Search Results for: orestes

Orestes Mainomenos

As you go from Megalopolis to Messene, after advancing about seven stades, there stands on the left of the highway a sanctuary of Goddesses. They call the Goddesses themselves, as well as the district around the sanctuary, Maniae (Madnesses). In my view this is a surname of the Eumenides; in fact they say that it was here that madness overtook Orestes as punishment for shedding his mother’s blood. Not far from the sanctuary is a mound of earth, of no great size, surmounted by a finger made of stone; the name, indeed, of the mound is the Tomb of the Finger. Here, it is said, Orestes on losing his wits bit off one finger of one of his hands. Adjoining this place is another, called Ake (Remedies) because in it Orestes was cured of his malady. Here too there is a sanctuary for the Eumenides. The story is that, when these Goddesses were about to put Orestes out of his mind, they appeared to him black; but when he had bitten off his finger they seemed to him again to be white and he recovered his senses at the sight. So he offered a sin-offering to the black Goddesses to avert their wrath, while to the white deities he sacrificed a thank-offering. It is customary to sacrifice to the Graces also along with the Eumenides. Near to the place called Ake is another sanctuary called . . . because here Orestes cut off his hair on coming to his senses. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.34.1-3)


When Orestes had departed in haste from the Taurians with his sister, it so happened that he contracted some disease. And when he made inquiry about the disease they say that the oracle responded that his trouble would not abate until he built a temple to Artemis in a spot such as the one among the Taurians, and there cut off his hair and named the city after it. So then Orestes, going about the country there, came to Pontus, and saw a mountain which rose steep and towering, while below along the extremities of the mountain flowed the river Iris. Orestes, therefore, supposing at that time that this was the place indicated to him by the oracle, built there a great city and the temple of Artemis, and, shearing off his hair, named after it the city which even up to the present time has been called Comana. The story goes on that after Orestes had done these things, the disease continued to be as violent as before, if not even more so. Then the man perceived that he was not satisfying the oracle by doing these things, and he again went about looking everywhere and found a certain spot in Cappadocia very closely resembling the one among the Taurians. I myself have often seen this place and admired it exceedingly, and have imagined that I was in the land of the Taurians. For this mountain resembles the other remarkably, since the Taurus is here also and the river Sarus is similar to the Euphrates there. So Orestes built in that place an imposing city and two temples, the one to Artemis and the other to his sister Iphigenia, which the Christians have made sanctuaries for themselves, without changing their structure at all. This is called even now Golden Comana, being named from the hair of Orestes, which they say he cut off there and thus escaped from his affliction. (Prokopios, History of the Wars 1.17.18-25)

The Wolf of Wilusa

Neoptolemos (also known as Pyrrhos on account of his ruddy complexion, red hair and fiery temper) was the son of Achilles and a ferocious warrior in his own right. Despite being only 13 or 14 at the time he fought at Troy, slaying Priam, Eurypylus, Polyxena, Polites and Astyanax as well as other great heroes. He was among those who hid in the wooden horse (and according to Homer was the only one of them who had no fear of being discovered) leading the charge that would bring the decade-long battle to its violent climax and leave the ancient city once known as Wilusa smoldering rubble.

According to Madeline Miller he is “a person with no ability to pity or empathize with others” and “the first depiction of a sociopath in Western literature.”

Once inside the palace, Pyrrhus chases down the Trojan prince Polites, killing him in front of his father, the aged King Priam, who has taken shelter at the household alters.  The old king, in one of the most moving moments in the Aeneid, rises, trembling with grief and age, to deliver a ringing speech that calls down the wrath of the gods upon Pyrrhus for his double blasphemy: killing a son in front of his father, and defiling a sanctuary.  As a further reproach, he compares him to his father, unfavorably: “Not even Achilles behaved so to me.  He knew how to respect the laws of the suppliant; he returned my son’s body to me, and sent me safely home again.”  This is a reference to the famous scene in the Iliad where Priam goes to Achilles’ tent to beg for Hector’s body, and Achilles relents–a shining moment of mercy and hope in an otherwise bloody work.

But you cannot shame a man like Pyrrhus. His response is sneering contempt: “You can go tell my father about my disgraceful deeds yourself. Now, die!”

