Leo M. R. asks:

Did the concept of cousinhood exist in Ancient Greece? I JUST learned that Jason and Odysseus were cousins on their mothers’ sides (side note: their grandfather was a master thief?!), and I was wondering if this ever translated into the concept of kinship to the Greeks back then, and if it ever influenced why the two of them had notable similarities (like being known for legendary naval journeys and having flings with powerful sorceresses).

So, on the specifics of Jason and Odysseus: a lot of minor characters in Greek mythology have very different family trees depending on who you ask, and the mothers of Odysseus and Jason are very minor characters.  Our main source for Odysseus is, of course, Homer, and Homer says that Odysseus’ mother Anticleia is the daughter of the legendary thief king Autolycus.  Now, Homer was probably alive in the 8th or 7th century BC (side note: Homer isn’t real, Google “the Homeric Question” some time; it’s wild, but this is 100% not the time to litigate that $#!tstorm).  Our main source for Jason, on the other hand, is Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica, which was written in the 3rd century BC, centuries after Homer was dead in the ground (if he was real, which he wasn’t), and Apollonius says that Jason’s mother was Alcimede, the daughter of Clymene, who was herself the daughter of Minyas, the legendary king of Orchomenos – no mention of Autolycus.  In addition, though, we have the scholia to Apollonius, which are basically the margin notes made on the text by scholars in the Early Byzantine period (like, 5th to 8th centuries AD), and they are the ones who, quoting other texts now lost to us, give her name as either Polypheme or Theognete and claim she was the daughter of Autolycus.  I think the only primary text we actually have that backs this up is a 2nd century BC encyclopaedia of myth attributed to Apollodorus, but he gives yet another name for the mother, Polymede, and he probably got that from Hesiod, who gives that name in his Catalogue of Women but doesn’t explain who she is (at least not in the bits we have, because there is no complete text of the Catalogue of Women and we have to rely on quotations in other authors; are you beginning to appreciate the scope of the insanity we have to deal with here?) (side note: Catalogue of Women is an awful, awful title in the 21st century; it sounds like what a pickup artist calls his diary).

Meanwhile, Homer definitely knows who Jason is and knows the story of the Argo, because the story existed in his time even if our version hadn’t been written down, but he only mentions Jason and his quest in passing and says nothing about his parentage, and the scholia on Homer, who are a different bunch of Hellenistic and/or Byzantine nerds to the scholia on Apollonius, variously say that Jason’s mother is either Alcimede (citing not Apollonius as their authority but Pherecydes of all people, who must be where Apollonius got it from), or Polymele the daughter of Autolycus, or some other dead broad named Eteoclymene, y’know, probably one of those threeAnd then, you learn that the 1st century BC historian Diodorus Siculus also recounts Jason’s story, but he says that his mother was named Amphinome and also doesn’t specify her parentage, and we don’t get to accuse any of these people of getting the myth wrong or being “confused” because they’re ancient Greeks and we’re not; it’s their mythology, not ours, and their belief is what counts.  So… Homer doesn’t specify, and Apollonius – who is the author of the version of Jason’s story that we all actually know – says Jason’s mother is someone different, but a version of that story definitely existed in which Jason was Autolycus’ grandson, except we don’t have that version, and it’s not clear whether Homer knows about it, but if he did then wouldn’t he mention it when Jason’s name comes up in the Odyssey, unless maybe he just didn’t think it mattered?

And don’t even THINK about asking “well, which one is true?” because it’s ALL true, especially the parts that contradict the other parts, and that’s the point, which is something I really think people fundamentally do not get about myth (as the comments on this post will almost certainly demonstrate).

Basically what I’m getting at is “Jason and Odysseus were cousins” is kinda overstating the case somewhat, because neither of the authors of the stories we primarily know Jason and Odysseus from ever said that, it’s not clear where the idea actually came from, and I think any possibility that it might have informed their characterisation is extremely remote (the parallels are probably a combination of coincidence and the reuse of popular tropes in Greek literature, as well as the fact that… well… Apollonius had read Homer and was also writing an epic about a great sea voyage).  It’s more like “there’s enough justification out there that you could totally write a fanfic where Jason and Odysseus are cousins, if you want them to be; what’s more, the ancient Greeks would not judge you for it, because the entire concept of ‘canon’ in fiction is a monstrous outgrowth of modern copyright law that is toxic to storytelling and should die in a fire.”

