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The Act of Truth

Daniel Walden

University of Michigan

The Act of Truth

The “Act of Truth” in Indo-European sacred and magical discourse is the ritual pronunciation of a truth that effects a change in the physical and/or social cosmos. It has been treated on most extensively by Calvert Watkins (1979, 1995), and is most readily visible in Sanskrit, Avestan, and Old Irish poetry. This act in its most ancient form is associated with kings and rulers, and so is dubbed the “Ruler’s Truth” by Watkins. Its presence in Hesiod has already been noted by Watkins and others, and indeed its absence forms a central part of the poetic background of the Works and Days.

            Another topic central to discussion of the Works and Days has been the question of Hesiod’s appropriation of regal or kingly discourse. West (1966, 1978) argues that the poetic investiture with the symbols of kingship in the Theogony points us toward reading his subsequent speech as regal or kingly, and Martin (1984) notes that the poetic investiture parallels the investiture of an Irish king, suggesting at the very least that the poets speech has acquired regal qualities and functions.

            These are sensible readings, but this paper will contend the reverse: that the Works and Days distinguishes rigorously between the Ruler’s Truth and what can be called the Poet’s Truth, and furthermore, that the poet is conscious of this distinction and of the inadequacy of the Poet’s Truth for filling the social and ritual gap left by the abuses of the δωροφάγοι βασιλῆες. Consideration of the evidence in the Hesiodic corpus alongside other Indo-European evidence of the Act of Truth and Ruler’s Truth allows us to make a primary distinction between Ruler’s and Poet’s Truth on the basis of performative and referential functionality: the value of the Ruler’s Truth lies in its being enacted within its appropriate social/ritual context, whereas the Poet’s Truth conveys traditional lore and is valuable for its content. Both can have the effect of calming discord and restoring healthy social relationships, but in the case of the Ruler’s Truth this is intrinsic to its performance, whereas it is a secondary by-product of the content of the Poet’s Truth.

            The paper first establishes δίκη as tied to regal speech-acts based on parallel Homeric and Hesiodic evidence, and then establishes the semantic complex that indicates discourse about the Ruler’s Truth, comparing passages exhibiting this semantic complex with similar examples from the Audacht Morainn and the Ṛgveda in order to definitively establish the Act of Truth, including the Ruler’s Truth, as a primarily performative rather than referential speech-act. The paper then surveys the social function of the poet, particularly as compared with that of the indolent kings, throughout the Works and Days, concluding that the Poet’s Truth is at all times referential, depending for its value and power on its content and subject matter, and that a great deal of the poem is taken up by the poet’s enumeration of the inadequacy of his own speech-acts for rectifying the social problems created by corrupt kings.

            This reveals the Hesiodic corpus as even more valuable to the study of Indo-European poetics than originally supposed, for it shows us a poet with a deeply sophisticated self-awareness about his own social position and the typologies of poetic and ritual discourse that he inherits. The diachronic dispersal of performative poetic utterance from kings and poets in archaic periods down through all levels of society is charted admirably in the last segments of Watkins 1995, and the Works and Days offers us a rare “insider’s view” of this process and, it seems, a protest against it.


Session/Panel Title

Greek and Latin Linguistics

Session/Paper Number

8.3

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