Thursday, November 22, 2012

TFBT:The Divine Descendants of Telephassa

The descendants of the fair beauteous Telephassa represent a unique clan of deities among the immortals of Greek mythology. These Theban gods were as independent of the Olympians as the children of Night with whom “intercourse was inconceivable” or the often monstrous and generally marine children of Pontus. That is to say, no Olympian ever intermarried with Pontus’ fifty grand-daughters the Nereids; goddesses of the waters, with the exception of Poseidon who politically speaking was required to do so. The race of the Olympians and that of the Theban deities are as unique to one another as the Vanir and Aesir in Norse mythology. Maybe as antagonist too.

It began as it usually does in Greek myth, with young girls playing by the edge of the wine-dark sea; in this case Princess Europa and her maids frolicking among the springing roses and the sound of the waves. As usually, there is something beautiful to attract the maiden. In this case it was a beautiful bull. “all his body was of a yellow hue, save that a ring of gleaming white shined in the midst of his forehead and the eyes beneath it were grey and made lightning of desire; and the horns of his head rose equal one against the other” (Moscus 2.77) The girls petted him, played with him, garlanded his horns and then most unusually Europa climbed atop his broad shoulders. He trotted through the soft sand, waded into the water and before the startled girl knew swam towards the west, racing across the deep bellows of the Mediterranean. The bull was actually Zeus King of the Gods. Europa and Zeus spent many years together as man and wife. Europa bore him three exceptional sons, who lived exceptionally long lives and ended up as judges in the underworld. Most unexpectedly the bachelor-brother wed in the afterlife the mother of Heracles. Europa was the sole daughter of the Oceanid Telephassa.

Telephassa and her son high-spirited Cadmus set out in search of her daughter, his sister. But before we can tell of their adventures and the gods born of their blood, we must first follow the history of bullish Zeus.

The cloud-gatherer, that’s an epithet for the King of the Gods, the cloud-gatherer came to power by usurping his father’s throne and defeating the mixed-blood cousins who revolted against him. (There will be internal revolts and two sets of earth-born giants, but that comes later.) The next challenge to Zeus’ hegemony was the monstrous immortal storm god Typhon. As the sky-filling monster rose to Olympus, all the other god fled, leaving Zeus alone to defeat this latest manifestation of Chaos. Zeus didn’t do too well. He ended up bound in a cave with his “sinews removed”. Understandable Typhon was in a mood to party. The musical entertainment came in the form of Telephassa’s son Cadmus. Cadmus performed before the mind-boggling beast, entertaining at first and then eventually, like Hermes with Argus, lulled the “unthinkable” to sleep. Either Cadmus, Hermes, Hermes’ grandson pan or an obscure god named Aegipan snuck into the cave, unbound Zeus, replaced his sinews and armed him with lightning. Zeus was victorious and not forgetful of his brother-in-law’s assistance.

Cadmus and his mother Telephassa headed west looking for Europa. Somewhere around Thrace in Northern Greece, Telephassa supposedly passed away. Cadmus traveled upon eventually asking the oracle at Delphi for advice on how to find his sister. The Oracle at Delphi was ruled by the archer god Apollo. This son of Zeus had his own monster to slay. When Apollo looked for a place to build his oracle, he asked the advice of the Naiad Telphusa (Tilphousa) in central Greece. She recommended Delphi. Apollo went there and encountered the Python. This bloody serpent terrorized the neighboring country-side when not fostering the monster Typhon. Apollo slew the monster and established his oracle.

The oracle told Cadmus to follow a cow and where it lay down to build a city. The son of Telephassa and his men did as the god directed. Upon arriving at the locations Cadmus sent his men to fetch water so they could sacrifice the cow to Apollo. Instead of water they found a serpent just as Apollo had when following the directions of Telphusa. Most of Cadmus’s men were killed, but Cadmus succeeded in slewing the monster. The goddess Athena appeared instructing him to plow the land and sow it with the serpent’s teeth. Cadmus did as instructed. The crop that grew was armed warriors. Just as when the blood of Uranus splattered across the broad fertile earth and the Giants clothed in bronze armor appeared, so did warriors appear around Cadmus. Either one told him to mind his own business or he tossed the bones of our mother (gold from the earth) amidst these dogs of war. In either case the earth-born warriors attached one another. Unlike Zeus who slew all the giants when they arose, Cadmus befriended the survivors of this wild melee. The survivors were called the Spartoi and their descendants intermarried with the descendants of Cadmus.

