A sampling of comments on Pausanias: 1.3.2–1.4.6

2017.11.30 / revised 2017.12.03 | By Gregory Nagy

I continue from where I left off in Classical Inquiries 2017.11.09. Much of the text to be covered here, from the end of 1.3.5 to the end of 1.4.6, is a lengthy digression about the ancient Gauls, and, at the beginning of that digression, we find a passing reference to a myth that has intrigued me for four and a half decades. In my comments, I concentrate on that myth, which is about a cosmic crash that happened once upon a time when Hēlios, god of the sun, made the mistake of allowing his solar chariot to be driven across the sky, just for one day, by a chariot driver other than himself. That other driver turned out to be the most reckless of all chariot drivers in ancient Greek myth. He was the mortal son of Hēlios, the hero Phaethon.

The chariot of Hēlios. Red-figured calyx-krater, ca. 430 BCE. Image via the British Museum.


{1.3.5} translation by Jones 1918, modified by GN 2017.11.30:

Here is built also a sanctuary [hieron] of the Mother of the gods; she [= her statue] is by Pheidias. Close by is the council-chamber [bouleutērion] of those called the Five Hundred, who for a term of a year act-as-councilors [bouleuein] on behalf of the Athenians. In it are a wooden-statue [xoanon] of Zeus Boulaios and an Apollo, the work [tekhnē] of Peisias, and a [personified] Dēmos, a work [ergon] by Lyson. As for the lawgivers [thesmothetai], they were painted [graphein] by Protogenes[1] of Kaunos; and Olbiades painted Kallippos, who led the Athenians to Thermopylae to stop the incursion of the Gauls [Galatai] into Greece [Hellas].[2]

{1.3.5} subject heading(s): Gauls [Galatai]; defamiliarizing

In his narrative, Pausanias will focus here on the ancient Celtic people known as the Gauls, called Galatai in Greek, as they existed in the third century BCE. By maintaining this focus, Pausanias will be defamiliarizing the Gauls as they existed in his own time, that is, in the second century CE. I say this because it stands to reason that educated Greeks in the time of Pausanias would have been well enough informed about the existence of romanized Gauls living in the western and non-Greek part of Roman Empire—in what is now northern Italy, France, and Spain. By contrast, educated Romans in the time of Pausanias—and even Greeks—would have been relatively unfamiliar with the reality of earlier Gauls who figured in the pre-imperial history of the eastern and Greek part of the same Roman Empire.

{1.4.1} translation by Jones 1918, modified by GN 2017.11.30:

These Gauls [Galatai] inhabit the most remote portions of Europe, near a great sea that is not navigable all the way to its extremities [perata], and has tides and fauna quite unlike those of other seas. Through their territory [khōrā] flows the river Ēridanos, on the banks of which the Daughters of Hēlios [‘Sun’] are customarily thought to be lamenting the experience [pathos] of their brother Phaethon. It was late before the name Gauls [Galatai] prevailed; for in ancient times they were called Celts [Keltoi] both among themselves and by others. An army of them gathered and turned towards the Ionian Sea. They dispossessed the Illyrian people and all who dwelled as far away as Macedonia, along with the Macedonians themselves. Then they overran Thessaly. And when they drew near to Thermopylae, the Greeks [Hellēnes] in general made no move to prevent the incursion of the barbarians, since previously they had been severely defeated by Alexander and Philip. Further, Antipatros and Kassandros[3] afterwards crushed the Greek side [tò Hellēnikon], so that, because of their weakness, each state thought it was not shameful to take no part in the defense.

{1.4.1} subject heading(s): Ēridanos; Gauls [Galatai]; Hēlios; [Hēliades ‘Daughters of the Sun’;] ēlektron ‘amber’; Phaethon

I highlight here the linking of a river named Ēridanos with the ancient Gauls—Galatai in Greek. Although Pausanias is vague about the location of this river, he is explicit about linking it with the Gauls, as we see here. Why is he explicit? In looking for an answer, I turn to an early work of mine where I studied in some detail the ancient Greek sources concerning this river: Nagy 1973, rewritten as Ch.9 in the book Nagy 1990b (page-references to this study of mine will be keyed to the version printed in the book). As I show in that study, ancient Greek sources other than Pausanias likewise link the name Ēridanos with rivers flowing through territories once settled by Gauls: thus, Ēridanos was once the Greek name for the river Po, located in the formerly Gaulish territory of northern Italy, and it was also the Greek name for the river Rhône in France, that is, in the heartland of ancient Gaul (Nagy 1990b:237–238). But there is a problem with the traditional Greek naming of such real rivers as the Po and the Rhône. The problem is, the name Ēridanos is linked not only with these rivers flowing in Gaulish territories. As Pausanias himself says, Ēridanos is linked also with myths about the hero Phaethon, son of Hēlios. This hero had plunged into a river by the name of Ēridanos when the solar chariot that he was driving across the sky was shattered in a spectacular cosmic crash. There, by the banks of the river Ēridanos, the dead hero Phaethon, son of Hēlios, will be lamented forever by his mourning sisters, the Hēliades or ‘Daughters of the Sun’, who will be shedding tears of ēlektron ‘amber’ in their sorrow for the death of their solar brother. The myth, including the detail about the tears of amber shed by the Daughters of the Sun, is most beautifully retold in the Hippolytus of Euripides, where the chorus is singing a song of escapist reveries:

ἀρθείην δ’ ἐπὶ πόντιον | κῦμα τᾶς Ἀδριηνᾶς | ἀκτᾶς Ἠριδανοῦ θ’ ὕδωρ, ἔνθα πορφύρεον σταλάσ|σουσ’ εἰς οἶδμα τάλαιναι | κόραι Φαέθοντος οἴκτῳ δακρύων | τὰς ἠλεκτροφαεῖς αὐγάς

Let me fly off [like a bird], soaring over the sea wave of the Adriatic headland and the water of Ēridanos, where the wretched girls, in sorrow for Phaethon, pour forth into the seething sea their shining-amber [ēlektrophaeis] rays of tears.

Euripides Hippolytus 735–741

The Fall of Phaethon, lamented by his sisters. Sodoma (Italian, 1477–1549). Image via the Worcester Art Museum. Museum purchase 1925.121.

In the wording of Euripides, as we see in the passage I just quoted, the river Ēridanos is evidently mythical: on its banks are stationed the solar sisters of Phaethon, shedding tears of amber that signal the golden redness of a most spectacular sunset. In the myths about Phaethon, the river Ēridanos is a cosmic fresh-water stream that encircles the world, interacting with the celestial dynamics of the sun. This Ēridanos is like another famous cosmic fresh-water stream, the river Ōkeanos, which in other myths likewise encircles the world. The sun sets into the waters of such cosmic streams at sunset and rises from the same waters at sunrise. And the myth of Phaethon is an episodic retelling of one aspect of the solar cycle—the aspect of sunset. Phaethon plunges into the river Ēridanos just as the sun plunges into the cosmic stream of the Ōkeanos—or of the Ēridanos—at sunset. (For the sources, I refer to my analysis of the relevant myths in Nagy 1990b:236–238.) Such parallelism between the river Ēridanos and the river Ōkeanos, was not to last, however: while the first of the two cosmic rivers remains a river, the second eventually becomes the Ocean in the current sense of the name—that is, the Atlantic Ocean. (Again, I refer to my analysis in Nagy 1990b:236–238. In that analysis, I explain how the myth about Phaethon son of Hēlios god of the sun is distinct from another myth about Phaethon son of Ēōs goddess of the dawn—a myth that is also familiar to Pausanias, as we saw already at 1.3.1.)

And so, as I already said a minute ago, the river Ēridanos is mythical in the poetic description of Euripides. But the river Ēridanos is simultaneously “real” in the wording of that very same description, Hippolytus 736–737: This wording envisions Ēridanos as the river Po, seen at the climactic moment when its waters stream into the Adriatic Sea at the Gulf of Venice. (I have further comments in Nagy 1990b: 236–238. At p. 236 there, I should add, I had translated ἐπὶ πόντιον | κῦμα at lines 735–736 of the Hippolytus as ‘heading for the sea wave’. I now regret that interpretation, since the Gulf of Venice is not the final destination of the flying bird, and so I follow Barrett 1964:300–301 in translating as ‘soaring over’.)

For a rationalist like the geographer Strabo (5.1.9 C215), what needs to be said first and foremost about Ēridanos is that this river simply cannot be real, belonging as it does to the mythical world of Phaethon and his cosmic sisters, the Daughters of the Sun. Although Strabo cannot deny that real rivers can be named Ēridanos, this reality is for him delegitimized by the existence of myths about a mythical Ēridanos. Even rationalists like Strabo linked the name Ēridanos primarily with the myth about a solar boy and the solar girls who forever lament his death by shedding tears of amber. Thus, Strabo would link the same name only secondarily with the reality of real rivers named Ēridanos, such as the Po.

Pausanias too is such a rationalist, I think, and that is why he distances his thoughts from the reality of real rivers named Ēridanos. For him to be vague about the precise location of the Ēridanos in Gaul is to achieve such a mental distancing. Even if the Gaulish territories of northern Italy and southern France, as integral parts of the Roman Empire, must have been familiar to educated Greeks in the age of Pausanias, the mythical associations of the name Ēridanos would still lead to an attitude of defamiliarization in thinking about real rivers that went by that name in these territories.

That said, I return to my initial question: why is Pausanias explicit about linking the name Ēridanos with the Gauls? By now I see that I should have asked, rather, a different question: why is Pausanias vague about the existence, inside the territories of the Gauls, of a real river that the Greeks knew by the name of Ēridanos? And I have already offered an answer to such a question in my previous comment: Pausanias is defamiliarizing the Gauls in the western and non-Greek part of the Roman Empire by way of highlighting the earlier Gauls who figured in the pre-imperial history of the eastern and Greek part of the same Roman Empire.


See the dynamic Bibliography for APRIP.


Inventory of terms and names

See the dynamic Inventory of terms and names for APRIP.



[1] A contemporary of Alexander the Great.

[2] 279 BCE.

[3] Antipatros and Kassandros were successors of Alexander the Great.

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