As I’ve used the above phrase, and I think of Hermes as being very connected to syncretism (and to any sort of connections in general that are possible between beings, communities, and things!), and just because I like the photo, here it is again…
Something that is difficult for many people to understand in terms of syncretism is that it occurs both between cultures and pantheons–what I’ve called “inter-pantheonic syncretism”–and also within individual pantheons and cultures, which I call “intra-pantheonic syncretism.” And, some figures do both.
Because I’ve been talking a lot lately about the Olympics and other sets of sacred panhellenic athletic games related to them, I should tell you about a book I’ve recently enjoyed reading and have gained much from in relation to this topic, and how it also relates to the sacred games of Antinous and Polydeukion. It’s called Baby and Child Heroes in Ancient Greece by Corinne Ondine Pache, and it has a whole chapter on the figure I’m going to discuss below–as well as figures related to him–Palaimon/Melikertes. I’d highly recommend that book for anyone who is interested in this figure, and in ancient Greek hero cultus generally speaking.
Melikertes, so the story goes, was the son of Ino and Athamas, with Ino being the sister of Semele–thus Melikertes was the cousin of Dionysos! (And, like his other cousin Aktaion, Melikertes doesn’t exactly come to a good end, either…) Because Ino was entrusted with the care of Dionysos for a short time after his birth, Hera inflicted insanity upon her house, and then either her husband Athamas killed one of their other children and Ino, fearing death, leapt into the sea with her child Melikertes; or, she herself went mad and leapt into the sea with him. However, for her troubles, the gods made her into a sea-goddess, Leukothea (“white goddess,” on whom more in a few moments), and they changed Melikertes into a hero/god. Dolphins carried his body to Corinth, where his uncle Sisyphus found him, started the Isthmian Games in his honor, and he was thereafter called Palaimon.
With the name Palaimon, however, comes many more possible associations. Palaimon is an epithet of Herakles, and also the name of a child of his by Autonoe (also the name of Aktaion’s mother!) or Iphinoe; it is also the name of an Argonaut, and also a son of Priam, king of Troy. We see here several further associations in which certain children came to “bad ends” and were often heroized in some manner–which is the case with some of Herakles’ children, as well as with Aktaion. The Romans syncretized Palaimon/Melikertes to their own god of harbors, Portunus, about which more will be said below. The literary tradition is pretty fair to Palaimon, with representation in Ovid, Hyginus, Virgil, Pausanias, Plutarch, Nonnos, Statius, Apuleius, and many others–including having one of the Orphic Hymns dedicated to him specifically. (And, considering this is the case, it’s sad there’s not more attention given to him in modern polytheism.) I’ve also written a poem to him in The Phillupic Hymns. You can read more excerpts and information on Palaimon at Theoi.com.
The image above is from the Gundestrup Cauldron, and it has often been compared to the Welsh figure Dylan, who is said to be “son of the wave,” in the assumption that the entire iconography of the cauldron is Celtic-inspired and derived. However, given the certainty that the cauldron is of Thracian workmanship (and that is certain), and that Palaimon is traditionally depicted as a dolphin-riding youth, and that the existence of an Orphic Hymn to him suggests a further potential Thracian connection, doesn’t it make more sense to think of this figure as potentially Palaimon–who was certainly around and whose cultus was in full flower when the cauldron was made–rather than a possibly Celtic figure only attested nearly a millennium later (at the earliest) in a small bit of one tale and in later folk-tales? A possible syncretism between Dylan and Palaimon could certainly be possible as well…but, I think Okham’s Razor suggests that the Palaimon identification is far more likely.
In my own writings, I’ve also linked Palaimon/Melikertes to a figure named in the PGM corpus, as well as other Graeco-Egyptian spells, called Meliouchos, who doesn’t seem to be identified securely, but who seems to be a youthful god, and who on at least one occasion is invoked in a homoerotic love spell. It seems logical to me!
We return, therefore, to Palaimon/Melikertes’ mother, Leukothea. “The White Goddess,” of course, is a phrase most modern pagans associate with Robert Graves and his rather scholastically spurious (but extremely poetic) theory of language and mythic interpretation, which nonetheless has been pervasively influential in modern polytheism. Ino in her divine form assists Odysseus with her veil and thus saves him from drowning in the Odyssey, which is probably her most well-known appearance in Greek mythology. But, even the Greeks didn’t associate Leukothea with Ino automatically; the Rhodians associated Leukothea as the post-apotheosis name of another figure, Halia, a nymph who was the island of Rhodes’ first inhabitant, was the daughter of the sea-goddess Thalassa and a sister of the Telchines, who had six sons and a daughter–Rhodos–by Poseidon. When Aphrodite wanted to come ashore at Rhodes, the six sons of Halia would not allow her, and so she drove them all mad, and they raped their mother. Poseidon punished them by burying them in sea-caves on the island, and Halia threw herself into the sea, later being transformed into the sea-goddess Leukothea. “Halia” is also the name of several other figures…but, we won’t get into them for the moment!
Recalling that Palaimon was syncretized to Portunus by the Romans, likewise Leukothea was syncretized to Mater Matuta–herself also syncretized to Aurora (Roman) or Eos (Greek), both dawn-goddess–as well as to Albunea, the latter no doubt due to the meaning of “white” that is in both the names of Albunea and Leukothea. Albunea is often considered to be the same in intra-pantheonic syncretism as Mefitis, the goddess of gaseous or poisonous volcanic vapors and plagues; but, more often, she’s considered to be the same as the Sibyl at Tibur, who was worshipped as a goddess under the name Albunea. Of course, with the mention of Tibur, we come to Hadrian’s Villa and to Hadrian himself…and, given the association of Albunea with Leukothea, likewise we also note that on Hadrianic coins, the cultus of Palaimon (and thus of Portunus!) is portrayed on several occasions…
The above excursus is not just to demonstrate the dizzying array of associations that singular names could often hold, but also the multiple and entirely divergent (yet also thematically similar) associations that can often exist in terms of the identities of one deity or divine figure. Because of the importance of Palaimon at various stages of history, including his frequent attestation on Hadrianic and Antonine coins, and the connections he has to drowning, aoroi, and to sacred games, the Portunalia on August 17th will be celebrated in the future as a date to honor him, as well as the Matralia on June 11th being observed to honor his mother.
And, as a further matter of interest in relation to the latter paragraph, I’ll be updating the Calendar and the Calendar of the Sancti shortly here with all the new dates, adjustments, and additions that have happened since late last year as well–so, watch for those!