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Hesiod's Typhon and the Many-Mouth Topos

Treasa M Bell

Yale University

In this paper I argue that to Roman authors there was an understood connection between the many-mouth topos and Typhon in Hesiod’s Theogony. In particular, the description of Typhon as hundred-headed influenced the evolution of the motif’s original ten mouths to its eventual hundred.

Scholars read this topos as a touchstone for understanding the methodology of metapoetry in Roman texts (Hinds: 1998; Gowers: 2005). Due to its various reformulations, it presents a venue for poets to measure themselves against literary predecessors. Discussions of the topos from this perspective have been fruitful, but its central image, with its inherent hybridity, deserves equal comment. What are the implications of connecting poetic speech, hybridity and monstrosity? How does the topos shape our understanding of the limitations and possibilities of poetic speech?

This paper is divided into two parts. In the first, I examine the associations between Hesiod’s description of Typhon (Theog.824-35) and the first occurrence of the topos in Iliad 2 (484-92). While other scholars (Goslin: 2010; Too: 1998) have argued that Typhon speaks in a manner resembling the Theogony’s Muses, connections with the Iliadic Muses have not been drawn. In each passage the poets present these beings as capable of prodigious, fantastic song. Indeed, the connection between Typhon’s voice and the Muses’, and in particular the description of his voice as ὄσσα, suggests that, though his sounds may be frightening, they are not unmusical.

Rather, each of these passages examines the positive and negative potential of the poetic voice. Homer constructs his relationship with the Muses by presenting himself as subservient and inferior to them; the Theogony’s opening employs similar tactics, portraying the Muses as Hesiod’s teachers and, ultimately, superiors. In the Iliad Homer expresses his inability to compete with the Muses not just as Homer but also as a ten-mouthed, bronze-hearted ‘Homer-Monster’. The image is negative; yet eschewing ten mouths is also a gesture of appeasement: the Muses collectively have nine mouths; to wish for ten would be to try to surpass them. The topos reaffirms hierarchies. In contrast, Hesiod depicts Typhon challenging his superior, Zeus. As in Homer, though to different effect, many mouths are presented as challenging literary and cosmic hierarchies.

The second portion of my paper considers the effects of reading Typhon in this topos. Given the gigantomachic context of the Hesiodic passage and bringing in Hardie’s (1986) scholarship, I propose that for Roman authors the topos, by equating the many-voiced poet with the monstrous, suggests the poet’s voice has the potential to disturb established hierarchies. To this end I consider Homer’s own depiction of Typhon at the conclusion of the Catalogue of Ships (ll.780-5). On the one hand, the many-mouth topos and Typhon are brought into conversation by virtue of their bookending the list of Greek heroes who came to Troy. On the other, the Homeric simile - which equates the Greeks with Zeus and the Trojans with Typhon - affirms a hierarchy of superiors over inferiors. These associations with the topos, gigantomachy, and cosmic order indicate that the topos is concerned not simply with the position of poets in a canon but with the place of the poetic voice in relation to political order. Its deployment in Iliad 2 has a clear message: gods are better than men; the poet does not challenge the inherent superiority of the Muses. Even if he could challenge it with many voices, he would still fail, as Typhon is incapable of challenging Olympian order.

Via this web of connections, the use of this motif has implications for our understanding of how Roman poets constructed the relationship between their poetic voice, voices of dissent, and voices of power. Indeed, the motif enables the poet to distance himself from ‘bad poetry’. Though the topos has proved a prosperous source for thinking about how poets could speak, it is equally profitable for thinking about the ways in which they construct their silences.

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Latin Poetry

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