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Migration in Greek Origin Stories and Oracular Tales

The Phocian Ghost Soldiers Revisited

La migration dans les récits grecs des origines et les contes oraculaires. Les soldats fantômes phocidiens revisités

Elena Franchi


Selon Hérodote (VIII, 27-28), lors du conflit entre les Thessaliens et les Phocidiens, Tellias, devin d’Élée, suggéra aux Phocidiens, retranchés sur le Parnasse, que six cents parmi les plus braves se blanchissent avec de la chaux, eux et leurs armures, afin de surprendre les Thessaliens en pleine nuit. Pour les spécialistes de l’Antiquité, la ruse de la chaux a été interprétée soit dans le contexte des rituels et des mythes orphiques-dionysiaques (Müller), soit dans le contexte de la guerre rusée, les soldats prenant l’aspect de morts (Weniger, Henrichs). Dans cette perspective, la ruse a aussi été surtout interprétée comme un rite d’initiation (Harrison, Jeanmaire, West). Cette contribution explore, au contraire, le lien avec un ensemble de contes oraculaires prédisant émigration et déplacement de populations. Dans ces contes, l’apparition d’oiseaux marqués par la chaux avait pour fonction de menacer des gens en compétition pour la même région. La question de l’origine de ces populations concernées était tellement centrale dans les contes oraculaires, que ces derniers fonctionnaient comme des mythes des origines.

Entrées d'index

Texte intégral

1. Introduction: Phocian wars, chalk-marked soldiers and initiation?1

  • 1 This article further develops and works out an idea I expressed in (...)

1According to Herodotus (8.27-28), the Thessalians and their allies with all their military power had undertaken, only a few years before the military campaign of Xerxes, an incursion into the Phocians’ area. They had, however, been defeated and killed. During this conflict the Phocians had been locked up on Parnassus, and Tellias, a seer of Elis, suggested to them this ruse: that 600 of the bravest Phocians should colour themselves and their armour with chalk and surprise the Thessalians at night-time. The Thessalians were frightened and thought the white warriors to be a teras. Thousands died. 2000 of the gathered shields were blessed in the sanctuaries of Delphi and Abai, and with a tenth of the haul were built the large statues, which stood around the tripod in front of the shrine of Delphi, similar to the ones in Abai. Through a second ruse the Thessalian cavalry too were defeated, at Hyampolis: the Phocians buried some jars which the Thessalian cavalry stumbled over.

2Pausanias (10.1.3 ff.) tells about this war more or less in the same way but with a few variations: he first reports the destruction of the Thessalian cavalry at Hyampolis, then he relates an episode which is missing in Herodotus’ report. In this episode, 300 selected Phocians under Gelon were killed by the Thessalian cavalry, after which the Phocians decided that in the case of a defeat they would gather their wives and children and their best goods at one site, staple wood around them, place thirty guards there, and if the message of defeat should arrive, everybody would be killed and burnt as sacrifice and they would then kill themselves or fight against the Thessalian cavalry to the very end. The Phocians, however, won. From then on, the so-called “Phocian desperation” was considered a symbol for how to behave in extreme danger. According to Pausanias, the Phocians enacted another ruse, the ruse with the chalk: 500 selected and chalk-marked Phocians – in Herodotus’ report there were 600 – in white armour under a full moon overwhelmed the Thessalians at Hyampolis. The Thessalians mistook the white soldiers for something unearthly. And their expansion in Phocis was stopped: the Phocians didn’t move away from their homeland. The account on this Phocian-Thessalian war is also to be found in Plutarch and Polyaenus, the episode of the marking with chalk, however, is only mentioned by Herodotus and Pausanias.

3The Phocian desperation is a much debated topic in scholarship; more specifically, the ruse of the Phocian ghost soldiers has been interpreted in different ways. The classical scholar Friedrich Stählin observed the link with stories about the displacement of people (on Klio 1905); one year later, the historian of religion Ludwig Weniger published a famous article on Archiv für Religionswissenschaft where the Phocian ghost soldiers were interpreted as a feralis exercitus (the white colour being a symbol of death). However, the most common interpretation is that the ruse of the chalk refers to an initiation rite, as it is often recounted that in their liminal period initiation candidates were marked with chalk. This article suggests instead that the main semanticisation of the 6th and 5th centuries links the chalk marking of warriors with the displacement of peoples, as the result of a ruse, and potentially fatally: more specifically, that the ghost soldiers who covered themselves with chalk acted as an omen (τέρας: Hdt. 8.27.4) of displacement. It is only afterwards, if at all, that it begins to operate in an initiatory web of meanings which is Phocian.

2. Death and rebirth of an army

  • 2 Müller 1825, p. 395-396.
  • 3 Harrison 1922, p. 490-495.
  • 4 Jeanmaire 1939, p. 354-356 with li (...)
  • 5 West 1983, p. 155.

4The first to link the covering with chalk of the Phocians with the Orphic-Dionysian complex of myths and rituals was K.O. Müller: the author of Prolegomena zu einer wissenschaftlichen Mythologie referred to the Orphic rites and the myth of the killing of Dionysus, who was killed by the Titans who had marked themselves with chalk.2 Jane Harrison went further and interpreted both the myth of the killing of Dionysus and the chalk-marked Phocians in light of initiation rites, which are carried out by many populations: indeed initiation candidates are usually marked with chalk.3 By focusing more on the Phocian soldiers than on the Titans and comparing them with the initiation rites of other people, Jeanmaire observed that during rites of passage chalk symbolized contact with the world of the dead as well as extreme conditions.4 The initiatory interpretation linking the story of Dionysus’ killing with the chalk-marked Phocians was further developed by M.L. West.5

  • 6 Weniger cites Artem. 2.3, according to whom the Greeks corpses wer (...)
  • 7 Winkler 1980, p. 165 ff.: cfr. Ach.Tat. 2.23-5; Heliod. 1.1-4, to (...)

