The Ancient Greek Myth Of The Uncatchable Monster And The Unfailing Hound

According to ancient Greek mythology, a nobleman named Amphitryon fled from Mycenae after killing the city’s king, Electryon, who was succeeded by his brother Sthenelus. Amphitryon, along with his partner, Alcmene, decided to seek asylum in the city of Thebes, but the Theban ruler, Creon, did not quite greet Amphitryon with open arms. Creon wanted to made a deal—a quid pro quo—before Amphitryon was provided any real help or assistance in Thebes. This proposed deal, so the stories go, was for Amphitryon to undertake a monster hunting mission. Unfortunately for the Mycenean exile, the mission he was given was not an easy task. Amphitryon’s monstrous target was the Teumessian Fox—also known as the vixen—a giant fox that was blessed with an absolute fate that did not allow it to be caught.

Amphitryon knew the Teumessian Fox and its uncatchable destiny posed a serious problem. After thinking through the situation, Amphitryon decided that his best bet was to fight fire with fire—or, in this case, to fight one ultimate destiny with another ultimate destiny. As it happened, there existed in the Greek mythological universe a special dog named Lailaps (or Laelaps) that, similarly to the vixen, had been awarded an impressive fate. Whereas the Teumessian Fox was destined to never be caught, the great hunting hound, Lailaps, was fated to always catch its prey. Hoping that Lailaps’ destiny would counteract or overwhelm the vixen’s sly nature, Amphitryon decided to recruit the magical dog to his cause.

Lailaps was a well-traveled dog. He originated with the Olympian gods and particularly associated with Zeus and Artemis. Zeus allegedly gave the dog to Europa in Crete, and the dog was passed to her son, Minos. Lailaps was then handed off to the Athenian princess, Procris, who eventually gifted the dog to her hunting-enthusiast husband, Cephalus (also spelled Cephalos). Lailaps was still in the possession of Cephalus when Amphitryon began searching for the dog. Fortunately for Amphitryon, Cephalus was willing to sell his services (or rather the services of his magical dog) in exchange for a promised future payment. As Amphitryon expected he would eventually get the Thebans to help him on a lucrative future military expedition against the Teleboans, he agreed to the deal and pledged to make good on Cephalus’ price. With the deal agreed upon, Amphitryon, Cephalus and the unbeatable dog set off on their hunt of the uncatchable fox.

What happened next was curious, to say the least. Destiny clashed with destiny when the vixen that was fated to never be captured began to be chased by the dog that was destined to always seize its quarry. The situation became quite paradoxical and contradictory in its fateful significance, and, perhaps the power and authority of Destiny, itself, began to unravel as the unstable chase between the uncatchable fox and inescapable hound continued. Whatever the case, the high-god Zeus evidently deemed the peculiar clash of the magical animals to be a crisis of the greatest kind, and he ultimately decided to intervene. All of this was described by a scholar named Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century), who told of Amphitryon’s recruitment of Cephalus and Lailaps, as well as their hunt of the vixen, in his Library:

“So Amphitryon visited Cephalos, son of Deioneus, in Athens, and in return for a share of the plunder from the Teleboans, he persuaded him to bring to the hunt the dog that Procris had been given by Minos and brought over from Crete, for it was fated that this dog would catch whatever it chased. So it came about that as the vixen was being pursued by the dog, Zeus turned both of them to stone” (Apollodorus, Library, 2.4.7).

In order that the uncatchable fox would not be caught, and that the unfailing hound would not technically lose its prey, Zeus enforced a truce with a display of his own power. As told in Apollodorus’ account of the myth, the animals were turned to stone, forever freezing the two in the act of chasing and running away. In an alternative telling of the tale, Zeus was said to have transformed the animals into constellations instead of stone. Amphitryon was pleased with this result, be it stone or stars (although Cephalus was probably less happy about losing his dog). With the Teumessian Fox no longer a threat, Amphitryon returned to Thebes and proclaimed his mission to be a success. Thebes, as a result, welcomed in the hero and treated him as an honored ally. Amphitryon continued to work with the Thebans and eventually died fighting alongside them (and Heracles) in a war against the Minyans.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Fox and wolf from BL Royal 13 B VIII, f. 11v, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons, Europeana and The British Library).



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