I is for Iphis

Published April 10, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

I’ve mentioned her before–and I’ll likely mention her again–but Iphis is one of the least known figures in Greek myths.  Seriously, she’s only mentioned like twice in all the surviving literature.  I have a general reference book called “Who’s Who in Classical Mythology” that has three entries under the name Iphis, and none of them are about the woman I’m talking about.  But most well-educated ancient Greeks probably knew about her, because one of those two surviving mentions was in one of the two texts that every boy learned from his pedagogue.  (Most girls, sadly, did not.)  Would you like to hear that mention?

Let me rephrase that, as I’m not about to record myself speaking it and put it up as an .mp3 or something.

Would you like to read the quote?  Because I’m going to quote it regardless:

Achilles slept in the hut, and beside him the rosy-cheeked Diomede, a daughter of Phorbas whom he had brought from Lesbos.  Patroclos lay opposite, and he also had his companion, Iphis, whom Achilles gave him after the capture of Scyros.  (W.H.D. Rouse translation, end of Book IX)

Okay, yes, I didn’t need to quote the first sentence, but it fits nicely with the only other surviving mention that I’m aware of.  (It’s not like I’ve read even a quarter of the surviving texts, after all.  But a search on the Perseus Project only turned up that line from the Iliad.  Which is odd, since the other mention is also on their site.)  The other mention is in Pausanias’ Description of Greece, in the book on Phocis and Ozolian Locri.  Chapter 25, section 4 is part of the description of a painting by Polygnotus depicting Troy just after it fell to the Greeks:

Briseis is standing with Diomeda above her and Iphis in front of both; they appear to be examining the form of Helen.  (Translation by W.H.S. Jones.)

Sadly, Pausanias doesn’t tell us anything about their facial expressions, nor does he voice any speculations regarding why they’re looking at Helen.  But presumably they’re wondering how this one woman has so managed to destroy their lives and is just sitting there calmly, having–essentially–gotten away with it.

Think about what these three women have gone through because of the war.  First, their homes were sacked by the Greeks (specifically, by Achilles) and we know for a fact that Briseis’ husband was slain before her eyes, and her three brothers were also killed when Lyrnessos was sacked.  (She doesn’t mention her father’s demise in her one speech in the Iliad, so presumably he had already died before the Greeks got there.)  It’s safe to assume that Iphis and Diomeda likewise lost all the men in their lives when their cities were sacked.

Then they lost their freedom, being made into slaves of the conquerors.

But as slavery went, theirs wasn’t so bad, because their primary duty–as far as we’re told (which is actually fairly extensively in Briseis’ case)–was to service a handsome man sexually.  (Granted, Briseis and Diomeda were sharing the same man, but he was a demi-god, so he probably had a lot of sexual energy to pass around.  I mean, look at all the women Zeus needed to sleep with on a regular basis!)

So there they are, enslaved but in love (or possibly just lust) with their captors.

Who then get themselves killed.

So these women lose the men in their lives once, become slaves and thus get new men in their lives, only to have those men die, too.  Surely, therefore, the point of that painting was them sitting there and thinking “how can she possibly be worth all we’ve suffered because of her?!”

Helen would probably have been in trouble if there hadn’t been a Greek man sitting there with her to protect her.

However, shifting gears back up to the quote from the Iliad, the mention of Scyros is a point of contention, and has been all the way back to classical times.  By the classical period, there was only one place named Scyros, and it was a Greek island.  In fact, it’s the island where Achilles’ son Neoptolemos was born and raised.

Which brings up the question of exactly what it means if Iphis is from Scyros.  If she was enslaved after the conquest of a Greek island, then that means they brought her with them to Troy, despite that one of the ideas in a war like that one is to take large numbers of people prisoner as slaves, as a way of feeding the army, and keeping the men happy sexually.  (They didn’t have money yet, so they had to trade slaves and other loot to Lemnos, the nearest Greek island, for food and other supplies.)  So the idea of taking a slave with them to Troy is a bit odd, to say the least.

But, just for the sake of argument, let’s reconstruct the basic chain of events that has been proposed–both in ancient and modern times–to explain how Iphis came to be given to Patroclos as a gift.