He seizes the old man by his hair, and drags him, slipping in the blood of his son, to the altar to dispatch him. Later we hear that Priam’s body has been left on the shore, missing its head, for the animals to eat. It is not enough for Pyrrhus to have killed him, he must also dishonor him—mutilating his body and depriving his soul of its eternal peace. The hope kindled in the meeting between Achilles and Priam is snuffed, utterly, by the son.

And that’s just the beginning of the horrors he wrought, as Miller relates:

After killing Priam, Pyrrhus goes in search of Andromache, Hector’s wife. When he finds her, he seizes from her arms her infant son, Astyanax, and smashes his brains out against the wall. (In fact, in some lurid versions of the story, he uses the baby’s body to club the grandfather Priam before killing him.) Andromache herself he takes captive, as his slave-wife. It is a horrifying cruelty: forcing her to share the bed of the man who murdered her son, and whose father murdered her husband. Then, before returning to Greece, Pyrrhus sacrifices the princess Polyxena on his father’s tomb.

Bludgeoning a man to death with his infant grandson is fucking hardcore, bro.


As I mentioned in my piece on Víðarr, Snorri presents Neoptolemos as an Úlfhéðnar and even the personification of the Fenris wolf who is responsible for the death of Óðinn:

Pyrrhus they compared with the Fenris-wolf. He slew Odin, and Pyrrhus might be called a wolf according to their belief, for he did not spare the peace-steads, when he slew the king in the temple before the altar of Thor. The burning of Troy they called the flame of Surt. (Prose Edda: Skáldskaparmál Epilogue 8)

This differs from the conventional Greek account, where it is the Dionysian hero Orestes who ended his wolfish rampage:

Neoptolemus, son of Achilles and Deidamia, begat Amphialus by captive Andromache, daughter of Ēëtion. But after he heard that Hermione his betrothed had been given to Orestes in marriage, he went to Lacedaemon and demanded her from Menelaus. Menelaus did not wish to go back on his word, and took Hermione from Orestes and gave her to Neoptolemus. Orestes, thus insulted, slew Neoptolemus as he was sacrificing at Delphi, and recovered Hermione. The bones of Neoptolemus were scattered through the land of Ambracia, which is in the district of Epirus. (Hyginus, Fabulae 123)

But Snorri’s take has a lot to commend it. Or at least it’s prompting some interesting thoughts, such as his comparison of the burning of Troy to the flame of Surtr.

More on that later.

Deerly beloved

While I dig the cosmic connotations the Orphics gave the nebris, it can mean many different things to different people.

For instance, it can be a symbol of personal liberation:

Edith and I are Maenads now with a “longing for the hills & ecstasy.” Let Frances expect to see me at the midland station with cone-pointed thyrsos & fawn-skin. Tell him I shall walk to Lindelhurst in this array. He need not think of hiding my originality in a fly! (Katherine Harris Bradley to the family of Frances Brooks in a letter dated 1882)

Of jubilant procession:

That Osiris is identical with Dionysos who could more fittingly know than yourself, Klea? For you lead the Thyiadic dances at Delphi and have been consecrated by your father and mother in the holy rites of Osiris. If, however, for the benefit of others it is needful to adduce proofs of this identity, let us leave undisturbed what may not be told, but the public ceremonies which the priests perform in the burial of the Apis, when they convey his body on an improvised bier, do not in any way come short of a Bacchic procession; for they fasten skins of fawns about themselves, and carry Bacchic wands and indulge in shoutings and movements exactly as do those who are under the spell of the Dionysiac ecstasies. (Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 35)

Or of destructive transformation:

On the road from Megara there is a spring on the right, and a little farther on a rock. It is called the bed of Aktaion, for it is said that he slept thereon when weary with hunting, and that into this spring he looked while Artemis was bathing with her nymphs. Stesichoros of Himera says that the Goddess cast a deer-skin round Aktaion to make sure that his hounds would kill him, so as to prevent his taking Semele to wife. (Pausanias, Description Greece 9.2.3)

The bit from Stesichoros is interesting, and not just for the crime he ascribes to Pentheus’ cousin Aktaion. (I’ll let that one settle in for a moment.) 

