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An artistic representation of a Telchine.

No Rest for the Wicked: The Role of the Telchines in the Myths of Greece and Rome

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Magicians, artists and craftsmen, the Telchines are the proverbial jacks-of-all-trades - yet they are also atypical masters of all. Considered by most ancient authors to be malevolent daimons of the sea, the Telchines have no one specific role in mythological stories but rather serve to enhance chaos and mayhem. Though they are rarely mentioned directly in what survives of ancient texts, when they are referenced, their destructive magic far outweighs the technical capabilities of these mythical creatures.

The Origins of the Telchines

The beginnings of the Telchines (Telkhines in Greek) remains up for debate, as is often the case with ancient mythologies. While some Greek and Roman writers thought the Telchines were siblings of the Furies (aka Erinyes) and born of the genital blood of Kronos' father Ouranos, most tend to adhere to the likelihood that they were children of Thalassa, the sea.

Two Furies, from a nineteenth-century book reproducing an image from an ancient vase.

Two Furies, from a nineteenth-century book reproducing an image from an ancient vase. ( Public Domain )

It can also be argued that in a way the Telchines were the children of both, as Ouranos' blood falling into the ocean is what birthed Aphrodite, and it falling on the earth birthed the Furies; however, this does not appear explicitly stated. Nevertheless, the Telchines play an early role in the life of the Olympians, the grandchildren of Ouranos, as they aided the goddess Kapheira in the raising of Poseidon, their future king of the sea.

Poseidon, Paella Museum.

Poseidon, Paella Museum. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 de )

Writings on the Telchines

The earliest surviving source on the Telchines comes from Greek writer Callimachus, who considered them "wizards of Ceos, not of Rhodes." However, the most complete account of the Telchines is by the Roman author Strabo in “ Geography.” This text places the Telchines in Rhodes and it is likely that because of his comprehensiveness later writers keep the Telchines on this island. Strabo also describes their three aforementioned occupations—artists, magicians and craftsmen—even though the Telchines might not have originally possessed all of these gifts in the initial, lost records.

According to Eustathius and John Tzetzes, these daimons often used their powers over the natural world to cause mayhem. As magicians, the Telchines were able to use the forces of nature as the gods could. They are recorded as being able to "produce earthquakes, lightnings, and storms, and, like Proteus, change their shapes at will."

Expert Craftsmen

As craftsmen, the Telchines engaged in similar activities to the god Hephaestus, forging trinkets and weapons at the command of the gods. The two items they are best known to have created on their own is the trident of Poseidon, lord of the sea, and the sickle of Kronos. They were also said to have made the cursed necklace of Harmonia with Hephaestus' help. The Telchines were specialists in brass and iron, whereas the deformed son of Zeus and Hera was apt at all metals.

Poseidon, lord of the sea.

Poseidon, lord of the sea. ( Public Domain )

Pindar said the Telchines created sculptures so lifelike that "they were constantly getting up and running away." Pindar also states that the Telchines were not the first inhabitants of Rhodes, but rather came after the Heliadae, a race who also possessed technical skills given to them by Zeus and Athena.

 Evidently, this reveals how unreliable and inconsistent mythological texts can be, however there are a few factors that are consistent which should be noted. The Telchines are most often associated with the island of Rhodes, they were not seen as positive forces and they were said to possess powerful abilities of artistry, magic, and crafts.

How Bad Were the Telchines?

Despite their many gifts, it should not be forgotten that the writers of ancient Rome viewed the Telchines far more spitefully than the Greeks did: as dark forces, in fact. Yet both cultures do agree that the Telchines were malevolent.

It should be noted, however, that Ancient Greek sources are much less likely to survive, so a large amount of information on the Telchines stems from the later Roman authors. The Romans were highly concerned with the negative aspects of these semi-god-like magicians, however Roman and post-Roman translations also survived better than the earlier Greek versions.

It was the Romans who associated the Telchines as demonic with the modern definition; the Greek daimon merely indicated they were supernatural. Whether or not the Greeks truly believed the Telchines were as dangerous as they later appear is debatable and, unfortunately, currently unknown.

Top image: An artistic representation of a Telchine. Photo Source: CC BY SA

By Ryan Stone

Bibliography

Blakely, Sandra. 2006. Myth, Ritual and Metallurgy in Ancient Greece and Recent Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jacobsen, Michael A. 1982 "The Meaning of Mantegna's Battle of Sea Monsters." The Art Bulletin. 64.4 pp. 623-29.

Nonnus. Dionysiaca. (trans. by L R. Lind) Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press..

Perkins, Charles C. 1880. "Ancient Literary Sources of the History of the Formative Arts among the Greeks. III. The Telchines. Commentary C." The American Art Review. 1.7. pp 304-5.

Siculus, Diodorus. High Library of History. (trans. by C H. Oldfather) Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Statius. Silvae, Thebaid, Achilleid. (trans. by J H. Mozley) Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Strabo. Geography. (trans. by Horace J. Jones). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Unknown. Greek Lyric IV, Bacchylides, Corrina, and Others. (trans. by D A. Campbell). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Young, David. C. 1987. "Pindar and Horace against the Telchines (OL. 7.53 & Carm. 4.4.33)." The American Journal of Phililogy. 108.1 pp. 152-157.

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