Equine Poetics

  Platte, Ryan. 2017. Equine Poetics. Hellenic Studies Series 74. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_PlatteR.Equine_Poetics.2017.

4. Chariots and the Ἵππιος Νόμος

The similarity that I refer to appears in the chariot races for Sūryā, the daughter of the sun, and for Hippodameia. The Indian divine horsemen, the Aśvins, share Sūryā as a common wife whom they seem to have married after winning a chariot race–based marriage contest that reminds readers of the chariot race of Pelops for Hippodameia, described in Pindar’s self-styled ἵππιος νόμος, his horsey tune, Olympian I. [2] Details of the event are vague, but Jamison has shown convincingly that it was a contest, and the fact that it involved chariots is quite clear from the texts that we have, even if little else is: [3]

vīḷupatmabhirāśuhemabhirvā devānāṃ vā jūtibhiḥ śāśadānā | 
tad rāsabho nāsatyā sahasramājā yamasya pradhane jighāya || 

Ṛgveda I.116.2

rathamadyā daṃsiṣṭhamūtaye | 
yamaśvinā suhavā rudravartanī ā sūryāyai tasthathuḥ ||

[I have called] for protection today that powerful chariot which the well-invoked Aśvins with rosy paths mounted for Sūryā

Ṛgveda VIII.22.1

It is safe to say that a chariot race was held for the right to marry Sūryā, even if there is no good description of the contest itself. [
5] We have then two disparate IE traditions that each indicate the coming of suitors to compete in a chariot race for the right to marry a woman, and it is tempting to pursue a common mythic tradition here. I think that we should, but not one rooted in chariots.

As I stated earlier, my opinion is that the chariot need not itself be an inherited possession in two IE cultures for their similarities in chariot-based mythology to share common ancestry. I suggest that these traditions are cognate, and demonstrably so, regardless of the date of the invention of the chariot itself, because their relationship lies not in a chariot race myth per se, but rather in an inherited tradition of bridal contests of which each of these is an independently expectable outgrowth. The broad network of marriage contest myths documented in Greece and in India testify to a surprisingly consistent pattern of mythic variation, and the races of Pelops and of the Aśvins both partake in these patterns. One of the variations in these patterns is a chariot race, independently created in each culture but in each case indebted to the parent culture for the pattern of variation out of which it grew. They do not have to descend from a PIE chariot race myth in order to be cognate. They are more likely to be independently generated variants on an inherited model of bridal competition myth that has been melded to a local chariot race tradition. I propose then a dissection of Pindar’s depiction of this race, and the idiosyncrasies therein, in the hope that when the patterns behind those idiosyncrasies are made evident the relationship of the two chariot myths will be visible. This analysis will begin with Pindar, then move on to related stories from India, after which I will propose a model for understanding their relationship. Once that model is established the relationship between these and the marriage of the Aśvins will become clear.

Table 4.1. A Summary of Plot Elements from Other Choosing-Ceremonies

Draupadī Penelope Sītā Damayantī (ii) [31] Damayantī (i)
• marries Arjuna
• bow contest winner
• disguised as Brahmin
• rigged by father
• reunited with Odysseus
• bow contest winner
• disguised as beggar
• rigged by Penelope?
• marries Rāma
• bow contest
• no disguise
• no rigging
• reunited with Nala
• chariot contest winner
• disguised by curse
• rigged by Damayantī
• marries Nala
• no contest
• everyone except winner disguised
• rigged by Damayantī

The correspondences between these myths can be observed in Table 4.1, which is organized according to the woman for whom each contest is held. The motives of Penelope in setting up the bow contest are notoriously difficult to determine so they are designated as uncertain for the moment, although they will be discussed shortly.

