Featured Philoktetes - the Story of a Lonely and Tortured

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Jochen1, Jul 22, 2019.

  1. Jochen1

    Jochen1 Well-Known Member

    Dear Friends of ancient mythology!

    A small coin but a great story!

    The Coin:
    Thessaly, Lamia, in the name of the Malienses, 400-344 BC
    AE 15, 1.69g, 15.24mm, 180°
    obv. Head of Athena r., wearing Corinthian helmet and necklace
    rev. MALIEWN (in l. field from bottom to top)
    Philoktetes, nude, with sidestep stg. r., shooting his bow; before him, a bird falling
    on the ground below; before him his quiver
    ref. SNG Copenhagen 87; Rogers 384, fig. 197; SNG Evelpidis 1540; Moustaka 41;
    Georgioiu, mint 16; BCD Thessaly II, 125; Lindgren II, 1397
    rare, F+, brown Patina
    Lamia was the eastern city of the Malienses in the Phthiotis in Thessaly. The city was situated at the foot of the mountains at the northern end of the plain which is traversed by the river Sperchios (Wikipedia). Today it is Zeitun or Zeituni. Strangely the Kleiner Pauly writes Lamis which I didn't found anywhere elese. Maybe a typo? The eponym of Lamia was Lamos or Lamios, the son of Herakles and Omphale, probably the attempt to trace back the two princely houses to Herakles.

    As usual there are several different mythologies for Philoktetes too which even sometimes are contradictory. I will point to them at various places.

    His name litterally means something like "someone who loves property". Probably this should express that he was the owner of large herds of cattle.

    Philoktetes was the son of king Poias of Meliboia in Thessaly, son of Thaumakos, and his wife Demonassa (Hygin. Fab. 102). It is reported that he was one of the Argonauts when they were sailing to Kolchis on search for the Golden Fleece. Later on he became one of the closest compagnions of Herakles and was his armour-bearer.

    Philoktetes and the Apotheosis (Ascension to Heaven) of Herakles
    When once Deianeira, wife of Herakles, was jealous he gave Herakles the shirt of the Kentaur Nessos, in the belief that it contains a spell of love and thus Herakles' love to her would wake up again. But the shirt was soaked with the poisonous blood of the Kentaur. When Herakles put on the shirt he was tortured by endless pain and the toxic shirt burnt into his skin. Because nothing was able to help him, he decided to die. He let bring himself on top of the mountain Oita where Hyllos, his favourite, piled up a big pyre. But there was nobody to set fire to the heap. Finely Philoktetes (others say Poias, his father, or Iolaos, compagnion of Herakles) brought himself to undertake this last friendly turn. Gratefully Herakles handed over to him his bow and the poisoned arrows which were dipped into the blood of the Hydra. Philoctetes had to swear the solemn oath never to reveal the place of his death to nobody (Diodor. Sic.). Then under lightning and thunder Herakles was transferred to the Olympos (Apollor. Bibliotheka II, 128-167). There is a beautiful picture on an Attic amphora where Herakles, now young again, enters the chariot of Athena, to be driven to heaven.

    It is told too, that Philoktes travelled to Sparta where he courted Helena. At this time he must have been somewhat older. When Helena decided to marry Menelaos, king of Mycenae, all other freer had taken a solemn oath to guard Helena forever. This was done on the advice of Odysseus to prevent the freer from struggle. This oath was the reason that Menalos asked Philoktetes to sail to Troy with the Achaean when Helena has run off with Paris

    Philoktetes on Lemnos:
    When the Achaeans sailed against Troy Philoktetes led the warriors of Magnesia in Thessaly on seven ships to Troy (Ilias III, 71). Actually Lamia didn't belong to the 4 cities which were mentioned by Homer, but it was close nearby. When they stopped on the way to Troy at the Island of Chryse (referring to others at the Island of Tenedos) to sacrifice at the altar of Apollo Smintheus, which was said to be erected by Iason, leader of the Argonauts, Philoktetes has been bitten in the foot by a snake. The wound wouldn't heal, began to fester and stunk terribly. Moreover his cries of pain were so loud that they were disturbing the Greeks when they want to sacrifice or to pray. Odysseus began to fear for the fighting morale of the Greeks and persuaded them to abandon Philoktetes on the island of Lemnos. His warriors were committed to Medon.

