The Center for Hellenic Studies

Hyrnetho and the Dark Age of Greek Myth

Matthew Clark
for Gregory Nagy
Hyrnetho is the heroine of rival local traditions of Argos and Epidauros. Pausanias has recorded a fairly full account of the story of Hynetho, and she is mentioned briefly by several other ancient authors, but she is certainly not one of the major figures of Greek tradition. Her story, however, is interesting in itself, and it leads to a number of questions with implications for the study of Greek myth. This paper will first summarize her story and then consider the possible source of the story and its interpretation. Hyrnetho belongs to a period three generations after the Trojan War, a period not well known either to history or to myth—in a sense the events of the story belong to what might be called the Dark Age of Greek Myth. Stories dealing with this period are not likely to be reliable historical accounts, and so they have been passed over by historians, but they have also been largely passed over by scholars of myth, as perhaps not fully mythic, but these stories have a place in the traditions—mythic or legendary—of ancient Greece and therefore deserve more attention than they have received.
The story of Hyrnetho, like many other Greek myths, exists within a complex network of stories, reaching back several generations. For the purposes of this paper it is enough to begin with Orestes, the son of Agamemnon. According to Pausanias, Orestes was accepted as king by the Lacedaemonians in preference to the illegitimate sons of Menelaus. Orestes then seized Argos and the Greater part of Arcadia, and after his death he was succeeded by Tisamenos, his son by Hermione, the daughter of Menelaus (Description of Greece: 2.18.6; 2.18.5). [1] By modern standards, these characters belong to Greek myth; Pausanias of course does not make the same distinctions we do, and no doubt for him this story would have counted as history. If we now take the Trojan War to reflect, however indirectly, an historical event that can be dated, however approximately, then the events of the generations after the Trojan War would belong to what is now usually called the Dark Age of Greece. Pausanias, however, did not know about a Dark Age of Greece, and he records continuous traditions from the time of early myth down to clearly historical periods, for example, in the Spartan King lists.
During the reign of Tisamenos, again according to Pausanias, the descendants of Herakles returned to the Peloponnese: Temenos and Kresphontes, the sons of Aristomachos, and the sons of their brother, Aristodemos, who had died. Pausanias notes that Tisamenos was descended from Pelops, but the Heraclids were descendants of Persus, and thus, in his opinion, had the superior claim to the throne of Argos (2.18.7) There are various accounts of the returns of the Heraclids—given, for example, by Diodorus Siculus (Bibliotheca Historica 4.57–58), by Apollodorus (Library of Greek Mythology 2.8.1–5), by Thucydides (The Peloponnesian War 1.9 and 1.13), as well as by Pausanias; the details of these versions vary but the end result is the same— the Heraclids drove Tisamenos out of Argos. They divided the Peloponnese, and Temenos received Argos (see, for example, Apollodoros 2.8.4).
Temenos, according to Pausanias, had several sons—Ceisus, Cerynes, Phalces, and Agraeus—and also a daughter, Hyrnetho. Hyrnetho was married to Deiphontes, who was the great-great grandson of Herackles. Temenos preferred Deiphontes to his own sons. The sons of Temenos formed a conspiracy and the eldest son, Ceisus, seized the kingdom of Argos (2.19.1). Deiphontes, as Pausanias explains later, has become the ruler of Epidauros; the previous ruler, Pityreus, who was a descendant of the Athenian king Ion, voluntarily handed it over to him and went to Athens (2.26.1–2).
In Argos, Pausanias finds what he has been told is the grave of Hyrnetho, but he does not believe that she is buried there. He says, “Returning from Hollow Street, you see what they say is the grave of Hyrnetho. If they allow that it is merely a cenotaph erected to the memory of the lady, their account is likely enough but if they believe that the corpse lies here I cannot credit it, and leave anyone to do so who has not learnt the history of Epidauros” (2.23.3).
