Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Cry of the Meleagrides

"We glorify Abraham, but how?  We recite the whole story in clichés: "The great thing was that he loved God in such a way that he was willing to offer him the best."  This is very true but 'the best' is a vague term."


 In my last post I briefly mentioned a hill (C7112) in northern Leros which may or may not have been the site of a temple to Artemis.  This temple was supposed to have been the home of some Guinea hens and it had a declared connection to the story of Meleager and his sisters.  I wanted to use this post to go over the old myth again.  Before I continue I made a lage spreadsheet with the mythemes and sources for this complex tale.  My readers should download that spreadsheet before continuing.  You can get it safely from Google Drive here.  Where Google says 'Open with' just click on that dropdown and select 'Google Sheets'.  

Meleager's father was King Oeneus of Calydon in Aetolia and his mother was Althaea.  She was from a clan called the Kyretes.  Right away we have a snapshot of a patriarchal society with,  probably, exogamy requirements, and virilocal/patrilocal residence.  In other words, Althaea came from her clan, the Kyretes, to live with her husband among the Aetolians/Calydonians - her husband's clan.  Her son, Meleager, was a member of his father's clan but with maternal connections to the clan of his uncles, Althaea's brothers, among the Kyretes.  In this way the rules of exogamy and virilocality establish a connection across clans between uncles and nephew.  This can often provide a path for recruiting people for some special purpose, as we're about to see.

At Meleager's birth the three fates (the Parcae) appeared and predicted what sort of man he would be.  But the last of the fates predicted that Meleager's life would be no longer than a brand that was just then burning in the fire place.[1]  Meleager's mother, Althaea, rushed to pull the brand out of the fire and extinguish it in some water.  She then placed it in a chest and hid it.

Now one day King Oeneus was sacrificing to Bacchus and to other gods and goddesses; this was presumably during a harvest festival.  However he omitted to remember Artemis among his sacrifices.  The goddess was angered and sent a giant boar to ravage the land of Calydon.  In response Meleager organized a hunting party to kill the boar and, among the members of this party, Atalanta (the girl from Arcadia and sometime hunting companion of Artemis), his uncles, and many others.  The uncles were undoubtedly following recruitment rules and were bound to receive a prize of honor when successful.

Ultimately the boar was cornered and Atalanta was first to wound it with an arrow.  In the end, though,  Meleager killed the boar with his spear.  The head and skin of the boar was awarded to Meleager; the custom being to award the skin to the one who killed the animal.  But Meleager was in love with Atalanta and gave her the skin in turn as being the first to draw blood.  Meleager's uncles were outraged by this breach of traditional hunting rules (although various reasons are given for their ire; it's clear that even our oldest sources don't really understand what's going on).  The resentment arose either from the fact that she was not the one to kill the boar or that it was against custom to award the prize (and prize it was) to a woman.  Now, before I continue, I draw the reader's attention to the remarks of Celoria that this squabble is "a feature of systematic procedures in hunting cultures where the strictest rules are followed in dividing a slain animal." [2]

Meleager was outraged that his uncles tried to thwart his decision and so he slew them on the spot.  When his mother, Althaea, learned about the death of her brothers she took the brand from the chest where it had been preserved for so many years and threw it into the fire - in this way causing Meleager's death.  The conflicting duties that Althaea owes both to her brothers and to her children are dramatized by Ovid in one of his more baroque passages.  Her conflicting impulses would have been real enough.  Meleager's murder of his uncles immediately ignites a war between the Kyretes and the Kalydonians.  And, in an alternative version of the death of Meleager, he actually falls fighting in the war against the Kyretes when the city is burned and the brand is destroyed (if I understand that correctly).  At his death, however it occurred, his sisters (known collectively as the Meleagrides) made such a clamor that Artemis converted them into Guinea hens.  It was exactly in Leros, at Partheni, that this form of the cult was observed.

Bibliographical Essay

Now let's take a look at the original sources and see each author deals with the story elements.

The tale falls into two fundamental types.  Type 1 concentrates on the Calydonian Boar Hunt and the death of Meleager through his mother's burning of the magic brand.  Type II concentrates on the discord between the Kyretes and the Aetolians and how it arose.  This variant also ends in the death of Meleager either through his mother burning the brand, or the destruction of the city by burning, or by direct action on the part of Apollo.  

The earliest version of Tale Type I (that I find) is in Bacchylides[3] because even though Homer[4] gives a fine sketch of the Calydonian Boar Hunt and its origin he is really more interested in the inter-clan strife between the Kyretes and the Kalydonians.  The point Homer is trying to make is the baleful consequences of a great warrior withdrawing from battle.  Bacchylides, on the other hand, is more interested in the magical aspects of the story.

The great fifth-century tragedians, both of whom refer to the Type I version, are Aeschylus [5] and Euripides [6].  Type I appears in its canonical form in Hyginus' Fabulae both 171 and 174.  Hyginus has no interest in the civil strife between the Kyretes and the Kalydonians.[7]  Hyginus' version is the earliest I know of to mention the sisters of Meleager being transformed into Guinea fowl.  Ovid appears to take his cue from Hyginus with a full-blown treatment of the Type I version including the metamorphosis of the sisters into Guinea fowl along with the reason for that transformation (omitted by Hyginus), namely, their crying and shrieking for the death of their brother.[8]

Statius' Thebaid mentions the story in passing[9].  His interest is only the topos of the anger of women and its terrible consequences.  For Dio Chrysostom [10] it is also just a topos.  In this case that of the mutability of external opinion and the folly of resting one's understanding of oneself on some external factor.  Meleager's life resting on the integrity of a burning brand under the control of someone else is his example.

