Wednesday, August 17, 2016

TFBT: Part One of Bill’s Geryoneis

There is a lost epic called the Geryoneis by Stesichorus.  The fragments, testimonies and vases we have relating to the Geryoneis, indicate the story was about a cattle-raid and the hero Geryon.  Stesichorus was a prolific lyric poet (630 – 555 BC[i]).  Most famously he composed a tale critical of Helen of Troy.  As a consequence, Helen the goddess blinded him.  He then retold the tale, as Helen: Palinodes.  In this version Helen never actually went to Troy.  The Achaeans and Trojans fought and died for a phantom.  Helen spent the war in Egypt. Stesichorus as a consequence, regains his eye-sight.  This epic too is lost. [ii]  

The only mortal-gorgon was called Medusa.  She was Geryon’s paternal grandmother.  After a dalliance with Poseidon, she was beheaded.  At the time she was pregnant with twin sons; Chrysaor and Pegasus.  Somewhat like Athena Chrysaor, fully grown and fully armed, burst forth from their mother’s body with Pegasus.  Their father Poseidon was the god of horses and had sired a few “horses” on unsuspecting goddesses.  So Pegasus was another divine winged horse.  His duty in life would be to carry Zeus’ lightning bolts.  It’s not far-fetched to envision the twins fleeing their mother’s butcherer with Chrysaor astride Pegasus

Chrysaor was a giant in bronze armor.  Or a winged-pig.  Yeah, confusing I know.  But we have conflicting accounts.  Medusa was a Pontide (descendant of Pontus) and piggishness ran in their family.  One famous vase painting resolves the issue by having Geryon carry his father’s shield.  The insignia on the shield is the winged-pig.  We don’t know much about Chrysaor.  To quote Aaron Atsma

“Khrysaor's name means "golden-blade" which could be a sword, tusks, or, as in the case Demeter's title Khrysaoros, a reference to golden blades of wheat.”

Maybe in the abstract he was a “golden” lightning bolt; thrown to earth and then retrieved by his brother and brought back to heaven.  But that’s totally in the abstract.  He married the immortal Oceanide Callirhoe. 

Okay, here’s the big part, Geryon was a giant with three bodies.  Generally, he is represented on vases as three guys in a line standing hip to hip to hip.   With “six hands and six feet and is winged." (Fragment S87) He was non-theomorphic. (He was not made in the gods’ image.) Doesn’t mean he was a monster.  Geryon was not a monster, just a guy who owned crimson-colored, vshambling cattle in water-washed Erytheia.” (Hesiod, Theogony)

Below is my attempt to piece the Geryoneis together.

Geryon lived on “sea-circled Erythea beyond the stream of Okeanos… out in the gloomy meadow beyond fabulous Okeanos.”  He had a two-headed guard-dog named Orthros[iii] and the oxherd called Eurytion (Hesiod, Theogony)

Atsma says “Orthros' name was derived from the Greek word orthros meaning "Twilight".  “He sired deadly Sphinx, the bane of the Thebans.” (Hesiod, Theogony)  Little seems known about Eurytion, except Stesichorus says “of Geryon's herdsman [Eurytion] that he was born' almost opposite famous (island) Erytheia, by the limitless silver-rooted waters of the river Tartessos in the hollow of a rock." [iv] 

The dog (Orthros) smelled (the cattle-raider) there and went after him, but he struck him with his club and when the cowherd Eurytion came to help the dog, he slew him as well.  Menoites (Meneoestes), who was there tending the cattle of Haides, reported these events to Geryon.” [v]  and "Menoetes urges Geryon to think of his parents; ‘Your mother Callirhoe and Chrysaor, dear to Ares.’" [vi] 

Menoetes is urging Geryon to not act rashly and consider his parents. This rather parallels Priam’s words to Achilles in the last book of the Iliad;

But Priam made entreaty, and spake to him, saying: "Remember thy father, O Achilles like to the gods, whose years are even as mine, on the grievous threshold of old age. Him full likely the dwellers that be round about are entreating evilly, neither is there any toward from him ruin and bane. Howbeit, while he heareth of thee as yet alive he hath joy at heart, and therewithal hopeth day by day that he shall see his dear son returning from Troy-land. (Iliad 14.485)

By this we know that Chrysaor, immortal and ageless or not, is still around.   