A few chapters later, when Pausanias reaches Epidauros, he finds what he believes is the true burial of Hyrnetho, and at that point he tells the full story of Hyrnetho, as follows (2.28.3–7):
κατιοῦσι δὲ ἐς τῶν Ἐπιδαυρίων τὴν πόλιν χωρίον ἐστὶ πεφυκυίας ἀγριελαίους ἔχον: Ὑρνήθιον δὲ καλοῦσι τὸ χωρίον. τὰ δὲ ἐς αὐτό, ὡς Ἐπιδαύριοί τε λέγουσι καὶ εἰκὸς ἔχει, γράψω. Κεῖσος καὶ οἱ λοιποὶ Τημένου παῖδες μάλιστα ᾔδεσαν Δηιφόντην λυπήσοντες, εἰ διαλῦσαί πως ἀπ᾽ αὐτοῦ τὴν Ὑρνηθὼ δυνηθεῖεν. ἀφίκοντο οὖν ἐς Ἐπίδαυρον Κερύνης καὶ Φάλκης: Ἀγραίῳ γὰρ τῷ νεωτάτῳ τὰ ποιούμενα οὐκ ἤρεσκεν. οὗτοι δὲ στήσαντες τὸ ἅρμα ὑπὸ τὸ τεῖχος κήρυκα ἀποστέλλουσι παρὰ τὴν ἀδελφήν, ἐλθεῖν δῆθεν ἐς λόγους αὐτῇ βουλόμενοι.
ὡς δὲ ὑπήκουσε καλοῦσιν, ἐνταῦθα οἱ νεανίσκοι πολλὰ μὲν Δηιφόντου κατηγόρουν, πολλὰ δὲ αὐτὴν ἱκέτευον ἐκείνην ἐπανήκειν ἐς Ἄργος, ἄλλα τε ἐπαγγελλόμενοι καὶ ἀνδρὶ δώσειν αὐτὴν Δηιφόντου τὰ πάντα ἀμείνονι καὶ ἀνθρώπων πλειόνων καὶ γῆς ἄρχοντι εὐδαιμονεστέρας. Ὑρνηθὼ δὲ τοῖς λεχθεῖσιν ἀλγήσασα ἀπεδίδου σφίσι τὴν ἴσην, Δηιφόντην μὲν αὑτῇ τε ἄνδρα ἀρεστὸν εἶναι φήσασα καὶ Τημένῳ γενέσθαι γαμβρὸν οὐ μεμπτόν, ἐκείνοις δὲ Τημένου προσήκειν σφαγεῦσιν ὀνομάζεσθαι μᾶλλον ἢ παισίν.
καὶ τὴν μὲν οὐδὲν ἔτι ἀποκρινάμενοι συλλαμβάνουσιν, ἀναθέντες δὲ ἐς τὸ ἅρμα ἀπήλαυνον: Δηιφόντῃ δὲ ἀγγέλλει τις τῶν Ἐπιδαυρίων ὡς Κερύνης καὶ Φάλκης ἄγοντες οἴχοιντο ἄκουσαν Ὑρνηθώ. ὁ δὲ αὐτός τε ὡς τάχους εἶχεν ἤμυνε καὶ οἱ Ἐπιδαύριοι πυνθανόμενοι προσεβοήθουν. Δηιφόντης δὲ Κερύνην μὲν ὡς κατελάμβανεν ἀναιρεῖ βαλών, Φάλκην δὲ ἐχόμενον Ὑρνηθοῦς βαλεῖν μὲν ἔδεισε, μὴ ἁμαρτὼν γένοιτο αὐτῆς ἐκείνης φονεύς, συμπλακεὶς δὲ ἐπειρᾶτο ἀφαιρεῖσθαι. Φάλκης δὲ ἀντεχόμενος καὶ ἕλκων βιαιότερον ἀπέκτεινεν ἔχουσαν ἐν γαστρί.
καὶ ὁ μὲν συνείς, οἷα ἐς τὴν ἀδελφὴν ἐξειργασμένος ἔργα ἦν, ἤλαυνε τὸ ἅρμα ἀφειδέστερον, προλαβεῖν τῆς ὁδοῦ σπεύδων πρὶν ἢ πάντας ἐπ᾽ αὐτὸν συλλεχθῆναι τοὺς Ἐπιδαυρίους: Δηιφόντης δὲ σὺν τοῖς παισίν—ἐγεγόνεσαν γὰρ καὶ παῖδες αὐτῷ πρότερον ἔτι υἱοὶ μὲν Ἀντιμένης καὶ Ξάνθιππός τε καὶ Ἀργεῖος, θυγάτηρ δὲ Ὀρσοβία: ταύτην Πάμφυλον τὸν Αἰγιμίου λέγουσιν ὕστερον γῆμαι:—τότε δὲ ἀναλαβόντες τὸν νεκρὸν τῆς Ὑρνηθοῦς κομίζουσιν ἐς τοῦτο τὸ χωρίον τὸ ἀνὰ χρόνον Ὑρνήθιον κληθέν.