    Why Philoktetes has been bitten? There are different explanations:
    (1) The snake was sent by Hera who want to punish him because he has helped her deadly enemy Herakles on the pyre.

    (2) He has been punished because he has broken the solemn oath never to reveal the
    location of Herakles' death. One version reports that he has done that without speaking but only by a movement of his foot. Therefore he has been bitten on his foot.

    On Lemnos he lived for 10 years in lonelyness and misery, like Robinson Crusoe but without a Friday. He retired to a cave and lived on birds which he shooted down with his arrows. This too is the theme depicted on the reverse of my coin.

    Referring to others he was not alone but was alimented by Phimachos, a herdsman of king Aktor. (Hygin. Fab.). In any case all are agreed that he led a miserable life on Lemnos. And one should not forget, that all the years he was horribly tortured by the incurable wound on his foot! Understandably enough he developed a big grudge against the Greeks, yes, he hated and cursed them.

    In the meantime the Greeks have besieged Troy for 10 years without being able to conquer it. After the death of the Great Ajas and after Paris has killed Achilles the Greeks were discouraged and the opinion grew to abandon the siege. But then they succeeded in capturing Helenos, a son of king Priamos and brother of Kassandra. Helenos like his sister was gifted with visionary abilities too and after some torture by the Greeks he betrayed that the Greeks could capture Troy only if they would perform 3 requirements:

    (1) Neoptolemos, the son of Achilles, has to come to Troy
    (2) In the possession of Troy was the Palladion, a wooden statue of Athena. Owning this statue Troy was unvincible.
    (3) Troy could be conquered only with the bow and arrows of Philoktetes.

    To bring Neoptolemos to Troy was easy. To steal the Palladion Odysseus and Diomedes slunk to Troy one night and brought it into the Greek camp. To get Philoctetes and his bow was considerable more difficult. Agamemnon sent Odysseus and Diomedes (or Neoptolemos, so Sophokles) to Lemnos to persuade Philoktetes to come to Troy. Here too we have several different versions which differ by the behaviour of Philoktetes:

    (1) They succeeded in persuading Philoktetes to forget his grudge against the Greek and to help his brothers in this situation of heavy distress. This question of conscience is the main theme of the great ancient tragedies.
    (2) Odysseus and Diomedes stole bow and arrows when Philoktetes was sleeping in his

    In any case finely we find him in front of Troy and he was cured by the Greek physician Machaos (or his brother Podaleirios, both sons of Asklepios). Then in a duel he killed Paris with his arrows, and revenged the death of Achilles. The end is well known: Troy was taken.

    The further fate of Philoktetes:
    It is told that Philoktetes after his return from Troy was expelled from his hometown Meliboia by insurgents and went to Italy where he founded the city of Petilia in Calabria and the city of Krimissa near Kroton. He there established the Bruttii. The bow of Heracles he devoted to Apollo and hung it up in the temple of Apollo in Krimissa. It is said that he died in a regional war against the Pelleni and was interred at the river Sybaris. There he should have been worshipped as a god (Vergil).

    The myth of Philoktetes seems to be Pre-Homeric. He is mentioned by Homer only briefly in his Iliad in the Catalogue of Ships (Hom. Il. 2, 494-759), and in his Odyssee (3, 190) it is reported that he returned home.

    The great Greek tragedians took up the theme. Aischylos, Euripides and Sophokles have written tragedies. The story is told too by Vergil, Pindar, Seneca, Quintilian and Ovid. Sadly the works of Aischylos and Euripides are lost. But Dion of Prusa (orat. 52) has compiled the content of these works and compared with Sophokles which we have completely. So at least we know their intentions.

    Hederich is holding the bad fate of Philoktetes for a just punishment because he has broken the solemn oath which he had sworn to Herakles. An oath has to be kept even to the dead.

    Referring to F. Marx (1904) Philoktetes was at home on Lemnos, and because his fate has similarities with that of Hephaistos - both were expelled and then incorporated into the community again - he suggested that he is a hypostasis of Hephaistos who too is originated from Lemnos.

    L. Rademacher sees the bite of the snake and the abandonment as a punishment for invading at the Nymph Chryse and suggests in connection with the name Φιλο - κτητης an old treasure seeker myth.

