Greek lyric poet Stesichorus

StesichorusStesichorus was an ancient Greek lyric poet from Himera in Sicily, who lived during the late 7th and early 6th centuries BC. His original name was Teisias, and he is believed to have been named Stesichorus because he was the first to organize choruses (choral dances and songs).

The poet, who is chronologically placed in the last quarter of the 7th century BC and the first half of the 6th century BC, faithfully follows the path of the aoidoi-rhapsodes, like Terpander from Lesbos.

Familiar with the recitation and composition of Homer’s dactylic hexameter and other poets of the epic cycle, Stesichorus innovatively approached the Homeric text. He did not merely set it to music but created new compositions in lyrical measures, utilizing the rich deposits of raw material hidden in the heroic myth.

Rightly, Quintilian referred to him: epici carminis onera lyra sustinens (“with his lyre he bore the burden of epic song”). Consequently, Stesichorus’s contribution is summarized in the transformation of epic narrative into a new, long, and narrative lyrical genre.

Only a few fragments survive from the 26 books encompassing the 13 attested titles of Stesichorus. In the history of ancient Greek literature, he was admired for the “grandeur of his themes” and served as a model for Pindar and Bacchylides. Stesichorus’s works were titled with the names of mythical heroes, reflecting their narrative nature: Cycnus, Cerberus, Geryoneis, The Boar Hunters, Europa, Eriphyle are some of his poems.

Everywhere, the epic echoes in myth, language, and technique are indisputable. The language, superficially Doric, is enriched with borrowings from epic, while the lyrical dactyls chosen as a metrical form highlight a close contact with dactylic hexameter.

An excellent example of archaic catalogic poetry, a precious graft from epic, is the fragment from The Boar Hunters, which offers a catalog of hero names who participated in the Calydonian boar hunt. Similar epic catalogs can be found throughout lyrical poetry, from Alcman and Ibycus to Pindar.

When such catalogs do not remain purely nominal, the whole can be transformed into genuine lyrical description. This transformation is aided by the abundant use of adjectives and techniques such as phrase parallelism or “reference” and varied repetition, emphasizing the artistic poetic structure (fragments 57, 62P).

Stesichorus is considered the first to establish the triadic articulation of choral songs (strophe, antistrophe, epode), traces of which are preserved in the few fragments of Geryoneis (cf. the ancient saying “three of Stesichorus”).

Helen’s Palinode

Special mention should be made of the poetic anecdote about the poet’s blindness as punishment for composing an initial poem about Helen, which portrayed the eponymous heroine in a morally reprehensible light (fragment 93P). It was rumored that when the poet realized that his blindness was due to the dissatisfaction of the deified Helen, Stesichorus was compelled to reform his heroine and present her in Helen’s Palinode, where the heroine remained at home; only an image of her (eidolon) traveled to Troy or Egypt. The reality, however, is very different. The correction was deemed necessary to satisfy the public sentiment of Sparta, one of the two greatest historical powers of the ancient world (Plato, Phaedrus 243A). Moreover, Stesichorus’s journey and stay in Sparta are attested and confirmed by a local source.

Geryoneis: The Departure of the Sun from Heracles

In Geryoneis, Stesichorus narrates Heracles’s journey to the West. The hero had to find a way there, and Stesichorus managed it by exploiting the tradition that the Sun sailed in a cup from sunset to dawn, heading from the West to the East. Here, Stesichorus focuses on the separation of the god Sun, who now reaches his setting, from Heracles, who continues his journey to the far reaches of the West.

The laborious journey of the Sun over the sea was previously narrated by Mimnermus (fragment 12W). There, the god, in a winged golden cup, crafted by Hephaestus, travels from the land of the Hesperides to the Ethiopians, where his horses and chariot awaited him.

New tones of emotional and familiar elements are discernible in the description of the Sun’s nightly return to his family; he will spend most of the night with them, while the equally laborious hero of mythology finishes his sea journey and enters the dark forest, continuing on foot in search of Geryon’s cattle. The same sense of familiarity, characteristic of the lyrical style as opposed to the high and imposing epic style, is evident in the description of Helen’s prophecy to Telemachus (borrowed from Odyssey 15.43-181), set in contexts of tender friendship and sympathetic understanding from Helen to Penelope.