5Nevertheless at the beginning of the 19th century Weniger had already suggested a different interpretation: the connection to the Titans was present but not necessarily in terms of initiation; the chalk-marked Phocians were a feralis exercitus, an army of ghosts, of the dead, and mainly represent a ruse, the purpose of which was to frighten the Thessalians.6 Along similar lines, Henrichs and Winkler stressed the aim of this ruse: to disguise one’s own identity. More specifically, Winkler stressed the connection between white and death with the desperation pattern: desperate people, running the risk of death, look like spectres (as Apollonius’ Argonauts in 4. 1279ff). He also links the colour white with the disguises typically assumed by young outlaws in Roman novels.7

  • 8 Pl. Lg. 12.956a; Ellinger 1993, p. 204.
  • 9 Ellinger 1993, p. 204 ff.

6Recently Ellinger has extensively analysed the role of chalk in the Greek economy, mythology and in common culture and deduced that the case of the Phocians symbolizes an extreme situation, more precisely a situation in which the goddess Artemis played an important role. More signs would prove this. Ellinger notes that in ancient Greece the colour white was often linked to divinities:8 thus the chalk-marked Phocians looked like gods to the Thessalians. Therefore they do not recognise the ruse of Tellias: this is twice as tragic, as such a ruse does not mark the hoplites’ war but the total war – the extreme situation. In other words, the Thessalians do not understand that the war against the Phocians is a total war, and this is why they perish.9

  • 10 Demon (FGrHist 327 F 7): see Foucart 1909, p. 146-148; Ellinger 19 (...)
  • 11 The ethnogenesis is the emergence of a people, whereas the ethnopo (...)

7At the beginning of his long analysis of the detail of the chalk in the tradition of this Thessalian-Phocian war, Ellinger, however, suggests in a note a further possible interpretation: the marking with chalk of the Phocians was linked to the origin of the Thessalians, as it is present in the tradition of the displacement of the Boeotians by the Thessalians.10 Ellinger has not pursued this interpretation; it is, however, in my opinion of crucial importance in the traditions which Herodotus mentions. The other semanticisations of this detail – initiation, total war – are recognizable only in later traditions. The initiation pattern in particular will later be developed if at all on the Phocian side to represent the ethnopoiesis of the Phocian people in the frame of a certain discursive strategy.11

  • 12 On the teras as divine sign, see Trampedach 2015, p. 33-34, 64.

8In these earlier traditions, however, recognizable in Herodotus, the ruse of the chalk becomes relevant in connection with the displacement of people, linked to ruse and death. In the Herodotean passage a keyword points to this: the Thessalians δόξασαι ἄλλο τι εἶναι τέρας, «they thought the ghost soldiers were an omen».12 What kind of omen? I argue that the chalk symbolizes an omen of the failure of the displacement of the opponents (the Phocians), a displacement which was not successful. These assumptions develop from the following considerations.

3. The ruse of the chalk as omen of the displacement of people: some similar stories

  • 13 X. Cyr. 2.4.18-20; Arr.An. 4.15.7-8: See Trampedach (...)
  • 14 Cfr. [Hom.] Od. 15.168: τόδ᾽ ἔφηνε θεὸς τέρας (...)

9Chalk as a symbol of the displacement of people is present in several stories: here, the omen of displacement is represented by chalk-marked birds (usually crows), whose appearance is believed to be a divine sign. Birds (and particularly crows) typically had this function in the Greek world: they are often considered to be a σημεῖον13 or a τέρας,14 just like the ghost soldiers in Herodotus (8.27.4).

  • 15 Jacoby FGrHist III B 327, p. 201-2 (...)
  • 16 See also schol. in Clem.Al. Protr. p. 300, l. 30; schol. in Aristo (...)

10The chalk plays an important role in the story of the displacement of the Boeotians by the Thessalians. That story is told by Demon (FGrHist 327 F 7), who wrote between the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 3rd century BC.15 The account is fragmentary; anyway, the narration could have been the following. After the Boeotians had been displaced by the Thracians and the land “Aiolis, which is now called Thessaly” (Didym. in Demosth. 12.1-2) had been taken into possession, they heavily suffered the incursions of the Aiolans because they regularly destroyed their harvest. For this reason, they consulted the oracle in Delphi about whether or not they should stay in the country. The oracle replied that the Boeotians wouldn’t lose their country until white crows appeared. Encouraged, the Boeotians returned home and celebrated. Their young men (νεανίσκων) got drunk and painted some crows with chalk, which they then let fly without any bad intention ([μ]εθ[υσ]θέντ[ω]ν). The Boeotians therefore fell into great consternation and were convinced that the oracle would come true. The young men settled at the gulf of Pagasae and were called Κόρακες (Did. in [D.] 12.25) from then on; criminals were subsequently sent there for their banishment. The Boeotians, however, were attacked by the Aiolans as the oracle had predicted, and chased from the usurped land. The fragment is mentioned in a slightly differing form by Zenobius 3.87 (ParG Leutsch-Schneidewin 1.78 f), by Pausanias the Atticist (in Eust. ad Od. v. 408, cfr. Arist. fr. 496 Rose), by the Suda (s.v. Ἐς κόρακας), shorter also by Apostolius 7.96 (Paroem. I 2.421): all of which are later sources.16

  • 17 See esp. Thompson 1895, p. 94 (as the Latin cygnus niger the white (...)

