Falling for you: unrequited love in ancient Greece

With Valentine’s Day upon us it would seem churlish not to have something on my blog about love in antiquity. Perhaps something about Narcissus, the patron deity of selfies? Or The many doomed romances between deity and mortal? To be frank it seems very few romances ever ended well in Greek or Roman myth. Anyone finding themselves in the romantic crosshairs of a deity might as well pick out which tree or object they’ll be turned into from the outset to save themselves time. Of course, that assumes you get any kind of choice, if you are Hyacinthus or Hippolytus you’ll endure a freakish fate normally featured in the Final Destination films.  

In a rather contrarian twist what might someone profusely bleeding from cupid’s arrows do to rid themselves of such feelings? Well, there was one possible cure and it’s wonderfully bizarre.

It all starts with, and on, the island of Lefkada which sits in the Ionian Sea (west of mainland Greece). It’s here where you’ll find a particularly vertigo-inducing white rock which gave the island its old name, Leucas. Apollo had a temple here and if you know your Greek love gossip then you know Apollo is never far from a tragic date.

Lefkada (Leucas) in red

When Aphrodite was grieving for Adonis it was suggested to her by Apollo that she jump off the white rock to cure her feelings. Whether this was sage advice or the sort of thing which siblings do to each other is unclear but as Aphrodite emerged from the sea she was indeed cured.

The famous Sappho apparently jumped from here to cure herself of love, but died, which isn’t exactly surprising. Strabo contends that the first mortal to attempt the feat wasn’t Sappho (as is sometimes stated) but Cephalus who had fallen for Pteralas (10.2.9). Whether Cephalus survived isn’t known but we do have a list of those who attempted and (mostly) failed thanks to a Greek grammarian called Conon who lived around the time of Augustus.

That’s right, literally Conon the Grammarian

Conon’s Narratives survive due to Photios of Constantine who collated many works in the 9th century AD. It’s likely that Conon himself had referred to older sources himself when drawing up the following list.

We’ll start with Artemesa, daughter of Lygdamis. She was scorned by Dardanus of Abydos and scratched out his eyes whilst he slept. As a divine punishment her love for him was made stronger. She jumped from the rock and died as a result, which means it technically cured her of love but also of life.

Next up we have Hippomedon of Epidamnos, who was enamoured with a namless boy. He jumped and died. Nicostratus, a comic poet (mid 4th century BC) and possibly the son of the famous Aristophanes tried, and apparently succeeded in both being cured and not being killed in the process. Perhaps laughter is the best medicine.

We now come to Maces of Buthrotum, who was even nicknamed ‘White Rock’ because he had jumped from the rock four times. The cure wasn’t simply the preserve of the young, or, Sappho aside, men. Rhodope of Asimene jumped and died after falling for twin boys and an elderly chap called Boulagoras also met the same fate after falling for a young flutist.

There is even a poem to the rock, composed by Charinus who jumped after falling in love with a eunuch called Eupator. Though he survived he broke his leg in the fall and died a few days later. Awaiting his fate, he wrote the following:

To the devil with you, deceptive and murderous rock of Leukos!

Charinus, alas! alas! this iambic muse,

You have turned to cinders by your vain words of hope.

Can Eupator suffer so much for Eros.”

The White Rock, perhaps I’m not that into her/him now I think of it

Looking past the obvious bizarre nature of this it is worth considering what was going on exactly. Strabo goes further in commenting about the jump from the rock as forming more than simply an exercise in poor decision making.

According to Strabo the locals of Lefkada had a yearly practice of hurling criminals off the rock and into the sea. This doesn’t seem to have been a response to a specific criminal event, rather it was undertaken, as Strabo comments ‘to avert evil’. This type of ritual is known as apotropaic, which sought to prevent or ward off a problem and was by no means rare in antiquity. Apotropaic items, often amulets, were carried by those in the Greek and Roman periods. We can even consider the gorgon face as an apotropaic design, in much the same way as gargoyles came to feature on churches.

More specifically focusing the ritual through an individual establishes that person as what we might deem a scapegoat or pharmakos. This was not unusual, Hipponax (writing in the 6th century BC) uses the scapegoat ritual in one of his poems (5-6W). Lysias (6.53) is equally as certain of their use. Istros, (FGH 334.F50) even goes so far as to explain the foundation of the pharmakos/scapegoat ritual. Apollo’s holy cups were stolen by a man called Pharmakos and he was killed when Achilles’ men caught up with him.

