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Prenatal Power in Callimachus’ Hymn to Delos and the Mendes Stela

Leanna Boychenko

In this paper, I argue that Callimachus’ depiction of Apollo in the Hymn to Delos fits into a larger Ptolemaic rhetorical program designed to legitimize the rule of the Ptolemies in Egypt. Depicting Apollo already active in the womb mirrors traditional Egyptian imagery praising and reinforcing the authority of Egyptian pharaohs, who are described as ruling before their birth. This imagery is widely attested throughout Egyptian history, but we have a contemporary example on the Mendes Stela (CG 22181= Urk. II:28–54), which celebrates Ptolemy II, the very ruler praised in Callimachus’ hymn. On the Hieroglyphic stela, Ptolemy is praised for possessing the kingship of Egypt even in his mother’s womb.

Scholars have acknowledged that Apollo’s prenatal action in the Hymn to Delos is influenced by Egyptian tradition (Bing 2008:133; Stephens 2003:116,120), but the parallel imagery in the Mendes Stela has been passed over. I argue that this imagery, appearing both on a commemorative monument in Egyptian and also in Greek-language court poetry, is employed to validate and enhance the public image of the Ptolemies. The Mendes Stela grounds Ptolemaic rule in traditional Egyptian imagery, while the Hymn to Delos embeds that imagery in the fundamentally Greek story of the birth of Apollo, which would be familiar from the Homeric Hymn to Apollo as well as Pindar’s stories of Apollo’s birth (both of which are clear sources for Callimachus’ hymn). This fusion of culture-specific concepts demonstrates the compatibility of Greek and Egyptian ideas, and more importantly, the compatibility of Ptolemaic rule and the multicultural society of Hellenistic Egypt.   

Legitimate rule in Egypt was frequently supported by the prenatal power of the pharaoh, stemming from the myth of the conception and birth of Horus, who was already a “god in the egg” (Coffin Text Spell 148). This imagery may stretch back as far as the First Intermediary Period (c.2150-2025 bce), the setting of the Teaching for King Merikare, which is a didactic text that speaks of the gods creating prenatally powerful pharaohs (Simpson 2003:152). Other examples appear on the Kuban Stela honoring Ramses II (c.1303-1213 bce), on a building inscription of Sesostris I (r.1971-1926 bce) preserved on the Berlin leather roll (P. Berlin 3029), and most strikingly, at the mortuary temple of the woman-king Hatshepsut (r.1473-1458 bce), who strengthened her precarious power through careful self-representation in a vast building and statuary program. Hatshepsut’s quest for legitimacy makes her a fitting model for Ptolemy II, who was also solidifying his claim to the throne.

Callimachus’ Hymn to Delos tells of Leto’s wanderings as she searches for a place to give birth to Apollo. During their journey, Apollo prophesies twice from within his mother’s womb. His second prophecy predicts the birth of Ptolemy II on Kos, a Delos-like island appropriate for the birth of an Apollo-like king. Although it is Apollo who is active before his birth, the kinship between god and ruler is continuously emphasized in the hymn and is further solidified by the poem’s intertextual relationship with Theocritus’ Encomium of Ptolemy. Apollo was considered the Greek version of the god Horus, with whom Egyptian pharaohs were closely associated (exemplified, for instance, by pharaonic emulation of Horus’ prenatal rule), which further links Ptolemy to Apollo—within the hymn and in a broader cultural context.

By inserting the Egyptian image of prenatal activity in a story as intrinsically Greek as the birth of Apollo, Callimachus harmonizes deep-seated cultural conceits, allowing him to claim the hymn’s material and the king himself as truly Greek, but simultaneously to display Ptolemy’s legitimacy as ruler of Egypt. Although the Mendes Stela is the only extant example of prenatal praise for Ptolemy II, I argue that the tradition of Egyptian pharaonic praise viewed alongside Apollo’s depiction in the Hymn to Delos makes it likely that this imagery was employed more widely in Hellenistic Egypt to prove the legitimacy of Ptolemy II’s rule.

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Hellenistic and Neoteric Intertexts

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