There were–for reasons hard to explain, but possibly entirely stemming from Helen’s comment in the Iliad that she’s been in Troy for 19 years–two sailings for Troy.  The Greek army sailed soon after Helen was taken, and got as far as Teuthrania, but then ended up failing to reach Troy, and were dispersed back to Greece.  So one of the basic versions of what happened in the ten year gap before the second sailing–the one that actually got there–says that Achilles’ ships fetched up on the island of Scyros.  (That is, in fact, pretty much always going to be the case, except in versions where he had spent six years there disguised as a girl.  In those versions, he never goes back.)  So some versions have him just randomly decide to marry the king’s daughter (in those versions’ defense, that was typical behavior, and may well have stemmed from actual Late Bronze Age customs, which I’ll be discussing later this month, most likely) but other versions have him decide to conquer the island.  Either because he didn’t know where he was and thought they were enemies, or because he knew that King Lycomedes had murdered Theseus and so he wanted to avenge him (perhaps even on his father’s orders), or just because he felt like it.  So, those versions have Iphis acquired at that time, and presumably in those versions Achilles still marries Deidameia as a way of legitimizing his having become king via conquest.  (Not that any text has ever referred to him as a king.  Not of Scyros, anyway.  Not as far as I know.)  But then those versions assume that Achilles would leave his own son behind in what is essentially enemy territory, while taking along the slave girl he’d given to Patroclos.  This is unlikely for a number of reasons, among which are the fact that I don’t think that there’s any version of the myth where Achilles would want to encourage Patroclos to pay attention to people who aren’t Achilles.  Even in the authors who treat them as nothing but friends, it’s still a monopolizing kind of relationship, so Iphis would in some ways be his rival, and he therefore wouldn’t want to expend time and energy bringing her to Troy.

But what’s the alternative?  Well, the alternative is that there was some other place named Scyros.  Presumably, some place on the Anatolian coast.  Someplace that it actually made sense for Achilles to have conquered it.  There are lots of other place names in the Iliad that were no longer attached to physical locations by the classical period, places in Greece.  For one of the Anatolian towns to be long gone and forgotten is hardly surprising.  Especially considering it’s one being mentioned because of its destruction.  (It should be noted that the home of Diomeda, Lesbos, was not a Greek island at the time.  By Sappho’s day, it was Greek, but in the Late Bronze Age, it was Hittite, and it was always listed prominently among Achilles’ conquests during the Trojan War, so when the Iliad was composed, it was still remembered that Lesbos used to be enemy territory.  So if Iphis’ home was someplace near Troy, then there’s a nice balance to the two references.)

As Occam’s razor would view it, that makes the Anatolian explanation the one more likely to be true.  (Certainly, all mentions of Neoptolemos in the Iliad are often viewed as suspected interpolations, and if they were added after the fact, that only increases the chances that Iphis’ Scyros was not the Greek Scyros.)  Personally, while I see a certain appeal in both versions, I admit that I, too, prefer the simpler explanation.  (Though if I ever write my novel about Iphis, I’m actually going to use the more complex one there.  If I ever write the danged thing.)

I’ve seen modern authors treat it both ways, and I’ve seen ancient authors do likewise.  Pausanias praised Homer for describing Achilles as having conquered Scyros instead of having been hidden among the women (though I personally doubt that story existed yet in Homeric times, but Pausanias would have had no way to know that) and someone described “Phrygian Scyros” as being among Achilles’ conquests.  I was sure it was Ovid, but when I ran a search, I couldn’t find the quote, so now I’m filled with doubt on that score.  But I know someone mentioned it!  And even if it wasn’t Ovid, I’m pretty sure it was a Roman.  But I really do feel like it was Ovid….maybe it wasn’t in the Heroides, like I had thought.  Maybe it was in the Metamorphoses…?

This is probably going to bug me until I can find that quote….


4/13 Edit:  I finally found it!  And it was Ovid, just like I thought!  But it was in the Metamorphoses, not the Heroides.  It’s from the quarrel over the armor of Achilles, when Odysseus–rather, Ulysses–is saying that he should be given the credit for everything Achilles accomplished at Troy, because he was the one who saw through Achilles’ feminine disguise, and he lists some of those achievements:

So his deeds are mine:  I overcame warring Telephus with my spear, and healed him with it, when he was defeated and begging for help.  It is due to me that Mysian Thebes fell; credit the capture of Lesbos to me, Tenedos to me, Chryse and Cilla the cities of Apollo, and Phrygian Scyros as well.  Imagine my right hand razed Lyrnesus’s walls to the ground.  (Translation by A.S. Kline)

I even had the page marked with a post-it note.

I feel so much better now that I’ve found it!  That was really bugging me…


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