Monthly Archives: May 2014

Sisyphus and the case of the shape-shifting cattle

Although Sisyphus is best known for pushing that boulder up the mountain in the underworld, there was an ongoing rumor that he was father of Odysseus. Sisyphus was a master con-man, fooling death not once but twice. And Odysseus, well, we all know of his penchant for lying and trickery.

Sophocles refers to Odysseus as son of Sisyphus in the play Philoctetes. In this story, several years into the battle at Troy, Odysseus is tasked with bringing Philoctetes to fight when a Trojan seer reveals that Philoctetes is needed to win.

Odysseus recommended abandoning Philoctetes in Lemnos during their sail to Troy ten years earlier

Philoctetes was suffering from a snake bite that refused to heal. At the time of the play, his wound is still festering and he, naturally, hates Odysseus. He only agrees to go with him to Troy after a divine promise that he will be healed- and a great hero to boot.

But the explanation of how Sisyphus could be father to Odysseus isn’t found in any extant Greek source, but rather in the Latin fables of Hyginus. Hyginus was an early first century author, perhaps from Spain, perhaps from Alexandria, whose writing was neither beautiful nor original. The writings of Hyginus have value because they represent what educated Romans knew of Greek myth.

According to fable #201, Sisyphis was neighbor to Autolycus, son of Hermes and Chione, and father of Anticleia, mother in turn of Odysseus.

Autolycus, whose name means “the wolf itself,” was responsible for naming his grandson Odysseus. But that’s a story for another day.

Hermes gave various gifts to his son Autolycus

Like a helmet that made him invisible and the ability to change the color of livestock and to switch horned animals into hornless ones, and to give horns to those without.

Yes, these are useful skills for a thief, which Autolycus was. And he was neighbor to Sisyphus in Corinth.

Sisyphus owned a handsome herd of cattle

One day he realized that his herd seemed to be decreasing in size. When he walked around the neighborhood, he found others with the same problem, except for Autolycus, who was instead doing suspiciously well.

Autolycus encouraged Sisyphus to examine his cattle to see if he recognized any. But Sisyphus found no familiar animals.

Nevertheless, over time, the number of Sisyphus’s cattle dwindled while Autolycus’s herd increased.

Sisyphus came up with a plan

He marked his animals with a sign.

The stories differ: some say it was a double “S,” others that it was the words “Autolycus stole me.” Some say that he scratched it onto their hooves, others that he branded their flanks.

When he finished marking his herd, he told his other neighbors to come over to Autolycus’s house the next day.

The next morning, as usual, he was short several animals, so he marched over to his neighbor’s. After a little looking around he recovered four cows with his mark. They weren’t the same color as the night before and one had a new set of horns.

By then the neighborhood had gathered around Autolycus. Sisyphus showed them the evidence, but just when the crowd started to heat up, he snuck around the house to a side door.

Sysiphus found his neighbor’s daughter, Anticleia

And slept with her.

(It isn’t clear whether she was interested or whether she was already married to Laertes.)

But the bottom line is that Laertes was not the father of Odysseus.

The nifty ability to change the color of livestock appears elsewhere

In the story of Jacob and Laban (Genesis 30: 31-43), Jacob outsmarts Laban’s attempts to trick him from his rightful wages for tending the flocks by manipulating the color of the sheep.

Although the passage is confusing from many points of view, there is no question that Laban had deceived Jacob before and intended to continue doing so. It was fair turnaround.

(Like Sisyphus and Autolycus.)

And like Sisyphus, other stories about Jacob reveal a certain skill at deception and trickery.

(You know, like Odysseus. )

Could Sisyphus be the father of Odysseus?

Considering that the great-grandsons of Sisyphus, Sarpedon and Glaucus, fought at Troy beside Odysseus, it isn’t likely.

But it’s always interesting to see how myths grow to explain and elaborate on patterns and likeness.

Good stories never end, they’re never fixed. They live on in our imagination.