History’s Lost, Part I: Stesichorus
Rufus has, for some time now, guiding this little community through “The Canon,” and it seems we’ve finally made it past 400 BCE and Greek tragedy. The danger when speaking of any “canon” is that it is solely our canon; history affects it so that, even without the culture/curriculum wars, it would change over time. Literature accumulates, but literature is also lost. The Library at Alexandria burned twice; papyrus is not permanent. Sometimes (as with Aristotle in the ancient world) it is written, lost, and re-discovered. The canon of the ancient Greeks—and there was such a thing—is not the same even as the segment of today’s canon devoted to them.
That we have only eight of the 120 or so plays (tragedies and satyr plays) that can be reasonably supposed to have been written by Sophokles is a direct result of ancient canon-making; the tragedies which survive from the 5th century BCE are, with several exceptions, those chosen in the subsequent century for preservation. Whether they were chosen because they were the best, the most popular, or some combination of the two is unclear. So, too, is the matter of whether we should wish for more Sophokles. As a professor of mine once asked, would it be worth it to have the next dozen of Sophokles’ plays if, through their inferior quality, they lowered our estimation of the playwright so much that the magnificent eight we presently have fell, too?
Among those who, unlike Sophokles, were truly lost is a poet to whom I devoted roughly a year of my life, Stesichorus (~650 to ~550 BCE*). History was not kind to him. Canonical in his day, Longinus called him “most Homeric.” Although criticized for his long-windedness, he was praised above all for his originality. Some sources claim that he was the progenitor of Athena’s birth from Zeus’ head, or Elektra’s discovery of the lock of her brother’s hair. His version of the struggle between Polyneikes and Eteokles appears (at least to me) to have influenced both Aeschylus and Euripides. I believe it is possible, as I noted in a comment on Rufus’ discussion of the Helen, that Euripides may have deliberately looked to Stesichorus for guidance within a kind of counter-traditional canon. (NOTE: Most Classics scholars would at this point respond in one of two ways: “Bah! Crazy talk!” or, “Nice theory, very interesting, would make for a fascinating re-evaluation of tragedy. Quite unfortunate that there’s no way to ever prove it, barring sheer luck in a papyrus find.”) All told, reports from the ancient world tell us that his poetry filled twenty-six books—a vague number, to be certain, but given what we know of his style and his reputation, it seems plausible that it indicates a life’s work equivalent in volume to the Iliad or Odyssey.
Several hundred lines of those twenty-six volumes survive today. Most of them are exceptionally fragmentary—we have to uncover the plot through recreating half-lines—and most of what remains—and of the more complete lines—were discovered, more or less by accident, between 1960 and 1980. Before that, he was most famous as the dictionary-source for innumerable varieties of obscure fish that even the Greeks needed help distinguishing.
What remains of his work is enough to tell us with certainty that we should mourn for the full body, despite its long-windedness. Stesichorus was the great poet of the western Greek world—the details are not clear, but we know he lived almost all of his life in the colony of Himera, on Sicily. He may or may not have left the island, once, to travel to Sparta/Doric mainland Greece on a kind of ancient concert-tour. Homer wrote from Ionia (modern day Turkey) and culled from a mythical and pre-/proto-literary tradition that was very ancient and very much around him. Sophokles wrote from the heights of Classical Athens. Stesichorus wrote from the equivalent of the Wild West, and his works show it.
His works, to my eye, take conscious aim at the Homeric epics, which, from Himera—in constant contact and occasional war with the more “indigenous” Sikels and Carthaginian colonists (who would, some centuries after Stesichorus’ death, destroy the city completely)—no longer appear true enough. The Geryoneis, which narrates the tale of Herakles’ quest to steal the cattle of Geryon, draws on both Homeric Odysseus-figure and the depictions of the enemy/non-Greek: Geryon, a winged, three-bodied monster, combines the best and worst traits of Hektor and Polyphemus—and, in his quest to determine his mortality, echoes the language of Akhilles. The world of the Geryoneis is a world in which the non-Greek is neither noble (Hektor) nor barbarous (Polyphemus), but some combination of the two—all while remaining decidedly other than the Greek. More importantly, however, it is a world in which no one has the knowledge they need—they can only guess at which questions to ask themselves, let alone how to respond. By comparison, Akhilles has all the answers he will ever need; the only matter is what he will do with them. The world of the West is, it seems, more uncertain and more dangerous than that of the East.
Structurally and linguistically, Stesichorus’ poetry is almost a creole poetry. This is a result of both Sicily in general and Himera in particular. Unlike the typical “colony” (if it weren’t the best possible word to use, it would be the worst; this is nothing like the colonization conducted by modern European powers), Himera’s population consisted of multiple Greek “ethnicities” (a better term would be “dialect-group”): Dorian—the dialect which included Sparta, much of Greek choral lyric, Sappho, and laid claim to Herakles—and Chalchidean—the dialect of Hesiod and his variety of gnomic-epic verse. Its location made it a central trading outpost—and a direct threat to Carthaginian endeavors on Sicily. The verse structure of his poetry is Dorian (triadic); the scale is epic; and the language itself is a unique—almost cosmopolitan—mixture of Greek dialects. The Classical scholar C.M. Bowra divided the influences slightly differently: Hesiodic epic (Chalchidean), choral (Dorian), and local folk-song (Sicilian).
Stesichorus seems, then, to have lived and written from a point of political and linguistic flux—but the survival of his works would have been perhaps even more valuable as artifacts of the literary tradition and its development (perhaps birth). The “long-windedness” which is his fault is not a product of heavy-handed narrative. Stesichorus will skim over plot in a mere twenty lines, then devote several hundred to lengthy speeches: the action is almost non-existent, except in the words his characters speak. One reads Stesichorus and wishes, If only we knew how this was performed! This is the key, even more than my own desire to find in his works evidence of self-conscious literary tradition in the 7th century: if Stesichorus wrote for choral performance, not bardic/citharodic performance, then we suddenly have choral proto-tragedy written in multiple voices hundreds of years before Aeschylus supposedly added a third performer and changed literature forever.
Barring some miraculous discovery in the papyrus archives of France or the University of Michigan, we will never be able to know. We have no shortage of papyrus fragments, but the process of culling the jewels from the junk is time consuming—and then comes the matter of determining origins and piecing them together, all while racing against the decay that comes with handling them—or the potential that, with Classics programs being killed daily (I get several save-our-program petitions a month; this past week has seen at least a half-dozen announcements of major/program deaths hit my inbox), they’ll be toss in storage or out with the trash, and lost for another few thousand years.
*That’s not an actual life-span, mind you. That’s just what I think is the best guess for the range in which he actually did live. There are reports that he lived to be roughly 80, however, so he may have covered most of it.