How myths that connect the hero Philoctetes with the goddess Chryse are related to myths about a koúrē ‘girl’ named Chryseis

2021.08.16 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. In two previous essays posted for Classical Inquiries (Nagy 2021.08.02 and 2021.08.09, linked here and here), I analyzed myths that connect the hero Philoctetes with the goddess Chryse, arguing that these myths can be traced back to Aeolian traditions. Here I go further by arguing that such myths are related to another myth—this one is featured prominently in the Homeric Iliad—about a koúrē ‘girl’ named Chryseis, pictured in the Renaissance painting that I have chosen as the cover illustration for this essay. Even the name is relevant. Just like the name of the goddess Chryse / Khrū́sē, the related name of the girl Chryseis / Khrūsēḯs signals a myth that can be traced back to Aeolian traditions.

Jacopo Alessandro Calvi (1740-1815): the king Agamemnon, standing in front of his headquarters, rudely pushes away the priest Chryses, who is pleading for the return of his daughter Chryseis. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

§1. In Rhapsody 1 of the Homeric Iliad, the name Chryseis / Khrūsēḯs (nominative Χρυσηΐς at verse 439, genitive Χρυσηΐδος at verse 111, accusative Χρυσηΐδα at verses 143, 182, 310, 369) is applied to a koúrē ‘girl’ (κούρης Χρυσηΐδος at verse 111). She is the daughter of an old man who is priest of Apollo and who is named Chryses / Khrū́sēs (nominative Χρύσης at verses 374, 450; vocative Χρύση at verse 442; accusative Χρύσην at verse 11). The girl was captured by Achilles in a raid and awarded by his fellow Achaeans as a war-prize for their over-king, Agamemnon. When the priest approaches Agamemnon, offering ransom for his daughter, the over-king contemptuously refuses, and this refusal results in a plague visited upon the Achaeans by the angry god Apollo, to whom the priest had prayed for punishment of the disrespect shown to both the priest and his god. In this context, Apollo is said to preside over a sacred place named Chryse / Khrū́sē (accusative Χρύσην at verses 37, 100, 390, 431, 451). This place named Chryse / Khrū́sē is home for the girl named Chryseis / Khrūsēḯs, who is finally sent back there by the Achaeans after Agamemnon gives in to the priest named Chryses / Khrū́sēs.

§2. As we learn from the Ethnica compiled by Stephanus of Byzantium, who flourished in the sixth century CE and who provides, to this day, a gold mine of information about Greek geographical names, there were many sites named Chryse / Khrū́sē in the ancient world, including a site located on the island of Lesbos. I quote here the relevant statement provided by Stephanus under the entry Χρύση (as printed in the edition of Meineke 1849 pages 696–697), but I will translate underneath the original Greek text only thοse parts that are now relevant to my argument. Those parts of the Greek text will be highlighted in yellow:

{696.15} Χρύση, βαρυτόνως, ἡ πόλις τοῦ Ἀπόλλωνος ἐγγὺς Λήμνου. Σοφοκλῆς Λημνίαις “ὦ Λῆμνε Χρύσης τ’ ἀγχιτέρμονες {697.1} πάγοι”. καὶ ἐν Αἰχμαλώτισι “ταύτην ἐγὼ Κίλλαν τε καὶ Χρύσην [νέμω]”. εἰσὶ καὶ ἄλλαι Χρῦσαι ὁμώνυμοι πόλεις καὶ τόποι πολλοί. περὶ Σκῦρον. καὶ τῆς Λεσβίας τόπος. καὶ περὶ Ἡφαιστίαν τῆς Λήμνου ἀκρωτήριον πρὸς Τένεδον βλέ-{697.5}-πον. καὶ ἐν Βιθυνίᾳ περὶ Χαλκηδόνα. καὶ τῆς Καρίας ἐν τῇ Ἁλικαρνασσίδι, Δώριον πεδίον. καὶ ἐν Ἑλλησπόντῳ πόλις μέση Ὀφρυνίου καὶ Ἀβύδου. ὁ πολίτης Χρυσεύς. ἔστι καὶ ἄλλη περισπωμένως λεγομένη νῆσος Ὠκεανῖτις, ἣν οὕτω καλεῖ Διονύσιος διὰ τὸ χρυσοῦ ἔχειν μέταλλα. ἔστι καὶ ἄλλη χερ-{697.10}-ρόνησος τῆς Ἰνδικῆς, Μαρκιανὸς ἐν περίπλῳ “ἐν δὲ τῇ ἐκτὸς Γάγγου Ἰνδικῇ χρυσῆ καλουμένη χερρόνησος”. 

