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Apollonius, Orpheus, and the Sirens: beyond poetical aemulatio

In Argonautica IV, 891-921 Apollonius constructs a poetic contest between Orpheus and the sirens, in which Orpheus defeats them by means of his song. Given that scholars have long identified Orpheus with Apollonius (Fränkel: 227-8; Fusillo: 59; Bush: 323-4; Hunter: 149-51) just as, within the Odyssey, the sirens with Homer (Pucci: 209-13), it would be tempting to read Argonautica IV, 891-921 as Apollonius’ celebration of his own poetical triumph over Homer. Thus the episode is often interpreted (Kyriakou: 190-210). I argue, instead, that the passage does not allow for such a binary opposition of the contestants, and I discard the common identification of Orpheus with Apollonius.

In defining the identity of the contestants, Orpheus and the sirens, Apollonius emphasizes their closeness rather than their opposition. First of all, among the different genealogies available to him, Apollonius choses to make the sirens daughters of the Muse Terpsichore. Thus, Orpheus becomes the first cousin of the sirens—he is the son of Calliope, sister of Terpsichore. Secondly, the sirens are traditionally known for the bewitching property of their songs and for their manipulation of natural elements (cf. Hesiod Fragmenta 28 Merkelbach-West). Apollonius explicitly gestures to such a notion by using the verb θέλγω “to enchant” in IV, 894, applied twice by Homer to the sirens (Od. XII, 40; 44). In this respect, the sirens are very similar to the Apollonian Orpheus as depicted in Argonautica I, 26-31 where his songs “enchant” rivers, boulders, and oak-trees.Moreover, the realm of death functions to further liken the two contestants to one another. Orpheus, with his connections to mystery cults, mirrors the sirens’ associations with the Underworld, associations which are alluded to by Apollonius with the abduction of Persephone in Argonautica IV, 896-8. Furthermore, the deadly capabilities of the sirens’ songs find their parallel too in the violent undertones of Orpheus’ deeds. When Orpheus strings his lyre, Apollonius activates a famous Homeric memory: by using the verb τανύσσω, an allusion to the lyre-bow simile in Od. XXI, 404-9, he casts Orpheus’ performance “as a martial showdown” (Kyriakou: 199), comparing him to Odysseus killing the suitors. Rather than outlining the differences between Orpheus and the sirens, Apollonius transfers both contestants into a realm in which poetry becomes a deadly form of magic.

Orpheus’ victory over the sirens is more problematic than scholars typically admit. Accompanied by his lyre, Orpheus produces a sound so loud that it overpowers the voices of the sirens. Orpheus, thus, is depicted more as a noise-maker than a singer. His “performance” is nothing more than an adaptation of Odysseus’ wax ear plugs in the Odyssey and the key to his success does not seem to reside in his poetical skills. Apollonius is aware of the dangers of depicting the most famous singer in his epic, and goes to great lengths to prevent his being misunderstood as an epic poet.

Interpreting Orpheus’ performance in Apollonius IV 891-921 as a manifesto of the new Hellenistic epic rivalling the traditional one remains too simplistic of a reading. Apollonius could have bestowed upon his hero a poetical voice, as the author of the later Argonautica Orphica will do; instead he devalues the artfulness of Orpheus’ song by neglecting to reveal its content. Both the sirens and Orpheus are silenced, a choice that implies a distancing of the author from both contestants. It is, likely, in this distancing of himself from the traditional material of his poetry that we shall find the heart of Apollonius’ poetic.