Few of these stories involve precisely the same elements, but their constituent elements overlap enough to testify to a nexus of thematically related motifs, to a story-type that must be a common inheritance from a shared ancestor, most likely from the culture of the speakers of Proto-Indo-European, the ultimate parent language of both Greek and Sanskrit. This story-type seems to have featured a difficult feat, a piece of special equipment, the hero in disguise, and the manipulation of the contest on the hero’s behalf, as may be inferred from Table 4.2, which integrates the information from the table above with the information from the Pindaric and non-Pindaric accounts of the contest for Hippodameia:

Table 4.2. Table of Narratological Correspondences

  Hippodameia (Pindaric) Hippodameia (non-Pindaric) Draupadī Penelope Sītā Damayantī (ii) Damayantī (i)
difficult feat x x x x x x  
special equipment x x x x x x  
disguise     x x   x x
contest rigged   x x ?   x x

Based solely on the Greek and Indic evidence, to say nothing of the later European stories of the Bride Won in a Tournament, it seems very likely that the versions of the chariot race for Hippodameia that feature Myrtilos predate Pindar’s account. Preselection of the groom and manipulation of the contest to arrange his victory seem to be a common element in this type of story, and must have been so even in very distant antiquity. Pindar must have employed a version of the legend that featured a different configuration of the story’s inherited motifs, like the legends of the contests for Sītā and for Damayantī recorded in the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata.

I say that he employed a different version rather than that he innovatively suppressed an element of the story for two reasons. First, I believe in the general principle that we should not assume an apparent mythic variant to be an actual innovation without good evidence that it did not exist earlier in a way that simply evades our evidence. [34] Second, the disparity between the two main versions of the race accords very well with what one would expect of legends passed down in an oral tradition, as this legend should be assumed to have been throughout most of its history prior to Pindar. Such was one of the most important discoveries of Parry and Lord’s famous studies in South Slavic epic song. [35] In these investigations it was evident that individual legends, as they occurred in various songs, were rarely presented in a consistent way from performance to performance. Even when the same myth was related by the same performer on multiple occasions it would appear in varying form. When multiple performances of similar myths were compared, however, networks of commonly linked narratological elements emerged that were quite persistent, just as is the case here. No two council scenes were ever the same, for example, even when they supposedly described the exact same council. Nevertheless, all council scenes drew from the same broad set of narratological elements. [36] It is through familiarity with such sets of thematically linked narratological elements that performers remember and perform complex mythological narratives. A singer does not have to perform a canonical version of a myth, but instead to deploy elements of the proper broad thematic model. That is to say, the performer does not necessarily think of how a particular myth goes, but about how myths of that sort tend to go. In such traditions the omission of particular motifs from individual performances is expected, as is altering of motif according to performers’ creativity and ability to adapt motifs familiar from other story-types. Some such modifications eventually prove more popular or useful than others and become influential traditions on their own. This yields a complex, fluid array of narratological traditions and a polymorphic, living mythic landscape.

This evidence should influence our understanding of Penelope’s actions at the close of Odyssey XIX, since the precise timing and motivation of Penelope’s decision to hold the bow contest is famously perplexing (as indicated by the question marks in the tables presented above). [38] After delaying her remarriage for so long, why does she hold the contest only after she receives the first real signs that Odysseus may be back soon, both from the disguised Odysseus himself and from a portentous dream? It has often been suggested that Penelope held the contest because she already had some knowledge that the beggar was Odysseus. It has been proposed that what we have in our text results from an earlier Odyssey in which Penelope was explicitly aware of the beggar’s identity, [39] or that Penelope has simply seen through his disguise and has not let on. [40] It seems more likely, however, that the phenomena that shaped the story of the choosing-ceremony of Penelope are the same as those that shaped the contest for Hippodameia. [41] Both employ several narratological elements attendant to the choosing-ceremony tradition and both must have existed in a polymorphic mythic landscape prior to, and perhaps alongside, our literary tradition. That is to say that various recountings of it should have been shaped by the same nexus of thematic elements, but may not have been limited to one configuration of those elements. It is the type of story in which the rigging of the contest on behalf of a pre-chosen winner is a common element, and so variants of this type may well have existed. Just as in Olympian I, the absence of explicit rigging in our Homeric text may simply reflect the privileging of one configuration of tradition elements among many other existent, if less successful, configurations. [42]