[The entry is] Chryse / Khrū́sē. [The name has] recessive accent. It is the name of a city [polis] of Apollo near [the island of] Lemnos. To quote Sophocles in his Lemnian Women: ‘O Lemnos, and O you peaks of nearby Chryse / Khrū́sē’. Also in his Captive Women: ‘I [= Apollo] [inhabit] this place Killa, and Chryse / Khrū́sē’. There are many other cases of the name Chryse / Khrū́sē’, both cities [poleis] and places-in-general [topoi]. [For example,] in the environs of Skyros. [For another example,] there is [such] a place [topos] in [the island of] Lesbos. Another [such] place is a promontory [akrōtērion] in the environs of Hēphaistíā in Lemnos, looking out toward Tenedos.

§3. So, where is this place named Chryse / Khrū́sē, sacred to Apollo and home of the ‘girl’ named Chryseis / Khrūsēḯs who is the daughter of Apollo’s priest named Chryses / Khrū́sēs? Evidently, Stephanus here is guided by the words of Sophocles, whom he quotes from the lost tragedies Women of Lemnos (F 384) and Captive Women (F40). As for Sophocles himself, the poet is in turn evidently guided by the Homeric narrative in Rhapsody 1 of the Iliad, where the god Apollo, invoked by way of the epithet Smintheus (verse 39), is described as dominating three places that are sacred to him: the first of these places is Chryse / Khrū́sē (verses 37/451), while the second and the third are Killa and Tenedos (verses 38/452). Of these three places, two are evidently Aeolian. I have already noted in one of my two previous relevant essays (Nagy 2021.08.02 §8) the distinctly Aeolian affinities of the island Tenedos. As for the place-name Killa, it too has Aeolian affinities—in this case, localized both on the island of Lesbos and on the mainland of Asia Minor in the region of Troy, as we read in the Homeric scholia for Iliad 1.38. Τhen there is the case of Chryse / Khrū́sē, and here too we find evidence for an Aeolian bi-localization: that is to say, there are attestations of two Aeolian places named Chryse / Khrū́sē. As we will now see, one of these places is located on the Aeolian island of Lesbos, and the other, on the Aeolian mainland of Asia Minor, in the environs of Troy.

§4. The location of the first of these two places named Chryse / Khrū́sē can be reconstructed on the basis of what we read in the text of the Homeric Iliad as we have it. In Rhapsody 1, there is a brief narrative describing how Achaean emissaries, led by Odysseus, brought the ‘girl’ Chryseis / Khrūsēḯs back home to her father, the priest of Apollo. Taking her with them, they boarded a ship at the shores of Troy and sailed from there, over the open sea, until they arrived at their destination, described as a landing point that was ‘inside a deep bay’—so goes the wording of the textual transmission as we have it at verse 432: οἳ δ’ ὅτε δὴ λιμένος πολυβενθέος ἐντὸς ἵκοντο, ‘and when they arrived inside a very deep bay’. For well over a hundred years now, this ‘deep bay’ has generally been identified as the Bay of Kallone in Lesbos, on the shores of which was a sacred place of Apollo, invoked there as Smintheus. This identification was once summarized most persuasively by Karl Tümpel (1890:100–101), and, to this day, I think that the attempt by Tümpel at a summary is superior to other attempts for a simple reason: he insists (p. 92) that this identification of Chryse / Khrū́sē with a sacred place of Apollo on the island of Lesbos does not preclude an alternative identification with a corresponding sacred place on the mainland of Asia Minor.

§5. I now turn to the second of these two places named Chryse / Khrū́sē. We are about to see that the location of this alternative place is likewise compatible, as was the first place, with Aeolian traditions as reflected in Homeric poetry. The editor Aristarchus. who was director of the Library of Alexandria in the second century BCE, is the source for the basic information in this case. As we read in the Scholia A for the same verse as before, Iliad 1.432, Aristarchus noted an alternative reading for this verse. Besides ἐντός ‘inside’, which remained the received reading in the medieval manuscript tradition of the Homeric Iliad, Aristarchus recorded in his commentary a textual variant ἐγγύς ‘near’ with reference to the bay where the Achaean emissaries landed, bringing back home the daughter of Apollo’s priest. So, according to this alternative reading, the emissaries landed merely in the environs of a deep bay, not really inside such a bay. As Tümpel (1890:92) points out, such an alternative reading is compatible with the geographical realities of a sacred place named Chryse / Khrū́sē that was located on the Aeolian mainland of Asia Minor, in the environs of Troy—so, not on the Aeolian island of Lesbos. On this localization of Chryse / Khrū́sē, I cite Strabo 13.1.47 C604–605, 13.1.61–63 C611-614. Going one step further than the formulation of Tümpel, I interpret such variation in the locating of Apollo’s sacred place not as a symptom of some kind of static layering in textual transmission but, rather, as a reflex of dynamic variation in the oral transmission of Homeric poetry—which was capable of accommodating different poetic traditions that were anchored in the different myths and rituals of different locales.

