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Thaumastic Acoustics: Typhon and the poetics of sight and sound

Oliver Passmore

Hesiod’s Theogony is fundamentally concerned with the role of sound as a structuring force in the cosmos, a process in which his own poetic language is deeply implicated. Nowhere does this emerge more clearly than in the description of Zeus’ final adversary, Typhon, a monster whose hundred ophidian heads combine their individual voices to reproduce a variety of noises and sounds (Th. 820-35). Much recent scholarship has explored the significance of the voices of this distinctly poetic figure (e.g. Too 20-29, Telò 27-36 West 386-8, Kaimio 119-24, Blaise 361-3, Ford 190-91, Leclerc 43-45, Collins 244-6). Importantly, Owen Goslin has argued that Typhon poses the threat of sonic akosmia by destablising the hierarchy of sound through which the cosmos is structured, a disruption reflected in the passage’s language: the vocabulary for voice attributed to Typhon presents a deliberate reorganization of the poem’s clearly established taxonomy of voice and speech, which in turn regulates communication between gods and mortals. Hesiod’s poem is thus itself predicated on the very ordering of sound Zeus’ victory over Typhon enables, which finds its articulation in the Muses who communicate to Hesiod the ability to sing his Theogony.

In this paper, I wish to consider one detail of this passage that has been largely overlooked: the use of the parenthetic formula θαύματ’ ἀκοῦσαι, ‘wonders to hear’, in line 834 to describe Typhon’s voices. What may at first appear to be an unremarkable element of this description acquires greater significance by the fact that this combination of a form of τό θαῦμα, ‘a wonder’, with the epexegetic infinitive ἀκοῦσαι is unique in early Greek hexameter poetry. Much more common in Greek epic is the expression θαῦμα ἰδέσθαι, ‘a wonder to behold’ (e.g., Il. 18.83; Od. 7.45; Th. 575, 581; Hymn Aph. 90). The regular association of θαῦμα with a verb of sight reflects the specifically visual semantics of the noun (Prier 91-97). That a θαῦμα is something to be viewed, and is ‘thaumastic’ precisely by virtue of the fact that it is viewed, is emphasised by the other formulaic expression in which the noun regularly occurs: ἦ μέγα θαῦμα τόδ’ ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ὁρῶμαι (e.g. Il.13.99, Od.19.36, Hymn Herm. 219).

I will argue that Hesiod’s employment of the expression θαύματ’ ἀκοῦσαι to describe the voices of Typhon deliberately plays on the standard formula θαῦμα ἰδέσθαι, and in doing so retains the visual semantics of θαῦμα in combination with a verb of hearing. The result is a paradoxical formulation in which Typhon’s voices are, quite literally, ‘(visual) wonders to hear’. I propose to interpret this poetic solecism from a number of perspectives. The transgressive nature of the formula, a deviation from established poetic language, represents a further way in which Typhon represents a threat to poetic communication not simply on the level of narrative but also at a linguistic level. Furthermore, the conflation of the senses encoded in the formula and emphasised by the elision of the plural θαύματα into ἀκοῦσαι (notwithstanding the metrical necessity of the plural form) encapsulates the confused and chaotic conflation of Typhon’s plural, hybrid body and voices. The Theogony thereby suggests a further comparison with the Muses, who not only are able to recuperate the disordered sounds of Typhon into communicatively efficacious poetic speech, but mediate these sounds through the bodily order of choral performance. I will conclude my paper with a brief discussion of Pindar’s Pythian 1.26, where Typhon is described as ‘a wonder even to hear of from those present’ (θαῦμα…καὶ παρεόντων ἀκοῦσαι). In referring to the volcano at Aitna where Typhon is now confined and to those who observe and describe his eruptions, Pindar, I will argue, reworks the formula coined by Hesiod and develops Hesiod’s characterization of Typhon as a foil for chorality. By making Typhon’s sounds only indirectly ‘thaumastic’, Pindar subordinates Typhon’s acoustics to the θαῦμα of the choral performance of the epinician song itself (esp. lines 1-4, 12-14).

Session/Panel Title:

Perception and the Senses

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