    It is remarkanble that in the present the ancient Philoktetes subject is used for the overcoming of the posttraumatic syndrom of American soldiers, e.g. of returnees from the Iraq or from Afghanistan. Look at Bryan Doerries The Philoctetes Project (New York 2005 und 2008).

    History of Art:
    Known is an epigram of Glaukos of Nikopolis who celebrates the pic of the Greek painter Parrhasios (about 400 BC) showing Philoktetes. The pic is lost but a silver cup from the Augustan time (now in Copenhagen) seems to be an echo. It shows Philoctetes seated on a rock, the wounded foot extended, and looking at Odysseus who is seated in front of him.

    We know an Attic Vase in the Louvre and one in the Metropolitan Museum in New York:

    (1) Detail of an Attic red-figured stamnos of Hermonax (c.460 BC), today in the
    Louvre/Paris: The wounded Philoktetes abandoned by the Greeks
    A stamnos was a big-bellied vase similar to an amphora, A short neck and 2 horizontal
    handles. It served for the storage of wine and oil. Created probably in Lakonia or Etruria. Typical with lid. Known too as pelike.

    (2) Attic red.figured squat lekythos, c.420 BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York:
    Philoktetes at Lemnos
    A lekythos was an ancient Greek vase for the storage of e.g. olove oil. The squat
    usually has a height not over 20cm, has a domed belly and a plane base.

    The motive of Herakles' Apotheosis naturally was suitabele for depictions on graves. In the museum of Carnuntum (Lower Austria) we find a grave relief from the 2nd century AD: The dying Herakles on the pyre presents his bow to his friend Philoktetes. At his right side Athena is waiting to lead him to heaven (Wikipedia).

    In the modern era the theme was taken up again. A short selection:

    (1) Painting of J. Barry (1770; Bologna, PN)
    (2) Nikolaj Abraham Abildgaard (1743-1809), Philoctetes, 1775, Statens Museum for
    Kunst, Copenhagen: Philoctetes with tortured face kneeling r., holding his hurting foot.
    (3) Germain-Jean Drouais (1763-1788), Philoctète dans l'île de Lemnos, 1788, Oil on
    canvas, Chartres, Musée des Beaux-Arts: Philoktetes with face distorted with pain seating in his cave, fanning with a big wing cooling to his hurting foot.

    (4) Guillaume Guillon-Lethiere (1760-1832), Philoctetes on the Island of Lemnos
    (1798, Louvre/Paris): Philoktetes with bow and quiver over back with tortured face
    climbing on rock chasing birds. This picture I have chosen because it shows the same
    motive as on my coin

    (5) P.-P. Proudhon (1807; Ponce, Mus.)
    (6) und finally a plaster sculpture of A. v. Hildebrands (1886; Florenz, S. Francesco)

    (1) Homer, Ilias 2, 716-725
    (2) Homer, Odyssee 3, 190; 8, 219
    (3) Hyginus, Fabulae
    (4) Apollodor, Bibliotheke, Epitome 3, 14-27, 5, 8, 6, 15b
    (5) Sophokles, Philoktetes
    (6) Ovid, Metamorphoses 13, 46-55

    Secondary literature:
    (1) Benjamin Hederich, Gründliches mythologisches Lexikon, 1770 (online too)
    (2) Wilhelm Heinrich Roscher, Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen
    Mythologie, Teubner 1897-1902 (online too)
    (3) Der Kleine Pauly
    (4) Karl Kerenyi, Mythology of the Greek Vol. II
    (5) Robert von Ranke-Graves, Greek Mythology
    (6) Aghion/Barbillon/Lissarrague, Lexikon der antiken Götter und Heroen in der Kunst,
    Reclam 2000

    Excursus: The Reception of Sophokles' Philoktetes in Modernity

    It is remarkable that in the 20th century there was a new interest in the Philoktetes theme. It all began with Andre Gide in 1899, then in 1947 came out the Philoktet by Bernt von Heiseler, who at the time belonged to the literary canon of German grammar schools. The reason was probably that here problems were taken up, which were highly topical particularly in Germany after the 2nd World War: The conflict between freedom of the individual and coercion of society.

    It turns out that the philoctet material still has something to say in our time. And the story is not yet over: in 2009 Jean-Pierre Simeon published his play "Philoctete. Variation a partir de Sophocle", which was performed with great success in Paris.