καί οἱ ποιήσαντες ἡρῷον τιμὰς καὶ ἄλλας δεδώκασι καὶ ἐπὶ τοῖς πεφυκόσιν ἐλαίοις, καὶ εἰ δή τι ἄλλο δένδρον ἔσω, καθέστηκε νόμος τὰ θραυόμενα μηδένα ἐς οἶκον φέρεσθαι μηδὲ χρᾶσθαί σφισιν ἐς μηδέν, κατὰ χώραν δ᾽ αὐτοῦ λείπουσιν ἱερὰ εἶναι τῆς Ὑρνηθοῦς.
On going down to the city of the Epidaurians, you come to a place where wild olives grow; they call it Hyrnethium. I will relate the story of it, which is probable enough, as given by the Epidaurians. Ceisus and the other sons of Temenus knew that they would grieve Deiphontes most if they could find a way to part him and Hyrnetho. So Cerynes and Phalces (for Agraeus, the youngest, disapproved of their plan) came to Epidaurus. Staying their chariot under the wall, they sent a herald to their sister, pretending that they wished to parley with her.
When she obeyed their summons, the young men began to make many accusations against Deiphontes, and besought her much that she would return to Argos, promising, among other things, to give her to a husband in every respect better than Deiphontes, one who ruled over more subjects and a more prosperous country. But Hyrnetho, pained at their words, gave as good as she had received, retorting that Deiphontes was a dear husband to her, and had shown himself a blameless son-in-law to Temenus; as for them, they ought to be called the murderers of Temenus rather than his sons.
Without further reply the youths seized her, placed her in the chariot, and drove away. An Epidaurian told Deiphontes that Cerynes and Phalces had gone, taking with them Hyrnetho against her will; he himself rushed to the rescue with all speed, and as the Epidaurians learned the news they reinforced him. On overtaking the runaways, Deiphontes shot Cerynes and killed him, but he was afraid to shoot at Phalces, who was holding Hyrnetho, lest he should miss him and become the slayer of his wife; so he closed with them and tried to get her away. But Phalces, holding on and dragging her with greater violence, killed her, as she was with child.
Realizing what he had done to his sister, he began to drive the chariot more recklessly, as he was anxious to gain a start before all the Epidaurians could gather against him. Deiphontes and his children—for before this children had been born to him, Antimenes, Xanthippus, and Argeus, and a daughter, Orsobia, who, they say, afterwards married Pamphylus, son of Aegimius—took up the dead body of Hyrnetho and carried it to this place, which in course of time was named Hyrnethium.
They built for her a hero-shrine, and bestowed upon her various honors; in particular, the custom was established that nobody should carry home, or use for any purpose, the pieces that break off the olive trees, or any other trees, that grow there; these are left there on the spot to be sacred to Hyrnetho.
[Translated by W. H. S. Jones]
Pausanias refers to many myths, but he does not usually tell a story at such length. More typically, he mentions some detail, usually of local interest, of a myth which he assumes is known to his reader and which therefore does not need to be told. For example, he reports that in Megara, near the Prytaneion, there is a rock, called the Calling Rock, where Demeter is said to have stopped and called to Persephone; the women of Megara continued to reenact the story down to Pausanias’ own time. He does not bother to tell the whole story of the abduction of Persephone and Demeter’s search, because he can trust that the reader will know it, but readers outside of Megara are not likely to know about this rock (1.43.1). In a similar way, Pausanias notes a chasm in the city of Athens where the water from Deukalion’s flood flowed away, but he does not tell any story about the flood. (1.18.7; cf. 1.40.1; 5. 13; 5.78.1; 10.6.2).
A few stories, however, Pausanias does tell at greater length, such as the story of Zeus’ feigned marriage with Plataia; this story explains a local ritual, and probably neither the ritual nor the story was widely known (9.3.1–4). Likewise, Pausanias narrates at some length the story explaining the beginning and end of human sacrifice at Patrai (7.19.1–3). In general, Pausanias is not likely to tell a story if it was well known. He mentions Hippolytus, for example, but then remarks that everyone knows the story, even barbarians who have learned Greek (1.22.1). But then he goes on to mention a local detail—“a myrtle with every one of its leaves pierced; they (the Toezenians) say that it did not grow originally in this fashion, the holes being due to Phaedra’s disgust with love and to the pin which she wore in her hair” (1.22.2). The length of Pausanias’ narration of the story of Hyrnetho, then, suggests (though it does not prove) that in his time the story was local rather than Panhellenic.
