‘... Sisyphos’ son Glaukos was killed by [his] horses at the time Akastos
organized funeral games to honour his father’ (Pausanias 6.20.19)
It is tempting to suggest that if modern cattle and horse breeders in Great
Britain or elsewhere had taken some time to study Greek mythology, they could
have prevented such phenomena as ‘mad cow disease’ and similar ailments in
other animals. This statement may seem incredible but it is justified. The Greek
tragedians included elements of ancient myths in their plays, and, although they
were not breeders or veterinary experts, at least two Greek poets, Aischylos and
Euripides, as well as the historians Apollodoros and Diodoros, dealt with ‘crazy
horses’ in detail and arrived at identical conclusions. It comes as no surprise that
all of them, like contemporary Hellenes, accepted as an inviolable moral principle
of Nature that the human hubris of feeding meat to herbivorous animals must
lead inevitably to tragedy and disaster.
If we briefly revisit the ancient myths and the works of the two tragedians,
we discover that they predicted the noxious consequences of man’s arrogant
disregard of Nature. In Aischylos’ lost tragedy Glaukos Potnieus, which was part
of his tetralogy (with Fineus, Perses and Prometheus Pyrophoros) and won the
first prize at the Dionysia festival of 472 BCE, the eponymous hero lived in
Boiotia and bred ‘savage’ mares. In order to make them more ‘warlike’, Glaukos
fed them with human flesh. When the son of Sisyphos and Merope went to Iolkos
to take part in the funeral games held by Akastos in honour of his father Pelias,
these mares in their frenzy at not finding their customary food in the fields of the
Thessalian city, devoured their owner.
In another version of the same myth the mares were turned crazy by
Aphrodite, who had been enraged by Glaukos’ treatment of his own animals.
Glaukos, it seems, had never permitted his mares to breed with stallions for fear
that they would lose their speed! Whether the cause of the mares’ madness was
the flesh on which they had been fed, or frustrated maternal instinct, in either
case, it was man’s hubris in the face of the gods and nature. Interestingly enough
Glaukos was later worshipped by the Corinthians under the name of Taraxippos
(horse terrorizer, see Chapter 17). In fact, every contestant at the Isthmian horse
races would sacrifice to Glaukos, prior to the games, in order to appease him
(Pausanias 6.20.19):
‘There is Τaraxippos at the Isthmus, the son of Sisyphus Glaukos’
A similar myth to that of Glaukos’ Boiotian mares was recorded by
Euripides in Alkestis which refers to the eighth athlon of Herakles. The renowned
Greek hero was ordered by Eurystheus to bring to him the horses of Diomedes,
son of the Olympian god Ares and king of Thrace. Diomedes had four mares,
which were wild and, fittingly, bore masculine names, Podargos, Lampon,
Xanthos and Deinos. The mares were not fed hay but were given human flesh
instead. Each time a xenos (foreigner) arrived in Thrace, Diomedes would kill the
intruder and cut his body in pieces, throwing them to the four horses. The meat
turned the mares so savage that the king was forced to keep them tethered with
iron chains and post armed guards around the stable.
Herakles realizing the enormity of the task, extended an invitation to any
riend who was brave enough to meet the challenge. Several heroes responded,
among them young Abderos from Lokris, a purported son of Poseidon. The men
sailed to Thrace via the isle of Thasos and, in a lightning strike Herakles killed
Diomedes’ guards, took the man-eating mares back to his ship, and asked
Abderos to guard them. As soon as he saw the guards dying and his mares
gone, Diomedes, ordered his army to pursue Herakles. Leaving the horses in the
safe hands of Abderos, Herakles rushed back to face Diomedes and, aided by
his brave companions, killed him with his club.
Having accomplished his mission, the hero and his companions returned
to the shore where they were shocked by a horrible sight. The mares of
Diomedes had devoured Abderos. Herakles could find only a few parts of the
body and these he buried on the spot. To honor his friend he founded the city of
Abdera and instituted athletic contests to be held annually. The mares were
taken back to Mykenai where, surprisingly, king Eurystheus allowed them to
roam free. They wandered throughout Greece, finally reaching Olympus in the
north where they were devoured by wild beasts (probably lions).
In another version of the myth, at once more interesting and plausible,
Herakles reached Thrace on foot and alone. His plan to secure the mares was
simple: he wrestled Diomedes, defeated him, and threw him to the mares, who
devoured him (Fig. 28.1). As soon as the animals had eaten the cruel king they
became docile, thus making it easy for Herakles to lead them back to the city of
Mykenai. King Eurystheus was so happy with the gentle mares that he offered
them to the goddess Hera. Surprisingly the goddess, a sworn enemy of Herakles,
accepted the gift from King Eurystheus, and set the horses free. These mares,
according to Diodoros (4.15.3), foaled a great number of colts and fillies with later
generations spreading throughout Greece down to the time of the Macedonians,
their numbers supplying the cavalry of Alexander Great:
‘…when the horses were brought to Eurystheus, he rendered them sacred to
Hera. The breed of these mares reached in fact [the times of] Alexander’s reign’
Thus, thanks to Diodoros, we know the genitors of the Macedonian
cavalry horses: the man-eating mares of king Diomedes of Thrace. After being
tamed by Herakles, they were taken to Peloponnesos, set free by Hera, and
roamed back to the north reaching Thessaly and Macedonia.
At the same time, we should be grateful to Aischylos and Euripides for
demonstrating that, when Nature is violated by Man, the gods respond to such
hubris by rendering the animals crazy. God may forgive always, man may be
able to forgive from time to time, but Nature reacts harshly to every blasphemy
committed by humans—and never forgives.
There is a hard lesson to learn from the Greek tragedians and their poetry.
In our days, people have reverted to eating horses for fear of the BSE (bovine
spongiform encephalopathy). Horses and ponies are being exported or, worse,
stolen, to supply the kitchens of ‘modern’ consumers. This is exactly how men
treated horses some 40,000 years ago, hunting them for their flesh. Then came
the time for the Mesopotamians, Assyrians, Hittites and Egyptians to turn the
horse into a war machine. Finally, it was the culture of the Hellenes, who gave
wings to Pegasus, had him bridled by Athena, and turned their stallions, mares,
colts, fillies and mules into Olympic athletes for thirteen centuries. Several eons
later, in our present days, Homo erectus europeensis has taken a giant step
backwards, and, as a result of his blasphemy, has regressed to eating horses.
Greeks and Portuguese (who are among the few people who abstain from eating
horse flesh) consider this as cruelty and most uncivilized behavior. I concur.
Fig 28.1 Black-figured kylix, ca. 510-500 BCE, Ermitage, St. Petersburg. Αn
iconographic presentation of the eighth athlon of Herakles, which is much earlier than
the literary ones. The Greek hero is seen holding a stallion with his right hand and at the
same time threatening the animal with his club. The horse seems trying to escape in fast
gallop, and out of his mouth the remains of a man (Abderos or Diomedes) are