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“O Bearded Hermes, what’s up with your prick?” – Gods, Erection, and Philosophy in Callimachus’ Iambi

Ekatarina But

Ohio State University

In this paper, I examine the humorous representation of gods in the erotic Iambi of the Hellenistic poet Callimachus [Clayman 1980; Acosta-Hughes 2002] as an integral part of poet’s reception of Plato’s teachings about love. I provide close readings of Iambus 3 (fr. 193 Pf.) and Iambus 5 (fr. 195 Pf.), which address incorrect sexual behavior. I also interpret the preserved fragments of Iambus 9 (fr. 199 Pf.) and Iambus 10 (fr. 200a, 200b Pf.), which focus on the aetiology of the local cults of Aphrodite and Artemis and the mystery cult involving Hermes. In my close reading, I identify significant parallels with Plato’s dialogues Symposium, Eythydemus, Phaedrus, and Charmides. I analyze humor in Iambi by using the framework of the psychological theory of “benign violations” [McGrav and Warren 2010], that views humor as a result of a violation of a moral norm or a rule that at the same time seems benign. Despite the restrictions of the poor preservation of some fragments, I employ semantic analysis of punchlines that include or relate to images of gods to demonstrate how humorous effect is achieved with the tools of poetic language and a literary parody.

In the first part of my paper, I focus on the analysis of Iambus 3 and Iambus 9 and explore the relationships between gods (Muses and Hermes) and poetic persona. I demonstrate that Callimachus represents the poetic persona and divinities interchangeably in the role of erastes (the lover) and eromenos (the beloved). In the second part of my paper, I propose an interpretation of Iambus 5 and fragments of Iambus 10 as parodying two Platonic dialogues that discuss the nature of love: Phaedrus and Symposium. I argue that the images of Platonic Aphrodite Ourania and Aphrodite Pandemos do not only occur in the fragments of Iambus 10, but also provide a double optics that Callimachus employs to describe erotic relationships.  In the third part of my paper, I discuss how the theory of benign violations can be applied to detect potential humor in poetry that focuses on moral behavior in a sexual sphere that involves both humans and gods. I demonstrate that jokes concerning erotic desire in Callimachus Iambi fulfill all the conditions that facilitate humor according to this theory.

This close reading allows me to develop several conclusions concerning the role of iambic poetry that was revived in a new cultural context of Hellenistic Alexandria. First, the humor and philosophical parody that I observe in these fragments underline the gods’ physicality and bring together human and divine.  Thus, I argue, humor temporary transports relationships between gods and mortals into the carnivalesque realm [Bakhtin 1984], in which moral norms are temporary loosened and hierarchies impaired. This provides a safe space for a poet to discuss matters of sex and the incorrect behavior related to it.  Although Callimachus retains his interest in local cults and aetiological stories in the Iambi, he uses humor as a tool for communication with an audience and thus designates an occasion for the performance of the Iambi which is quite different from the one of the Hymns and Aetia.  I believe that we need to reconsider Callimachus’ Iambi in a context of the rich tradition of Hellenistic humorous literature – epic parodies, satyr dramas, comedy, mimes, and Cynic diatribe, rather than see it as a product of intellectual exercise available only for few refined readers.

Session/Panel Title

Laughing with the Gods: Religion in Greek and Roman Satire Comedy Epigram and other Comedic Genres

Session/Paper Number


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