11A Cyrenaean local tradition that is preserved in Heraclides Pont. 4.4 (FHG II 212 = Aristoteles fr. 611.17 Rose) reports that at the time of the last Arcesilaus a white crow had appeared and bad luck had followed it closely, as was to be expected because it was a bad omen. Shortly afterwards Arcesilaus was dethroned, chased, murdered and his corpse disgraced. In Heraclides (Heraclid. Pont. 10.3: FHG II 215 = Arist. fr. 611.31 Rose) there is a similar story from Samos: a white swallow having the size of a grey partridge appeared; the consequences of this omen cannot be followed as the passage is heavily corrupted. It should be noted that even if one could suppose that a swallow is white, this is unexpected for a crow – white crows are commonly considered to be an adynaton. 17

12At Rhodes a similar story is to be found in the Rhodian authors Polyzelus (3rd century BC?) and Ergias (2nd-3rd AD) whose passages are preserved by Athenaeus (Ath. 8.300e-361c; Ergias FGrHist 513 F 1; Polyzelus FGrHist 521 F 6). As the Greeks under Iphiclus tried to occupy the island, the Phoenicians under Phalantus opposed them for a long time, also because they ruled over the sea. They knew from an oracle that they could stay at Rhodes until crows turned white and fish appeared in the mixing jugs. When Iphiclus got to know about this prediction, he came up with a ruse. In secret he had crows marked with chalk, which he then let fly away, and he had some fish put in the mixing jug of Phalanthus. The Phoenicians immediately capitulated.

  • 18 Stählin 1905, p. 153. See also Kern 1894, p. 7f.; Mythographi Grae (...)

13The so-called Ktisis of Magnesias might also be linked to this framework of “chalk-stories”; one has to be careful, however, as the passage is corrupted. In fact, according to the so-called Ktisis of Magnesias, which is told by a Hellenistic inscription, the Magnetes had emigrated from Thessaly; after a year-long stay at Crete, where in the meantime they had founded a city and enjoyed great wealth, white crows appeared. They asked Delphi whether it meant that they could return to the Thessalian peninsula. Apollo’s answer, however, forced them to a new exodus: as Stählin notes, also here the white crows are a signal for the start into the unknown, like at Rhodes for the Phoenicians and at Thessaly for the Boeotians.18 The story of Ktisis of Magnesias requires utmost caution, as already mentioned above: the white colour of the crows is an integration (ἐφά[νησαν οἱ λευκοί]), which as such is very probable but not sure. Nevertheless, if we interpret these stories together, we can note the following:

  • The appearance of white birds works as an omen, and this omen is connected with an oracle.19
  • This omen announces catastrophe: mostly, the displacement of people.20
  • In most cases, the birds are crows, and the white colour is considered adynaton (Boeotians; Cyrenians; Phoenicians at Rhodes).
  • In some cases the birds become white through marking with chalk: the marking is considered a ruse (Boeotians; Phoenicians at Rhodes), which in the case of the Boeotians is planned by παῖδες, νέοι or νεανίσκοι, who were ἄκακοι or μεθυσθέντες (the result is always a fraud, a deception).21
  • Besides, the chalk plays an important role in the story of the displacement of the Boeotians by the Thessalians.
  • However, the ruse of the chalk usually misleads the people who emigrate, not the people who are expanding and causing the exodus of other people. 22

14But there is more, as a closer analysis of the third and, above all, the fourth point will demonstrate. The involvement of ἄκακοι or μεθυσθέντες παῖδες, νέοι or νεανίσκοι should in fact be regarded as something significant and, in its own way, symbolic. In other words, the link to the story about the killing of Dionysus should be reconsidered.

4. Focusing the ruse: the case of the Phocians and the killing of Dionysus

  • 23 Müller 1825, p. 395-396; Harrison 1922, p. 490-495; Jeanmaire 1939 (...)

15The involvement of παῖδες, νέοι or νεανίσκοι, who were ἄκακοι or μεθυσθέντες and responsible for the ruse of the chalk in some of these stories, is not irrelevant. There are in fact a lot of myths and traditions which underline the young age of people committing a ruse. What’s more, these stories were successfully interpreted as initiatory stories. Indeed, initiation rites notoriously envision a liminal phase in which the candidate has to challenge rules and habits through ruses. In other words, the young committing the ruse are often represented as initiation candidates. All this reminds us of the existing link, in the ancient Greek imagination, between ruse and youth. Here lies a possible link with the story of the killing of Dionysus, in which the marking with chalk is considered a ruse and causes death. This story has already been linked by Müller, Jeanmaire and Harrison with the Phocians and their marking with chalk in Hdt 8.27 ff. 23

  • 24 In the edition of Bernabé 2004 the texts are not listed one after (...)
  • 25 See Villarubia 2011.
  • 26 OF 209-212 Kern; D.S. 5.75.4; Luc. Salt. 39; Olymp. in (...)
  • 27 All the sources are recounted by Festugière 1935, p. 381. See mainly Detienne, Vernant 1979, p. 68 (...)
  • 28 West 1983, p. 151 ff.
  • 29 West 1983, p. 127 ff.; Parker 1995, p. 487 ff; Edmonds 1999, p. 50 (...)
  • 30 According to the Dionysiaca gypsum was used by initiation candidat (...)
  • 31 On the link white-death see also Winkler 1980, p. 162 (...)
  • 32 E.g. OF 487 Bernabé; 488 Bernabé (Thurii); 485 Bernabé and 486 Ber (...)

