Ambiguous Goats and Other Paradoxes in Callimachus' Acontius and Cydippe

Philippa Lang

Emory University

Callimachus' Acontius and Cydippe recounts the story of Cydippe, a young woman of Naxos who had accidentally sworn to Artemis that she would marry only Acontius. According to Callimachus, the customs of Naxos dictated that a man and woman should share the same bed on the eve of their marriage, allegedly in honor of the premarital incest of Zeus and Hera. When Cydippe does so, however, with a betrothed who is not Acontius, she is stricken each time with severe illness until an appeal to the oracle reveals the cause of the problem and she can marry Acontius.

I will argue that the medical elements of this poem contain a set of allusions to the disputed nature of the so-called 'sacred disease', notably to the Hippocratic text which vehemently and explicitly asserts the non-sacredness of that condition. This topos of intellectual discourse – it is also found, for instance, in Herodotus - is employed by Callimachus for a paradoxical duality of reference, exemplified by the role of the goats. In the Hippocratic text, the excessive phlegm in goats' brains reveals the physical nature of the disease. Callimachus declares the label 'sacred' to be false, but at the same time the goats in his poem carry out a sacred role in the expulsion of the disease. Thus the traditional reading and label of the disease exists simultaneously with its contradictory deployment as a paradigmatic rejection of that mode as a valid form of explanation. It is moreover only one of the means by which Acontius and Cydippe plays upon apparently simple frameworks of explanation  - such as the etiological myth which is supposed to explain the Naxian marriage custom - which on closer examination juxtapose bedfellows at least as uneasy as Cydippe and her first betrothed.

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