This explanation accounts for the variations in cheating in our main sources for the contest for Hippodameia, but does not address the Killos version discussed by Hansen or the relationship of this story to later European folktales. The folktale tradition to which those are connected, the Bride Won in a Tournament, features some of the same motifs that the Greek and Indic parallels would lead us to expect. There is a gathering of men to sue for the right to marry a young woman, there is a contest to choose the winner, and there is help from an unexpected person that proves decisive in the hero’s victory. The contest, however, never involves archery, there is no rigging as such, and there is no disguise (except that the hero often wears the equipment of the helper).

Despite these differences, all of these versions may still descend from the same tradition of choosing-ceremony tales, because that story-type must itself have been multiform in its origin. Even among the speakers of PIE, the contest motif must have allowed for variation in the type of contest employed. Bow contests and horse races seem particularly natural expressions of this motif for PIE culture, so they may have been particularly common. These then were both influential in later traditions, but the fact they are not equally important in all subsequent traditions poses no real problem. While the version of this motif that employs bow contests may have disappeared from medieval and Renaissance stories, chariot racing and bow contests were both clearly preserved in Greek and Indic tales. A fourth tradition also seems to have been preserved, or perhaps invented, in Greece in the form of a footrace, documented in the contest to marry Atalanta and in the race that Odysseus won when he first married Penelope. [43] The identity of the unexpected helper must also have varied, at times being a stranger and at other times a person associated with the contest, in which case preselection of the winner and rigging of the contest would have been involved. Finally, the use of disguise could easily have been only an occasional element. The privileging of various expressions and configurations of these motifs could eventually lead to such traditions as those seen in Renaissance and medieval Europe, as well as those in ancient Greece and India.

Traditional approaches to Pindar’s treatment of Myrtilos in Olympian I propose two mutually exclusive possibilities: that Pindar suppressed the involvement of Myrtilos, or that he was unaware of it (perhaps because it was not yet part of the tradition). Comparative evidence, however, shows such a proposition to be too simplistic. The consistency of the nexus of narrative elements that make up choosing-ceremony tales, both in Greece and elsewhere in the IE world, makes it difficult to imagine that the involvement of Myrtilos is not a very ancient element of the story. This, however, does not necessarily mean that Pindar simply suppressed the detail. The processes of mythopoesis make it likely that multiple versions of this story coexisted with each other, differing in their configuration of the elements of the choosing-ceremony theme. Pindar simply chose a preexistent version of the story that suited his immediate needs. Ultimately, the relationship of Pindar’s account of the race to later versions proves less important than the relationship of these two versions to the wide range of choosing-ceremony stories in IE literature. It is in this relationship that we catch a glimpse of the story’s PIE ancestry as well as the mythopoetic mechanisms that connect that ancestry to the literature of medieval and Renaissance Europe, as well as to the great epics of Greece and India.

To apply these findings to the myth of the Aśvins and its relationship to the myth of Pelops and Hippodameia we do not need to ask whether these two myths descend from one original chariot myth at all, but whether they take part in elements of the same inherited mythopoetic tradition of the choosing-ceremony, a tradition that featured a contest, the use of special equipment, disguise, and rigging. I believe that they do.

Regarding the remaining criteria, disguise and rigging, our texts provide us with only the most tantalizing bits of evidence. Ṛgveda X.85 describes the marriage of Sūryā, but is famously unorthodox and very difficult to follow. This hymn is odd because it calls the Aśvins the wooers (varā, 8, 9), but identifies the groom as Soma, the deity and divine drink that was central in Indo-Iranian ritual cult, and from whose use the Aśvins were once prohibited (somo vadhūyurabhavad, “Soma was the groom” [9]). It seems as if we are seeing here evidence of two traditions, one in which the Aśvins won the race and one in which they lost to Soma, a deity of superior rank and of whom they were once judged unworthy. Several of our choosing-ceremony myths involve seemingly inferior contestants winning unexpectedly, so perhaps we have here details suggesting that the victory of the Aśvins in our texts was not the only or most expected outcome of the contest. This is very speculative, of course, but proof that this myth is related to the other choosing-ceremony myths does not require that they exhibit every feature of the complex after all, but only some, and we do have that here, even if certain details of the myth are unclear and require speculation.

