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Organizing Snakes: Nicander’s Literary and Biological Catalog

Kathryn Dorothy Wilson

Washington University in St. Louis

There has recently been a surge in interest in how information was organized and classified in the ancient world, and how the philosophies of organization reflected the way authors felt about their material (König and Whitmarsh 2007; Carey 2003; Murphy 2004).  Most of the current scholarship focuses on Roman and Imperial Greeks sources, because many of the relevant Hellenistic texts have been lost.  One type of evidence from this time period does survive, however: an abundance of catalogs in the poetry.  Among these works, the poetry of Nicander stands out.   All of his surviving poetry (both complete and fragmentary) is catalogic in form, and displays a lively interest in the various ways one can arrange a list of information.  In this paper, I discuss the different ordering principles of Nicander’s poetry and how they inform his interests. I argue that the catalog of snakes in the Theriaca is the culmination of his experimentation with the form, and that the organization of it allows him to think about both biological taxonomy and the literary history of the catalog in epic poetry. 

In the first section of the paper, I explore the multiple ordering strategies of the various lists in the Theriaca and the Alexipharmaca.  The Theriaca is often criticized for the arrangement of his work on the grounds that it inhibits any practical use of the work (e.g., Gow and Scholfield 1953:18).  However, I show that this is an unfair accusation because there are so many different organizing strategies in the poem.  The botanical remedy catalogs, for example, are organized with a view towards their use for making recipes, for example.  The Alexipharmaca adopts the more straightforward arrangement most scholars would prefer for the Theriaca, beginning with a description of the poisonous plant, its symptoms, and then how to cure it.   This shows that the poet is aware of many different ways to arrange information, and enjoys experimenting with them.  Moreover, it shows that when he deviates from a practical arrangement of the material, such as in the catalog of snakes, there is probably a good reason.

I then turn to catalog of snakes in the Theriaca, arguably his crowning achievementI argue that the ordering strategies of earlier major Hellenistic poets, especially Aratus, Callimachus, and Apollonius of Rhodes, are incorporated and then adapted to Nicander’s particular interests.  Aratus’ catalog used the relative location of the previous constellation to provide a link between individual entries in the list and make a cohesive whole.  This is relatively easy for information that is arranged spatially, like the stars.  Nicander also threads his list together, but cannot use the same ordering principle because of his subject matter.  Instead, he uses a series of extended similes, comparing each snake to the one that came before it in the catalog, making each entry in the list a ‘sign’ for the next entry.  In addition to this, the snake catalog adopts a larger superstructure that is marked by specific mythological stories.  This is a strategy Nicander adopts from the catalog of heroes in the Argonautica, in which the order of the Argonauts reflects certain events in the narrative of the poem (Clauss 1993).  Apollonius and Nicander are also probably both influenced by contemporary scholarship on the catalog of ships in the Iliad, on issues such as what should be the first entry in the list. 

The literary pedigree of Nicander’s snake catalog does not inhibit its biological value, however.   Nicander shows an awareness of earlier biological taxonomy, separating terrestrial, avian, and nautical animals. However, the comparisons he makes allow him to construct a far more elaborate taxonomy for snake species, linking snakes by specific biological characteristics, such as the shape of their head and the way they move.  The passage therefore reflects Nicander’s interests in the literary tradition, biology, and the role of the catalog in both.

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Hellenistic Poetry

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