Iliad 6.201: Did Bellerophon Wander Blindly?

Edward Lowry
In a famous and favorite episode in Iliad 6.119–236, Diomedes and Glaucus meet as enemies, interact as storytellers, and depart as guest-friends bonded by an amazing exchange of armor. Yet for all the episode’s appeal and intrigue, scholars writing from the beginning of the twentieth century to its end generally see no particular unity therein; “inorganic” is a frequent descriptor. This study will attempt to delineate some previously overlooked unifying features of the episode that enhance the artistry of both the episode and its context within the epic.
Cobbled units and discrete items were featured in Leaf’s analysis of the episode in his 1900 edition. [1] In particular Leaf dates Diomedes’ story about Dionysus (130ff.) from “the very latest part of the Epic period,” adding further that “Dionysos is an absolute stranger to the Homeric pantheon.” When Lycurgus is punished by blindness, he is described as tuphlos (139), “a word of later Greek,” according to Leaf, inasmuch as alaos is “the Homeric word” for all other instances of blindness. Thus an item of diction also establishes lateness. Finally Leaf considers the disconnection of Diomedes’ reluctance to engage in combat with a god in 6.141 to his previous conduct in Book 5 “a contradiction perhaps the most patent in the Iliad, and one can which in no way be palliated.” [2]
Kirk issues the salvo of “inorganic” in the very first line of his comments on this episode, [3] but eschews efforts to date its elements. Kirk sees no certainty that tuphlos is post-Homeric [4] ; and the presence of Dionysus is referred to Burkert [5] who undercuts earlier notions of Dionysus’ historical entry into Greece by approving Otto’s interpretation of Dionysus always as “the epiphany god, der kommende Gott” and by adducing information from material culture, perhaps slim but nevertheless meaningful. Nodding to source study, Kirk takes note of Murray’s supposition [6] , based on the D-scholium on 131, that a Europia or Korinthiaka attributed to Eumelos of Corinth is behind both the Lycurgus episode and the Pegasus-Bellerophon story. [7]
For all their merit in promoting a better understanding of the Glaucus-Diomedes episode, two important shorter studies published two decades apart in the past century also refer to problems of fit and unity. Gaisser’s 1969 study of the Glaucus-Diomedes episode focuses on the structure of digressions “that are not organically related to the main point of the poem.” [8] Scodel’s 1992 study characterizes the episode as marked by “confusions of motivation and tone.” [9]
A productive path for detecting unity in the episode can be undertaken from a consideration of two identical half-lines in the speech of each character, apêkhtheto pasi theoisin (6.141b = 6.200b) and unique diction in an immediately adjacent line. The much-discussed tuphlos precedes the common half-line in Diomedes’ speech; and after Glaucus refers to the hatred that Bellerophon incurred (6.200), he notes (6.201–202) that he “wandered alone over the Aleian plain (…ho kap pedion to Alêïon oios alato), eating out his heart, shunning the path of men (hon thumon katedôn, paton anthrôpôn aleeinôn). Commentators from the A Scholiast to Leaf and Kirk associate the name of the Aleian Plain with Bellerophon’s wandering (alâto); both Leaf and Kirk note the reference in Herodotus 6.95 to such a plain in Cilicia.
Yet the uniqueness of tuphlos in association with the divine hatred directed at Lycourgus might serve as a prompt to ask if blindness (adjective alaos) is to be detected in the several words containing the al– root attending the punishment of Bellerophon. The Iliad has the formula oud’ alaoskopiên eikhe three times, the Odyssey once. The adjective alaos is found three times in the Odyssey, where the verbs alaoô and exalaoô are used six times. The verb aleeinôn has a further assonance. Is there any reason to believe that Bellerophon’s plain refers to blindness rather than to wandering – and more interestingly, that Glaucus wanted to allude to this physical ailment quite indirectly?
As a matter of fact, the Tzetes scholia (twelfth century CE) on Lycophron 17 explicitly refer to Bellerophon’s blindness:

kai dê para to Alêïon pedion katenekhthentos
Bellerophontou kai periporeuomenou tuphlou
apo tês ptôseôs ho Pêgasos anô periepoleîto kai katô.
And indeed when Bellerophon was brought down to the
Aleïan Plain and was moving about in blindness because of
his fall, Pegasus was traveling up and down. [10]

In telling the story of his grandfather Bellerophon (6.155–205), the Homeric Glaucus makes no mention of his ancestor’s association with the winged horse Pegasus. Bellerophon singly kills the Chimaera in 6.183, but other early sources join the hero and the winged horse in this exploit. In Hesiod Theogony 325 the pair Pegasus and Bellerophon kill the Chimaera; ultimately Pegasus dwells in the home of Zeus and bears both the thunder and lightning (Theog. 285–286).

