Five Foundation Myths of Cyrene

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by Neil Godfrey

The “historical” founder of the colony of Cyrene was a Greek named Battus (an unlikely founder since he spoke with a stutter) who is said to have ruled in the years leading up to 600 BCE.

Contemporary archaeologists agree: Cyrene, the Greek colony in Libya, had its beginnings in the second half of the seventh century B.C. The presence of some objects dated to the Late Helladic III A and B periods on the site clearly points to more ancient contacts between Greece and the Mediterranean coast of Africa; nothing, however, before the middle of the Archaic period indicates the development of a city in the Greek sense of the term. Such is the interpretation of the archaeologists . . . (Calame, Claude. Myth and History in Ancient Greece: The Symbolic Creation of a Colony, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 2003. p. 35)

The ancient myth of the founding of the Cyrenian kingdom comes to us from a number of sources, including several of Pindar‘s poems (in particular the Pythian Odes 4, 5, 9), the history by Herodotus, (book 4), the epic poet Apollonius of Rhodes who wrote about Jason and the Argonauts, and the Cyrenian poet Callimachus.

Herodotus, writing as a “historian” presents us with a rationalised version of how Cyrene was founded as a Greek colony. He eschews in this context tales of gods and demigods and myths. But the other sources mentioned above are more willing to leave us the popular legends of how this great ancient Greek colony of Libya came to be.

Pindar gives us two stories: one begins seventeen generations before our stuttering founder Battus; but another begins even earlier, back in mythic time when only gods “made history”.

Pindar’s accounts of the foundation stories

Pythian Ode 9

In his ninth Pythian Ode Pindar tells us of a time before mortals, when the wandering god Apollo was enthralled by a nymph and daughter of the king of the Lapiths whom he saw in Thessaly (northern Greece) fearlessly defending her flocks by aggressively taking a fight even to a lion — which she killed in combat. Her name was Cyrene.

Apollo, he of the flowing hair,
carried away, a wild maiden
[= Cyrene], in his car of gold, to make her
dwell as queen in a country rich in flocks, in grain most rich,
flowering and desired, third branch
[i.e. third continent after Europe and Asia] of the mighty earth.

Apollo abducting Cyrene — from http://www.frederickarthurbridgman.org/Apollon-Enlevant-Cyrene-Apollo-Abducting-Cyrene.html

Apollo was obsessed by her spirit and charms so, with the encouragement of a wise old Centaur, kidnapped her, took her to Libya where there was a beautiful romantic setting of a garden fit for gods, and raped made love to her.

The Centaur pulls himself out of his cave at the call of Apollo and says:

you have come to this glade
her bridegroom. You shall carry her over the sea
to the favored garden place of God.

There you shall make her queen of a city, assembling
a people of islanders to the ness between two plains; and Libya, lady of fair meadows,
shall welcome gladly in the golden house the bride in her glory. She shall be given
straightway and in full measure an allotment of earth
not without destiny of various growing things, nor unknown of beasts.

“There she will bear a son whom glorious Hermes,
lifting from the side of his beloved mother, will bring
to the Hours and Earth in their thrones of magnificence.
These, admiring in the brightness the child at their knees,
will minister to his lips ambrosia and nectar, and make him to be immortal,
a Zeus, a holy Apollo, a delight to men, beloved and trusty keeper of flocks,
to be called spirit of the wilds and the pastures, and to some Aristaios.”

The ahistorical time myth makes room for a people to arrive in historical time: one day people shall come from an island to establish a colony “between two plains”.

What we have here, then, is actually a myth of the origins of the native peoples around Cyrene, of those inhabitants who preceded the arrival of the Greeks. A prehistoric myth for a people whose origins precede history.

We also have a myth to explain the rich and fertile land of Cyrene that is capable of producing so much wealth and excellence.

Interestingly the native inhabitants were not accorded a lower status as if from a cursed son of Ham and deserving to be all killed by the newcomers.

Pythian Ode 4

Pindar related another myth, one closer to historical time but still short of it, that accounted for the origin of the Greek colony of Cyrene.

As Pindar begins his fourth Pythian ode he merges his voice with that of mythical Medea, the sorceress wife of Jason who led the semi-divine Argonauts to retrieve the golden fleece. On the sacred island of Thera Medea is prophesying to Jason’s crew who have just left the Libyan continent and are on their way back to their various homes in Greece.

After capturing the golden fleece the Argo was blown seriously off course and the crew found themselves painfully trekking for twelve days through Libyan desert wastes bearing on their shoulders their sacred ship the Argo.

Eventually they reached their hope of an oceanic outlet out from the Libyan wastelands. At that point the sea-god Poseidon, god of the sea and horses, transformed himself into his son Eurypylus to dig up a clod of earth to give to one of the Argonauts. The lucky Argonaut was another son of Poseidon, Euphemus, and he it was whom Poseidon approached as a brotherly equal to give that clod of earth as a token of friendship. It turned out to be much more than a token of friendship and we learn that it was a token of a promise that Euphemus’s descendants would return to possess that region of Libya.

