D is for Diomedes

Published April 4, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Actually, a lot of names in Greek myth start with delta, but…Diomedes is the one I know the best, so he’s going to be easiest for me to talk about quickly and get back to work.

Of course, there are actually two different men named Diomedes in the major Greek myths.  One is a Thracian king who owned mares that ate human flesh, and the usual end of his tale is that Heracles feeds him to those mares while he’s fetching the horses as one of his labors.  He’s not the one I want to talk about.  (Though it’s worth noting that the cruel tyrant Diomedes is a son of Ares, who was strongly associated with Thrace, and sometimes even said to live there.  The heroic Diomedes has little divine blood.)

The Diomedes I’ll be talking about is one of the heroes of the Trojan War.  His father was Tydeus, one of the Seven who marched against Thebes in the bitter war between the two sons of Oedipus.  (Interesting fact:  in some early versions, the children of Oedipus had not been fathered on his wife/mother.  It was probably only the tragedies of the Athenian stage that made that become the dominant view.  (Though I admit that I’m not sure which version the fragmentary Theban epic cycle presents…))  Anyway, because of that, Tydeus died while Diomedes was just an infant, so he never really knew his father.  But–like his father–he was a favorite of Athene, goddess of wisdom and warfare.  Because Diomedes wasn’t just a powerhouse on the battlefield, he was also a clever thinker.

In his youth, Diomedes joined the other sons of the Seven, the Epigoni, to conquer Thebes in vengeance for the deaths of their fathers.  However, I recall that somewhere it was stated that the Epigoni marched on Thebes ten years after their fathers died there, and that the first sailing for Troy was ten years after that, which would make Diomedes only ten or eleven when he sacked Thebes, and the youngest among the Achaians at Troy, which just isn’t true.  Antilochos, son of Nestor, is usually said to be the youngest–though Nestor does comment at one point on how Diomedes is so young that he’s comparable in age to Nestor’s youngest son, so perhaps Diomedes isn’t that much older than Antilochos.  However, Diomedes is also usually said to have been among the suitors of Helen, which would…well, actually, that gets at the nub of a lot of major problems.  Because Antilochos is also said to have been one of Helen’s suitors, hence the reason he (and his aging father) were at Troy.  But the usual reason given for Achilles not having been one of her suitors is that he was too young.  Which would make him both younger and older than Antilochos and Diomedes at the same time.  Because at some point in the distant past–at least by the Hellenistic era, and most likely much earlier than that–someone decided to try to compile multiple variants on oral traditions spanning centuries in widely disparate regions into a single “canon.”  Which is, of course, impossible.  But they tried it anyway, usually with little success.  (Apollodorus, for example, frequently gave different versions back to back, joining them together with a “but some say this happened” type explanation.  Better than trying to tell them all as if they were one story:  I saw a modern book where the author had tried to combine all three major versions of the fate of the children of Jason and Medea, which meant that he had to multiply the number of sons from 2/3 to at least 5, and claim that one of them “must have lived long enough to reproduce”…which would of course mean that he was no longer the defenseless child that the myth requires to make any danged sense!  (Whether you want to take the “murdered by their own mother” version, or the less misogynistic/xenophobic “murdered by Corinthian mobs” version, either way a grown man would be able to defend himself.  Even if he was still killed, it would no longer be the slaughter of a helpless innocent, but the death in combat of a man.  Still a bad thing, yes, but one that would be described entirely differently, especially by ancient authors.))

Ahem.  Sorry.  Got off topic there.  So, back to Diomedes.  As you’d expect, most of the tales regarding him take place at Troy, though he’s sometimes said to have been involved in fetching Achilles from his hiding place on Scyros among the daughters of Lycomedes.  I think some late authors might have also implicated him, as well as his buddy Odysseus, in the plot to bring Iphigenia to Aulis to sacrifice her, but…I’m not sure about that, and it’d take too long to go look it up.  I should be doing my homework right now, so…maybe I’ll fix this at a later date.

The major episodes involving Diomedes are the “Deeds of Diomedes” and the slaying of Rhesus, both in the Iliad, and the fetching of the Palladion out of Troy, which is not covered in any major surviving text.  (Quintus Smyrnaeus, the only ancient author whose lengthy account of the fall of Troy survives, for some reason entirely left out the Palladion.  Possibly because he wanted to portray all of the heroes in the most ideal light possible, and it’s impossible to whitewash everyone in that story; someone has to come out looking bad.)