In Pindar Bellerophon is mentioned twice, each time in association with Pegasus. In Olympian 13.60ff. Bellerophon is empowered by Athena to yoke Pegasus, who then attacks the Amazons and kills the Chimaera and Solymi, the same three exploits cited by Glaucus in Iliad 6.178ff. Pindar concludes his story of Bellerophon with a perplexing reference to his fate:

diasôpasomai hoi moron egô;/ ton d’ en Olympô phatnai
Zênos arkhaiai dekontai.

I shall pass over his fate in silence; but the horse
is received by the old stalls of Zeus on Olympus.

In Isthmian 7.42ff. Pegasus and Bellerophon appear in a rumination on life’s end:

…thnaskomen gar homôs hapantes;
daimôn d’ aïssos; ta makra d’ ei tis
paptainei, brakhus exikesthai khalkopedon theôn

hedran; ho toi pteroeis
erripse Pagasos
despotan ethelont’ es ouranou stathmous
elthein meth’ homagurin Bellerophontan
Zênos. To de par dikan
gluku pikrotata menei teleuta.
…For we all die alike;
But our fortune is different; if anyone gazes
at things tall, he is too short to reach the bronze-
floored seat of the gods; the winged Pegasus
threw his master Bellerophon wishing to come to homes of
heaven and the assembly of Zeus. A most bitter end awaits
improper sweetness.

The fact in these lines is Pegasus’ throwing his master Bellerophon when the latter wanted to ascend to Olympus. The preceding condition collocates a long gaze with a short, or insufficiently long and therefore defective, attainment of Olympus. Bellerophon’s intrusion into Olympus appears to have been not a social call or educational travel but one motivated by vision unwanted and unappreciated by the gods.

The B scholia to 6.155 move beyond the allusion characteristic of Pindar to explicit details: Bellerophon wanted to spy on heaven, to ouranon katopteusai. Zeus sent a gadfly at Pegasus, whereupon Bellerophon was thrown and afterward wandered on the Lycian plain pêrôthenta, lame or maimed (on which more below).
Diomedes’ narrative seems to present the punitive blinding in the context of a violent intrusion. Yet according to the same B scholia on 6.139, Lycurgus was blinded (tuphlos) for illicitly seeing the rites of the Dionysiac band:

epei tas teletas horôn ouk esôphronei, oikeiôs tas opseis kolazetai.
Since he used poor judgment to see the rites, he was properly punished in his vision.
While Lycurgus’ blinding for illicit vision of course does not validate any blinding of Bellerophon for the same transgression, the connection of blinding for sexual trespass has been amply documented by Devereux in a 1973 study of the self-blinding of Oedipus; this study documents some 30 instances of blinded miscreants and their transgressions. [11] Although sexual malfeasance is not explicitly documented in the Bellerophon story, some features of blinded miscreants and their misdeeds do appear in Bellerophon’s story and in stories of heroes close to him. Pindar as cited earlier (Olympian 13.91–92) knew more than he would tell: can we hypothesize some of those details?
Two examples offered by Devereux are relevant to Bellerophon and to Lycurgus because of different details in their variant stories; they are Anchises and Teiresias.
When Anchises says in Hymn to Aphrodite 189–90 that any man who sleeps with immortal goddesses is not a lively (biothalmios) man afterwards, he indicates his knowledge of a general sexual transgression involving mortal men and immortal goddesses. But in his particular case, a potential future transgression is later specified as boasting of his liaison with Aphrodite (288–290):

