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The Goatherd and the Winnowing-shovel: Interpretation and Signification in Theocritus' Seventh Idyll

Matthew Chaldekas

To understand Theocritus' seventh Idyll, one must understand Lycidas. The mysterious goatherd appears, exchanges songs with the narrator, and leaves after giving his staff as a "guest-gift of the Muses" (Id. 7.129). The encounter with Lycidas constitutes the main action of the poem, while his abrupt exit and curious gift make his presence linger over the remainder of the poem. Any reading of this poem must account for Lycidas, but consensus about this figure has been difficult to achieve. Is he a mask for a contemporary of Theocritus? (cf. Gow 1952) Some god in disguise--Pan, Apollo, Hermes? (cf. Hunter 1999) This diversity of interpretations has been encouraged by the strange description of Lycidas: "he was a goatherd, and if you saw him you would not fail to recognize him because he looked just like a goatherd" (7.13-14). The most recent intervention into this question suggests capitulation: "if [Lycidas] is wearing a mask, the mask remains firmly in place" (Payne 2007: 121). Yet Payne agrees that these lines give the reader pause and suggest the potential for alter-egos, although this potential remains unfulfilled.

My reading will study the interpretation not just of Lycidas but of other descriptions in the poem that appear to be more than they seem: the tomb of Brasilas, Lycidas' staff, and the winnowing-shovel planted in the heap. Like Lycidas, each of these objects is open to interpretation. In order to interpret the objects, the reader must determine what and how they signify (Eco 1983). Two of the objects require interpretation because of textual allusion. The staff of Lycidas alludes to Hesiod's staff from the Theogony and leads the audience to apply the theme of poetic investiture to the meeting of Simichidas and Lycidas (Puelma 1960). This allusion allows it to serve as a sign of the Dichterweihe theme in the poem. The winnowing-shovel in the heap alludes to the famous oar of Odysseus, which becomes a sign (sêma) when a stranger interprets it as a winnowing-shovel (Od. 11.126-37). Just as the sêma in the Odyssey redefines the space of Odysseus' wanderings, the allusion at the end of the seventh Idyll redefines the space of Simichidas' journey (Hunter 1999). The tomb of Brasilas, which opens the poem, is the only of the three objects explicitly called sêma (Id. 7.10-11). Like the winnowing-shovel, the tomb defines a characteristic of the narrative space in the poem. These sêmata allow a reader to recognize why the description of Lycidas is so puzzling: Lycidas himself is a sign. His appearance ("he looked like a goatherd") signifies his identity ("he was a goatherd").

This study of interpretation and signification differs from studies of the poem that focus on poetic production or poetic initiation. My method of reading the poem focuses on the role of the reader in interpreting the text rather then the role of the poet in crafting it. The four signs I identify allow the reader to develop a "specific semiotics" for this text (Eco 1983: 5). I will conclude by describing this semiotics. Each of the signs suggests additional signification that remains unfulfilled. Lycidas and the winnowing-shovel are representative. The sêma of Odysseus is perhaps the quintessential example of polysemy in Greek literature (Peradotto 1990: 158), but this aspect of the sign's original text does not carry over into Theocritus. Simichidas' winnowing-shovel is just a winnowing-shovel. This brings us back to Payne's reading of Lycidas. He seems to be more, but in the end Lycidas is just a goatherd. This effect of the description of Lycidas is not a puzzle but an integral part of the system of signification in the poem.

Session/Panel Title

Hellenistic and Neoteric Intertexts

Session/Paper Number

18.3

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