112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Greek Poetry between Myth, Fiction, and Drama: Bacchylides 18

Kevin Batton, Independent Scholar

In this paper, I propose a reading of the earliest surviving non-tragic dramatic poem in Greek in order to understand the function and aesthetic effect of visual detail in the narration of myth. I conclude that it is out of the self-authorizing autonomy of the fictive world enabled by the dramatic form that the heroic tradition can be reinvigorated by the lyrical subjective perspective.

Proposal: 

What color was Theseus’ hair? The matter was never the subject of dispute or controversy in antiquity, giving the question the ring of utter irrelevance along the lines of “how many children had Lady Macbeth?” Yet in poem 18, Bacchylides quite specifically and surprisingly describes Theseus as red-haired (pursokhaitou). In this paper, I propose a reading of the earliest surviving non-tragic dramatic poem in Greek in order to understand the function and aesthetic effect of visual detail in the narration of myth.

Bacchylides 18 is an apparently complete, ostensibly dithyrambic poem recovered from the papyrus roll found in Egypt in the late eighteenth century. It is composed of two pairs of strophes, alternating dialogue between a chorus of Athenian citizens and an actor portraying the king Aegeus. In this single non-tragic lyrical dialogue, we have an ecphrastic visual description of the hero Theseus, delivered by means of a (second-hand) messenger speech. Consensus dates this poem, performed almost certainly for an Athenian audience at one of the annual festivals, to the mid-to-late 470s BCE. The poem is therefore quite useless as any evidence for the history of tragedy or its development out of dithyramb. Aeschylus’ Persians had already been performed as far as Sicily by 470 BCE, making most likely the scenario in which Aeschylus and Attic tragedy had influenced (or contaminated) the form of Bacchylides’ dithyramb, rather than his poem being a sort of proto-tragedy.

I read this Bacchylides poem as an experiment, a laboratory where even without all the stage-elements of tragedy proper—a full plot, costumes, and other indicators of realism or naturalism—singers and the stage can be subordinated to the purely fictive vivid experience of the poem’s phantasia through the graphic quality of the language itself. Why does Theseus have red hair? Such a detail is not completely arbitrary, but not present solely to effect the illusion of realism. It is motivated by the intention of producing a particular image of Theseus, one not making claim to the traditional authority of mythic narrative but rather referring only to this particular fictional Theseus. It is out of the self-authorizing autonomy of the fictive world enabled by the dramatic form that the heroic tradition can be reinvigorated by the lyrical subjective perspective.

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