Bebrycian King

Amycus

Detail from the frieze on the Ficoroni Cista

Detail from the frieze on the Ficoroni Cista showing Pollux (Polydeuces) defeating and binding Amycus (350–330 BC)

National Etruscan Museum, Rome / SailkoCC BY-SA 4.0

Overview

Amycus was the son of Poseidon and a nymph. He ruled over the Bebrycians, a warlike people who lived in the region of Bithynia in northern Anatolia. A skilled and innovative boxer, Amycus forced all strangers who came to his shores to fight him.

When the Argonauts stopped at the land of the Bebrycians on their way to fetch the Golden Fleece, Amycus challenged them to a fight (as he always did) and was bested by the Argonaut Polydeuces. In some accounts, Polydeuces killed Amycus; but in others—and in most visual representations of the myth—Polydeuces let Amycus live.

Amycus was later venerated in hero cult in the land he was said to have ruled.

Etymology

The name “Amycus” (Greek Ἄμυκος, translit. Ámykos) may be etymologically related to the verb ἀμύσσω (amýssō), meaning “to wound, mangle”—a reflection of Amycus’ vicious fighting style.

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek
    AmycusἌμυκος (Ámykos)
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    [AM-i-kuhs]/ˈæm ɪ kəs/

Attributes

General

Amycus was a violent and cruel king of the Bebrycians, a mythological race said to have lived in the region of Bithynia in northern Anatolia (part of modern-day Turkey).

Amycus was a skilled boxer and was sometimes credited by the Greeks with the invention of leather boxing gloves.[1] He was typically represented as extremely large, strong, and intimidating. Apollonius of Rhodes wrote that Amycus

seemed to be a monstrous son of baleful Typhoeus or of Earth herself, such as she brought forth aforetime, in her wrath against Zeus[2]

Amycus was above all arrogant, cruel, and violent, forcing anyone who visited his land to fight him, and usually killing the combatants in the process.

Iconography

In ancient art, Amycus was typically represented as a well-built, muscle-bound fighter, often wearing boxing gloves. Many artists added wild hair and a shaggy beard to accentuate his savagery.

One of Amycus’ most popular scenes was his battle with Polydeuces, which appears on vase paintings, bronzeware, and sculptural reliefs. Interestingly, virtually all of these depictions show the same part of the story, with Polydeuces binding the defeated Amycus to a tree.[3]

Family

Amycus was the son of Poseidon and a Bithynian (or Pelian) nymph; her name was often said to have been Melia.[4] He had a brother named Mygdon, who ruled the Bebrycians after his death and who was eventually slain in battle by Heracles.[5]

In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil mentions a son or descendant of Amycus named Butes, who, like Amycus, was a skilled boxer.[6]

Mythology

Amycus, son of Poseidon, ruled over the Bebrycians, a warlike people from Bithynia on the northern coast of Asia Minor.

Amycus was a strong and skilled boxer who liked to show off his skills in an exceptionally cruel manner: he would challenge all strangers who came to his land to a fight. These matches usually ended with Amycus killing his opponent. Others said that Amycus sacrificed all foreign visitors to his father Poseidon.[7]

Amycus is best known for his role in the story of the Argonauts. While sailing to Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece, the Argonauts stopped at Amycus’ kingdom. Amycus quickly came out to meet them and explained his violent policy surrounding newcomers, challenging one of the Argonauts to face him in the boxing arena.

As luck would have it, one of the Argonauts was Polydeuces, perhaps the most famous boxer of Greek mythology. The Greek hero was more than willing to take on Amycus. Even though Amycus was the bigger man, Polydeuces was more skilled and was soon able to defeat his opponent.

Though all sources agree that Polydeuces defeated Amycus, there are different versions of how their match ended. In most accounts, Polydeuces was said to have killed Amycus.[8] But in a handful of literary accounts, as well as in most visual representations, Polydeuces was shown sparing Amycus’ life, sometimes also binding him to a tree.[9]

According to Theocritus, Polydeuces did no more than force the beaten Amycus to “swear a great oath by the name of his father Poseidon in the sea, that he would nevermore do annoyance unto strangers.”[10]

Vase painting of Amycus bound by the Argonauts from a Lucanian red-figure hydria by the Amycus Painter

Illustration of Amycus bound by the Argonauts from a Lucanian red-figure hydria by the Amycus Painter (ca. 425–400 BCE)

Cabinet des Médailles, Paris / Bibi Saint-PolPublic Domain

In some accounts, the Bebrycians were not happy to see their mighty king defeated, and in a rather unsporting turn of events, they attacked Polydeuces and the other Argonauts. A fierce battle broke out, with the Argonauts killing many of the Bebrycians and forcing them to retreat.[11]

Worship

Amycus was worshipped as a hero in Bithynia, where his kingdom was once located. He had a tomb with a laurel tree growing out of it; it was said that anyone who tore a branch from the tree and took it with him aboard a ship would quarrel with his comrades until he threw the branch overboard.[12]

There was also a heroon—that is, a hero shrine—of Amycus, as well as a harbor named after him.[13]

References

Notes

  1. Scholia on Plato’s Laws 7.796a.

  2. Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 2.38–40, trans. R. C. Seaton.

