Sunday, May 31, 2015

TFBT: Folk-tale Elements in the Cypria

I highly recommend Malcolm Davies article at the Center for Hellenic Studies website.  He analyzes the extant fragments of the Cypria and Proclus’ summary of the epic using standard European folk-tale motifs.    For those unfamiliar with the Cypria, Davies explains that it explains that Zeus and Themis conspired to ignite the wars at Thebes and Troy with their,  inevitable tally of deaths, as part of a cosmic plan to lighten the burden of the earth, which was being trodden under foot by more and more human beings”    

Davies discusses several folk-tale motifs in the myths of the Cypria; one in particular he calls the offended deity syndrome, it can be a crime of commission or omission.  This brings us to the next phase in Zeus’ plan the wedding of the hero Peleus and his reluctant bride, the Nereid Thetis.  The goddess of strife, Eris is not invited.  As Davies points out Eris much like the forgotten fairy at the baptism party in Sleeping Beauty.  It is Eris who tosses the golden apple into the midst of the gods engraved with the fateful words “For the fairest”.    Davies points out that

since Greek sacrifice to gods was originally conceived as a feast to which the gods were invited, there is no significant distinction between the two aspects of failure to sacrifice and failure to invite to a festival.  He adds that “A striking feature of… the offended deity’s anger is regularly vented not directly upon the perpetrator of the crime, but on a member of his or her family, more often than not an offspring, and within that category most often a daughter.” 

 He then proceeds to suggest that Eris’ intent was not just to spoil the reception, but that she was actually arranging “ punishment of the offspring of the offender who failed to invite (her) in the first place, that is, of Achilles. “

The next major event in Themis and Zeus’ plan to “lighten the burden of the earth” is the “Judgement of Paris.”  Athena, Aphrodite and Hera each vie for the apple and ask Zeus to decide.  Zeus being no fool defers to a Trojan prince named Paris (Alexander) and sends his wife and daughters off to him with Hermes.

“…the dilemma which the “hero” faces when, by gratifying one of the trio, he inevitably ensures the life-long enmity of the remaining two. This is, indeed, precisely Paris’ dilemma. The notion that the powerful protection of the favoured party can somehow overcome or outweigh the ill consequences of the fateful choice.... Paris, choosing Aphrodite, is gifted in love but is forever without talent in the civic and military spheres of his life”. A great contrast, one might add, to his brother Hector.” 


(Davies explains it was the) …wrong choice represented by Paris’ preferring of Aphrodite,” Unarguably, Aphrodite was the wrong choice because she could not stop the death of Paris, all his male relatives, enslavement of the women of Troy and the destruction of the city.  Davies and Robert Graves (The Greek Myths, page 19) argue that the winner of such a contest should be the youngest, the “ultimogeniture”.  But Hera was from the generation before Athena and (Dione’s daughter) Aphrodite so by Davies definition the wrong choice.  Athena was Zeus’ first child. (Hesiod, Theogony 885) This makes Aphrodite as the youngest and still according to Davies the “wrong choice”. 

If Paris had free will, which goddess would have been the right choice, I wonder?


 Malcolm Davies, "Folk-tale Elements in the Cypria," Classics@ Volume 6: Efimia D. Karakantza, ed. The Center for Hellenic Studies of Harvard University, edition of December 21, 2010.







  1. I don't think that there was a right choice for Paris. First, the prophecy that he would bring the doom of Troy wasn't conditional.
    Second, by manipulating Eris to throw in the apple, Zeus upgraded his anti-human conspiracy into a celestial strife. He would later have a problem controlling it (as we see in the Iliad), but for now, it is 100% efficient. Mortals have no chance when caught in divine crossfire, and so there is no such thing as a right choice for them. Could anything done or not done by Job protect his family or improve his lot? At least, Job was not deceived into thinking he had any choice.
    Aphrodite actually saved Paris once or twice; I am not sure Hera or Athena would appear to drag him out of the battlefield.

  2. Maybe you are right on all accounts. Paris and family were doomed. The Troad and Thebes were doomed because they were Aeolian. But if he had picked another goddess would the war had been different? Aphrodite's wrath usually involves sexual perversity and sterility. That would have spiced up the Iliad. come to think of it did the Trojan's even worship Dione's Daughter.

  3. "The Troad and Thebes were doomed because they were Aeolian."
    Would you clarify? You pointed out earlier that Aeolians didn't honor Homer and he revenged against them by describing how the Achaeans inflicted doom and gloom onto the Aeolic countryside of Troy. However, while it is true that Thebes was also Aeolic, Homer is not thought to have composed the Theban cycle. In his surviving works, we just see Diomedes and Sthenelus bragging how they destroyed Thebes, quite like ISIS thugs. Or maybe Homer invented the Epigoni sequel to the folk Seven vs. Thebes epic?