But there was one problem. The dragon at Thebes was not just a dragon it was the daughter of the war god Ares. The serpent was also the daughter of the erinnye Tilphousa or maybe it was the goddess Demeter furious over the kidnapping of her daughter. In either case the god Poseidon raped the goddess at the spring Telphusa. In order to make up for the crime, he served Ares for some time, just as Apollo served Laomedon and Admetus for crimes against Zeus.

At the end of his incarceration, Zeus rewarded his brother-in-law with a bride of his own; Harmonia the daughter of Ares and Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Their divine descendant’s included two of his daughters were goddesses. Whom Pindar in the Olympian Ode II refers to as, "Daughters of Cadmus; Semele from your high place amidst the queens of heaven, and Ino Leukothea, you who dwell by the immortal sea-nymphs,” Additionally, his grandson Dionysius was an Olympian, grandson Melicertes was worshipped throughout the whole of Greece (Cicero, De Natura Deorum 331) and son-in-law Aristaeus was a god per Chiron and Pindar. (Pythian Ode IX) And of course, Heracles was a member of the royal house of Thebes.
And yet for gods they were much troubled by the Fates. Harmonia and Cadmus were banished from their home and eventually turned to snakes. Leucothe, Melicertes and Dionysus all had to be rescued at some point by the daughters of Nereus, Semele was struck by lightning, Autonoe tore her own son limb from limb and the whole mortal branch of their race was eventually erased by the wars of destruction purposely designed by the Olympians. But, in the end Heracles took his place on Olympus and wed Zeus and Hera’s daughter Hebe. Dionysus, great-grandson of Telephassa, took his own throne among the twelve accompanied by his divine wife Adrianne (another descendant of Telephassa and his deified mother Semele, called Thyone by the gods.)

Images thanks to New York Public Library


  1. I start to suspect that Zeus was a damn racist. He seems to have never liked a true human woman!
    Among the multitude of his rape victims, you will find many "mortals". However, upon closer examination, many of them turn out to be mortalized descendants of gods, e.g. Io. It seems that the divine population with time degenerated and became incapable of sustaining itself, producing only mortal offspring.
    The other type of mortal women liked by Zeus were god-human hybrids such as Europa and Alcmene. Look into the genealogy of Zeus' mortal partners and, by all likelihood, you'll find divine ancestor(s)! A possible exception was Dia, Ixion's wife. However, this was deep in the Age of Heroes. By this time, all humans must have been hybrids.
    Zeus seems to have been too squeamish to make sex with pure-blood humans.

  2. Does the King of the Sky mate with the daughters of the earth? Hmm, I will have to do a little research tonight. Autochthonic mortals are rare, but discernable I think. Jenny Clay pointed out in Hesiod's Cosmos that the children of Night rarely intermix with the Olympians. Maybe there is rampant racism going on! As to "the divine population with time degenerated and became incapable of sustaining itself, producing only mortal offspring." That looks to me like the "Will of Zeus" or the collective wisdom of the ruling cabal. Zeus didn't need any son-in-laws or grandsons to usurp the throne. That explains why Zeus had two daughters and a sister that remained virgins, why Apollo never wed, why Poseidon and Zeus avoided wedding Thetis and why the Hyperionides Eos and Selene were "cursed" with an obsession for mortals. It wasn't that power waned in further generations, the gods made that happen.

  3. I agree with you that introduction of sterility and mortality among immortals was good for Zeus to preserve his throne(and also to prevent overpopulation).
    However, at earlier times he was unable to copy with threats this way. I suppose that he would be happy to kill his Titan enemies and Typhon, but he did not and presumably could not do this. In fact, as far as I know, Chiron is the only person in "history" mortalized after having been born immortal. Also, Zeus could not mortalize the sons he would have with Metis and Thetis and was forced to avoid conceiving them.
    Perhaps Zeus learned at some point how to mortalize future generations?
    A sort of compensation for being "disarmed" by Apollo after the killing of Asclepius :-).

  4. As to Zeus' aversion to autochthons; Antiope seems to be the first exception to the rule. She was third generation autochthon with only a nymph in her genealogy. Her sons were the god-like (and heir-less) Amphion and Zethus. I'll keep researching.