The Cypria

  Davies, Malcolm. 2019. The Cypria. Hellenic Studies Series 83. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Appendix 1. The Childhood of Achilles in the Cypria

Thetis’ thwarted attempt to burn away the mortal part of Achilles’ body is often attributed to the Cypria, although nothing is said of it in Proclus’ summary and no surviving fragment attests it. Admittedly, the theory does repose on something rather more substantial than thin air. The narrative of Thetis’ attempt to immortalize her son in Apollonius of Rhodes IV 869–879 is extremely similar to the description of Demeter’s effort to achieve the same privilege for Demophon in Homeric Hymn to Demeter 231–255 (for a detailed account of the resemblances see Richardson’s commentary on the latter passage).

How do we explain this fact? Some scholars have assumed that both poems reflect a common model, an early epic version of the childhood of Achilles. And is not this epic version likely to be that of the Cypria? Such is the view expressed by Preller-Robert 2.67n4 and (with greater caution) by Knaack in RE s.v. “Demophon 5” (1905) 148.27; see too Jouan 1966:90 (with bibliography of scholars who support and oppose the idea in n5). Σ Α Iliad XVI 222 (4.217 Erbse), XVIII 57 and 60 (4.445–446 Erbse) attributes the story to oἱ νεώτεροι, adding the detail (absent from Apollonius) that the attempt occurred on the twelfth day after Achilles’ birth (cf. K. Friis Johansen, “Achill bei Chiron,” in ΔΡΑΓΜΑ [Nilsson Festschrift (Lund 1939)] 182n2). In Apollonius, Thetis’ failure to immortalize Achilles is directly followed by her abandonment of her husband, who burst in upon the attempt, and her permanent return to life beneath the waves. This unhappy ending is the invariable climax of those folktales which treat of the short-lived union between mortal and faery being (see page 43 above). Severyns (1928:254–255) suggests that the Iliadic scholia (page 42n51 above) which comment on this sad sequel’s absence from Homer are implying by contrast its presence in the Cypria. But in the first place there is an alternative explanation for the similarities noted above: Apollonius may be imitating the Homeric Hymn. This is the possibility favored by, for instance, Richardson, who observes “that in Apollonius’ version there are features which occur also in the Hymn, but at a different point in the story.” And secondly we have already seen good reason to doubt the Cypria’s utilization of the famous story of the wrestling bout between Peleus and Thetis (page 43 above). The divorce between the two is organically connected with this picture of original resistence forcefully overcome.

