115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Materiality and the Agency of Things in the Poetry of Hipponax

Ippokratis Kantzios, University of South Florida

This paper discusses Hipponax’s (Greek poet, 6th century BCE) depiction of inanimate objects as having an agency of their own that alters or supersedes the characters' intentions. Nature and environment seem to have the upper hand at the expense of human volition in a way reminiscent of 19th-century literary Naturalism.


One of the salient elements in the fragmented corpus of the Greek poet Hipponax (6th century BCE) is his unprecedented attentiveness to the material aspects of his landscapes. In fact, even the operative ethics of his characters are influenced by inanimate objects, as these are depicted as having an agency of their own that alters or supersedes human intentions. In fr. 28 W, for instance, a snake, painted awkwardly on the side of a ship, while intended to be an apotropaic sign, functions ironically as a bad omen and a real danger to the captain, instigating an abusive discourse against the unlucky painter. Elsewhere inadequate cloaks, dirty dwellings, dilapidated domestic items, and even wished for, absent objects have the power to generate human action. In fr. 32 W, the various expensive pieces of clothing and the “sixty staters of gold” located in the interior of an apparently affluent house exert sufficient attraction or “seductive control” (to use Dreiser’s expression for his own material landscapes) to tempt the speaker to try to steal them. In Hipponax’s determinist world, even the particular members of the human body are objectified, operating independently from the will of their possessor: empty stomachs “gurgle like pots of soup” crying for food; dislodged teeth (from blows) demand the settling of scores; detumescent penises create embarrassment. Nature and environment seem to have the upper hand at the expense of human volition. By limiting his characters’ functions to fulfilling basic biological necessities (satisfying hunger, staying warm, copulating), Hipponax aligns human existence with that of the animal world, while also integrating it into its inanimate surroundings with the objectivity of a detached observer. In fr. 92 W, for instance, the focus is equally divided among the sexual partners, the dung beetles, and the filthy room. This tendency to incorporate human existence into its larger environment and the prominence of forces, such as poverty and violence, underline the poet’s willingness to assume a diversity of influences behind human action and a level of determinism that brings him surprisingly close to 19th-century literary Naturalism.