6. καλλίσφυρος and τανίσφυρος in Lyric Poetry

The many appearances of the three epithets in archaic verse and the consistent connotations they possess form a provocative resource for the vocabulary and the symbolism of the poetry of later centuries. τανίσφυρος occurs three times in the extant body of lyric poetry, in poems of Bacchylides and Ibycus; and καλλίσφυρος occurs once, in Alcman’s Partheneion. The few appearances of these epithets in lyric poetry are intriguing. But the significance of each of their uses is no more immediately understandable, no more obviously pertinent to its context, than it is in the texts of Homer and of Hesiod.
In the hexameters of Homeric and Hesiodic verse it is possible to try to explain the use of a particular epithet solely on the basis of metrical exigency. But in the case of lyric poetry, which has flexible and varied meters, such an explanation is not possible. Certainly the lyric poets draw on the epic texts to enrich their own imagery and to echo archaic poetry. But there must be some reason for this echo, some thematic association that prompts the use of a specific epithet. To claim that epic words are automatically and arbitrarily used in later poetry is to undermine the sense of the poetry and the artistry of the poet to an absurd degree. Even Parry, in his argument for the ornamental nature of the epithet in Homer, is quick to point out the necessarily different nature of the epithet in poetry that is not orally composed. He asserts that where there is no oral composition, no metrical exigencies, there is no reason for and no possibility of the use of the ornamental epithet. [1] So if there is no apparent pertinence or meaning to the occurrence of τανίσφυρος in a lyric poem, one ought to search for some latent meaning, some thematic explanation of its use. And it is only after understanding the symbolic connotations of the epithet in archaic verse that its significance in later poetry becomes clear.
Bacchylides’ Fifth Epinician Ode includes the only example in extant lyric poetry where τανίσφυρος combines with a figure it also describes in earlier hexameter verse, with Persephone. This poem is an encomium to Hieron, a triumphant celebration of his victory in the horse race at Olympia. Yet the main body of this song is curiously concerned with death. For Bacchylides uses the bleak story of Heracles’ descent in Hades as the mythological exemplum and central narrative of the work. After delivering the traditional warning that no man is happy in all respects, he turns abruptly to a narration of Heracles’ descent. Within the first few lines of the tale he establishes a grim picture, abandoning earthy triumph and creating an infernal scene:
[ἔρνος Διὸς] ἀργικεραύ-
νου δώματα Φερσεφόνας τανισφύρου
This description of Persephone as τανίσφυρος echoes the passages in the Hymn to Demeter where the same description appears. In echoing these lines, Bacchylides brings the entire tale of Persephone and her suffering to bear on his poem. He recalls the implication of the myth—the power of Hades, his possible encroachment on the living, his constant presence and influence on earth. This association deepens the bleakness and the significance of this mythological exemplum. It is the realization of mortality and human limitations that underlies the narration of the tale; even the most powerful heroes like Meleager and Heracles lack control over their fates. Bacchylides presents this cruel message for Hieron to remember, even—if not especially—at the moment of victory.
Heracles’ experience is both a flattering comparison and an ominous warning to Hieron. Heracles is a great hero who achieves a miraculous victory by entering the land of the dead and returning from it. In this respect the exemplum is appropriately flattering. But Heracles’ experience as Bacchylides depicts it is primarily shattering and depressing, because it forces him to confront death. And his encounter with Meleager presages his own death. Meleager’s final words seem to end the story abruptly, but they are in fact portentous, alluding to the specific circumstances of Heracles’ death.
The entrance of Heracles into the realms of Persephone is more significant than it initially appears. For Heracles’ adventure is analogous to Persephone’s own fate: he experiences death without dying; he is able to return to earth, but the horror of his vision is permanent and the inevitability of his return there is implied. It is perhaps not irrelevant that Heracles himself is associated with this epithet in archaic verse. The mention of Persephone and her description as τανίσφυρος not only set the tenor of the narrative but also supply an additional unexpressed exemplum embodying the themes of the ode.
