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A Winter’s Paian: Generic Interdependence and Autonomy in Bacchylides 16

Margaret Foster

A Winter’s Paian: Generic Interdependence and Autonomy in Bacchylides 16

This paper uses Bacchylides 16 as a case study for thinking more broadly about hybrid forms of lyric poetry within the evolving generic economy of fifth-century choral song. Bacchylides 16 defies a straightforward taxonomic approach towards genre. Maehler’s paradoxical assertion captures its contradictory nature: “Despite the address to Pythian Apollo and the reference to paeans and choirs of Delphians, this ode is certainly not a paean” (2004: 164). Scholarly thinking focused on occasion is forced to decide upon a specific context for the ode and whether it was performed as a paian or dithyramb (see, e.g., Rutherford 2001: 88-89). But the ode itself seems to resist privileging one of these genres over the other in this way. 

In Part I of the paper, I offer a close reading of the ode that attends to the correlation between its paianic and dithyrambic elements. The ode comprises a single triad: the strophe invokes Pythian Apollo who comes to receive “flowers of paians” (8-9) while the antistrophe and epode’s dithyrambic narrative relates scenes from the myth of Herakles and Deianeira. I argue that Bacchylides 16’s particular hybridity is characterized by simultaneous interdependence and autonomy at all levels of the poem. For instance, the antistrophe and the epode share a number of verbal echoes and responsions that inextricably bind them together. Yet they also present, among other contrasts, a kind of cognitive dissonance, as if focalized through their respective protagonists, Herakles (in the antistrophe) and Deianeira (in the epode). In like manner, the paianic strophe and the dithyrambic antistrophe and epode are at the same time entangled with and inviolable to, even seemingly “unaware” of, each other.

Once this striking dynamic has been established on formal grounds, I turn in Part II to examine the implications of the ode’s hybridity in its fifth-century cultural context. It is well known that the mythic portion of Bacchylides 16 shares its subject matter with Sophocles’ Trachiniae, and scholars for the most part agree that the ode post-dates the tragedy. In addition to the shared story of Herakles and Deianeira, a choral ode within Trachiniae (205-24) mixes paianic and dithyrambic generic markers just as Bacchylides 16 does.

The impulse to coopt and combine the respective lyric genres of Apollo and Dionysos seems to be a phenomenon that occurs in tragedy more generally (see also Aesch. TrGF iii. 341 and Eur. TGF 477). We can connect this kind of generic amalgamation to Attic tragedy’s larger propensity for cooption (of local cults, epichoric heroes and gods, etc.) and understand it as a manifestation of Athenian imperialism taking place on the level of genre (see Lardinois 1992 and Kurke 2013). Because Bacchylides 16 adheres so closely to some of the discrete features of Trachiniae and because it too deploys paianic and dithyrambic forms, the ode at first seems to partake in this Athenian-driven objective (see also Bacchylides 17 with Fearn 2007: 242-56). Yet, I suggest that we view Bacchylides 16 instead as a determined response to Attic tragedy’s brand of generic hybridity. In Part I, we found that, while interconnected, the paianic and dithyrambic elements of the ode appear in some sense as impervious to each other. In other words, in Bacchylides 16, generic hybridity seems to be defined not as an all-encompassing syncretism but rather as a coexistence of autonomous genres.

This careful autonomy of genre is in keeping with the ode’s purported setting, a liminal moment of the year at the end of winter when Apollo is poised to return from the Hyperboreans and replace Dionysos as the presiding god at Delphi. Like Apollo and Dionysos at Delphi, the paian and dithyramb share the space of Bacchylides 16: forever pointing to one another, they nevertheless remain intact and, ultimately, impermeable.

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Inscribing Song: Archaic and Classical Greek Poetry

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