December 12, 2013, by Alan Sommerstein

Triptolemus’ Trips, or Around the World by Snake Power (part 2)

As I explained last week, the greater part of what we know about Sophocles’ early play Triptolemus relates to the instructions given by the goddess Demeter to Triptolemus of Eleusis for his journey or journeys to various parts of the world spreading the knowledge of grain cultivation and probably also of the Eleusinian mystery-cult.

What was Triptolemus’ itinerary?  I give below the places named or implied in the surviving quotations from the play (presented in the order in which they are printed in the standard edition of Sophocles’ fragments by Stefan Radt, to which the fragment numbers refer), adding at the end a further piece of information about Triptolemus’ travels derived from a somewhat later source but probably going back to Sophocles.

Oenotria (south-western Italy), Etruria (Tuscany), Liguria (the coast from Genoa to Marseilles) (598; Italy also mentioned in 600) – the quoting author, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, adds that the preceding lines had dealt with the extreme south of Italy and then with Sicily; Illyria (601); Carthage (602); modern Libya, where grew the herb called silphium (603); the Getae on the lower Danube (604); India or its vicinity (609, which speaks of “rice-bread” – the only mention of rice in any Greek text before the time of Alexander the Great); an unspecified country (Thrace?) that became famous for beer-drinking (610); the Ionian Greek communities of what is now western Turkey (617).

In addition, fragment 599 speaks of Triptolemus having to go “from here again”, i.e. come back to Eleusis and start off again in a different direction.  And Xenophon in his History of Greece (book 6, chapter 3, section 6) makes the Athenian aristocrat Callias, himself a priest at Eleusis (though not notable for his piety when not on duty), as a delegate to a peace conference held at Sparta in 371 BC, say that Triptolemus revealed the Mysteries to the Spartans “first among foreigners” and that he “made his first gift of the fruits of Demeter to the Peloponnese”.

If that derives from Sophocles, it implies that Triptolemus, starting out from Eleusis, travelled first in a south-westerly direction towards southern Greece.  If he continued on roughly the same path, he would come next to the heel of Italy, and we know from Dionysius and fr. 598 that he traversed the far south of the peninsula, looped around Sicily, and then went up the west coast of Italy towards the Riviera and the mouth of the Rhone.  He has clearly embarked on a circuit of the Mediterranean which will take him along the Spanish and North African coasts to Carthage (near modern Tunis), Libya, and then undoubtedly (though mention of it has not survived) Egypt; after that he could go on across western Asia (or perhaps, as I have suggested below, by a broader sweep through lands that had never been explored because they did not actually exist) as far as India.  At some stage, we know, he must have returned to his starting-point; this part of his journey will have covered the various regions of Asia Minor, including Ionia (fr. 617).

This journey is extensive indeed, but there are several areas visited by Triptolemus which we have not yet covered, all to the north of Greece – Illyria (roughly the recent Yugoslavia), Thrace, the Danube – not to mention northern Greece itself, which cannot have been omitted.  That is why he had to make a second trip, turning his whole itinerary into a gigantic figure of eight and covering south-eastern Europe as far as the great river that Greeks called the Istros.  He may even have gone further, into the vast and poorly-known land of Scythia:  some later writers, beginning with the Roman poet Ovid, speak of an attempt by “Lyncus, king of the Scythians” (corrupted by one medieval scribe into “Licus, king of Scotland”!) to murder Triptolemus in order to take for himself the glory of bringing agriculture to the world.  Demeter saved her protégé by transforming Lyncus into (what else?) a lynx.

Thus Triptolemus’ trips took him, and grain cultivation, almost all over the world as Greeks knew it in Sophocles’ time.  There is no mention in the surviving material of the interior of Africa (known to Greeks as Ethiopia), but there is some evidence that a land-bridge was believed to exist between Africa and India, and Triptolemus may have gone from Egypt to India by that route.  In Prometheus Bound (attributed to Aeschylus but probably composed a couple of decades after his death) Io, going a very long way round from Greece to Egypt, traverses this bridge in the opposite direction (lines 807-812).

It is just as well that Triptolemus’ snake-chariot was a divine one and needed no refuelling or servicing …


Posted in SophoclesTragedy