The White Island and the last descendant of King Priam

Published February 9, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Unlike revealed religions, the ancient Greek religion changed and grew over time, even in its most basic workings.  Foreign deities became folded in as an accepted part of their religion, even if sometimes their exact relation to the rest of it was obscure–like with Cybele–or if it meant they had multiple myths of origin–the way Aphrodite was both said to be the daughter of Zeus and Dione and to have risen whole out of the sea.  (The former is from the Iliad, the latter from Hesiod’s Theogony, so they’re of virtually identical ages.  Personally, I prefer the former.)

The change I want to talk about today was in the ancient Greek religion’s perceptions of the afterlife.  (And if you’ve read my post about Zeus and Hades, I apologize for the repetition to follow.  You can skip to the next paragraph if you like.)  This changed dramatically over the years, and many of the mystery cults likely featured a better afterlife as one of the benefits of joining them, but as the mystery cult members were forbidden to pass on the secret knowledge, we don’t know much about any of them.  But we do know for certain that the Orphic cults included a better afterlife, and it’s highly likely that the Eleusinian Mysteries also included one.  (Given that it featured worship of Persephone in an underground cave, the notion that they didn’t include some focus on the afterlife is rarely even posited.)  However, from the earliest surviving literature, we already see the presence of a better afterlife for the best of mortals.  Homer called it the Elysian Fields, and Hesiod called it the Isles of the Blessed.  At some point following the composition of the Odyssey, a third paradisaical afterlife was added, the White Island, Leukos, populated by deceased heroes, especially those who had died fighting in the Trojan War, since it was ruled over by Achilles.  Unlike the other two, Leukos was also a real island in the Euxene, where sailors could land and make offerings to Achilles, asking for favors or whatever they were doing.  (Though various objects offered up there have been recovered archaeologically, most of the inscriptions haven’t been terribly informative, and many merely had Achilles’ name on them, and sometimes only part of it.)

Most of what little we know about the temple that had been built to Achilles on Leukos is from reports made by travelers who went there, or from people who heard gossip from sailors who had been there, or who heard gossip of the gossip of…ad infinitum.  So most of the information isn’t terribly reliable as fact, but it’s very interesting as a kind of folklore.  The kinds of things that the ancient Greeks believed might be possible regarding what the spirit of one of their dead heroes semi-deified could do.  For example, some of the people who brought animals to the island to sacrifice them brought extra animals, and left the extras behind to live wild on the island (which was apparently unpopulated).  Okay, that much seems totally believable…apart from being a little too charitable on the part of the people who brought the spare animals, but maybe they were trying to curry extra favor with the demi-god.  But it was reported that people who didn’t bring an animal to sacrifice could make a monetary offering to Achilles, and when they had offered enough money, then he would drive one of the loose animals to them so they could sacrifice it.  This was reported as being “true,” so whoever was reporting it must have believed it.  Of course, it’s easy to see how that could have seemed true:  let’s hypothesize that some guy brought three sheep with him, relatively tame ones, and left two to be offerings for less fore-thinking pilgrims, while sacrificing the third himself.  Some other pilgrim comes along a day or two later, and starts laying out money while saying that he wishes he had an animal to sacrifice properly, but the one he had brought with him for the purpose took ill on the journey and died.  Then, lo and behold, one of those tame sheep comes up, and he thinks Achilles has provided it for him.  Of course, it really just came up because it’s tame and it heard a person there and thought maybe its master had come back, but he doesn’t know that, and so he passes the story on to others, who agree with him that it was the spirit of Achilles who drove the sheep to the altar just when it was needed.  And so a legend was born.  Or something along those lines.

But what I really want to talk about is a different myth that sprang up about the island.  The following is a quote from a book I read parts of for my final paper last semester.  (I should have read the whole thing, but I had so much other reading to do!  I’m going to read the rest of it when I finish the book on Amazons.)  The book is called The Greeks and Greek Love, by James Davidson, and this quote comes from page 331.

One man claimed to have met Achilles himself on the island and spent time with him.  Achilles blessed his business prospects and asked him to bring him a certain woman of Troy, the last remaining descendant, little did people know, of Priam.  [deletion of several sentences for time]  Achilles told the visitors to leave the last of the Trojans behind with him when they departed.  As they sailed away they heard screams and saw Achilles tearing her limb from limb.

