Kaineus Rising: A Trans Generational Myth
Kaineus always knew he was meant to be a girl.
Growing up amid the hills and vales of Thessaly in what is now northern Greece, he had been given a name – not Kaineus, which came later – reflecting the family trade. His father Elatos, whose name means ‘fir-tree’, was a woodworker, a member of the Lapith tribe. The child was strong and sinewy, and he was surely destined to become a fine woodworker and a good fighter. But he didn’t feel like a boy. Dressed in traditional long, soft, tunics by his doting, horse-loving, mother Hippeia, and happily staining his lips with the juice of red berries, he waited for the day to come to renounce his maleness. At the age of six he went to his mother and told her that he was a girl.
Hippeia did not disagree. The child’s features and slim figure were undoubtedly feminine. She went to Elatos and said “We have a daughter. By the will of the gods, she has always been a girl”. They changed the child’s name to Kainis, a name that means ‘born anew’. Henceforth Kainis would grow up as a young woman, the apple of her parents’ eyes.
When Kainis was sixteen, a rough sailor called Poseidonios who had arrived at the port of Iolkos spied her walking alone by the seashore. Aroused by the girl’s lithe figure, he ran and seized her from behind. As she shouted and struggled, Poseidonios carried her into a clearing surrounded by trees and raped her, discovering to his pleasure, and to her horrified disgust, that she was both girl and boy.
The assault filled Kainis with impotent fury. Returning home, she told her parents that she would reclaim her masculine status. Henceforth to be known as Kaineus, he would prepare himself to be a warrior, never again to be taken advantage of by any man. He trained himself in the warrior’s arts, intent on exacting vengeance on any who sought to do harm to him, his family, or his tribe. His strength was unyielding, and his fighting skills came to the notice of the king of Iolkos, Jason, who persuaded him to join him on board the ship Argo, which was to sail on a dangerous expedition to the Black Sea.
In the course of his travels, Kaineus discovered the new and deadly kinds of weaponry used by the Hittite nation of the Asian hinterland. They used swords and spears made of iron, rather than the softer bronze weaponry of his own people. Returning to Thessaly, Kaineus was summoned to southern Greece, where a ferocious boar had been ravaging settlements and killing villagers near the town of Kalydon in Aitolia. Along with other brave companions, they hunted down and killed the boar. Many members of the heroic band lost their lives in the hunt; but the iron spearpoint of Kaineus inflicted the fatal blow on the dangerous beast.
Kaineus was concerned about enemies closer to home, an aggressive tribe called the Kentauroi, who conducted fighting on horseback, armed with wooden clubs and stakes. They had tamed the wild horses that reared their young on the plains of Thessaly, and they used the creatures to shattering effect in battle. So unusual at the time was the sight of men on horseback that later generations imagined the Kentauroi to be half man and half horse: Centaurs.
The hostility between Lapiths and Kentauroi comes to a head at a wedding party, at which the drunken Kentauroi make aggressive advances towards Lapith women. A brawl turns into a battle, with both sides sending for reinforcements. The horsemen of the Kentauroi thunder across the plain to do battle with Lapith warriors, the most effective of whom is Kaineus. Some Kentauroi recognise the warrior who was once a girl, and taunt him for it. But their fate is sealed. The wooden stakes of the Kentauroi cannot match the iron weapons with which the Lapiths are armed. As the staunchest warriors and their horses fall to the Lapith spears, a group of Kentauroi surround Kaineus. They bludgeon him to the ground, and try to smash his iron weapon to pieces with their clubs. Finding it impossible to do so, they hammer the offending iron spear, like a nail, into the earth.
Kaineus, iron-clad, does not die. Buried in the ground, he remains alive. A boy that has been a girl, a woman that has become a man, she remains a living weapon, ready to take the fight to wherever he must, wherever she is needed.
Kaineus is rising.
Note on the ancient sources
1. In early Greek myth Kaineus was a warrior from Thessaly, a leader of the legendary tribe of Lapiths, who famously fought a fierce battle against their kinsmen the Centaurs. In a well-known version of the story, Kaineus was said to have changed sex by divine fiat from a woman called Kainis or Kainē, and at the same time to have been transformed into an invincible warrior. The notion of transgendering, involving a transition from a former identity to a new one, was bound to lead to the supposition that the name Kaineus derived from kainos (‘new’ in Greek) and meant ‘new man’.
