Messene (fl. early 12th c. BCE)

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Messene (fl. early 12th c. bce)

Greek heroine, possibly mythological, whose urging led to the conquering of a land which was then named in her honor. Flourished in the early 12th century bce in Greece.

Allegedly a figure of the Greek Bronze ("Mycenaean") Age prior to the Trojan war (early 12th century bce), Messene is more a mythological than a historical figure. Nevertheless, her story is as follows: Messene was the daughter of King Triopas of Argos (the most powerful Greek king of his day) and she married Polycaon, the younger son of Lelex, another powerful lord whose land would later be known as Laconia. Since Polycaon's brother (Myles) was heir to their father's realm, when Polycaon married Messene he did so without a kingdom to call his own. Thinking this an intolerable status for any husband of hers, Messene allegedly convinced her father and father-in-law to mount a joint military operation against the land which lay to the west of Laconia so that it could be Polycaon's to rule. This venture was a success, and Polycaon's new realm was re-named "Messene" to honor her role in its conquest.

Once settled in the land which bore her name, Messene is said to have established a local version of the mystery cult which flourished most famously at Eleusis. This undoubtedly refers to the historical existence in Messene of religious customs akin to those which were celebrated at Eleusis, the population of which traced its roots back to Mycenaean Greece, whereas the Greeks who controlled Messene after about 1000 bce (that is, long after Messene is said to have lived) were Dorians of one sort or another. Originally from Sparta, Dorians had seized the land in the late 8th century bce and generally took pride in the differences which distinguished them from the descendants of those who had controlled Messene during the Mycenaean period, whom the Dorians had enslaved. After Messene's death, a temple was established in her honor at Ithome, where she was represented by a marble statue inlaid with gold and where she received the chthonic worship appropriate to a heroine (a once powerful, but now dead human being, whose remains were thought to retain some of the power which the now-living imagined that the once-living had possessed).

Messene's worship as a heroine is historically attested. Whatever truth may lie at the heart of these tales is unknown, but the Greeks of the historical period frequently invented such characters as Messene to explain regional names, tribal relationships and/or customs, the origins of which were no longer understood when the myths in their present form began to circulate.

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California

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Messene (fl. early 12th c. BCE)

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