Hesiodic Muses and Anti-Hesiodic Pierides in Ovid's Metamorphoses

Zoe Stamatopoulou

University of Virginia

The Pierides' challenge to the Muses and their contest in Ovid's Met. 5.294-678 has attracted recent scholarly interest as a case study of poetic authority in Ovid. The Muses' authority as narrators constantly aware of their internal audiences has been revealed both in the prejudiced narration of the contest and in Calliope's song (Zissos 1999; Rosati in Weiden Boyd 2002). Moreover, the Muses have been read as champions of Jupiter's political authority against the mortal Pierides who question the supremacy of the Muses in their challenge and of Jupiter in their song (Johnson and Malamud 1988, Johnson 1996). Developing Johnson's insight on Hesiodic themes in the episode, this paper argues that the issues of political power in the episode are cast in terms of an intricate set of allusions to the Theogony.

The contest between the Muses and the Pierides on Mount Helicon immediately evokes Hesiod's own encounter with the goddesses in the same setting (Th. 23). The first explicit Hesiodic echoes occur at the beginning of the Pierides' challenge: desinite indoctum vana dulcedine vulgus / fallere (5.308-9). With these words, the Pierides seem to allude to the Muses' own famous statement to Hesiod (Th. 26-8), in which they asserted that they disclose and withhold the truth at whim, while human beings are by nature incapable of distinguishing between their truths and their lies. The allusion is further emphasized by dulcedine which recalls the gifts bestowed by the Hesiodic Muses upon favored kings and poets (γλυκερὴν…ἐέρσην, Th. 83; γλυκερὴ…αὐδή, Th. 97). The evocation of the cognitive gap between gods and mortals established in the Theogony marks the cooption of the Hesiodic Muses by Ovid's Muses, highlights the continuity of divine rhetoric, and projects the strong Hesiodic separation between immortals and mortals upon the world of the Metamorphoses. It is against this status quo that the Pierides rebel by attributing the cognitive gap merely to a lack of doctrina among the vulgus and asserting that, unlike the ποιμένες γραυλοι (Th. 26), certain mortals --the docti-- can escape the sweet deception of the Muses' words (Th. 88-93, 98-103), rise to the level of divine knowledge on their own, and achieve independent poetic authority.

Consistent with the tone of their challenge, the Pierides' song (as reported) seems to deliberately subvert the pro-Olympian poetry favored by the Hesiodic Muses (Th. 33, 47-52, 98-103). The mortal challengers choose to sing a Gigantomachy, alluded to in the Muses' praise of Zeus in the Theogony (Th. 50), and a Typhonomachy, a battle extensively narrated by Hesiod (Th. 820-868). Their song, however, is a disquieting version of the Muses' praise of the Olympian order, cast in anti-Hesiodic terms, since they present the Olympians subject to fear and to (temporary) defeat; they project Typhoeus' beastly qualities (Th. 831-5) upon the gods themselves (Met. 5.327-31), and deprive Zeus of his victory over Typhoeus (5.332, 345-58).

In this paper I hope to show that Hesiod's Theogony constantly informs the Pierides' episode as the exemplum of poetry totally subservient to the established authority.


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