The fact that chariots were common in IE cultures but not in the parent culture means that in investigating equine poetics within the IE communities we will occasionally encounter similarities in treatment that frustrate our understanding of the history of the chariot. In these situations, it is important, I think, that we not simply ignore the archaeological evidence to allow ourselves easier answers, answers that allow for simple cognate relationship when we encounter similar chariot-based imagery. We must also remember that although the chariot itself is not a shared inheritance, much else is common inheritance among the daughter cultures, such as the poetic and intellectual treatment of horses, and the very narratological patterns of the cultures’ mythologies. In the context of such fundamental cultural similarities it is not at all surprising that some of the innovations of the daughter cultures would develop in ways that are similar to each other. In the case of the chariot-based marriage contest, just as in the case of the metapoetic charioteer, we must be prepared to plumb IE cultural histories widely in order to recognize the complex and convoluted ways in which a cognate relationship manifests. To appreciate the effect of IE inheritance on poetic treatment of horses, then, we must be prepared at times to look even beyond the horses themselves, to the wide range of inherited phenomena that could affect their depictions.


[ back ] 1. I repeat that my argument here is based on what seems to be the best archaeological evidence that we have to date. If new evidence emerges, however, that requires the horse-drawn chariot to be viewed as a common IE inheritance then the arguments here will require modification. They will not, however, need to be disregarded. The poetic and ideological inheritance described here would simply need to be viewed as complimentary phenomena, informing the poetic depictions of that inherited technology.

[ back ] 2. ἐμὲ δὲ στεφανῶσαι | κεῖνον ἱππίῳ νόμῳ | Αἰοληΐδι μολπᾷ | χρή, “I must crown him with an Aeolian song, a horsey tune” (I 100–103). This designation must refer to the thoroughly equestrian nature of the ode, since it begins with a description of Hieron’s horses, then proceeds to a chariot race, and ends with a metaphor of the poet as charioteer (discussed in Chapter 3).

[ back ] 3. In his seminal work on Indian marriage contests Schmidt (1987:77–78) declined to accept this as an example thereof because, although it certainly resembles a contest, the intransparency of the source texts hindered him from that conclusion. Jamison has, however, shown that this must indeed be a contest myth (2001 and 2003). Her argument showcases how this particular treatment of chariot imagery grows out of Indian marriage rituals, and has even identified unique poetic formula treatment dealing with the verb root √vrā, ‘to choose’, that is special to depictions of marriage contests.

[ back ] 4. Their chariot is usually yoked to magnificent horses, but it is occasionally said to have been yoked to a donkey. See Jhala 1978:78.

[ back ] 5. For a fuller account of the passages that relate to this story and indicate the centrality of chariots to it see Pischel and Geldner 1889:14–30 and Jamison 2001.

[ back ] 6. Much of the ensuing analysis has appeared before, but with no account taken of the relationship of the Aśvins to this mythical complex or to the methodological lessons to be learned from the similarity of these two chariot race stories (Platte 2011). For general discussion of the Pindaric ode, including apparent mythological variation therein, see Gerber 1982 and Fisker 1990.

[ back ] 7. The text of Olympian I comes from Gerber 1982. The bibliography on this particular detail is quite large, but most scholars have concluded that Pindar’s account is an innovation. See Köhnken 1974:200n3; Kakridis 1930. Cf. Nagy 1990b:116–135.

[ back ] 8. Köhnken 1974.

