Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Hidden Desire

The use by Greek poets of repetition in such devices as ring composition is widely known, but Calvert Watkins offers an interesting look at some examples in chapter 7 of his 1995 book How to Kill a Dragon.

In book 9 of the Iliad, we find this in the second line of Nestor's address to Agamemnon, in line 97:

ἐν σοὶ μὲν λήξω, σέο δ᾽ ἄρξομαι, οὕνεκα πολλῶν
λαῶν ἐσσι ἄναξ καί τοι Ζεὺς ἐγγυάλιξε
σκῆπτρόν τ᾽ ἠδὲ θέμιστας...

Just 18 lines later, in the second line of Agamemnon's reply, we find the repetition of the same four words, πολλῶν...λαῶν ἐσσι...Ζεὺς, in a different context, but in the same metrical positions: ἀντί νυ πολλῶν | λαῶν ἐστιν ἀνὴρ ὅν τε Ζεὺς κῆρι φιλήσηι.
Another example is taken from the ten-line proem to Hesiod's Work and Days, where the sound of the very first word, Μοῦσαι, is echoed in the final word, μυθησαίμην. A closer look at μυθησαίμην reveals that the sound pattern essentially "hides" the the original word μυ...σαί. While I am convinced that there is a deliberate aural repetition, I am less sure that the poet meant to encode any semantic reverberation of Μοῦσαι in μυθησαίμην.

Watkins also points out two related instances in Pindar's second Olympian ode. The first comes in the second line, where the name of his patron, Theron, is "hidden" as θ...ἥρω...ν:

τίνα θεόν, τίν᾽ ἥρωα, τίνα δ᾽ ἄνδρα κελαδήσομεν;

[Which god, which hero, which man shall we celebrate?]

Later, at line 87, we find:

κόρακες ὥς, ἄκραντα γαρύετον

[Singing in vain like two crows.]

Only four lines later, in 91, we find the name of Theron's city, which was presumably hinted at with ἄκραντα γα in line 87:

Ἀκράγαντι τανύσαις
αὐδάσομαι ἐνόρκιον λόγον

[Aiming at Akragas, I will speak a word as oath.]

He claims something similar for the opening strophe of Sappho's hymn to Aphrodite:

ποικιλόθρον᾽ ἀθανάτ᾽ Ἀφρόδιτα,
παῖ Δίος δολόπλοκε, λίσσομαί σε,
μή μ᾽ ἄσαισι μηδ᾽ ὀνίαισι δάμνα,
πότνια, θῦμον

Here he sees the sound pattern πο...θ...ον, initially in ποικιλόθρον, echoed in πότνια θῦμον. Again, I am reasonably convinced that this repetition of sound was a real technique for demarcating a section of poetry, but Watkins goes even further this time, and points out that the repeated sound pattern spells πόθον, the Greek word for desire in the accusative case. I can't help but to be skeptical of this kind of code hunting, but it would suit the context well, and is fun to ponder in any case.


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