Archilochus and the Eunuch: the Persistence of a Narrative Pattern

Frederick Williams

Queen's University

A famous inscription from Paros purports to relate how Archilochus came to be a poet: 'They say that Archilochus, when he was still a young man, was sent by his father Telesikles into the countryside to the parish called Leimones to bring back a cow to be sold. He got up very early while it was still night and the moon was shining and started to take the cow to town. When he came to the place which is called Lissides, he thought he saw a group of women. Thinking they were leaving their work in the fields to go to town, he went up to them and began to taunt them. They received him with ribaldry and laughter and went on to ask if he was taking the cow to sell it. He said "Yes". They told him they would pay him a fair price. No sooner were these words spoken than the women and the cow vanished; but at his feet he saw a lyre. He was shocked out of his wits, but when after some time he came to his senses, he concluded that it was the Muses who had manifested themselves and presented him with the lyre. He picked it up, continued on his way to the town and told his father what had happened. When Telesikles heard the story and saw the lyre he was amazed. His first act was to have a search made for the cow all over the island; but he could not find it.'[1] This account exemplifies a type of narrative in which a mortal is approached by a god, who intervenes decisively in that mortal's life. Such incidents are well known in epic poetry. I cite for its familiarity a well-known example: in Iliad 24 Priam is distraught with grief because his favourite son Hector, who had also been the Trojans' leading warrior, has been killed by Achilles, who has mutilated the corpse and left it unburied. In this acute state of private disaster and public danger he takes the seemingly desperate step of going in person and without protection to the enemy camp to beg Achilles for the return of his son's body. He sets out at night. On the way, near the great tomb of Ilos (a local landmark), he stops to water his horses and mules. At this point - Homer emphasises that it is now the middle of the night - Hermes suddenly appears; he has been sent by Zeus to protect Priam, and is disguised as a young soldier. Priam's reaction is paralysed fear. Hermes seizes the initiative, and his words take the form of a searching question: 'Where, father, are you driving your horses and mules to in this way, in the depth of the night, when all other mortals are sleeping?' Of course, he knows Priam's destination and business perfectly well. Priam explains his mission; Hermes guides him past the Achaean sentries, and gives him advice on how to approach Achilles. Hermes' task is now complete. He reveals his true identity so as to explain why he can go no further, and finally vanishes: 'he departed for vast Olympus' (468).

A comparable scene occurs in Odyssey 7: Odysseus, after years of wandering from country to country, unable to reach his homeland, has been washed ashore on the island of Scherie. His first encounter had been with the princess Nausicaa, who had been sent as Athene's agent to give him assistance, and, interestingly, Odysseus had suspected her of being a goddess. Now, a little later, on the road from the beach into the city, but before actually entering the city proper, Athene makes him invisible to others; further, she disguises herself as a young girl carrying a basket and shows him the way to the palace; before parting from him she gives her protégé advice about the royal family and how to secure their goodwill. Once her task is completed, Athene leaves, jetting off in divine style to her shrines in Marathon and Athens. Again, compare the scene in Odyssey 13 when Odysseus has been landed, unknowingly, on his own native island of Ithaca. Athene, described in some detail as a "gentleman shepherd", comes to his aid, but he fails to recognise her. There is some splendid verbal fencing, after which the goddess reveals where they are, helps him to hide his treasure, and, before parting, touches him with her staff and thus disguises him as a herdsman, and gives him a staff. She then leaves for Sparta (440).