  3. Guntram Beckel, “Amykos,” in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (Zurich: Artemis, 1982) 1:738–42.

  4. Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 2.4; Apollodorus, Library 1.9.20; Hyginus, Fabulae 17; scholia on Plato’s Laws 7.796a.

  5. Apollodorus, Library 2.5.9.

  6. Virgil, Aeneid 5.372.

  7. Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 4.99.

  8. Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 2.1ff; Apollodorus, Library 1.9.20; Hyginus, Fabulae 17; Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 4.99ff; Orphic Argonautica 661ff.

  9. Pisander, Fragmente der griechischen Historiker (FGrH) 16 frag. 5; Theocritus, Idyll 22; Epicharmus, frags. 6–7 Kaibel. See also representations of this scene in ancient art, e.g., on a Lucanian hydria from ca. 420 BCE (Cabinet des Médailles, Paris, 442) and on the “Ficoroni Cista” from ca. 320 BCE (Villa Giulia, Rome, 24787). There may be yet another variant in which Polydeuces fought Amycus later, at the funeral games of Pelias; this version is implied on a fragmentary Attic red-figure volute krater (National Museum of Spina, Ferrara, 2865), but it is possible that the artist simply made a mistake or was exercising artistic license.

  10. Theocritus, Idyll 22.132–34, trans. J. M. Edmonds.

  11. Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 2.98ff; Apollodorus, Library 1.9.20; Orphic Argonautica 666.

  12. Pliny the Elder, Natural History 16.89.239.

  13. Pliny the Elder, Natural History 5.43.150, 16.89.239; scholia on Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica 2.159.

Primary Sources

Greek

The earliest literary sources on Amycus are now lost. But detailed accounts of Amycus’ role in the myth of the Argonauts can be found in some sources from the third century BCE. 

The poet Theocritus (early third century BCE), for example, describes the battle between Amycus and Polydeuces in the first half of his Idyll 22. While Theocritus’ Amycus is ultimately spared, Apollonius of Rhodes (third century BCE) has Polydeuces kill the violent king when he recounts the same myth in Book 2 of his Argonautica.

The myth of Amycus was also summarized by Apollodorus or “Pseudo-Apollodorus” (first century BCE or later) in his Library (1.9.20). Likewise, the Orphic Argonautica (fifth/sixth century CE) contains a brief account of the fight between Amycus and Polydeuces. In both of these sources, Amycus is killed by Polydeuces.

Roman

The story of Amycus’ defeat and death at the hands of Polydeuces (or “Pollux” to the Romans) was retold by Valerius Flaccus (first century CE) in his Argonautica (99ff). The myth can also be found summarized in the Fabulae (17) of Hyginus or “Pseudo-Hyginus” (first century CE or later). 

Finally, valuable references to the hero worship and legends surrounding Amycus were recorded by Pliny the Elder (23/24–79 CE) in his Natural History (5.43.150, 16.89.239).

Other

Additional information on Amycus can be found in texts and commentaries from the Byzantine and medieval periods, such as the scholia. For further references, see the notes.

Secondary Sources

  • Beckel, Guntram. “Amykos.” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, vol. 1, 738–42. Zurich: Artemis, 1982.

  • Dräger, Paul. “Amycus.” In Brill’s New Pauly, edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e119310.

  • Gantz, Timothy. “Iason and the Argo.” In Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources, 340–73. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

  • Hard, Robin. “Jason and the Argonauts.” In The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology, 8th ed., 392–417. New York: Routledge, 2020.

  • Smith, William. “Amycus (1).” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed May 9, 2022. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DA%3Aentry+group%3D20%3Aentry%3Damycus-bio-1.

  • Stoll, H. W. “Amykos (1).” In Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, edited by W. H. Roscher, vol. 1, 326–27. Leipzig: Teubner, 1884–1890.

  • Wernicke, Konrad. “Amykos (2).” In Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, edited by Georg Wissowa and August Friedrich Pauly, vol. 1.2, 2000–2001. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1894.

Citation

Kapach, Avi. “Amycus.” Mythopedia, October 09, 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/amycus.

Kapach, Avi. “Amycus.” Mythopedia, 9 Oct. 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/amycus. Accessed on 13 Dec. 2023.

Kapach, A. (2023, October 9). Amycus. Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/amycus

Authors

  • Avi Kapach

    Avi Kapach is a writer, scholar, and educator who received his PhD in Classics from Brown University

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