…anyway let’s answer your actual question before I completely lose my mind.

It kinda depends on what we mean by “Ancient Greece.”  The vast majority of surviving ancient Greek texts that use kinship terms like “cousin” in clear and unambiguous ways are Athenian legal documents of the 5th and 4th centuries BC, and Classical Athens is a very different world to the mythical world of Jason and Odysseus, which we can… sort of imagine as a memory of the Early Iron Age (say, the 11th through 8th centuries BC) mixed with pastiche of the Late Bronze Age (15th through 12th).  So, there is a word ἀνεψιός, which in Classical Athens pretty much invariably seems to mean “first cousin” as we say in English, the child of a parent’s sibling, but in Homer seems more like “relatives” in a broad and general sense.  In Athens, kinship terms come up a lot in property law.  In particular, Classical Athens has a law which says that, if a man dies without a male heir, his closest male-line relative (often a brother, nephew or cousin) can marry his daughter in order to inherit his estate (women can’t normally inherit property in Athens unless there’s really, definitely no-one else available, because… well, because Athenian law is rabidly misogynistic).  On that account, there are quite a few first cousin marriages (and, indeed, many uncle-niece marriages), both out of necessity and even in more normal situations, just to strengthen the bonds of the extended family – so that’s one way the ancient Greek conception of “cousins” doesn’t really map to ours, although of course cousin marriages were still reasonably common in the English-speaking world even in the 19th century, and in some places they are still standard today (for instance, Alabama).  Today we kind of have this conception of “cousins” as part of an extended family unit including our grandparents and all their children and grandchildren, where cousins have close relationships as children in the same way siblings do, so that romantic relationships between them are therefore taboo, and I’m fairly confident that that doesn’t exist in ancient Greece.  They very much do have, however, a conception of a “clan,” a γένος, that sticks together and supports the interests of all its members and also encourages marriages between its members (which our extended families, at least in the English-speaking world in the 21st century, don’t do), and I would suggest that (in the broad strokes, at least) that’s true both in the Classical period and in earlier, less well-attested eras of Greek history.  It’s almost a better comparison to forget the strictly literal meaning and think of the way “uncle,” “auntie” and sometimes “cousin” can be used in, e.g., English-speaking Polynesian communities for friends and their families, even in the absence of blood relations (because this is still in theory a Pokémon blog, we can cite Professor Kukui addressing the player as “cousin” in Sun and Moon, or Hau calling the player’s mother “auntie”).

I hope that answers your question, or at least answers some different, better questions.

10 thoughts on “Leo M. R. asks:

  1. At the very least, the WORD “canon” comes from Roman Catholicism, and means much the same thing there… which drives home how absurd it is to apply it to a fictional world. Given the roots of the word “fan(atic)”, this is less surprising than it probably ought to be. I nonetheless agree about the entire concept being dumb and bad, and anyone who doesn’t should read the Apocrypha.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ahahahaha, I wonder what was taking you so long to answer! Turns out you had some neuroses to overcome, huh? 😛

    Don’t worry, I’m a bit of a myths nerd myself and I’m perfectly aware of the lack of ‘canon’ in myths. I’m more into the Arthurian cycle and I always bring up the point that there are differing versions about e.g. Arthur’s sword, Excalibur, the sword in the stone, the sword from the Lady of the Lake, and whether or not they’re all one and the same. Or the fact that who Arthur’s best knight is differs from writer to writer (hint: unless you’re the French wanking your own goddamn OC, it certainly ain’t Lancelot! #JusticeForGawain). Also, I thought the concept of canon evolved from the Church trying to keep track of its saints?

    I hadn’t realized the Argonautica was written that much later after The Odyssey… Do you reckon Apollonius was deliberately drawing on the Homeric influences? I mean hell, even Jason’s magical girlfriend is Circe’s niece! (side note: is there a lot of disagreement on that topic, too?) I also didn’t know there were already other, older versions of the Jason legend and that Apollonius’s version was just a more elaborate retelling. Wikipedia tells me the whole Jason x Medea ship was already extant prior to the writing of Argonautica though, so probably not that aspect, huh?

    So what I got from this is that to Homer and the earlier Greeks, the concept of cousinhood was probably much less about blood relations and more about clan membership? Fascinating… So could one who is blood related to you NOT be a part of the same clan as you? By marrying another family if you’re a woman, perhaps?

