiming discourse and learning how to receive and adapt paradigmatic narratives for new purposes. Students may work alone or in groups. The assignments must be submitted by the last day of finals.

Written: Rewrite a classical myth as a short story, either introducing a new variant that changes the narrative to make it applicable to different audiences/agencies or adapting it contextually to a different culture and time (preferably our own). The rewritten narrative should be 1-2 pages (minimum; 3-5 max) with a 2-3 page essay (1) identifying the specific sources you adapted, (2) isolating and explaining the creative choices you made, and (3) discussing any challenges or limitations you encountered when completing the project. This essay is self-reflective and evaluative—it is an essential part of the process. (Note: this option is best for students who would like to work alone; if completed by a group, each member must contribute a separate essay.)
[There were two other options, a video or a recording, and nearly all the students chose to write a story]

Some of the results of this project were absolutely phenomenal. Here’s a selection of what some students did:

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“Be Kind to Us”: Homeric Hymns to Dionysus

Homeric Hymn 1: To Dionysus

“Some say that it was at Drakonos, some say on windy Ikaros
others allege it was Naxos where the divine Eiraphiotes was born,
or even that it was beside the deep-eddying river Alpheios
where Semele, impregnated by Zeus who delights in thunder, gave birth.
Lord, others say that you were born at Thebes
But they all lie: The father of men and gods gave birth to you
hiding you from white-armed Hera far from all men.
There is a place called Nusê, the highest mountain flowering with forest,
In far-flung Phoenicia, near the flowing Nile.

They dedicate many images of you in the temples:
Since there are three, at the triannual festivals forever
Men will sacrifice to you perfect Hecatombs.
At this, Kronos’ son will nodded his dark eyebrows;
The ambrosial hair of the god danced about
On his immortal head, and Olympos shook greatly.
[After he spoke, councilor Zeus ordered with a nod.]
Be kind to us, Eirophiotes, woman-maddener: we singers
Begin and end with you as we sing: it is not possible
To begin a sacred song without thinking of you.
So, hail, Dionysus, Lord Eiraphiotes, and your mother too
Semele, the one they also call Thyône.”

οἱ μὲν γὰρ Δρακάνῳ σ’, οἱ δ’ ᾿Ικάρῳ ἠνεμοέσσῃ
φάσ’, οἱ δ’ ἐν Νάξῳ, δῖον γένος εἰραφιῶτα,
οἱ δέ σ’ ἐπ’ ᾿Αλφειῷ ποταμῷ βαθυδινήεντι
κυσαμένην Σεμέλην τεκέειν Διὶ τερπικεραύνῳ,
ἄλλοι δ’ ἐν Θήβῃσιν ἄναξ σε λέγουσι γενέσθαι
ψευδόμενοι• σὲ δ’ ἔτικτε πατὴρ ἀνδρῶν τε θεῶν τε
πολλὸν ἀπ’ ἀνθρώπων κρύπτων λευκώλενον ῞Ηρην.
ἔστι δέ τις Νύση ὕπατον ὄρος ἀνθέον ὕλῃ
τηλοῦ Φοινίκης σχεδὸν Αἰγύπτοιο ῥοάων

καί οἱ ἀναστήσουσιν ἀγάλματα πόλλ’ ἐνὶ νηοῖς.
ὡς δὲ τάμεν τρία, σοὶ πάντως τριετηρίσιν αἰεὶ
ἄνθρωποι ῥέξουσι τεληέσσας ἑκατόμβας.
ἦ καὶ κυανέῃσιν ἐπ’ ὀφρύσι νεῦσε Κρονίων•
ἀμβρόσιαι δ’ ἄρα χαῖται ἐπερρώσαντο ἄνακτος
κρατὸς ἀπ’ ἀθανάτοιο, μέγαν δ’ ἐλέλιξεν ῎Ολυμπον.
ὣς εἰπὼν ἐκέλευσε καρήατι μητίετα Ζεύς.
ἵληθ’ εἰραφιῶτα γυναιμανές• οἱ δέ σ’ ἀοιδοὶ
ᾄδομεν ἀρχόμενοι λήγοντές τ’, οὐδέ πῃ ἔστι
σεῖ’ ἐπιληθομένῳ ἱερῆς μεμνῆσθαι ἀοιδῆς.
καὶ σὺ μὲν οὕτω χαῖρε Διώνυσ’ εἰραφιῶτα,
σὺν μητρὶ Σεμέλῃ ἥν περ καλέουσι Θυώνην.