[ back ] 9. Gerber 1982:134–136. The horses were apparently winged on the Kypselos chest described by Pausanias (V 17.7) and appear as such on one black-figure vase (Göttingen University, J22, by the Sappho Painter). See Shapiro 1994:80–81.

[ back ] 10. We also find here the alternative punishment for Tantalos, in which he is not tempted with unattainable food, but rather a rock is perilously suspended over his head (54–64). See Gantz 1993:2.532.

[ back ] 11. This myth is fitting here because it is itself a chariot race, but also because the race and the resulting death of Oinomaos are linked to the founding of the Olympic games. Nagy 1990b:117–120.

[ back ] 12. According to some sources he believed that he would die if his daughter married (as, in fact, he did), while other sources suggest that he was in love with his daughter himself. Gantz 1993:2.542–543.

[ back ] 13. Gantz 1993:2.540.

[ back ] 14. Our earliest source for cheating in this myth is Pherekydes (3 F 37a), but several others exist, for details of which see Gantz 1993:2.541–543. Among such sources are Apollonius, Apollodorus, and Hyginus. Myrtilos is also mentioned in Sophokles’ Elektra (505–515) and in Euripides’ Orestes (988–994). Both accounts depict his murder at the hands of Pelops. This occurred because Myrtilos attempted to instigate a sexual encounter with Hippodameia, which he believed he was owed for helping in the race. On the prevalence of Myrtilos and cheating in the artistic tradition see Lacroix 1976.

[ back ] 15. Sometimes Pelops is said to have convinced Myrtilos to do this himself. The most common version asserts that Myrtilos replaced the axles with wax, but Pherecydes says that he did not insert the linchpin (Σ AR 1.752 = 3 F 37a).

[ back ] 16. Gerber 1982:136; Köhnken 1974:203.

[ back ] 17. Hansen 2000. Hansen also discusses this issue, in briefer form elsewhere (2002:56–62).

[ back ] 18. Nagy has also suggested that the variant comes from a coexisting tradition rather than an innovative one (1990b:116–135).

[ back ] 19. Hansen 2000:26.

[ back ] 20. In addition to the epic svayaṃvara, known as the vīryaśulka svayaṃvara, Schmidt identifies two other distinct varieties in India (1987:76–109). The relationship of the contest for Hippodameia to Indian epic svayamvaras has been noted before, but, to my knowledge, the implications of this relationship for Pindar’s particular account have not been elucidated. See Russo 2004:95.

[ back ] 21. Similarities between these two scenes, as well as some of the others that I will discuss, have been examined by Jamison (1999).

[ back ] 22. For a fuller summary of the Mahābhārata, as well as a general introduction to its study see Brockington 1998.

[ back ] 23. The relevant text is Mahābhārata I.175–179.

[ back ] 24. One other man, Karṇa, does complete the task, but is rejected by Draupadī, ostensibly because of his lineage. Cf. Jamison 1999:246n49.

[ back ] 25. The exact nature of the shot that Odysseus performs is difficult to determine, i.e. in exactly what way does an arrow move through axe heads: διὰ δ᾽ ἀμπερὲς ἦλθε θύραζε | ἰὸς χαλκοβαρής (XXI 422–423)? See Russo 2004:95–97; Walcot 1984:357–369; Page 1973:95–113. The precise nature of the shot is, however, less important here than the general sort of contest to which it belongs.

[ back ] 26. Telemachus begins to string the bow, and also seems likely to succeed, until his father signals him to stop (XXI 124–135).

[ back ] 27. On the Rāmāyaṇa in general, see Brockington 1998.

[ back ] 28. The relevant text here is Rāmāyaṇa I.66.

[ back ] 29. Mahābhārata III.52–79.

[ back ] 30. Although this fact does not figure into my analysis, it may be interesting to note that Nala’s chariot flies, as does that of Pelops.

