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Hesiod and the Pythia: The Didactic/Oracular Literary Complex

Ella H. Haselswerdt

This paper argues that there is a strong and deliberate generic relationship between archaic didactic hexameter, as exemplified by Hesiod's Works and Days, and the oracular hexameter poetry attributed to the Pythia in Herodotus' Histories. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the corpus of oracular poetry was mired in debates about authenticity between positivist historians, as exemplified in the seminal collections of Parke and Fontenrose. Recently, scholars have begun to ask more generative questions about the poem. Maurizio investigates how they were constituted by their performance contexts and audiences, while scholars like Walsh and Kurke have asked about their ideological function in political rhetoric. Gagné, in a forthcoming article, argues that they should be read as literary works in their own right. This paper begins to ask what sort of stylistic features cluster in oracular poems, and what, specifically, the preponderance of Hesiodic didactic can tell us about the nature of either genre.

I focus on the closest point of interaction between Hesiod and Herodotean oracular: the direct quotation of line 285 from the Works and Days in an oracle given to Glaukos in Book VI.86 of Herodotus. The oracle is embedded in a moralizing tale told by the Spartan king Leutychides in an attempt persuade the Athenians to release some illustrious hostages. The last line is the only part lifted directly from Hesiod, but a close examination of the context and vocabulary of the Herodotus passage reveals that throughout his extended narrative about the life and times of Leutychides the historian was deeply engaged with the Works and Days, in a way that constitutes more than a casual reference.

Firstly, the rest of the oracular passage itself is steeped in Hesiodic language: the swiftness and the personification of Oath in the oracle mirrors a passage in the brief narrative of Works and Days about the rape of justice, in which “Oath starts to run alongside crooked judgements” (219). Additionally, there are many interactions with Works and Days 320-326, a passage about ill-gotten gains. Both this passage and the Herodotean oracle use the verb ληίσσεται to describe the act of perjury by which one might acquire money. They both acknowledge the transitory profit that might be gained by such behavior, and they both posit the same eventual negative consequence: the destruction of the perjurers' household, and the obscurity of their ancestors. In Herodotus, Oath “grasping them destroys his race and his entire household” (πᾶσαν / συμμάρψας ὀλέσῃ γενεὴν καὶ οἷκον ἅπαντα) while in Hesiod “easily the gods blot him out, and they diminish his household” (ῥεῖα δέ μιν μαυροῦσι θεοί, μινύθουσι δὲ οἶκον).

But the relationship between the texts is not limited to the six lines of the oracle. Earlier in his narrative, Herodotus mentions that Leutychides' reign eventually ends shamefully. He is caught taking a bribe, put on trial and “his household was demolished,” καὶ τὰ οἰκία οἱ κατεσάφη (VI.72) With this episode echoing in the mind of the reader, the the moralizing tale put into the mouth of Leutychides later on gains an especially delicious dramatic irony. He indirectly pronounces an oracle to the Athenians that predicts his own fate rather than theirs. Herodotus constructs a complex narrative in which the gnomic wisdom of Hesiod is validated by a similar mechanism as the oracular pronouncements of the Pythia: an overly confident person misunderstands an oracle that foretells their own doom. This is an example of the way that the poetry of Hesiod can be framed such that it has a predictive function analogous to that of an oracle.

This focused analysis leads me to broader conclusions: the stylistic, functional, and conceptual similarities between the genre of Hesiodic didactic and Pythian oracular poetry are strong enough to suggest that they constitute a gnomic literary complex that lends us insight into the interpretive tools that Greeks used to make sense of the world.

Session/Panel Title

Metageneric Excursions in Early Greek Epic

Session/Paper Number

20.2

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