Marpessa, Kleopatra and Phoenix:

Katherine L. Kretler

University of Chicago

            The Meleager story recounted by Phoenix in Iliad 9.529-99 is one of the most discussed passages in the poem.  Within it is the startling, compressed digression about the family of Meleager's wife Kleopatra – her mother Marpessa, father Idas, and grandfather Euenos.  The Marpessa story has not been adequately appreciated in two respects: its possible role as a source for Phoenix's autobiography, given earlier in his speech, and its disruptive effect within the surrounding narrative.  Scholars have for example noticed how Phoenix's autobiography resonates with the Meleager story (sketched in Heubeck 1943), but not how it may be related to the Marpessa digression.  Recent scholarship finds the digression to be appropriate only in a general way (Jensen 2002; Rosner 1976). Here I argue that the story is instead fully intertwined in its details into Phoenix's speech.

            In the Iliad, Apollo rapes Marpessa, and Idas (already her husband?) takes up arms against him.  A review of ancient sources (esp. Bacchyl. 20, fr. 20a, cf. Maehler ad locc., Simonides 563P, schol. Pind. I.4.92a) uncovers significant details.  Usually, Marpessa is kept locked up by her cruel father Euenos, who murders her suitors and nails up their skulls.  In the fragmentary Bacchyl. 20a, Marpessa seems to be cursing her father and wishing him dead.  Thus we have a father keeping his offspring childless and that child harboring parricidal thoughts.  Such a story, if pre-Iliadic, may be the source of some details of Phoenix's autobiography.  There is a parental curse of childlessness (unsuccessful in Marpessa's case), excessive parental control of sexuality: more pointedly, the lines about Phoenix's infamous parricidal impulse bear a striking resemblance to the Marpessa story.  These controversial lines were inserted by Wolf as 458-61 in our texts but found only in Plutarch. I argue that the Marpessa story may need to be taken into account in discussions, textual and interpretive, of these lines.  Scholars have also found puzzling Phoenix's strange house arrest (464-73). Here again, the extra-Iliadic stories of Marpessa's imprisonment may lie behind Phoenix's story.  (S. West 2001 provides a different but not contradictory account.)

            Both Marpessa and Alkyone (Kleopatra's eponym) are at the center of stories of tragic eros.  Grossardt, Die Erzählung von Meleagros (2001) suggests that the eponym "Alkyone" enters the poem via the Alkyone who is the wife of Keux.  These poignant figures, Marpessa and Alkyone, merge strangely into the figure of Kleopatra, through the ambiguous use of pronouns (t_n de, 561) and temporal shunting back and forth which has caused confusion as to who is raped by Apollo, Marpessa or her daughter.  Such ambiguity is characteristic of the condensed quality of other Homeric digressions. I will argue that it has here a special aesthetic motivation. The merging of these three women into one figure, Kleopatra, effectively animates her, placed as it is just before the line "that is who Meleager lay down next to, digesting his spirit-paining anger."  Meleager is thus preceded by the figure of Idas, taking up arms against a raping god. The stage is set for Meleager to prevent another rape upon the sack of his city.

             This rich layering of figures resonates with other details shared by Phoenix's autobiography and the Meleager story, perhaps even in such details as the curse calling on Hades and Persephone (457; 569), another rape couple.  These themes, then, seem to cohere and reinforce one another.  But I want to suggest in this paper that the Marpessa story as it interrupts the Meleager story has the effect not of logical cohesion but of evoking an eruptive quality.  The eruption of this story out of the Meleager-focused narrative seems to parallel the bursting out of the heroine Marpessa, the young would-be parricide Phoenix, the erotic, romantic figure Meleager, and finally the explosively grief-stricken Achilles himself.  Many scholars have noted the way the story seems to run counter to Phoenix's rhetorical goal of stirring Achilles to fight, and in fact to provide, ironically, the ultimate model for how he does finally rise up, after Patroklos's death.  The startling Marpessa story prepares the way for Kleopatra's "catalogue" of the effects of war (593-4).  Within a story with no direct discourse, this ambiguously directed catalogue can be performed as a uniquely unintroduced direct speech– the horrors of the sack of a city emerge from Kleopatra's, Phoenix's, and the performer's mouth at once, emerging to confirm the contradictory quality of his ostensibly hortatory tale.

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