16These are the main points of the story: Zeus loved his son and provoked the jealousy of Hera. Driven by jealousy, Hera solicited the Titans to kill Dionysus; the Titans themselves were jealous as well because Zeus put little Dionysus on the throne (OF 210, 214, 216c, 220 Kern)24. They coloured their faces white (Nonnus D. 6, 169 ff. cfr. OF 308 Bernabé)25 and waited until the Curetes had fallen asleep (cfr. OF 34, 151 Kern). Then they lured away Dionysus with some children’s toys like fir cones, a trumpet, golden apples, a mirror, a bone etc. (OF 34, 209 Kern; Procl. in Hes. Op. 52). When he looked into the offered mirror, the Titans assaulted him, but the child defended himself by transforming himself into different creatures: into Zeus dressed in a goat-fur coat; into Chronus, who makes rain; into a lion, a horse, a horned snake, a tiger and a bull. Nevertheless, the Titans were able to catch him, they tore him into seven pieces, cooked the pieces in a cauldron and ate them.26 Apollo brought the remains of Dionysus to Parnassus (OF 35, 209, 211, 213, 240 Kern). Zeus punished this act by destroying the Titans with a lightning bolt (OF 35, 214 Kern). From the mix of Dionysus’s and the Titans’ ashes, mankind should have been created (OF 140, 220, 224 Kern).27 According to the opinion of the Orphic theology, through the cleansing and the initiations, the titanic element could be lost and become a bakchos. The story was passed on in the context of the Orphic literature and belongs to the Theogony of Eudemos:28 it therefore dates back at least to the 4th century.29 It was interpreted as an initiation (Jeanmaire 1939, Harrison 1922, West 1983),30 a sacrifice rite in the context of an anthropogonic myth (Detienne 1979, Ellinger 1993) or as succession myth, in which the “bricoleur” plays with more meanings (Johnston in Graf, Johnston 2007). If one looks for symbols, there is in any case the topic of death,31 as already Weniger observed: the chalk-marked Titans kill Dionysus. It obviously is a ruse, which is carried out by chalk and is deadly. And it dates back at the latest to the 4th century, the time in which the myth of Dionysus’ dismemberment was available to be appealed to by fallen souls seeking salvation in the gold leaves working as passport to the underworld found in Thurii (South Italy) and in Pelinna (Thessaly).32 Initiation, death and ruse, just as the chronological background of the story itself, are key points of this story to keep in mind and finally to resume in our subsequent analysis.

5. Crows, chalk, ruse and displacement of people as web of meanings

  • 33 Stählin 1905.
  • 34 The orations 11 is by Demosthenes according to Lossau 1964 and (...)
  • 35 Gibson 2002, p. 77-79, 83, 96, 128.
  • 36 It is important to point out that Didymus cites Demon in order to (...)

17A deeper analysis of those traditions in which the white birds are crows offers further clues. As Stählin already noted,33 the longer fragment of Demon about the displacement of the Boeotians really comes from the comment of Didymus to an oration of (or attributed to) Demosthenes34 which Demon demonstrably used as well, and is used to explain the saying ἐς κόρακας, from which derives the verb used by Demosthenes: σκορακίζειν (11.11).35 That the saying ἐς κόρακας had already been used before Demosthenes is very probable.36 The fact that a verb derives from a saying confirms that the saying was already common in the 4th century B.C. Moreover, there are two very interesting passages of Photius and Eustathius concerning this story of the crows: they told this story in order to explain the expression ἐς κόρακας cited by Aristotle (fr. 496 R). It is certainly true that Aristotle relates this expression to a ritual against plague: through ritual purification the plague is sent “ἐς κόρακας”. Nevertheless it shows again that the saying ἐς κόρακας is attested already in Classical times.

  • 37 Ach. 864; Eq. 892; 1314; V. 51; 45 (...)
  • 38 Merkelbach, West 1974, p. 97-113; Gallavotti 1973-1974, esp. p. 26 (...)

18In fact, the expression ἐς κόρακας is already used by Aristophanes several times:37 and also in this case it is evident that it is a common expression. What’s more, it is not to be excluded that the expression was documented already in Archaic times: in the fragment S478a Merkelbach-West by Archilochus (=196a West), line 21 reads [..] κόρακας ἄπεχε, that is integrated to ἐς] κόρακας ἄπεχε·. This integration proves to be problematic, however, from a metrical as well as a grammatical point of view.38

  • 39 Harding 2006, p. 228.
  • 40 Zen. 3.87 ParG Leutsch-Schneidewin 1.78 f; Paus. Att.; schol. (...)
  • 41 Dunbar 1995, p. 145-146.

19Aristophanes represents instead an indisputable source for the expression ἐς κόρακας. One passage in Aristophanes is especially important in this context: Aves 28. This passage is cited by Didymus in order to explain the expression in Demosthenes: as Harding notes,39 the Aristophanes’ quote in Didymus has the function of attesting and determining the use of the expression.40 Euelpides uses the expression to explain the decline in which he and Peisetairus find themselves:41 they are Athenians who have moved from Athens in order to found a new city; they have not been chased away, but they no longer feel comfortable in their home (29 ff). In order to represent this decline with irony, Aristophanes uses the expression ἐς κόρακας ἐλθεῖν: the would-be “birds” Euelpides and Peisetairus “go to the crows”! As a consequence, here the expression ἐς κόρακας is linked to a kind of emigration or displacement, which is not perceived by the emigrants as something pleasant. In 414 BC (the year of the first performance of the Birds) the relationship crows-displacement occurs (for the first time?).

20It is important to stress that it is Demon himself who cites Aristophanes and the expression “ἐς κόρακας” to explain the origin of the verb “σκορακίζειν”:

  • 42 FGrHist 327 F 7, italics of the author of this article.

μνημονεύει δ’ αὐτῆς Ἀριστοφάνης ἐν Ὄρνισιν· «ἐς κόρακας ἐλθεῖν καὶ παρεσκευασμένους» … χαριεντίζεται δ’ εἰς τὴν παροιμίαν, ἥν φησιν ὁ Δήμων διαδοθῆναι ἐνθένδε, γράφων τὸν τρόπον τοῦτον· «τοὺς Βοιωτούς […]» 42

21The following can be deduced from these remarks:

  • The expression ἐς κόρακας was already common in the 5th century, possibly already at the time of Archilochus.
  • In the 5th century this expression could also be linked to displacement (Aristophanes, Aves).
  • It seems to be evident that from the 4th – 3rd century BC (chronology of Demon), the expression ἐς κόρακας was linked also to the marking of crows with chalk as a ruse, which is not present in Aristophanes and Aristotle. Obviously nothing lets us exclude that the marking with chalk forms the background to Aristophanes and Aristotle: it is, however, not explicitly cited.
  • At the same time, it was linked with the Thessalian expansion, especially with the displacement of the Boeotians. In this case the chalk is a sign of the displacement of people by the Thessalians.43 It is not easy to determine when the chalk became the symbol for this. A hint about it could be provided by analysis of the tradition about the Boeotian migration ἐξ Ἄρνης. It represents a significant cut in the early history of Central Greece and is already documented by Hellanicus (FGrHist 4 F 51); this note of Hellanicus leads to another note by Thucydides (1.12.3) and Ephorus (FGrHist 70 F 119). Unfortunately, none of the cited sources mentions the oracle of the crows. This should, however, not be used as an argument ex silentio: if we reconsider the tradition about the Boeotian migration ἐξ Ἄρνης from a point of view of balance in the narration, one is tempted to argue that it could be that the oracle of the crows is substituted by Ephorus’ study about the metabolai of Thebes, which Diodorus 19.53.8 attests. Therefore it is not to be excluded that Demon’s note could lead back to Ephorus, and further to Hellanicus.44 In this case, it would already be attested in the 5th century.
  • The story about the displacement of the Boeotians, however, seems more closely linked to our story of the ghost-soldiers, because in both cases the expansion of the Thessalians is involved. Now, one problem remains to be solved: in the story of the Phocians, the displacement of the Phocians and, consequently, the expansion of the Thessalians, failed; in the story of the Boeotians, both the displacement of the Boeotians and the expansion of the Thessalians succeeded.

6. Ghost soldiers and failed displacement

22The above-mentioned stories about crows and other birds interpret the appearance of white birds as a ruse which causes displacement. This is what happens to the Boeotians, whose stay is justified by the oracle – white crows are considered as adynaton – and it is just due to a ruse by which they are deceived (they were not really white, they were only marked with white chalk!) that they are displaced. This happens to the Phoenicians at Rhodes, who could stay until crows turn white, and were displaced due to a ruse as the Greek Iphiclus marked some crows with chalk.

23In the tradition about the war between Thessalians and Phocians, the Thessalians are the victims of a ruse and they are displaced by the Phocians. This tradition is common in the 5th century, when Herodotus collected it. Also common in the 5th century are the stories which link the displacement of people by the Thessalians with the omen of the chalk-marked crows: that is the case in the tradition of the displacement of the Boeotians.

  • 45 On the Thesssalian expansion, see mostly Lehmann 1983, with furthe (...)

24One could ask why two traditions are established, in which the displacement of people and the marking with chalk appear, where in one case the Thessalians are the hangmen (the Boeotians the victims) while in the other case the Thessalians are the victims (the Phocians the hangmen). In the tradition of the war between Thessalians and Phocians, it is not the Thessalians who profit from the ruse of the chalk but their opponents, the Phocians. In this passage, the marking with chalk is a sign of the end of the Thessalian advance towards the South.45 One could ask why the same sign represents in a Boeotian tradition the expansion of the Thessalians. The use of this sign, however, makes sense if we put the story in context, in other words, in the web of traditions recognizable in this particular passage from Herodotus, and also in his work more generally. We have seen how the story of the Thessalian defeat by the Phocians has, in Herodotus, the function of justifying the Thessalian hatred towards the Phocians (Hdt. 8.27) as well as the Thessalian claim to be considered superior by the Phocians (8.30).

25Despite their past victories over the Thessalians, the Phocians should recognise their supremacy, also because the Thessalians were supported by the Persians. Moreover, the story works as a justification of their own failure in the expansion against the Phocians. This could only occur because a τέρας, chalk-marked soldiers working as divine sign, stopped the Thessalian army. The Thessalians were defeated by the Phocians only because they were stopped by the symbol of their expansion. Through chalk, they could expand towards the south, but due to chalk they should also stop their expansion.

  • 46 The meaning of chalk in Herodotus was already noted by Detienne, V (...)

26Herodotus obviously picked up this detail because it was within his horizon of experiences. This is documented by two other passages of Herodotus: the only ones, along with 8.27, that the historian dedicates to chalk. He narrates in these that the Ethiopians covered with chalk the dead (3.24.2) as well as the bodies and weapons when they waged war (7.69.2).46 In this context, chalk can again be interpreted as a symbol for death and this is also the reason why the detail of chalk is relevant for Herodotus.

27This is how the ruse of the chalk works in the traditions collected by Herodotus and in Herodotus. However, as is to be expected, it doesn’t remain constant and unchanging. Instead, it begins to be resemanticised in a Phocian way in Herodotus and beyond. It is exactly at this point, if at any, that the link to Dionysiac suggestions begins to work.

7. The marking with chalk, the (failed) displacement of the Phocians and the Phocian ethnopoiesis

  • 47 Flower 2008, p. 38; Hollmann 2 (...)
  • 48 Hollmann 2011, p. 127.

28That some details of the Herodotean account of the Phocian-Thessalian war are Phocian, such as the one of the 600 best (8.27.3: ἀρίστους) soldiers, goes without saying: the Phocian army is represented as a winning army, in which the best Phocians thanks to their inventiveness and their intelligence win against the Thessalians, and against the cavalry as well as the foot soldiers. The advice of Tellias, the Elian seer (Elis is the country of origin par excellence of seers) 47, to mark the best Phocian soldiers, who prepare themselves to fight in the darkness of the night, with an easily recognizable mark, makes sense for the Phocians, as they can immediately recognize their fellow soldiers and thus do not run the risk of killing them. 48

  • 49 On the so-called “Second Sacred War” cfr. Th. 1.112.5; Theopomp. F (...)

29I assume that some of these Phocian elements were passed on in Athenian pro-Phocian circles of the 5th century BC – the Phocians were allies of the Athenians already at the time of the so-called Second Sacred War (458-446 BC)49 – and that Herodotus acquired his knowledge about them in this or in other ways. The Phocian elements derive therefore from one or more Phocian account of the war against the Thessalians, which very probably dates back to the first half of the 5th century. The creation of these Phocian accounts most likely comes from Phocian dedications at Delphi and Abai, as already Marta Sordi (1958) assumed.

  • 50 Franchi 2015.

