Polyphonte, And Her Cannibal Bear Boys

I just came across a Metamorphosis. Now, you might be thinking I mean Ovid, which is fair enough. But this is a different Metamorphosis entirely.

Written in Greek by one Antoninus Liberalis (100-300 A.D.), it contains 41 stories, some of which can’t be found in any other source. One such story is that of Polyphonte, which (mostly) goes as follows:

Polyphonte (whose name means ‘slayer of many’) was the maternal granddaughter of Ares, God of War.

Maybe this is what led her to follow Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt. Artemis roamed the woodlands and the mountains, and that is where Polyphonte joined her.

However, to join the Cult of Artemis required virginity and celibacy, both affronts to the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite.

Aphrodite took Polyphonte’s decision to join Artemis personally and meted out her retribution: she drove Polyphonte insane. In her madness, Polyphonte had intercourse with a bear.

Artemis, in turn, banished her. Polyphonte fled to the house of her father.

In time, Polyphonte gave birth to two boys, part human, part bear. Named Agrius and Oreius, I wrote them a ditty:

They grew up big,
They grew up strong,
Soon they were eatin’,
Anyone came along

Now, it should be pointed out that as horrific as cannibalism was to the Greeks, Gods and human alike, being inhospitable was almost more grievous of a sin. To attack strangers on the road was just as bad, and the behavior of Polyphonte’s two sons would not have escaped the attention of Zeus, King of the Gods.

If you recall, Polyphonte’s maternal grandfather was Ares, which made her Zeus’ great-granddaughter.

Finally, Zeus had enough: strangely, he summoned Hermes to take care of the Bear Boys, however Hermes saw fit.

I say strangely because Hermes typically serves as a messenger, not a God of Judgement. But, for whatever reason, Hermes was sent.

Now, I’m going to insert a little bit of pondering here: I wonder if Hermes appeared to the brothers as a stranger wandering the road…

However, he approached them, he decided their fates: they were to have their hands and feet cut off.

Permanently declawed, so to speak.

Now, don’t forgot their grandfather was Ares; Ares happened to be one of Hermes’ siblings. He begged his brother to spare the boys.

Hermes relented, but on one condition: the mother, the boys, and family’s female servant would all be turned into birds.

Now – once again, I have to insert a question: what part did Poiyphonte play in her children’s transgression?

Did she turn a blind eye to their cannibalism, or was she actually cooking them up some people stew for dinner? Consider her name – Polyphonte, Slayer of Many.

Now the punishment of the maid, one wonders: was the maid helping in the question?

Pure conjecture…

No matter what, sentence was passed:

So, here’s the bird count:

Polyphante was turned into a small owl, known as a strix. These owls purportedly do not eat, drink or cry during the night, and are harbingers of war. Some Greek/Roman myths would indicate that the strix hunger after human flesh, adding fuel to the idea that Polyphonte might be guilty of cannibalism like her sons.

Oreius was transformed in an eagle owl, another bird of ill omen, while his brother Agrius was transformed into a vulture, a bird whose reputation precedes it.

Apparently, the servant girl proclaimed her innocence; her sentence was commuted to being changed into a woodpecker, which can be a good sign in relation to the hunt.


I wish I had a pithy summary for all of this, a way to wrap it all up, but I don’t. I guess I’ll just leave this post with a thought: I wonder how many more lost stories there are, waiting to be teased from dusty books, books like Antoninus Liberalis’s Metamorphoses.


Header Image: From French artist Julie Nakache’s Polyphonte

Antoninus Liberalis, Transformationum congeries, 1676 edition

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