Pausanias, however, is not the only ancient source to mention Hyrnetho. Apollodorus mentions her in passing in his account of the return of the Heraclids (II.8.5):
Τήμενος μὲν οὖν παραπεμπόμενος τοὺς παῖδας Ἀγέλαον καὶ Εὐρύπυλον καὶ Καλλίαν, τῇ θυγατρὶ προσανεῖχεν Ὑρνηθοῖ καὶ τῷ ταύτης ἀνδρὶ Δηιφόντῃ. ὅθεν οἱ παῖδες πείθουσί τινας ἐπὶ μισθῷ τὸν πατέρα αὐτῶν φονεῦσαι. γενομένου δὲ τοῦ φόνου τὴν βασιλείαν ὁ στρατὸς ἔχειν ἐδικαίωσεν Ὑρνηθὼ καὶ Δηιφόντην. Κρεσφόντης δὲ οὐ πολὺν Μεσσήνης βασιλεύσας χρόνον μετὰ δύο παίδων φονευθεὶς ἀπέθανε. Πολυφόντης δὲ ἐβασίλευσεν, αὐτῶν τῶν Ἡρακλειδῶν ὑπάρχων, καὶ τὴν τοῦ φονευθέντος γυναῖκα Μερόπην ἄκουσαν ἔλαβεν. ἀνῃρέθη δὲ καὶ οὗτος. τρίτον γὰρ ἔχουσα παῖδα Μερόπη καλούμενον Αἴπυτον ἔδωκε τῷ ἑαυτῆς πατρὶ τρέφειν. οὗτος ἀνδρωθεὶς καὶ κρύφα κατελθὼν ἔκτεινε Πολυφόντην καὶ τὴν πατρῴαν βασιλείαν ἀπέλαβεν.
Now Temenus, passing over his sons Agelaus, Eurypylus, and Callias, favoured his daughter Hyrnetho and her husband Deiphontes; hence his sons hired some fellows to murder their father. On the perpetration of the murder the army decided that the kingdom belonged to Hyrnetho and Deiphontes. Cresphontes had not long reigned over Messene when he was murdered with two of his sons; and Polyphontes, one of the true Heraclids, came to the throne and took to wife, against her will, Merope, the wife of the murdered man. But he too was slain. For Merope had a third son, called Aepytus, whom she gave to her own father to bring up. When he was come to manhood he secretly returned, killed Polyphontes, and recovered the kingdom of his fathers. (Translation by J. G. Frazer)
Apollodorus agrees with Pausanias in broad outlines. He agrees that Temenus had a daughter named Hyrnetho; that Hyrnetho was married to Deiphontes; that Temenus favored Deiphontes; that the sons of Temenos resented Temenus’ favoring of Deiphontes; and that the sons of Temenos plotted against him. Apollodorus explicitly says that the sons killed Temenus, whereas Pausanias only says that they plotted against him, though perhaps this comes down to the same thing.
But Apollodorus differs from Pausanias in some points. In Pausanias, the sons of Temenos are named Keisos, Cerynes, Phalces, and Agareus, whereas in Apollodorus they are named Agelaus, Eurypylus, and Callias; according to Apollodorus, the army simply hands Argos over to Hyrnetho and Deiphontes, and there is no mention of Epidauros; and the story of the death of Hyrnetho is completely missing. Apollodoros knew something about Hyrnethro, but he gives no sign or suggestion that he knew the story of her connection to Epidauros and her death. It seems clear that his source is different from whatever source Pausanias used.
Discussion of the possible sources used by Pausanias and Apollodoros must wait until one more piece of ancient evidence is considered. Hyrnetho is also mentioned in an epigram by Dioscorides:
Γάλλον Ἀρισταγόρης ὠρχήσατο, τοὺς δ᾽ φιλόπλους
Τημενίδας ὁ καμὼν πολλὰ διῆλθον ἐγω.
χὠ μὲν τιμηθεὶς ἀπεπέμετο, τὴν δὲ τάλαιναν
Ὑρνηθὼ κροτάλων εἷς ψόφος ἐξέβαλεν.
