Inside Orpheus' Song: Colonization, Theogony and Poetic Agons in Apollonius Rhodius and the Orphica Argonautica

Andromache Karanika

Temple University

Orpheus was known to be part of the Argonauts' crew from at least the sixth century.  In the scholia to Apollonius Rhodius' Argonautica we find a surprise for Orpheus' participation in the Argonautic expedition.  The scholiast wonders why a weak man like Orpheus sailed with the heroes (Scholia to Apollonius Rhodius' Argonautica, A 23-25a).  He is the first hero to be mentioned in the Apollonian narrative to join the Argonautic crew, in the office of a keleustes, since he undertook the role of giving the rhythm to the rowers with his chanting.  His music was not only used to keep the rhythm for the rowers, but had a more profound power, as he also performed all religious rites. In this light, I would like to see this role in historical terms, and contrast it to the role of an oikistes in colonisation expeditions, by bringing references from Apollonius Rhodius and the Orphica Argonautica that support such a view. 

Orpheus' performances on board present theogonic accounts.  In Apollonius Rhodius he calms the strife that arose between Idas and Idmon, by singing a song of the creation of the world. (1, 494-515).   In the Orphica Argonautica, at the encounter with the Centaur Cheiron, the Argonauts request an agon, a competition in singing between Cheiron and Orpheus.  After a failed attempt to avoid the contest with his elder, Orpheus gives another theogonic account, about the formation of the universe with which he wins the contest.

The poetic agon is intensified in the episode with the Sirens, since Orpheus is asked to overcome the mighty power of the Sirens.  In Apollonius, he overcomes the Sirens through the playing of his phorminx, not his voice.  In the Orphica Argonautica, we have an agon here between the Sirens and Orpheus.  Orpheus sings of the strife of Zeus with Poseidon.

By looking inside Orpheus' performances during the Argonautic expedition, I seek to re-examine the role of Orpheus as a mythological figure in post-classical literature.  His song becomes the platform for poetic activity that both evokes distant past (and place) as well as seeks to surpass it. 


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