    I have added
    (1) a pic of Sophokles from the portrait statue in the Musei Vaticani/Rome (Photo from the Kunstsammlung Erlangen, so.called "Lateran type")

    (2) a set design from the Philoktetes des Sophokles with the great German actor
    Ulrich Wildgruber

    Modern Literature (a selection):

    (1) Andre Gide, Philoctete, 1899
    (2) Rudolf Pannwitz, Philoktetes, 1913
    (3) Bernt von Heiseler, Philoktet, 1947
    (4) Heiner Müller, Philoktet, 1965
    (5) Walter Jens, Der tödliche Schlag, 1974
    (6) Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy, 1991

    Secondary literature:
    (1) Eckard Lefevre, Philoktetes Wandlungen der Sophokles-Tragödie im 20.
    Jahrhundert: 12 Dramen von André Gide bis Seamus Heaney, Rombach, 2012
    (2) Eckard Lefevre, Sophokles' und Bernt von Heiselers Philoktet, in: Anton Bierl u.a. (Hrsg.): Orchestra : Drama, Mythos, Bühne ; [Festschrift für Hellmut Flashar anläßlich seines 65. Geburtstages]. Stuttgart; Leipzig: Teubner, 1994, S. [211] - 223
    (3) Eckard Lefevre, Sophokles’ und Heiner Müllers Philoktet, in: Susanne Gödde (Hrsg.): Skenika : Beiträge zum antiken Theater und seiner Rezeption; Festschrift zum 65. Geburtstag von Horst-Dieter Blume. Darmstadt: Wiss. Buchges., 2000, S. [419] - 438
    (4) Martin Hose, Philoktet: Von der Schwierigkeit der Wiedereingliederung, in Philologus Band 152: Seiten 27-39, 2008

    Online Sources:
    (1) Wikipedia
    (2) http://www.uni-due.de/einladung/Vorlesungen/dramatik/sophokles.htm
    (3) aeria.phil.uni-erlangen.de

    Best regards
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2019
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  3. zumbly

    zumbly Ha'ina 'ia mai ana ka puana Supporter

    Great story, indeed! I read up on Philoktetes when I first bought a Lamian coin with him on the reverse shooting at his birds, but, not surprisingly, your write-up adds much more to what came up on my cursory Google searches.

    I love the reverse of this one. Philoktetes is posed slightly differently than he is on yours.

    [​IMG]THESSALY, Lamia
    AE Chalkous. 2.19g, 15.5mm. THESSALY, Lamia, circa 400-350 BC. BCD Thessaly II 128.1; HGC 4, 125; Rogers 388. O: Head of the nymph Lamia right. R: ΛΑΜΙΕΩΝ, Philoktetes kneeling right, shooting bow at birds, one of which falls before him; quiver to lower left.
    Ex BCD Collection
  4. Pellinore

    Pellinore Supporter! Supporter

    Thanks, @Jochen1 , for your insightful myth. It says that winning often goes together with unbearable suffering.
  5. Marsyas Mike

    Marsyas Mike Well-Known Member

    Wonderful overview of this fascinating figure from mythology, Jochen - and as always, superbly illustrated. It is difficult to add to it, but one of my favorite books of literary criticism is The Wound and the Bow by Edmund Wilson. The Encyclopedia Britannica:

    The Wound and the Bow, book of literary criticism by Edmund Wilson, published in 1941. Employing psychological and historical analysis, Wilson examines the childhood psychological traumas experienced by such writers as Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Rudyard Kipling, and Edith Wharton and the effects of those experiences on their writing. The title of the book comes from a myth retold by Wilson in which Philoctetes, an injured Greek warrior with a foul-smelling wound who has been banished because of his odour, is sought out by his fellow Greeks because they need his prowess with a magic bow and arrows"


    My beat-up copy dated 1965 - it is still in print, which is pretty amazing for a book of lit-crit from 1941:

    Book - Wound and the Bow Jul 2019 (2).JPG
    rrdenarius, zumbly, eparch and 2 others like this.
  6. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter Roma Invicta

    Great write-up @Jochen1 and excellent coin.
  7. Jochen1

    Jochen1 Well-Known Member

    @Marsyas Mike has written "- and as always superbly illustrated". Thank you. I think I have to thank Pat Lawrence very much. It was she who gave me the advice to expand my articles through art-historical considerations

    Marsyas Mike likes this.
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