εἰς πῦρ ἡρώων ἲτε πρήξιες, ἐν γὰρ ἀμούσοις
καὶ κόρυδος κύκνου φθέγξετ᾽ ἀοιδότερον.
Dioscorides AP 11, 195 = Hellen. Epig. 1691–6 Gow Page
Aristagoras danced (the part of) Gallus, while I, with great labor, went through (performed?) the war-loving Temenides. He was sent off with honor, but a continuous noise of rattles threw poor Hyrnetho out. Into the fire, deeds of heroes, for among the ignorant even a crested lark sings more melodiously than a swan.
Evidently the speaker of this epigram—perhaps Dioscorides, but perhaps not—has performed the part of Hyrnetho in a dramatic work about the children of Temenos and was booed off the stage. The epigram seems to suggest that Hyrnetho was not an obscure figure in the second century BC, since Dioscorides feels no need to explain his reference, and that her story was included among heroic deeds.
These three references to Hyrnetho seem to be the only surviving evidence for her and her story, but there is every likelihood that she was at least known fairly widely, although she was not one of the central figures of the Panhellenic narrative tradition.
Dioscorides’ epigram seems to be good evidence that Hyrnetho was a character in drama, and it is possible that drama could have been a source for either Pausanias or for Apollodoros. No extant drama includes Hyrnetho, but there are two relevant titles among the list of lost or fragmentary plays by Euripides: the Temenos and the Temenidae, which must somehow concern Temenos and his family. Both of these have been proposed as the source of Pausanias’ story, though more often the second of these, the Temenidae. (In addition a play titled the Kresphontes may be relevant to this topic; see further below.) A few fragments of these plays survive; by my count, thirty-six lines of the Temenidae, many of them derived from Stobaeus, who made an anthology of passages perhaps in the fifth century AD. None of the fragments of the Temenos or the Temenidae mentions Hyrnetho; they seem mostly to be rather general statements of perhaps moral interest, which may explain why Stobaeus excerpted them. In any case, these fragments give no helpful indication of exactly what the plays were about.
From time to time, however, it has been proposed that the story of Hyrnetho in Pausanias is based on a play by Euripides, usually the Temenidae, and thus in a circular argument the story in Pausanias is used to reconstruct the play. According to Gilbert Murray, for example, “The basis of the plot [of the Temenidae] is probably the story of Hyrnetho, daughter of Temenus, and her brothers, as told by Pausanias” (Murray 1904:348–49).
More recent scholars have, I think, been a little more cautious, at least those who have discussed the problem, which is not a large number. Kannicht (in the now standard edition of the fragments, edited by Bruno Snell et al.) mentions the passages in Pausanias but he does not mention Hyrnetho by name and he does not speculate on the plot beyond the fragments. Jennifer Larson, in her book Greek Heroine Cults, briefly discusses the story of Hyrnetho in the section titled “Wrongful Death and Politics,” but she refers only to Pausanias and makes no reference to Euripides. Richard Seaford discusses the story of Hyrnetho in his article “The Structural Problems of Marriage in Euripides” in Anton Powell’s book Euripides, Women, and Sexuality, but he carefully refrains from taking a definite position on the question.
Given the state of the evidence, it would be rash to conclude that the story of Hyrnetho was told by Euripides. Even so, it is worth considering the possibility for a moment. Is it possible, given what we know about the plays of Euripides, that he did write the story of Hyrnetho? Is this the kind of play we think of when we think of Euripides? Why would he be interested—or why would he think that an audience might be interested—in this story?
None of the surviving plays of Euripides deals with any topic later than the children of the Trojan War heroes. He treats Orestes and Elektra and Neoptolemus, who all are children of heroes of the Trojan War, but there is no figure later than that in the surviving plays. One might say that these belong to a Dark Age of narrative, in between the heroic age, which is narrated in epic and drama, and the age of historical narrative. In the complete list of plays by Euripides, however, there are three plays which must deal with events from this Dark Age—the Temenos, the Temenidae, and also the Kresphontes. (It has been suggested that the Kresphontes was part of a trilogy along with the Temenos and the Temenidae, though other combinations have also been proposed.) Even if the plot of the Temenidae is not the story of Hyrnetho, it still seems that these three plays deal with figures from the Dark Age of narrative. So far as I know, however, these are the only three plays—by Euripides or by any other dramatist—that fall in this Dark Age.
Pausanias, however, does not believe in a Dark Age of narrative. He is quite happy to extend his genealogies down from mythic time into historic time with no break, and he tells some stories here and there that must come from that in-between period, neither fully mythical nor fully historical.
