X is for Xanthos

Published April 28, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

I know I implied earlier that I might talk about xenia, guest-friendship, today, but…yeah, I’m feeling too mentally drained today for that.  Plus I’d rather do a bit more research first and avoid saying something bass-ackwards only to smack myself weeks/months later.

So instead, I’m talking about Xanthos, one of the immortal horses who pull Achilles’ chariot in the Iliad.  (Xanthos is also an alternate name for the River Scamander.  And the name of another river elsewhere.)

The word xanthos means yellow or tawny, and when applied to horses it’s usually translated as bay, but when applied to human hair it means either blonde or auburn.  (Side note, it’s the word used to describe Achilles’ hair in Book I of the Iliad.)  So Xanthos is a bay stallion, and he and his brother Balios were fathered by Zephyros, the West Wind, on the Harpy Podarge.

Why Wind + Harpy = Horse is beyond my comprehension.

Furthermore, I don’t want to think about it too closely.

Anyway, as you might expect, Xanthos spends most of his time pulling chariots around.  It’s probably not a very fun life.  What with the whole death and carnage and pulling chariots over dead bodies thing.

Technically, Xanthos and Balios actually belong to Peleus, Achilles’ father.  They were one (or, rather, two) of the many fabulous wedding gifts given to Peleus when he married Thetis.  Sometimes they’re gifts from Zeus (who is Peleus’ grandfather, btw), and sometimes they’re gifts from Poseidon, since he’s the god of horses, among other things.  No matter who gave them to Peleus, he sent them to Troy with Achilles, but they’re still referred to in the epic as belonging to Peleus.

A few interesting tidbits about Xanthos from the Iliad.  When Achilles is sending Patroclos out to fight, he lends him his horses and chariot, despite that he forbids Patroclos from leaving the camp.  Given that the camp is spread out across the beach where they’ve landed their 1000+ ships, I suppose needing a chariot to get around inside the camp isn’t so odd.  Of course, the charioteer Automedon goes, too, so that Patroclos can fight, rather than waste time on the horses.  (Though during the funeral games, Achilles says that Patroclos was the finest charioteer his horses ever had.)

When Patroclos is killed, Hector immediately tries to get the immortal horses for himself (Dolon already wanted them, too, leading to his own demise) because he can see that Automedon isn’t able to control them.  Despite that controlling them is his sole job as a charioteer.  But, of course, the horses are wild with grief for Patroclos’ death, and Zeus takes pity on them, giving them the strength to escape.

When Achilles sets out to battle, preparing for his vengeance on Hector, he reproaches his horses for having failed to save Patroclos when he was in danger, and says that they had better not do that to him, too!  But Achilles was in for a surprise, because Xanthos actually answered him!

for Hera gave him speech:  he suddenly bowed his head till his mane fell under the yoke-pad and swept the ground, and spoke in a human voice:

“Sure enough we will save you yet this time, mighty Achilles.  But the day of your death is near. We are not to blame, but a great god and compelling fate.  No slowness or tardiness of ours let the Trojans tear the armour from Patroclos; but that most powerful god, the son of beauteous Leto, slew him in the forefront of the fray and gave Hector his triumph.  We could run swift as the west wind, lightest of all the winds that blow; but it is your own fate to fall by the strength of a god and a man.”

He said no more, for the Avengers checked his speech.  (Trans. W.H.D. Rouse, end of Book XIX)

Personally, I think it’s more fun to ignore that first clause, and assume they could always talk, not that this was a momentary gift of Hera for reasons unknowable. 😛

However, confession time!  Okay, I know that when he wrote “the Avengers,” he meant the Furies.  I’d seen that mentioned elsewhere many times.  But…but…but…!  That was so not what I pictured when I read that line.  I didn’t even picture John Steed and Mrs. Peel!  Nope.  Of course I was thinking about Thor bashing Xanthos with his hammer.  Of course I was!  He’s dreamy!

Ahem.  Yes.  Anyway.  There you have it, the world’s first (known) talking horse.

(In my YAish novels, I ignored the “Hera gave him speech” bit, and had Balios still able to talk.  Because it seemed cool to have a talking horse.  Plus they actually needed him to be able to speak by the later books, when Pegasus showed up, so he could communicate with them.  Maybe that was wrong of me, to do something I knew was incorrect…?)

Anyway, after Achilles’ death, Xanthos and Balios continue to pull his chariot, only pulling it for his son Neoptolemos instead.  I’ve no idea what happened to them after his death.  (According to Quintus Smyrnaeus, they took Neoptolemos’ shade straight to the Elysian Fields upon his death.  That one’s new to me.  He’s not really the Elysian Field type, y’know?  What with the whole “murdering a helpless old man who’s taking shelter at an altar to Zeus” thing and all.  Though Quintus re-wrote that episode in such a way that he pulled out all its teeth, of course…)

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