Friday, 31 July 2020

Two fictive dedicatory inscriptions, by Callimachus

Placed sequentially in Book 6 of the Anthology, these two poems are by the famous Alexandrian scholar-poet Callimachus, one of literary epigram's early masters. Like many of the poems I’ve been posting lately these are fresh versions and won’t be in the book.

In this first poem, 6.149, the inscription ‘speaks’ when the passer-by reads it aloud, but speaks in the persona of the dedicated object, and what does a bronze cockerel know about anything? Including that it is a bronze cockerel? A statue cannot bend to see the inscription on its own base, and it's not as though cockerels are great readers to begin with.

'The Tyndarids' are Castor and Pollux, twin sons of Leda, the wife of King Tyndareus of Sparta, and brothers to Helen of Troy. Pollux was a famous boxer, so the victory being celebrated by Euaenetus son of Phaedrus is surely meant to be in a boxing-match. Strictly speaking only Castor is a Tyndarid; Pollux’s father was Zeus, making the boys only half-brothers despite being twins. Improbable in normal circumstances, but when gods get involved, all bets are off.

6.149 (on YouTube)


The man who set me here, Euaenetus,

Assures us (for I cannot tell myself)

That I am hung here for a victory,

His own, and I a cockerel made of brass,

And dedicated to the Tyndarids.

I trust the son of Phaedrus, he in turn

Being the offspring of Philoxenus.

The second poem, 6.150, is written as if to be inscribed on the base of a votive statue of a young woman in a sanctuary of Io/Isis. Callimachus asserts identity between the goddesses through a patronym that he probably invented for this poem, ‘Inachian’ (Inakhios). Inachus was the mythical founder and first king of Argos; his many children included Io, the city's first priestess of Hera. Io was said to have spent time in Egypt and introduced the cult of Isis, and was occasionally identified with her. Both goddesses were depicted as horned, Io because Zeus had turned her into a cow when Hera got jealous of him sleeping with her. Greek mythology's list of reasons not to sleep with Zeus is never-ending.

6.150 (on YouTube)


Inachus’ Isis — in her shrine she stands.

Daughter of Thales, Aeschylis fulfils 

The promise of her mother, Eirene.

In myth, both Io and Isis were well-travelled, and Callimachus does not specify a notional location for the sanctuary in which Aeschylis' statue has been placed. The poem invites us to take a guess, if we want. A cult of Io at Argos is not firmly attested, but that is not to say there was none; there is better evidence for her worship at Antioch. But it is Isis who is named, not Io. Callimachus’ own Alexandria had a temple of Isis on the royal island (now sunken) of Antirhodos, and of course there were plenty of others across Egypt.

Isis was worshipped as the loving and determined mother who revived Horus, and surviving spells show that people often appealed to her to protect their own children from disease, or to ensure safe childbirth. The scenario conjured by Callimachus’ fictive inscription, and by the imaginary statue it accompanied, is that Eirene had promised the statue to Isis as payment if she kept Aeschylis safe through one or other of these dangers. Now she gratefully fulfils her vow.

No comments:

Post a comment