τανίσφυρος also appears in the Third Epinician Ode of Bacchylides, one also honoring Hieron after a victory at Olympia. This ode, like the fifth, begins with praise of Hieron’s victory and with recognition of his happiness and fame. And, again like the fifth, this introductory address ends with a proverbial warning on the human condition, that everyone should give generous gifts to the gods because that is the best guarantee of good fortune. It is this warning which prompts the story of Croesus’ death, a story of piety rewarded. For when faced with military defeat, he chooses to kill himself and his family, but Zeus and Apollo save him because of his generous gifts to Pytho. Zeus extinguishes the fire of the pyre on which the family is burning and then Apollo transports Croesus and his daughters to the land of the Hyperboreans. It is in the description of this translation that the daughters of Croesus are τανίσφυρος:
τότε Δαλογενὴ[ς Ἀπό]λλων
φέρων ἐς Ὑπερβορέο[υς γ]έροντα
σὺν τανισφύροις κατ[έν]ασσε κούραι.
While the appearance of τανίσφυρος in the fifth ode echoes archaic verse, its combination here with the daughters of Croesus is an innovation. The epithet is particularly conspicuous here because it is separated from its noun by the main verb κατένασσε. While its literal meaning bears no pertinence to the passage, its connotations must on some level relate thematically to its context.
This passage concludes the mythical exemplum. The story ends on a triumphant note of redemption, but most of the narrative is horrifying, depicting in detail the agony and terror men feel as they face death. The most poignant description is of the daughters as they cry and reach for their mother. And Bacchylides underscores the horror of this by commenting:
ὁ γὰρ προφανὴς
θνατοῖσιν ἔχθιστος φόνων·
They confront their own death, they experience what it is to die; it is only through divine agency that they do not in fact perish, that they are translated to the Hyperboreans, a distant mythical land, comparable to Elysion or to Leuke.
This story of death, abduction and rebirth is a variant of the Persephone story. Bacchylides is perhaps specifically recalling the rape of Persephone by using the epithet τανίσφυρος as he does. The fifth ode shows that he is familiar with this description of the goddess. And this use of τανίσφυρος also connects the passage with other recipients of the epithet and its variants in archaic literature—with Danae, Ino, Helen, Marpessa, for example—all of whom have experiences comparable to that of the daughters of Croesus. The epithet has thematic significance for Bacchylides and connects his work with older poetry and traditions. This symbolism and these allusions enhance the meaning of the passage and lend it an archaic and thereby more traditional aspect. He uses the epithet in creating his own myth.
The themes of this mythological exemplum—epitomized in the story of the maidens and the epithet τανίσφυρος—are both the inevitability of death and the possibility somehow of transcendence or rebirth. And it is these same themes with which Bacchylides concludes the ode. He attributes to Apollo the warning that man must face the constant possibility of death. And he pronounces in his own words that no man can escape age or recover youth. But in the end the poet offers some consolation, suggesting the possibility of spiritual immortality through inclusion in his poetry. The κλέος Hieron will acquire is somehow akin to the translation of Croesus and his daughters.
The contrast between physical death and the immortality poetry offers is also the unifying theme of Ibycus’ ode to Polycrates, a poem where τανίσφυρος appears again. Ibycus uses the destruction of Troy as the central narrative of his poem. Through the device of praeteritio, he presents a panorama of the city’s fall, giving descriptions of what he is not going to describe. He saturates his language with epic allusions, evoking the rich connotations of the Homeric phrases and epithets, embracing the whole story of Troy and the epic tradition, and thereby creating an impressionistic picture of the conflict. He includes all the prominent characters of the Iliad and describes them by their most common Homeric epithets. [2] But within this list of prominent Trojan and Greek heroes, he also mentions Kassandra, a figure who appears only twice in the Iliad and there bears none of the characteristics for which she becomes prominent in legend. And Ibycus calls her τανίσφυρος:
..] ἐπιθύμιον οὔτε τανί[σφ]υρ[ον
ὑμ]νῆν Κασσάνδραν.
The poet calls attention to this epithet by placing it at the end of a line and by including the name it describes in the following line and by separating the two words by a verb. The epithet is also conspicuous because it does not occur anywhere in extant epic, and nowhere else appears with Kassandra. In line 10 of this poem Ibycus uses another unusual epithet, one not attested before this instance, ξειναπάταν, to describe Paris. This is an innovative description of Paris, but it is also a particularly apt one. It is unlikely that the use of τανίσφυρος in the next line is not equally appropriate and significant. For Ibycus seems to choose his epithets purposively, either for the purpose of evocation or of meaningful innovation.