Himera is not far from Syracuse and Tyndaris, which held interesting celebrations for the Huntress, according to the Anonymous Life of Theokritos 1b:

Others says that bucolic poetry was first performed at Tyndaris in Sicily. When Orestes took the image of Artemis away from Tauris in Scythia, he received an oracle, that he should wash himself in seven rivers flowing from one source. Therefore Orestes went to Rhegium in Italy, and washed away the curse in the so-called “separated” rivers. Then he crossed over to Tyndaris in Sicily, where the inhabitants sang their local songs in honour of the Goddess, and this was the origin of the tradition. They say that when the men sang, they prepared a loaf with many images of wild animals on it, a pouch full of all kinds of seeds, and wine in a goatskin, to pour out as an offering for those they met. They wore a garland, with the antlers of a deer on their head, and a staff in their hands. The victor in the contest received the loaf of the man he had vanquished; and the victor remained in the city of Syracuse, while the losers went out to the surrounding villages to collect food for themselves. They sang songs full of fun and laughter, and added the following propitious words:

Receive good fortune,
Receive good health,
Which we bring from the Goddess,
Which she has commanded.


Thoughts on the Olbian calendar

Assuming that we’re given the months in their proper order the Olbian calendar breaks down as follows:

Taureon: April/May
Thargelion: May/June
Kalamaion: June/July
Panemos: July/August
Metageitnion: August/September
Boedromion: September/October
Kuanepsion: October/November
Apatourion: November/December
Poseideon: December/January
Leneon: January/February
Anthesterion: February/March
Artemision: March/April

Andokides does not provide a name for the intercalary month; if I were going to use this instead of the Bakcheion calendar I’d call it “Lykeion.” 

My reasoning for this: 

  • Since there is a Bull Month (Taureon) it’s only fitting to have a Wolf Month. 
  • Apollon doesn’t have as much representation on the calendar as he probably should, considering his prominence in the Olbian pantheon. He appears on the city’s coinage, he’s mentioned in city treaties, the majority of the temples that have been uncovered thus far belong to him, he had several distinct forms i.e. Apollo Delphinios (of Delphi), Apollo Ietros (Healer), Apollo Neomenios (he who Opens the Month), Apollo Boreas (of the North Wind) etc, and there were several private religious associations dedicated to him – including one with possible Orphic ties.
  • It just feels right. 

Most of the names are familiar from other Greek calendars, but Kalamaion and Kúanepsion were new to me;  I’m uncertain of their meaning. 

There is a Púanepsion in the Attic calendar, from the Púanopsia (Bean-stewing) festival Theseus instituted in fulfillment of a vow he swore to Apollon should he prove victorious against the Minotaur. It is the seventh month. 

However, I checked the Greek and it is clearly a Kappa heading that word. Assuming that the person chiseling the inscription didn’t just fuck things up Kúanepsion could come from kúanos (κῠᾰνος) “dark blue” which, ironically enough, Robert Beekes’ Etymological Dictionary of Greek says probably derives from Hittite kuwannan (precious stone, copper, blue), likely from Proto-Indo-European *ḱwey- (to shine, white, light; compare *ḱweytós, white.) Ironic because there’s that whole debate about whether the ancients could even see blue. 

This begs the question of why they’d name one of their months Dark Blue – unless it’s from Kyanê (Κυανη), one of the Sicilian Nymphs who were part of Kore’s maiden companions that were out collecting flowers with her when the abduction occured:  

A great fountain was made sacred to Persephone in the territory of Syrakousa and given the name Kyane or ‘Azure Font.’ For the myth relates that it was near Syrakousa that Plouton effected the rape of Kore and took her away in his chariot, and that after cleaving the earth asunder he himself descended into Haides, taking along with him the bride whom he had seized, and that he caused the fountain named Kyane to gush forth, near which the Syrakousans each year hold a notable festive gathering; and private individuals offer the lesser victims, but when the ceremony is on behalf of the community, bulls are plunged in the pool, this manner of sacrifice having been commanded by Herakles on the occasion when he made the circuit of all Sicily, while driving off the cattle of Geryones. (Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 5.2.3)

While Herakles as the progenitor of the Skythians was certainly popular in the region and there was a temple to the Eleusinian deities at Olbia, the Azure Font is a local Syracusan addition to Persephone’s story. Olbia had extensive trade relations with a number of cities in Magna Graecia so it’s entirely possible that they were aware of the myth, but why enshrine it in their calendar? 

I’m not sure what else it could be though. 

