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Friday, October 15, 2010


The Kerkopes, or Cercopes: Genealogy of a Greek Myth

The Dorian Hero, Herakles, carrying the Kerkopes over his shoulder.
Doric entablature from Selinus
Temple of Apollo, Temple C
National Archeological Museum of Palermo

“On the acropolis of fever-ridden Selinus, two young English architects, Angell and Harris, excavating at their own expense in 1822-23, were rewarded by the discovery of some of the finest archaic metopes ever unearthed. The Bourbon government of the Kingdom of Naples interrupted the work, and Harris soon died of fever, but Angell lived to publish his finds. One of the finest, in the Palermo Museum, from Apollo’s Temple C, portrays Heracles carrying on his shoulders, trussed like game to a pole, two Cercopes, imps who had annoyed him by changing themselves into blue-bottle flies and troubling his sleep.” Paul Lachlan MacKendrick, The Greek Stones Speak: The Story of Archaeology in Greek Lands (1962).

According to myth, the Kerkopes were two monkey-men, named Passalus and Akmon (Acmon), who plagued the land of Lydia in western Anatolia. Their name derives from the Ancient Greek word "kerkos," meaning 'tail,' which may explain their description as 'monkey-men.' Their capture is the third labor of Herakles assigned to him by the Lydian Queen Omphale, during Herakles' long enslavement to her as penalty for the 'inadvertent' murder of Iphitus. Upon the command of the Delphic Oracle, Herakles was forced to serve one year in bondage to this Queen. It was shameful for him to be thus treated, and to have to serve an Oriental woman in this fashion, yet there are many late Hellenistic and Roman references in texts and art to Herakles being forced to do women's work and wear women's clothing and hold a basket of wool while Omphale and her maidens did their spinning. Omphale is said to have worn the skin of the Nemean Lion and carried Herakles' olive-wood club.

Johann Heinrich Tischbein, the Elder
Herakles und Omphale

The capture of the Kerkopes occurred in this fashion: As Herakles was sleeping under a tree, the two mischievous characters stole his bow; Herakles caught the barbaric looking brothers and tied them upside-down to a pole which he carried over his shoulder; the Kerkopes were not only unrepentant but highly amused by their plight and, as they dangled behind Herakles, they began making disparaging comments about Herakles’ hairy black butt (melampygos). Herakles, who was accustomed to sorrow and brutality, couldn’t resist the infectious good humor of the Kerkopes and set them free.

Herakles’ encounter with the Kerkopes was a popular artistic theme beginning in the early sixth century BCE and continuing well into the fourth century. The story was popular from mainland Greece to the island of Sicily. It is one of the fragmentary remains of the Epic Cycle. For the complete translations of the Epic Cycle, Loeb Classical Library, volume 57, ISBN 0674990633 is always recommended.

Ovid tells of the disfigurement of their faces in the Metamorphoses, at 14. 89 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st BCE to C1st A.D.): "Pithecusae [island off the coast of Italy] placed on a bare hill, named from its denizens [from pithekos, Ancient Greek word meaning 'monkey']. For once the Genitor Deum (Father of the Gods), who loathed the fraud and falsehood of the Cercopes and all their crafty crimes, transformed the men into misshapen animals that seemed both like and unlike humans, shriveling their limbs, tilting and flattening their noses, ploughing their cheeks with wrinkles of old age. Then, swathed all over in a tawny pelt, he sent them to dwell here, but first removed the means of speech and use of tongues designed for shocking perjury, and left them but screeches and screams for protest and complaint."

Herakles depicted in
the Niobid krater

In the Homerica, from Suidas, (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th to 7th BCE), yet another version of their capture: "Kerkopes: These were two brothers living upon the earth who practiced every kind of knavery. They were called Kerkopes [Monkey-men] because of their cunning doings: one of them was named Passalos and the other Akmon. Their mother, a daughter of Memnon, seeing their tricks, told them to keep clear of "Black-bottom," that is, of Herakles. These Kerkopes were sons of Theia and Okeanos, and are said to have been turned to stone for trying to deceive Zeus. ‘Liars and cheats, skilled in deeds irremediable, accomplished knaves. Far over the world they roamed deceiving men as they wandered continually.’"

What are we to make of this myth? Herakles, long-suffering hero of the Dorians, whose principal characteristic is his strength, is deceived and taunted by these playful ruffians in the course of their capture, and because they make him laugh, he spares their lives as an act of kindness. Their skittish, manic behavior; their playfulness in the face of death; their irremediable nature, lively, capricious and variable; their bothersome pranks, make these characters into imps. They are of the sort of Max und Moritz, the cartoon characters of Wilhelm Busch, or the big playful lout and impudent trickster, Till Eulenspiegel, in the German folkloric tradition of Middle Lower German (Niederdeutsch) literature.

Till Eulenspiegel
Sculpture in Moelln

The scatological import of the Kerkopes’ story is also evident in the case of Eulenspiegel's. In one story he rolls his feces into little balls and sells them to Jews in Frankfurt am Main as "prophet's berries"; in another he covers the contents of his chamber pot with a layer of coins and invites a priest to reach into his money-jar and take as much charity as he can grasp.

Herakles and the Kerkopes
Attic black-figure Amphora 530-500 BCE

When Herakles turns the Kerkopes upside down, to hang them from his staff for conveyance, they laugh at his hairy black butt. The hero laughs too, forgives them their pranks, and saves their lives. But the perverse liveliness and bothersome nature of the brothers, they were after all liers, cheats and knaves, accounts for a further metamorphosis for which the scatology of the melampygos (black butt) provides a genealogical clue. From men to monkeys, . . . to coprophilic insects. In the alternate version of the myth, the Kerkopes change themselves into blue-bottle flies to trouble Herakles in his sleep. (The Greek Stones Speak, op.cit.). The blue-bottle fly or bottlebee (Calliphora vomitoria) lays her eggs where she feeds, usually in decaying meat, garbage, . . . or feces.

Calliphora vomitoria

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