Athens had a festival named the Thargelia wherein two individuals, one to represent the men and one the women, were selected and punished. The idea that a city or locality could identify an individual and by exiling or killing them also ‘cleanse’ themselves was by no means unusual.

Hipponax describes the pharmakos as being dressed for the occasion, in his case wearing figs and being given food to hold. The ritual at Leucas was by no means different, in that the criminal acting as the pharmakos was dressed. But not with food, Strabo refers to them being dressed with feathers or even having birds attached to them.

Floating below were boats which picked up any survivor and would escort him to the border and thus exile. Whether he got to keep the outfit is something we’ll never know. However, I sense that there might be confusion here on the part of Strabo and this is furnished by the role of birds in love magic and in particular to the iunx.

For those familiar with Sappho’s Hymn to Aphrodite the presence of birds is not unusual in dealing with the subject of love (it exists elsewhere, from Ganymede to bird offerings and love gifts). Davidson, in his book The Greeks and Greek Love (17ff) neatly connects, birds, unwise leaping and love in the myth of Meletus and Timagoras which is based in Athens.

Meletus had tried in vain to impress Timagoras, who set him many tasks. One such task was to steal a pair of fine pedigree fowl, after succeeding Timagoras simply snubbed him. Meletus was in utter despair and ran up to the Acropolis where he jumped to his death.

Rather than the end of the tale this was just the beginning as Timagoras found himself running in the footsteps of Meletus, even picking up the two birds, as if possessed and seemingly against his will he jumped to his doom from the same spot and ended up landing on the corpse of Meletus. Though Pausanias tells a compressed version of this story he does point out it was at this place, under the Erechtheum were both died and that an altar was set up to worship ‘Love Avenged’ (Paus.130.1).

The altar held offerings in the form of plaques and one such offering, according to Davidson, depicted a youth running with a bird under each arm. Davidson comments that it is difficult to think about the white rock of Leucas without thinking of the bird imagery of Timagoras.

The relationship between bird and love can be understood in the context of Aphrodite’s iunx. Forget the magic girdle (the kestos himas, though this was more likely a band round the chest) Aphrodite also had an item which could help in any instance of unrequited love.

In his Fourth Pythian Pindar comments that Aphrodite first bought the iunx to Jason to help him seduce Medea.  The iunx was composed of a bird tied to a wheel, most likely a wryneck (not a native species to mainland Greece – it doesn’t feature in Aristophanes catalogue of birds, for example). The wheel was then spun making the bird ‘maddened’ as Pindar wrote and presumably it was this high state of emotion which the iunx looked to transfer to the intended target. 

In the instance of the criminals being forced to jump from the white rock wearing feathers or even birds it might be that Strabo was mixing up rituals. In the case of the criminals being forced to jump as part of an apotropaic ritual they have been dressed in some way as other similar rituals also dressed the pharmakos.

actually, I’m 100% over them. I’ll take the stairs.

Yet the use of feathers, or indeed birds, seems to belong more within the context of love magic. Perhaps it was considered necessary to either hold a bird or feathers whilst jumping if you felt that your love for an individual had been caused by a spell or incantation (or iunx) which itself had involved birds?

Alternatively, if you didn’t suspect this a simple, yet often fatal, leap would suffice to rid you of any feelings for that person.

The opaque nature of the rock suits how Gregory Ngagy views it in this . The white rock of Leucas was a liminal place, it’s referenced as something the souls would pass on the way to the underworld (Od.24.11-12). Another archaic poet, Anakreon used it as a metaphor for sex:

One more time taking off in the air, down from the White Rock into the dark waves do I dive, intoxicated with lust  Anac. PMG 37608

Homer and Anacreon viewed the White Rock from very different perspectives, but these are not exclusive, love and death have persisted as bedfellows throughout history. The White Rock might be a place you passed from one emotional state to another or even from life to death. It was a location concerned with transition both in the context of the civic and personal.

Behind all of this sits Apollo. It was his temple which stood on the White Rock and it was he who advised Aphrodite to take the literal plunge. There’s more than a smattering of irony in that a lighthouse now stands where his temple once stood. A building to a god associated with light and which facilitated serious danger to the individual has been replaced by one which seeks to prevent injury and death, using light.


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