It is not surprising that a motif so obviously at home in folklore and popular belief is exemplified several times in Herodotus. Divine voices, favouring the Greeks of course, were heard before the battle of Salamis (8.64); Apollo himself defended his sanctuary at Delphi (8.36); Peisistratus was able to exploit popular belief in such epiphanies by dressing Phye, a very tall woman, as Athena (1.60-61). More detailed is the story of a Spartan ugly duckling: 'As a baby, this woman had been ugly, and her nanny saw that her well-off parents regarded this as a disaster. So she had the idea of taking the baby every day to the shrine of Helen at Therapnae. She used to take the baby in, put it in front of the statue of Helen, and pray to the goddess to change the baby's ugliness. One day as she was leaving the sanctuary, a woman appeared; she asked what the nurse was carrying in her arms. The nurse said it was a baby. The woman asked her to show her, but the nurse refused, because she'd been forbidden by the parents to show it to anyone. The woman persisted in asking her to show it. When she saw that the woman was so concerned to look, the nurse eventually showed it her; she stroked the baby's head and said that she would become the most beautiful of all the women in Sparta. From that day her appearance changed.' (6.61) The best-known instance in Herodotus is, of course, Pan's appearance to the courier sent from Athens to ask the Spartans for urgently needed military assistance: 'On the way over Mount Parthenion, near Tegea, Pan called out to Pheidippides, addressing him by name, and told him to ask the Athenians why they did not worship him, since he was friendly to them, had helped them in the past, and could be useful to them in the future.' [2] Before returning to Archilochus, I summarise some of the key features in these and similar incidents:[3]
(i) the encounter takes place at a time of personal or public crisis;
(ii) the site of the meeting (or at least the human party's destination) is specified with some precision; it often occurs on the road, especially in a lonely place ;
(iii) the time of the meeting also is often specified, within of course the limits of the normal language available for indicating time;
(iv) the deity tends to take the initiative by asking the mortal a searching question, to which of course the god naturally knows the answer;
(v) the god gives guidance and instruction, often confirming this with an actual favour or gift;
(vi) once the business in hand is completed, the deity departs, or disappears.

Clearly, these features are found in the Archilochus story, where the crisis element is the transition from boyhood to manhood, and the associated search for a mission in life. (In spite of Mary Lefkowitz's forceful pleading,[4] I do not believe that what the inscription records is a paraphrase of a no longer extant poem by Archilochus himself. Certainly though there are many examples of poets writing about the beginnings of their poetic careers, and using this motif of the divine encounter to express whatever happened - for Hesiod, it was the Muses who spoke to him as he pastured his sheep on Mt Helicon:[5] they gave him a laurel bough, and breathed into him the divine voice to make known things that shall be and things that have been. For Callimachus, the meeting was with Apollo Lykios, and seems to have taken place in his study;[6] there are numerous echoes and replays of that encounter in later Greek and Latin poetry, in Ennius, Virgil, Horace, Propertius, Oppian, and so on.)[7]

An inscription in verse erected by Isyllus of Epidaurus relates an experience in terms which closely follow the pattern we have observed. The inscription is dated to about 300 B.C., so it presumably refers to an incident which took place during the invasion of Laconia by Philip II in 338: 'This manifestation also of your might did you bring about, Asclepius, in those times when Philip led his army against Sparta, aiming to destroy her kingly power. It was to them that Asclepius, answering their call for help, went from Epidaurus, because he honoured the progeny of Heracles. He was on his way at the same time that this boy who was ill came from Bousporus. As he made his way, you met him face to face, Asclepius, resplendent in golden armour. On seeing you the boy held out his arms in prayer and uttered this appeal: "I have no part in your gifts, healer Asclepius: take pity on me." You then said clearly to me: "Be of good cheer: I shall come to you in due season - only stay here - when once I have warded off dreadful disaster from the Lacedaemonians, because they have kept the commandments which Lycurgus handed down to the city after consulting the oracle." So he went away towards Sparta; I was prompted by the thought to go and tell the Lacedaemonians all about this miracle. They heeded what I said, the message of salvation, and you, Asclepius, saved them. They proclaimed that all men should receive you with hospitality, and called on you as the saviour of spacious Lacedaemon.[8] Here we see a personal problem (Isyllus' illness, which sends him to seek treatment at the Healer's shrine) coinciding with a larger crisis, the Macedonian invasion of the Peloponnese. The encounter takes place on the road: presumably its site is precisely specified for those with local knowledge[9] at the junction of the routes from Epidaurus to Sparta and Bousporus to Epidaurus. The god gives aid to Sparta, and at least the promise of healing (or possibly healing itself, if the invalid boy is enabled to make the journey to Sparta) to Isyllus. Like Homer's gods, or the Muses who met Archilochus, Asclepius does not linger a moment longer than is necessary.