Kassandra is important in Greek tradition as a prophetess. This tradition does not, however, appear in the Homeric poems. She appears only briefly in the Iliad; and the only story about her in the Odyssey is her abduction by Agamemnon and her death with him at the hands of Klytaemnestra. [3] Pindar is the first attested poet to refer to her explicitly as a prophetess. [4] Aeschylus also characterizes her so and specifically attributes her powers to Apollo’s desire of her and the gift of prophecy he bestows on her. Aeschylus also mentions the most tragic aspect of her character, the fact that her foreknowledge is doomed to universal disbelief. Ibycus did not precede Pindar and Aeschylus by so long that it is unlikely that he was unaware of these aspects of the character.
Kassandra is not only a prophetess but a victim of sexual violence and a figure of doom. Her character is a reflection of the destruction and tragedy which overcomes Troy and which Ibycus tries to express. She is repeatedly subject to sexual violence. And she has a constant presentiment of doom, a knowledge which Bacchylides, in reference to the daughters of Croesus, deems most dreadful. Like Persephone, she confronts death in life. Her character and the themes it expresses parallel many of the figures who are εὔσφυρος or καλλίσφυρος or τανίσφυρος in earlier literature. So the occurrence of τανίσφυρος in Ibycus’ poem has many pertinent resonances with other literature, evoking other characters and adding significance to the events of Kassandra’s own life.
The tragic implications of the figure of Kassandra, reinforced by the use of the epithet, contribute to the horrifying effect of Ibycus’ description. It is not only her violent experiences but also her vision of death that is tragic and that the poet counters with his offer of spiritual immortality. For the story of Kassandra and of Troy, and of the heroes who won renown there, ironically lead to a comparison between the Greek hero Troilos and Polycrates, the poem’s subject of praise. The epic heroes are famous, but so will be Polycrates, because of his inclusion in Ibycus’ poetry. He will receive κλέος ἄφθιτον, true immortality. This poem, like both those of Bacchylides, begins with a vision of annihilation and ends with the assertion of poetic immortality. Once again the appearance of τανίσφυρος is not incidental to the poet’s themes.
καλλίσφυρος occurs in Alcman’s Partheneion, describing Hagesichora:
οὐ γὰρ ἁ κ[α]λλίσφυρος
Ἁγησιχ[ό]ρ[α] πάρ' αὐτεῖ,
It is difficult to understand the implications of the word here because its context and the entire poem are fragmentary and mysterious. But Bowra presents a convincing reconstruction of the poem and of its social context. [5] The mention of the gods in 82ff. indicates that the poem was sung in some religious context, and many details suggest that Helen is the goddess addressed. The myth which begins the poem recounts the feud between the Dioskouroi and the Hippocoontides, a feud which seems, in Alcman’s version, to have involved Helen. [6] Further evidence for this assertion is the horse imagery in the second part of the poem. The comparison of the maidens to horses makes sense if these maidens are followers of Helen’s cult, figures identified elsewhere as πῶλοι. [7] Many sources attest to the worship of Helen in Laconia, Alcman’s home. [8] She seems in some cases to be specifically a goddess of marriage. [9] This fact not only identifies the deity addressed but also perhaps suggests that the poem is an epithalamium. [10]
This explanation also helps determine the identity of Hagesichora. The imagery and diction of the poem suggest that she is not a simple mortal. She is called ἁ κλεννὰ χοραγὸς (44), a description which connects her specifically with Helen, who receives the same title in the Lysistrata (1315). Certainly her name is no usual mortal one, but is connected with χοραγός, her function; the name seems more like a cult appellation than a human one. Furthermore, she is said to “watch over” the maidens (τήρει), [11] a function suitable to gods and not to mortals. [12] Finally, lines 78–79, where the maidens ask rhetorically, “is she not here?” indicate that she is in fact not present, for if she were a mortal, visible to all eyes, there would be no need to insist on her presence; she must instead be a goddess or demi-goddess whom the maidens invoke in their prayer. [13] So she seems to be a deity in her own right, one connected with the goddess Helen, who has the power of fulfilling the maidens’ desires. It is only in this light that the assertion that Hagesichora brings peace (90–91) makes any sense.