As for Kalamaion only a couple things occur to me. 

Perhaps it honors the Epiriote River God Kalamas who flows into the Ionian Sea – but what significance would that have to a Milesian colony all the way over in the Ukraine?

Now the Kala- part could come from kalós (καλός) meaning:

  • beautiful, lovely
  • good, quality, useful
  • right, moral, virtuous, noble

I don’t know all the rules of declension and word formation so I’m not sure if that’s sufficient to explain the name, but the second half reminds me of Μαῖα the mother of Hermes as well as μαία meaning nurse or midwife. 

Comparing the Olbian calendar to others in the Greek world it probably comes the closest to the Attic, despite beginning shortly after the Spring Equinox whereas in Athens this happened post Summer Solstice. 

Taureon = Mounichion*
Thargelion = Thargelion
Kalamaion = Skiraphorion
Panemos = Hekatombaion
Metageitnion = Metageitnion
Boedromion = Boidromion
Kuanepsion = Puanepsion
Apatourion = Maimakterion
Poseideon = Poseideon
Leneon = Gamelion*
Anthesterion = Anthesterion
Artemision = Elaphebolion*

I’ve bolded matching months and put asterisks on ones with possible equivalences.

Mounichion, for instance, is the month in which the Mounichia took place. The festival takes its name from an epiklesis of Artemis associated with a temple in the Piraeus, Athens’ famous harbour district. The festival both celebrated the birthday of the Goddess and commemorated the Battle of Salamis, during which she favorably intervened on behalf of the Athenians. There was a procession in which young girls who played the part of Bears and served the Goddess at her sanctuary in Brauron took part. Cakes encircled with candles and other sacrifices were given on this occasion. 

While Taureon most likely means the Month of the Bull (as it does in other calendars) and honors Dionysos whose bull form was especially prominent in Asia Minor (and the Pontic region in particular) it could also refer to the Taurike, a region along the southern coast of the Crimean peninsula whose capital Tauris was home to a particularly savage form of Artemis (or her Skythian equivalent) which engaged in human sacrifice. Iphigéneia became her high priestess, after nearly being sacrificed herself at Aulis. Orestes rescues his sister, and is directed to steal the xoanon or primitive wooden idol of Artemis and take it to the town of Halae, where he is to build a temple for Artemis Tauropolos (Bull-slayer.) The xoanon either ends up in Sparta where it is worshiped with rites of bloody flagellation as Artemis Orthia or Italy where the Rex Nemorensis or King of the Grove served her until his successor came along and murdered him. Iphigéneia ended her days at the Brauron sanctuary where she taught the maidens the mysteries of the Bear Dance. 

Although in Attica the seventh month is Gamelion, after the hieros gamos (sacred marriage) of Zeus and Hera, in other parts of Greece the period of January/February (particularly in Asia Minor) is called some variation of Lenaeon from the Lenaia festival. 

Although not called Artemision as in Olbia, the Attic Elaphebolion honors Artemis the Deer Slayer at whose festival the Elaphebolia cakes in the shape of deer were offered. This either celebrated her hunting prowess, the transformation of Iphigéneia into a deer to save her from Agamemnon’s blade or the defeat of the Thessalians by Athens and Phokis thanks to another miraculous intervention by Artemis.

Panemos and its dialectical variations are found on the calendars of Aetolia, Argolis, Boiotia, Epidauris, Laconia, Rhodes. Sicily, Thessaly and the Makedonian-derived systems, among others. 

Apatourion has two possible origins. Either from the Apatouria festival, which the Wiley Online Library describes as follows:

The Apatouria, an important festival celebrated by Ionians, including Athenians, was for Herodotus one of two criteria of Ionian identity (Hdt. 1.147). In Athens the Apatouria was the central element in the ritual calendar of the phratries, the kinship organizations crucial for determining Athenian citizenship. The three‐day festival occurred in the autumn in the month Pyanepsion and was celebrated at the separate phratry shrines throughout Attica. There was a feast on the first day, and a sacrifice to Zeus Phratrios and Athena Phratria on the second. On the third day, fathers would introduce their sons for admission to the phratry (and, in effect, to Athenian citizenship). In the normal course of events this occurred during a child’s first few years. Our sources suggest that there were various athletic and intellectual literary competitions over the three days in which the children of the phrateres could demonstrate their merit. Ancient scholarship links the Apatouria to the myth of the ritual combat between the Athenian Melanthos (the “dark one”) and the Boiotian Xanthos (the “fair one”) for the kingship of Attica, which Melanthos won through a trick (apate) (Hellanikos FGrH 4 F23). Although some modern scholars have therefore seen a connection to the ephebes and to rites of passage involving social inversion, the rituals of the festival have no apparent connection to the narrative of the myth, and most modern scholars now link the Apatouria to “the control, maintenance, and affirmation of kinship and of membership in society at every level” (Lambert 1993: 151).

