Academic journal article Helios

Spellbinding Performance: Poet as Witch in Theocritus' Second Idyll and Apollonius' Argonautica

Academic journal article Helios

Spellbinding Performance: Poet as Witch in Theocritus' Second Idyll and Apollonius' Argonautica

Article excerpt

The connection between poetry and enchantment in Greek literature is by now a familiar subject. (1) [LANGUAGE REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] The poet enchants (OUyei) his audience as a magician chants a spell or administers a drug, causing pleasure and the forgetfulness of pain in the listener. As with most other poetic topoi, this one goes back to Homer, to figures like Circe, the Sirens, and even Helen. In this paper, I will argue that two witches from Hellenistic poems should be regarded as poet-figures: Simaetha in Theocritus' Idyll 2, and Medea in Apollonius' Argonaulica. Theocritus and Apollonius use the performing female voice of the witch to suggest a kind of performance context and an authenticity for their work. By simultaneously focalizing and objectifying the young, nubile witch as she performs her spells, the Hellenistic poets enchant and seduce the reader. Both Simaetha and Medea use magic to achieve their ends, and both seem to have enchanted their readers, yet neither one is typically read as a poet-f igure. The reason for this is bound up with the way in which both poets portray these witches: as young, inexperienced, nubile girls, potentially powerful but also vulnerable. Their gender, youth, and inexperience tend to lead critics to view them as the objects of men's charming language (Delphis, Jason) rather than as the agents of magical, poetic charms themselves. Critics also seem led, over and over, to psychological interpretations of the witches' characters rather than to structural or symbolic analyses of the way the witches stand in for the poet in their respective poems.

The character usually taken to represent Theocritus within his poems is Simichidas in Idyll 7. Simichidas is often seen as a mask of Theocritus partly because of the connection both have to Cos (which is inferred for Theocritus based in part on this Poem (2)), but mostly because he is a singer in an explicitly programmatic setting. (3) But Simaetha is a kind of singer as well (a point I will return to later). Furthermore, Idyll 2 also contains subtle references to Cos, (4) and it has been suggested that these references could be as significant as those in Idyll 7, that Theocritus may be identifying himself with Simaetha as much (or as little) as he is presumed to identify himself with Simichidas. (5) Simaetha's gender makes her a slightly different kind of poet-figure than Simichidas, as we will see, but it does not prevent her from being one altogether.

Orpheus is often seen as the poet-figure in the Argonautica, although Medea takes over this role completely in Book 3. (6) Albis is one critic who sees Medea, at least partially, as a figure for the poet, noting four different aspects of her presentation that mark her out as a poet-figure: her connection with eros (citing Hesiod's Pandora as a precedent); Medea's use of pharmaka; the power her incantations give her over others; and the way her words sometimes echo the narrator's. (7) Ultimately, however, he argues that "Medea is sometimes assimilated to audience, sometimes to poet," that her power is disturbing to the audience, and that Jason is also a poet-figure. (8) In other words, Medea is more a model for the audience affected by poetry, or a negative model of a poet, or no poet at all. All three of these readings seem based on the fact of her femaleness: she is the object of Jason's seduction, and so a figure for the audience; she is a witch, and so a negative poet-figure; she is a girl, and so not a p oet. But the markers are all there, as Albis himself points out, and thus we need to look at them as part of a poetic strategy that uses a female persona to accomplish a kind of enchantment of the audience that a male persona cannot.

The mere fact that they are female does not automatically exclude Simaetha and Medea from consideration as personae of their respective poets; there are too many other hints that this is exactly how they function. Goldhill notes the emergence of a new kind of poet-figure in Idyll 2: "The first-person narrative in the voice of a young woman of uncertain status and background immediately indicates a shift in the alignment of possibilities of poetic self-expression. …

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