John J. Haberstroh
The ancient Isthmian Games, one of the four so-called Panhellenic games in antiquity, were allegedly founded in 582 BC and held biannually at the Isthmus of Corinth. Multiple foundation myths about the Isthmian Games exited in antiquity (Gebhard 2002), revealing that a variety of local interests over the sanctuary and its festival games. Foundation myths are aetiologies created to explain existing traditions and practices, all of which should be grounded in particular historical contexts. This paper argues that the earliest foundation myth of the Isthmian Games was composed by Eumelos of Corinth in his lost epic poem, Korinthiaka. Eumelos’ poetry represents an epichoric tradition which provided an aetiology for the Isthmian Games.
Readers familiar with the Eumelos might be wondering, how can an epic poet whom Pausanias (2.1.1 = FGrH 451 T2) says belonged to the Corinthian Bacchiad clan of the late 8th century be responsible for an aetiological tradition about the Isthmian Games? West’s (2002) reevaluation of the Eumelos’ fragments makes it clear that fragments from the Korinthiaka can be dated between the late 7th century and late 6th century. Building on West’s argument that Eumelos’ extant fragments likely postdate the founding of the Isthmian Games, I build a case connecting Eumelos’ fragments to the Isthmian Games. First, just as Homer and Hesiod’s work were subject to later oral and textual revisions, so too must have Eumelos’ works. It is important to separate a historical Eumelos-the-Bacchiad from Eumelos-the-author. According to Clement of Alexandria (FGrH 451 T1), Eumelos and Acusilaus of Argos converted Hesiod’s poetry into prose, thus producing a positive connection between authors of long after the 8th century. Second, Eumelos’ subject matter and appropriation of other Greeks myths to Corinth creates a fertile ground for an insertion of mythological details about the Isthmian Games into the Korinthiaka (Huxley 1969, 61-62; Jacoby, FGrH 451 comm. F1-2; Toye 2007). Eumelos’ appropriates the Homeric toponym Ephyra and its king, Sisyphus, for Corinth (FGrH 451 F1a-b, 2a, 4, 6,), as well as stories related to Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts.
With Sisyphus firmly planted in Corinth, he was easily positioned as a founding father of sorts for the Isthmian Games by Eumelos. A few decades after the Isthmian aetiology was inserted by or attributed to Eumelos, Pindar (F5 Maehler) reaffirms that Sisyphus the founder of the Isthmian Games in his honors for the deceased child-hero Melicertes-Palaimon. Gebhard’s (1993; 2002) studies of the foundation myths have focused on identifying the historical origins of the Isthmian Games, but they have left out any mention of Eumelos. Pindar and later sources such as pseudo-Apollodorus (Library, 3.4.3), Pausanias (1.44.8, 2.1.3) and Favorinus (Cor. Or. 37.13-15) suggest that they are drawing on this tradition started by Eumelos. Athenocentric traditions of Theseus founding the Isthmian Games represent a competing epichoric discourse to Eumelos’ Corintho-centric tradition of Sisyphus and Melicertes. By clarifying Eumelos’ relationship to the foundation myths of the Isthmian Games, we gain a greater appreciation for the epichoric forces at work at the Panhellenic sanctuaries.
Myth and History