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The Ithyphallic Hymn for Demetrius Poliorcetes: Panegyric, Resistance and Attic Tradition

Thomas J. Nelson

Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge

In this paper, I offer a detailed literary and cultural study of the Ithyphallic Hymn for Demetrius Poliorcetes (pp.173-5 Powell), a lyric poem attributed to Hermocles of Cyzicus. I argue that this poem offers rare insight into competing appropriations of local literary heritage in the Hellenistic age.

In the past, this 34-verse poem has been studied primarily as a privileged historical document of Hellenistic ruler cult and ancient Greek theology (e.g. Ehrenberg 1931; Chaniotis 2011; Versnel 2011). What little attention it has received from literary scholars has been universally damning: according to one critic, the poem exhibits “shoddy composition”, “poor thought” and “flabby syntax” – hardly a ringing endorsement (Kerkhecker 1999, 148).

 In this paper, by contrast, I abandon such subjective value judgements and study this text on its own terms, exploring how it engages not only with the broader cultural discourses of its time, but also with conflicting interpretations of the literary past. In particular, I highlight how the hymn taps into the local Athenian poetic tradition, alluding to famous scenes of the tragic stage.

First, I show how the hymn fashions Demetrius on the model of the tragic Dionysus, building on the king’s own Bacchic role-playing (cf. Thonemann 2005). The emphasis on his beauty and laughter (vv.7-8) echoes the smiling, alluring god of Euripides’ Bacchae (Bacch.380, 439, 453-4, 1021), while the astral imagery of vv.11-12 evokes the wider tragic and Eleusinian presentation of Dionysus as the ‘chorus leader of the stars’ (e.g. Ant.1146-7, cf. Csapo 2008, 267-72). The hymn casts Demetrius as a distinctively tragic – and Attic – god. In so doing, it renders him more comprehensible to a local Athenian audience.

I then turn to the mythical analogy of Oedipus and the Sphinx in the hymn’s final section (vv.23-34) and argue that the hymn echoes Sophocles’ Oedipean tragedies to establish Demetrius as a benign protector of the Attic state. In particular, the hymn echoes the opening of Oedipus Tyrannus, especially OT 31-53, a passage which flirts with the prospect of Oedipus’ potential divinity. Oedipus thus becomes not only an exemplary city-saviour, but also a paradigm for the divinized ruler Demetrius. For an Athenian audience struggling to come to terms with Demetrius’ divinity, this allusion grounds it within familiar local idioms.

Finally, I consider how these local literary echoes map onto the broader contestation of Athens’ tragic heritage in the early Hellenistic period (cf. Hanink 2014). Plutarch reports a subversive reworking of Demetrius’ Oedipus analogy: a soldier mockingly adapted the opening verses of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus to align the king with the old, blind and desolate Oedipus (Dem.46.5). This anecdote hints at the instability of the Oedipean model, fitting into a wider contemporary appropriation of tragic paradigms to ironize Demetrius’ rule (cf. Kurke 2002, 35-8). In our hymn, too, the incestuous Oedipus is a problematic model for the newly wed Demetrius. I thus close by proposing that the hymn can be read not just as pure panegyric, but also as a coded message of resistance.

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Greek History

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