Although the plots of the Temenos and the Temenidae probably cannot be reconstructed (unless, of course, we assume that one or the other tells the story of Hyrnetho), the plot of the Kresphontes has been reconstructed with some plausibility by Annette Harder. Without going into detail, the story concerns a certain Krespontes, the son of the Kresphontes who returned to the Peloponnese at the time of the return of the Heraclids. (The younger Kresphontes, then, is a cousin of Hyrnetho.) The older Kresphontes had been murdered by his brother, and the play details the revenge taken by his son, the younger Kresphontes (cf. the story of the return of the Heraclids from Apollodoros quoted above). If this reconstruction is correct, the play has a certain resemblance to the story of Orestes. There is no surviving version of this story of Kresphontes before Euripides; some scholars believe that the story is mostly his invention, though others believe that it is based on local myth. Given current evidence, there is probably no way to decide. It is certainly possible that the Kresphontes was part of a trilogy along with the Temenos and the Temenidae, since all three plays concern members of the same extended family.
Why would Euripides tell this story? According to Martin Cropp, “The play was produced in the 420s when Athens was vigorously promoting resistance to Spartan domination of Messenia, and the plot was probably invented as a contribution to a new Messenian mythology” (A Companion to Greek Tragedy, edited by Justina Gregory, Blackwell, 2008, p. 282). It is difficult to see, however, how the story of Hyrnetho would contribute to this ideological goal. It is notable, however, that in the story told by Pausanias, Deiphontes, Hyrnetho’s husband, received Epidauros as a free gift from its former ruler, Pityreus, who was a descendant of the Athenian king Ion (2.26.1–2). Could the Athenians have been interested in the story as a sort of implicit claim to Epidauros?
All this assumes, however, that the story of Hynetho in Pausanias derives from Euripides, or at least from some Athenian source. There is, unfortunately, no evidence that it does. Euripides certainly was a source for later mythography. Apollodorus certainly uses Euripides as a source; sometimes he names Euripides, though sometimes he uses Euripides as a source without naming him, and sometimes it is possible to tell with reasonable certainly which source he is using. Pausanias, however, seems never to name Euripides as a source, though he does mention a monument to Euripides in Athens (I.2.2) and also a portrait (I.21.1). An instructive example is his treatment of the children of Medea, who, he says, were killed by the people of Corinth (2.3.6); in Euripides’ play Medea, of course, the children were killed by Medea herself. Pausanias does not mention this version even to correct it; it is simply absent from his account. Apollodorus, by comparison, includes both versions (1.9.28).
Pausanias often does not name his sources, but I have not found any passage where his unnamed source must be Euripides. He mentions Sophocles as a source just once (I.28.7), only to reject his version of the story of Oedipus in favor of Homer’s account, and he mentions Aeschylus as a source four times (I.28.4; II.24.5; II.20.4; VIII.6.6). On the other hand, he mentions Homer as a source nearly a hundred times, Hesiod about twenty times, and some other epic poets as well, including some who do not survive outside of his references. Evidently Pausanias is not unwilling to name sources. Epic poets, however, seem to count more for him than dramatists.
There is another group of sources he clearly uses and sometimes names. Pausanias was not merely a library scholar. He spent a great deal of time traveling and inspecting monuments of various sorts, and as he traveled, he talked to people in the places he visited. Now and again he refers to one of these informants by name, but more often he merely says that he learned something from someone, without giving a name, or he says “the people of such and such a place say” without giving a name. Thus, at the beginning of his story of Hyrnetho (2.28.3.) he says “On going down to the city of the Epidaurians, you come to a place where wild olives grow; they call it Hyrnethium. I will relate the story of it, which is probable enough, as given by the Epidaurians.” This seems clear. He did not get this story from Euripides or any other Athenian, he got it from the Epidaurians. It is barely possible that the Epidaurians learned the story from Euripides, but it would be odd for the Epidaurians to have learned a story about Epidauros from an Athenian playwright. Perhaps unfortunately, it seems that we cannot reconstruct a lost play by Euripides from this passage in Pausanias. On the other hand, the story remains a valuable example of a local tradition told at some length.
