Phi is for Philoctetes

Published April 25, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Okay, I know, it’s supposed to be V.  But there’s no V in Greek, and I don’t feel like talking about Virgil right now.  So I’m subbing in the Greek letter Phi to take the place of V.  Since the rules said you weren’t removed from the challenge’s official list unless you missed five days in a row, I don’t think I’m being terribly unreasonable.  (And, let’s face it, I’m only doing this because it sounded fun.)

So, Philoctetes.  He’s one of the Greeks at the Trojan War, as you might expect coming from me.  (I know, I seem just slightly obsessed.  But I am doing my Master’s Thesis on Achilles, so…that’s only to be expected.)  However, Philoctetes is one of the lesser known of the Greek heroes, as he’s not in the Iliad, apart from a brief mention during the Catalog of Ships.  (Which is, of course, the first part that the casual reader is likely to skip over.)

Unlike Protesilaos, the other absent hero merely mentioned in the Catalog of Ships, Philoctetes isn’t absent because he’s dead.  No, he’s absent because he’s been exiled on an island halfway between Greece and Troy.

When the war started, no doubt Philoctetes was expecting to become a great hero, aiding them in winning the war more than anyone else.  And everyone else probably expected the same great things from him.  Why?  Because his weapon of choice was the Bow of Heracles, which never misses.  (How that works is not made clear.  But I’ve talked about it in my novel as the arrows literally chasing down fleeing prey, twisting and turning with them.  Which is possibly more fanciful than the ancients intended.)  From the story-teller’s perspective, that’s probably why Philoctetes had to be removed from the picture before they even reached Troy, because otherwise the war would have been won long before the tenth year.  (One shot fired at Hector, and it’d all be over, you know?)  Philoctetes has the Bow of Heracles because when Heracles lay dying on his pyre, no one was willing to light it, and Heracles bribed a passer-by (either the local king or a shepherd, depending on the version) to light it by giving him his magic bow and arrows (possibly with the fatal poison for the arrows, even).  That passer-by was usually Philoctetes’ father, but sometimes was Philoctetes himself.

And where did things go wrong for Philoctetes, you may ask?  Well, the Greek fleet stopped on this little island called Chryse, very near Lemnos.  Or maybe that was the name of the god who had an altar there.  Or maybe it was an isolated part of Lemnos itself.  Sources vary.  Wherever they were, the god had to be propitiated before the fleet could move on, and Philoctetes was the one making the sacrifice at the altar.  That’s when a snake slithered up and bit his foot.  He slew the thing, but his wound became infected.  Fast.  Like, instantly.  Which led to a conclusion that the serpent may have been a guardian of the altar, and that he had brought a curse upon himself by killing it.  It was so painful that he couldn’t bear the agony without crying out, and it released a foul-smelling pus so that no man could bear to be around him.  (And considering that soap hadn’t been invented yet, it must have really smelled bad if they couldn’t stand it!)

So the other Greeks elected to leave Philoctetes behind and sailed on without him.  Not that all of them were in on the decision, of course.  The island wasn’t big enough for all the kings and princes to have landed there.  (Unless it was, in fact, on Lemnos.)  Odysseus is always described as being ultimately responsible for the decision, and usually the Atreidai are considered to have been present and to have agreed with his decision.  (Atreidai = sons of Atreus, i.e. Agamemnon and Menelaos)  I don’t know for sure, because the summaries of the lost epics are vague, but I suspect that Odysseus was only made responsible for Philoctetes’ abandonment on the Athenian stage (where Odysseus was almost always depicted as a terrible villain), and that earlier it was less of a betrayal and more leaving him behind for his own good.  In fact, apparently he was originally bitten on Tenedos–right off the Anatolian coast–but still left behind on Lemnos, which would imply that he was actually taken back to friendly territory, with the expectation that he would rejoin them when his wound healed, only then it didn’t.  If that was the case, it must have made for a very different tale when he first rejoined the Greek forces.

In any case, Philoctetes had to spend the entire ten years of the war alone, hunting for his food, while the war raged on at Troy.  This was such a miserable period for him that he would have surrendered to death, if he had thought there was any way for his remains to get home to his family.  But there wasn’t, so he held on, hoping to be rescued.  (Though this would obviously have been very different if there were, in fact, early versions where he was left behind of his own will among allies, rather than having been abandoned alone in the middle of nowhere.)

Meanwhile, at Troy, late in the final year of the war, Achilles is killed, then Aias commits suicide over the insult to his honor, and the Greek army feels its morale plummet with both of its greatest heroes dead.  (Though they still have Diomedes, so you’d think they’d make him their new champion, but…for some reason they don’t.)  The captive seer Helenos, son of Priam, tells them they need three things to bring down his father’s city.  They need the Bow of Heracles, the son of Achilles, and the Palladion.  (Sometimes one or more of these things are predicted by Calchas, the seer from Mycenae, but it does usually seem to be Helenos predicting the need of all three of them.)  Different tellers change the order of operations regarding which is fetched first, but we’re not concerned with the Palladion right now, and only tangentially concerned with the son of Achilles.  (I talked about the Palladion when I was talking about Diomedes, if you’re interested in learning more about it.)

