Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Vagina in Search of an Author

That is the title of a new article by Martin West in Classical Quarterly, 2008, 58: 370-375. He deals with this hexameter fragment, which is quoted in the Refutation of All Heresies (possibly) by the bishop Hippolytus:
αὐτὰρ ὑπ' αὐτὴν ἐστιν ἀταρπιτὸς ὀκριόεσσα
κοίλη, πηλώδης, ἥ θ' ἡγήσασθαι ἀρίστη
ἄλσος ἐς ἱμερόεν πολυτιμήτου Ἀφροδίτης

The bishop seems to think that it refers to the mystery religions and a spiritual "path", but, as West claims, it is a reference to the vagina. Hippolytus compares a (poorly remembered) passage from Matt.7.13-14:
στενὴ καὶ τεθλιμμένη ἐστὶν ἡ ὁδὸς ἡ ἀπάγουσα εἰς τὴν ζωήν, καὶ ὀλίγοι εἰσὶν οἱ εἰσερχόμενοι εἰς αὐτήν, πλατεῖα δὲ καὶ εὐρύχωρος ἡ ὁδὸς ἡ ἀπάγουσα εἰς τὴν ἀπώλειαν, καὶ πολλοί εἰσιν οἱ διερχόμενοι δι' αὐτῆς

West then spends some time trying to determine the original author of the hexameter fragment, whom Hippolytus calls ὁ ποιητής. It is comical to think that a bishop would have obliviously quoted this passage. Perhaps it had already been quoted out of context in connection with the mysteries, and he merely took it from that source. It is not any less funny to me in that case. Modern scholars, according to West, have understood the quote in the bishop's context too. He provides classical parallels for his thesis, and raises some concerns about its context in the bishop's work (such as the questionable association of the "grove of Aphrodite" with the afterlife).