Both versions of the tale are laid out in Ps. Apollodorus [11].  This is the only one of our sources to do so.  He starts with the birth of Meleager and ends with the metamorphosis of the Meleagrides.

Pausanias[12] lays out a few fragments of the story mentioning the Parcae and the burning brand.  He skips the Calydonian Boar Hunt (at least in this connection) and briefly mentions Althaea's causing her son's death through the burning of the brand.  In Antoninus Liberalis the story is told in chunks[13].  The death of Meleager is overdetermined, being borrowed from both types 1 and 2.

After Pausanias, and in the wake of the collapse of traditional Greek religion, interest in the story falls off.

The Suda knows the story; at least it gives a definition of the Meleagrides [P]

Why were the Melegrides turned into Guinea Hens?  I'll look at that element of the story next time.


[1] The concept of 'the external soul'. In Thompson [1955] this is theme no. E765.1.2,  'Life bound up with burning brand (torch)'.  Also Hartland [1891] 205 for the story of Olger (Ogier) the Dane.  Theme E765.1.2 is listed on this page.

[2] Celoria [1992] 112, n. 33.  Such rules are quite common: see Flannery and Marcus [2012] 25 for meat sharing among the Netsilik and, p. 32, among the !Kung.  The list could be extended indefinitely.   Celoria also reminds us of the story of Mac da Tho's pig from The Book of Leinster.  For meat division among the Samoans see Peter Buck [1930] 119 ff.

In the scholiast on Oedipus at Colonnus (1375) we read that the sons of Oedipus, Polyneices and Eteocles, sent their father a haunch of a sacrificed animal instead of the shoulder.  It is suggested in, e.g. Graves [1960], 12 that this was an 'inferior'  part of the animal.  More likely (but this is pure supposition) the haunch was a brother's portion rather than a father's portion.   If that were true then it would have been a deadly insult; an unwelcome reminder to Oedipus of his actual relationship to Eteocles and  Polyneices.   And see Huxley [1969] 42; also Robert Buck [1979] 49.  

It is not impossible that these formalized divisions of meat underlie the earliest forms of prestation between subordinate and dominant clans.  Meleager's uncles were not outraged over nothing.  I discuss such matters in more detail here.

[3] Ode 5.  Online here.

[4] Il. ix, 527-605.  Online here.

[5] In The Libation Bearers, ll. 602-611.  Online here.

[6] Fragment 520.  I cannot find the text of this and what little I know is taken from the OCD, s.v. 'Meleager' which refers to the taking of the prize from Atalanta: " ... when, after he had given the hide of the boar to Atalanta with whom he was in love, they took it away from her (  ...; ultimately from Euripides' Meleager? ... "

[7] These Fabulae (171 and 174) are online here and here.

[8] In the Metamorphoses viii, 260-546.  Online here and here.

[9] The Thebaid II:410-481.  Online here.

[10] Discourse 67, 'On Popular Opinion'.  Online here.

[11] In the Bibliotheke 1.8.2-3 which is online here.

[12] Section 10.31.3-4.  Online here.

[13] Antoninus Liberalis, The Metamorphoses, 2, 'The Meleagrides'.  Online here.  Ant. Lib. epitomized Nicander of Colophon (OCD, s.v. 'Nicander').

[14] "Meleagri/des.", Suda On Line. Tr. David Whitehead. 9 April 2008.  Online here.


Buck [1930] : Buck, Peter H. (Te Rangi Hiroa), 'Samoan Material Culture', Bulletin of the Bernice P. Bishop Museum, no. 75.  1930.  It can be read here.

Buck [1979] : Buck, Robert.  A History of Boeotia.  University of Alberta Press.  1979.

Celoria [1992] : Celoria, Francis, The Metamorphoses of Antoninus Liberalis; A Translation with Commentary.  Routledge, 1992.  ISBN: 9780415068963.  Online here.

Flannery and Marcus [2012]:   Flannery, Kent and Joyce Marcus.  The Creation of Inequality: How our prehistoric ancestors set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire.  Harvard University Press. 2012.  978-0674416772.

Graves [1960] : Graves, Robert.  The Greek Myths; 2.  Penguin Books.  1960.

Hartland [1891] :  Hartland, Edwin Sidney.  The Science of Fairy Tales, London, Walter Scott Pub., 1891.  Online here.

Huxley [1969]: Huxley, G.A.  Greek Epic Poetry from Eumelos to Panyassis. Cambridge, MA.  1969.

OCD: The Oxford Classical Dictionary, fourth edition.  Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth (edd.). Oxford University Press. 2012.

Thompson [1955]:  Thompson,Stith, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folk-Tales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books, and Local Legends, rev. and enl. edn, 6 vols (Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1955-58).   Section E, on death, is here:

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