Now, unfortunately, most of the really good sources about the fetching of Philoctetes and his deeds at Troy are lost.  The epic cycle?  Lost.  The Philoctetes of Aeschylos?  Lost.  The Philoctetes of Euripides?  Lost.  But we do still have the Philoctetes of Sophocles, which was actually probably written after Euripides’, according to what I’ve read regarding the relative dates.  There’s also Quintus Smyrnaeus trying to take the place of the latter portion of the epic cycle, so we do have the whole story, but it’s a late version, which is never a proper substitute for an early one.

Apparently, in Aeschylos, Odysseus alone went to convince Philoctetes to rejoin the Greek forces at Troy.  And in Euripides, he took Diomedes with him.  In both these cases, the chorus is made of Lemnians, which must have made Philoctetes’ suffering all the worse, if there were men on the island and yet he still had to hunt for his food because they wouldn’t come near him!  It would seem that in Euripides’ version, there was also a Trojan delegation that wanted to gain Philoctetes and his bow for their own side.  (I’d have liked to read that!)  In Aeschylos, Philoctetes doesn’t recognize Odysseus because it’s been ten years, and in Euripides, he’s been disguised by Athene so he won’t be recognized.  (Much as she did for him on occasion in the Odyssey.)

Sophocles shook things up, though.  In his play, the chorus is made of sailors from Odysseus’ ship, because in his version, reality is suspended so that Lemnos is a deserted island.  And rather than bringing Diomedes to aid him, this time Odysseus brings Neoptolemos, son of Achilles, even though he’s usually brought to Troy after Philoctetes.

I won’t go into too much detail about the play, because it’s a masterful work, and everyone should read it for themselves.  (I know most people only know Sophocles’ Theban trilogy (and even there, the middle play is often ignored) but I find his Aias and Philoctetes are much more to my liking.)  I’ll just say that the Neoptolemos on display in Philoctetes–like the Achilles in Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis–is not the one we’re used to.  This Neoptolemos is green, untested, and still naive.  He’s very unlike the brutal killer who slaughtered Priam at the altar of Zeus, despite that that vicious act isn’t very far in his future.  (Unlike the difference in Achilles’ behavior in Iphigenia at Aulis and in the Iliad, which has at least nine full years of hard war as a period of transition.)

In any case, no matter who goes to get him, Philoctetes is brought to Troy, where one of the sons of Asclepios heals his foot.  (Usually.  There are a few pieces that imply that maybe he wasn’t healed.)  Then he finally takes his place among the others on the battlefield, and slays Alexander/Paris in single combat.  Usually, this is described as an archer-on-archer fight, but I think I read that there are implications that their duel is said to have been fought in the more usual method of swords and spears in one of the lost works.  (Which would be more than a little odd.  Why bother getting a magic bow if you’re not going to use it?)  You’d think Menelaos would be mad at him for stealing his kill, but apparently not.  After all, he can (and does) still abuse the corpse.  (You would also expect Neoptolemos to be angry at him for it, since Alexander/Paris is the mortal credited for Achilles’ death.  But Neoptolemos famously demanded recompense from Apollo for his father’s death, so…)

Philoctetes continues to take part in what little is left of the war, and is usually considered to be one of the men inside the Trojan Horse.  (Which is still the one part of the myth that really rubs me the wrong way. It’s just so…weird.  I really want to know how that story came about, but…without a time machine, I don’t think I’ll ever find out.)  And after the war is over, he sails away with his plunder.  Which is probably a lot less than everyone else’s, given how little time he spent sacking things.  But he was probably given a share of various other people’s treasure to entice him to join up again, so…

Philoctetes, like all the major heroes, does survive the storm when Athene sinks the fleet in her anger that the lesser Aias wasn’t punished for raping Cassandra in her temple.  (And while it’s wrong of her to harm the innocent slaves on board those ships, I think she was very justified in punishing the Greeks for letting him get away with raping a princess inside a temple while she’s clinging to the statue of a virgin goddess for sanctuary.)  As to what happens to Philoctetes afterwards, there are various versions, as always, but he usually seems to end up in exile in Italy, like many of the others.  (I’m pretty sure there’s even a version that has Odysseus end up in Italy.  Though I’m not positive about that.)  In most versions, he then offers up his bow as a gift to the god in a temple of Apollo.

It’s really weird how many of the Greek heroes seem to have deep and positive ties to Apollo after the war is over, considering that Apollo fought for the Trojans.  (In fact, he was originally a Trojan god, as far as we can tell.  And I was about to launch into a big spiel about the archaeological evidence for that, but I think I’m going to order up a particular book from inter-library loan which has the actual ancient texts in translation, and then do a separate post about it once I’ve read that.  That’ll help fill out the rest of the year.  (Yesterday’s post was 220 out of my goal of 335.  So there’s still a lot left.))

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