2. The story of the sex-change is given a full-blown treatment in the Metamorphoses of the Roman poet Ovid (Met. 12.189-207), who puts the tale into the mouth of the Homeric warrior Nestor. He reinforces the supposed derivation of Kaineus from kainos by punning on the name of the girl, whom he calls Caenis, as Neptune’s nova Venus (‘new love’):
Caenis, the daughter of Elatus, was famous for her beauty. She was the loveliest of all the girls in Thessaly, and roused vain hopes in the hearts of many suitors throughout all the neighbouring cities, and in those of your own land, Achilles, for she was a countrywoman of yours. Perhaps Peleus, too, would have tried to make her his bride, but already he either was married to your mother, or had the promise of her hand. Caenis refused to marry anyone, but the story spread that, as she was wandering on a lonely part of the shore, she was forcibly subjected to the embraces of the god of the sea. The same report went on to tell how Neptune, when he had enjoyed the pleasure of his new love, said to the girl: ‘You may pray for anything without fear of being refused. Choose what you want.’ ‘The wrong I have suffered,’ replied Caenis, ‘evokes the fervent wish that I may never be able to undergo such an injury again. Grant that I be not a woman, and you will have given me all.’ The last words were uttered in deeper tones: that voice could be taken for the voice of a man, as indeed it was. For already the god of the deep sea had granted Caenis’ prayer, bestowing this further boon, that the man Caeneus should be proof against any wound, and should never be slain by the sword.
Ovid here draws on earlier sources of the myth and expands on them in a characteristically colourful and mischievous fashion. He extends the tale further by relating a final metamorphosis of Caeneus into a bird, evidently his own invention and a witty reflection on the possibilities for literary transformation of myths about transformation.
3. The surviving Greek sources present a less eloquent narrative. The bare outline is preserved in an epitome (1.22) of the Bibliotheca of the mythographer Apollodoros (first or second centuries CE):
Kaineus was originally a woman; but after Poseidon had intercourse with her, she pleaded with him to turn her into an invulnerable man. As a result, he felt no anxiety about being wounded when he fought in the battle against the Centaurs, and a great number of them died at his hands. Eventually, those who remained surrounded him and battered him into the earth with the trunks of fir-trees.
4. The rape and transformation, as recounted by Ovid and Apollodoros, appear to be central to the story of Kaineus. But it is striking that the very earliest accounts we have say nothing about them. Kaineus is mentioned just once in the Iliad, in the course of Nestor’s reminiscences of bygone heroes (Iliad 1.262-72). There he is simply a mighty Lapith warrior who fought alongside his kinsmen against the Phēres (‘beast-men’):
Never yet have I seen nor shall see again such men as these were, men like Peirithous, and Dryas, shepherd of his people, Kaineus and Exadios, and godlike Polyphemos [and Theseus, Aigeus’ son, like to the immortals]. These were the strongest generation of earthbound men – the strongest, and they fought against the strongest, the Pheres living within the mountains, and mightily they destroyed them. I was in the company of the Lapiths, having journeyed a long way from distant Pylos, whence they had summoned me, and I myself did battle with the Centaurs. But against such creatures no mortal now on earth could do battle.
Where Kaineus appears in Homer, then, he is one of a company of ‘earthbound men’. Despite possessing exceptional prowess in battle, he is presented as no more than a mortal man, and immutably male.
5. The pseudo-Hesiodic Shield, probably composed around the end of the seventh century or the early sixth, likewise shows no awareness of ‘Kainis’ having been transformed into Kaineus. The poet describes (178-90) the battle between Lapiths and Centaurs by means of an ekphrasis, a literary description of a scene depicted on an objet d’art. In this case the scene is described as being inlaid in silver and gold on the shield of Herakles:
On it was depicted the battle of the Lapith spearmen, gathered around the prince Kaineus and Dryas and Peirithous, together with Hopleus, Exadios, Phaleros, and Prolokhos, Mopsos son of Ampyke of Titaresia, scion of Ares, and Theseus son of Aigeus, like to the immortal gods. Their figures were wrought in silver, with armour of gold upon their bodies. The Centaurs were gathered against them on the other side: Petraios and Asbolos the diviner, Arktos, Oureios, and black-haired Mimas, and the two sons of Peukeus, Perimedes and Dryalos; these were fashioned from silver, wielding fir-trees (elatai) of gold in their hands. The two sides were rushing into the fray in a way that made them seem alive, and assailing one another in hand-to-hand combat with spears and with fir-trees.
