Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.11.29

Kenneth Mauerhofer, Der Hylas-Mythos in der antiken Literatur. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, 208.   Munich-Leipzig:  K.G. Saur, 2004.  Pp. 485.  ISBN 3-598-77820-1.  €88.00.  

Reviewed by Mark A.J. Heerink, Leiden University (
Word count: 1603 words

[The reviewer apologizes for the delayed review.]

"Cui non dictus Hylas puer?" As Vergil's rhetorical question in his Georgics (3.6) illustrates, the myth of Hercules and Hylas was remarkably pervasive in classical literature. Extant poems or parts of poems by Apollonius of Rhodes (Arg. 1.1153-1362), Theocritus (Id. 13), Propertius (1.20) and Valerius Flaccus (Arg. 3.481-740; 4.1-57) all deal with the boy who was pulled into a well by infatuated nymphs while getting water for Hercules, and many more poetic versions once existed.1 Passing allusions to the myth are also often found, as for instance in Vergil's sixth Eclogue and Ovid's metamorphosis of Narcissus. The secondary literature on the topic, however, is not prolific. It is 50 years now since the publication of Koch's book about Hylas in ancient literature, in which he examined the poetic versions mainly discretely.2 A study exploring intertextual contact between the various Hylas poems is long overdue. Prima facie, therefore, Kenneth Mauerhofer (= M.), with his extensive doctoral thesis, seems to fulfil a real need.

The book consists of an introduction, 12 chapters that vary from only a few pages to over a hundred, a bibliography, two appendices (one containing the essential texts and the other metrical analyses) and three indices (authors, names, general). In the introduction (pp. 14-25) M. states that he will treat only works that contain a full version of the Hylas episode. Ten chapters accordingly deal with the individual Hylas stories: in addition to those mentioned above, Antonius Liberalis' summary of Nicander's lost Hylas-episode in his Heteroioumena, epigrams 97 and 98 by Ausonius, lines 629-657 from the Orphic Argonautica, book 2 of Dracontius' Romulea and an anonymous epigram from the Anthologia Latina (57 Shackleton Bailey). There is also a chapter on lost versions of the Hylas myth and a conclusion.

M. systematically retells each version in a running commentary, accounts for the form of each poem by primarily mathematical, but also rhetorical and dramaturgical analysis, and describes the relationship between each Hylas story and its models. Although M. offers a wealth of material, for instance in the encyclopaedic first chapter on lost versions of the Hylas myth (pp. 26-36), the core of the book, dealing with the Hylas versions proper, is fundamentally disappointing.

The main problem with the running commentaries is lack of focus. Despite the suggestive title of the book, the commentaries do not offer comprehensive coverage of every aspect of every Hylas poem: on the contrary, the treatment of the versions is very selective. M. mainly summarizes the storyline of the individual poems, referring quite arbitrarily to secondary literature along the way. There is a tendency to deal with traditional philological matters, such as textual criticism, in sometimes extensive footnotes. Although the textual notes detract somewhat from the main narrative of the commentaries, the discussions are succinctly and clearly summarized, and now and then result in an interesting new suggestion.3

Some current critical approaches to classical poetry, however, such as intertextual and metapoetic interpretation, are completely dismissed. Although M. announces his intention to deal with intertextual contact between the respective poems,4 he just provides tables with parallels and superficial interpretations. For instance, M. describes the influence of Vergil's Aeneid on Valerius' Hylas episode as Koch had already done fifty years ago: "Doch ging es Valerius nicht allein darum, Vergil zu überbieten; er benützte ihn auch, um seinem Stoff eine möglichst erhabene Ausstattung zu geben" (p. 293f.). The parallels between the texts are regarded as just parallels; the intertextual contact is not interpreted.

M.'s fourth chapter, which is devoted to the relationship between the Hylas-treatments of Apollonius and Theocritus ('Apollonius oder Theokrit? Die Prioritätsfrage', pp. 103-12) may also illustrate this approach. The chapter is a short summary of the notorious and much debated problem concerning the priority of Apollonius and Theocritus. M.'s account is, however, not complete,5 good surveys of all the literature concerning the discussion already exist,6 and it has by now become clear that the discussion has no end (as M. himself admits). I therefore think it is a pity M. did not go beyond the impasse and interpret the contact between the two texts regardless of the priority.

