A sampling of comments on Pausanias: 1.17.3–6

2018.01.18 | By Gregory Nagy

I continue from where I left off in Classical Inquiries 2018.01.11. I focus here on the details given by Pausanias at 1.17.3 describing a monumental wall painting in the sanctuary of Theseus. Depicted on this wall painting is the hero Theseus, who has just emerged from a deep-dive to the bottom of the sea. He is triumphantly holding in one hand the Ring of Minos and, in the other, the Garland of the sea-goddess Amphitrite, bride of Poseidon. The ring had been thrown into the sea by Minos, who challenged Theseus to recover it, while the garland was given to Theseus by Amphitrite, who had saved the hero from drowning and had thus made it possible for him to recover the ring. For the cover illustration, I have chosen a comparable mythological scene that was carved into a gem. It is a modern work of art. At the center is the hero Theseus, who is being carried along the sea-waves on the back of a dolphin and who is holding triumphantly a ring in one hand and a garland in the other—a garland of stars, it seems. This miniaturized scene as carved into a gem is comparable to the monumentalized scene that Pausanias saw painted on a wall in the sanctuary of Theseus.

I will have more to say about these monumentalized and miniaturized scenes after my translation of 1.17.3. And then, in commenting on the translations for 1.17.4–6, I will have more to say about the hero Theseus and about related matters.

{1.17.3} translation by Jones 1918, modified by GN 2018.01.18:

The painting [graphē] on the third wall [of the sanctuary of Theseus] is not clear [saphēs] for those who have not inquired-about-and-learned [punthanesthai] what is said [legein]. It [= the lack of clarity] is due partly to the passage of time and partly to the fact that Mikon [the painter] did not paint [graphein] the entirety of what is said to have happened. When Minos was bringing to Crete Theseus and the rest of the group-that-was sent [stolos], which was a group of young-ones [paides], he [= Minos] conceived a passion [erâsthai] for Periboia, and, when Theseus opposed him with the greatest kind of opposition [imaginable], he [= Minos] got angry and hurled insults at him [= Theseus], saying that he [= Theseus] was not the son of Poseidon, claiming that he [= Theseus] could not bring-back-to-safety [ana-sōzein] for him the signet-ring [sphrāgis] that he [= Minos] happened to be wearing, if he [= Minos] threw it into the sea. Saying these things, Minos is said to have thrown the signet-ring [sphrāgis], but they say that Theseus came up [for air] from out of the sea holding that signet-ring [sphrāgis] and holding also a gold garland [stephanos] that Amphitrite gave him.


Theseus re-emerging from his dive into the sea, carrying the ring of Minos and the starred garland of Amphitrite. Drawing after a cast of a neoclassical gem, once in the Poniatowski Collection. Currently in the collection of Prof. Klaus Mueller, Bonn, cataloged and photographed by the Classical Art Research Centre.


{1.17.3} subject heading(s): graphē ‘painting’; sanctuary of Theseus; ana-sōzein (ana-sōzesthai) ‘bring back to safety’; sphrāgis ‘signet-ring’; stephanos ‘garland’

In Nagy 2017.06.10 1§§50–51, supplemented by 1§§18–23, I have analyzed the details of the monumental wall painting as described by Pausanias at 1.17.3. I give here an epitome:

{1§50.} As a symbol, the Ring of Minos links the Minoan Empire to the imperial ideology of Athens as represented by Theseus. The mentality of finders keepers applies: Theseus finds the Ring of Minos at the bottom of the sea, where Amphitrite, pictured here as the goddess of the Aegean, freely gives it to him. Here I must add that the Ring of Minos can be seen as a signet ring that seals documents of state written in parchment.

{1§§18–23.} Documents written on parchment and then sealed with a signet ring are a distinctive feature of administrative practices perfected in the era of the Minoan Empire. Accordingly, the signet ring is a visible sign or symbol of empire.

{1§51.} And a visible sign or symbol of the idea that Theseus actually marries the sea is the golden garland that the sea-goddess gives to him when he dives into the depths of the Aegean to retrieve the Ring of Minos.

What follows is an epitome from Nagy 2017.06.10 2§1:

{2§1.} There is another version of the myth about the deep-dive of Theseus to the bottom of the sea: this version is narrated in Song 17 of Bacchylides, where we read further details that are in some ways the same and in some ways different: after Theseus dives into the depths of the sea, the sea-goddess Amphitrite welcomes him, enveloping the hero in a purple robe, line 112, and crowning his head of hair with a garland made of roses, line 116 ( ῥόδοις)—a garland that she herself as a bride of Poseidon the sea-god had received as a wedding present from Aphrodite, lines 113–116. When Theseus finally comes back up for air, emerging from the depths of the sea, he is wearing the purple robe and the garland of roses, ready to confront Minos. From here on, it will be Theseus and not Minos who will have dominion over the Aegean Sea, and this dominion is expressed by the symbolism of both the purple robe and the garland of roses.

I should add that Song 17 of Bacchylides is not explicit about the recovery of the signet ring, though there is a clear reference to it at lines 60–62, when the ring is about to be thrown overboard. And, here at line 60, we see a new detail: the ring is golden, just as the garland is golden in the version described by Pausanias at 1.17.3.

