BMCR 2024.02.14

Transformations of Pelops: myths, monuments and cult reconsidered

, Transformations of Pelops: myths, monuments and cult reconsidered. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2023. Pp. xxi, 286. ISBN 9780367766986.



Radical revisions of earlier interpretations of the remains of the ancient past should not be too lightly dismissed: even when they fail to persuade us to abandon long-held beliefs in favour of those of the author, they can motivate scholars to clarify and strengthen their own interpretations or develop alternative solutions to perennial problems. In Transformations of Pelops, the first monograph in English devoted to the hero, András Patay-Horváth challenges the conventional understanding of the origin not only of the myths regarding Pelops and his cult in the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, but also of the sanctuary itself: the myths were developed from folktales concerning the pursuit, death and resurrection of wild animals; the great many equine and bovine figurines from the geometric period found at Olympia were dedicated not by regional pastoralists but by visiting aristocratic hunters; and the sanctuary belonged originally to Artemis, mistress of wild animals. The classical sculptural group on the east pediment of the temple of Zeus Olympios, he also maintains, represents not the preparations for the mythical chariot race in which Pelops was said to have defeated Oinomaos and so won the hand of his daughter Hippodameia, but the reconciliation of Agamemnon and Akhilleus described in the Iliad.

Aside from an Introduction, Conclusion and Appendix, the book consists of three parts, ‘Pelops and his Family’, ‘The Making of Pelops from Different Perspectives’ and ‘Pelops Afterwards’, further divided into a total of seven chapters. The Introduction begins with a brief account of the myths featuring Pelops and the Pelopids. Pelops, eponymous hero of the Peloponnese and ancestor of more famous figures such as Agamemnon and Orestes, we find, enjoyed remarkable popularity in antiquity. After discussing previous treatments of the topic, Patay-Horváth foreshadows his own interpretations of the etymology of the toponym Peloponnesos and the purpose of the geometric animal figurines mentioned above.

The first chapter, ‘Childhood and Marriage’, surveys various kinds of evidence for the relevant myths. There are only two significant tales, that in which Pelops is boiled in a cauldron by his father Tantalos and served up to the gods in a feast, and that of the chariot race. Declaring that certain late accounts, because derived from earlier works, provide ‘a good starting point,’ Patay-Horváth outlines the plots of these tales found in such authors as Hyginus, Apollodoros and Pausanias. Then follows a detailed discussion of the myths as they appear in Pindar’s first Olympian Ode. Various visual depictions are considered before the sometimes controversial question of the geographical location of the main characters is addressed. The final two sections deal with parallels found both in other Greek mythical accounts and in folktales in general, and with ancient and modern attempts to rationalise the myths.

Chapter Two, ‘Successful Ruler and Miserable Father’, concerns events said to have occurred after the famous chariot race. Here Patay-Horváth deals with the abduction of Pelops’ son Khrysippos by Laios, the sceptre the hero is said to have handed down via Atreus and Thyestes to Agamemnon (Iliad 2.100-105), the foundation of the Olympic festival and the burial place of Pelops’ remains. The remainder of the chapter concerns the descendants of the hero and their various topographical connections. The ‘Akhaian monument’ at Olympia, it is maintained, was dedicated by the Peloponnesians to commemorate the Spartan-led victory over the Persians at Plataiai.

In Chapter Three, ‘Folklore and Ethnography – Resurrection and the Missing Shoulder Blade’, the significance of the myth of the restoration of Pelops and his provision with a prosthetic shoulder-blade after Tantalos had served him up to the gods is assessed through parallels from both Greek myth and stories found world-wide, all survivals, the author asserts, from prehistoric hunting. Because the cooked and resurrected figure is usually an animal, the name Pelops must originally have denoted such a creature. The hero’s birthplace was located in Anatolia only because his reputed father Tantalos had long been associated with Mt Sipylos in Lydia.