“The Deeds of Diomedes”

It’s the nickname of one of the sections of the Iliad, because Diomedes totally dominates it.  In the battle that ensues after Alexander is snatched to safety by Aphrodite following his laughably pathetic performance in the duel against Menelaos, Diomedes is causing so much carnage to the Trojan foe that when Pandaros wounds him with an arrow, he boasts that he’s killed the greatest of the Achaians.  (If Achilles heard that, he’d have a fit!)  Diomedes eventually pays Pandaros back for that with a spear to the face.  (The Iliad gets surprisingly gory sometimes…)  Following that, he has his fight with Aineias.  (Or Aeneas, for all you Roman-lovers out there.)  Because Pandaros had been travelling through the battle in Aineias’ chariot, which was pulled by Aineias’ fine horses, illicitly sired by some divine horses belonging to King Priam.  (Seriously, Anchises snuck some mares (in season) into the field where those horses were grazing, so he could get some of that divine horse stock for his own.  The horses were a gift to the royal family of Troy from Zeus himself, to apologize for having snatched away Ganymede in a whirlwind.  (The eagle–and pederastic angle–were a later addition to the tale.  In the Iliad, Ganymede was taken by a whirlwind, and all the gods favored him equally and innocently.))  Anyway, Diomedes wanted those horses, and after telling his retainer to grab them as soon as possible, he goes to deal with Aineias.  He didn’t think the son of Aphrodite was worth bothering with, however, and just smashed him in the hip with a rock.  Sometimes, the use of rocks in the Iliad is just a way to break up the monotony of the combat, another weapon equal to the bronze ones.  (Like in the fight between Aias and Hector.)  When Diomedes used that rock on Aineias, on the other hand, it felt downright dismissive.  And it was extremely effective:  he smashed the hip and part of the pelvis.  (The poet was well versed in the structure of the human skeleton…which is sort of disturbing, when you think about it.  They didn’t have anatomical dummies and detailed medical charts like we do…so he had to know those bones from having seen them first hand.)  Anyway, Aphrodite steps in to save her beloved son…but Athene had earlier in the fight removed the veil from Diomedes’ sight so that he could see the gods fighting among the mortals, and had told him that he must pursue no god other than Aphrodite.  Meaning that as Aphrodite is running away with her son in her arms, Diomedes is chasing after her, trying to kill Aineias in her arms.  He ends up scratching her hand, at which point she drops her son and flees the field of battle in Ares’ chariot, running back to her mother, Dione, for healing and comfort.  (The more familiar “she rose fully developed out of the sea” origin story for Aphrodite comes from Hesiod.  In the Iliad, her father is Zeus and her mother is Dione, which is basically a female version of the name Zeus (Dios), meaning that in earlier times, Dione was probably his wife, and Hera was a local Argive goddess who usurped the position of queen of the gods, which would be why her cultic and mythic personae are so at odds with each other.)

So, perhaps you’re wondering how Aineias survived after his mother fled in defeat?  Apollo then took over the rescue, and–despite orders to the contrary–Diomedes tried to chase him down, too!  But Apollo eventually got away with the unconscious demi-god, and he and Artemis repaired his hip.

But that wasn’t the end of Diomedes’ divine encounters in that battle!  He also found himself facing Ares on the field, and when he seemed reluctant to strike the god of war, Athene chided him for cowardice, rebuking him for being so unlike his brave father (also pointing out their physical dissimilarity, since Tydeus had been a small man and Diomedes is among the largest, meaning that he ought to have been braver, not less brave), then rode with him in his chariot to go and stab Ares in the stomach with a spear.

My favorite part about all that is that when Ares goes up to Olympos for healing and sympathy, he only gets the former.  Aphrodite is pampered and soothed by her mother, Artemis is comforted (and somewhat patronized) by her father regarding the cruel abuse she received from her step-mother, but Ares is insulted.  Seriously, Zeus tells him, point blank, that he hates him.  The god of war is told that he’s the most hated of all the gods, in the midst of an epic poem about a war.  I love that.

