Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History

  Compton, Todd M. 2006. Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History. Hellenic Studies Series 11. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Ex is, qui in porticibus spatiabantur, lapides in Eumolpum recitantem miserunt. At ille, qui plausum ingenii sui nouerat, operuit caput extraque templum profugit. Timui ego, ne me poetam uocaret.

Petronius Satyricon


The following study started out as an attempt to do for hero poets what Fontenrose had done for hero athletes. Thus, his methodology of theme comparison will be apparent in the following pages, and also an interest in hero cult. However, Aesop, Hipponax, and Sappho, especially, led me to the central theme of the pharmakos, and I became interested in the theme of the exclusion of the poet—by trial, exile, or execution/murder—of which the pharmakos theme is the ritual reflex. Though hero cult and the pharmakos complex are related, my focus shifted to the scapegoat.

However, this study’s compass goes far beyond the classic Aesopic pharmakos pattern. Any time a poet-satirist is subjected to legal punishment, is exiled, or is executed or murdered, I have examined the story. Such themes are closely related to the pharmakos pattern, of course, for that unfortunate victim was sometimes chosen by trial, was forcibly expelled from his city, and, at least in legend, was killed. Expulsion is the key theme.

I have examined such stories whether they were legendary or historical—or, as was often the case, an ambiguous interface between the two. Thus my focus is quite different from the investigation of those who have been concerned with proving a story ahistorical. While they often seem to lose interest as soon as they have come to the conclusion that a story is not factually true, I became increasingly interested in persistent legendary patterns, which can be very archaic. Often, it is close to impossible to ascertain whether a story is historical or legendary, though one can make educated guesses one way or the other. There are undoubtedly ahistorical legends of exiled or murdered poets (most obvious when there is a miraculous or supernatural framework, as in the legend of Simonides in which the Dioscuri save the poet from death and punish a stingy, dishonest patron); but there are undoubtedly historical cases of exiled or executed poets. To complicate the issue, certainly historical cases often have legendary accretions. But, for my purposes, certainty on the question of historicity is not necessary, though, when possible, it is useful to have. A legendary pattern has its own significance and interest.

Thus, my analysis of these stories, and my central theme, led me to probe the meaning of the scapegoat in Greek, and other cultures, both in legend and history. I became especially interested in the positive aspects of the scapegoat—in the case of the poet, he is inspired; in legendary cases, often overtly consecrated by a theophany, thus sacred. Seemingly, much different from the deformed human katharma, refuse, stoned out of Greek cities. Of course, the scapegoat is ambiguous, even in ritual, and the effect of the scapegoat is always positive, according to the ideology of the ritual.

In addition, the connections of the scapegoat—and of our poets—with war led to related issues. Often the pharmakoi are excluded to deal with war or invasion as a crisis. And often, our poets had military vocations, partially or dominantly. Archilochus was a soldier, and was reportedly killed in battle, a death linked to a cultic legend. Tyrtaeus is a standard deformed, dim-witted, mad pharmakos figure, whom the Athenians have selected as their least desirable citizen, to expel from the city and give to the Spartans; he becomes the Spartans’ general, poetic source of martial inspiration, and savior.

Furthermore, satirical poetry and language have often been compared to violent combat. A common denominator of poet and warrior is madness—or, more precisely, possession. The aggression of the satirist and the aggression of the warrior are both ambiguously focused toward the good of the community, and the warrior becomes as much a scapegoat as does the poet. The warrior wields a sword or spear; as does the satirist, verbally (though his poetry is often compared to the violence of the animal’s bite, as well as to weapons).

Thus, in chapters 17 through 19, I examine poets and myths about poets chiefly in two European countries, Ireland and Germany. Many of the themes in Greek culture receive affirmation and illumination from these poets, especially in my analysis of the combination of aggression and possession in the archaic poet. Many Irish poets were warriors, and two of the chief warrior figures studied by Dumézil, Starkaðr and Suibhne, were leading poets in their cultures. I examine their poetic dimensions in chapter eighteen. In the following chapters I examine exiled or executed poets in Rome.

Second, and paradoxically, though this study examines poets, it is chiefly a study in myth, legend, religion, and history, though it has obvious relevance to literary study, especially to archaic Greek poetry. Examination of the poet’s poetry is frequent, though the life of the poet is examined first. Clearly, this is merely one way of looking at an issue, not a value judgment on a “right” or “wrong” way.


All scholarship is based on the work of others. Many of my influences will be apparent; I am especially indebted to the work of Walter Burkert, J. Fontenrose, and Nagy, in the field of classics; in the field of Indo-European studies, Dumézil and Jaan Puhvel. Though I differ with Mary Lefkowitz occasionally, I owe much to her book on the Greek poets. I was fortunate in having Puhvel as head of my doctoral committee; his encouragement and polymathic expertise in philological and Dumézilian matters were invaluable. I owe Gregory Nagy special thanks for his willingness to foster comparative work like this book in the field of classics. In addition to his own pathbreaking and ever-stimulating work, he will leave a important legacy in the work of scholars whom he has generously “aided and abetted.” I would also like to thank Casey Dué Hackney, Leonard Muellner, and M. Zoie Lafis for help in preparing this book for publication.

I am far from a specialist in Irish or Sanskrit, so I am grateful to my co-worker Randall Gordon for his help with those languages in my Indo-European chapters. In addition, I am grateful to Steven Lattimore, Ann Bergren, Kees Bolle, Donald Ward, Richard Janko, Jan Bremmer, Michael Haslam, and Leslie Myrick for reading parts or all of this manuscript; their criticisms and suggestions have improved my work immeasurably. All of the limitations in this book are entirely my own, however.

On a personal level, I would like to thank my parents and siblings for encouragement while this book was beginning. Thanks also to Dave and Mike, Terry, Stephen, Dan, Elbert, Kaz, Leslie, Martha, Jeff, Katy, Laurel, Robert, Becky, and Esther, for friendship and inspiration in the ongoing quest. I am indebted to Gene Wolfe, classicist and fantasist nonpareil, for patiently enduring early descriptions of the content of this book. However, this book is dedicated to Laura, who has shown the continued truth of Odysse y vi 182-185.


[ back ] 1. West 1975.

[ back ] 2. West 1975:15.

[ back ] 3. West 1975:15. West has dealt with Semitic parallels to Greek myth and philosophy extensively in his books (see now his vast East Face of Helicon, West 1997), more rarely with Indo-European parallels. But see the following note. Burkert has also dealt mostly with Semitic parallels in his comparative work, see Burkert 1992, 2004. Cf. Seaford 1994; Penglase 1994; Sergent 1998.

[ back ] 4. See West 1973 and 1973b; Dumézil 1943; Durante 1958, 1962, and 1971; Nagy 1979; Bremmer 1987:2, with bibliography; Watkins 1995.

[ back ] 5. See below, chapter 3.

[ back ] 6. Bloomfield and Dunn 1989:1n.

[ back ] 7. Dover 1976:39. For the importance of “late” sources in the study of myth, see Henrichs 1987. Obviously, archaic material was often preserved in masses of Hellenistic and Imperial scholia and in collections of myth. Biographical traditions, historical or otherwise, also preserved some archaic data.

[ back ] 8. Gantz 1993:378–379, cf. 411, 438, 459.

[ back ] 9. Watkins 1995:70–84.