On the other hand, Song 17 of Bacchylides is quite explicit in its picturing of dolphins carrying Theseus in the course of his transition to the bottom of the sea, lines 97–101, just as the hero in the modern miniature carving is pictured as being carried on the back of a dolphin.

Another detail in the modern miniature is worth noticing: the garland that is held by the hero is studded with stars.




This garland corresponds to the constellation known as the Garland of Ariadne, and the mythology of this constellation may well date back to the era of Minoan civilization: I offer comments on the background in Nagy 2017.06.10 5§§1–3.

{1.17.4} translation by Jones 1918, modified by GN 2018.01.18:

With regard to the end [teleutē] of Theseus many things have been said, and these things are not [mutually] consistent. They say he was kept tied-down [deesthai] until he was brought-back [an-agein] by Hēraklēs [to the light of day], but, of all the things I heard, the most believable [pithanon] is as follows. Theseus invaded Thesprotia to carry off the wife of the Thesprotian king, and in this way lost the greater part of his army, and both he and Peirithoös—he too was taking part in the expedition, being eager for the marriage—were taken captive. The Thesprotian king kept them tied-down [deein] at Kikhyros.

{1.17.4} subject heading(s): deein (deesthai) ‘tie down’

The mythological theme of being tied down or bound (as in the wording Prometheus Bound) is expressed by such verbs as deein (deesthai), which conveys the mystical idea of cosmic as well as personal immobilization. Conversely, the mythological theme of being freed from such immobility is to be mystically ‘saved’, as expressed by way of verbs like an-agein ‘bring back [to safety], komizein ‘bring to safety’, sōzein ‘save’. But Pausanias here is downplaying the mysticism associated with such words, since he prefers here to view place-names associated with myths and rituals in such a way as to shade over those myths and rituals.

{1.17.5} translation by Jones 1918, modified by GN 2018.01.18:

Among the things worthy of viewing [théā] at Thesprotia are a sanctuary [hieron] of Zeus at Dodona and an oak [phēgos] sacred [hierā] to the god [theos]. Near Kikhyros is a lake called Akherousia, and a river called Akheron. There is also Kokytos, a stream of water [hudōr] that is the-farthest-away-from-giving-any-pleasure [aterpestaton]. I think it was because Homer had seen these places that he acted boldly in putting into his poetry [poiēsis] the things having to do with Hadēs, and gave to the rivers there the names of those in Thesprotia. While Theseus was thus held-back [ekhesthai], the sons of Tyndareus [= the Dioskouroi] led their armed forces against Aphidna, captured it, and restored Menestheus to the kingship.

{1.17.5} subject heading(s): ekhein (ekhesthai) ‘hold back’; Menestheus

The use of the verb ekhein (ekhesthai) ‘hold back’ is parallel here to the use of the verb deein (deesthai) ‘tie down’, seen earlier, in conveying the mystical idea of cosmic as well as personal immobilization. Here again, Pausanias is downplaying the mysticism associated with such words, since he prefers to view the place-names associated with the myths and rituals of Thesprotia in such a way as to downplay the mythological aspects. If the names that are linked with local myths and rituals are detached from those myths and rituals, they can then be viewed superficially as devoid of cosmic significance. So, for example, the name Akheron may be linked with the rituals and myths of the Thesprotians, signifying a mystical contact with the world of their dead, but if you take their myths and rituals away, then their Acheron becomes just another river in just another locale. That way, Theseus is now ‘held back’ not in the local equivalent of Hadēs but in Thesprotia.

{1.17.6} translation by Jones 1918, modified by GN 2018.01.18:

 Now Menestheus took no account of the children of Theseus, who had secretly withdrawn to Elephenor in Euboea, but he was aware that Theseus, if ever he was-brought-back-to-safety [ana-komizesthai] from Thesprotia, would be a powerful antagonist, and so he curried favor with the people [dēmos], with the result that Theseus, when he had been brought-back-home-to-safety [ana-sōzesthai], was expelled [after his homecoming]. Theseus now set-off-on-a-voyage [stellesthai] to [reach a man called] Deukalion in Crete. Being carried off-course by winds to the island of Skyros he was treated splendidly by the inhabitants, thanks to the fame [doxa] of his lineage [genos] and to the worthiness of his own achievements. For this very reason, Lykomedes plotted his death. And-from-what-I-have-just-said-you-can-now-see-why [men dē] the Athenians had their hero-precinct [sēkos] [of Theseus]. This was after the Persians landed at Marathon. It was when Kimon, son of Miltiades, removed the population of Skyros, thus exacting vindication [dikē] for the death of Theseus, and brought-to-safety [komizein] his bones to Athens.

{1.17.6} subject heading(s): Menestheus; komizein (komizesthai) ‘convey, bring back to safety’; ana-komizein (ana-komizesthai) ‘convey, bring back to safety’; ana-sōzein (ana-sōzesthai) ‘bring back to safety’

Although Pausanias has demystified the myth about the immobilization of Theseus in Hadēs, the verbs he uses in referring to the hero’s return from Thesprotia are more appropriate to an escape from Hadēs—followed by a mystical return to light and life.



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