Child murder, worries about immigrants, and paranoia about drugs. Why are the ancients so weird?
Scholia B on Euripides, Medea 264
Parmeniskos writes as follows: “The story is that because the Korinthian women did not want to be ruled by a foreign woman and poison-user, they conspired against her and killed her children, seven male and seven female. Euripides says that Medea had only two. When the children were being pursued, they fled to the temple of Hera Akraia and sheltered in the shrine. But the Korinthians did not restrain themselves even there—they slaughtered the children over the altar.
Then a plague fell upon the city and many bodies were ruined by the disease. When they went to the oracle, it prophesied that they should appease the god for the slaughter of Medea’s children. For this reason, even in our day, the Korinthians send seven young men and seven young women from the most illustrious families each year to spend the year in the sanctuary to appease the rage of the children and the divine anger which arose because of them.”
But Didymos argues against this and provides Kreophylos’ writings: “For Medea is said to have killed the leader of Korinth at the time, Kreon, with drugs, when she was living there. Because she feared his friends and relatives, she fled to Athens, but left her sons who were too young and incapable of accompanying here, at the altar of Hera Akraia. She thought that their father would provide for their safety. But once Kreon’s relatives killed them they circulated the tale that Medea not only killed Kreon but murdered her own children too.”
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.
“And I certainly seem to be experiencing the fate of Ibykos’ horse, a prize-winner who, even though old, was about to compete in the chariot race and was trembling because of experience at what was about to happen. Ibykos compared himself to him when he said that he too was old and was being compelled to move towards lust”
[Scholiast] Here is the saying of Ibykos the lyric poet:
τὸ τοῦ μελοποιοῦ Ἰβύκου ῥητόν·
“Love again, gazing up from under dark lashes,
Throws me down with every kind of spell
Into the Cyprian’s endless nets.
In truth, I tremble at this arrival,
Just as a prize-winning horse on the yoke in old age
Goes into the contest with his swift wheels, but not willingly.”
“In addition to these, here are the characteristics of prominent poets, the lyric ones who sing their songs to a lyre and who may have a chorus of fifty men set up in a circle, those who also used to take a bull as a prize. These features are shared with the dithyrambic poets. The dithyrambic poets are in the habit of composing their fine hymns do Dionysus and they used to take tripods [as gifts?]. These poems are called dithyramboi thanks to the “two exit doors” of Dionysus, Semele’s stomach and Zeus’ thigh. “
If you didn’t get the joke, it is because di-thura-ba- [here, duo-thuron-bantos; “two-doors-walking”] presents the essential sounds of dithyramb. Byzantine etymological text repeats the origin and explains it a bit, not without adding another on its own.
Etymologicum Magnum, s.v. dithyrambos
“Dithyrambos: Dionysus. It is an epithet of Dionysus because he was raised in a cave with two doors in Nussê. This is also the hymn named for the god and dedicated to him. It comes from “coming through two doors”, the womb of his mother Semele and Zeus’ thigh—since he was born twice: once from his mother, and once from Zeus’ thigh. This is how he exited the ‘door’ twice.”
Hint: Either because he likes people. Or, animals have a good sense of smell.
Schol. A ad Il. 1.50c ex.
“First he [attacked] the mules and the fast dogs”
“Because the god is well-disposed toward human beings, he kills mules, dogs, and the other irrational beasts first, so that, by inducing fear through these [deaths], he might nurture proper reverence in the Greeks.
Or, it is because the mules and dogs have a more powerful perception of smell. For, dogs are really good at tracking beasts because of their sense of smell, and mules, when they are left behind, often rediscover their paths thanks to their sense of smell.”
Additional note: On 1.50, Aristonicus denies the claims by by some rogues that “mules” here is a word for “guards”; the bT scholia make the quasi-scientific claim that these animals are more susceptible to diseases than humans. I like the idea of Apollo trying to teach people a lesson before just murdering them all.
“…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.