Latin poets could rely on their readers' familiarity with this narrative pattern. For example, in the first book of Virgil's Aeneid , after a tremendous storm, the hero, separated from most of his men, has been driven onto the shores of an unknown land; he spends a sleepless and anxious night plurima uoluens (line 302). At first light, accompanied only by Achates, he sets out to reconnoitre. In the middle of the wild country[10] he is met by his mother Venus disguised, implausibly, as a virgin huntress. She addresses him first with a misleading request for news of the whereabouts of her sisters; but Aeneas is aware that things are not as they seem:[11] o quam te memorem, uirgo? namque haud tibi uultus
mortalis, nec uox hominem sonat; o, dea certe
(an Phoebi soror? an nympharum sanguinis una?)
sis felix ... (327-30)"How am I to address you, maiden? Because your face is not mortal, and your voice does not sound human. O goddess you must be (Phoebus' sister? or one of the nymphs?): show us your favour ..." and promises to establish a cult in her honour: multa tibi ante aras nostra cadet hostia dextra. (334)

"many a victim shall fall before your altar, slain by my hand." Venus denies her divinity, insisting she is just an ordinary local girl, but tells him where he is, and gives him a useful lesson in Carthaginian history; she then asks him a series of questions, to which of course she (who better?) knows all the answers: sed uos qui tandem? quibus aut uenistis ab oris ?
quoue tenetis iter? (369-70)

But now who are you? What lands do you come from? And what is your destination?
Undeceived, Aeneas begins his reply with "O dea ..." and, with unconscious but exquisite irony, assures her that with his mother to show him the way, he is following his destiny (she is his mother, and he is very lost). Eventually Venus cuts him short, assures him he is under divine protection, and reveals that his ships and men are safe. After telling him to follow the way, she re-assumes her divinity, and, ignoring her son's frustrated protests, she flies off to Cyprus.

Somewhat more surprising is that Lucan, in his demythologised epic, dealing ostensibly with historical events, also exhibits the same motif, albeit with significant variations. Consider the episode of Caesar at the Rubicon:[12] ingentesque animo motus bellumque futurum
ceperat. ut uentum est parui Rubiconis ad undas
ingens uisa duci patriae trepidantis imago
clara per obscuram uultu maestissima noctem,
turrigero canos effundens uertice crines,
caesarie lacera nudisque adstare lacertis
et gemitu permixta loqui: "quo tenditis ultra?
quo fertis mea signa, uiri? si iure uenitis,
si ciues, huc usque licet." tum perculit horror
membra ducis, riguere comae, gressumque coercens
languor in extrema tenuit uestigia ripa. (1.183-96)

Now Caesar had hurtled over the frozen Alps; he had conceived in his heart his dreadful rebellion and the war it would bring about. When he reached the tiny stream of the Rubicon, a huge vision of his distressed homeland appeared to the leader, shining out, in her utter distress, through the dark night, her white hair loose from her tower-crowned head. Her hair was torn, her arms were bared. [13] Her words were mingled with groans: "Where are you marching on to? Where are you carrying my standards to, soldiers? If you come as my citizens, you may go no further." At that point a shudder ran through the leader's body, his hair stood on end, paralysis checked his progress, arresting his steps on the very edge of the river-bank. Clearly we have here the elements of crisis, for Caesar and the republic; the place is specified, and the time indicated; the epiphant deity (brilliantly visible, but in abject misery rather than the usual divine splendour) asks searching questions, and the mortal reacts with extreme symptoms of the fear which are often mentioned in epiphanies.[14] Caesar, unlike the mortal parties in normal epic epiphanies, chooses to overrule Roma's objections. As frequently, Lucan has exploited the stock-in-trade of epic to emphasise the sinister nature of his subject.[15]

