Wednesday, March 26, 2014

TFBT: Woman, the Greatest Prize

Recently  few of us on the Hour 25 forums discussed funeral games and the prizes awarded.  Last night I started gathering examples of contests and the prizes based on the examples we discussed. Using cows as a metric I tried to determine if the prizes were actually in a descending scale of value. I got hung up on the value of a Homeric “talent”. (There is actually a scholarly article which discusses that, “Homeric Talent”, but the MyJSTOR account is maxed out at the moment.) So I dropped that line of research.
I tried Sarah suggestion that maybe there were certain prizes given for certain contests. Thinking of axes as prizes in the archery contest during Patroclus’ funeral and the use of axes in the archery contest for Penelope’s hand, I started with archery contests. It looks like the prize is always a “woman”.
In Iliad 23.850 The prize —ten double bladed axes (labrys) and ten single bladed. “with a slender cord made fast thereto by the foot a timorous dove, and bade shoot thereat. Whosoever shall hit the timorous dove let him take up all the double axes and bear them home, and whoso shall hit the cord, albeit he miss the bird: lo, his is the worse shot; he shall bear as his prize the single axes… took they the lots and shook them in a helmet of bronze, “
Odyssey 21:63… “wed me and take me to wife…this is shown to be your prize. I will set before you the great bow of divine Odysseus, and whosoever shall most easily string the bow in his hands and shoot an arrow through all twelve axes, with him will I go”, Rather than drawing lots the suitors took turns “left to right, beginning from the place where the cupbearer pours the wine.”
Apollodorus, Library 2.6.1 Eurytus, prince of Oechalia, proposed the hand of his daughter Iole as a prize in an archery contest. With no further details.
Aesop reports that Apollo and Zeus competed in archery with no mention of a prize, and the lots were tossed in Ares’ helmet.
Aeneid 5: 485 No mention of prizes, but the same lots in the helmet, plus part of the contest sounds exactly like the version in the Iliad.
What we know in these references was that in two cases the prize for winning the archery contest was a woman; a wife. In the third the prize was double bladed axes called labrys. Maybe Telemachus used labrys in the contest for his mother’s hand. Now, I can’t find any primary references, but all over the internet the labrys  are claimed as ancient symbols of the feminine, based on the symbolic use of a double bladed axe in the Minoan “matriarchal” society and it ” being the Amazons’ weapon of choice.” If in fact the double headed axes; the labrys are a symbol of women throughout ancient history.
Then the greatest prize in an archery contests is a powerful woman.

image thanks to Wikipedia


  1. Interesting! I remember how in Indian epic Arjuna won Princess Draupadi in an archery contest. However, things took a nasty turn when Arjuna listened to his mom and shared his prize with his brothers. I guess that some fathers who made archery contests for their daughter's hand later realized the folly of equating being a good archer with being a good husband. Eurytus surely did.

  2. Maya,
    Thanks for sharing that tale. Your suggestion would make this an Indo-european myth. Do you know if the contestants drew lots to see who would shoot first? I eill have to research this.


  3. Maya,

    I looked it up, no lot drawing. The other suitor attempted to string the bow in an orderly fashion. So
    In the Mahabharata Arjuna in disguise won the hand of princess Draupadi (his bethrothed) in an archery contest by shooting five arrows in quick succession through the ring, he brought down the mark that had been suspended above. The othe suitors present there unitedly attacked Kind Drupada and the king of Panchala was protected well by Bhima and his brother Arjuna. As Athena and Zeus had to bring peace at the end of Penelope's contest, so Krishna brought peace to the tumult following Arjuna's victory.