What the Shepherds Sing: Local Identity in the Bucolic Idylls of Theocritus

Jasnow, Benjamin, Classics - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Clay, Jenny, Department of Classics, University of Virginia

To demonstrate that Theocritus uses the bucolic Idylls to reflect upon and preserve regional Doric identity in the face of the literary canon and Alexandria’s rising cultural domination and internationalization, I examine the historical, literary and linguistic underpinnings of Doric Sicilian identity in the bucolic Idylls.

Chapter 1 proposes that Greek bucolic poetry first arises in a Doric adaptation of Near Eastern cult. The most plausible origin theories have detected foreign influence in the bucolic Idylls, comparing Daphnis to a Near Eastern paredros, the male companion of a fertility goddess. But such theories fail to account for the insistence of the Idylls that Daphnis and bucolic are of Sicilian origin; nor has an adequate historical account been offered to explain how Near Eastern myth and cult may have influenced Doric Sicily. Drawing on archaeological and mythological evidence, I show that 1) Daphnis originates in Sicilian popular festivals to Artemis, ultimately stemming from the cult of Artemis Ortheia at Sparta, which was influenced at an early date by myths about a Near Eastern paredros, and that 2) Ortheia’s cult most likely traveled to Sicily with colonists from the vicinity of Sparta. This theory therefore places the genesis of bucolic in Sicilian local and popular culture: Daphnis is a figure of local significance, drawn from a popular religious context, and Idyll 1 is a statement of regional identity.

Chapter 2 investigates the interpretive value of this origin theory for the programmatic first Idyll, from both a Near Eastern and a local perspective. Near Eastern parallels help explain some puzzles of Idyll 1, like the pursuit of Daphnis by a female, his hostile exchange with Aphrodite, his death and subsequent lamentation. On the other hand, Daphnis’ connection to popular Sicilian cult is the most important feature of the “poetics of locale” that Theocritus establishes in Idyll 1. While the ecphrasis of the cup, strongly indebted to Homer and Hesiod, is an emblem of Pan-Hellenic epic tradition, the song of Thyrsis takes a radically different perspective, dramatizing a live performance of local oral tradition, rooted in Sicilian popular cult and bearing the hallmarks of festival performance. Theocritus thus validates a local, sub-literary tradition by juxtaposing it to the cup, a symbol of the Pan-Hellenic canon.

Chapter 3 argues that Theocritus’ treatment of the Cyclops Polyphemus, best known from Homer’s Odyssey, is an occasion for the poet to reimagine the Pan-Hellenic literary canon in more local terms. Theocritus offers a decidedly sympathetic perspective on the monster, emphasizing that he and the Cyclops both come from Sicily (Idyll 11.7). Polyphemus is no longer the gluttonous, stupid, brutal ogre of Homer and previous authors, but a besotted lover, with an interest in poetry and philosophy. In Idyll 11, Theocritus re-appropriates a Pan-Hellenic figure for Sicily by reforming his character and putting him at the narrative and geographic center of his poetry. In Idyll 6, moreover, Theocritus sides with local traditions about Polyphemus and Galatea as opposed to more canonical versions of the tale.

Finally, chapter 4 suggests that the dialect of the bucolic Idylls, like Daphnis and the Cyclops, serves as a means of reflecting on local and popular Doric identity. Theocritus constructs an artificial literary language that nonetheless uses historical, unliterary, regional word-forms, often drawn from epichoric Doric dialects. By using such decidedly unliterary features, Theocritus’ Doric Kunstsprache is strongly marked against previous and contemporary Doric poetry, as well as epic language and the increasingly standard Attic-Ionic koine.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Theocritus, Idylls, Ancient Greek, Hellenistic, poetry, bucolic, pastoral, Sicily, identity, popular, Alexandria, Alexandrian, cosmopolitan, global, cult, Near East, Cyclops, Daphnis, Polyphemus, local, linguistic, Doric, dialect, Theocritean, myth, folk, folktale, narrative, legend, international, oral tradition, Pan-Hellenic, panhellenic, Kunstsprache, epic, sub-literary, unliterary, Idyll, Ortheia, Orthia, Artemis
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