Master of the Game: Competition and Performance in Greek Poetry

  Collins, Derek. 2004. Master of the Game: Competition and Performance in Greek Poetry. Hellenic Studies Series 7. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

12. Heraclitus

Heraclitus of Ephesus also rejected the performance of Homeric poetry in a vein similar to, but not identical with, that of Xenophanes. Although Heraclitus’ criticisms never achieved the recognition of Xenophanes’, they appear nevertheless to derive similarly from the vantage point of the symposium. One fragment that has drawn attention is (fr. 30 Marcovich = 22 B 42 DK):

τόν τε Ὅμηρον ἔφασκεν ἄξιον ἐκ τῶν ἀγώνων ἐκβάλλεσθαι
     καὶ ῥαπίζεσθαι καὶ ᾽Αρχίλοχον ὁμοίως.

[Heraclitus] used to say that Homer deserved to be thrown out
     of the contests and thrashed, and Archilochus too.

Here we are first to think of the performance of Homer in contests by rhapsodes. I would further argue that by using the verb ῥαπίζεσθαι ‘to be thrashed’, Heraclitus is punning on the false derivation of ῥαψῳδός ‘rhapsode’ from ῥάβδος ‘staff’ (on which see Part III), the rhapsode being the very performer he rejects. [1] But what of Archilochus? By the middle of the fourth century we hear that Archilochus’ poetry was performed in the theatres, at a time when other iambic poets such as Mimnermus and Phocylides were also performed there. [2] Before then, however, we have the mention of Archilochus’ victory hymns sung at Olympia (Pindar, Olympian 9.1–4), including the τήνελλα performed for Heracles “after his greatest labor,” [3] and a hymn to Demeter that he performed on Paros. [4] But Archilochus’ poetry was also composed and performed in symposia, as his own poetry attests. [5] Therefore Heraclitus may be referring to a tradition of public competitions in which Archilochus’ poetry was performed rhapsodically like that of Homer; such a tradition is attested in classical and later sources. [6] Or, as the syntax suggests, Archilochus may be added in the passage above as an afterthought to the general recrimination leveled against Homer. In this case, Heraclitus’ point would be to reject Archilochus from sympotic or theatrical performances because of their social and ethical consequences. In the fourth century, Aristotle wrote that the paideia obtained in the symposium was in fact conceived as a check against the harmful effects on younger men of viewing iamboi and comedy as performed in theatres (Politics 1336b20–22). [7] This passage may suggest that by Aristotle’s time the educative function of symposia was more established and secure than it was during the seventh and sixth centuries of Xenophanes and Heraclitus. But we have also seen that by the fourth century the behavior of symposiasts could get out of hand through drinking and rivalry alone.

Thus for Heraclitus the belief in appearances leads men to conclude that surface distinctions are real, a view that in turn forms the basis for discrimination and disagreement. What remains unexplained is his choice of similes. By invoking the “back-stretched stringing” (παλίντονος ἁρμονίη) of the bow and lyre, Heraclitus may have a symposiastic framework in mind. [11] The force of the comparison between the bow and lyre is that, while on the surface they appear to be different instruments with different and opposing purposes, conceptually they are similar because they are stringed in the same way. [12] The bow and the lyre in archaic Greek poetry regularly signify a typological opposition between warfare on the one hand and banqueting on the other. We might think of Odysseus stringing his bow (τόξον), which is compared expressly to a φόρμιγξ ‘lyre’ (Odyssey 21.405–9), before he wins the ax contest and begins to slaughter the suitors. Odysseus is further compared to a singer (ἀνὴρ φόρμιγγος ἐπιστάμενος καὶ ἀοιδῆς “a man skilled in the lyre and song,” 21.406), which in epic specifically refers to the professional singers like Phemius and Demodocus who perform during banquets. And in a more indirect fashion, we might adduce in this context the beginning of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, where Leto must remove Apollo’s bow before the symposium of the gods can begin. After Leto removes and hangs up Apollo’s bow (βιός), which has frightened the other Olympians, she leads him to the throne of his father Zeus, who then pours nectar for him (6–11). Once again the bow and the symposium are conceptually opposed. As Heraclitus says elsewhere in an etymological play, the name of the bow (βιός) is life (βίος), and yet it is a work of death (fr. 39 Marcovich = 22 B 48 DK). The same series of associations—warfare and banqueting, death and life—may underlie fr. 27 Marcovich above.

The summarizing point is that Heraclitus’ attack on Homer begins with Homer’s apparent lack of metaphysical insight with regard to the truly unified nature of opposites. But the example he gives of two objects that appear to differ but which are at some level the same, the bow and lyre, reverts to a contrast that epitomizes the rhapsodic/symposiastic opposition that I have been outlining. Heraclitus’ objection to the rhapsodic performance of Homer thus further testifies to the traditional, polarized conceptual framework in which such an objection had to be articulated.


[ back ] 1. For the same association in lyric, cf. Anacreontea 31 (Campbell): ὑακινθίνῃ με ῥάβδω | χαλεπῶς Ἕρως ῥαπίζων ἑκέλευε συντροχάζειν, “Love, thrashing me harshly with a hyacinthine rod, ordered me to run with him.”

[ back ] 2. Athenaeus 620c = Chamaeleon fr. 28 (Wehrli) on Archilochus, Mimnermus, and Phocylides, and also Clearchus fr. 92 (Wehrli) on Archilochus.

[ back ] 3. Scholia ad Aristophanes, Birds 1764, corrected by West 1971:106. West 1974:139 doubts on metrical grounds that Archilochus authored the τήνελλα, which accords with the view that Archilochus’ poetry was composed largely for symposia.

[ back ] 4. Also mentioned at Aristophanes, Birds 1764 scholia ad loc. Further testimonia in 1971:104–6.

[ back ] 5. Most famously in fr. 120 West (= Athenaeus 628a).

[ back ] 6. Plato, Ion 531a, with Ford 1988:302, and Clearchus fr. 92 (Wehrli) = Athenaeus 620, where Simonides of Zacynthus is described as performing Archilochus rhapsodically (ἐρραψῴδει).

[ back ] 7. Further discussion of this passage in Nagy 1996:163–64.

[ back ] 8. Burkert 1987:44.

[ back ] 9. And is thus not to be taken seriously as a substitute for Zeus, so Marcovich 1967:145.

[ back ] 10. Cf. 22 B 51 DK = Ref. 9.9.

[ back ] 11. Plato at least thought so: we find this enigmatic line cited in a discussion of musical harmony, with its implication for the control of opposites (cold/hot, dry/wet, etc.) in medicine (Symposium 187a).

[ back ] 12. See further Marcovich 1967:127–29 ad παλίντονος.