30The Phocian version, which is often picked up by Herodotus, has a strong identity-establishing function for the Phocians: the selected warriors, the battle at night and the final victory with the dedication of the shields and the construction of statues mark the liberation of the Thessalians and therefore the control of Parnassus and the area around Hyampolis by the Phocians. This identity-establishing function is further developed in other versions of the story, such as those picked up by Pausanias or Plutarch: the story of the Phocian Desperation is a clear example of this function.50 What we have here is the Phocian ethnopoiesis in the making.

  • 51 The anthropopoiesis refers to to the “idea of making, of construct (...)

31This deserves more attention. In general, ethnopoietic processes use similar narrative patterns and discursive strategies to those used by anthropopoietic processes: that is, ethnopoiesis and anthropopoiesis51 – the construction of the ethnos and the construction of the anthropos – follow similar lines. The victory of the Phocians may have been represented as an anthropopoiesis. Indeed, the traditions preserved in Pausanias and Plutarch, which probably date back to the 4th century, point out the victories of the Phocians, but invent the defeat of the Phocians too (the 300, led by Gelon) and consequently sets the victories in a sequence that reflects the pattern of death-rebirth, which was recognized as typical for transition rites by Van Gennep (victory by means of the ruse with the jars, defeat of Gelon, story of aponoia, victory, victory by means of chalk). Furthermore, it is fought under a full moon. All these are possible signs of the anthropopoiesis, but in this case one can only speculate.

  • 52 In the framework of initiation rites the marking of the candidate p (...)

32The detail of the marking with chalk can, however, more likely be reinterpreted as having an anthropopoietic aspect.52 Stories about the marking with chalk could also be reinterpreted in the context of initiations of young people, as has already been said above: in the case of the Boeotians the planners of the ruse are in the sources paides or neaniskoi. The rebirth of Dionysus after the killing through chalk, which could be meaningful in Orphic initiation rites, could have fostered a reinterpretation in the Phocian tradition, which developed in the 4th century, in an anthropopoietic sense, also because the killing of Dionysus took place on Parnassus, where the Phocians marked themselves with chalk.

33Several aspects, therefore, support the argument that the story of the marked Phocians was linked with the one of Dionysus, at least by the 4th century:

  • as already noted above, the killing of Dionysus happened on Parnassus, where the Phocians marked themselves with chalk;
  • a synonym of γύψος, with which the Phocians marked themselves, is τίτανος (Arist. Mete. 2.389 a 28-9), and τίτανος recalls the Titans who also marked themselves with chalk and killed Dionysus in this way;
  • another synonym of γύψος in the Attic area, is σκίρος, which also denotes white, uncultivated and wild land. Van Gennep and Turner have shown that in most cultures initation candidates should live for a certain time in wild, uncultivated land in order to prove that they can survive there. This occurs in the liminal period, i.e. in the middle period of the socialization process.53 In this period the initiation candidates should overcome the worst challenges, trespass boundaries, and sometimes even experience an inverted world, where everything is wild, without rules and rough. Σκίρος, i.e. γύψος, is to be interpreted in this context.54

34As a consequence, the chalk-marked Phocians could be interpreted as initiation candidates. This would also explain the role of paides, of neaniskoi and of parthenoi (schol. in Clem. Alex.) in the tradition of the displacement of the Boeotians by means of the Thessalians through the chalk-marked crows: because all these names define age groups which must go through a socialization process. Such a socialization process can be seen as anthropopoietic: i.e. it can be interpreted by the protagonists themselves or in the context of traditions which narrate and change it, as an initiation process. This interpretation can partly lead to a reinterpretation: a story which does not represent an anthropopoiesis is changed in such a way that it can be perceived as anthropopoiesis. In our case, it is the ethnopoiesis of the Phocian people. Their marking with chalk as well as their desperation at the stake represent the danger of death and then rebirth. It has already been noted how in most of the stories which concern initiation candidates their anthropopoiesis is represented as death (of the child) and as rebirth (of the adult). Here it is a question of the death and rebirth of the Phocians. By building this constellation of anthropopoietic symbols, the final victory of the Phocians at the end of the Archaic war is represented as the rebirth of an ethnos, as Ellinger assumed and as is very probable, even if not provable.

35It is more likely that this resemanticisation happened after – or at least outside – the traditions told by Herodotus, and after or outside the Herodotean account itself. Within the web of meanings into which the traditions of the war recognizable in Herodotus and in the Herodotean account are woven, the chalk-marked soldiers represent death, ruse and the failed displacement of the Phocians.


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1 This article further develops and works out an idea I expressed in my monograph on the wars between Thessalians and Phocians (Franchi 2016, chapt. 6, 322 ff.). I express my deepest gratitude to the supervisor of my Von Humboldt Project, Prof. Dr. Gehrke, the supervisor of my PhD Project, Prof. Dr. Giangiulio, and the editors of Mètis for their precious remarks. I am also grateful to Gertraud Wiesthaler, Lilah Grace Canevaro and Emanuele Pulvirenti for the language revisions. Any remaining error is the author’s.

2 Müller 1825, p. 395-396.

3 Harrison 1922, p. 490-495.

4 Jeanmaire 1939, p. 354-356 with literature; see also Orde-Browne 1915, p. 68.

5 West 1983, p. 155.

6 Weniger cites Artem. 2.3, according to whom the Greeks corpses were covered with a white cloth. Cfr. Weniger 1906, p. 230; Radke 1936, p. 41-44.

7 Winkler 1980, p. 165 ff.: cfr. Ach.Tat. 2.23-5; Heliod. 1.1-4, to compare with D.C. 71.4. Henrichs 1972 and Winkler 1980 express their view on the Phocians in commenting on a passage from the 2nd century A.D. novel Phoinikika where a mysteric ritual is described in which some of the participants are daubed with white lead.