The divine encounter motif is found in Christian as well as pagan authors. St. Luke in particular makes use of it as a narrative framework on a number of occasions.[16] This is especially clear in two cases, the account of the walk to Emmaus (Lk. 24. 13-32) and the meeting of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8.26-39). First, the journey to Emmaus: On that same day two of them were walking to a village sixty stades away from Jerusalem, named Emmaus; and they were talking to each other about all these things that had happened. As they talked and discussed, Jesus himself came up and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognising him. He said to them, "What are these matters which you are discussing as you walk?" They stopped, their faces full of gloom; in reply one of them, named Cleopas, asked him, "Are you the only person staying in Jerusalem not to know what has happened there in these days?" "What things?" he asked. "All about Jesus of Nazareth," they replied, "a prophet powerful in deed and word before God and all the people, and how the chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death and crucified him. We had been hoping that he was the one who would liberate Israel. What is more, this is the third day since all this happened, and yet some of our women have astounded us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, but when they did not find his body, they came saying they had actually seen a vision of angels who said he was alive. And some of our group went off to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see. He said to them, "How foolish you are, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken ! Was not the Christ bound to suffer in this way before entering his glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them what was said about himself in all the scriptures. When they had reached the village they were walking to, he made as if he were going on further, but they wouldn't let him. "Stay with us," they said, "because it's almost evening, and the day is almost over." He went in to stay with them. When he had reclined with them to eat, he took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and was giving it to them; then their eyes were opened up, and they recognised him. He vanished from their sight. In this incident we find again the features we saw earlier. It occurs in the context of crisis: the disciples are downcast after the death of Jesus and the apparent collapse of their movement. They are on the road, and their destination, Emmaus, is specified (even if its identity remains obscure to modern commentators); later on, the time of day is also indicated. The epiphant begins with the searching question, "What are these matters ...?" Once they have replied, he rebukes them in terms familiar from Greek epiphanies.17] He then instructs them in the interpretation of the scriptures. After teaching them he breaks bread for them, and they recognise him; he then disappears.[18] (I should perhaps stress that in examining the structure of this narrative I am making no comment on the historicity of the events related.)

In my second passage from Luke, Acts 8.26-40, the meeting of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, there might seem at first sight to be no epiphant deity; but Philip is directly commissioned by "an angel of the Lord" and displays powers which are by ordinary standards supra-human. 'An angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Rise up, and go at midday[19] to the road going down from Jerusalem to Gaza, that is desert."[20] He rose up and went. There was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, an official of the Candace (queen of the Ethiopians), who was in charge of all her treasure. He had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and he was returning, sitting in his carriage and reading the prophet Isaiah. The spirit said to Philip, "Go up to that carriage and stay close to it." Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah and said, "Do you understand what you are reading?" He said, "How could I, unless someone will act as my guide?" and he invited Philip to climb up and sit with him. The passage of scripture he was reading was this: "As a sheep to the slaughter was he led; and as a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation was he deprived of redress. Of his progeny who will tell? For his life is taken from the earth." In response to this, the eunuch said to Philip, "Please tell me, about whom is the prophet saying this, himself or someone else?" Philip began to speak; starting with this passage he told him the good news of Jesus. As they proceeded along the road, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, "Look, water. What prevents me from being baptised?" He ordered the carriage to stop. Both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and he baptised him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more. He continued on his way, rejoicing. Philip was seen at Azotus ...' There should be no difficulty in identifying the typical epiphany features. For the eunuch, there is a critical situation: after undertaking the long and arduous journey from Meroe, at the edge of the known world, to Jerusalem, the centre of the world for a sympathiser with Judaism, his desire for spiritual enlightenment has found no satisfaction, and he is on his way home. It seems reasonable to suppose that his state of confusion and disappointment is comparable to that of the disciples on their way to Emmaus. The meeting takes place on the road, and its site and time (I believe) are indicated. Philip opens the conversation with a penetrating question. He instructs the Ethiopian, and ratifies his instruction by baptising him. Once his mission is complete, Philip disappears.

A particularly intriguing variation on the basic theme in Acts 14.8-18 is conclusive proof that Luke's reflection of the pattern in these and other episodes is no coincidence. It occurs in the account of Paul's missionary activities in Lycaonia; if it were not for the fact that it is framed between episodes of violent persecution of Paul and Barnabas by the Jews, one might wonder if it were meant as light relief.[21] After Paul's miraculous healing of a cripple, the crowd shouted, in their native language, "The gods have been made like human beings and come down to us." They identified Barnabas with Zeus, and Paul, because he had done most of the talking, with Hermes. The priest of Zeus is represented as being on the point of sacrificing bulls to them. The reaction of the apostles is to ask the kind of basic question which, as we have seen, epiphant gods habitually pose to mortals: "Men, why are you doing this?" (15) Their assurances that they are themselves men, as mortal as their auditors, seem to be less than completely convincing: "for all their words, they had difficulty in preventing the crowd from sacrificing to them" (18).[22] After all, one of the frequent features of epiphanies is that gods insist they are mere mortals,[23] and the men of Lystra were clearly familiar with the pattern we have examined.