This trick or apate was played by none other than Dionysos:

The Athenians had a war on against the Boiotians over Kelainai, which was a place in their borderlands. Xanthios, a Boiotian, challenged the Athenian king, Thymoites to a fight. When he did not accept, Melanthos, an expatriate Messenian from the stock of Periklymenos the son of Neleus, stood up to fight for the kingdom. While they were engaged in single combat, someone wearing a black goat-skin cape appeared to Melanthos from behind Xanthios. So Melanthos said that it was not right to come two against one. Xanthios turned round and Melanthos smote and killed him. And from this was generated both the festival Apatouria and ‘of the Black Aigis’ as an epithet of Dionysos. (Suidas s.v. Apatouria)

However, it’s equally possible that the name comes from the epiklesis Mistress of Apatouron borne by Aphrodite Ourania in the Bosporus, for which Strabo gives the following aition:   

There is also in Phanagoreia a notable temple of Aphrodite Apaturus. Critics derive the etymology of the epithet of the Goddess by adducing a certain myth, according to which the Giants attacked the Goddess there; but she called upon Herakles for help and hid him in a cave, and then, admitting the Giants one by one, gave them over to Herakles to be murdered through “treachery.” (11.2.10)

For more on this Goddess, check out Yulia Ustinova’s Aphrodite Ourania of the Bosporus: The Great Goddess of a Frontier Pantheon.

The Stranger King


Something else I’m thinking about: the assumption that the cultural institutions of the ancients were ageless and unchanging.

They weren’t.

For instance, when did the Athenians stop celebrating Anthesteria?

If memory serves, Plutarch is one of the last authors to speak of carrying out the rites; subsequently references to it tend to be in the past tense.

His observances are also very different from the evidence we have for the Classical Athenian form of the festival, which differs again from what was done in Southern Italy, and likely Ephesos and Magnesia too.

Interesting fact: Themistokles (of 300: Rise of an Empire fame) is credited with transplanting Anthesteria to the latter polis, where he was banished after successfully defending his mother-city from Persian incursion.

I bet Orestes’ Supper held some interesting resonances for him, especially considering the tragic hero’s ties to the Black Sea region. 

a white day for slaves


One of the reasons that Óðr has been on my mind of late is because we have entered the White Season according to the Bakcheion calendar, during which Dionysos:

acts out the role of the Magician come from a strange and distant land, bringing wonders and radical transformation in his wake. He knows the songs and ceremonies to awaken and release, and he is followed by a triumphant procession of Nymphs and Satyrs whose ecstatic revelry chases off barrenness, stagnation and malignant or at least mischievous Spirits from the land and his people.

This is the Season in which Anthesteria falls (at this point it’s only a couple weeks away! 11-13 Stephanos or 4-6 February by the common reckoning) and the overlapping feast for Erigone, the Hanged Maiden:

Nor did the morn of the Broaching of the Jars pass unheeded, nor that whereon the Pitchers of Orestes bring a white day for slaves. And when he kept the yearly festival of Ikarios’ child, thy day, Erigone, lady most sorrowful of Attic women, he invited to a banquet his familiars, and among them a stranger who was newly visiting Egypt, whither he had come on some private business. (Kallimachos, Aitia 1.1)

And the reason that made me think of Óðr is found in Hyginus’ Astronomica:

§ 2.2.1 LESSER BEAR: Aglaosthenes, who wrote the Naxica, says that she is Cynosura, one of the nurses of Jove from the number of the Idaean nymphs. He says, too, that in the city called Histoe, founded by Nicostratus and his friends, both the harbour and the greater part of the land are called Cynosura from her name. She, too, was among the Curetes who were attendants of Jove. Some say that the nymphs Helice and Cynosura were nurses of Jove, and so for gratitude were placed in the sky, both being called Bears. We call them Septentriones.

