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“A Pelasgian Typhon”: Achilles as Agent of Chthonic Disruption in Lycophron’s Alexandra

Celsiana Warwick

University of Iowa

This paper addresses the significance of Cassandra’s reference to Achilles as a “Pelasgian Typhon” (Πελασγικὸν Τυφῶνα, 177) in Lycophron’s Alexandra. The Alexandra almost never calls humans or gods by their names, but instead refers to them by obscure riddling appellations that must be deciphered by the reader (Cusset and Kolde). These riddles often encode information about Cassandra’s evaluation of individuals’ character, morality, and agency (Sistakou 2009). I suggest that by naming Achilles “Typhon,” Cassandra sets him up as part of a struggle between Olympian and chthonic forces in the poem that centers around the character of Agamemnon, a struggle in which she and Clytemnestra are also implicated.

I argue that by consistently referring to Agamemnon as Zeus (335, 1124, 1369-70), the Alexandra associates Clytemnestra’s attack on Agamemnon with chthonic opposition to Olympian order, a parallel also seen in the Oresteia, in which the “cosmic struggle between Olympian and chthonic forces” is resolved by “the establishment in the face of female resistance of the binding nature of patriarchal marriage” (Zeitlin 149). Similarly, through the appellation “Typhon,” Lycophron’s Cassandra presents a reading of Achilles’ famous conflict with Agamemnon as analogous to the battle between Typhon (Τυφωεύς) and Zeus in Hesiod’s Theogony, in which Typhon represents an attempt by Gaia, the primordial chthonic feminine, to overthrow Zeus’ Olympian order (820-22). Achilles is particularly suited to this role, since, because of the prophecy that his mother Thetis would give birth to a son greater than his father (Pindar Isthmian 8), he personifies a further thwarted attempt at divine succession that might have overcome Zeus’ power (Slatkin).   

While positioning Achilles as an opponent of Zeus might seem to cast him in a negative light, in keeping with Lycophron’s Cassandra’s overall unfavorable evaluation of him (Durbec; Sistakou 2012; McNelis and Sens; Hornblower), I argue that this reading is complicated by Cassandra’s association of herself with monstrous chthonic imagery and by her resistance to the patriarchal order represented by Agamemnon-as-Zeus. By identifying Achilles with chthonic disruption, she is suggesting an affinity between him and herself that adds a level of ambiguity to her portrayal of him.

In the Alexandra, Agamemnon stands for patriarchal control through marriage on both a cosmic and a personal level, both as “Zeus” and as Cassandra’s “husband” and “master” (δεσπότην πόσιν, 1118). Significantly, however, Cassandra is herself closely identified with the chthonic challenge to the patriarchal/Olympian order. Throughout the poem she is linked to female monsters such as the Sirens (1463) and the Sphinx (7, 1465), and after her death she attacks the hegemony of patriarchal marriage as a goddess who helps maidens flee unwanted wedlock. In this form she is attended by terrifying women who dress like the Erinyes (1126-1140). Thus, unlike in the Theogony and the Oresteia, the Alexandra valorizes the monstrous feminine, ending with “Zeus” dead and the Erinyes ascendant. In this way, Cassandra’s designation of Achilles and Clytemnestra as agents of chthonic chaos complicates her hostile portrayal of them by aligning them with herself in opposition to Olympian Zeus-Agamemnon.

Session/Panel Title

Homer and Hellenistic Literature

Session/Paper Number

81.4

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