Orphic Allusions in Horace's Odes 3.4

David K. Shelley

Brigham Young University

In Odes 3.4 Horace echoes several themes from Hesiod's Theogony.   Like Hesiod, Horace tells of a miraculous encounter which designated him as a servant of the Muses.  He calls attention to the relationship between the Muses and political power.   In what may be the most obvious parallel, Horace offers an account of the Gigantomachy.  These references to the Theogony may be considered sufficient to bind together the disparate parts of Horace's complex poem, but there is evidence that hints at another unifying theme underlying this Hesiodic framework.   Though Orpheus is never named explicitly in the text, Orphic themes can be found throughout the poem.  This Orphic subtext subtly modifies the message of the more readily apparent Hesiodic imagery.

The ode opens with an invocation to Calliope, who, in addition to being the Muse designated by Hesiod as she who attends kings as well as poets, is the mother of Orpheus.   Horace, in the second stanza, describes an ecstatic trance representing Musaic inspiration.  As  M. L. West explains (1983, 4-5) the Orpheus myth draws on shamanistic traditions in which such an experience of possession by the gods is common (indeed, essential).   West also points out that the shaman can be carried to the furthest reaches of the earth during his trance.  Horace spends several stanzas speaking of how, as a servant of the gods, he will happily travel to remote and dangerous places without coming to any harm.   In this section Horace asserts that he would willingly travel as a sailor through the Bosphoros (lines 29-31), a detail which echoes Orpheus' journey through the Bosphoros with the Argonauts.   Another important element of the Orpheus myth is the power Orpheus exercises over nature.  Lines 9-20, in which Horace recalls sleeping in the woods, cared for by birds and unmolested by vipers or bears, can be read as an allusion to this power of poetry over nature.   Orphic texts often include theogonies, with accounts of the Gigantomachy.  This isn't just a feature of esoteric religious texts; the Gigantomachy is also associated with Orpheus in mainstream literature.   The conclusion of the poem refers to the underworld, which calls to mind Orpheus' descent into Hades.

Horace is describing the poet's power not just in political terms, but in a quasi-religious sense.   Hesiod explains that both poets and kings are granted beautiful speech (and, thereby, power) by the Muses, but Horace's use of the Orpheus myth ascribes far greater power to poets than that.   Orpheus wields power over nature, over the very cosmos; he is protected from physical harm by his music, which even enables him to overpower death.  Thus, by subtly alluding to Orpheus, Horace may be seeking to lay greater emphasis on the power of poetry, reinforcing the point he makes in the gnomic statements of lines 65-68 (i.e., earthly power cannot stand without the aid of poetic wisdom).


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