If Hagesichora is identified with the goddess addressed in the poem, she is then connected not only with Helen but, somehow, with Aotis, the only name the goddess receives in the poem. There is much disagreement over the identity of Aotis and over her connection with Hagesichora and with Helen. [14] The name Aotis appears only here, but it seems that it must be some version of the dawn goddess: certainly the appearance of a dawn goddess is not surprising in a poem performed at daybreak, one full of light imagery. There seems, furthermore, to be a connection between the dawn goddess and Helen. In Theocritus’ Epithalamium for Helen, for example, the poet describes her with light imagery and calls her Aos. [15] Since Helen’s brothers, the Dioskouroi, are celestial spirits, it is not unlikely that she should have some celestial aspects as well. Some writers in fact associate her as well as her brothers with the St. Elmo’s fire. [16] So Hagesichora is associated with the goddess Helen, who is in turn associated with the dawn goddess.
The passage in which Hagesichora is καλλίσφυρος is, in a sense, the dramatic climax of the poem: the deity the maidens invoke is transcendent, but reveals herself as their ally, the fulfiller of their desires, the bridge between the mortal and the immortal realms.
The connotations of καλλίσφυρος gleaned from uses of the word elsewhere support this interpretation of the figure of Hagesichora and of the entire poem. In the Hesiodic fragments, the epithet is specifically associated with Helen, in the context of marriage and of abduction. And it is associated with figures thematically similar to Helen both in Hesiod and in other works. Furthermore, the added associations in the Partheneion with the dawn goddess, a figure embodying the miracle of death and rebirth, bear resonances with other connotations of the epithet, connotations connecting καλλίσφυρος with such figures as Persephone, Ino and Heracles. All these associations are pertinent to the interpretation of Hagesichora here presented. Finally, if the poem is in fact an epithalamium, the themes of abduction, of rebirth, of change from one realm of existence to another—all the themes the epithets connote elsewhere—are all appropriate to the poem. The description of Hagesichora as καλλίσφυρος is not at all arbitrary or insignificant. Alcman’s use of the epithet is its most evocative and richest application in lyric poetry.
The three lyric poets who use καλλίσφυρος and τανίσφυρος do recognize and exploit the connotations these epithets have in earlier poetry. They do not use them in automatic and arbitrary ways, simply to echo Homer, but adapt them in each case to enrich their specific descriptions and to reinforce the symbolism of their poetry.


[ back ] 1. Parry writes: “en dehors de l'épos toutes les épithètes de la poésie grecque, latine, et moderne sont particularisées et se rapportent à l'action du moment” (1928a:208).
[ back ] 2. e.g. πόδας ὠκὺς Ἀχιλλεύς; κρείων Ἀγαμέμνων; ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν Ἀγαμέμνων; ἄλκιμος Αἴας.
[ back ] 3. Odyssey xi 421.
[ back ] 4. Pindar Pythian XI 33. He calls her a μάντιν … κόραν.
[ back ] 5. Bowra 1936:36–58.
[ back ] 6. Plutarch Theseus XXXI, as quoted in Page 1951:32.
[ back ] 7. Bowra 1936:43. Cf. Euripides Helen 1465–1467, and Aristophanes Lysistrata 1308–1315.
[ back ] 8. Herodotos VI.61; Pausanias III.15.3.
[ back ] 9. Griffiths 1972:24. Also cf. Hesiod fragment discussed earlier and Pausanias III.7.7.
[ back ] 10. Griffiths 1972 passim.
[ back ] 11. The reading is certainly not τείρει as some have conjectured. Cf. Griffiths 1972:22.
[ back ] 12. For the way in which τήρει is used see Aristophanes Clouds 578–579: δαιμόνων … αἵτινες τηροῦμεν ὑμᾶς.
[ back ] 13. Griffiths 1972:24 and passim.
[ back ] 14. Page 1951:71–75 asserts she is Ortheia, a moon goddess. Griffiths 1972:26 identifies her with Artemis, as distinct from Helen and Hagesichora. Bowra 1936:36–58 identifies her with Helen.
[ back ] 15. Theocritus XVIII.26–28: Ἀὼς ἀντέλλοισα καλὸν διέφανε πρόσωπον, / πότνια Νύξ, τό τε λευκὸν ἔαρ χειμῶνος ἀνέντος· / ὧδε καὶ ἁ χρυσέα Ἑλένα διεφαίνετ' ἐν ἁμῖν.
[ back ] 16. Euripides Orestes 1637.