Here the Lapiths are introduced as ‘spearmen’ (aikhmētai), and they are pictured as wielding spears against the pinetrees of their opponents. The names borne by some of the Lapiths – Dryas ‘oak-(shaft)’, Hopleus ‘weapon-man’ (or ‘shield-man’) – reinforce their association with man-made, manufactured weaponry. By contrast, the half-beast Centaurs who wield pine-trunks (elatai) are given names that evoke wild nature – Petraios ‘rocky’, Peukeus ‘fir-tree’, Arktos ‘bear’.
6. In the Iliadic account, the summoning of Nestor from faraway Pylos to bring aid to the Lapith warriors suggests that the conflict was an extended one which came to a head in a final pitched battle. Later versions make the battle a more impromptu affair, originating in a fight that breaks out when the Centaurs become drunk and violent at the celebration of the wedding of Peirithoös and Hippodameia. The earliest testimony to this version of the story is a fragment (fr. 166) of Pindar:
When the Pheres discovered the overpowering blast of honey-sweet wine, they roughly flung the white milk off the tables with their hands and, drinking uninvited from the silver drinking-horns, began to lose control of their faculties…
Another passage, from a Pindaric thrēnos (dirge, fr. 128F), relates the manner of Kaineus’ death:
Struck by green fir-trees Kaineus passed down below, splitting open (schisais) the earth with his outstretched foot (orthōi podi).
Plutarch (in De absurd. Stoic. opin. p.1057D) cites this passage with the accompanying comment:
Pindar’s Kaineus was criticised as an implausible creation – unbreakable by iron, unsuffering in body, and finally sinking unwounded below the ground ‘splitting open the earth with his outstretched foot’.
The phrase orthōi podi, which in some contexts appears to mean no more than ‘standing upright’, here seems to bear a more literal meaning as translated above – the warrior’s leg is fixed straight, down to the end of his foot. It assimilates the image of the Lapith’s final posture to the spearman’s deadly weapon. By splitting the earth with his unbending foot at the point, the impervious Kaineus invites identification with a spear or sword-tip of hard iron.
7. The Pindaric fragment describing Kaineus’ eventual demise is preserved for us by a scholiast commenting on a passage from the Argonautica of Apollonios of Rhodes (Arg. 1.59-64), who strongly reinforces the impression of spear-like hardness attributed to the Lapith warrior:
Poets celebrate how Kaineus was destroyed by the Centaurs while he was still alive, when he took them on single-handed in his warrior might. They rushed upon him from every side, but they could not bend or penetrate him. Unbroken and unbending he sank beneath the earth, battered by the hammering of massive firs (elatēisin).
Pictorial representations of Kaineus from the sixth century on depict the battle and the distinctive manner of Kaineus’ downfall at the hands of the Centaurs. Kaineus is imagined in the poetry and art of this period not just as an exceptionally strong hero of human stock, but as something more ominous. He is someone who cannot be killed in any normal fashion, but only through living inhumation. His invulnerability makes him unsettling and alien. He represents in effect a dangerous weapon that can only be disposed of, like nuclear waste, by being thoroughly submerged beneath the earth.
8. The fact that Kaineus’ threatening presence is ultimately neutralised by his being bludgeoned into the ground makes him more akin to an iron weapon than a human being. Herein, perhaps, lies the essence of his nature; but Kaineus’ spear-like persona has been obscured by the fact that, by the later stages of the mythographical tradition, his liminal status as an ‘impenetrable’ mortal is more strongly associated with the story of his sex-change than with his quasi-metallic characteristics. Just as Kaineus meets his end not by dying but by being buried alive, ‘Kainis’ too does not die, but instead undergoes metamorphosis into a man. The invulnerability bestowed by Poseidon (perhaps a double-edged gift, like so many divine benefactions) ensures that Kainis will remain atrōtos, ‘impervious to penetration’. The clear sexual symbolism in this version of the story is reinforced by the violated maiden’s transformation into a man, and might be further linked to the phallic imagery of Kaineus’ standing ‘erect’ (orthōi podi) and splitting open the ‘female’ earth.
