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Velut Mater Agnoscens. Hypsipyle's Recognitions in Statius's Thebaid

Diana Librandi


Statius’s Thebaid offers a paradigmatic case study of the negative effects of civil war on recognition. The enmity between Eteocles and Polyneices, in fact, feeds on the fact that in spite of their kinship the two cease to recognize each other as brothers. After all, both were born from a failed recognition, from the womb of a mother who fails to recognize that Oedipus is her own son. This paper argues that against the backdrop of the Theban saga in which failures of recognition are the norm, Hypsipyle stands out as a paradigm of successful recognition and, therefore, as a counterpoint to Jocasta’s shortcomings.

The significance of Hypsipyle’s cluster of recognitions remains largely unexplored in the scholarship (cf. in particular Vessey 1970 and 1973, Nugent 1996, Scaffai 2002, Casali 2003, Heslin 2016). Yet, it is notable that Hypsipyle performs three recognitions in the space of a single book (Thebaid 5). First, she recalls recognizing (5.268: agnoui) her grandfather Dionysus, despite his unusual and mournful appearance, when recounting to the Argives her attempt to smuggle her father out of Lemnos during the Lemnian women's slaughter of male kin; second, she recognizes the dismembered body of the baby killed by the Nemean snake as that of her nursling, Opheltes, a nefarious sight (5.592: agnoscitque nefas); third, she recognizes her long-lost sons, Thoas and Euneus, as she sees their faces, the signs of their swords, and the name of their father, Jason, embroidered in their cloaks (5.725-6: ut uero et uultus et signa Argoa relictis | ensibus atque umeris amborum intextus Iason).

After introducing Hypsipyle’s recognition skills in the first scene (5.265-9), Statius extensively dwells on the character’s maternal recognitions. Hypsipyle, a nurse with maternal feelings (5.608: dulcis imago natorum, 5.617-8: ubera materna), reacts at the sight of Opheltes’ lifeless body as a winged parent whose little birds are devoured by a snake (5.599-601: uelut aligerae sedem fetusque parentis...illa). More importantly, in that she recognizes and collects the baby’s scattered limbs (5.605), Hypsipyle acts like the mourning mothers of the Thebaid (3.126-132) and thus stands in stark contrast with Jocasta’s conspicuous absence (12.331: ubi mater?) from the battlefield where the lifeless body of Polyneices waits to be recognized and buried. Hyspipyle’s mastery over recognition in the third scene (5.715-730), especially in that it ultimately leads to reunification with her children, recalls by contrast Jocasta’s inability to recognize her long-lost son Oedipus in spite of his speaking name. In a way that evokes Oedipus’s search for his biological parents and his fortuitous arrival at Thebes, moreover, Hypsipyle’s sons stop at Nemea by chance on their journey in search of their mother (5.715-30: causa uiae genetrix).

To read Hypsipyle’s recognitions against Jocasta’s mis(sed)recognitions adds nuance to the widely accepted claim that the Nemean digression and, within it, the Hypsipyle episode engage in programmatic ways with the Thebaid as a whole (Vessey 1973, Gibson 2004, Agoustakis 2010). The cluster of recognitions of Thebaid 5 casts Hyspipyle as the paradigm of the mater agnoscens, capable of generating a poetic space that allows for a reflection not only on recognition as a maternal duty, but also on the importance of recognition for averting civil war. The joyful encounter with her two long-lost sons, in fact, results from a type of recognition generally forgotten on the Theban fields, i.e. the mutual recognition between mothers and living sons, which, if performed by Jocasta, could have diverted the Theban fratricidal war from the start.

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Lucan Statius and Silius

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