It’s hard to know how to read that story.  It’s from Philostratus, a Greek living in the Roman Empire, around AD 200.  I haven’t (yet) read the original source, so I don’t know how old Philostratus was saying the story was, when he was claiming this to have taken place.  The part that’s been sticking with me hasn’t been the fact that the long deceased Achilles would want to slaughter an innocent woman just because she’s the last blood relation of Patroclos’ killer.  What’s been eating at me lately is that claim about her bloodline.

Because how could she possibly be the last descendant of King Priam?

King Priam, as many people know, had a hundred children, fifty of them sons and fifty of them daughters.  Only one of his sons survived the war:  Helenos, who ended up as a prisoner of the Greeks, and was given to Achilles’ son Neoptolemos as part of his booty.  How many of his daughters are still alive after the fall of Troy is unknown:  we know that Cassandra dies on Agamemnon’s arrival with her in Mycenae, and that Polyxena is sacrificed on Achilles’ grave, but the other 48 are less certain.  Telephos, king of Mysia, was married either to one of Priam’s daughters or to one of his sisters; sources vary, but daughter is usually more common than sister.  However, the only child of Telephos I know of off-hand is Eurypylos, who dies at the hands of Neoptolemos, so the Mysian branch may well be extinct by the time the war is over.  As to the other daughters, we know some of them had husbands, but most of them we don’t know the names of either half of the couple, and thus don’t know their fate…but they probably end up as slaves to the Greeks at the end of the war, so I suppose most of them probably drown when the Achaian fleet is destroyed by Athene in vengeance for the rape of Cassandra and the desecration of Athene’s temple.  However, in some late versions–very well established by Philostratus’ time!–Aeneas is married to a daughter of Priam, so his son Ascanius is a grandson of Priam.  And Ascanius, in the Aeneid, is also called Iulus, and Julius Caesar and all his clan are supposed to be descended from him.  So talking about the death of the last descendant of King Priam in Roman times should have seemed like anti-Roman propaganda!  (Of course, for all I know, it was.  That is, of course, why I shouldn’t be having this kind of impassioned one-person-debate about a text I’ve only seen summarized in a few sentences.)

But let’s backtrack to the last son of King Priam, Helenos.  He was, as I said, made a slave of Neoptolemos, but Helenos was a seer with power as great as his twin sister Cassandra’s, but without Apollo’s curse, so people believed him.  (Uh, that’s all in late texts, of course.  In early texts, Cassandra has neither prophetic powers nor a curse from Apollo.  But Helenos was an augur already in the Iliad.)  Helenos used his powers of prophecy to protect Neoptolemos from the disaster that befell the rest of the Greeks on their way home, and aided him in other ways as well, so that by the time Neoptolemos was finished conquering Molossia in Epirus (and I have no idea why he was there or why he chose to conquer it, btw) Neoptolemos freed Helenos and gave him rule over Molossia while Neoptolemos set off for Sparta to claim his promised bride, Hermione, daughter of Menelaos and Helen.  In some versions, Neoptolemos also left behind his concubine Andromache and his three sons by her, while in other versions he took Andromache and their one son with him to Sparta.  (Yeah, even the number of kids changes.  That’s what makes compiling “master” versions of myths so deucedly tricky.)  Either way, after the death of Neoptolemos at Delphi, Andromache ends up in Molossia with Helenos, as his wife.  Helenos raises Neoptolemos’ son(s) along with the one son that Andromache bears to him.  So growing up alongside Achilles’ grandson(s) is a grandson of Priam.  (Given how much younger than Priam Achilles was, that’s totally insane, especially since the grandson of Priam is younger.)  Helenos’ son would be a prince–even though Helenos eventually hands over the throne of Molossia to Molossos, Neoptolemos’ oldest (or only) son–and the half-brother of the grandson(s) of Achilles.  With that privileged background, Helenos’ son might have had any number of children.  And given the way royal marriages worked in mythic times in ancient Greece, they probably would have intermarried with Molossos’ line.  And from Molossos’ line, I might add, came–according to their own beliefs–all of the royal families of Epirus and Macedonia in historical times, including Alexander the Great himself.

That just makes it all the more improbable that anyone who put any thought into the matter would have thought that Priam could have only one descendant left.  So it seems to me that either that story sprang up in an area where they didn’t know much about the more complicated post-Trojan War myths, or they had some other agenda in telling that story.  Without knowing the context, Philostratus may have made it up out of whole cloth to suit his philosophical purpose, for all I know.  (Plato, for example, would not have been above that.  In fact, he’s known to have done that very famously…)

In short…uh…I have been rambling pointlessly about something that has been on my mind lately…despite that it is totally meaningless and comes to no logical or rational conclusion.

But that’s just the way I am, I guess.

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