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Amber Tears and Swan Songs: Ovid and Poetic Authority in Lucian’s Ἠλέκτρου

Carrie Mowbray

In Πέρι Ἠλέκτρου ὴ τῶν Κύκνων, Lucian plays tour guide in triplicate, taking his readers on a simultaneous journey through poetic, topographical, and cultural landscapes. As a polymathic πεπαιδευμένος, Lucian’s command of Greek literature is a given (cf. Anderson 1989; Jones 1986). Whitmarsh has convincingly argued that Lucian’s texts are performative, enacting (rather than merely showing) the ‘already inscribed relationship between Greek literature and the Roman empire’ (2001, 248). Yet scholarship has not readily entertained possible allusions to Roman literature. While Habinek (2002) notes the aestheticized temporo–causal relationships in Metamorphoses and On the Dance
— Lucian’s ὅρμος and Ovid’s carmen perpetuum are born out of Chaos, set in motion by Eros, and reach their apex under Augustus — he does not go so far as to say that Lucian is responding to Ovid. Extending both lines of thought, I propose that Lucian’s juxtaposition of ‘amber’ and ‘swans’ encodes Ovidian material, and that, via this allusive strategy, Lucian comments on the hybridic literary and cultural atmosphere of the empire.

The first part of this paper sketches out the contours of the argument and of Ἠλέκτρου. In this text, the narrator and sightseer (‘Lucian’) arrives in the Eridanos River valley eager, based on poetic accounts, to see amber-dripping poplars and swans who were formerly human. When he asks the local guides to point the way toward these θαύματα — even hoping to catch some amber drops in his tunic — they declare that they have never heard of Phaethon and ridicule his naïveté in trusting poets (Ἠλέκ. 4). After briefly playing raconteur, telling the locals an abbreviated version of Phaethon’s fall and the subsequent metamorphoses, Lucian realizes his folly and avers that his listeners will not hear any such κειμήλια from him (Ἠλέκ. 6).

On one level, this vignette exemplifies the prioritizing of autopsy over hearsay or literary description that we see in Pausanias and other Second Sophistic authors. Yet closer inspection reveals another crucial layer. In the next part of the paper, via close analysis of structural parallels and verbal echoes, I show how Lucian first distills and retells the content of Met. 2.239ff, then uses this passage in the context of his travelogue to articulate poetry’s flaws. The metamorphosis of Phaethon’s sisters to poplars that shed amber tears comprises Met. 2.340ff; the story of Cygnus’ transformation into a swan immediately follows in 2.367ff. In both authors’ accounts, the amber flows drop-by-
drop from the poplars (inde fluunt lacrimae, stillataque sole rigescunt / de ramis electra novis, Met. 2.364-5; ἀλλαγῆναι ἐς τὰ δένδρα, καὶ ἀποστάζειν ἔτι αὐτῶν δάκρυον δῆθεν τὸ ἤλεκτρον, Ἠλέκ. 1). Lucian employs the same ‘dripping’ language to explain that his listener can expect gold and beautiful songs from others, but not from a plain-speaker like him (Ἠλέκ. 6). In this way, he uses Ovidian material to challenge poetic authority while commenting on his own rhetorical and literary aims.

With this case study as a starting point, I propose that we might profitably consider Lucian a subtler reader (and critic) of Roman poetry than has previously been entertained. To this end, I conclude with brief examples of how Lucian incorporates Ovidian material into his dialogues and treatises, suggesting that he uses Roman poetry to ‘perform’ his role as a πεπαιδευμένος who is thinking and writing under the twin aegises of Hellenic intellectual heritage and Roman rule.

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Ovidian Poetics, Ovidian Receptions

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