Answering him the mighty son of immortal Chrysaor and Callirhoe said, ‘Do not with talk of chilling death try to frighten my manly heart, nor beg me… (to avoid the cattle-raider?)…for if I am by birth immortal and ageless, so that I shall share in life on Olympus, then it is better (to endure) the reproaches… (of men?)…and . . . to watch my cattle being driven off far from my stalls; but if, my friend, I must indeed reach hateful old age and spend my life among short-lived mortals far from the blessed gods, then it is much nobler for me to suffer what is fate than to avoid death and shower disgrace on my dear children and all my race hereafter--I am Khrysaor's son. May this not be the wish of the blessed gods . . . concerning my cattle."[vii]     

So, not only is Chrysaor alive, but Geryon assumes his father is immortal.  Immortal father and an Oceanid for a mother: the fact that Geryon is “by birth immortal and ageless” is almost a sure thing.  So, why should he fear death?    Alas, Hesiod says  

Now sing the company of goddesses… even those deathless one who lay with mortal men and bare children like unto gods.    And the daughter of Ocean, Callirhoe was joined in the love of rich Aphrodite with stout hearted Chrysaor and bare a son who was the strongest of all men, Geryones[viii]  

The mortal Geryon seems more concerned with his descendants than forbearers.  I found one; Norax was a son of Erytheia, the daughter of Geryones, with Hermes for his father.” Pausanias 10.17.5

So in fragments S12&S13,   Callirhoe sees the cattle-raider approaching and addresses her son with words like “Obey me, my child." “I, unhappy woman, miserable in the child I bore, miserable in my sufferings… if ever I offered you my breast…”   and then presumably throws open “her fragrant robe."  Sounds kind of odd to us, a mother flashing her son, but they did that sort of thing back then.  According to evidence on vases, that’s how Helen saved herself when her vengeful husband Menelaus finally caught up with his cheating wife; opened her fragrant robe and his sword fell to the ground.  A better example is Queen Hecuba trying to save her son Hector. 

“the mother (Hecuba) in her turn wailed and shed tears,  loosening the folds of her robe, while with the other hand she showed her breast, and amid shedding of tears she spake unto him winged words: "Hector, my child, have thou respect unto this and pity me, if ever I gave thee the breast to lull thy pain." Iliad 22. [77]

Fragment S14 tells us “then grey-eyed Athene spoke eloquently to her stout-hearted uncle, driver of horses [Poseidon]: ‘Come now, remember the promise you gave and (do not wish to save) Geryon from death.’"  In case you don’t know the story Athena is backing the cattle-raider.  In vase paintings, Athena is on the left literally backing up the cattle-raider, Geryon on the right with his mother Callirhoe behind him.  Poseidon is Geryon’s grandfather, hence is interest.  Why can’t help his mortal grandson Geryon is explained in the Iliad 16 426-458.  Zeus says to "Ah, woe is me, for that it is fated that Sarpedon, dearest of men to me, be slain by Patroclus  The father of men and gods then admits he is pondering whether to snatch him up and carrying him home to Lycia.  Queenly Hera answered him: "Most dread son of Cronos, what a word hast thou said! A man that is mortal, doomed long since by fate,” She tells him to “Do as thou wilt; but be sure that we other gods assent not”… (and) some other god also be minded to send his own dear son away from the fierce conflict; In other words, Zeus can’t save Sarpedon and Poseidon can’t save Geryon because if the gods start saving every demi-god and favorite from harsh death the social structure of the universe starts to unravel.

Fragment S15 doesn’t end well for Geryon.  The cattle-raider nails him in the head with a rock, Geryon loses “helmet with its horse-hair plume” and his foe follows up with an arrow dipped in the Hydra’s[ix] venom.  It silently…by divine dispensation…flies straight to the crown of his head…Geryon drooped his neck to one side, like a poppy which spoiling its tender beauty suddenly sheds its petals." 


Part One of Bill’s Geryoneis, ends here.

Part Two will look at the evidence from vases more closely. 

Part Three will discuss the more esoteric interpretation of all this.  (In part three we will discuss how Hera nursed the Hydra with her poisoned left breast.  The goddess’ breast was poinsoned by one of the cattle-raiders arrows.  The cattle-raiders’ arrows had been dipped in the dying Hydra’s bile.  Hey what a minute!  Ha ha!

[i] Wikipedia
[ii] Hilda Doolittle wrote an inspired poem based on the few remaining lines of the Palinodes; Helen in Egypt.
[iii] The dog was actually his nephew! Hesiod. Theog. 295 
[iv] Stesichorus, Geryoneis Fragment S7 (from Strabo, Geography)
[v] Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2.106-8
[vi] Stesichorus, Geryoneis Frag S10
[vii] Stesichorus, Geryoneis Fragment S11 (from Papyri):  This fragment has a lot of gaps in it, called “lacuna” in classical circles. I filled it just enough to have it make sense.
[viii] Hesiod, Theogony 966 & 979
[ix] The Hydra is brother to Geryon’s fallen dog Orthrus.  Go figure!