The form in which the story was presented to Pausanias, however, is not clear. There are, I suppose, three possibilities. The story could have been the plot of a local play, a play written by an Epidaurian playwight and performed in Epidauros. Certainly there were plays written by non-Athenians and performed outside of Athens, but the evidence for these is scanty to say the least. There are certain aspects of Pausanias’ presentation which could suggest that the original was a play—the dramatic and violent events at the end could have been told in a messenger speech, for instance. Other aspects of the story, however, might be less appropriate for dramatic presentation. And if the story had been presented in a play, one might have expected Pausanias to name the playwright. The story could also have been the subject of a local epic; the detail and coherence of the story are perhaps consistent with an epic original, but again one might have expected to learn the name of the poet. And of course the story could have been simply told to Pausanias informally when he was inspecting the grove of Hyrnetho, though the complexity of the plot and the detail I think suggest that the story was more than an informal tradition.
Why would the Epidaurians have told this story? Hyrnetho is clearly a local heroine, of a sort found in many places in Greece. Many local heroes and heroines are known only by name, and some not even by name. It is just a matter of luck that we have this rather full account of Hyrnetho. The story as Pausanias tells it situates Epidauros as a rival to Argos—as a politial rival within the story itself, and then as rival claimant to the cult of Hyrnetho. The story also situates Epidauros in relation to Athens, since Epidauros was the free gift of Pityreus, a descendant of the Athenian Ion. Perhaps the story indicates that Epidauros and Athens were friendly states; perhaps, however, the story is designed to show that the Athenians had freely given up any claims to Epidauros. And of course the situation among these three cities could have changed over time. Probably whatever complex resonance the story had at various times cannot now be recovered, but there is a good probability that the story was not just a freely floating tale, but an ideological statement of some kind.
The story of Hyrnetho has been somewhat neglected, along with other stories from what I am calling the Dark Age of Myth, probably because they seem to fall between the two stools of myth and history. Even if these stories are not myths, strictly speaking (however a myth strictly speaking is defined), they do belong to a larger category of traditional stories, and there is no sharp break between these stories and the stories we now call myths. Certainly in ancient Greek though the stories we call myths were not firmly distinct from stories that we would want to call legends or even history. And although the events of the story of Hyrnetho take place in a time after the time of most of the myths, there is no reason to believe that the story was necessarily created later than some stories—such as the story of Antigone—which always are considered to be myths. Thus a complete account of the Greek traditions should include whatever stories we can recover from this “Dark Age” of myth. And of course, these stories can provide valuable evidence for local rituals outside of Athens.
On the other hand, there is perhaps also no sharp break between these stories of the Dark Age of Myth and the stories of the early “historical” period. At a certain point, to be sure, the traditions do cross over into the realm of history, but in the early period at least, history is mixed with legend. Thus a figure such as Battus, the founder of Cyrene, is accepted as historical, but some of the events linked to his name—such as his encounters with lions as told in Pindar’s Fifth Pythian Ode—are likely to be legendary rather than historical. There is no reason to believe that Hyrnetho herself is any more a figure of history than, say, Antigone or Elektra, nor that the events of her story are any more historical than the events in, say, the Theban cycle. Pausanias, however, evidently did believe that Hyrnetho was a real person and that the story about her was true, and no doubt he was not alone in this belief. The story of Hyrnetho clearly had a place in discourse about inter-state relationships, just as the Athenian tragedies did. If we want to know what the Greeks felt about their past, then these stories fill in an important gap.


Apollodorus. 1921. The Library. Translated by Sir James George Frazer. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.
Harder, Annette, ed. 1985. Euripides’ Kresphontes and Archelaus. Leiden.
Larson, Jennifer. 1995. Greek Heroine Cults. Madison: University of Wisconsin.
Murray, Gilbert. 1904. The Athenian Drama: A Series of Verse Translations from the Greek Dramatic Poets, with Commentaries and Explanatory Essays, for English Readers. Vol. III: Euripides. Second Edition. London: George Allen.
Pausanias. 1918. Description of Greece, Books I–II. Translated by W. H. S. Jones. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.
Seaford, Richard. 1990. “The Structural Problems of Marriage in Euripides”. In Anton Powell, ed., Euripides, Women, and Sexuality. London: Routledge.
Snell, Bruno, Richard Kannicht, and Stefan Radt, eds. 1986-.Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.


[ back ] 1. All references to Pausanias’ Description of Greece are to the text and translation by W. H. S. Jones and H. A. Ormerod, with Index prepared by R. E. Wycherley, published in the Loeb series.