[ back ] 31. These are listed in the order in which they appear in this discussion, not in the order in whichthey appear chronologically or even the order in which they appear in their texts. The reuniting of Nala and Damayantī, which I have discussed first, naturally follows their marriage in the text.

[ back ] 32. Gresseth (1979) has discussed many of the similarities between the story of Nala and Damayantī and that of Odysseus and Penelope. He does not consider any other parallels but he nevertheless concludes that the contest of the bow was not a normal contest but rather a test to discover the pre-chosen suitor, Odysseus.

[ back ] 33. This choosing-ceremony is discussed here because it features the disguise motif and because it involves preselection of the groom, but this is not actually a vīryaśulka svayaṃvara like the others. Jamison, following Schmidt, points out that this distinction is not absolute (1999:246).

[ back ] 34. See also Nagy 1990b:118.

[ back ] 35. Lord 2000:68–123.

[ back ] 36. See especially Lord 2000:79–96.

[ back ] 37. It is not difficult to find other subjects in Greek myth that could demonstrate this phenomenon as well. The most prominent Artemis myths, for example (Actaeon, Callisto, Iphigenia), all draw from the same nexus of elements: violations of chastity, animal transformations, and ironic death. Variations within these individual mythic traditions (e.g. the fact that the stories of Actaeon and Iphigenia sometimes involve animal transformations, or substitutions, and sometimes do not) may reflect the same sort of variation seen in the myth of Hippodameia’s choosing-ceremony.

[ back ] 38. Levaniouk offers a thorough analysis of the interactions between Penelope and the disguised Odysseus, with an eye toward this very question, i.e. does Penelope recognize Odysseus? Levaniouk shows compellingly how Penelope’s seemingly perplexing responses to Odysseus may best be seen as clever and fitting rhetorical strategy (2011:195–228). For an overview and evaluation of varied approaches to this problems see Combellack 1973:32–40; Heubeck 1988:III.104–105.

[ back ] 39. Kirk 1962:246–247; Page 1955:123–126.

[ back ] 40. Austin 1975:230–232; Harsh 1950:1–21; Amory 1963:100–121.

[ back ] 41. The influences highlighted here are not the only ones that may be at work in the Odyssean bow-ceremony, and other comparanda may be relevant without requiring revision of the current hypothesis. On the relationship of this scene to Indian kingship rituals, which also involve bows, see Jamison 1999. Egyptian parallels have been adduced as well, and I see no reason to reject them; see Walcot 1984:357–369. Even though this story owes much of its genealogy to IE tradition, complimentary traditions from other nonrelated but influential cultures may also have had an impact. Interesting parallels in the Ugarit Aqhat have also been discussed by Ready (2010:155–157).

[ back ] 42. I have not included here every choosing-ceremony in Greece and India, but those that seemed to me most relevant to Pindar’s account of the choosing-ceremony of Hippodameia. A few of those unmentioned do, however, contain at least a possibility of rigging as well. In the Mahābhārata Ambā is abducted from her choosing-ceremony and complains to her abductor that she had already chosen the man who should have won the contest (Mahābhārata V.170ff.). Additionally, the gathering of the suitors for Helen described in the Hesiodic catalogue indicates that Odysseus never sent gifts to woo Helen because he already knew that Menelaus was going to win (Solmsen 1990:198.4–6). For possible examples of other scenes in Greek myth see Schmidt 1987:94–96.

[ back ] 43. Pausanias III 12.2.

[ back ] 44. Jhala’s very useful book, Aśvinā in the Rigveda, points to further features still, such as its golden color and its wondrous contents (1978:73–80). Ṛgveda X.85.16 describes Sūryā herself having three wheels, one of which is hidden from all but those who understand reality. This three-wheeled car of Sūryā is, presumably, the chariot of the Aśvins.

[ back ] 45. It is remarkable that the horses of the Aśvins and of Pelops, and in some traditions of Nala, were all winged. I do not know of any evidence that makes the phenomenon of winged horses an inherited tradition, so for the moment I consider this a coincidence.