ei de ken exeipês kai epeuxeai aphroni thumô
in philotêti migênai eustephanô Kuthereiê,
Zeus se kholôsamenos baleei psoloenti keraunô.
But if you reveal and boast with thoughtless mind
that you mingled in love with rich-crowned Cythereia,
Zeus in his anger will smite you with a smoking thunderbolt.
Evidently Anchises did boast of his liaison with Aphrodite, because Sophocles in his Laocoon, the earliest such source, depicts Aeneas supporting on his shoulders his father (ep’ ômôn pater’ ekhôn) whose clothing (motou Plutarch) or back (nôtou Dionysius) is thunderstruck (kerauniou fr 373R).
The thunderbolt is mentioned by Anchises in Aeneid 2.648–649 (…me divum pater atque hominum rex/ fulminis adflavit ventis et contigit igni), before Aeneas lifts his father to his shoulders to carry him out of Troy (ergo age, care pater, cervici imponere nostrae;/ ipse subibo umeris, nec me labor iste gravabit, 707–708).
While this description is consistent with Anchises as a cripple, that disability is not specified and the immobility of old age cannot be ruled out: Servius auctus ad 649 says simply that after the thunderbolt debilis vixit. But another disability, blindness, is ascribed to Anchises by Servius ad 1.617, following the boast and thunderbolt: quod cum iactaret Anchises, adflatus est fulmine oculoque privatus. Servius ad 1.617 & 2.687 indicate that Theocritus was the source of the detail of blinding. [12] In Devereux’s analysis, the paralyzed Anchises is impotent; he notes that Anchises is never reported to be both blind and paralyzed. Hyginus 94 specifically connects the thunderbolt to the boast and adds the strange detail, quidam dicunt eum sua morte obisse.
While many stories recount the blinding of Teiresias, [13] Apollodorus’ summary (3.6.7) gives the basics that sufficiently serve the purposes of this study. First, Apollodorus simply and generally states that his blindness was afflicted by the gods “because he revealed to men what they wanted to keep secret (hoti tois anthrôpois ha kruptein êthelon emênue).” Then he refers to more complicated stories of blinding by Athena and by Hera. Hera blinded Teiresias because he asserted women derived far more pleasure from sex than men (the mathematical proportion varies in the sources); his pronouncement was based on his existence as both man and woman on the occasion of seeing snakes copulating (the time and circumstances of his sex changes also vary).
Athena’s role in blinding Teiresias, as old as Pherecydes 3F92, is summarized in Apollodorus but further elaborated in Callimachus Hymn 5 “The Bath of Pallas.” Athena and a favorite attendant, Chariclo mother of Teiresias, were bathing on Helicon when the youthful Teiresias unwillingly saw them: ouk ethelôn d’ eide ta mê themita (5.78). Athena blinds the youth; the mother protests in anger. Athena replies that she follows the laws of Zeus in demanding a great price when a mortal sees what the gods choose to be unseen (100–103), but she will compensate by giving Teiresas extraordinary gifts of prophecy (121ff.)
The revelation of sexual impropriety interestingly appears in the stories of Sisyphus, Bellerophon’s grandfather, the “craftiest of men” (kerdistos … andrôn, Iliad 6.154). [14] While Sisyphus’ attempts to outwit death appear in many sources, [15] the misdeed for which he is punished in Hades (Odyssey 11.593ff.) is the revelation to Asopus that his daughter Aegina has been abducted by Zeus. Homer does not give the reason in Book 11, but Apollodorus (1.3.5, krupha … mênusai), the B scholia to Iliad 1.180, emathen para Sisuphou), and Pausanias (2.5.1, mênuei) are all in agreement about the malfeasance.
Associated with Sisyphus in the Hades and comparably tormented are Ixion and Tantalus (Odyssey 11.576ff.). Ixion’s attack on Leto consort of Zeus (Lêtô gar hêlkêse, Dios kudrên parakoitin), is given by Homer as the transgression. The specific crime for which the Homeric Tantalus is being punished is however not specified. After reviewing the many stories about Tantalus, Gantz aptly notes the “…little likelihood of bringing Tantalos’ various offenses and chastisements together into a coherent whole…” [16] Perhaps Cicero’s citation of an unknown Latin poet who ascribes Tantalus’ punishment to “rashness of mind and bold speech (ob scelera animique impotentiam et superbiloquentiam, TD 4.16.35) is an apt summary, though more relevant to this study is the explanation in Apollodorus’ (Epitome 2.1) that he divulged the mysteries of the gods (ta tôn theôn exelalêsen anthrôpois mustêria) and shared ambrosia with his comrades (tês ambrosias tois hêlikiôtais).
In sum, Bellerophon’s blindness reported by the Tzetzes scholia in conjunction with the B scholia to 165 reporting that Bellerophon spied on heaven is consistent with various features of stories involving other characters punished for seeing the divine illicit and then disclosing it.
Bellerophon’s punishment of lameness, mentioned previously in the same B Scholia to 6.155, is more clearly documented in other sources. Euripides’ tragedy about Bellerophon informed references to the lame and ragged Bellerophon in Aristophanes’ Acharnians 426. Aristophanes parodied Bellerophon’s journey to Olympus in Peace 75–172, where in 146–148 a daughter advises Trygaeus to take care not to fall off the dung beatle prepared for his ascent to Olympus and thereby become a tragedy for Euripides. [17]
Although the lameness of Anchises was interpreted as impotence by Devereux, that pronouncement may be too quick for application to Bellerophon. But a consideration of foot (pous) and plain (pedion) in Greek culture provides sexual nuances in the circumstances of Bellerophon as he treks alone over the plain after incurring the hatred of the gods.
The foot and the finger are described by Henderson as “universal symbols” of the penis; they “undoubtedly have their origins in early infantile experience.” [18] Aegeus famously tells Euripides’ Medea that he was instructed by the oracle not to loosen the foot of the wineskin, that is, not to have intercourse, before reaching home (Medea 679, discussed by both Henderson and Caldwell). Also well-known is the use of pedion to describe the Booetian girl’s pubic region in Lysistrata 89. Caldwell from a strongly psychoanalytic point of view gives this interpretation the pedion:

…a pedion is ground that can be walked on, as opposed to
mountain or marsh; taking the symbolic meaning, it is
arable ground, suitable to be fertilized and bring forth
new life (that is, a receptacle for the phallic foot)… [19]
It is from the Nysian Plain (pedion) in the Hymn to Demeter 17 that Persephone is abducted by Hades. Foley comments that “girls in myth are traditionally carried off, often from a chorus of maidens, while gathering flowers in a meadow (or by water)…” [20]
Thus as Bellerophon wanders alone on the Aleïan Plain he appears to be in a state of sexual isolation, perhaps even sexual impotence if his debilitated limbs so indicate. [21] If the name of the plain has associations with blindness (alaos), then some punishment for sexual impropriety may be involved.
Phallic associations with the fingers and feet are of interest in other stories about Lycurgus and his attack on Dionysus.
In Apollodorus 3.5.1, Lycurgus was not blinded because of his violence to the Dionysiac band, but driven mad by Dionysus, killed his son Dryas with an axe, thinking he was a vine, and then cut off his extremities (akrôtêriasas auton) before returning to his senses. More lurid still, Hyginus 132 relates somewhat incoherently that Lycurgus wanted to violate his mother, killed his wife and son, and cut off one foot as if a vine (unum pedem sibi pro vitibus excidisse). In these stories impotence is raised to castration of father and/or son.
Thus in the stories of Lycurgus sexual impropriety, blindness, lameness, and impotence are explicit. In the story of Bellerophon they are allusive.
Very curiously the similarities of these two characters seem to be confirmed by a description of the punished Lycurgus in Nonnus Dionysiaca (late fifth century CE):

Zeus de patêr…
ainomanê Lukoorgon ethêkato tuphlon alêtên,
asteos agnôstoio palindinêton hoditên,
pompon anankaiês dizêmon atrapitoio,
pollakis autokeleutha periptaionta pedilois

But Father Zeus made mad Lycurgus a blind wanderer,
a traveler moving back and forth in an unknown city,
seeking a guide for a necessary path,
often stumbling in his sandals on isolated paths.

Lycurgus like Bellerophon is a lonely wanderer, explicitly blind, stumbling not on a plain (pedion) but in his footgear (pedila). The Lycurgus of Nonnus has the features of the Bellerophon of Homer and early Greek literature.

All these considerations inform the following attempt to give a unified account of the encounter of Diomedes and Glaucus in Iliad 6.
When the two warriors meet on the battlefield, Diomedes first accosts Glaucus. The taunt requires the question of identity (6.123) and the claim that the opponent has never been seen before. The implausibility of that taunt is undercut by fact of Glaucus’ golden armor (235) which would hardly have gone unnoticed. Diomedes begins a story which at its beginning enhances his own stature. Mighty Lycurgus (krateros Lukoergos, 130) evokes krateros Diomedes (Iliad 19x), who has put to flight not women and a babe, but a feminized enemy, whose leaders Aeneas and Hector are urged by Helenus to retreat to Troy to ask Hecuba to intercede with Athena on behalf of the Trojans. [22] Hector encounters first his mother (251ff.), then to Paris and Helen (314ff.), and finally to Andromache (3734ff). Like a mad woman (mainomenê eïkuia) she has rushed to the city walls; [23] a nurse (tithenê) bears their child whom she eventually takes to her breast (kolpô, 483); these are details found earlier in the Lycurgus story and now in the Trojan world of women.
But having accounted for his own prowess and likened the Trojans to women, Diomedes strangely interjects a dire punishment imposed by Zeus on the victor, on the grounds he fought the gods, namely blindness and a short life. Little sense can be had of the notion that Diomedes approves of the punishment of the character he had earlier likened to himself. Since he ends his taunting speech on this note, he seems to expect Glaucus to receive it as a challenge and to do with it as he will. Assuming that Diomedes knows the identity of Glaucus, Diomedes may be saying in effect, I know how your emboldened and intemperate ancestors assailed the gods and not only met defeat but incurred very unpleasant punishments, blindness among them.
Glaucus undercuts Diomedes’ genealogical taunt by asserting that many already know it (151): Diomedes would be a slow learner! Glaucus then gives a long, selective account of his ancestors that puts the spotlight on Bellerophon, especially on his exploits. Problems with Pegasus are not mentioned, but the reference to isolation on the Aleïan Plain—a plain of wandering or a plain of blindness or both?—may be a nod to a well-known punishment, after which Glaucus identifies himself as a warrior on the heroic battlefield, not a combatant of monsters or of the gods, who will not bring shame on his ancestors (209).
To Diomedes’ battlefield challenging taunt, Glaucus has been quick moving (paroxytonic aiolos) like the ancestor at the beginning of his genealogical story. Paronomasia may occur at the end of his story in the Plain of Wandering or Plain of Blindness. In diction and in selective narration of Bellerophon’s adventures Glaucus depicts himself as a worthy scion of Sisyphus, the craftiest (kerdistos) of men. Homer necessarily specifies that in the surprising exchange of armor Zeus removed the wits of Glaucus (6.234)


