Myth and Polis X: Will the real Phocis stand up?

We have now reached the tenth part of this series. So far we have already seen why the Greeks eagerly used the legendary heroes and kings of Greek mythology for diplomatic purposes. We know how they did it, for what audience, and what role these stories played in the early history of a city. Some mythological figures were more popular than others in this process, often because it was easier to make a connection based on a “lineage” of someone like Achilles. Of course, one could also approach this from a different angle by giving new ancestry to a local hero and fitting this new genealogy into the broader mythological framework.  All these elements resulted in an enormously complex network of mythological relationships in which it sometimes becomes very confusing for us – and for the Greeks – to know which hero has a connection with a particular city or people.

Phokis, both today and in ancient times, is a region in central Greece of which Delphi was an important part. Mount Parnassus lies in the middle of the region which, among other things, ensured that this area retained a very rural character. No large cities developed there because the most important places such as Delphi were of great cultural or strategic importance.
Not much is known about the Phokis’ early history but their control of the sanctuary at Delphi caused some conflicts losinf control of the sanctuary several times in the 6th and 5th centuries BC. During the Persian Wars, the Phokians fought on both  sides. Even during the Hellenistic period, control of Delphi remained a major point of contention until Philip of Macedon took it from them in 346 BC, and from the 3rd century Phokis was controlled by the Macedonian kings before finally becoming a member of the Aetolian Koinon in 196 BC.

Of course, the Phokians also had a legendary founder after whom they were named: Phokis. Only there was a small problem here: there were two heroes with this name. Both of whom were connected to this region in one way or another.  The geographer Pausanias explains the problem as follows: “It is clear that the name Phocis, at least the part around Tithorea and Delphi, was derived in antiquity from a man from Corinth, Phocus of Ornytion. A few years later the name won out over the whole country we now call Phocis, after the Aeginetians arrived by ship with Phocus, son of Aeacus.” (Pope. 10.1.1)

So if you have been paying attention, it becomes clear that there are two men named Phocus: the first is the son of Aeacus and was seen as the one who gave his name to the whole region, the other a man from Corinth, the son of Ortynion and whose name was given to the region around Tithorea and Delphi. Thus, according to Pausanias, both men played a role in the history of the area at about the same time. This is an interesting fact, since one individual with this name would have been enough anyway. So why do our sources speak of two eponymous heroes? To answer this question, it may be necessary to take a look at the figures in question.

Phocus number one – the son of Aeacus – is a well-known Panhellenic figure and appears frequently in Greek literature. His mother was a nymph named Psamanthe and the mythological king Aeacus of the island of Aegina. When the king chose Phocus over his half-brothers Peleus and Telamon, Phocus was murdered by them. The second Phocus – i.e., the son of Ornytion – is much less known and appears only in Pausanias, certain Homeric scholia and a periegesis for Nicomedes IV of Bithynia from the first century B.C. From these texts it is clear that Ornytion or Ornytus, the father of Phocus, was the son of Sisyphus. On an Attic skyphos or drinking cup we can probably also find an image of Phocus around 400 BC along with Antiope. There are several versions of the story of Antiope and in one of them Phocus cures Antiope of the madness that Dionysos had given her.

Furthermore, Pausanias tells us the following: ‘There is in Daulis a place called Tronis, where a sanctuary for the founder was built. Some say this hero is Xanthippus, who distinguished himself in war, while others say Phocus son of Ornytion son of Sisyphus. Either way, he receives cultic honors every day.’ (Paus. 10.4.10). Although the exact location of this shrine is not known, some scholars believe it could be near the Phocicon. This was the central meeting place for the magistrates of the Phokian Koinon, which is described a few lines later by Pausanias. The Phokian Koinon was established around 510 BC as a response to external threats from other peoples such as the Boeotians, the Locrians, and the Thessalians. If this was the case, then this shrine to Phocus – and therefore Phocus son of Ornytion – was also important to the Phokians and the Phokian Koinon.

So it is clear that both men played an important role in the history of the area. Phocus number one was pretty soon seen as the progenitor of the entire enthnos of the Phokians, a logical consequence of his Panhellenic fame. But what about the other Phocus? Looking again at our sources, it is possible that it too continued to play a role in the formation of the Phokian identity. If the sanctuary discussed by Pausanias really was that of Phocus and was located close to the Phocicion, then we can also state that the son of Ornytion could have played a role in the political ambitions of the Phocian Koinon.

This is already the tenth post in a series of twelve which dives into the ways in which the ancient Greeks used their mythological past as a diplomatic tool in their relationships with others. This series is written in collaboration with Hippocrene – een Mythologisch Genootschap; where you can find a Dutch version of the post every month. Hippocrene a young association committed to bringing together academics, artists and interested parties to learn about mythology. Follow them on Facebook to keep up with their activities.

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