8 Pl. Lg. 12.956a; Ellinger 1993, p. 204.

9 Ellinger 1993, p. 204 ff.

10 Demon (FGrHist 327 F 7): see Foucart 1909, p. 146-148; Ellinger 1993, p. 64-65, n. 105.

11 The ethnogenesis is the emergence of a people, whereas the ethnopoiesis is the construction of this emergence on a discursive level. On the ethnopoiesis see Döblin 1997, p. 26; Hahn 2003, p. 211; Sønnesyn 2013, p. 201 ff ; Franchi 2016, p. 25-30, 322ff.

12 On the teras as divine sign, see Trampedach 2015, p. 33-34, 64.

13 X. Cyr. 2.4.18-20; Arr.An. 4.15.7-8: See Trampedach 2015, p. 108, 123.

14 Cfr. [Hom.] Od. 15.168: τόδ᾽ ἔφηνε θεὸς τέρας (see Trampedach 2015, p. 117). Crows as τέρας: Dio.byz. Per Bosporum navigatio 24.15-17 Wescher.

15 Jacoby FGrHist III B 327, p. 201-219, mainly p. 201; Harding 1994, p. 31-32; Harding 2006, p. 23.

16 See also schol. in Clem.Al. Protr. p. 300, l. 30; schol. in Aristoph. Νu. v. 133 l. 7; schol. in Aristoph. Pl. v. 604 l. 7; Comm. in Ar. Νu. v. 121a l. 15; Comm. in Ar. Pl. (recensio 2), v. 394, l. 10.

17 See esp. Thompson 1895, p. 94 (as the Latin cygnus niger the white crow refers to an “unheard of thing”). White crows are described as uncommon in Greek and Latin literature: see Foufopoulos, Litinas 2005, p. 22 ff. Moreover, it is widely known that (at the latest) since Aristoteles (Arist. An. pr. 55 b 26-27) they even formed the object of a typical syllogism.

18 Stählin 1905, p. 153. See also Kern 1894, p. 7f.; Mythographi Graeci vol. II ed. Sakolowski. 1, p. XXIV; Wilamowitz-Moellendorff 1895; Kern 1900, n. 17, ll. 11-12. A recent interpretation of the whole episode is provided by Biagetti 2010.

19 It is worth noting that Theon of Alexandria is said to have written a work whose title was Περὶ σημείων καὶ σκοπῆς ὀρνέων καὶ τῆς κοράκων φωνῆς (On Signs and Observation of Birds and the Sound of Crows: see Sud., s.v. Theon [ θ 25 Adler] ). On the appearance of birds as omen see Defradas 1968, p. 163-164; Trampedach 2015, p. 109-135. On the function of birds and especially of crows as omen, see Patera 2012.

20 Crows as bad omen: Patera 2012, p. 159 ff; crows as omen of displacement: Patera 2012, p. 165 ff. Crows as omen of foundation of a new colony: Patera 2012, p. 171ff.

21 ἄκακοι: Arist.; Paus.; Phot.; Eust.; Apostol.; μεθυσθέντες: Did.; Zen.; schol. in Ar. Pl.; Sud.

22 This point will be developed later on: par. 6.

23 Müller 1825, p. 395-396; Harrison 1922, p. 490-495; Jeanmaire 1939, p. 355-358; West 1983, p. 143-150; contra Nilsson 1953, p. 276; Detienne in Detienne-Vernant 1979, p. 80-82; Johnston in Graf, Johnston 2007, p. 80ff.

24 In the edition of Bernabé 2004 the texts are not listed one after the other.

25 See Villarubia 2011.

26 OF 209-212 Kern; D.S. 5.75.4; Luc. Salt. 39; Olymp. in Phd. 1.3 (41 Westerink); Dam. in Phd.1.4 (31 Westerink); Procl. in Prm. 808.25; in Cr.109.19; in Alc. 344.31.

27 All the sources are recounted by Festugière 1935, p. 381. See mainly Detienne, Vernant 1979, p. 68-94; Bettini 1993; Johnston in Graf-Johnston 2007, p. 80-85.

28 West 1983, p. 151 ff.

29 West 1983, p. 127 ff.; Parker 1995, p. 487 ff; Edmonds 1999, p. 50; Bernabé 2010, p. 423. Wilamowitz-Moellendorf (1932, p. 190 and 373) stressed that the origin of the myth of Zagreus is early-Hellenistic; however, Henrichs (1972, p. 58-77) demonstrated that most of its motifs were in circulation well before the 6th century BC.

30 According to the Dionysiaca gypsum was used by initiation candidates in Dionysiac mysteries: Nonn. D. 27.204-5; 30.122-3; 47.733.

31 On the link white-death see also Winkler 1980, p. 162 ff, who argues that white skin refers to bloodless, corpse-like bodies (cfr. Philostr. Im. 2.10.3) or underworld shades (Luc. Menip. 21).

32 E.g. OF 487 Bernabé; 488 Bernabé (Thurii); 485 Bernabé and 486 Bernabé (Pelinna). Cfr. Parker 1995, p. 487-496; Riedweg 1998, esp. p. 389 ff; Bodnar, Fortenbaugh 2002; Bremmer 2002, p. 21. If Patón Cordero (2011, p. 119) is right, there is also evidence dating back to the 3rd BC (Euphorion fr. 92 Van Groningen = OF 35 Bernabé).

33 Stählin 1905.

34 The orations 11 is by Demosthenes according to Lossau 1964 and MacDowell (2009, p. 362-363), by an imitator according to most of the scholars (as Canfora 1968, p. 17; 1974, p. 69ff; 1999, p. 132-133; 2006; 2008, p. 6ff; Wankel 1987; Milns 1994; Badian 2000, p. 10; Worthington , p. 10; Worthington [“possibly”: 2000, p. 1]; Milns 2000, p. 205; Gibson 2002, p. 125-126; Harding 2006, p. 215-222; Ferrucci 2010, p. 173-174; De Robertis 2015, p. 8-9 and 252-256 with further bibliography). In any case, even if the imitator is Anassimenes, which is very probable, the oration nonetheless belongs to the second half of the fourth century B.C.: Ferrucci 2010, p. 164ff.