§ 2.2.2 But many have said that the Great Bear is like a wagon, and the Greeks do call it amaza. This reason has been handed down: Those who, at the beginning, observed the stars and supposed the number of stars into the several constellations, called this group not “Bear” but “Wain,” because two of the seven stars which seemed of equal size and closest together were considered oxen, and the other five were like the figure of a wagon. And so the sign which is nearest to this they wished to be called Bootes. We shall speak of him later on. Aratus, indeed, says that neither Bootes nor the Wain has these names for the reason above, but because the Bear seems, wagon-like, to wheel around the pole which is called North, and Bootes, is said to drive her. In this he seems to be considerably in error, for later, in connection with the seven stars, as Parmeniscus says, twenty-five were grouped by certain astronomers to complete the form of the Bear, not seven. And so the one that followed the wagon and was formerly called Bootes, was now called Arctophylax [Bear Watchter], and she, at the same time that Homer lived, was called Bear. About the Septentriones Homer says that she was called both Bear and Wain; nowhere does he mention that Bootes was called Arctophylax.

§ 2.4.1 BEAR-WATCHER: He is said to be Arcas, the son of Jove and Callisto, whom Lycaon served at a banquet, cut up with other meat, when Jupiter came to him as a guest. For Lycaon wanted to know whether the one who had asked for his hospitality was a god or not. For this deed he was punished by no slight punishment, for Jupiter, quickly overturning the table, burned the house with a thunderbolt, and turned Lycaon himself into a wolf. But the scattered limbs of the boy he put together, and gave him to a certain Aitolian to care for. When, grown to manhood, he was hunting in the woods, he saw his mother changed to bear form, and did not recognize her. Intent on killing her, he chased her into the temple of Jove Lycaeus, where the penalty for entering is death, according to Arcadian law. And so, since both would have to die, Jupiter, out of pity, snatched them up and put them among the stars, as I have said before. As a result, Arcas is seen following the Bear, and since he guards Arctos, he is called Arctophylax.

§ 2.4.2 Some have said that he is Icarus, father of Erigone, to whom, on account of his justice and piety, Father Liber gave wine, the vine, and the grape, so that he could show men how to plant the vine, what would grow from it, and how to use what was produced. When he had planted the vine, and by careful tending with a pruning-knife had made it flourish, a goat is said to have broken into the vineyard, and nibbled the tenderest leaves he saw there. Icarus, angered by this, took him and killed him and from his skin made a sack, and blowing it up, bound it tight, and cast it among his friends, directing them to dance around it. And so Eratosthenes says: Around the goat of Icarus they first danced.



§ 2.4.3 Others say that Icarus, when he had received the wine from Father Liber, straightway put full wineskins on a wagon. For this he was called Bootes. When he showed it to the shepherds on going round through the Attic country, some of them, greedy and attracted by the new kind of drink, became stupefied, and sprawling here and there, as if half-dead, kept uttering unseemly things. The others, thinking poison had been given the shepherds by Icarus, so that he could drive their flocks into his own territory, killed him, and threw him into a well, or, as others say, buried him near a certain tree. However, when those who had fallen asleep, woke up, saying that they had never rested better, and kept asking for Icarus in order to reward him, his murderers, stirred by conscience, at once took to flight and came to the island of the Ceans. Received there as guests, they established homes for themselves.

§ 2.4.4 But when Erigone, the daughter of Icarus, moved by longing for her father, saw he did not return and was on the point of going out to hunt for him, the dog of Icarus, Maera by name, returned to her, howling as if lamenting the death of its master. It gave her no slight suspicion of murder, for the timid girl would naturally suspect her father had been killed since he had been gone so many months and days. But the dog, taking hold of her dress with its teeth, led her to the body. As soon as the girl saw it, abandoning hope, and overcome with loneliness and poverty, with many tearful lamentations she brought death on herself by hanging from the very tree beneath which her father was buried. And the dog made atonement for her death by its own life. Some say that it cast itself into the well, Anigrus by name. For this reason they repeat the story that no one afterward drank from that well. Jupiter, pitying their misfortune, represented their forms among the stars. And so many have called Icarus, Bootes, and Erigone, the Virgin, about whom we shall speak later. The dog, however, from its own name and likeness, they have called Canicula. It is called Procyon by the Greeks, because it rises before the greater Dog. Others say these were pictured among the stars by Father Liber.

