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Alternate Alcinoi: Evidence for a Distinctive Version of the Phaeacians in the Argonautic Tradition

William Duffy

            The Phaeacians’ appearance in Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica (Argo.4.538-551, 992-1223) is their second longest in Greek literature, surpassed only by Odyssey. The length of this treatment and Apollonius’ well-known practice of alluding to Homeric poetry have led scholars such as West (2005) and Dyck (1989) to conclude that Apollonius’ Phaeacians are simply a calque of Homer’s. A closer look at the two depictions reveals, however, that the Argonautica’s Phaeacians are fundamentally distinct from their Odyssean namesakes, particularly in terms of their ancestry, homeland, and military might.

That the Argonautica’s Phaeacians are descended from Ouranos or Demeter instead of Poseidon and live in Drepane instead of Scheria is fairly well known, but the implications of these facts in regards to the Phaeacians remain under-discussed. By silently severing the Phaeacians’ connection to Poseidon, the Argonautica eliminates both their most famous divine gift (magical ships) and the motivation for god’s ultimate rage at them. By changing the location of the Phaeacians’ homeland, Apollonius keeps them from being the liminal figures Segal (1962) and others see them as, and makes it possible for Alcinous to self-identify as Greek (Argo. 4.1103-4). The Phaeacians’ military might in the Argonautica is less known, but it is apparent in Alcinous’ statements about his army and their show of force (4.1180-2) before meeting the Colchians.

Furthermore, while the characteristics of the Argonautica’s  Phaeacians are not found in the Odyssey, they can be found in several other sources in the Greek tradition – suggesting that the Argonautic Phaeacians belong to a tradition that remained separate from the Homeric one at least until the Hellenistic period. Acusilaus, Alcaeus, and others identify Ouranos as the Phaeacians’ divine ancestor, indicating that the link was established well before the 4th century BCE. Moreover, Drepane is identified as the Phaeacians’ homeland far more often than Scheria is throughout antiquity, demonstrating that Apollonius’ Phaeacians are part of a long, consistent tradition. In fact, it is the Odyssey that is regularly the outlier when it comes to poetic descriptions of Alcinous and his subjects.

Recognition of these separate traditions can contribute to our understanding of the Odyssey and Argonautica. Understanding that the Odyssey’s Scheria does not have to be Argonautica’s Drepane, for example, renders it unnecessary to find connections between Corcyra and the Scheria of the Odyssey, essentially the only ancient work in which the Phaeacians’ association with Corcyra seems to be problematic, but which has nevertheless caused consternation among scholars from Shewan (1918) and Fraser (1925) to Howie (1989). In addition, recognizing that the Argonautica’s Phaeacians need not be pacificists like their Odyssean counterparts prevents us from having to describe Apollonius’ version of the people as non-violent, which has often led to the claim that the Colchians immediately accepted Alcinous as a negotiator rather than threatening to sack his city (twice) if he did not accede to their wishes (Argo. 4.1000-7). Seeing the Argonautica’s Phaeacians as fundamentally different from their Homeric counterparts is therefore crucial to understanding not only the mythic people themselves, but also the climactic scene of the poem. Finally, the Argonautic narrative tradition’s ability to maintain a distinct version of the Phaeacians distinct from the Homeric provides strong proof of ancient myth’s ability to remain “multiform” regardless of the pull of even the most influential single works.

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Contexts and Paratexts of Hellenistic Poetry

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