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.


To appreciate any literary subject it is best to know what came before. The scholar of Hellenistic poetry, for example, brings to bear on the subject a knowledge of Classical Greek literature and culture. Yet in the case of the earliest phases of Greek poetry we rarely have access to comparable information, so we are forced to approach the subject in a very different way. The point of this study has been to highlight ways to mitigate this problem, to find in comparative evidence a vantage point from which we can view our earliest Greek poetry in the light of its otherwise obscured past. Horses have been my particular subject because they are especially interesting, but also because they are especially fit for such analysis. There is enough evidence and scholarship concerning horses in the IE world that several facets of the subject can be discussed with unusual confidence. Central to this is the fact that horses were featured in poetry through an extremely ancient poetic expression that was preserved in three daughter languages, and that they were central to an important sacrificial ritual, which united the themes of hippomorphism and sex. They are also a prominent subject in early Greek poetry, where they are treated in certain special ways that, I think, reveal new meaning when viewed through this historical evidence.

My work began with the Homeric formula ὠκέες ἵπποι, which descended through a continuous chain of poetic performance from PIE antiquity to ancient Greece. My goal was first to highlight the poetic qualities of the phrase, both in sound and in meaning, in the poetry of the parent culture and then to explore how it was preserved and flourished in Greece. The phrase was remarkably euphonic in its original form and in fact remained so in Greek up until a time just prior to that captured by our texts. Its euphony, erstwhile significance as a figura etymologica, and eventual metrical utility in dactylic verse allowed it not only to survive into Greek but to proliferate there, modified and expanded in a wide range of Homeric formulas, variously and creatively deployed by the poets. Ultimately, this investigation led me to argue that the intriguing Homeric epithet of Hades, κλυτόπωλος, came into use as a result of the development of the network of formulas related to ὠκέες ἵπποι.

From formulas about horses I moved to horses themselves, and to their relationship to humans, particularly epic heroes. Horses have a special position in the world of early Greek verse, wherein they are uniquely similar to humans. This similarity extends beyond martial valor to the very level of ontology, as can be seen in the presence of immortal and semi-divine horses. The existence of such horses runs parallel to that of the semi-divine heroes and their own immortal parents. This similarity is part of a broad overlap of horse and hero that not only shaped Greek epic poetry at a very fundamental level but can be seen in related IE poetry, notably that of ancient India. In positing that these parallel phenomena spring from a tendency mutually inherited from the parent culture I looked to evidence yielded by the PIE horse sacrifice ritual. I avoided detailed reconstruction of that ritual in favor of a minimal schema, focusing only on evidence of the potential for humans and horses to represent each other on a ritualistic level. Such an approach is especially important in the study of Greek culture because Greece did not preserve such a ritual itself. Greece was, however, an inheritor of the ideology that had shaped it.

The ritual’s specific linking of horse and human identity in the realm of sex was also explored, and I argued that the ritual testifies to a tendency in the parent culture to use horses as a tool through which to think about human sex and power. This broad tendency was used as a backdrop against which to read Greek lyric depictions of both male and female sexual figures who are themselves depicted as horses. The connection between horses and sex also led to an investigation of the sexual connotations of the word menos, and its verbal root *men-, to which horses are often connected in Greece and elsewhere. Not only is the word of surprisingly wide semantic range, but so is its root, having throughout the IE languages meanings having to do with thought, physical strength, sex, and the production of poetry. In this final sphere, that of poetry, the connection between horses, sex, and humans is especially interesting, because it may, I have suggested, help to explain the origin of the metapoetic charioteer, a figure observable in several IE poetic traditions. The fact that charioteering cannot itself be traced to the parent culture means that the appearance of this figure in multiple daughter cultures should not be explained as a simple common inheritance. I suggested that this figure developed independently in the distinct traditions through the commonly inherited symbology of the horse and its connections to μένος. I argue that the verbal root *men- should be understood to mean something like “to direct one’s life force” in a way that could produce valorous acts, sexual acts, or acts of intellectual production like poetry. In this concept I see a link between horses, heroes, and poets that helped shape the development of the metapoetic charioteer.

A difficulty raised by the metapoetic charioteer led to the final subject of my work, namely what to do with similarities in treatment of horses across the IE world that cannot be traced directly to the parent culture. My specific concern was the multiple occurrences of chariots in marriage myths, and I argued, as I had in the previous section, that similarities in cultural background can lead to parallel developments subsequent to the dispersal of the daughter cultures. In this case, however, I do not see the pertinent inherited material in horses per se but in the mythopoetic structure of the marriage ritual. Specifically I look at the marriage race for Hippodameia as told in Pindar’s Olympian I and argue that marriage ritual myths elsewhere in Greece and India document an inherited network of mythopoetic techniques for the depiction of marriage contests, of which the chariot race myth is simply one variety, independently created in multiple traditions.

I have not, of course, investigated every facet of early Greek poetic treatment of horses. I expect, in fact, that even in the realm of inherited equine poetics subjects remain that could profitably expand this investigation. I hope, however, that I have made meaningful inroads into this study and usefully mapped out paths around common obstacles. I will be very happy if in so doing I have also drawn attention to this fascinating and elusive element of early Greek verse.