In a recent article, Sarah Scullin collects misandrist myths and topics from Greece and Rome. Reading some ancient scholarship can make us see why someone might find such ideas attractive. The following lines and commentary from the Homeric Scholia come from the scene at the end of book 1 of the Iliad where Hera talks to Zeus about his recent conversation with Thetis.
αὐτίκα κερτομίοισι Δία Κρονίωνα προσηύδα·
“Immediately, she addressed Kronos’ son Zeus with heart-rending words.”
Schol. bT ad Il. 1.539
“heart-rending”: words which hit the heart. For, both of these things are womanly: to be suspicious and to not restrain speech.”
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.
“Aristophanes uses this instead of “great men” (megaloi) because he is describing those who take and use falsely the means of war, not because they are truly interested in it, but because they care about strength. For this reason he also called Megainetus “Manes”, not because he is barbaric but because he is stupid. [In the Frogs] he appropriately uses a compound word because this is Aeschylus’ habit.”
“Who eat bread…” He says this because there are some races who don’t eat bread. Indeed, some are called locust eaters and fish-easters, like the Skythian race and the Massagetae are called meat-eaters. Some of the locust-eaters, after seeing bread, used to believe it was shit.”
“The poet also does not show heroes eating fish or birds, but still Odysseus’ companions do try to under compulsion. Generally, the poet avoids this kind of habit because of its triviality, but he has [heroes] eat roasted meat.”
“Those who eat grain/bread.” This is perhaps said regarding the difference of other mortals who are not these kind of people—the kind of sort the story claims that the long-lived Aethiopians are too. These people, after they saw bread, compared it to shit. There were also those who lived from eating locusts and others who lived off fish. For this reason they are called locust-eaters and fish eaters. The Skythian race and the Masssegetic people who live primarily off meat do not wish to eat grain.”
“In a close land to [the Aethiopians] are people darker-skinned than the rest and shorter and the shortest-lived, the locust-eaters. They rarely see more than forty years because their flesh is rife with parasites. They live on locusts who arrive in the spring carried by the strong winds that blow into these places. After throwing burning logs into trenches and kindling them a little, they overshadow the locusts with smoke and they call. They pound them together with salt and use them as cakes for their food.”
Strabo’s passage is, from a modern perspective, fairly racist (and more so even than the Eustathius). I don’t believe that the Odyssey’s formulaic line carries the same force, however. For Homer, people who eat bread are those who cultivate the earth and have to work (they don’t live easy lives like the gods). People who don’t eat the fruit of the earth are marauders and monsters.
The Odyssey’s ethnographic frame develops structures that insist to be fully human, one must (1) live in a city and (2) have recognizable laws and institutions, and (3) cultivate the earth. Creatures who don’t do these things are marginalized and dehumanized either through their behavior (the suitors and sailors) or through actual deformity (the Cyclopes, Kikones, and, well, pretty much most of the women in the poem). So, while the epic itself is not clearly racist in the modern sense, it supplies and deploys frameworks by which other human beings may be marginalized and dehumanized.
The Odyssey is somewhat preoccupied with Telemachus’ paternity and the means by which it might be established. As mentioned in an earlier post, Aristotle suggests that children who are not like their father are monstrous. The Odyssey is also preoccupied with monstrous bodies–the giant Kikones, the deformed (morally and physically) Kyklopes, the transformed sailors, the mutilated bodies of servants–and the transformation of Odysseus’ body because of trauma at sea, age, and the needs of disguise. The threat of finding a monster at home might also be implied…
Athena signals Telemachus’ positive identity from the beginning. But the boy himself is uncertain!
Homer, Odyssey 1.207-209
“…if in fact this great child is from the same Odysseus.
For you look terribly like that man in his beautiful eyes
and his head…”
“No one knows his own origin..” and elsewhere [we find] “they claim that that man is my father” (Od.4.387.) Similarly, Euripides says “a mother is a more dear parent than a father / for she knows the child is hers but he only thinks it” and Menander says, “no one knows from what man he is born / but we all suspect or believe it.” And some claim that Telemachus says these things because he was left when he was small.”
Later in the Odyssey, Nestor likens son to father (implicitly).
“..when shining Odysseus father was preeminent in all kinds of tricks, your father, if truly you are his son. And wonder overtakes me as I look at you
For your speeches, at least, are really fine—no one would expect
A younger man to utter such suitable things.”
In Sparta, Helen notes that Telemachus looks like, well, Telemachus even though she has never seen him! Menelaos agrees. The scholia get a little frustrated.
“For I do not think that anyone looks so suitable,
Neither a man nor a woman, and wonder overtakes me as I look at him,
How this one looks like the son of great-hearted Odysseus,
Telemachus, the one that man left just born in his household
When the Achaeans left for the sake of dog-faced me
And went to Troy, raising their bold war.”
