In Greek mythology, Protesilaus (Ancient Greek: Πρωτεσίλᾱος) was a hero in the Iliad who was venerated at cult sites in Thessaly and Thrace.
Protesilaus was the son of Iphiclus, a "lord of many sheep"; as grandson of the eponymous Phylacos, he was the leader of the Phylaceans.
Hyginus surmised that he was originally known as Iolaus—not to be confused with Iolaus, the nephew of Heracles—but was referred to as "Protesilaus" after being the first (πρῶτος) to leap ashore at Troy, and thus the first to die in the war.
Suitor of Helen
Protesilaus comes to prominence in the lead up to the Trojan War, for Protesilaus was named as one of the Suitors of Helen.
The main sources that list the Suitors of Helen all name Protesilaus amongst the number vying for the hand in marriage of the daughter of Zeus and Leda, and although Menelaus was subsequently chosen as Helen’s husband, Protesilaus had by then already taken the Oath of Tyndareus, making him duty bound to protect the husband of Helen.
Subsequently, Protesilaus would marry Laodamia, the daughter of King Acastus and Astydamia.
During the Trojan War
When Helen was taken by Paris to Troy, the Oath of Tyndareus saw Protesilaus gather together forty black ships of men at Aulis; the men being gathered from Phylace, Pyrasus, Iton, Antrium and Pteleum. The ships of Protesilaus would be part of the one thousand ship armada to arrive at Troy.
A prophecy had been made though, in which it was said that the first of the Greeks to land at Troy would be the first to die; this prophecy was said to have been delivered by Thetis, Calchas or an Oracle.
Protesilaus would ignore the prophecy, possibly thinking he could circumvent it. Initially Protesilaus did well, killing a number of Trojan defenders, but then Protesilaus was struck down by Hector. The name Protesilaus comes from the Greek for "first", hence the possibility that the hero might have previously been known as Iolaus.
After the landing of Protesilaus the other named heroes of the Achaean forces followed, establishing a solid beach-head.
Funeral games were held for Protesilaus, and during this time it was said that Cycnus led an unsuccessful counterattack against the Achaean camp. Afterwards Protesilaus’ brother Podarces would lead the force of Phylacians.
News of the death of Protesilaus would eventually reach Phylace, and grief would overcome Protesilaus’ wife Laodamia. The gods would take pity on the queen, and bade Hermes to deliver Protesilaus from the Underworld for a period of three hours.
Husband and wife would be joined for but a short time, before Protesilaus “died” again, but the hero would be accompanied back to the Underworld this time with his wife.
Later myths expand on the death of Laodamia, and it was famously said that Laodamia had a life like wax sculpture of Protesilaus crafted, which she would embrace each night. When Laodamia’s father found out about her statue, he had it burnt, but Laodamia followed the statue into the fire, killing herself, and thus was reunited with Protesilaus. This though ignores the fact that Acastus would have been dead by the time of Protesilaus’ death.
After his death a shrine to Protesilaus was erected in Phylace, but the Tomb of Protesilaus was said not to be in Thessaly though, for Protesilaus was said to have been buried in Elaeus, a Greek city located at the southern point of the Hellespont, opposite the city of Troy.
For many centuries after the events of the Trojan War, pilgrims, including Alexander the Great would visit the tomb.
A legend arose in regards to the Tomb of Protesilaus and it was said that elm-trees were planted on the tomb by some wood nymphs. The elm trees would grow tall and strong, but when the tips of these trees were tall enough to see Troy, they would wither and die, due to the grief of the entombed Protesilaus, before the elms were replaced with new trees.
Surviving the Trojan War
Many of the returning heroes from Troy would gain fame in the Roman period as founding figures for many cities in antiquity, and despite famously dying at the onset of the Trojan War, it was also claimed that Protesilaus did likewise.
One later Roman writer, Conon, would tell of Protesilaus surviving the Trojan War, and subsequently headed home with his war prizes, including numerous Trojan women, one of whom was Aethylla, a sister of King Priam.
Stopping off for water on the Pallene headland, the Trojan women burnt the ships of Protesilaus, meaning that the Greek hero could not travel onwards, and so Protesilaus founded the city of Scione.
