Lucian's Homer: The Epic Allusions of the Herakles
University of Texas, Austin
In his Herakles, Lucian presents himself puzzled by an odd painting of the homonymous hero in the land of the Celts. Herakles is depicted as an extremely old man, who leads a crowd of followers by means of a thread that is bound to his tongue. As a Greek-speaking Celt explains to Lucian, their Herakles (for the locals, Ogmios) is the equivalent of the Greek Hermes, and personifies eloquence, wisdom and persuasion. Impressed with the symbolism of this ekphrasis, Lucian decides to resume his career as a public speaker, which he had abandoned due to the scornful attitude of his younger colleagues. Although the self-referential aspect of this prolalia is obvious, no attention has been paid to the rhetorical function of its Homeric allusions. In this paper, I propose that the Homeric references (direct quotations or broader themes) contribute significantly to Lucian's argument regarding his literary program and the second Sophistic as a whole.
I will first discuss the specific allusions to the Homeric text: the elders of Troy in the teikhoskopia; Priam called to witness the oath of Paris about returning Helen; Nestor attempting to reconcile Agamemnon and Akhilleus, and later on reproached by Diomedes; and Odysseus-the-beggar confronting Iros. I will moreover argue that the aged Herakles plays on the two Homeric underworld scenes: Herakles' ghost frightening the souls in the Nekyia (his belt described in another ekphrasis), and Hermes leading the suitors to Hades. Finally, Lucian compares his return to the profession with the rebuilding of a boat, and his prayer for favorable winds echoes his departure from Kirke's island. A consistent pattern underlies all these allusions: aged, marginalized and laughable figures outmatch the young in might (Odysseus-Iros), as well as prudence (Priam-Paris); they are dissociated from death and assume and active role (the tactician Nestor saves Diomedes from Zeus' wrath); and they reveal a more threatening persona (the beggar Odysseus kills the suitors). For some of these characters, the crossing of ethnic boundaries reinforces the disjunction of appearance and reality: Odysseus is a stranger both in Hades and in Ithake, while Herakles becomes popular among the Celts despite his bad precedent in the area, i.e. the Geryones episode.
Viewed more broadly, these themes condense crucial programmatic features of Lucian's literary production. The laughable giving way to the serious corresponds exactly to his technique of parody (spoudogeloion). The elimination of ethnic boundaries, this time through paideia, is applicable both to the Celt explainer, who is familiar with Greek language and myth, and Lucian the Syrian, who visits the Celts but is also educated in Greek. The appearance-reality disjunction, along with the symbolic depiction of Herakles in the ekphrasis, poses the problem of literal vs. allegorical representation. It furthermore expresses the demand for a public sufficiently informed to interpret art and literature, with Lucian and the Celt meeting the standard. Interestingly, the rejuvenation of aged figures becomes emblematic of the 'ancient' literary tradition (Homer being the 'oldest' of poets) as revived in the 2nd c. AD. Consequently, the narrative context of these epic allusions adds a second layer to Lucian's rhetorical use of the Herakles paradigm. Lucian's skillful manipulation of the Homeric scenes, reflecting his profound knowledge of epic tradition, epitomizes the stance of the Second Sophistic towards a meaningful 'return to the past'.
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