Friday, March 18, 2016

TFBT: Did Baby Heracles Over-react?

I follow Sententiae Antiquae  on Twitter.  If you don’t, you should.  They are great.  Recently they ran a piece about Cassandra’s prophetic powers.  They quoted text from the Introduction to the Scholia to Lykophron’s Alexandra.

“A summary is as follows. Priam, the son of Leukippê and Laomedon, fathered twin children with Hekabê, the daughter of Dumas or Kisseus, Kasandra [and Alexandra] and Helenos, whom they took to the shrine of Helian Apollo in Thumbraion where they made the sacrifices for the occasion of their birth. After they drank together and celebrated all day in the temple, by nightfall they returned to the city and the palace, secretly leaving their children behind them in the temple, something they did (as far as I can see) according to custom to discover this: so they might know from the events what kind of people their children would be. [In the same way, at any rate, had those people around Priam done this concerning what was fated]. When they approached the temple on the next day, they discovered two snakes watching over their children and [purifying their senses?]. but they were not harming them at all.”

In case you are wondering Robert Graves writes as though a “sacred oracular serpent” is a perfectly normal thing. [i]  “…serpents, which were held to be incarnate spirits of oracular heroes.”[ii]

The story of Cassandra, her twin brother and snakes, got me to think about another set of twins and snakes. 

Alcmena bore two sons, to wit, Hercules, whom she had by Zeus and who was the elder by one night, and Iphicles, whom she had by Amphitryon. When the child was eight months old, Hera desired the destruction of the babe and sent two huge serpents to the bed. Alcmena called Amphitryon to her help, but Hercules arose and killed the serpents by strangling them with both his hands.[iii]

Here’s my question.  Did baby Heracles over react?  Don’t get me wrong snakes?  I would have reacted like Iphicles, cried and tried to crawl away![iv]  But if Heracles had waited, would he and his “twin” brother woken as seers?

[i] The Greek Myths, Chapter 21, footnote 3, Robert Graves,
[ii] The Greek Myths, Melampus, footnote 1
, Robert Graves,
[iii]    Apollodorus,   THE LIBRARY 2.4.8 , TRANS. BY J. G. FRAZER


  1. It doesn't seem wise to take a chance with snakes. Opheltes didn't become a seer.

  2. Maya,

    I live in constant denial. I didn't recognize the name Opheltes. I know the baby as Archemorus. A-boy had heroic honors and funeral games celebrating him every 4 years in exchange for the "kiss" of a serpent. Yeah, Hercales did the right thing!


  3. In my story, Zeus' servants come with a search warrant to a house in which Thetis is hiding. After an initial attempt to send them away, the host invites them with the warning that there is a snake in the house:

    "Something is swishing. There is the storeroom, and we cannot get rid of mice... and when you have mice, snakes come as well. In most cases, it is a racer. But sometimes it's a horned viper. Do you know how to recognize it? By the dark zigzag on the back and the horn on the snout. However, I advise you to kill the snake first and identify it later... Now, I must turn everything upside down to find it. You will help me. You have come to check, haven't you? Then you can report to Zeus that you have searched everything, absolutely everything. Take some tools to arm yourselves. I have no boots to give you, so mind your feet and be careful. If it is a horned viper and bites you, then for at least five days you will wish to have never been born."

    After a quick glance from the door, the officers decide that there is nothing suspicious in the house. I realize now that I have used the "guardian snake" motif.

  4. Maya,

    People dont give Thetis enough credit. She is a cosmic force that no one evr bad mouths or back talks.


  5. There is such a tradition, of course. According to some, she is even creatrix of the Universe.
    It is curious that Zeus has little if any intrinsic power. His strength is to manipulate other, more powerful gods to serve him and to give him their power.
    I have such characters, the Cyclopes. However, they appear incidentally while Thetis is a central character. I find it too depressing to watch a powerful individual giving her enemy control over her mind, as in the Iliad and the Argonautica. (I am more and more convinced that Achilles is another such individual, but I still cannot figure out what makes him a threat to Zeus, after he can be killed so easily and has a short limited life span anyway.)
    Of course, one could argue that a son of Thetis would be a worse ruler than Zeus, and that Thetis knows it. Maybe. However, in the Iliad, we see Zeus oppressing the gods and plotting to destroy every human civilization within his range. So there seems to be little to lose in a case of divine succession.
    I am more interested in the weak individuals who keep their minds independent and struggle to be free, so I made Thetis one of them.