The piece of dirt is washed away on the return voyage but it floats to the island of Thera. Had Euphemus returned to his home in mainland Greece with it and tossed it into a certain cave as an offering to Hades, his descendants would have waited a “mere” four generations before returning from mainland Greece to claim the land of Cyrene.

And now the seed imperishable of wide
Libya is washed before its time to this island. But had Euphamos gone
home to sacred Tainaron and cast it down at the mortal gate of Hades,
. . . .

in his children’s fourth generation
his blood, with the Danaans’ aid, had taken the broad continent. For in that time
they shall be driven, and leave Lakedaimon and Argos bay and Mykenai.

The “sin”, even though inadvertent, doomed the descendants to a wait of many centuries before the divine promise would be fulfilled. The hope of a mere four generations was lost.

Since the clod was lost on the island of Thera, seventeen generations would have to pass before they left that island to establish their Libyan kingdom — led by Battus.

All of this was made clear through a prophecy uttered by Jason’s wife Medea while on that island of Thera:

the priestess
prophesied that Battos should come to colonize the cornlands of Libya,
leaving his sacred island
[i.e. Thera] to found a city
of chariots at the shining breast of the sea;

that he must bring home at last
in the seventeenth generation, Medeia’s word, that Aietes’
mantic daughter, lady of Kolchis, spoke of old with immortal lips at Thera. 

Medea even prophesied that there would be another prophecy uttered at the fulfilment of those seventeen generations when Apollo would call and command Battus to go with candidates from the island of Thera and establish the colony of Cyrene:

As it is, he shall beget a race elect in the bed
of strange women; and thereafter, coming by God’s ordinance to this
island, they shall bring forth a man [i.e. Battus] to be lord of shadowy plains.

On a day to come, in the golden house,
as he approaches at last the Pythian shrine,

Phoibos [Apollo] shall speak to him in words of prophecy
and bid him carry in ships cities to the rich demesne of Kronian Neilos. [Cyrene]
Lo, the marshaled words of Medeia; and the godlike heroes were struck to motionless
silence, hearing the depth of her brooding thought.

Thus heroic time (Jason and the Argonauts) merges or overlaps with historic time (Battus).

Herodotus turns the myth into history

See Herodotus 4:145-158

Herodotus, “father of history”, sets aside the ravings of Medea and explains the movements of peoples as caused by entirely “historical” processes. So the descendants of Argo’s crew, now known as Minyai, were forced out of their “homelands” by other invaders, the Pelasgians, and fled to the southern part of Greece, the Peloponnesian region dominated by Sparta. Sparta accepted the refugees for a while but when the Minyai started demanding “equal rights” with their hosts Sparta planned to get rid of them. The Minyai fled with some other people who were planning on setting out to found a new colony and settled with their ancestors on the island of Thera.

The King of Thera took a small party with him, including Battus, to consult the oracle of Delphi on various matters and was confused when the oracle instructed him to set out a colonizing mission to Libya. The king had never heard of Libya so had no idea what to do, though he did beg the oracle to allow the younger Battus to lead the expedition some day.

After some confusion and inaction extending over several years, with drought plaguing Thera, and ill-planned colonizing expeditions missing their target by a few miles, and back and forth to the oracle, the Therans finally got it (nearly) right and Battus landed in Libya proper with his colonists. Unfortunately they settled in the wrong part of Libya and difficulties with making any prosperous headway led them back to complain to the Delphic oracle. The native Libyans, however, had welcomed Battus’s expedition at first and eventually came to the rescue by directing him to the site where he founded the city of Cyrene — just as the oracle had cryptically intended all along.

No more awe-inspiring prophecies of Cantaurs or sorceresses, and even the Delphic oracle is made to appear somewhat helpless when she can only utter ambiguous and confusing directions. (That may be a bit unfair to Herodotus and his intentions, actually, since his overall work does “teach” readers that the will of Apollo rules over the affairs of humankind.) Whatever the case, the historical tale is not nearly so romantic as the earlier myths, and even descends at times into a form of comedy or farce.

But Herodotus does align the story with “historical forces” that historians believe did indeed propel the Greek world into colonizing efforts: warfare, refugees, famines or crop failures, etc. And prophetic oracles are not, in Herodotus’s world, as clear and powerfully fulfilling as in myth.

Apollonius of Rhodes introduces a Hellenistic romance

We come now to the post classical world and enter the Hellenistic age and meet in the third century BCE the epic poet Apollonius of Rhodes who has given us today’s most popular version of Jason and the Argonauts. He sought not so much to glorify Cyrene by writing odes in praise of her great athletes, kings and history, but was more interested in “popular” entertainment — to the extent that the circle who had the luxury to be his audience might be designated “popular”.


Apollonius simplifies the plot and omits Medea’s prophecy from the Cyrene story and the requirement to offer the clod of earth to Hades. Not the grand Poseidon but another colourful deity and son of Poseidon, Triton, gives the clod of earth to Euphemus. Euphemus is somewhat mystified by the nature of the gift but accepts it in friendship before Triton reveals himself as a god by suddenly disappearing from view before Euphemus’s eyes.