§ 2.4.5 In the meantime in the district of the Athenians many girls without cause committed suicide by hanging, because Erigone, in dying, had prayed that Athenian girls should meet the same kind of death she was to suffer if the Athenians did not investigate the death of Icarus and avenge it. And so when these things happened as described, Apollo gave oracular response to them when they consulted him, saying that they should appease Erigone if they wanted to be free from the affliction. So since she hanged herself, they instituted a practice of swinging themselves on ropes with bars of wood attached, so that the one hanging could be moved by the wind. They instituted this as a solemn ceremony, and they perform it both privately and publicly, and call it aletis, aptly terming her mendicant who, unknown and lonely, sought for her father with the god. The Greeks call such people Aletides.

And to make things even more interesting, give Viking Stranger-Kings: the foreign as a source of power in Viking Age Scandinavia by Andres Minos Dobat and The Stranger King and Rock Art by Michael Rowlands a read. 


Step through to the other side

Etruscan myth provides us a glimpse into another world, one that is a distorted reflection of our own. Case in point, the Icarius Mirror:


Click to enlarge and around the edge you’ll find an inscription which reads:

Ikra the king from Mount Ossa of Ixion,
three things on this side he went to see,
I long for the brother also to go,
I cut the grapes abundant of the wine-stock to owe,
to the wine press! Young boy,
three on the side bedewed.

Context is provided by Mel Copeland and the Schøyen Collection

MS in Etruscan on bronze, Etruria, Italy, 6th c. BC. Illustration of Icarius standing, with a club over his shoulder, with a Phrygian style cap, in a chariot pulled by two bearded centaurs, one carries a bunch of grapes, the other a long cutting knife and a wine bag, above Icarius is a cherub sprinkling water, below is Icarius’ dog Maera running. So far this seems to be the only contemporary example of Etruscan literature recorded, and where the text is illustrated in addition. This records a part of Greek mythology that is not yet fully known, adding some new information. Icarius was the hero of the Attic town of Icaria who had a daughter, Erigone. He had been taught by Dionysos to make wine and the Bacchalian rites, and he loaded a wagon with wine skins, called his faithful dog Maera, and set off to spread the word about wine. He gave wine to some sheperds who got drunk, and who believed Icarius had tried to poison them. They beat him to death with clubs and buried him under a tree.

This suggests oh so very much to me. For instance, as Ikarios received the bakcheia from Dionysos, the God was instructed in them by the centaur Cheiron, at least according to Ptolemy Hephaistion’s New History (as preserved in Photius, Myriobiblon 190):

Dionysos was loved by Cheiron, from whom he learned chants and dances, the so-called Bacchic rites and initiations.

Euphorion, however, believed that Dionysos was older than the centaurs and inadvertently responsible for their creation:

Wroth with Hyes, the bull-horned Dionysos,
Rheione cast mind-destroying drugs upon the Pheres;
all those drugs in which Polydamna or Cytaean Mede were skilled.

The Etymologicum Genuinum states that Ῥείωνη is a name for Hera, while Nonnos (Dionysiaka 14.143–185) provides the rest of the story our fragment can only allude to: angry that the Pheres (a primitive race who lived in the mountains) had nursed the infant Dionysos, the Goddess Hera gave them poisonous drugs, transforming them into centaurs “who had the horns of bulls.”

Euphorion, who lived during the Hellenistic era, is one of our earliest testimonies to the Titanic sparagmos of Dionysos:

Dionysos, too, was honoured in Delphi together with Apollon, in the following way. The Titans tore asunder Dionysos’ limbs, threw them into a cauldron, and set it before his brother Apollon. Apollon stowed it away beside his tripod, as we learn from Kallimachos and Euphorion, who says:

Into the fire those arrogant beings cast divine Bacchus

(Tzetzes’s commentary on Lykophron’s Alexandra 207.98.5)

Which parallels Ikarios getting mauled by the mad throng of drugged peasants. However there’s an even more direct parallel with Ikarios in the story of Pholos’ reception of the ambivalent gift of Dionysos:

Pholos was a centaur who received Herakles with the courtesies due to a guest and opened for him a jar of wine which had been buried in the earth. This jar, the writers of myths relate, had of old been left with a certain centaur by Dionysos, who had given him orders only to open it when Herakles should come to that place. And so, four generations after that time, when Herakles was being entertained as a guest, Pholos recalled the orders of Dionysos. Now when the jar had been opened the sweet odour of the wine, because of its great age and strength, came to the centaurs dwelling near there, it came to pass that they were driven mad; consequently they rushed in a body to the dwelling of Pholos and set about plundering him of the wine in a terrifying manner. (Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 4.12.3)

Though I was familiar with this legend I never noticed until now how it’s basically a condensed version of the Aiora and Anthesteria but with Herakles taking the place of Orestes, the way the Keres are swapped out for the Sirens in the South Italian version of the festival. There’s even a jar of wine buried in the earth.

Say: wine, centaurs, Ixion – where have I seen that combination before?

Oh yes, that trusted authority Robert Graves:

Since revising The Greek Myths in 1958, I have had second thoughts about the drunken god Dionysus, about the Centaurs with their contradictory reputation for wisdom and misdemeanour, and about the nature of divine ambrosia and nectar. These subjects are closely related, because the Centaurs worshipped Dionysus, whose wild autumnal feast was called `the Ambrosia’. I no longer believe that when his Maenads ran raging around the countryside, tearing animals or children in pieces and boasted afterwards of travelling to India and back, they had intoxicated themselves solely on wine or ivy-ale. The evidence, summarized in my What Food the Centaurs Ate (Steps: Cassell & Co., 1958, pp.319-343) suggests that Satyrs (goat-totem tribesemen), Centaurs (horse-totem tribesmen), and their Maenad womenfolk, used these brews to wash down mouthfuls of a far stronger drug: namely a raw mushroom,amanita muscaria, which induces hallucinations, senseless rioting, prophetic sight, erotic energy, and remarkable muscular strength. Some hours of this ecstasy are followed by complete inertia; a phenomenon that would account for the story of how Lycurgus, armed only with an ox-goad, routed Dionysus’s drunken army of Maenads and Satyrs after its victorious return from India.

On an Etruscan mirror the amanita muscaria is engraved at Ixion’s feet; he was a Thessalian hero who feasted on ambrosia among the gods. Several myths are consistent with my theory that his descendents, the Centaurs, ate this mushroom; and, according to some historians, it was later employed by the Norse `berserks’ to give them reckless power in battle. I now believe that `ambrosia’ and `nectar’ were intoxicant mushrooms: certainly the amanita muscaria; but perhaps others, too, especially a small, slender dung-mushroom named panaeolus papilionaceus, which induces harmless and most enjoyable hallucinations. A mushroom not unlike it appears on an Attic vase between the hooves of Nessus the Centaur. The `gods’ for whom, in the myths, ambrosia and nectar were reserved, will have been sacred queens and kings of the pre-Classical era. King Tantalus’s crime was that he broke the taboo by inviting commoners to share his ambrosia.

I have myself eaten the hallucigenic mushroom, psilocybe, a divine ambrosia in immemorial use among the Masatec Indians of Oaxaca Province, Mexico; heard the priestess invoke Tlaloc, the Mushroom-god, and seen transcendental visions. Thus I wholeheartedly agree with R. Gordon Wasson, the American discoverer of this ancient rite, that European ideas of heaven and hell may well have derived from similar mysteries. Tlaloc was engendered by lightning; so was Dionysus; and in Greek folklore, as in Masatec, so are all mushrooms — proverbially called `food of the gods’ in both languages. Tlaloc wore a serpent-crown; so did Dionysus. Tlaloc had an underwater retreat; so had Dionysus. The Maenads’ savage custom of tearing off their victims’ heads may refer allegorically to tearing off the sacred mushroom’s head — since in Mexico its stalk is never eaten. We read that Perseus, a sacred King of Argos, converted to Dionysus worship, named Mycenae after a toadstool which he found growing on the site, and which gave forth a stream of water. Tlaloc’s emblem was a toad, so was that of Argos; and from the mouth of Tlaloc’s toad in the Tepentitla fresco issues a stream of water.

Dig deep enough, maaaan, and everything’s a mushroom.