The correlations between Bacchylides’ poetry and Greek art are often mentioned but rarely exposed to systematic analysis. The prevailing discussion of Bacchylides’ treatment of Theseus’s dive in Ode 17 (performed by a Kean chorus on Delos) offers a number of perfunctory judgments on whether paintings of the myth pre-date the performance without arriving at a firm consensus. While some infer with little comment that pictures appeared first (e.g. Burnett 1985: 162), Maehler (2004: 174-6) assumes that Bacchylides invented Theseus’s encounter with Amphitrite and directly inspired its appearance in art (e.g. on a cup by Onesimos, Louvre G104); otherwise, discussions tend to relate poem and painting to Delian League politics (e.g. Francis 2005: 58-65).
This paper concisely reconsiders the pictorial language of Ode 17, reviving Jebb’s (1905: 61, 72) suggestion that Bacchylides’ conventional renderings of myth adhered to existing sources that informed paintings of the same subjects or were themselves inspired by art. Specifically, I argue that Bacchylides drew closely upon the iconography of Theseus’s dive for the latter part of his ode and that his narrative consciously signaled a visual template, creating in essence a painting that speaks.
The song contains nearly twenty different words that reference color, light, and vision. From the dark prow and “far-seen” (têlaugei) sail of the ship (1-5) to the spectacle (thauma) of Theseus returning unwet from sea, his limbs shining (lampe) with divine gifts (123-4), the song is realized through a series of visual experiences which it invites the audience to see. Accordingly, the narrative is driven by moments of sight: Theseus is spurred to action when he sees (iden) Minos’s hubris (16), Zeus sends a flash of lighting “visible to all” (panderkea, 70), the hero is struck seeing (idôn) the Nereids (101), and his appearance (phanê) on deck prompts the youths to sing (119-29). Moreover, emotion is revealed through descriptions of the eyes in a way reminiscent of Polygnotos’s and Mikon’s innovative representation of sentiment through browline and gaze, when, for example, Theseus “rolls his eyes darkly beneath his brows” in anguish at the sight of Eriboea’s assault (17-8) and the young Athenians “shed tears from their lily-white eyes, accepting a grievous fate” (95-6). Figures are often presented as objects of sight and described in reference to internal acts of viewing, when, for example, Theseus sees (idôn) the “brightness (selas) that shone like fire from the brilliant limbs” of the Nereids whose hair was “twined with gold-plaited ribbons,” before catching sight (eîden) of Amphitrite who presents him with a purple cloak and a garland “dark with roses (rhodois eremnon, 103-16).” These images are reminiscent of Pliny’s (N.H. 35.58) description of Polygnotan style and its famous introduction of bright garments (lucida veste) and multicolored headdresses (mitris versicoloribus) to the art of painting. Like his integration of dialogue from the stage, Bacchylides may have been emulating the new visual impact of tragedy and monumental painting.
By way of conclusion I suggest that the ode functioned as a tribute to the gods worshipped on Delos alongside Apollo (e.g. Poseidon, Amphitrite) highlighting the mythological and material aspects of their cults. For example, Aphrodite’s influence (10, 111) alludes to her worship there and prefigures the archaic statue Theseus is said to have dedicated in Apollo’s temple (Plu. Thes. 21) while the Nereids conjure images of real choruses on the island (cf. Calame 2001: 77, 124-8, Fearn 2011). The story of Theseus’s undersea journey and his meeting with the goddess was associated more closely with ritual and art than a long-standing poetic tradition, which may explain the apparent incongruity of Bacchylides’ text, as if the poet had translated a pictorial narrative “verbatim” without adding extraneous details of his own. Amphitrite and her gifts, which consistently appear in painting (e.g. an archaic pinax from Corinth where she holds a wreath, Louvre MNC208), likely had an older cult significance and appear in the ode like a painted dedication.
Poetics, Politics, and Religion in Greek Lyric and Epinician