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.

4. Excursus: Theocritus and the Problem of Judgment

Let us start with Idylls 6 and 8. In Idyll 6 we have a singing match between two cowherds with no apparent judge, unless we are to take the presence of their respective animal herds to be the “audience” (cf. line 45, where the herds dance). Daphnis challenges (ἐρίζειν ‘to strive, 5) Damoetas to a singing match, and begins by advancing fourteen hexameter lines (6–19). Daphnis sets the theme by addressing himself to the persona of Polyphemus and then charging “Polyphemus” with not being responsive to the needs of Galateia. Damoetas responds in the persona of Polyphemus in twenty lines of hexameter (21–40), claiming that his indifference is part of a conscious effort to woo Galateia and in the end she will be his. At the end of the match, the cowherds exchange a flute and pipe, presumably as equivalent prizes, and Theocritus tells us that both poets sang well and no winner or loser could be decided (46).

Finally in Idyll 5 we have a contest between the goatherd Comatas and the shepherd Lacon, which is to be judged by a nearby woodman, Morson. [7] This contest involves the exchange of hexameter couplets and makes overt use of sexualizing metaphors, which as we shall see are crucial to the determination of the contest’s outcome. Before the contest proper begins, Comatas and Lacon hurl various sorts of abuse back and forth, with Comatas making a reference to what he perceives as Lacon’s present impudence, given that Comatas had taught him as a boy to sing, presumably among other things (37). Lacon rebukes him, but then Comatas refers to a time when he had sex with Lacon and Lacon bleated as loudly as a she-goat in the grip of a male goat (41–2). Lacon deftly responds by implying, as I think, that he will bury Comatas in the singing match as deeply as Comatas imagines that he has penetrated Lacon (43). Now the metaphor of sexual penetration here is key because it returns at a vital point in the contest itself. As the contest proceeds, the matched hexameter couplets complement each other in respect of theme, whether it be gods associated with poetry, the love of shepherds, plants, insects, and so forth. At 116–17, Comatas suddenly returns to the topic of their earlier liaison:

ἦ οὐ μέμνασ’ ὅκ’ ἐγών τυ κατήλασα, καὶ τὺ σεσαρώς
εὖ ποτεκιγκλίζευ καὶ τᾶς δρυὸς εἴχεο τήνας;

Don’t you remember when I drove into you and grinning,
you really twisted and held onto that oak tree?

We expect a reply in kind, but instead Lacon denies remembering the event and changes the subject (118–19):

τοῦτο μὲν οὐ μέμναμ’· ὅκα μάν ποκα τεῖδέ τυ δήσας
Εὐμάρας ἐκάθηρε, καλῶς μάλα τοῦτό γ᾽ ἴσαμι.

I don’t remember this. But when Eumaras bound you here
and cleaned you, I know well about that at least.

In order to understand why this moment in the exchange between Comatas and Lacon is pivotal, I want to compare it with a Turkish boys’ dueling rhyme game among eight to fourteen year-olds that has been discussed by Alan Dundes. [8] In this rather simplistic game, the object is to cast your opponent into a passive homosexual role. One boy starts by giving an image, say a bear (in Turkish, ayι). The next boy must then say something clever like “let a violin bow enter the bear,” saying it in such a way that the final word of his sentence, bow (yayι), rhymes with the word for bear (ayi). The violin bow, by the way, is a particularly appropriate image because it is long and thin, and the bowing motion itself suggests sexual motion. Then the first boy must find an equally apposite retort, perhaps something to the effect that it is better if a real man replaces the bow and enters the second boy, again making his line-end rhyme with the previous line-end. [9] Provided each boy makes a successful retort with end-rhyme, linking image to image, the game continues, sometimes with dozens of exchanged lines. Sometimes the exchanged lines are improvised on the spot, but just as frequently certain of them are in fact traditional responses, and so part of the object of the game is to show by means of these traditional responses how well one has mastered the traditional repertoire. The loser will be the boy who fails poetically to thwart his opponent’s attempts to cast him in a passive homosexual role or who breaks the rhyme scheme.

It may repay further research to explore what the implications of this pattern of obscuring the process of judgment in poetic contests may suggest both for Theocritus and his imitators like Vergil, especially given the political contexts in which these poems were composed and read. But by the very absence or complication of the audience as judge presiding over these literary singing contests, especially given Theocritus’ attention to oral poetic detail down to the use of terminology associated with earlier competitive traditions, Idylls 5, 6, and 8 offer important evidence for how significantly the public audience figured in earlier traditions in determining which competitor was, ultimately, the master of the game. As a result, as we turn in succeeding Parts of this study to live performances, we shall have continually to keep our eye on audiences, variously defined, who emerge as pivotal to defining the criteria for victory.


[ back ] 1. Erler 1986.

[ back ] 2. For Theocritus’ contests Merkelbach’s 1956 study remains the starting point.

[ back ] 3. Some of the issues involved in the judgment of the singing contests in the Eclogues and their implications for Vergil’s exploration of alternative forms of dialogue have been examined in an unpublished paper by Susanna Braund entitled, “Con-test Your Word Power: Dialogue and Duellogue in Virgil Eclogues and Horace Satires 1.” I thank Professor Braund for sharing this paper with me.

[ back ] 4. Pearce 1993.

[ back ] 5. Gow 1950.11:92–94.

[ back ] 6. [Plato], Hipparchus 228b–c.

[ back ] 7. A relevant overall summary of this contest can be found in Erler 1986:75–8.

[ back ] 8. Dundes 1987.

[ back ] 9. These examples in Dundes 1987:86.

[ back ] 10. So Erler 1986:78.

[ back ] 11. So Köhnken 1980:124. Köhnkens (ibid.:122–23, 125) conclusions rest largely on Lacon’s challenge at v. 22, ἀλλά γέ τοι διαείσομαι ἔστε κ᾽ ἀπείπῃς “I will contest you in song until you fail,” except that he interprets this too narrowly to mean that Comatas will not be forthcoming with a response rather than that an ineffectual one could be given.

[ back ] 12. Gow 1950.II:93.

[ back ] 13. Köhnken 1980:123, with bibliography of earlier views at 122 n1.