“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 a longing for Odysseus who has gone wrecks me.
I am feel ashamed to name him, stranger, even though he is absent.
For he used to really care about me and take pains in his heart.
But I call him my older brother even though he is not here.”
Translators who contend with this passage may struggle with it because it seems odd in English to say “I feel shame to name…” someone. In fact, I don’t think I would understand this passage at all (and I still might be wrong) if it were not for my wife’s language and culture (she speaks Tamil, a language from southern India). In many cultures, naming someone by their personal name is a sign of privilege; not naming them or using an honorific is a token of respect. In Tamil, for instance, there are different names for aunts and uncles depending on whether they are older or younger than your parents.
Outside of the family, as a sign of respect, one calls older men and women aunt and uncle (or grandfather and grandmother) and family friends or cousins of close age but still older “big sister” (akka) or big brother (anna).
The passage above hinges, I think, on some kind of a token of respect. Eumaios, the swineherd, is hesitant to speak Odysseus’ name and declares that he should call him êtheion. Most translators render this as “lord”, “sir”, “master”. But the scholia give a different answer.
Schol. BQHV ad Hom. Od. 14.147
BQ. “But I call him elder…” I do not call Odysseus ‘master’ but big brother because of his loving-care for me. For to êtheie is the address of a younger [brother] to an older.”
H. “This is one part of the speech [?]. But it clearly means older brother”
ἓν μέρος λόγου ἐστί· δηλοῖ δὲ τὸν πρεσβύτερον ἀδελφόν. H.
êtheion: Older brother, really amazing.
ἠθεῖον, πρεσβύτερον ἀδελφὸν, θαυμαστὸν ἄγαν. V.
The sociolinguistic apparatus that conveys the full force of Eumaios’ feeling here is not fully present in English. But even just translating this as “brother” would make sense since, earlier, Eumaios claims that he would not even mourn his parents as much as he would Odysseus.
(This is a little disturbing from the perspective of how a slave defers to the master, but it works out even better for Eumaios’ view of his position in the ‘family’ since later he says that he was raised with Odysseus’ sister Ktimene).
“[Metrodorus said] concerning the laws and customs among men that Agamemnon was the sky, Achilles was the sun, Helen was the earth, and Alexander was air, that Hektor was the moon and that the rest were named analogically with these. He claimed that Demeter was the liver, Dionysus the spleen, and Apollo was bile [anger].”
Some Allegorical Readings from the Scholia Vetera to the Odyssey (Dindorf)
Schol. E. ad Od. 1.38
“Allegorically, an uttered speech is called Hermes because of his hermeneutic nature and he is the director because he manages the soul’s thoughts and the mind’s reflections. He is Argeiphontes because he is bright and pure of murder. For he teaches, and evens out and calms the emotional part of the soul. Or, it is because he killed the dog Argos, which stands for madness and disordered thoughts. He is the one who makes the reflections of the mind appear bright and clean.
*Heraclitus the Obscure claims that Hermes is a representation of Odysseus’ rational mind (Homeric Problems 72-73)
Schol E.M. ad Od. 4.384
“The winds and every sort of breeze”: Some allegorize Proteus as matter itself. For without matter, they claim that the creator [could not] have made everything distinct. For, although matter is never clear to us, men, trees, water and all things come from it. Eidothea, you see, is thought. Matter produces thought once it is condensed. Others allegorize Proteus as the right part of the spring when the earth first begins to make the shapes of grapes and offspring. Menelaos, since it was not the right time for sailing and he missed the spring, sailed in the wrong direction. The name Proteus is suitable for allegory.”
“The holy cave of the Nymphs”: Some allegorize the cave as the universe, the nymphs are souls, they are also bees and the bodies are men. The two gates are the exit of souls, and one is creation, the entry point of the soul, in which no part of the body enters, but there are only souls. They are immortal. From this they call them olive—or, because of the victorious crown, or because…which is nourishing…”