Written by Julia Schoos
“What difference did Stesichorus make?” asks Anne Carson in the beginning of Autobiography of Red (3). For years, Geryon’s story lived in the mouth of the people focusing solely on Herakles and his journey, with Geryon merely an hurdle to be overcome during his labors. First and foremost a creation of folklore, the tale of Herakles’ acquisition of the red cattle, as well as his slaughter of Geryon, traveled through oral tradition long before it reached antique pottery and eventually the written word. The narrative carries every trademark of the traditional heroic journey, as told through the eyes of Herakles. However, Stesichorus’ approach was different. Titled Geryoneis, which roughly means “The Geryon Matter,” the surviving fragments
tell of a strange winged red monster who lived on an island called Erytheia (which is an adjective meaning simply ‘The Red Place’) quietly tending a herd of magical red cattle, until one day the hero Herakles came across the sea and killed him to get the cattle (Carson, Autobiography 5).
According to Anne Carson, Stesichorus came in a “difficult interval for a poet”: one “after Homer and before Gertrude Stein” (Autobiography 3), but his interpretation of Geryon was “substantial: probably the longest and fullest treatment in antiquity” (Davies and Finglass, 240), and may only be succeeded by Anne Carson’s in terms of detail.
In Stesichorus’ rendition, Geryon not only possesses three heads, but also six hands, six feet, and wings; Carson’s Geryon seems to identify with his ancient counterpart. He describes himself as a monster as well, though his wings are a focal point and motif in Autobiography. Geryon also seems to contemplate his mortality, though his coping mechanism for it is the completion of his autobiography, which he writes from “the age of five to the age of forty-four” (Autobiography 60).
There is the question of whether Geryon is immortal in Stesichorus. As the child of Poseidon and Medusa, Geryon’s father may have been immortal like his full brother Pegasus; or he may be not be, as the children of such unions usually are (Davies and Finglass, 270). Geryon himself expresses doubt about his uncertain origins before facing Herakles, declaring, “If I am immortal, it is better to act in one way; but if I am mortal, it is better to act in another way” (Davies and Finglass 271). This idea of attaining eternal life forges a parallel between Herakles, who seeks timelessness in the form of the red cattle, and Geryon, who vicariously considers eternal life through Herakles. One scholar, W.S. Barrett, suggests an idea of ‘contingent immortality,’ which Geryon achieves when he evades murder at the hands of Herakles. This notion of contingent immortality—specifically ushered forth by surviving Herakles’ murder attempts—is something that Carson focuses on in her narrative of Geryon, although it is not explicitly mentioned in Stesichorus’ remaining fragments, but rather a supplement hypothesized by Barrett (Davies and Finglass, 274). Based on her actions, we can assume that Geryon’s mother, nymph Callirhoe, either does not believe in her son’s perpetuity, or is too frightened by its conditionality and Geryon’s potential for failure. The way in which she begs him not to fight Herakles is reminiscent of the way Hector’s Hecuba tries to sway him to avoid Achilles, and even makes the same reference to her breastfeeding her son.The parallel humanizes Geryon, and here Carson draws her inspiration to flesh out the relationship between Geryon and his mother. The iteration of Callirhoe that Carson creates demonstrates a similar sway in Geryon’s life, especially in his younger years, although she is ultimately as unsuccessful as her epic counterpart; she, too, is defeated once Herakles descends upon Geryon.
The crucial difference that Stesichorus makes is his shift in focus on Geryon rather than Herakles. Rather than lending himself and his writing to Herakles, he pours himself into Geryon’s story and shows the moment he learns of Herakles’ arrival, his mother pleading for him, and his decision to fight. This is the key element that Carson takes away from Stesichorus, and the difference that he made to Geryon’s story.
When concluding her introduction of Stesichorus, Carson describes Stesichorus’ corpus of work “as if Stesichorus had composed a substantial narrative poem then ripped it to pieces and buried the pieces in a box with some song lyrics and lecture notes and scraps of meat” (Autobiography 7). According to Bruce Beasley’s article, “Who Can Blame a Monster for Being Red?”, Carson’s adaptation of Geryoneis contains, at most, two of Stesichorus’ fragments, namely XIV “Herakles’ Arrow” and VII “Geryon’s Weekend.” Titling the second section as “Red Meat” in order to evoke Geryon as he was in antiquity, is therefore almost satirical; it’s not Stesichorus she is asking the reader to consider, but instead she is asking that the reader consider her red meat upon the skeleton Stesichorus set down.