In Chapter Four, ‘Art and Archaeology – Olympia and the Cult of Pelops’, Patay-Horváth finds the conclusion of the most recent excavator of the classical Pelopion that the cult of Pelops was not founded until the sixth century BC ‘far from convincing.’[1] The original main deity of the sanctuary of Olympia, he maintains, was not Zeus, but Artemis, and the abundant figurines from the geometric period representing horses and cattle found near the site of the Pelopion were dedicated not by a local pastoral people, as generally believed, but by visiting aristocratic hunters from diverse regions of Greece. The mythical chariot race was ‘actually a chase or magic flight’ and the cooking and resurrection of Pelops just one version of a tale originally concerned with hunting. In the myth of the chariot race, Oinomaos represents the hunter and Pelops the wild bull (aurochs) hunted in the region, and Hippodameia seems associated with Artemis, the mistress of wild animals.

Chapter Five, ‘Linguistics and Geography: the Hero of the Peloponnese’, considers the etymology of the name Pelops. Plausibly arguing that pelops signifies ‘dark-faced’, Patay-Horváth conjectures that it was originally applied to ‘the feral bovids hunted around Olympia.’ Since no ancient source refers to a pelops, this creature must have been rare or extinct by early times, and the aurochs, the wild ancestor of domestic cattle, is a likely candidate. Considering similar toponyms, however, he maintains that Peloponnesos was so-called not because of what it contained, but because of what it resembled: it was probably named on account of its great size and because its two southern promontories, Tainaron and Malea, have the appearance of the protruding horns of the aurochs.

In Chapter Six, ‘Modest Remembering and Occasional Revival’, Patay-Horváth discusses modern representations, both literary and visual, of Pelops, the Pelopids and the relevant myths. Pelops was largely ignored until 1587, when the Englishman Matthew Growe composed a narrative poem entitled ‘The most famous and tragicall historie of Pelops and Hippodamia’. During the same century Peruzzi depicted the chariot race in a fresco at the Villa Farnesina in Rome. In 1695 Tantalos’ banquet was included in Krauss’s picture book Die Verwandlungen des Ovidii in zweyhundert und sechs und zwanzig Kupffern , and in 1708 Campra produced the French opera Hippodamie. In 1766 the French artist Taraval painted ‘The banquet of Tantalos’, now in Versailles, and at some time before 1806 Vernet drew ‘The return from the race’, which later inspired Géricault’s painting ‘Ancient chariot’. The story of the rivalry between Pelops’ sons Atreus and Thyestes, however, became far more popular. At around the end of the nineteenth century the Czechs Vrchlický and Fibich produced a melodramatic trilogy, and in the current century the Americans Grossack and Underwood co-authored a trilogy of ‘non-supernatural’ novels, both works concerning Pelops and his family.

In Chapter Seven, ‘Popularity Due to an Ancient Mistake’, Patay-Horváth argues that the usual interpretation (based on Pausanias 5.10.6-7) of the sculptural group on the east pediment of the temple of Zeus at Olympia as a depiction of the preparations for the chariot race must be mistaken. Although modern scholars have connected the composition to the Persian Wars, Pelops’ opponent Oinomaos could not represent invaders from the east, and Pelops, himself said to be from Anatolia, is hardly the embodiment of moral values. It is surprising, moreover, that the sculptural figure traditionally identified as Pelops seems to have worn armour, and the hairstyle of the figure taken to represent Hippodameia is typical of a woman from ‘the lowest ranks of society’ (p.199). The sculptural group, Patay-Horváth concludes, represents the reconciliation of Agamemnon and Akhilleus (Il. 19.255-265), and the female figure is the captive Briseis. The Eleians could not have funded the temple of Zeus and Pheidias’ chryselephantine statue of the god without support from outside Eleia, so these constructions must have been paid for out of the booty taken from the Persians after the Greek victory at Plataiai, celebrated on the east pediment.

In the Conclusion, Patay-Horváth maintains that although the provenance of the relevant myths remains uncertain, the Spartans developed a close relationship with the Pelopids from at least early in the fifth century and used this to justify their hegemony over the Peloponnese. Probably during the Bronze Age, the anthropomorphic hero Pelops was developed from the wild aurochs and then ‘secondarily (in the Early Iron Age) from the name of the peninsula.’ Not until the classical period, nevertheless, did he receive his own separate cult place in the sanctuary of Zeus. The interpretation of the sculptures on the east pediment of the temple of Zeus as a representation of the preparations for the chariot race offered to Pausanias by his local Eleian guides appears entirely divorced from the intentions of those who constructed the temple during the fifth century BC.

