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Much Food in Fallow Ground? Nemean 7 and the Enigmatic Tradition

Kyle Sanders

University of Texas at Austin

This paper analyzes three types of enigmatic speech in Pindar’s seventh Nemean: etymologizing, number play, and kenning. I describe these figures as “enigmatic” because, first, each asserts a unity of opposing qualities, a hallmark of archaic enigmatic speech (Kahn 1979), and second, because these types of figures appear frequently in collections of enigmatic material (e.g., the Greek Anthology, q.v., Berra 2008).

The idea that Pindar’s poetry is difficult or deliberately conceals meaning is certainly not a new one (Hamilton 2003). But I argue that in the eyes of his own riddle-loving milieu, Pindar’s mastery of enigmatic forms would not have marked his poetry as alienating or incomprehensible. Encountering enigmatic speech in the late archaic period meant reading colonization oracles (Dougherty 1992), participating in the playful games of the symposium (Bowie 2013), and engaging with received poetic authority (Nagy 1990). Overall, enigmatic speech brought people together in common social endeavors more than it divided them. In this way, the paper expands Nagy’s understanding of Pindar as ainigmatōdēs from merely speaking darkly to echthroi to include his speaking playfully to philoi.

Though etymologizing has always been noticed in Pindar, its significance has remained largely undiscussed (Barkhuizen 1975). I begin with the prooimion to Nemean 7, which describes life as the unity of “seeing light and darkness” (3). The phrase etymologizes the name of the victor’s father, Thearion, in connection with both the verb theaomai and less certainly, the office of thearos at Aegina, as discussed by Currie (2005). The significance of this play is objective and subjective. Objectively, it valorizes the erotic gaze of the symposium upon “glorious-limbed youth” (4). Subjectively, it develops vision as a faculty by which signs (e.g., sama 20) must be interpreted, an idea which finds precedence throughout the Pindaric corpus (e.g., O. 8.41). Moreover, within Nemean 7, vision serves to distinguish Pindaric poetics from the “blindness of heart” (23-24) suffered by readers of Homer.

Like etymologizing, number play was associated in the Greek mind with riddling forms from very early on (West 2007). At N. 7.48, Pindar states that “three words will be enough for well-named justice,” a remark which has attracted varied interpretations over the centuries, most of which presume “three” to mean only “a few” (Teffeteller 2005). Drawing on comparative evidence from the Pythagorean tradition and Heraclitus, I show that justice (dikē) was considered a secret name of the number three (tria), insofar as it was understood as a unity of two opposing injustices. I then discuss how “two wrongs make a right” can be usefully applied to an interpretation of the myth of Neoptolemus.

Commentators are still uncertain as to what the kenning “tender bloom of marine dew” (79) refers. Following a scholiast, the preferred choice has always been coral, a prestige object of some value in the ancient world (Carey 1981). However, Egan (2004) has argued on linguistic grounds for the weed­-like herb rosemary, which would certainly be opposite in value to the crown’s ivory and gold. My discussion of the passage emphasizes that in either case, the passage plays off Homeric precedent by one-upping the traditional wordplay on “ivory” by means of paronomasia and careful sound-weaving.

The paper concludes with a novel reading of the poem’s controversial ending (102-105), which, I submit, plays on the name Neoptolemus by echoing the Homeric phrase neios tripolos  (“thrice-plowed fallow field”). Thus once again, an enigmatic feature in Nemean 7 plays with the language of literary tradition. Whereas previous commentators have understood these lines either as a rejection of wrongdoing to the Aeginetans (Slater 2001) or as the culmination of an apology (Lloyd-Jones 1973), my etymological reading instead stresses poetic self-fashioning. Though my conclusions are not mutually exclusive with either of the historicizing hypotheses, the purpose of this reading is to ask qualitatively different questions, and to show Pindar at work within a cultural discourse which enjoyed broad popular appeal.

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