“Fair Menelaos spoke to her and answered:
‘I was just thinking the same thing, wife, which you imagined.
For these are the same kind of feet and hands,
The look of the eyes and the hair on the head as that man.”
“These sort of feet are that man’s”: For likeness in bodies especially shows through in the extremities and the gaze. And however so much grows more slowly, that much provides more precise signs of recognition over time. This is why it is said “From feet to the head.”
The threat of children not looking like fathers is central to the fall of the race of iron. But it is couched within a general social collapse. In this case, ancient scholia turn to the abstract issue. In this case, a child dissimilar to parents would be a monstrum, but in the sense of an omen or a sign of a fallen generation. From this perspective the tension latent in Telemachus’ potential dissimilarity to his father is about stability of the last generation of epic heroes. The bastard sons of Odysseus and potential infidelity of Penelope signal, perhaps, the end of the race of heroes and a premature end to heroic epic.
Hesiod, Works and Days 180–185
“Zeus will destroy this race of mortal humans
Or they will perish when they are born with temples already grey.
Then a father will not be like his children, nor children at all like parents;
A guest will not be dear to a host, a friend not to a friend
And a relative will not be dear as in years before.”
“similar to”: the similarity is clearly the commonness, the conversation, and the affection. For affection (philia) develops from similarity. Altogether this expresses tragically the oncoming evils in life following this, the distrust between children and fathers, between guests and hosts, and among friends. Friendship is the third thing mentioned. Also: cognate, companionable, hospitable.”
Later, Aristotle channels some of the same cultural assumptions from a scientific perspective. Here the monstrum (greek teras) is an indication of deformity.
Aristotle, Generation of Animals, Book 4, 767b
“These causes are also of the same. Some [offspring] are born similar to their parents while others are not. Some are similar to their father; others are like their mother, applying both to the body as a whole and to each part. Offspring are more like their parents than their ancestors and more like their ancestors than passersby.
Males are more similar to their father and females are more similar to their mother. But some are not like any of their relatives, but are still akin to human beings while others are like not at all like humans in their appearance, but rather like some monster. For whoever is not like his parents is in some way a monster because nature has in these cases wandered in some way from the essential character.”
“There were twelve sons of blameless Neleus. According to the Separatists, Homer records that there were twelve children of Neleus in the Iliad but had three in the Odyssey where he provides the genealogy: “And I saw surpassingly beautiful Khloris” and soon after, “Nestor and Khromios, and proud Periklymenos”. It is likely that the children born before came to him from another woman and these three came from Khloris, for Priamos said, “I had fifty children. When the sons of the Achaeans came / 19 of them were from a single womb / the rest women bore to me in my home.”
“…but the story is from ancient men. If, then, I were to give to you silver as swap of equal worth when you sent me gold, do not value the favor less nor, as Glaukos did, believe that the exchange is harmful, since not even Diomedes would switch silver armor for gold since the former is much more practical than the latter in the way of lead that is shaped for the ends of spears.
I am joking with you! I have assumed a certain freedom of speech based on the example you have written yourself. But, if in truth you want to send me gifts worth more than gold, write and don’t ever stop writing to me! For even a brief note from you is more dear to me than anything someone else might consider good.”
Who knew that the popular Christmas song was inspired by Julian the Apostate?
Julian is referring to the famous scene of exchange between Diomedes and Glaukos in the Iliad (6.230-236)
“Let’s exchange armor with one another so that even these people
May know that we claim to be guest-friends from our fathers’ lines.”
So they spoke and leapt down from their horses,
Took one another’s hands and made their pledge.
Then Kronos’s son Zeus stole away Glaukos’ wits,
For he traded to Diomedes golden arms in exchange for bronze,
weapons worth one hundred oxen traded for those worth nine.”
“Kronos’ son Zeus took Glaukos’ wits away”. Because he was adorning him among his allies with more conspicuous weapons. Or, because they were made by Hephaistos. Or, as Pios claims, so that [the poet?] might amplify the Greek since they do not make an equal exchange—a thing which would be sweet to the audience.
Or, perhaps he credits him more, that he was adorned with conspicuous arms among his own and his allies. For, wherever these arms are, it is a likely place for an enemy attack.”
I always thought that Glaukos got a raw deal from interpreters here. Prior to the stories Diomedes and Glaukos tell each other, Diomedes was just murdering everyone in his path. Glaukos—who already knew who Diomedes was before he addressed him—tells a great tale, gives Diomedes his golden weapons, and actually lives to the end of the poem. I think this is far from a witless move. And, if the armor is especially conspicuous, maybe the plan-within-a-plan is to put a golden target on Diomedes’ back.