1. Archilochus T4 (Tarditi) 22-43. See A. Kambylis, "Zur Dichterweihe des Archilochos", Hermes 91 (1963) 129-50.
2. Herod. 6.105. This incident has been discussed recently by Robert Garland, Introducing New Gods: the Politics of Athenian Religion (London, 1992) ch.2 `Pheidippides and the Magic Mountain', esp. pp. 47-51. He cogently argues that the encounter must have taken place in the course of the runner's return journey, after the Spartans had rejected his appeal. I hope that my analysis of the motif will support this interpretation.
3. Here I reproduce, with slight alterations, a section of my inaugural lecture at Queen's, The Sage, the Shepherdess, and Caesar (published Leeds 1993), p. 11.
4. M. R. Lefkowitz, The Lives of the Greek Poets (London, 1981,) pp. 27-8.
5. Theogony 22ff.
6. Fr.1.22 ff.
7. See W. Wimmel, Kallimachos in Rom [Hermes Einzelschrift 16] (Wiesbaden, 1960), or, more briefly, N.Hopkinson, A Hellenistic Anthology (Cambridge, 1988) pp. 98-101.
8. The text is most conveniently available in J.U.Powell, Collectanea Alexandrina (Oxord, 1925) pp. 134-5. Wilamowitz's Isyllos von Epidauros (Berlin 1886) is disappointing.
9. Bousporus as such seems not to be attested elsewhere, but Wilamowitz Der Glaube der Hellenen (3rd ed., Basle/Stuttgart 1959) i p. 386 n.1 argues for identifying Isyllus' 'Bousporos' with the 'Bouporthmos' mentioned by Pausanias 2.34.8.
10. Latin silua : clearly not "forest" so much as uncultivated land, remote from human habitation.
11. Like his father Anchises in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite (5) 92-106: this poem surely influenced Virgil here, though some of his commentators have been strangely coy about admitting it.
12. This scene has been discussed with a different emphasis by J. Masters, Poetry and Civil War in Lucan's Bellum Civile (Cambridge, 1992), ch.1.
13. Signs of mourning: but rather than nudisque lacertis (with arms bared) one might have expected liuidisque (bruised).
14. E.g. Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite (5) 182.
15. Lucan has not finished with the epiphany motif: he goes on to present Caesar as a malign epiphant at Ariminum, his standards glittering in the gloomy dawn (lines 231-61).
16. E.g. the appearances of Gabriel first to Zechariah, then to Mary (Lk. 1.12-22, 26-38); the manifestation of angels to the shepherds (2.8-15); cf. the encounter of the women with the "two men in dazzling garments" (Lk. 24.1-9) and their counterparts, the "two men in white" on Mt. Olivet (Acts 1.9-12). In Acts the epiphany experienced by Saul on the road to Damascus is related no less than three times (9.1-9; 22.6-11; 26.12-20).
17. Cf. Hesiod, Theogony 26, Hom. hymn Demeter (2) 256-8 (with Richardson's note), Propertius 3.3.15.
18. Note that the phrase 'aphantos egeneto' is poetical, and has no parallel in the New Testament.
19.The phrase 'kata mesembrian' could denote either "south" or "towards midday", and both interpretations have their supporters; I incline to "at midday" not so much because "south" would be slightly otiose when both destination and route are separately specified as because it is normal, as we have seen, for an indication of the time of day to be given at which the epiphany took place.
20.Whether the writer intends to indicate the desert road (as opposed to the coast road) or the deserted city of old Gaza (as opposed to its newer namesake) is not clear: hence my deliberately clumsy translation.
21. Garland, op.cit. (n.2) p. 17 calls this passage an "amusing description", and adds "The author passes up a magnificent opportunity for comic relief by leaving the priest's discomfiture to his readers' imagination."
22. For an analysis of the narrative presentation of this episode, see E. Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles (Oxford, 1971) pp. 424-34. I hope to touch upon the connexions with the Philemon and Baucis story (Ovid, Met . 8.611-724) elsewhere.
23. E.g. Aphrodite in Hom.hymn 5.109 ff., Venus in Aen. 1.335 ff.
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