  1. That explanation of the poison in Hera's breast and the hydra's blood seems a bit circular.

  2. "...If I am by birth immortal and ageless, so that I shall share in life on Olympus, then it is better to endure the reproaches of men and to watch my cattle being driven off far from my stalls; but if, my friend, I must indeed reach hateful old age and spend my life among short-lived mortals far from the blessed gods, then it is much nobler for me to suffer what is fate than to avoid death and shower disgrace on my dear children and all my race hereafter..."

    Interesting! We are more likely to put it the other way round and to use our mortality as an excuse to avoid risk (as a character of Steinbeck explained why he didn't resist bank robbers: "Money was better insured than me"). Geryon seems to imply that immortals have an unlimited time span to amend their reputations or simply to wait until their shame is forgotten (from other myths, it seems that immortals don't care that much about their reputations in the first place). A mortal, on the contrary, is bound to value his reputation more than his life. This is the heroic mentality that is almost guaranteed to turn an already limited life into a short one :-(.

    I am interested whether "hateful old age" is the same formula that we find in the Iliad when Thetis and Achilles talk about Peleus. This old age is not presented as a valid choice for Achilles: while Thetis has told her son that he can remain in Phthia and live an unremarkable long life, this option seems to have been cancelled from the beginning. In Scroll 18, Thetis complains to her sisters, "I shall never welcome him home once more to the house of Peleus" even before she has heard of the point-of-no-return event (the death of Patroclus); then, complaining to Hephaestus, she repeats this in the same breath in which she mentions the old age of Peleus.

    Geryon is also the son of an immortal water goddess that may have taught him these values. It is unlikely that they come from his father, who never tried to avenge his mother's murder or did anything remarkable.

  3. Maya,

    I find it interesting and in someway telling that Homer doesn't mention the possibility of "The Isle of the Best" until mid-way through his second epic. It's as if the bronze age and heroic age warrior only had one option at immortality of a sorts that is "imperishable glory". Apparently in the Iron Age we have an immortal soul and cool places to live out eternity. Apparently not an option for Achilles and Geryon.


    1. A figure that puzzles me is Heracles. He is clearly Bronze Age yet conquers Death and wins nice immortality. His life also has little touch with ordinary human life, with all those monsters to kill and the periodic episodes of mass-destruction rage. He is far less human than Homer's gods. I wonder why he was invented. Gods order him to do labors but do not give him the labors directly. Instead, they entrust this task to the mortal Eurystheus, a mediocre individual. Like Zeus entrusting the Judgement to Paris. Eurystheus may actually have disabilities as a result of his premature birth, also by divine intervention. Again, like Paris who suffered as an infant. Anyway, we can forget Heracles. Nobody could do anything meaningful with him up to the 5th century tragedians. Homer mentions him briefly and considers him dead most of the time.

    2. I have doubts in the long-term survival of cultures not equipped with a nice afterlife. (Such as mine.) The Isles of the Blessed were just for heroes, for the elite. It is difficult to inspire the working class with the belief that they will be miserable for eternity while the elite will have a good life not only before death but even after it. The Eleusinian mysteries were a nice try, but quite unsatisfactory. They could be boiled down to "give me drahmas to be spared eternal torture in Hades".

      I recently read about Mesopothamian mythology and remembered Gilgamesh. He wishes imperishable glory, but only in the beginning. After Enkidu's death, he realizes that it is no good - like Achilles after Patroclus' death. He is offered earthly delights and refuses them, seeks immortality and fails, seeks youth and fails, finally accepts his mortality and human limitations and realizes that constructive deeds are the only true immortality. I find this ancient work very modern, in full accordance with the prevailing views in present-day Europe.

      Unfortunately, Gilgamesh is little known. It is very difficult to be adapted for young readers because its resolution is an anticlimax. Children want to see the plot as in Tolkien, with killing the bad monster as the climax of the story.

    3. Maya,

      As to Heracles he is every teenage boys dream! Win all the battles, slay all the monsters and get all the girls. At one point which movies Americans go to was determined 70% of the time by young men. Plus culturally speaking, Herc was the first hero to be worshipped as a god during his life time. (Quick thinking by Telamon when Heracles was about to lose his famous temper).