A few brief notes

1 Drakonos; Ikaros; Naxos: In part, this selection of different place names echoes the mythical travels of Dionysus. Drakonos is considered to be a location on the island of
kos; Ikaros and Naxos are also islands in the Aegean. The Alpheios river is in the Peloponnese: it is one of the two rivers re-routed by Herakles and a common toponym in myth.

2 Eiraphiotes: This is a problematic and confusing epithet. Ancient commentators related it to the word rhaptô “to sew”, indicating that it had to do with the fact that Dionysus was sewn up in Zeus’ thigh. (This may also as well, even if only tangentially, associate him with the recitation of poetry through rhapsodes who “sew the song together. This is uncertain and speculative, but the end of the second fragment ties the deity together with singers). A modern interpretation of the epithet finds a Sanskrit root and identifies Dionysus thus as a “Bull-god”. He was known at times for shape-shifting and, in this particular hymn, he is granted hekatombs.

3 Dionysus’ birth: Zeus impregnated Semele, she was killed by a thunderbolt, and Dionysus gestated in Zeus’ thigh. Therefore, it is easy to say (1) that both Semele and Zeus “gave birth to him” and (2) that he was born in more than one place.

4 Thebes: The home of Semele, a daughter of Cadmos, and a city typically punished for rejecting Dionysus.

6 Nusê; near the flowing Nile: In early Greek mythology, the mountain is often combined with a form of Zeus’ name (Dios) as an etymology for the name Dionysus. The location of Dionysus in Egypt may merely be part of the traditional motif that has the autochthonous god born elsewhere (other times in Asia, India) only to return and reclaim his rightful place. But according to the Orphic Theogony, Dionysus is torn apart by the Titans. His body is sometimes said to have been put back together by Demeter or to be ground up and served in a drink to Semele who gave birth to him again. This ritual-murder/deification motif collocated with mention of Egypt, however, may echo the connection Herodotus makes between Dionysus and the Egyptian god Osiris who was also murdered and in some cases torn apart only to be resurrected as a god of the underworld and rebirth.

7 woman-maddener: gunaimanes, “the one who makes women go insane”, an epithet connected with the mythical traditions that have Dionysus upending social orders and his special association with Bacchantes (mad, feral women)

8 “we begin and end with you”: this is in part a formulaic ending in Hymnic language, but for Dionysus, who was associated with so many performance rituals, this may give him a bit broader of a sphere of influence (e.g. tragedy, choral performances) or may draw upon the language of poetic inspiration via Dionysian ecstasy.

9 Thyône: A name for his mother or nymph who nursed him.

Homeric Hymn, 26: To Bacchus

“I begin to sing of ivy-haired Dionysus, who roars powerfully,
the shining son of Zeus and glorious Semele,
the one the fair-tressed nymphs raised after they took him
to their chests From his lord father to raise him rightly
tn the folds of Nusê. He grew up according at his father’s will
tn a fragrant caves, one among the number of immortals.
But once the goddesses had raised up the much-sung god,
then he went to wondering through the forested valleys
covering himself with ivy and laurel. The nymphs followed him
and he led—the thunder of the procession gripped the endless woods.
Hail to you too. Dionysus rich with clusters of grapes.
Grant that we may come happy into another season
And return again at this time for many more years.”

Κισσοκόμην Διόνυσον ἐρίβρομον ἄρχομ’ ἀείδειν
Ζηνὸς καὶ Σεμέλης ἐρικυδέος ἀγλαὸν υἱόν,
ὃν τρέφον ἠΰκομοι νύμφαι παρὰ πατρὸς ἄνακτος
δεξάμεναι κόλποισι καὶ ἐνδυκέως ἀτίταλλον
Νύσης ἐν γυάλοις• ὁ δ’ ἀέξετο πατρὸς ἕκητι
ἄντρῳ ἐν εὐώδει μεταρίθμιος ἀθανάτοισιν.
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ δὴ τόνδε θεαὶ πολύυμνον ἔθρεψαν,
δὴ τότε φοιτίζεσκε καθ’ ὑλήεντας ἐναύλους
κισσῷ καὶ δάφνῃ πεπυκασμένος• αἱ δ’ ἅμ’ ἕποντο
νύμφαι, ὁ δ’ ἐξηγεῖτο• βρόμος δ’ ἔχεν ἄσπετον ὕλην.
Καὶ σὺ μὲν οὕτω χαῖρε πολυστάφυλ’ ὦ Διόνυσε•
δὸς δ’ ἡμᾶς χαίροντας ἐς ὥρας αὖτις ἱκέσθαι,
ἐκ δ’ αὖθ’ ὡράων εἰς τοὺς πολλοὺς ἐνιαυτούς.

