Our second item for today comes from our friend Nick Redfern, though the mistake I’m about to explore is not his. It is merely one he repeats because he trusts a secondhand source uncritically. In an article on Mysterious Universe he looks at whether peacocks are associated with the chupacabra and other paranormal entities. In so doing, he cites Ebenezer Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (vol. 2) to give the legend of the peacock:
The peacock’s tail is the emblem of an Evil Eye, or an ever-vigilant traitor. The tale is this: Argus was the chief Minister of Osīris, King of Egypt. When the king started on his Indian expedition, he left his queen, Isis, regent, and Argus was to be her chief adviser. Argus, with one hundred spies (called eyes), soon made himself so powerful and formidable that he shut up the queen-regent in a strong castle, and proclaimed himself king. Mercury marched against him, took him prisoner, and cut off his head; whereupon Juno metamorphosed Argus into a peacock, and set his eyes in its tale.
The standard version of the Argus myth lacks any Egyptian or Indian elements. In the standard version, Hera (Latin: Juno) gives Argus Panoptes (the all-seeing) charge over Io so that Zeus cannot rescue the lover he changed into a cow to hide her from Hera. Hermes (Latin: Mercury), however, kills Argus in order to free Io, and Hera immortalizes Argus by placing his eyes on the tail of the peacock, her sacred bird. The story is told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses at 1.624ff. and 2.531.
So how did Brewer end up turning Ovid’s fable into an Egyptian adventure? That’s an interesting question and one whose answer is simultaneously clear and confounding.
The simple answer is that Brewer is a very bad source. We’ve encountered him before on this blog, where his reliance on secondhand sources he poorly understood in his Dictionary of Miracles (1901) had him incorrectly reporting that Hungary’s King Stephen routinely flew through the air while praying to God. My investigation into Brewer’s poor historiography in that case clued me in that his claims about Osiris and peacocks are probably equally shoddy.
It didn’t take long to figure out that Brewer was copying nearly verbatim from the Classical Manual, an early nineteenth century commentary on Pope’s translation of Homer and Dryden’s translation of Virgil. The entry for Argus should look familiar:
Argus. This prince was supposed by the Egyptians to be the brother of Osiris, king of Egypt, who, on his departure for the conquest of India, left the regency of his dominions to his queen Isis, appointing Argus to be her minister, Mercury her counsellor, and Hercules commander of her troops.
The fable of the hundred eyes of Argus is explained by supposing that appellation to have been metaphorically applied to a hundred officers, whom he distributed in the principal towns of Egypt, and from whom he obtained correct information of all that passed within their respective districts. While Argus continued faithful to this trust the Egyptians enjoyed in tranquillity the advantages of an equitable government; but the absence of Osiris, and the departure of Hercules on an expedition into the interior of Africa, inspired and encouraged in him (he ambitious project of making himself master of the throne. He commenced his revolt by confining Isis in a tower, and then caused himself to be proclaimed king by his partisans in every city throughout the kingdom. Mercury, however, who had hitherto been despised by Argus as a prince exclusively absorbed in scientific pursuits, raised a party against him, and assembled an army, at the head of which he defeated and slew the usurper.
OK, so that’s the direct source. But where did that author get the idea that Argus was Osiris’s brother? Here our author has conflated different characters with the same name in the name of euhemerizing a myth he considered too fanciful. When our author wrote (the earliest edition I can find is from 1827), rationalizing mythology was all the rage, under the influence of the Abbé Banier’s Mythologie et la fable expliqués par l’histoire (1711/1738), whose ideas were incorporated into the Classical sections of Diderot’s Encyclopédie and through it the Encyclopaedia Britannica and its imitators.
To cut a very long story of transmission short, the Classical Manual echoes but amplifies and reverses Banier, who in volume 1 of his Mythologie, announced that he planned to “explain” Ovid’s myth of Argus and Io by reducing it to history. He identified Zeus with Apis, the bull-god, and Argus as merely a vigilant man. From such warrants, our author has chosen to ignore Banier’s conclusion that the myth could not be Egyptian, as Apollodorus (Library 2.1.3) and Hyginus (Fabulae 145) had claimed, and instead identifies the hundred-eyed monster Argus with a separate character, King Argus of Argos, son of Zeus and Niobe. The warrant for this seems to be that the Greeks fancied Osiris king of Argos, a claim in turn derived from an identification of Osiris with King Apis of Argos. That story, which is the original of the whole sorry mess, is told in Eusebius’s Chronicle and Augustine’s City of God 18.5. The latter gives the story thus:
In these times Apis king of Argos crossed over into Egypt in ships, and, on dying there, was made Serapis, the chief god of all the Egyptians. Now Varro gives this very ready reason why, after his death, he was called, not Apis, but Serapis. The ark in which he was placed when dead, which every one now calls a sarcophagus, was then called in Greek σορὸς, and they began to worship him when buried in it before his temple was built; and from Soros and Apis he was called first [Sorosapis, or] Sorapis, and then Serapis, by changing a letter, as easily happens. It was decreed regarding him also, that whoever should say he had been a man should be capitally punished. And since in every temple where Isis and Serapis were worshipped there was also an image which, with finger pressed on the lips, seemed to warn men to keep silence, Varro thinks this signifies that it should be kept secret that they had been human. But that bull which, with wonderful folly, deluded Egypt nourished with abundant delicacies in honor of him, was not called Serapis, but Apis, because they worshipped him alive without a sarcophagus. (trans. Marcus Dods)
There’s a bit of irony: Many scholars of mythology think that Argus of Argos, Argus Panoptes, and Argus the builder of the Argo are all derived from an ancient Mycenaean mythological figure, though whatever story was told of him is too far gone to recover. (Added weirdness: Jason, of Argo fame, had a son named Apis, according to Pausanias in Description of Greece 5.1.8.)
Anyway, the lesson remains as it always has: Don’t trust secondary sources. Always verify with a primary source.