A somewhat likelier hypothesis concerns the rather esoteric diet enjoyed by Achilles as a very young child. Innards of lions, narrows of boars, bears, and she-wolf: this is the mouth-watering menu variously reported by Apollodorus Bibliotheca III 13.6, Σ Iliad XVI 137, and Statius Thebaid II 99–102. These literary sources are undeniably late and Radermacher, Mythos und Sage bei den Griechen (Vienna 1943) 119 confidently opined that this tradition could not be early. Robert, on the contrary, expressed the view that the details of the young Achilles’ flesh-diet were once to be found in the Cypria (Heldensage 1.80n3). Two factors favor the latter view: first, there is the primitive-looking nature of the homoeopathic principles underlying the food of Achilles: on this see J. G. Frazer, Loeb Apollodorus 2.70–71n2 and Spirits of the Corn and of the Wild II (London 1912) 138–168; D. S. Robertson, “The Food of Achilles,” Classical Review 54 (1940): 177–178; and my remarks on the Thebais’ treatment of the death of Tydeus (Davies, TE 82n83). Secondly and more specifically, the antiquity of the story under discussion is indubitably proved by the proto-Attic neck-amphora Berlin 31573 A9 (LIMC s.v. “Achilleus” 1 C 21), which dates from about the middle of the seventh century and shows Peleus bringing the child Achilles to Chiron. [1] The good centaur has a branch slung over his shoulder and from this branch hang three distinctly live cubs—a young lion, a young bear, and a young wolf. (For the details of this identification see the remarks of Beazley in “Two Swords: Two Shields,” Bulletin van de Vereeniging tot Bevordering der Kennis van de Antieke Beschaving [1939]: 4–6; cf. his The Development of Attic Black-Figure [2] [Berkeley 1986] 9–10 and plate 9.3–4.) The legend’s appearance in early epic is further suggested, paradoxically enough, by Pindar’s implicit denial of it in Nemean Ode III 43–52. Here Achilles is described as having, from the age of six onward, killed lions and boars and dragged their cadavers to Chiron. The stress upon the death of these animals is totally appropriate: as Robertson observed (1940:178): “it is obvious that this is the sort of story that Pindar, if he knew it, would be likely to reject.” Furthermore, there is a special point in lines 48–49, σώματα δὲ παρὰ Κρονίδαν | κένταυρον ἀσθμαίνοντα κόμιζεν. “Pindar here purposely keeps a detail from his epic source, while carefully excluding its original significance. In the epic the beasts were still breathing because Achilles wished to suck their living marrow in the cave” (Robertson 1940:180). Recall especially the words of Achilles in Statius’ epic named after him: (dicitur) spissa leonum | viscera semianimisque lupae traxisse medullas (II 102–103) and compare Tydeus’ treatment of Melanippus (see Davies, TE 79–85). Thus, to quote Robertson for the final time, “If … it can be shown that Pindar knew and suppressed the tradition, its origin in the Cyclic epic becomes extremely probable” (178). It is certainly true that Homer suppressed not merely this detail concerning Achilles’ diet (see Griffin 1977:40 = 368), but the whole picture of Chiron as Achilles’ tutor, replacing him with the normal figure of Phoenix (Griffin 40–41 = 368; cf. Wilamowitz, “Die griechischen Heldensage,” Sitzbungsberichte der Preussische Akademie des Wissenschaft [1925]: 240 = Kleine Schriften 52.122; B. K. Braswell, “Mythological Innovation in the Iliad,” Classical Quarterly 21 [1971]: 22–23; C. J. Mackie, “Achilles’ Teachers: Chiron and Phoenix in the Iliad,” Greece and Rome 44 [1997]: 1–10). For other heroes brought up by Chiron see West’s note on Hesiod Theogony 1001. [3]

On the tradition that Thetis hid Achilles on the island of Scyros to prevent his participation in the Trojan War, see my article “The Hero and His Arms,” Greece and Rome 54 (2007): 145–155. Cf. M. Fantuzzi, Achilles in Love: Intertextual Studies (Oxford 2012) 21–98.


[ back ] 1. On other vase paintings of Chiron and the young Achilles see Friis Johansen, “Achill bei Chiron,” 181–203 [hostile (201–202) to the notion that they reflect an episode in the Cypria]; F. A. G. Beck, Album of Greek Education [Sydney 1975] 9–11).

[ back ] 2. A bronze wagon now in New York shows Achilles capturing a panther alive while Chiron, again with a branch slung over his shoulder, is this time bearing a dead hare: see LIMC s.v.”Cheiron” d2.82. Between teacher and pupil appears a winged Iris. From her presence Hampe-Simon, Griechische Sagen in der frühen etruskische Kunst (Mainz 1964) 63–7, esp. 65, ingeniously infer a scene in the Cypria whereby the messenger of the gods conveyed to Chiron Zeus’ will that Achilles be sent to the Trojan War. A comment on Achilles’ fleetness of foot is as likely an interpretation.

[ back ] 3. In connection with the childhood of Achilles, I note that several scholars (see e.g. Sammons 2017:35–40) have expressed concern about the chronology that results from the hero’s participation in a war apparently following so soon after his parents’ wedding. I have no solution to offer apart from observing that the Cypria utilized numerous folktale motifs and that the hero who grows up with miraculous speed when separated from his family is one of them; see e.g. West, Indo-European Poetry and Myth (Oxford 2007) 428.