    I think the bit about modern cousin marriages is oversimplifying it a bit; first cousin marriages are still legal and perfectly acceptable in many non-Western cultures and countries today, Japan among them (for however pertinent that is to this blog in theory). Not gonna get into that massive can of worms though, but I just wanted to say that the taboo for that particular relationship is nowhere near as standard as the taboo against sibling marriages. I liked the comparison you drew with the Polynesian usages of kinship terms; it matches my own culture, being another Austronesian branch!


    1. On Apollonius being influenced by Homer: Yes, 100%. I haven’t studied Apollonius so I’m not really the person to ask, but any commentary on the Argonautica worth its salt would talk about this, if you can find a good annotated translation. The Penguin editions usually hit a good level for undergraduate use.

      On earlier versions of Jason’s story: Probably most important surviving text that actually covers the whole quest for the fleece is Pindar’s fourth Pythian Ode (written I believe in 462 BC or thereabouts) which is basically the same story in broad strokes as the Argonautica, just much much shorter, and it does have Jason romantically involved with Medea (I will also note here that, although Homer only mentions Jason’s story in passing, he doesn’t really say anything that *contradicts* Apollonius or Pindar). Jason seducing Medea *seems* to me like it’s critical enough to his success in Colchis that it’s probably “original” (whatever that means). Jason/Medea and Odysseus/Circe could conceivably both be versions of some ancestral Indo-European Bronze Age tale about a hero who defeats and seduces a sorceress, but that’s… frankly, getting well outside of my real area of expertise. The other significant version is Euripides’ tragedy “Medea,” written in the late 5th century. This doesn’t cover the quest for the golden fleece or the voyage to Colchis, but it seems like they’re part of the background that the audience is expected to know. The play is about the falling out between Medea and Jason over Jason leaving her for a political marriage to the princess of Corinth, leading to Medea killing their children and fleeing to Athens (where she later turns up in some versions of the story of Theseus). The really fun thing about this is that Medea killing her children is probably the thing she’s most famous for today, and Euripides *probably* made it up! The scholia on the play indicate that Medea *didn’t* kill her children in any earlier versions of the story; they still die, but not by their mother’s hand in cold blood (we don’t have those versions though – Pindar and Apollonius don’t cover these events).

      On Medea being related to Circe: Homer doesn’t mention Medea, but he does explicitly say that Circe is Aeëtes’ sister, so I’d say we’re on firmer ground with that one. While I was looking this up, though, I found this interesting bit in Strabo’s Geography (1st centuries BC/AD): “Being acquainted with Colchis, and the voyage of Jason to Æa, and also with the historical and fabulous relations concerning Circe and Medea, their enchantments and their various other points of resemblance, [Homer] feigns there was a relationship between them, notwithstanding the vast distance by which they were separated, the one dwelling in an inland creek of the Euxine, and the other in Italy, and both of them beyond the ocean” – i.e. Strabo thinks that Homer made Circe and Medea relatives *because* he recognised the parallels in their stories, even though it’s clearly (to Strabo) nonsense, since they live in such different parts of the world (but then, *Homer* never says that Circe lives in Italy; that’s all from later commentators trying to map Homer’s world onto the real Mediterranean, which even at the time was recognised as a lost cause by wiser scholars).

      Aaaaand on clans vs. blood relations: I don’t think they would ever put it quite like that. However, in Classical Athens (and I would *not* want to extend this any further than Classical Athens without doing some more reading; Sparta would have been very different, and I suspect the “Homeric” Iron Age would have different attitudes too) a woman becomes part of her husband’s family for all legal purposes when she marries, and *theoretically* (but probably not in practice) severs a lot of ties with her own family. This is one reason Medea’s position in Euripides’ tragedy is kind of a relatable one – most Athenian women obviously wouldn’t have betrayed their families and murdered their brothers when they got married, but they *would* have left behind their own families to some extent, putting them fully in their husbands’ power legally. An Athenian woman whose father and brother were dead would be in a great deal of trouble if her husband abandoned her. So I guess the answer is it’s… complicated?