Anyway, Diomedes also has a run-in with Glaucos, grandson of Bellerophon, during this section of the Iliad, but I’ll be talking about that later this month, so we’ll set that aside for now and move on to

The Death of Rhesus

Book X of the Iliad is sometimes considered to have been a later interpolation, in that it has nothing whatsoever to do with the main theme of the epic, the wrath of Achilles.  While it might well be an interpolation, if it is, then–in my opinion–it probably came from a much older epic.  And why do I think that?  Because one of its details is so very ancient.  The early portion of the book is where the description of a boar’s tusk helmet comes from; Diomedes and Odysseus are going to conduct a night raid/scouting expedition, but they’re not fully equipped when they arrive at the meeting, so rather than waste time going back to their huts for equipment, they’re given/loaned the equipment they need by others who are at the meeting.  Since Odysseus hasn’t got a helmet with him, Meriones (squire/nephew of Idomeneus, King of Crete) presents him with a boar’s tusk helmet that, appropriately enough, had once been stolen by Odysseus’ grandfather, Autolycos, the master thief and son of Hermes.  Not only were boar’s tusk helmets a bit of Mycenaean kit that was long extinct by Homer’s day, but there’s another wrinkle here:  the helmet Meriones gives to Odysseus is about a hundred years old (judging by the list of its former owners), and by the time when the Trojan War would have taken place, in the terminal Late Bronze Age, boar’s tusk helmets would have been about a hundred years out of date.  To me, that’s one of the strongest bits of evidence that a strong oral culture preserved bits of information–even if only odd details like relative ages of types of armor–for many centuries after the Bronze Age ended.  (Which is not to say that I think the Trojan War happened as the myth tells it, or even anything particularly close to it.  But the myth may well be the result of a fusion of a pre-existing myth and a war that really did take place.  Though that’s just my own, decidedly amateur opinion.)

Anyway, I’m not actually going to describe the death of Rhesus right now, after all, because I just remembered that he’s slated for R in the whole A-to-Z thing.  (Because I really don’t feel like talking about Rhea.)  That just leaves

The Theft of the Palladion

Of all the major events in the Trojan War, there are few as unknown as the theft of the Palladion.  And by that I don’t mean that it’s something most people today haven’t heard of (though I suspect that is, indeed, also the case) but rather I mean that it’s something we have very little knowledge about.  As I said above, there is no detailed account of it.  It would have been in one of the lost poems of the epic cycle–I’ve forgotten if it was the Little Iliad or the Sack of Troy–and so all we have is the summary by Proclus, which isn’t very informative.  In fact, I think the summary barely even mentions it.  (I think I last read up on this particular topic last summer, so some of the details have grown a bit fuzzy.)

We have various other fragments and references, of course, but it’s all vague and unclear.  What we know for sure is that a soothsayer–either Calchas of the Greeks or the captive Trojan prince Helenos–has said that Troy cannot fall so long as the Palladion rests within its walls.  The Palladion, I should mention, is a holy relic, a statue of the goddess Athene which fell to earth from Mt. Olympos and was supposed to have been fashioned by Hephaistos himself.  (Since both of those deities favor the Greek side in the war, this in itself is odd.)  Of course, it’s hard to swallow the “Troy can’t fall while it has this holy statue” story, considering that it fell to Heracles a generation earlier, but the Palladion was said to have come to the city in the time of its founder.

Anyway, it’s decided that someone will have to sneak into the city and remove the Palladion so that the city can at last be destroyed.  Diomedes and Odysseus will be involved–either because they’re the craftiest or because they’re favored by Athene–and though the mission is a success, it ends with a quarrel between the two friends.  And that’s where the certainties end.  Even the chronology is unclear:  of the three major post-Achilles, pre-sack events (theft of the Palladion, fetching of Philoctetes, fetching of Neoptolemos) the order varies from author to author, and some later authors (primarily Virgil, if I’m recalling the Aeneid correctly) claim that the Palladion was taken before the Iliad took place.

So, what are the main versions of the theft of the Palladion?  Well, in some versions, Odysseus sneaks into the city in the disguise of a beggar, at which time he meets Helen, who recognizes him, and they conspire together.  In some of these versions, Queen Hecabe is also brought into the mix, and she extorts a promise from Odysseus that he will protect her and her children when the city falls. (A promise he breaks, naturally.)  There seem to be versions where Odysseus makes as many as three trips into Troy in the post-Iliad days, though how many of them are directly related to the Palladion is unclear.