§6. In the case of Aeolian locales, it can be observed in general that the myths and rituals preserved on the Aeolian island of Lesbos were relatively older than the cognate myths and rituals preserved on the Aeolic mainland of Asia Minor (Nagy 2010|2009:141–146 and 2011:163–164, 173–175). I have applied this general observation in the course of my analyzing Homeric references to the koúrē ‘girl’ named Chryseis / Khrūsēḯs, war prize of Agamemnon, and to a corresponding koúrē ‘girl’ named Briseis / Brīsēḯs, war prize of Achilles. As we read in the Homeric Iliad, Briseis / Brīsēḯs was forcibly taken away from this hero by Agamemnon after that king was compelled by the anger of Apollo to restore Chryseis / Khrūsēḯs to her father, who as we have seen was named Chryses / Khrū́sēs and who was priest of Apollo Smintheus at the god’s sacred place in Chryse / Khrū́sē. My detailed analysis of Homeric references to these two ‘girls’ Chryseis / Khrūsēḯs and Briseis / Brīsēḯs can be found in my Homeric commentaries (Nagy 2020, linked here), especially in “anchor comments” with reference to the following verses in the Iliad:

2.689–694: anchor comment on Aeolian women in the Iliad, part 1
9.128–131 / 270–272 anchor comment on Aeolian women in the Iliad, part 2
11.624–627: anchor comment on Aeolian women in the Iliad, part 3

As I infer from the details presented in these anchor comments, women like Chryseis / Khrūsēḯs and Briseis / Brīsēḯs qualify as koúrē ‘girl’ primarily in the sense that their names are linked with places that are sacred to divinities. Thus, just as Chryseis / Khrūsēḯs is linked with a place named Chryse / Khrū́sē, sacred to the god Apollo, so also Briseis / Brīsēḯs is linked with a place in Lesbos named Brisa / Brîsă, sacred to Dionysus. There are scattered references to this Brisa / Brîsă in the ancient Greek lexicographical traditions, but I show here only the clearest attestation of the name: it is found in the Ethnica compiled by Stephanus of Byzantium, under the entry Βρῖσα (as printed in the edition of Meineke 1849 page 186 line 20): Βρῖσα· ἄκρα Λέσβου, ἐν ᾗ ἵδρυται Διόνυσος Βρισαῖος ‘[The entry is] Brisa / Brîsă. It is a promontory of [the island of] Lesbos, and, at this place is where Dionysus [invoked by way of the epithet] Brisaîos has his established cult’.

§7. In the case of the place-name Brisa / Brîsă, its attestation is localized only on the Aeolian island of Lesbos, not on the Aeolian mainland of Asia Minor—unlike what we have seen in the case of the place-name Chryse / Khrū́sē, which as I already noted is bilocally attested in both the island and the mainland. Moreover, there is no trace of the actual place-name Brisa / Brîsă in the Homeric Iliad as we have it—by contrast with the place-name Chryse / Khrū́sē, which as we have seen is well-attested in Rhapsody 1 of “our” Iliad. The absence of Brisa / Brîsă from Homeric poetry can be correlated with the fact that the home of the ‘girl’ Briseis / Brīsēḯs in “our” Iliad is not Brisa / Brîsă in Aeolian Lesbos but, instead, a city named Lyrnessos on the Aeolian mainland of Asia Minor, in the environs of Troy. I epitomize here what I say about Briseis / Brīsēḯs in my anchor comment on Iliad 2.689–694: 

These verses focus on Briseis, war-prize of Achilles. An aristocratic woman, she was taken captive by Achilles when he conquered the city of Lyrnessos and killed her husband Mynes, who was defending that city, as we read at 2.690–691. On the localization of Lyrnessos, a city in Aeolian Asian Minor, in the environs of Troy, I cite Strabo 13.1.7 C586, also 13.1.61 C611–612. The story about the conquest of Lyrnessos by Achilles and about his capturing of Briseis stemmed from poetic traditions that were distinctly Aeolian in origin. And this Aeolian origin has to do with a most basic fact about the principal hero of the Iliad: Achilles himself was an Aeolian, and he originated from a poetic tradition that was Aeolian. Achilles was an Aeolian not only in the limited sense that he was born and raised in Aeolian Thessaly, to the west of the Aegean Sea: much more than that, the poetic traditions about this hero’s conquests of territories to the east of the Aegean, across the sea from Thessaly, shaped his identity as a prime hero not only for the Thessalians in the European mainland but also for all Aeolians, including the Aeolic-speaking populations that inhabited the coastal mainland of northern Asia Minor and the outlying islands of Lesbos and Tenedos. It was the myths about the conquests of Achilles in the East, including the regions of Troy and beyond, that shaped the ultimately Aeolian identity of the Aeolic-speaking populations that inhabited those eastern regions—which as I note in my anchor comment on Iliad 1.463 included the islands of Lesbos and Tenedos as well as the coastal mainland of most of northern Asia Minor. The conquests of Achilles in that whole area can be interpreted as a charter myth that aetiologized a prehistoric or even non-historical “colonization” by Aeolians from Thessaly. (See also Nagy 2011:171–173.) 