  4. Maya,

    It is the "Cypria" that dooms Thebes and Troy both of which are Aeolic speaking areas. We can assume that this Epic was by a latter poet than Homer. Off hand I don't think the wars at Thebes were discussed that much by Homeric characters, since his focus was on the choice of Achilles


  5. Indeed, these wars aren't much discussed - but I don't think that the little discussion we find in the Iliad is unimportant.

    Remember how in Scroll IX, broken-spirited Agamemnon suggests:
    (26-28) "So do now as I say, and all obey: fit out the ships and run for our native land; all hope of taking broad-paved Troy is gone."
    All are stunned and silent, then Diomedes shouts:
    (42-49) "...If in your own heart you seek home, go, since the way is clear, your ships are on the shore, the whole fleet that followed you from Mycenae. But we other long-haired Achaeans will remain, till we sack Troy. Or let the rest of you run for your native land, yet Sthenelus and I, we two, will fight on till we conquer Ilium, for a god brought us here."

    Of course, the others side with Diomedes to stay and destroy the city. But why exactly Diomedes and Sthenelus? We know why, from Scroll IV:
    (401-410) "Great Diomedes, accepting this rebuke from the king he revered, said not a word, but noble Capaneus’ son, was quick to reply: ‘Atreides, no untruths now, since you know what true speech is. We consider ourselves far better men than our sires. We captured seven-gated Thebes, with less of a force against stronger defences, trusting in Zeus and the gods’ omens, while our sires came to grief through their own presumption. So don’t raise our fathers to the same level as us.""

    Maybe Troy and Thebes had some "hyper-moron" chance to survive, but those two destroyed it. They know how to obliterate cities and they do it gladly, with the help of the gods. When a civilization is to collapse, they will be there, and the Dark Ages will follow in their footsteps. Like the rats from Albert Camus' Plague:

    "...As he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that
    perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city."

  6. Maya,

    I loved the language you used in your post "We consider ourselves far better men than our sires." and "They know how to obliterate cities and they do it gladly, with the help of the gods" Such hubris and humility at the same time. And didn't Homer sing of this perfectly. If Diomedes had been the braggart it would have sounded really bad, but with Capaneus' son reply instead it sounds like justification rather than vanity. Nestor argues that previous generations were greater than the current generation, but he wasn't talking about their fathers. I love reciting the description of Achilles' father Peleus as a "second rate hero who lost a wrestling match to a girl".


  7. I saw your comment at Hour 25 that it is absurd that Paris, the undignified person he is, kills Achilles.
    Have you read J. A. Scott's article "Paris and Hector in tradition and in Homer"?

    The author thinks that, in tradition, the leader of the Trojans was Paris, but Homer didn't want to give the honorable position of a nation's leader and Achilles' antagonist to such an adulterer and betrayer of hospitality and so invented Hector.
    I am almost convinced by the arguments, but the question remains: if Hector was absent in the traditional, pre-Homeric narrative of the Trojan war, what remained for Achilles to do in this traditional story? It is difficult for me to imagine that he was the greatest warrior in the same way in which Baldr of Norse myth was the noblest and best in character, i.e. due to epithets attached by the bard but never actually doing anything.

    Anyway, Paris is a very special person. To begin with, he is the only Trojan with absolutely clear non-Greek name, so he is likely to correspond to a historical Trojan. In myth, he had a prophecy attached to him even before birth, he was exposed but survived, which is common in important mythological figures, he was judge of goddesses, his true identity was recognized after he defeated his brothers (including Hector) in contest, he won the love of the most beautiful woman and started a world war. Who could kill Achilles if not him? (Though, even if Paris was an insignificant warrior, Achilles would still be lucky to be killed by him in battle, in contrast to Meleager, Agamemnon and the glorious Heracles, who were all killed by women.)

    There was a prophecy that Troy could not be taken without Philoctetes or, to be precise, without his bow. And what does Philoctetes with his bow? Kills Paris.

    In the Iliad, Paris tells Hector that gifts of gods, particularly of Aphrodite, must be cherished. How do you think, what would happen to Paris if he had tried to reject the gift of Aphrodite, escape his fate and live without Helen? Would he become another Hippolytus, as a person guilty of hubris towards Aphrodite? Or maybe he would suffer some worse punishment, for trying to jeopardize the will of Zeus?