Fragmentary Friday: Early Accounts of Perseus

Perseus, Andromeda, and a Sea Monster

Perseus, Andromeda, and a Sea Monster

Hesiod, Fr. 129.8-18

“And she bore both Proitos and king Akrisios
And the father of gods and men established them in different places
Akrisos ruled in well-built Argos…
[three broken lines describing the marriage of Akrisios to Eurydike, daughter of Lakedaimon]
She gave birth to fine-ankled Danae in her home
Who in turn was the mother of Perseus, the mighty master of fear.
Proitos lived in the well-built city of Tiryns
and married the daughter of the great-hearted son of Arkas
the fine-haired Stheneboia…”
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So You Think You Know Odysseus?

(Gentle Readers: The following is a summary of several posts about Odysseus for my myth class.)

Homer’s Odyssey, read by many as the story of Odysseus, has perhaps exerted a fantastic influence on the reception of the survivor of the Trojan War.  One of the things I like to encourage is the idea that rather than representing the standard view of the figure, the Homeric epic goes to great lengths to reform and re-present a traditional figure whose broader mythical tradition may have been a bit more positive.

Odysseus' Magic Raft

Odysseus’ Magic Raft

(And it is fair to say that a close reading of the Odyssey itself can produce less-than-favorable revelations regarding the man it sings about.)

Part of the difference represented by Odysseus, I think, is that he is not strictly speaking a demi-god: instead of being a child of a god endowed with super-human ability, he is something somewhat mundane, a human being one step closer to the messy world of his audiences. He is, as the epic announces, the “many-minded man” and a “man of many shapes”. For this reason especially, he becomes a protean figure in myth.

Odysseus Declaims to Sirens?

Odysseus Declaims to Sirens?

The epic may play with this when Odysseus reveals himself to Telemachus in book 16, his son at first balks, certain that this man in front of him is a god or some delusion.  Odysseus responds memorably (16.204):

“No other Odysseus will ever come home to you”
οὐ μὲν γάρ τοι ἔτ’ ἄλλος ἐλεύσεται ἐνθάδ’ ᾿Οδυσσεύς

A groundbreaking television documentary in the ancient world entitled “So You Think You Know Odysseus” might start out with his biography as popularly known and then look more closely at the epic itself.  For instance, though we often talk about his son Telemachus, his wife Penelope and his father Laertes, we often miss the small detail presented in the epic that Odysseus has a sister named Ktimene. What is going on with her? Well, it seems that she was married off into the murky relationships that pervade the background of the Odyssey‘s rather unclear presentation of the geography and politics of the islands around Ithaca, a tale which makes Laertes out to be a conqueror and brings Odysseus’ rule into question.

But if we leave the Odyssey and look into the mythical tradition, we find that Odysseus dies–according to some–because he is defecated upon by a bird. He has a grandson related to Nestor. And he has up to 18 separate children apart from Telemachus. He was, in many ways, a classic, wandering inseminator.

Odysseus Prepares to Expose his 'Sword'

Odysseus Prepares to Expose his ‘Sword’

But he was also a bit of a scoundrel. According to one tradition, he tried to stab Diomedes in the back while they slipped out of Troy. The negative associations of Odysseus become standard during the classical age when he appears often (but not always) as a bit of a villain in Tragedy and as a counter-figure in oratory where Socrates prefers Palamedes to Homer’s hero.

But it would certainly be unfair to say that the dangers of Odysseus weren’t present in the epic itself: during the middle of his own story, Odysseus as much admits that his own actions were in part cause of his (and his family’s) suffering. In the mythical tradition, Odysseus is positioned as the remorseful cause of Ajax’ madness, the vengeful scourge of Palamedes, the manipulative master of Philoktetes, and the captain who loses all his ships. His suffering is endemic. He is never innocent. But he carries on.

Odysseus and Eurykleia

Odysseus and Eurykleia

I think that this traces in part to his essential humanity: for Plato, Achilles was the best man who went to Troy, and Odysseus was the “most shifty“. His changeable nature, rather than seeming heroic, is more real, more relatable, and far less than ideal. And this is what makes him so much more like us.

The “human-ness” of Odysseus is part of what made him appealing to later philosophers, the Stoics, as a survivor. The continuation of his tale makes him an apt metaphor or available allegory for the struggle of mankind to survive after the stories are done being told.

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