Prophecy and Knowledge in Stesichorus' Lille Papyrus

Lindsay G. Samson

University of Iowa

Although the extant corpus of Stesichorus consists of only a little over one hundred lines, we do possess a complete triad from his untitled work on the Theban cycle, in which Jocasta reacts to the prophecy she had received from Apollo regarding her sons' fate.  This triad is invaluable, as it illustrates the complexity and innovation in the metrical structure of his poetry.  He is the first poet we know of to respond anceps with biceps, a technique later employed by Pindar and Bacchylides[1].  This unusual responsion between strophe and antistrophe would have undoubtedly caught the attention of Stesichorus' audience, who would have been expecting to hear the same beat, only to be caught off guard by the quick change.  It is my contention that this new metrical structure was employed to highlight certain words, and hence themes, in this triad. 

My paper makes two points.  First, when the strophe and antistrophe do not respond, the words that are accented by this metrical "hiccup" articulate a theme.  For example, in the first line of the strophe (PMGF. 222(b). 211), the word "i]de;syai" responds with "mu;yoiv" in the first line of the antistrophe (PMFG. 222(b). 218).  These words set the tone for the strophe and antistrophe respectively.  The strophe's theme is knowledge, as gained from Apollo; and the antistrophe articulates Jocasta's lament[2], a mu;yov, or speech not based on divine authority.

With this in mind, I will show how Stesichorus uses these highlighted terms to draw attention to Jocasta's proposal to Apollo (PMFG. 222(b). 218-24), and how it contrasts with the god's prophetic speech.  Jocasta is not merely lamenting the devastating fate of her sons; she is trying to create her own "prophecy," but as mu;yoiv suggests, with unfounded authority.  The unique metrical responsion of anceps with biceps allows Stesichorus to show the progression of Jocasta's struggle to accept the fate allotted to her sons, while at the same time highlighting the futility in her attempt to change what has already been fated.

[1] Michael Haslam, “The Versification of the New Stesichorus (P.Lille 76abc)” GRBS (Vol. 19, 1978), 38.

[2] Richard P. Martin, The Language of Heroes: Speech and Performance in the Iliad (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 87.


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