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Colonial Narrative and the Excision of the Seer: The Disappearance of Melampous in Bacchylides’ Ode 11

Margaret Foster

This paper argues that archaic and early classical Greek colonial narrative exhibits a hitherto unnoticed tendency to suppress the role of the seer as part of its encomiastic presentation of the oikist (founder). I begin by observing that scholars often emphasize the parallels between military campaigns and colonial expeditions of the sixth and fifth centuries BCE (e.g., Malkin 1989, Dougherty 1993). Yet whereas seers regularly feature in accounts of archaic and classical Greek warfare, they rarely appear in colonial narratives dated or referring to the same period. Furthermore, I discern that, although the seer himself goes missing from most foundation tales, the functions the seer typically performs do not. Instead, we find the oikist exhibiting a particular form of religious authority that is attributed to the seer in other contexts. I contend that the characterization of the oikist in colonial narrative as a figure who is singled out by and acts on behalf of Apollo, the god of divination, usurps the place and function occupied elsewhere by the seer.

That colonial narrative remains invested in the seer’s particular form of religious authority but attributes it instead to the oikist suggests a purposeful effort to occlude the seer. I contend that one reason for the seer’s disappearance from foundation tales is the Greek propensity to regard him as potentially dangerous to a polis’ rulers and to the religious and political stability of the polis itself. As a perceived menace to a polis’ leaders, the seer does not belong in contexts that celebrate the oikist’s successful foundation of a notionally stable community (see Foster 2013).

In the second half of the paper, I explore the idea of the seer’s elision from colonial narrative by reading Bacchylides’ Ode 11 as a specific example of this phenomenon. The ode, which recounts the foundation of Tiryns, features the myth of the daughters of Proitos. But the version of this myth Bacchylides presents contains a glaring omission: the seer Melampous, who appears in nearly all other variants within a rich mythographic tradition as the primary figure credited with purifying the maidens, is completely missing from Ode 11. Because Bacchylides’ story in other respects resembles the usual tale—his Proitids follow the standard narrative arc from their transgression against Hera to their madness to their purified reintegration (see Kowalzig 2007) —I conclude that Bacchylides was familiar with Melampous’ connection to the Proitids and that the absence of the seer from the myth was a calculated excision. We should understand Melampous’ absence in relation to the epinikion’s colonial component. As I demonstrate, Bacchylides’ particular rendering of Proitos’ departure from Argos to Tiryns casts Tiryns as a foundation and Proitos himself as its oikist. Taking this alteration together with the omission of the seer, we can say that Bacchylides celebrates the successful foundation of Tiryns by freeing it from Melampous who, in the traditional conclusion to the myth, usurps most of Proitos’ kingdom for himself and his brother. But Bacchylides does more than just secure Proitos’ hegemony within the ode. By having the king supplicate Artemis to cure his daughters, Bacchylides also replaces Melampous with Proitos as the figure who negotiates with the gods for the maidens’ recovery. In so doing, Proitos, the oikist of Tiryns, retains (politically) and absorbs (religiously) the functions left vacant by the missing seer in Ode 11. Thus Ode 11 is an individual instance of the cultural tendency I explore more generally in the first part of the paper. Seers are elided from archaic and early classical colonial narrative not only for political reasons (because they can threaten the stability of a polis and its oikist) but also on religious grounds insofar as the oikist himself becomes a religious authority and the primary mediator between a polis and the divine.

Session/Panel Title

Poetics, Politics, and Religion in Greek Lyric and Epinician

Session/Paper Number

28.6

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