The Cult of Protesilaus
Only two sanctuaries to Protesilaus are attested. There was a shrine of Protesilaus at Phylace, his home in Thessaly, where his widow was left lacerating her cheeks in mourning him, and games were organised there in his honour, Pindar noted.
The tomb of Protesilaus at Elaeus in the Thracian Chersonese is documented in the 5th century BCE, when, during the Persian War, votive treasure deposited at his tomb was plundered by the satrap Artayctes, under permission from Xerxes. The Greeks later captured and executed Artayctes, returning the treasure.
The tomb was mentioned again when Alexander the Great arrived at Elaeus on his campaign against the Persian Empire. He offered a sacrifice on the tomb, hoping to avoid the fate of Protesilaus when he arrived in Asia. Like Protesilaus before him, Alexander was the first to set foot on Asian soil during his campaign.
Philostratus writing of this temple in the early 3rd century CE, speaks of a cult statue of Protesilaus at this temple "standing on a base which was shaped like the prow of a boat;" Gisela Richter noted coins of Elaeus from the time of Commodus that show on their reverses Protesilaus on the prow of a ship, in helmet, cuirass and short chiton. Strabo, also mention the sanctuary.
A founder-cult of Protesilaus at Scione, in Pallene, Chalcidice, was given an etiology by the Greek grammarian and mythographer of the Augustan era Conon that is at variance with the epic tradition. In this, Conon asserts that Protesilaus survived the Trojan War and was returning with Priam's sister Aethilla as his captive.
When the ships put ashore for water on the coast of Pallene, between Scione and Mende, Aethilla persuaded the other Trojan women to burn the ships, forcing Protesilaus to remain and found the city of Scione. A rare tetradrachm of Scione ca. 480 BCE acquired by the British Museum depicts Protesilaus, identified by the retrograde legend Proteslas.
Protesilaus, speaking from beyond the grave, is the oracular source of the corrected eye-witness version of the actions of heroes at Troy, related by a "vine-dresser" to a Phoenician merchant in the framing device that gives an air of authenticity to the narratives of Philostratus' Heroicus, a late literary representation of Greek hero-cult traditions that developed independently of the epic tradition.
Homer. Iliad, 2.695.
Hyginus. Fabulae, 103.
Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library, 3.10.8; Hyginus. Fabulae, 97.
Iliad II; Pseudo-Apollodorus. Epitome of The Library E.3.14.
Hyginus. Fabulae, 114.
Smyrnaeus, Quintus. Fall of Troy.
Homer. Iliad, 2.705.
Pseudo-Apollodorus. Epitome to The Library, E.3.30; Ovid. Heroides, 13.
Hyginus. Fabulae, 104.
The Cypria, Fragment 17; cited in Pausanias, Description of Greece, 4. 2. 7
Quintus Smyrnaeus, Τα μεθ' `Ομηρον, 7.458-462
Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 16.88
Anth. Pal., VII.141
Ludo de Lannoy, ed. Jennifer K. Berenson Maclean and Ellen Bradshaw Aitken, trs.,Flavius Philostratus: On Heroes (1977, 2002) Introduction, liii.
Greek Legends and Myths
Pindar. First Isthmian Ode, 83f.
Herodotus. The Histories, 9.116-120; see also 7.23..
Arrian. The Campaigns of Alexander, 1.11.
Philostratus. Heroikos ("Dialogue Concerning Heroes"). "Protesilaos" is set in the sanctuary; elms were planted at the sanctuary by the nymphs; the chthonic hero has given advice to athletes in the form of oracular dreams; see Christopher P. Jones, "Philostratus' Heroikos and Its Setting in Reality", The Journal of Hellenic Studies 121 (2001:141-149).
Conon's abbreviated mythographies are known through a summary made by the ninth-century patriarch Photius for his Biblioteca (Alan Cameron, Greek Mythography in the Roman World [Oxford University Press) 2004:72).
G. F. H., "Protesilaos at Scione" The British Museum Quarterly 1.1 (May 1926):24).
Pausanias, in his travels in Greece at the end of the 2nd century AD saw no statues of Protesilaus, though he appeared among the heroes painted by Polygnotus at Delphi (x.30.3).
Historia Naturalis, 34.76.
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