Euphemus afterwards has a dream that troubles him. He dreamt that he was caressing the clod of earth when it turned into a beautiful woman who excited him so much that he made love to it/her. Filled with remorse the woman kindly reassured him that he had done the right thing and she was also a daughter of Triton and that she would one day provide a welcome for Euphemus’s descendants.

Euphemus asked Jason to interpret the dream for him and Jason assured him that it signified that he had to throw the clod of earth into the sea and it would turn into an island that would one day be the home of his future generations. Excited to bits, Euphemus immediately tossed the earth into the sea and it grew into the island of Thera.

Later Euphemus’s offspring would travel via the lands of Sparta to arrive at Thera from where they would eventually colonize Cyrene.

Thus are introduced into the myth elements of the Hellenistic romance, in this particular instance the dramatic revelation of a god and the strange dream.

Meanwhile Triton picked up the heavy tripod and walked into the water. They saw him stepping in; yet in a moment he had disappeared, quite close to them, tripod and all. But their hearts were warmed. They felt that one of the blessed ones had come to them and brought good luck. . . . 

As the next morning was fair, they cast their hawsers off and sailed. Euphemus then remembered that he had had a dream in the night, and in deference to Hermes, god of dreams, he took pains to recall it. He had dreamt that he was holding to his breast the lump of earth which the god had given him and was suckling it with streams of white milk. The clod, small as it was, turned into a woman of virginal appearance; and in an access of passion he lay with her. When the deed was done, he felt remorse – she had been a virgin and he had suckled her himself. But she consoled him, saying in a gentle voice: ‘My friend, I am of Triton’s stock and the Nurse of your children; no mortal maid, but a Daughter of Triton and Libya. Give me a home with Nereus’ Daughters in the sea near Anaphe, and I will reappear in the light of day in time to welcome your descendants.’

Euphemus, after committing his dream to memory, told it to Jason. The dream reminded Jason of an oracle of Apollo’s, and putting the two things together, he made a prophecy himself, exclaiming: ‘My noble friend, you are marked out for great renown! When you have thrown this clod of earth into the sea, the gods will make an island of it, and there your children’s children are to live. Triton received you as a friend with this little piece of Libyan soil. It was Triton and no other god that met us and gave you this.’ (Voyage, E.V. Rieu’s translation. pp. 189-193)

Callimachus, a native Cyrenian’s hymn to Apollo

Callimachus was poet also from the Hellenistic era but unlike Apollonius of Rhodes he was a native Cyrenian. His hymn to Apollo betrays signs of being somewhat biographical insofar as his praise wells from personal high contacts and privileges. We would not expect a prosaic historical account in a hymn to his god, nor would we expect a romantic appeal to entertainment.

What we find in Callimachus’s poem is a fusing of the quasi-historical Battus with the entirely mythic Apollo when he raped Cyrene. Callimachus is attempting to epitomize all that he finds good in Cyrene: a well ordered and governed city with a highly esteemed cult alongside rich productive fields and lands all well protected from wild beasts and other would-be predators.

These blessings are in effect personified in the mythical or semi-mythical characters. Battus is led by Apollo to found the city as perfectly as only the wisdom of Apollo could accomplish; and Apollo looks on the land of Battus with his love, Cyrene, who had blessed the land with richness and defended it from wild beasts. Moreover, Cyrene is ranked with holy Thera and the most renowned Sparta.

Thus did Phoebus learn to raise his first foundations. Phoebus, too, it was told Battus of my own city of fertile soil, and in guise of a raven – auspicious to our founder – led his people as they entered Libya and sware that he would vouchsafe a walled city to our kings. And the oath of Apollo is ever sure. O Apollo! . . . But I call thee Carneius; for such is the manner of my fathers. Sparta, O Carneius! was thy first foundation; and next Thera; but third the city of Cyrene. From Sparta the sixth generation of the sons of Oedipus brought thee to their colony of Thera; and from Thera lusty Aristoteles [= Battus] set thee by the Asbystian land [= Cyrenaica], and builded thee a shrine exceedingly beautiful, and in the city established a yearly festival wherein many a bull, O Lord, falls on his haunches for the last time.

Cyrene wrestling with a lion

. . . . Greatly, indeed, did Phoebus rejoice as the belted warriors of Enyo danced with the yellow-haired Libyan women, when the appointed season of the Carnean feast came round. . . . . These did the Lord himself behold and showed them to his bride as he stood on horned Myrtussa where the daughter of Hypseus [= Cyrene] slew the lion that harried the kind of Eurypylus. No other dance more divine hath Apollo beheld, nor to any city hath he given so many blessings as he hath given to Cyrene, remembering his rape of old. Nor, again, is there any other god whom the sons of Battus have honoured above Phoebus.

For Callimachus the foundation of Cyrene is all one: the mythical Apollo and Cyrene blend with the accomplishments of the city and cult founder Battus.


Myth, legends and history are ever malleable. There was no “one” apparently canonical foundation story of Cyrene. Myth and history could be combined and the two could be teased apart; items removed and new details added — according to the purposes of the poem, epic or history.

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Neil Godfrey

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