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Ino, pursued by her husband, who had been driven mad by Hera because Ino had brought up the infant Dionysus, threw herself and Melicertes into the sea from a high rock between Megara and Corinth, Both were changed into marine deities: Ino as Leucothea, noted by Homer, Melicertes as Palaemon. The body of the latter was carried by a dolphin to the Isthmus of Corinth and deposited under a pine tree. Here it was found by his uncle Sisyphus, who had it removed to Corinth, and by command of the Nereids instituted the Isthmian Games and sacrifices in his honour.
Palaemon appears for the first time in Euripides' Iphigeneia in Tauris, where he is already the "guardian of ships". The paramount identification in the Latin poets of the Augustan age is with Portunus, the Roman god of safe harbours, memorably in Virgil's Georgics. Ovid twice told the story of Ino's sea-plunge with Melicertes in her arms.
Ovid's treatment in Fasti identifies for the first time as the location the Isthmus without literally naming it:
A land there is, shrunk within narrow bounds, which repels twin seas, and single in itself, is lashed by two-fold waters.
In later Latin poets there are numerous identifications of Palaemon with the sanctuary at the Isthmus, where no archaeological evidence was found for a pre-Augustan cult. In the late 2nd century CE, within the sanctuary of Poseidon at Isthmia, Pausanias saw a temple of Palaemon,
with images in it of Poseidon, Leucothea and Palaemon himself. There is also what is called his Holy of Holies, and an underground descent to it, where they say that Palaemon is concealed. Whosoever, whether Corinthian or stranger, swears falsely here, can by no means escape from his oath. There is also an ancient sanctuary called the altar of the Cyclopes, and they sacrifice to the Cyclopes upon it.
In company with Leucothea, Melicertes/Palaemon was widely invoked for protection from dangers at sea.
There seems considerable doubt whether or not the cult of Melicertes was of foreign, probably Phoenician, origin, and introduced by Phoenician navigators on the coasts and islands of the Aegean and Mediterranean. For the Hellenes he is a native of Boeotia, where Phoenician influences were strong; at Tenedos he was propitiated by the sacrifice of children which seems to point to his identity with Melqart. The premature death of the child in the Greek form of the legend is probably an allusion to this.
The Romans identified Palaemon with Portunus (the harbour god). No satisfactory origin of the name Palaemon has been given. It has been suggested that it means the "wrestler" or "struggler" and is an epithet of Heracles, with whom Melqart is identified by interpretatio graeca and referred to as the Tyrian Herakles, but there does not appear to be any traditional connection between Heracles and Palaemon. Melicertes being Phoenician, Palaemon also has been explained as the "burning lord" (Baal-haman), but there seems little in common between a god of the sea and a god of fire.
In 1956 excavations at Isthmia by the University of Chicago under the direction of Oscar Broneer uncovered the small sanctuary of Palaemon, which eventually had a tiny Roman round temple in the Corinthian order, which appeared on coins of Corinth in the 2nd century CE; it was the successor to two previous more modest architectural phases of the sanctuary. The foundations of the temple were found to lie over the starting-line of a late 5th or early 4th century BCE stadium. Worship was characterized by the dedication of hundreds of wheelmade oil lamps of a distinct type. A cult of Melicertes of great antiquity, possibly based on pre-Hellenic figures of Ino and Melicertes, was posited by Edouard Will just previous to the site's discovery and refuted by John Hawthorne in 1958.
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- Homer, Odyssey, 5.333
- Euripides, Iphigeneia in Tauris, 270.
- Virgil, Georgics 1.436-7: sailors, preserved from the hazards of the sea and safely ashore, give thanks to Melicertes.
- Ovid, Fasti 6.473ff, and Metamorphoses 4.416ff.
- Pausanias, 2.2.1
- The Greek Anthology contains several prayers of this type (Loeb Classical Library, vol. I, book 6, nos. 164, 223, 348); Aelius Aristides (Isthm. in Pos. 49); Nonnus, Dionysiaca 47.354; Orphic Hymns, 74, 75, are all noted by Hawthorne 1958:92, note 3.
- Edouard Will, summarizing the debate in 1955, concluded in Korinthiaka (1955:169 note 3) that Melicertes was wholly Greek.
- The completed excavation was published by Broneer in Hesperia 27 (1958:1-57).
- Will, in Korinthiaka (1955:168-80, 210-12.
- Hawthorne, "The Myth of Palaemon", Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 89 (1958:92-98). The archaeologists found evidence of bull sacrifice and a tub which may have been filled with water in an initiation rite for members. This further cements the connection of Melicertes with the Corinthian Games, one of the four major athletic festivals in Greece, the most famous of which is the Olympian Games.