Aside from a few simple spelling mistakes (e.g., ‘consacrated’, p.255), the book is generally written in clear, grammatical English. More care, however, could have been taken with some references: scholia listed under #52 in the Appendix, for example, are sometimes referenced as #53 (e.g., pp.81-2); references to #30.1 (p.142) and #22 (p.157) seem misdirected and n.129 (p.207, n.15) does not appear to exist.

As Patay-Horváth concedes (p.xxi), ‘many will surely remain unconvinced’ by the results of his investigations. A few examples of significant points likely to raise doubts among scholars should suffice to illustrate the truth of this statement. The assertion, based on the shape and relative size of their horns, that the bovine figurines from Olympia represent aurochs rather than domesticated cattle is fundamental to his claims about the origins of both the sanctuary and the myths regarding Pelops. Genetic studies have demonstrated, however, that in at least some parts of Europe an admixture of aurochs continued to be introduced into domesticated herds, and even certain modern breeds retain elements of the anatomy of their wild ancestors.[2] The passages from Nestor’s narration in the Iliad (11.670-761) and Pausanias (8.14.5-6) which Patay-Horváth (p.134) says suggest that the horses grazing in the vicinity of Olympia were ‘practically free from human control’ might rather be understood to demonstrate that in the period preceding the composition of the Homeric epics both the cattle and the horses of this region were fully domesticated.[3] The interpretation of the sculptures on the east pediment of the temple of Zeus as a depiction of the reconciliation between Akhilleus and Agamemnon depends upon the assertion that the figure usually identified as Hippodameia could rather, because of her hairstyle, be Briseis, the captive returned to Akhilleus upon his re-joining the ranks of the Akhaians. Yet even as a captive ‘the daughter of Briseus’ (Il. 1.392), known by her patronymic, can hardly be said to belong to ‘the lowest ranks of society,’ and her high social status is further suggested by Patroklos’ plans to make her Akhilleus’ wife (Il. 19.295-9). If the argument about the hairstyle carries any weight, it should lead us to question Patay-Horváth’s reconstruction along with the traditional one. Regarding methodology, his contention that ‘we are not entitled to assume that a variant [of a myth] was non-existent before its earliest mention preserved in our sources’ (p.4) might well be complemented by the observation that we are also not entitled, without a clearly stated justification, to assume that such a variant did exist at any earlier time.

The guide to further reading provided at the end of Patay-Horváth’s Conclusion will be useful to future scholars, as will be the translations (no Greek script appears in the volume) of a significant quantity of relevant source material, including various scholia, which make up the Appendix. Despite the questionable nature of some of its fundamental contentions, this well-researched book offers a substantial challenge to conventional notions of the significance of the myths concerning Pelops and the origin of the Olympic sanctuary, one which scholars in the field will not be able to simply brush aside. It is far from constituting the final word on the subject, however, and perhaps its greatest value will lie in its contribution towards stimulating further debate on a topic so vital to our understanding of the origins and significance of the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia and the development of Greek cult and myth in general.



[1] H. Kyrieleis, H. ‘Die Ausgrabungen am Pelopion 1987-1996’, in H. Kyrieleis (ed) Anfänge und Frühzeit des Heiligtums von Olympia: die Ausgrabungen am Pelopion 1875-1996, 55-7. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2006.

[2] M.R. Upadhyay, et al., ‘Genetic origin, admixture and population history of aurochs (Bos primigenius) and primitive European cattle’, Heredity 118 (2017), 169-76.

[3] Cf. Od. 4.630-7; 14.100-8; 20.185-8; G.F. Bourke, Elis: internal politics and external policy in ancient Greece. Abingdon: Routledge, 2018, 11-12 with n.32, 40.