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Hairy Iopas: Virgil and the Gigantomachy in Joyce’s Ulysses

Randall Pogorzelski

In the “Cyclops” episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the character known as “the citizen” hears that a Dublin mayoral candidate has been meeting with the Irish Cattle Traders and reacts with an unusual oath: “Hairy Iopas, says the citizen” (Ulysses 12.829). It is difficult to see how Virgil’s crinitus Iopas (Aeneid 1.740), the bard in Dido’s court, is relevant to the scene in Ulysses, which draws on the Hercules and Cacus episode of Aeneid 8 rather than Dido’s court in Aeneid 1 (Schork 1997, 132-33). In this presentation, I argue that Joyce links the cosmological song of Iopas and scenes of the Gigantomachy in the Aeneid with the historiographical technique of “gigantism” popular among the Irish revivalist nationalism represented in Ulysses by the citizen.

Although Joyce explicitly models Ulysses on Homer’s Odyssey, his Latin was much better than his Greek and he relies heavily on Latin literature. As R.J. Schork has shown, the citizen, who is the Polyphemus character in the “Cyclops” episode, draws less on Homer’s Polyphemus than on Virgil’s Cacus (Schork 1997, 135). The citizen is a representation of Michael Cusack, founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association. Cusack was a militant Irish nationalist and the GAA promoted Gaelic sports as a part of the “Irish revival” that aimed at deanglicizing the island in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His imposing stature, violent politics, and overbearing personality make the citizen/Cusack an appropriate analogue of Virgil’s monster. Schork nevertheless remains puzzled about the significance of the citizen’s exclamation of “Hairy Iopas.” I propose that the allusion is thematic, pointing out that the linkage of cosmology and history in the court of Dido is also apparent in the Irish revival.

The cosmological song of Iopas, as Philip Hardie argues, forms a part of Virgil’s program of linking the cosmological order of the universe with the historical order of Rome (Hardie 1986, 66). The song, set immediately before Aeneas’ narrative of the Trojan War, incorporates a kind of universal history into the poem. The Aeneid includes a song of the natural workings of the universe, the mythical age of the Trojan War, and, through prophecies and visions, the history of Rome up to the Augustan period. The poem thus appropriates universal history for Rome, telling the story of cosmology and myth as a part of Roman history. Similarly, the gigantomachic episodes of the Aeneid, including the battle between Hercules and Cacus, illustrate the reinstantiation of the elemental ordering of the universe in the order of Augustan Rome (Hardie 1986, 117).

For the revivalists, the historiographical technique of gigantism was an effort to recover a purely and authentically Irish history. Standish O’Grady, whose History of Ireland was extremely influential in the historical thinking of the Irish revival (Lyons 1979, 33-35; Gibson 2002, 108n22), was insistent that Irish history must reject English culture and the English idea of history (Gibson 2002, 112). Turning away from scientific historical investigations, O’Grady sought to “escape from positive history and unyielding despotic fact” (O’Grady 1881, 57). The result is a historiography that makes no distinction between legend and history. The revivalist Lady Gregory, for example, is interested in “myth turned into history, or history turned into myth” (Gregory 1909, 49). For Gregory, there is no distinction between the ancient past and the historical present: “The names change from age to age, that is all” (Gregory 1918, iii). Gigantism, which aligns legendary or cosmological prehistory with the historical present, represents for the revivalists a rejection of British positivist history and a recovery of an authentically Irish mode. Joyce, in linking the cosmological song of Iopas and the gigantism of the revivalists with the Gigantic figure of Virgil’s Cacus, is allusively pointing out that the supposedly purely Irish technique of gigantism is in fact a recapitulation of Virgil’s historical technique, exposing the occluded classical presence in the nationalists’ search for ancient Irish roots.

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Unhistorical Receptions of Ancient Narrative

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