Lycians: Menekrates of Xanthos and Polycharmos on Lycian origins and the practice of fish-divination (late fifth century BCE on)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Lycians: Menekrates of Xanthos and Polycharmos on Lycian origins and the practice of fish-divination (late fifth century BCE on),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 27, 2024,

Ancient authors: Panyassis of Halikarnassos and Hekataios of Miletos, FGrHist 1 F10, as cited by Stephanos of Byzantion, Ethnika, at Tremile; Herodotos of Halikarnassos, Histories 1.183 (link to surrounding passages on Lydians); Menekrates of Xanthos (perhaps fourth century BCE), Lycian Matters = FGrHist 769 F1; Polycharmos (perhaps second century BCE), Lycian Matters = FGrHist 770 F1-2 (link to FGrHist), as cited by Antoninos Liberalis, Metamorphoses 35 (link); Athenaios, Sophists at Dinner 8.8 or 333d-f (link); Stephanos of Byzantion, Ethnika, at Soura; Pseudo-Plutarch, Whether Land or Sea Animals are Smarter 23 or 976c; Pliny the Elder, Natural History 32.17; Aelian, On Characteristics of Animals 8.5; 12.1.

Comments: As Trever R. Bryce (1986, 11-41) argues, the peoples that Greeks called “Lycians” may have been a combination of the Lukka people from Caria (known from Hittite documents) and the so-called Termilians or Tremilians (sometimes described as immigrants from Crete, as in Herodotos, Histories 1.173). These groups eventually together designated themselves a Lycian term that sounds similar to “Termilians” (Trm̃mili in Lycian). Of course, there was such a long history of intermixture with Greek settlers by our period of interest that it is difficult to clearly discern Lycian customs from Greek ones, although the burial concept known in the Lycian language as the minti (attested in inscriptions) is among the clearest cases of a Lycian institution continuing into the Hellenistic era (see Bryce 1986, 42-98; GRA II 149, comments).

As usual for peoples in Anatolia (whether legendary, semi-legendary or historical), Strabo’s Geography is our most detailed source for Lycians (link). All ethnographic writings devoted to Lycians specifically have not survived, including Menekrates of Xanthos’ Lycian Matters (perhaps fourth century BCE) and Polycharmos’ later work of the same name. Nonetheless we have some citations of these works supplied below which are focussed on describing Lycian origins (including reference to “Tremilias”) and practices regarding the use of fish movements for divining messages from deities.

Panyassis’ and Hekataios of Miletos’ comments on Tremilians / Termilians and Herodotos’ alternative account of the origins of Lycians are included here for further context (all from the fifth century BCE).

Works consulted: T. Bryce, The Lycians: The Lycians in Literary and Epigraphic Sources (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 1986); F.W. Jenkins, “Menekrates of Xanthos (769),” In Jacoby Online: Brill’s New Jacoby, Part III, edited by Ian Worthington. Brill: Leiden, 2010. F.W. Jenkins, “Polycharmos (770)” In Jacoby Online: Brill’s New Jacoby, Part III, edited by Ian Worthington. Brill: Leiden, 2011.


Panyassis and Hekataios of Miletos (early fifth century BCE)

[Lycians as previously Tremilians]

(FGrHist 1 F10 = Stephanos of Byzantion, Ethnika) Tremile. Lycia is called this from Tremiles, as Panyassis says: “Great Tremiles lived there and he married the daughter, / the nymph Ogygia, whom they call Praxidike / alongside the silver whirling river Sibros. / Her deadly sons were Tlos, Xanthos, Pinaros, / and Kragos who, conquering, plundered all the fields.” Those settled there are Tremilians (Tremileis). In Alexander’s second book, he says: “After finishing, Bellerophon changed the name of the Tremilians to Lykians.” Hekataios [of Miletos] calls them Tremilians (Tremilai) [i.e. with a different plural ending in the Greek] in the fourth book of his Genealogies.


Herodotos (late fifth century BCE)

[Termelians and Lycians]

(1.173) The Lycians were from Crete in ancient times, because in the old days no one living on Crete was Greek. Now there was a dispute in Crete about the royal power between Sarpedon and Minos, sons of Europe, Minos prevailed in this division and drove out Sarpedon and his partisans. Once they were thrown out, Sarpedon and his partisans came to the Milyan land in Asia. What is now possessed by the Lycians was Milyan in the old days, and the Milyans were then called Solymians. For a while Sarpedon ruled them, and the people were called Termilians (Termilai), which was the name that they had brought with them and that is still given to the Lycians by their neighbours. However, after the arrival of Lykos son of Pandio (another exile, banished by his brother Aigeus) from Athens to join Sarpedon in the land of the Termilians, they came in time to be called Lycians after Lykos. Their customs are partially Cretan and partially Carian. But they have one custom which is their own and shared by no one else: they take their names not from their fathers but from their mothers. When someone is asked by his neighbour who he is, he will say that he is the son of such a mother, and recount the mothers of his mother. In fact, if a woman of full rights marries a slave, her children are considered pure-born, and if a true-born Lycian man takes a foreigner as a wife or concubine, the children are dishonoured, even though he is a native of the land.


Menekrates (fourth century BCE [?])

