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Eternal Motionlessness in the Hesiodic Aspis and Early Greek Philosophy

Stephen Sansom

Stanford University

In its extensive description of Heracles' shield, the Hesiodic Aspis shows a remarkable preoccupation with motion and time. Near the end of the ekphrasis, the poem portrays a chariot race in which the charioteers have an 'eternal labor' (aidion...ponon 310) and 'unawarded prize' (akriton...aethlon 311), and the 'victory is never achieved' (oude pote...nikê epênusthê 310-11). Previous scholars have noted several significant features of the passage, including its use of tense (Russo 1950), depiction of suspended animation (Bing 2012) and most recently its un-Homeric diction (Chiarini 2012, Bing 2012). What has gone unrecognized, however, is that the non-traditional language of the passage shares numerous dictional and thematic affinities with descriptions of time and motion in early Greek philosophy. Although rare in epic, early philosophers such as Anaximander, Heraclitus, Xenophanes and Parmenides often discuss time and motion in similar terms (e.g. aidios 'eternal'), themes (e.g. a chariot race) and, occasionally, in the same hexametric rhythm. In this paper, I argue that the ekphrasis of Heracles' shield engages with concepts of time and motion, particularly motionlessness, in a similar manner as the Presocratics. I first demonstrate the ekphrasis' extensive portrayal of motionlessness in the chariot race scene and elsewhere. I then show the affinity of these depictions with certain Presocratic thought that correlates eternity with motionlessness. I conclude by relating this theme of eternal motionlessness to the goals of the Aspis and Hesiodic corpus more generally, namely, to establish the unchanging order of Zeus throughout the cosmos.

Beyond the motionlessness and unachieved victory of the charioteers, the ekphrasis of Heracles' shield focuses on the absence of motion in two other instances. Earlier in the description, Perseus hovers stationary above the shield 'like a thought' (Aspis 222), a simile that in Homer and the Homeric Hymns always accompanies movement from one place to another (Il. 15.78-83; Od. 7.34-36; HHApollo 186-87, 448; HHHermes 43-46). Likewise, immediately prior to the chariot race, a hunting scene presents dogs chasing hares (302-4) and utilizes formulaic language that elsewhere emphasizes relentlessly unachieved motion, as in Il. 22.199-202 when Achilles chases Hector as if in a dream. These instances culminate in the chariot race (305-13) and the narratorial comment on their eternal motionlessness that utilizes untraditional diction (e.g. aidios) akin to early Greek philosophy.

Comparison with early philosophy shows that philosophical discourse concerning eternity (aidios) and motion falls into two camps. Anaximander, Anaximenes, and Heraclitus strongly associate what is 'everlasting' (aidios) with motion (kinêsis). Just as forcefully, however, do Xenophanes and the Eleatic school (e.g. Parmenides, Zeno and Melissus) assert—at times in hexameter—that what is eternal is by definition motionless (akinêtos) or separate from motion altogether. The Aspis participates in this discourse through its unique language and narration of eternally motionless scenes on Heracles' shield. Although the ekphrastic context naturally manifests tensions between these two schools of thought, I suggest that the poem emphasizes the constancy and perpetuity of motionlessness on the shield in order to reinforce the unwavering authority of Zeus, who is the initial audience of Hephaestus' handiwork (Aspis 318). Although its own authenticity is continually in question, as a part of the Hesiodic corpus the Aspis utilizes the ekphrastic description of Heracles' shield to stress Zeus' ordering of the cosmos begun in the Theogony (Clay 2003) and enactment of his order on earth (Horn 2016). Through this comparison of the Aspis with early philosophy, we better understand not only the Hesiodic poem but also how archaic Greek epic incorporates discourses from other genres and utilizes them for its own poetic purposes.

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Didactic Poetry

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