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———. 1969. “Adaptation of Traditional Material in the Glaucus-Diomedes Episode.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 100:165–76.
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Scodel, Ruth. 1992. “The Wits of Glaucus.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 122:73–84.


[ back ] 1. Leaf (1900) 256–57, 266ff.
[ back ] 2. Ibid. 256.
[ back ] 3. Kirk (1990) 171ff.
[ back ] 4. Ibid. 175.
[ back ] 5. Burkert (1985) 162.
[ back ] 6. Murray (1934) 176.
[ back ] 7. Kirk (1990) 181. A more nuanced, more cautious discussion of Eumelian attributions is found in Huxley (1969) 75ff.
[ back ] 8. Gaisser (1969) 165. This study expands a briefer treatment of this episode in her 1968 study where digressions seem to “interrupt the flow of the action,” to be “unconnected with the main story,” and to raise the question “whether or not its inclusion is artistically justified” (1968) 2–3.
[ back ] 9. Scodel (1992) 74. Her study, which analyzes the exchange of armor at the conclusion of the episode, contains pertinent bibliography on that event.
[ back ] 10. Müller (1811) pp. 295–296. His note to the scholia states: [ back ] Dicit tamen schol. rec. Pind. Olymp. 1.1. kholoutai, kata de tinas kai tuphloutai.
[ back ] 11. Devereux (1973) 41–42. Devereux terms his examples reflections of “an ancient cultural pattern” (p. 42); he earlier refers to “Greek (and Roman) data” (p. 37). For his review of the connections of eyes, love, and sex, see p.42ff.
[ back ] 12. Cf. Gow (1952) p.24 on Theocritus 1.106. Gow refers to a fuller version of Theocritean scholia available to Servius. Other bibliography is provided by Austin (1964) pp. 247–248 ad Aeneid 2.649.
[ back ] 13. See, e.g., the discussions of Gantz (1993) p. 528ff.; Devereux (1973) pp. 44–45; Caldwell (1989), pp. 37–41, 46–47, 136–137.
[ back ] 14. As Aiolidês, son of proparoxytonic Aeolus, he has a father whose name evokes paroxytonic aiolos, quick moving, changeable, flashing, as of rapid motion.
[ back ] 15. See, e.g., Gantz (1993), p.173ff.
[ back ] 16. Gantz (1993) p. 535, in his discussion of Tantalus pp. 531–536.
[ back ] 17. In Hyginus 57 Bellerophon’s lameness is caused by a dislocation of his hip, coxas eiecisse.
[ back ] 18. Henderson (1991) p. 44; 129–130; 138. See also Caldwell (1989) p.178.
[ back ] 19. Caldwell (1989) ibid, who takes the word meadow leimon as uncultivated ground to stand for “virgin female genitals.”
[ back ] 20. Foley (1994) p. 33.
[ back ] 21. Otherwise in the world of the Amazons who maim (epêroun) male children by removing a hand or leg and proclaim that the lame man makes the best lover (arista khôlos oiphei), a proverb attributed to Mimnermus (21a W).
[ back ] 22. Surely Harries (1993) p.135 has successfully explained the connection of Helenus’ exhortation to the Lycurgus story. For a different interpretation see Martin (1989) p. 126ff.
[ back ] 23. Andromache rushes in 22.460 mainadi isê.