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The Vocabulary of Fate in Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica

Paul Ojennus

Whitworth University

Apollonius refines the poetic lexicon for the concept of “fate” in the Argonautica, consistent with his treatment of Homeric vocabulary generally but also engaging contemporary philosophical discussions. Whether fate is compatible with personal responsibility, is independent of the gods, or can be avoided, were evergreen questions and early epic and tragic responses are well explored, but the Hellenistic poets’ engagement is less well understood. Yet fate pervades the Argonautica: Idmon proclaims his heroic decision, joining the expedition despite knowing his fate, and Phineus’ prophecies suggest the Argo’s route is predestined. I argue that Apollonius updates the Homeric vocabulary of fate, regularizing the usage of individual terms and updating the concept to engage in contemporary philosophical approaches.

Scholars have noted that the Argonautica reflects a fatalistic worldview similar to Stoicism (Pietsch 1999), but attempts to relate the epic to specific doctrines have focused on character and ethics, not metaphysics (Clayman 2000, Klein 1983, Williams 1996). Recently Ojennus (2018) has argued that Apollonius shapes episodes such as Idmon’s decision and Phineus’ instructions to engage contemporary debates about the role of fate in personal responsibility and the intervention of the gods. This study extends that argument, showing that Apollonius’ engagement includes updating his poetic lexicon for fate. The approach follows Mawet (1981) and Serafimidis (2016) who compare Apollonius’ usage of words in prescribed semantic fields with Homeric models to show how the Hellenistic poet refines usage of individual terms or introduces variatio by using traditional words in new contexts or juncturae.

This study focuses on three developments in Apollonius’ usage of the vocabulary of fate. First, among near synonyms for fate, such as μοῖρα and αἶσα, the Hellenistic poet narrows the range of uses, avoiding formulaic language that employs fate as a euphemism for death; therefore, references to fate more typically occur in contexts of prophecies or their fulfillment, or broader courses of life, substantiating the fatalistic sense of the narrative that scholars have observed. Apollonius also rejects the Homeric personifications Μοῖρα and Αἶσα. These refinements correlate with the philosophical discourse around fate in the third century, that fate is pervasive, not merely the time of death, is guaranteed by the truth of divination, and is a web of causes, not a personal goddess (Bobzien 1998). Second, Apollonius restricts the use of ἀνάγκη to “compulsion by force or threat of force” only, dismissing poetic and philosophical developments of the sense “universal necessity, fate” (Schreckenberg 1964). Again, this refinement fits Apollonius’ philological practice and coincides with a contemporary philosophical debate over the compatibility of fate as necessity and moral responsibility (Bobzien 1998). Finally, Apollonius develops the Homeric use of κήρ, whose use is similar to μοῖρα, but κήρ appearing also when a warrior escapes his doom (Hainsworth 1993). Furthermore, the Hellenistic poet regularly personifies the Κῆρες. Thus, κήρ is separated from μοῖρα, so that κήρ can be used for personification and escapable doom, while preserving an updated view of μοῖρα that is impersonal and ineluctable, similar to that envisioned by the Stoics.

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Homer and Hellenistic Literature

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