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Riddling recipes: the elegiac instructions of Philo (SH 690) and Aglaias (SH 18)

In this paper I will provide a new, literary context for two enigmatic recipe poems. These two little-known medical recipes, both in elegiac Greek verse and both from the first century CE, have been transmitted under the names of Philo of Tarsus and Aglaias of Byzantium (cf. De Stefani 2007). These brief poems (SH 18 and 690 in Lloyd-Jones & Parsons’ Supplementum Hellenisticum) appear to be closely related, as one imitates the other. Their pharmacological character is ostensibly sincere. One gives, in 28 lines, the recipe of an eye-salve for the treatment of cataracts. The other one is a sort of panacea for colic in 26 lines.

Their practicality is, however, marred by the repeated use of Homeric and mythological riddles, encrypting the ingredients and their dosages. Ingredients are presented as e.g. ‘the pseudonymous father who gave his daughter in marriage to the son of a female slave’ (ἡμίσταθμον ὅτου πατρὸς ψευδωνύμου ἔστω, ὃς γῆμαι δμωῆς υἱέϊ δῶκε κόρην, SH 18.15-6), or ‘twenty drachms of white flame, and twenty of the bean of the Arcadian beast’ (ὁλκὰς δ' ἀργεννοῖο πυρώδεος εἴκοσι βάλλε, εἴκοσι καὶ κυάμου θηρὸς ἀπ' Ἀρκαδίης, SH 690.19-20). To ‘pour the stream of the daughters of bulls akin to the Daughters of Cecrops’ (νᾶμα δὲ θυγατέρων ταύρων χέε Κεκροπίδαισι συγγενές, SH 690.25-6) is an elaborate way indeed of the instruction to add honey. Fortunately most of the solutions have been transmitted, together with the poems, by Galen and the scholia. These riddles mark the unique character of these very rare examples of post-Hellenistic Greek elegy (West 1982, 181-2).

It would be easy to dismiss these texts as mere jokes, were it not for the fact that their recipes appear to be basically correct (cf. Youtie 1976). In this paper I will argue that these poems are not merely facetious, but that they are rooted in several literary traditions. Their instructional nature puts them in the tradition of Greek didactic poetry, whereas the contents in particular are close to Nicander’s Theriaca and Alexipharmaca, a tradition also reflected in e.g. Eudemus’ recipe for a theriacum (SH 412A). Their riddling nature, however, is also close to learned sympotic play in the epigrammatic tradition, whereas their length and metre are not far from literary and playful Hellenistic catalogue poetry, such as that of Hermesianax (fr. 7 Powell = fr. 3 Lightfoot). The combination of valuable knowledge, playful presentation, self-confident instruction, dactylic verse, and awareness of genre, so typical of the Alexandrian tradition, thus show that Philo’s and Aglaias’ lines are the products of a varied literary tradition, rather than isolated experiments.

Moreover, they show signs of the kind of learning concerned with Homeric detail that became popular in the Second Sophistic (cf. Kim 2010; Jacob 2013). As display pieces of paideia they show how elegant presentation is vital even for pharmacological knowledge. Moreover, their literary character enhances their makers’ medical credibility as men of wide learning. This paper therefore focuses on the contents, their interpretation and the context of these two riddle poems. It aims to show that they were written as learned showpieces for an external (sympotic) audience, rather than for an audience of medical experts alone, as the poems themselves claim. As such, they may even provide the missing link for Ovid’s tongue-in-cheek medical elegiac didactics in his Medicamina faciei feminae.