9. The sex-change story, with all its drama and pathos, has been taken by many to be the kernel of the myth. But it is first found in a fragment (22 Fowler) of the fifth-century mythographer Akousilaos of Argos (Pindar’s contemporary and an important source of Apollodoros’ Bibliotheca) who gives the name of Kaineus’ earlier female incarnation as Kainē. Akousilaos, part of whose account survives in a third-century CE papyrus fragment, preserves a detail of the myth that may have been known to Ovid and Apollodoros, but which they choose not to repeat. Kaineus, we read, ‘[set up his] spear-head (akontion) [in the middle of] the agora [to be worshipped as] a god’.
10. This incongruous feature of the story is likely to be a survival from an early version of the Kaineus myth. It has been thought on account of its phallic implications to relate once again to the change of gender. It seems, however, in the light of the above analysis, that it is a further crucial indicator of the way Kaineus is to be identified with his spear, i.e. in a literal fashion, rather than simply via narcissistic self-identification. In his very person he possesses the features of the iron weapon which resists penetration and destruction, which can be disposed of only by being buried, and which, when hammered upright into the ground with mallets consisting of the trunks of fir-trees (elatai), splits the earth asunder.
11. The warrior may have inherited something of his nature from his father: Kaineus’ patronymic Elatides (i.e. son of Elatos, i.e. ‘fir-tree’) is found in a fragment (222.i.9) of Stesikhoros. The fir-trees (elatai) with which Kaineus is eventually overpowered not only recall his ancestry, but suggest a symbolic succession from old to new in the form of weaponry, from wooden clubs and stakes to swords and iron-tipped spears. The occasion of Kaineus’ bludgeoning, which ends with the defeat of the Centaurs by the Lapiths, is the wedding of the Lapith Peirithoos, the ‘very swift’ (rider) with Hippodameia, ‘horse-tamer’. In this scenario, organic nature is seen as subjugated: the horse has become an adjunct to human combat, and tree-wielding centaurs ultimately yield to men wielding the weapons of human artifice.
12. Ultimately, but not immediately: the end of Kaineus must first be accomplished. Kaineus’ defeat and burial in myth psychologically represent an attempt to allay intolerable anxiety; an invulnerable killer is (as modern films such as Terminator demonstrate) a nightmarish fantasy. But although this monstrous living weapon is ultimately neutralised, it is horrifyingly effective while it is alive, and in the event the Lapiths go on to win the battle against the Centaurs. The mythico-historical symbolism of the tale is that henceforth iron weaponry, not wooden clubs, will be the pre-eminent resource of the victorious warrior.
13. The evolution of horsemanship, in combination with the discovery and use of sophisticated iron weapons, mark the triumph of civilisation over brute nature. These developments recall an age when the recently-introduced iron armour and weaponry may have seemed to possess quasi-magical attributes of hardness and indestructibility, properties which will have had a profound impact on iron’s beneficiaries and victims. The ancient production of hardened iron is associated with metallurgical techniques developed in the Near East in the second millennium BCE; the earliest known manufacture of iron weaponry took place in the Hittite empire of Asia Minor. A figure in the shape of a sword carved in relief on the Hittite rock fortress of Yazilikaya, perhaps based on a metal prototype, has been identified as a ‘Sword God’.
14. Such a figure, the symbolic personification of iron weaponry, seems to lurk in the background of the story of Kaineus. The identification of Kaineus with his spear demands recognition of a linguistic fact that is hard to attribute to mere coincidence. The Hebrew word qāyin, the name borne by the biblical character Cain, means ‘spear’. In the second Book of Samuel (2 Sam. 21.16) it is used to designate the weapon of a Philistine giant (not the famous Goliath, but one Ishbi-Benob) who is described as ‘armed with a new spear’.
15. Semitic words and roots underlie the names of a number of figures of Greek myth, whose connections to Near Eastern contexts and counterparts have long been recognised and explored. Thus the name of Kadmus is derived from Phoenician qedem (‘east’), Adonis from ’adōn (‘lord’), Nereus perhaps from a word for ‘river’ (Akkadian nāru, Hebrew nahar). Kinyras is the personification of kinnōr (‘lyre’), Erebos may derive from ‘ereb (‘west’), and the name of Prometheus’ father Iapetos is the counterpart of biblical Japheth, son of Noah.
It seems likely that the later assumption that his name of Kaineus was based on kainos, ‘new’, and signified ‘newly made a man’, led to the invention of a feminine counterpart called Kainis or Kainē. But if qāyin is at the root of the name Kaineus, the onomastic origins of the Lapith warrior make him literally a spear man.