35 Gibson 2002, p. 77-79, 83, 96, 128.

36 It is important to point out that Didymus cites Demon in order to explain the use of the verb σκορακίζειν by Demosthenes. Furthermore, Didymus notes, before citing Demon’s explanation, that this verb derives from the expression ἐς κόρακας.

37 Ach. 864; Eq. 892; 1314; V. 51; 458; 835; 852; 982; Pax 19; 117; 500, 1221; Av. 28; 889; 990; Th. 1079; Ra. 189; 607; Pl. 394; 604; fr. 462 l. 2 Edmonds; fr. 584 l. 2; fr. 462 l. 2; fr. 3 l. 2 Meineke; fr. 43. 2. The expression is also used by Menander: Mis. 112; 432; Epit. 160; Her. 69; Per. 396; Sam. 133; 353, 370. See esp. Schirru 2010, p. 156 ff.

38 Merkelbach, West 1974, p. 97-113; Gallavotti 1973-1974, esp. p. 26-28; Marzullo 1973-1974, esp. p. 58-61.

39 Harding 2006, p. 228.

40 Zen. 3.87 ParG Leutsch-Schneidewin 1.78 f; Paus. Att.; schol. Ar. Ra. 187; schol. Nu. 121a; schol. Clem Alex.; Phot. and Eust.

41 Dunbar 1995, p. 145-146.

42 FGrHist 327 F 7, italics of the author of this article.

43 According to Zenobius 3.87 the place Korakes, which is usually considered Attic, is located in Thessaly: see Marzullo 1973-1974, p. 59. From a certain date on, the stories with crows are connected with Thessaly.

44 FGrHist II Kommentar B 211; Noten 169 F 7 n. 2. See also Huxley 1967.

45 On the Thesssalian expansion, see mostly Lehmann 1983, with further literature.

46 The meaning of chalk in Herodotus was already noted by Detienne, Vernant 1979, p. 239 ff. As far as chalk as “religious war-paint” is concerned, see Harrison 1922, p. 492.

47 Flower 2008, p. 38; Hollmann 2011, p. 124.

48 Hollmann 2011, p. 127.

49 On the so-called “Second Sacred War” cfr. Th. 1.112.5; Theopomp. FGrHist 115 F 156; Eratosth. FGrHist 241 F 38; Philocorus in Aristoph. Av. 556 (=FGrHist 328 F 34 a and F 34b); Plut. Per. 21, 1-3; Hsch. s.v. ἱερὸν πόλεμον; Sud. s.v. ἱερὸν πόλεμον; schol. ad Eur.Tr. 9. See Mari 2006, p. 233, with previous bibliography.

50 Franchi 2015.

51 The anthropopoiesis refers to to the “idea of making, of constructing, of fabricating human beings, or more precisely of models of human beings”, to which the collective rites of tribal initiation meant for a whole age nevertheless belong: Calame, Kilani 1999, p. 7. On the concept of anthropopoiesis see also Allovio, Favole 1996, p. 9-25; Remotti 1996, p. 15; 1999; 2003, p. 23ff.; Calame 2003, p. 133, 135,138.

52 In the framework of initiation rites the marking of the candidate played not an unimportant role, as for example the following passage attests: Demosthenes (18.259) accuses Aeschines of having helped his mother accomplish mystery rites by marking the initiation candidates with loam and bran (ἀπομάττων τῷ πηλῷ καὶ τοῖς πιτύροις). Harpokration explains the ἀπομάττων used by Demosthenes in relation to the story of the marking with chalk of the Titans in the killing of little Dionysus. According to Harpocration, in later rites chalk was substituted with clay. In fact after Harpocration, Sophocles uses the same word in the lost Aichmalôtides in relation to a rite in which through the marking purification occurs: s.v. Ἀπομάττων: Δημοσθένης ἐν τῷ ὑπὲρ Κτησιφῶντος. οἱ μὲν ἁπλοϊκώτερον ἀκούουσιν ἀντὶ τοῦ ἀποψῶν καὶ ἀπολυμαινόμενος, ἄλλοι δὲ περιεργότερον, οἷον περιπλάττων τὸν πηλὸν καὶ τὰ πίτυρα τοῖς τελουμένοις, ὡς λέγομεν ἀπομάττεσθαι τὸν ἀνδριάντα πηλῷ· ἤλειφον γὰρ τῷ πηλῷ καὶ τῷ πιτύρῳ τοὺς μυουμένους, ἐκμιμούμενοι τὰ μυθολογούμενα παρ' ἐνίοις, ὡς ἄρα οἱ Τιτᾶνες τὸν Διόνυσον ἐλυμήναντο γύψῳ καταπλασάμενοι ἐπὶ τῷ μὴ γνώριμοι γενέσθαι. τοῦτο μὲν οὖν τὸ ἔθος ἐκλιπεῖν, πηλῷ δὲ ὕστερον καταπλάττεσθαι νομίμου χάριν. Σοφοκλῆς ἐν Αἰχμαλωτίσι

στρατοῦ καθαρτὴς κἀπομαγμάτων ἴδρις (fr. 34 Radt=31 Nauck2),

καὶ πάλιν «δεινότατος ἀπομάκτης τε μεγάλων συμφορῶν».

As far as the connection of this passage with the myth of Zagreus is concerned, see Harrison 1922, p. 492; Henrichs 1972, p. 64.

53 See Frobenius 1898, p. 215ff; 381; Schurtz 1902, p. 102; Alnaes 1967, p. 455; Berndt 1974, p. 12; Volpini 1978, p. 166ff.; Allen 1981, p. 167; Herdt 1987, p. 49; Remotti 1992, and, with reference to the Ancient Greeks, Weniger 1906 with references; Vidal-Naquet 1983, p. 162-166; 170; 173; 270ff., 299ff.

54 See Ellinger 1993, p. 63 ff.


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