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Pausanias’ Dead Poets Society

Johanna Hanink

This paper argues that the treatment of poets’ tombs in Pausanias’ Description of Greece (2nd c.CE) exemplifies a tradition that saw graves as sites for connecting and communing with dead poets. It also argues that Pausanias’ narrative serves to write the poets whose graves he mentions into the very mythical worlds which they had created, thereby casting the poets as part of the mythical history that for Pausanias is embodied – and entombed – in what for him is the Greek sacred landscape (Alcock; Elsner; Porter).

Pausanias’ work is scattered with references to tombs of mythical, historical, and literary figures (taphos occurs some 150 times over the ten books; the synonymous mnēma appears more often still: Dunn). But within the Description, the graves of poets are understood as sites where their dead voices speak: in Book 9 Pausanias writes of a shepherd who fell asleep at the tomb of Orpheus and began singing Orpheus’ poetry as he slept (9.30.10). In some cases he even attributes a kind of talismanic power to poets’ physical remains by recasting familiar stories about the bones of mythical heroes: in Larissa, Pausanias supposedly heard of how the Macedonians carried off the bones of Orpheus from Libethra and buried them in their own land. This anecdote, like the story about the transfer of Hesiod’s bones to Orchomenus (9.38.3-4; cf. Certamen 247-54) cannot but evoke Herodotus’ account of the relocation of Orestes’ bones from Tegea to Sparta (Histories 1.66-8), or the story of Cimon’s triumphant return of Theseus’ bones to Athens (e.g. Plutarch, Theseus 36.1-2) (Jourdan; Stratiki).

Greek poetry, especially tragedy, located mythical events around the tombs of heroes. The ghost of Darius is raised from his tomb in Aeschylus’ Persians; Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers and Sophocles’ Electra stage the first encounters between Electra and Orestes at the tomb of Agamemnon; Sophocles’ Antigone apostrophizes her own tomb; and the tomb of Oedipus, mysterious though it may be, lies at the heart of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. In attributing supernatural powers to poets’ tombs – and telling stories of the mystical circumstances that attended certain poets’ deaths – Pausanias writes the poets into the mythical world of heroes that their poetry had created and described. He moreover does not distinguish between the tombs of poets whom we would regard as at least semi-mythical (e.g. Musaeus, Orpheus and Linus) and those whom the surviving texts authenticate as historical figures (e.g. Pindar, Euripides, and Menander). Equally he speaks of uncanny circumstances surrounding their deaths: he records, for example, that Dionysus appeared to Lysander in a vision and ordered him to honor the dead Sophocles (1.21.1) and that the shade of Pindar sung to an old woman a hymn to Persephone after his death (9.23.3-4); he also writes of the worldwide mourning provoked by the death of Linus and the annual sacrifices now made at his tomb (9.29.6-7). These accounts draw the poets and their graves into the mythical, heroic world that saw mysterious and mystical events at the deaths and tombs of, e.g., Agamemnon and Oedipus.

By so often mentioning the tombs of poets in his Description, Pausanias fossilizes their bones alongside other heroes in the Greek soil, casting their earthly remains as part of the literal stuff of the numinous Greek landscape. Importantly, his work reflects the notion, glimpsed elsewhere in poetic testimonia, that immobile mnēmata of poets provide opportunities for the living to encounter the poets themselves. Rather than emphasize the panhellenic possession of famous poets (as sepulchral epigrams sometimes do: cf. e.g. AP 7.45; 7.51), he uses tombs and memorials to construct a mental map of poetic heritage that makes it largely indistinguishable from other aspects of Greek sacred history. The Description thus represents the strongest single literary articulation of Greece’s cults of poets (Clay), cults which saw the tombs of poets as mnēmata in the very mythical landscapes which their divinely-inspired verses had mapped.

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Tombs of the Poets: The Material Reception of Ancient Literature

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