      1. Thanks for the thorough reply! I will be sure to look into the Penguin versions if I get the opportunity.

        I’m familiar with Euripides’s play. That was the original thought process that lead me down to the Jason rabbit hole actually: whose argument do you think is more reasonable in the play, Jason’s or Medea’s? We’re supposed to sympathize with Medea as she’s the protagonist of course, but from what I’d read Jason was making an argument about how, since Medea and her children aren’t Greek, it’s better for her children’s social status if their father married Greek nobility. Then separately I learned of Autolycus and, well, here we are instead.

        Ooh, that bit about Strabo is fascinating! It’s like a bit of He Said, She Said but nobody actually said what others said they said. So Homer (which, according to you, didn’t exist) did not have actual, physical places that he knew about in mind when he wrote his epics? Waitaminnit, does that mean Homer possibly incorporated elements of the Jason/Medea legend (the “original” version that you said Homer would have been aware of) into his Odysseus/Circe plot… only for Apollonius to then reference HOMER, like, recursively? Or is the “Odysseus/Circe was lifted from Jason/Medea” thing a mere hypothesis on Strabo’s part? Do we have other Classical sources commenting on this? I AM SO CONFUSED BUT ALSO VERY INTERESTED

        Aah, and we’re back into Jason’s treatment of Medea. She wasn’t Athenian though, right? So these laws regarding a woman’s legal status being tied to the men in their lives wouldn’t apply to her? Although I suppose being foreigners in and of itself already presents its own problems.


        1. Yeah, being non-Greek just makes *everything* worse and more complicated for Medea, living in a Greek city and suddenly without a Greek husband. She would have had very few rights under Athenian law (which is what Euripides’ audience would have been familiar with). Hell, since she’s a barbarian woman with no man to speak for her, I think Jason might even have legally been able to sell her into slavery. As for whose argument is better… oy vey. It’s… difficult for me to separate the factors in play in Medea’s situation from the simple fact that a woman in ancient Greece is, by default, denied a whole lot of fairly basic rights. Like, I can appreciate that Jason maybe genuinely thinks he’s doing the right thing, and maybe some of the original audience would have agreed, but up until she actually decides to kill her kids I find it very difficult not to side with Medea. Even if she’s morally in the right, Jason can still do whatever he wants and she has no recourse. That’s the reality of their society, not the fault of any person in particular, but it’s… a pretty shitty reality.

          Mapping out Odysseus’ journey in terms of real locations in the Mediterranean was kind of an obsession for a lot of scholars in antiquity, *and* well into the 20th century (there is some truly batshit stuff out there, including one of my favourite articles of all time, which argues in complete seriousness that the Lotus Eaters were addicted to watermelons), but scholarly consensus now is that everything from the Lotus Eaters to the Phaeacians is basically a fantasy world that’s not meant to correspond to any place in particular. Having said that, a lot of it *is* probably influenced by travellers’ tales and rumours about distant lands – maybe think of it as a pastiche of everything the Greeks knew about the rest of the world during the Early Iron Age.

          To be clear, that bit from Strabo is *really* thought-provoking and for all I know he might be onto something, but I wouldn’t trust it as anything more than a guess without further research. Strabo has access to a lot of mythological texts now lost to us and a lot of general cultural milieu knowledge that shouldn’t be underestimated, but he also, frankly, probably doesn’t understand Homer or the Early Iron Age as well as we do (being separated from the Bard by a good 600 years, if not longer). The trouble with trying to figure any of this stuff out *for sure* is that any changes to the stories of either Odysseus or Jason on the level of, like, major plot stuff probably happened way back in the Bronze Age where we can’t get at it. Reconstructing who influenced who is kind of a mug’s game at that point.


          1. I agree regarding Medea, I just wanted to poke your brain on it a little bit. And I’ll keep what you said in mind when I read more Classics stuff. Anywho, this has been extraordinarily educational; thank you kindly for indulging me in all this nonsense! And I hope you won’t mind if I poke you for more scholarly insights from time to time down the line :-p

            (don’t worry, I won’t bombard you back-to-back. Lord knows your sanity can only take so much at once!)

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  3. I’m aware that the concept of “canon” can be very limiting to fiction sometimes, but I wouldn’t say it’s completely awful. I think it help people become more attached to and find meaning in characters in events in fiction if there’s a consistent continuity between different works as there is (presumably) in real life. Though I think the modern concept of an “alternate universe” does help balance out non-canon flexibility with canon consistency. And if it help, I also think modern copyright law is bullshit.

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