Having been born as described in the file about Dionysos, the infant god must needs be provided with a nurse. Indeed, the nurses of Dionysos are his constant companions in mythology, occurring in the very earliest mention, that in Homer’s Iliad. Dionysos was not alone in mythic nurses’ tending him; for the ‘infant Zeus’ of Crete was also constantly associated with a nurse of some kind, human or bestial, and the infant Erichthonios was tended by the daughters of Kekrops (read the file on Athene). One of the best-known stories about the nursing of Dionysos names but a single nurse, Ino sister of Semele, whose misfortunes are told by several writers. Unfortunately, no account has survived which is at once complete and early, and the versions which we have are apt to contradict each other. However, putting them together, with the continuous narratives of Ovid and Apollodoros as framework, we arrive at the following story.
Ino, at the time when she undertook the care of Dionysos, was married to Athamas. She had borne him two sons, Learchos and Melikertes. Hera sought for vengeance against her, as against all who had helped her latest rival; she therefore drove both Ino and Athamas mad. The result is variously stated. In one version, apparently that followed by Euripides, Ino rushed out of the house in a frenzy like that of the votaries of Dionysos, and remained away so long that Athamas thought her dead, and married Themisto, daughter of Hypseus, in her place. After some time, when he had had two children by his new wife, he discovered that Ino was not dead, but restored to sanity, and she was secretly or openly brought back. Themisto tried to kill her stepchildren, but their nurse (in one account, Ino herself in disguise) foiled her.
Themisto’s directions were that her own children were to be dressed in white, Ino’s in black, so that they could be easily told apart (presumably, the murder was to take place at night). Ino reversed this, and thus Themisto killed her own children, and in horror at her deed committed suicide. Ino, then, and also her husband Athamas were driven mad by Hera. Athamas killed his son Learchos, either mistaking him for a deer or lion and shooting him, or seizing him and dashing his brains out. Ino rushed away with the other child in her arms. Hotly pursued by her husband, she jumped over a cliff into the sea. But Dionysos, or in Ovid’s account, Aphrodite, took pity on her and brought about her transformation into a goddess of the sea, Leukothea (either ‘White Goddess’ or ‘Runner on the White’ i.e., on the foam), whom we find later helping Odysseus. Melikertes also was deified, and henceforth was known as Palaimon.
There is an odd variant that has Athamas or Ino throw Melikertes (or Learchos) into a boiling cauldron before Ino carried him off; this accords with the recurrent idea in Greek myths that mortality may somehow be boiled or burned away. Other variants are, that Ino killed both children, and that Athamas followed her, not in a fit of homicidal mania, but in just anger at her attempt to kill Phrixos and Helle.
Why Melikertes should be called Palaimon (‘Wrestler’), when he was only a baby; whether his name is Greek (‘Honey-cutter,’ i.e., bee-keeper) or Phoenician (‘King,’ probably; in this case his brother Learchos—‘Ruler of the people’—may be simply his Hellenic double); whether Ino was always another name for Leukothea; how it is that Ino is known to have been worshipped in a way which suggests a goddess of vegetation, including mourning for her death, although, if she was a sea-goddess, she did not die strictly speaking; and finally, why the famous Isthmian games were partly at least in honour of Melikertes—all these are easy questions to ask and hard ones to answer.
It is to be remembered that all the mythology of this group was originally Boiotian, later overlaid with the popular myth of Dionysos, who had, to begin with, nothing to do with either Athamas or Ino-Leukothea.
Return to Main Menu