Diomedes only goes on the one trip into the city.  And it would seem that in most–if not all–versions, he’s the one who emerges carrying the Palladion.  At which time Odysseus, either wanting glory or expecting betrayal, attempts to kill him, only to be beaten back and driven back to camp while being prodded by Diomedes’ sword.  (This, apparently, gave rise in ancient times to a saying about “Diomedean compulsion”…which seemed to have several different meanings, depending on what you believed about the story in question.)  Another version has Odysseus attempt to tell Diomedes that what he’s stolen is a fake commissioned by King Priam, at which point the statue jumps in protest at the accusation of being a fake, and Odysseus again ends up being beaten back to camp at the tip of Diomedes’ sword.  (But why would Athene betray her favorite?  Although it seems that Diomedes and Achilles are also her favorites.  Despite that Achilles is actually a bit stupid around the edges.)

There are other variations on that theme in literature, but the one that fascinates me is the one that exists only in vase paintings, in which both Diomedes and Odysseus are depicted holding the Palladion.  Presumably, that means that there was a version of the tale in which King Priam really had commissioned a duplicate to fool the Greeks, and one of them had stolen the duplicate, and one had stolen the real Palladion, and they’re fighting about which one got the real one, and thus the glory.  (There’s also another version where the main fight between them isn’t over the the glory of stealing it, but the glory of keeping it as they’re all preparing to sail home following the war.  And in that version, sometimes Aias of Salamis is still alive after the sack, and he, too, wants to keep it, only then he turns up dead in the morning, with the implication that Odysseus murdered him in order to keep the Palladion for himself.)

Sadly, there are no literary accounts of the theft, so we don’t have any details of any of the various traditions.  (My source on all this stuff is the excellent Early Greek Myth by Timothy Gantz.  If you’re interested in the different versions of various myths–and most of them had a lot of variations–and what we know of the chronology of same, you need to read that book.  It’s long–split into two volumes for the paperback–but it’s divided into neat myth-by-myth sections, so you can just read the part you’re trying to research.)

After the War

In case you’re wondering, Diomedes did not get away with wounding a goddess, not in the long run.  We’re told right there in the Iliad that he’ll never return to his wife and home because Aphrodite would never forgive him for having scratched her hand.  Interestingly, the implication there is that he’s going to die in the war.  But I know of no version wherein that happens.

Instead, what happens is that, like a lot of the other kings, he gets back to Argos only to discover that his wife has taken a new husband.  Diomedes was only king of Argos because he married the previous king’s daughter–this was common at the time, and many of the other Achaians (including Menelaos!) gained their thrones the same way–so he gets chased out of Argos, and ends up traveling westward, fetching up, like many of his comrades, in what we now call Italy.  Diomedes specifically ends up in Apulia, and in the Aeneid, some of Aeneas’ enemies send to Diomedes asking for help against him and his Trojans, but Diomedes sends a reply saying that he won’t fight the son of Aphrodite–sorry, of Venus–again.  Of course, Virgil describes Diomedes as being scared of Aeneas’ mighty power, but…yeah, that’s so not the case.  Diomedes didn’t even think Aineias was worth bothering with, and bashed him with a rock to get him out of the way.  Fear does not enter into it.  Not fear of the mortal man, anyway.  Fear of his immortal mother, that’s another matter entirely.  Because in most versions, Aphrodite drove Diomedes’ wife to betray him, out of her anger at having been wounded.

In any case, Diomedes spends his final days/years in Italy, and in at least one version actually meets his death at the hands of his old foe Aeneas.  But there are other versions where, rather than dying in the normal sense, he gets turned into a bird with all his companions soon after arriving.  Myths are sometimes weird like that.

One Last Word

You recall how I mentioned at the top that there are two major mythical characters named Diomedes?  There’s also a female slave in Achilles’ possession in the Iliad named Diomede, just to add to the confusion.  That may not sound confusing, except that if you look at old translations of Latin texts–Virgil and especially Ovid–they sometimes leave the “s” off of the name Diomedes, so that he also becomes called Diomede.  If that tradition also held true in older translations of Greek works, then that must have made the one line of the Iliad that mentioned Diomede shockingly confusing, since she was only mentioned because Achilles was heading to bed with her!  (Now that I come to say it like that, those older translations probably just left that line out altogether.  Wouldn’t want the hero heading off to have sex with a slave, especially a slave he’s not married to!)

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