[Lycian origins by way of a tale about the goddess Leto]

Cowherds: Menekrates the Xanthian in his Lycian Matters and Nikandros relate the following: Leto went to Lycia after giving birth to Apollo and Artemis on the island of Asteria. She took her children with her to the baths of Xanthos. As soon as she arrived in that land, she came first upon the spring of Melite and really wanted to bathe her children there before going on to Xanthos. However, some cowherds drove her away so that their own cattle could drink at the spring. Leto went away and left Melite behind. Wolves came out to meet her and, wagging their tails, led the way, guiding her to the river Xanthos. She drank the water and bathed the babies and consecrated the Xanthos river to Apollo while she renamed the land which had been called “Tremilis” [variant transliteration of Termilis] as “Lycia” from the wolves (lykoi) that had guided her. Then she returned to the spring to inflict a penalty on the cowherds who had driven her away. They were then still washing their cattle besides the spring. Leto changed them all into frogs whose backs and shoulders she scratched with a rough stone. Throwing them all into the spring, she made them live in water. To this day they croak away by rivers and ponds.


Polycharmos (second century BCE [?])

[Lycian practice of fish divination]

(F1 = Athenaios) “Nor will I pass over in silence the fish-diviners of Lycia, an account of whom is given by Polycharmos in the second book of Lycian Matters (Lykiakoi). Polycharmos writes as follows:​

‘Near the shore of the sea is the sacred grove of Apollo, in which there is a pool on the borders of the sand. Whenever they pass through to it, those who would consult the oracle come with two wooden rods, on each of which are pieces of roasted meat, ten in number. The priest seats himself in silence near the grove, while the man seeking a sign puts the rods into the pool and watches the result. After the rods are put in, the pool is filled with sea-water, and such a great and extraordinary number of fish comes in that one is amazed by the unheard-of spectacle, while he is also made cautious by the size of such creatures. When the spokesman reports the kinds of fish, the oracle-seeker gets from the priest the prophecy of those things which concern his prayer. There appear sea-perch, grey-fish, sometimes even whales or spouters,​ and also fish never before seen and strange to see.’

In the tenth book of ArtemidorosGeography, he says:

‘The inhabitants assert that a spring of fresh water bubbles up which produces eddies, and that large fish appear in the whirling space. To them the sacrificers let down first-fruits of offerings on wooden rods, on which are fixed boiled and roasted meats, barley-cakes, and pieces of bread. The name of this harbour and place is Dinus.’​”

(F2a = Stephanos of Byzantion, Ethnika, at Soura) Soura: Oracle of Lycia, about which Polycharmos says in Lycian Matters “where a place called Sourios is now a well of the sea.”

(F2b = Pseudo-Plutarch, Whether Land or Sea Animals are Cleverer 23 or 976c) Actually, I have heard that near Soura,​ a village in Lycia between Phellos and Myra, men sit and watch the wiggles, flights, and pursuits of fish and divine from them by a professional and rational system, as others do with birds.

(F2c = Pliny, Natural History 32.17) But at Myra in Lycia in the spring of Apollo called Kourion, when summoned three times by the pipe the fishes come to give oracular responses. If the fish snap at the meat thrown to them, it is favourable for enquirers, and if the fish cast the meat aside with their tails is disastrous. At Hieropolis in Syria the fish in the pond of Yenus obey the voice of the temple ministers. . . [omitted further examples of fish in connection with temples].

(F2d = Aelian, On the Characteristics of Animals 8.5) I have ascertained that there is a village in Lycia, between Myra and Phellos called Soura where there are those who devote themselves to divination by means of fish. They understand what it purports if the fish come at their call or withdraw, and what it signifies if they pay no attention, and what it portends if they come in numbers. You would hear these prophetic utterances of the sages when a fish leaps out of the water or comes floating up from the depths, and when it accepts the food or on the other hand rejects it.

(F2e = Aelian, On the Characteristics of Animals 12.1) There is a bay at Myra in Lycia and it has a sacred spring and there is a shrine of Apollo there. The priest of this god scatters the flesh of calves that have been sacrificed to the god. The sea-perch come swimming up in shoals and eat the meat, as though they were guests invited to a feast. Those who perform the sacrifices are delighted because they believe that this feasting of the fishes is a good omen for them. They say that the god is propitious because the fish gorged themselves on the meat. If however. the fish cast the food ashore with their tails as though they despised it and regarded it as tainted, this is believed to signify the wrath of the god. And the fish recognize the priest’s voice. If the fish obey the call of the priest, this makes happy those on whose behalf the priests summon the fish. If the opposite happens, this causes the inquirers grief.


Source of translations: A. D. Godley, Herodotus, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920-25), public domain; F. Celoria, The Metamorphoses of Antoninus Liberalis (New York, NY: Routledge 1992); B. Gulick, Athenaeus: The Deipnosophists, 7 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1927-41); H. Rackham, W.H.S. Jones, and D.E. Eichholz, Pliny: Natural History, 10 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1938-1962), public domain (Rackham passed away in 1944, Jones passed away in 1963, copyright not renewed as well); A.F. Scholfield, Aelian: On the Characteristics of Animals, 3 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1958), public domain in Canada (passed away in 1969), all adapted by Harland.

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