Taphians and Thesprotians in the

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Taphians and Thesprotians in the Odyssey

The Taphians are the inhabitants of a group of islands, called the Taphiae, near Ithaca, according to the geographer Strabo (10.2.15) and Pliny the Elder (4.19). In the Odyssey, they are characterized as enemies of the Thesprotians, on the West Greek mainland, but the allies of Odysseus. The Thesprotian king helps “Odysseus” in the stories he tells both Penelope (19.281-300) and Eumaeus (14.191-379). However, in the second story Thesprotians subsequently betray “Odysseus” and plan to sell him as a slave (14.340-55). The Cretan tales have often been interpreted as a way in which the Odyssey incorporates alternate traditions about the return of Odysseus, and the appearance of the Thesprotians in several of these therefore suggests that these islands, as well as Crete, played an important role in these other narratives (Reece AJP 1994). Thesprotia certainly plays an important part in the Telegony, and there may also have been an epic poem titled Thesprotis which narrated a version of the nostos and subsequent life of Odysseus (Paus.8.12.5-7). Since Thesprotia was the location of two sanctuaries, Dodona and the nekymanteia, had Panhellenic influence, these traditions are likely to also have been widely disseminated (Marks 2008).

The Odyssey distances itself from all of these, however, by placing the Thesprotians within the lying tales, and even further by the fact that within the story they are revealed to be untrustworthy in the end, with the further implication that their version of Odysseus’ myth is equally untrustworthy. The Taphians are treated in a very different manner. In addition to being the enemies of the Taphians, they are the allies of Odysseus. When Penelope admonishes Antinous against killing Telemachos, she reminds him that Odysseus had protected his father when he joined the Taphians in raids against the Thesprotians, despite the fact that Odysseus was allied with the Thesprotians at the time (16.425-34). The guest-friendship between Odysseus and Mentes is another indicator of the connection. It also, as Athena in the guise of Mentes explains to Telemachus, goes back generations, since Mentes’ father Anchilaus was a friend of both Odysseus and Leartes (1.180-200). The contrast between Taphians and Thesprotians also recurs in this passage, when Athena-as-Mentes relates a story of how Odysseus went to look for poison to put on his arrows. Ilus of the Thesprotian city of Ephyre refused his request, while Anchilaus granted it (1.259-65).

The story about the poison for arrows is an aspect of the Taphians’ identification with the more fantastical aspects of the Odyssey. The apparent skill with pharmaka possessed by the Taphians associates them with the Egyptians, whom the narrator describes as “each one a doctor” in a country which “bears the greatest number of pharmaka (4.229-32).” They also are given the epithet filhretmoj(1.419), which is otherwise applied only to the Phaiakes. Egypt’s presentation as a place of vastly superior resources and knowledge is mentioned above. Further supernatural associations are provided by the fact that Menelaus comes to Egypt after encountering a storm off Cape Maleia (4.288), the same place from which Odysseus embarks on the adventures accounted in the apologoi (9.68). The places Odysseus reaches during those wanderings are not identified with real places, and are often not inhabited by humans at all. The Phaiakes are among these people, and although they seem to be largely human, Alkinous says that they are related to the gods (7.205). They also possess both natural resources and skills that are well beyond human capacity, as is made clear by the descriptions of Alkinous’ gardens and palace (7.108-132).

These fantastical elements of the Odyssey have been identified as part of a Panhellenizing process. Because the Phaiakes, or the Lystrigonians, or the Kyklopes, are not representations of any particular real location or people, they can be universal, not necessarily calling to mind the accompanying epichoric traditions so many Greek cities had. However, some degree of involvement of the story with real geography is inevitable: Ithaca certainly cannot be taken out of the homecoming of Odysseus. Odysseus’ connections to other groups in the area are likewise difficult to shake off altogether. The Panhellenic sanctuaries of Thesprotia would have given its local tradition particularly broad reach, and so the Homeric Odyssey seems to discredit this version to a degree. The Taphiae, in contrast, are also near Ithaca and while they may have had their own Odysseus traditions, but they do not have an equivalent of Dodona by which those traditions might influence the rest of Greece. They do not appear in the Cretan tales, Telegony, the Ephemeridos Belli Troiani of Dictys Cretensis. Therefore, allying Odysseus with the Taphians does not present such obstacles to the Panhellenizing features of the Odyssey, and their normalization to the Phaiakes and Egyptians emphasizes this further.

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