  6. Reading again Agamemnon's words in Iliad 19, I think I have been too quick to dismiss them before:

    "You Achaeans have often criticised me as he has done, but the fault was not mine. Zeus, Fate, and the Fury who walks in darkness are to blame, for blinding my judgement that day in the assembly when on my own authority I confiscated Achilles’ prize. What choice did I have? There is a goddess who decides these things, Ate, Zeus’ eldest daughter, blinds us all, accursed as she is. Those tender feet of hers never touch the ground, but pass through men’s minds causing harm, ensnaring this one or another."

    Unfortunately, he then muddies the water by citing a case in which Zeus himself was deceived. Maybe he was afraid of having used the 1st Amendment too carelessly and tried to mitigate the blame laid on Zeus. (According to, only here Ate is called daughter of Zeus.)
    We know that Zeus did "send Ate" to Agamemnon in his sleep. We also know that Zeus told Hera that the war must finish (after Menelaus won over Paris in duel) without actually thinking it, just to manipulate her. I wonder whether he is manipulating Thetis in Scroll 1 when he tells her that he is not happy about her request, because his wife will be angry.

  7. Maya,

    I don't recall Zeus actually sending Ate to Agamemnon inducing him to offend Achilles. But in a society where self-awareness is rare, blaming some "daemon" makes sense.

    As to Zeus lying to Thetis about his wife's jealousy, that is believeable considering the number of goddesses, nymphs, women and their children who suffered at Hera's or her minions hands.

  8. One of the curious things about the Iliad is that, at the same time when some myth is presented as fact, mythopoiesis by humans is described.
    E.g. we hear so much about life on Olympus that we almost know where to hang our coats if we visit there, but we never hear anything about jars of good and evil, from which Zeus dispenses to the humans. Never until Scroll 24, where Achilles talks about them (without having ever been on Olympus). Is this a myth popular among Homer's Greek characters, or an ad hoc invention by Achilles? (He is a singer, among other things.)
    Ate seems to be another example. As far as I remember, no god ever mentions a personified daimon named Ate. Agamemnon talks about her in the Scroll 19, and Phoenix in Scroll 9. It seems that Homer's heroes have invented her. Let's not forget that deception is not so habitual for them as it is for us, and likely even for Homer. So they imagine it as a foreign, animated force.

    The more I am thinking of the Iliad, the more questions pop up. Why does Achilles beg Thetis for help? The core of the plot could naturally unfold without this. Achilles sulks in his tent, the Greeks without their best warrior succumb to the Trojans, Patroclus is killed in the battle and so on.
    Achilles may be insecure. So far, 9 years of war have passed with his participation, and the military situation is still as it was on day 1. He may be insecure in his abilities and afraid that, unless Zeus intervenes, the Greeks could do just fine without him, or at least no worse than before.
    His request ties the human plot to the divine plot, in a way I do not quite understand. And it maybe dooms him as a "deal with the devil" act, though I am not sure that this thinking applies to Homer's world.

  9. Maya,

    My impression of people in the Iliad is that they have no self-awareness. They behave like teenagers, acting without thinking. Shoot first and ask questions later, if ever. Achilles did not think, "I will go sulk in my tent, until they recall the prophecy that they need me to conquer Troy. Then they will come crawling back to me." If he had thought it, he would have said it because the dudes had no filter. They were not machivellian! Get angry, call the curses of Heaven down upon your enemies. They were not big on thinking; ten year siege? With merchants and allies coming and going? They hadn't thought this whole siege craft think through at all. Anytime they did have a thought it was so bizarrre a concept that it must be external