      As to Gilgamesh... Well, we discussed this at Hour 25, Personally, I think we can all be heroes in one way or the other. As a Christian I'm not going to accept the modern definition of mortality and as the fool and prideful person I am, I'm not accepting the notion of human limitations. I'm so archaic!


    4. D. Anthony writes in "The horse, the wheel & language" that the formula "everlasting fame" is found in both Greek and Iranian epic. (As we see, the formula is translated by different expressions - the underlying idea apparently never grew strong roots among English speakers.)

      The curious thing is, I cannot remember a work that portrays the quest for imperishable glory in a wholly positive light. Where did this quest bring Ajax the Greater? To suicide, after making a fool of himself.

      Homer's Achilles first drags the quest for kleos for 9 years, then makes up his mind in a moment of rage, then bitterly regrets it, finally regains some humanity and seems to find solace in the idea that it is the gods that have messed everything up and humans cannot put it right.

      I must read the Iliad again to try and figure out what exactly is happening to Achilles. It is very difficult for me to put myself in his shoes; we apparently have very little in common, except the universal human feature to regret one's mistakes when it is too late to repair them. As a woman, I am very repulsed by the fact that he lets Briseis keep the vain hope of becoming his wife.

    5. Maya,

      “A work that portrays the quest for imperishable glory in a wholly positive light.” The life of the poet Sophocles. Dionysus, okay a couple of unpleasant births, but after that it was up hill all the way to Olympus. Menelaus; all he actually did was marry well, but hey! Leonidas of Sparta. Diomedes Aaron Atsma has a whole list of people who made it to the top. I’m not sure how many of them were “questing” and how many were actually mortal in the first place. Have a look see;

      The problem with trying to put ourselves in the shoes of a bronze age warrior is that the average one only lived into his twenties. Humans aren’t really rational adults until 25 according to science and car rental companies. Homer might not have known this. In fact the bulk of the warriors at Troy were teenage boys with no parental controls.

      As to your being repulsed by the fact that Achilles lets Briseis keep the vain hope of becoming his wife. That was actually Patroclus that promised her all that before Agamemnon took her away. Therapon and wing-man!


  4. Maya,

    I added the line about "Hera's breast and the hydra's blood" as a joke. I think we've noted the impossibility of straightening out mythical timelines. I prefer Captain Janeway's way of handling temporal paradoxes; "Ignore them."


  5. I know a boy who admired (the Disney version of) Heracles because he "had muscles". But he was 9 or 10. If teen boys continue to admire Heracles, this is just another proof how different males and females are. My dream as a teenager was to control myself. In this, Heracles is an extremely poor model.

    "...As the fool and prideful person I am, I'm not accepting the notion of human limitations."
    When I was preparing for university, it seemed to me that I was wasting too much time in sleep. I read in some paper that Leonardo da Vinci managed to cope with just 1 hour of sleep, divided into 4 portions of 15 minutes. I tried something of this sort but failed miserably. Like Gilgamesh. Well, after he was 3/4 god and still failed, there is hardly anything to be ashamed of :-).

  6. Maya, As to Heracles being a poor role model, Gregory Nagy says that's their job. To show us how NOT to do things.

    My pastor once made the same argument about the Old Testament prophets. As a family man, I find them much more relatable than them bachelor Gospel writers. But, my pastor pointed out that a lot of them screwed up. And that the Christ like behavior of the apostles is the example I should be following.

  7. My impression is that the apostles were different, some qualified for role models, others less so. What do you think of Paul? I find him a control freak. I suspect that many Christians secretly rejoiced when he was imprisoned by the Romans, and also later when he stopped writing letters.

    1. Maya,

      The apostles were all different types, so we can all find someone to relate to. Four Gospels, so you can find the one that speaks to you. I am so glad my middle name is Thomas so I can point to doubting Thomas as the excuse for the way I am! Ha ha!


    2. Doubting Thomas is the patron saint of scientists :-).

  8. The story of Heracles and Geryon has a parallel in Indian mythology. Indra, a counterpart of Heracles, kills three-headed Vishwarupa (Vishvarupa) because of an unfounded suspicion or plain envy. There is a sequel absent in Greek myth: the victim's father, the god Twashta, uses the body of his slain son to create the daimon Vritra to execute revenge on Indra.

    1. Indira,

      Has that whole cattle-clouds thing going on too, herding them across the sky to his western pastures. Myriad divine cattle grazing the far shore of the Great River Ocean. Must have been open grazing.