§8. The missing localization of Brisa / Brîsă in “our” Homeric Iliad—by contrast with the bilocalization of Chryse / Khrū́sē—can help explain why the koúrē or ‘girl’ Briseis / Brīsēḯs, as she is called in the Iliad (Βρισηΐδος…κούρης at 1.336, κούρης…Βρισηΐδος at 2.689, Βρισηΐδα κούρην at 9.106, κούρῃ Βρισηΐδι at 19.261), is also called the koúrē or ‘girl’ of a father named Brises / Brī́sēs (κούρην Βρισῆος at 1.392, κούρη Βρισῆος at 9.132 and 9.274). By contrast, the koúrē or ‘girl’ Chryseis / Khrūsēḯs, as she is called in the Iliad (κούρης Χρυσηΐδος at 1.111), is never called the koúrē or ‘girl’ of her father, whose name is Chryses / Khrū́sēs (nominative Χρύσης at verses 374, 450; vocative Χρύση at verse 442; accusative Χρύσην at verse 11).

§9. This formal gap in referring to Chryseis / Khrūsēḯs within the formulaic system of Homeric poetry is most remarkable. Such gapping happens here in spite of the morphological symmetry linking the names of the daughters Chryseis / Khrūsēḯs and Briseis / Brīsēḯs with the names of the fathers Chryses / Khrū́sēs and Brises / Brī́sēs. And the morphological symmetry extends even further: in the text of Strabo (13.1.47 C604–605, 13.1.61–63 C611-614) the place-name Chryse / Khrū́sē is attested as Chrysa / Khrûsă, which is parallel to the morphology of Brisa / Brîsă. And yet, despite all this symmetry, Homeric diction avoids using the word koúrē ‘girl’ in referring to Chryseis / Khrūsēḯs as the daughter of the priest Chryses / Khrū́sēs. For an explanation, I follow the interpretation of Casey Dué (2002 Introduction n10 and Chapter 3 n32, with further bibliography), who infers that the use of koúrē in Homeric diction with reference to the connectedness of a given ‘girl’ to a given sacred place is older than the use of this same word in referring to the daughter of the priest who was in charge of that place. In the case of Briseis / Brīsēḯs, where an ancient connectedness of this koúrē to a place named Brisa / Brîsă was no longer current in Homeric diction, the patronymic usage could be allowed as an innovation, but not so in the case of the koúrē Chryseis / Khrūsēḯs, whose connectedness with a place called Chrysa / Khrûsă—later Chryse / Khrū́sē—was still current.

§10. The name of this Aeolian place, Chryse / Khrū́sē—a place sacred to the god Apollo, protector of a koúrē named Chryseis / Khrūsēḯs—brings me back to the myth I analyzed in the previous two essays. That myth, as we saw, tells how the hero Philoctetes, himself an Aeolian from mainland Europe, suffered a toxic snakebite at a place named Chryse / Khrū́sē, sacred to a goddess named Chryse / Khrū́sē. As we saw in the previous essay, the scene of the trauma was a failed sacrifice initiated by Agamemnon, who was aiming for success in the “Second” Trojan War, and I showed an ancient painting that pictured this sacrifice. We could see there that the brows of all the sacrificers were bedecked with garlands of laurel, sacred to Apollo. And observing the sacrifice was the cult statue of the local goddess Chryse / Khrū́sē. I suspect that she loathed the king Agamemnon as much as her Iliadic surrogate, the koúrē named Chryseis / Khrūsēḯs, must have loathed him. Thus it was surely a toxic mistake when Philoctetes the Aeolian, knowing as he did the lay of the land that was Chryse / Khrū́sē, sacred earth of the Aeolians, served as guide for Agamemnon and showed the invading king where to sacrifice to the local goddess Chryse / Khrū́sē. Philoctetes the guide was now setting foot on a hallowed ground that was guarded by a snake that he himself had let out of a box on an earlier occasion, back when he served as guide for Herakles, who was aiming for success in the “First” Trojan War by offering sacrifice to this same Aeolian goddess Chryse / Khrū́sē.


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