Metapoetics are only discussed in connection with Prop. 1.20, where M. dismisses Petrain's very interesting interpretation of Prop. 1.20 as a metapoetical play with a now lost Hylas poem by Cornelius Gallus (see note 1), with the following argument: "Ob Petrain recht hat, ist mit intertextuellen Argumenten allein kaum entscheidbar, weil sich wegen der Mehrdeutigkeit vieler Wörter auch ohne dichterische Absicht leicht interessante Bezüge ergeben, aber für seine Vermutung zur Identität des Gallus spricht sehr viel, wie wir sehen werden." (p. 138). This remark does Petrain a grave injustice, but also betrays a limited understanding of intertextuality. In the footnote accompanying the last part of the sentence, Newman is quoted.7 As in many places in the book, the relevance of the note is quite unclear, as the quote reveals that Newman does not support the identification (or rather association) of Propertius' Gallus with the poet Cornelius Gallus. More importantly, the note reveals another important shortcoming of the book: its selective use of secondary literature. Why does M., for instance, not quote a scholar here who supports the association, which is by now generally accepted, or offer a brief overview of the scholarly literature dealing with the issue?8

The most questionable aspect of M.'s book, however, is its use of mathematical theory to analyse the (longer) Hylas poems. This seems to be the author's main concern (by far the largest part of the introduction is devoted to an underpinning of the approach [pp. 15-23]). M. sees several mathematical phenomena, such as symmetry (and asymmetry9), the "divina proportio" or golden ratio, and the Fibonacci sequence10 crucially at work in the poetic versions of the Hylas myth. I am not at all convinced by such "evidence" as is presented. M. cites the proportions of the Parthenon, the pyramids of Cheops and Pythagoras' mysticism as parallels, but his claims for analogous mathematical findings in the texts that he is analysing seem to be the product of inductive and wishful thinking. Let me demonstrate this by a few examples from M.'s treatment of Propertius 1.20 (pp. 139-54). He sees a four-part rhetorical structure in the poem: A: exordium (1-4), B: propositio (5-16), C: narratio (17-50) and D: peroratio (51-2). This is not in itself implausible, but M. then claims that each part is tripled by the next (the relevance of which is unclear to me). In order to make the "tripling" work, however, parts C and D have to be taken together as one part. Next, M. tries to underpin his division of the poem into four parts by pointing out analogies between the respective parts, but again he cheats the evidence by now taking line 5 as belonging both to part A and to part B. Next, M. subdivides the poem into no less than 13 parts, which is possible, but serves no useful purpose. He then concludes that the poem shows a large amount of regularity, as the units consist (irregularly) of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 distichs, which seems not very surprising to me, considering that the poem is written in the elegiac metre. M. then devises a symmetrical "formula" to elucidate the structure of the entire poem: 4 + 12 + 8 + 8 + 12 + (4+2) + 2; the trouble is that the structure so seen is not symmetrical, not to mention quite arbitrary. M. seems to concede this last point himself as he offers four alternative "formulae", which do not produce symmetry either. M. makes his own fatal preconception very clear when he states (p. 147): "Die Besprechung des Aufbaus wäre jedoch unvollständig, käme nicht auch das Prinzip der goldenen Teilung zur Sprache". Although he tries very hard, he is not able to find the divine proportion in Propertius 1.20. When he does get the quotient 1.619 once, it is only by manipulating the statistics again: M. creates two new units in the poem (lines 17-29 and 30-50), which are not units: the split between line 29-30 comes in mid-sentence. M. also finds symbolic significance in the number 13, which he finds in various guises throughout Propertius 1.20. According to M., for example, 26 (2 x 13) lines deal with Hylas, 13 with Gallus and 13 with the Argo, the Argonauts, Hercules and the nymphs. It is probably needless to say, since the last example says it all, that the numbers can be construed at will. The symbolical explanations suggested are a play on square numbers (as 13 = 9 + 4), or on the Fibonacci sequence (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, . . .) and of course its doubling (13 x 2 = 26), and allusions to the Fontanalia, which were held on 13 October, and to Hercules' "thirteenth" labour (i.e. Hylas).

I find it very hard to avoid the conclusion that these and other forms of mathematical symbolism seen by M. in Propertius 1.20 and other Hylas poems are non-existent. Moreover, I do not understand why M. has specifically chosen versions of the Hylas myth as the subject of this kind of research. I could ask many more questions and offer many more examples and criticisms, but I will not, as it is clear that M.'s methodology is far from sound and his mathematical "findings" are completely unconvincing. The project must be considered a missed opportunity, as it does become clear from M.'s study that there is a lot to be said about the many poetic appearances of the Hylas myth and how they are interrelated.


1.   For instance, Nicander had a version in his Heteroioumena (see the summary by Ant. Lib. 26), and probably Cornelius Gallus wrote an elegy about Hylas (see, e.g., D. Petrain, "Hylas and silva: etymological wordplay in Propertius 1.20", HSCPh 100 [2000], 409-21).
2.   H.-H. Koch, "Die Hylasgeschichte bei Apollonios Rhodios, Theokrit, Properz und Valerius Flaccus", doctoral thesis Kiel 1955. The older treatment in Latin by Türk, "De Hyla", doctoral thesis Breslau 1895 (Breslauer philol. Abh. 7.4) not only deals with the poetry on Hylas, but also iconographical material.
3.   E.g. the reading "ulmo" at the end of the corrupt line 29 of Prop. 1.20 (pp. 125, n. 19).
4.   See p.15: "abschliessend wird jeweils das Verhältnis zu den möglichen Vorlagen beleuchnet". See also the announcement in the catalogue of K.G. Saur Verlag (Der Hylas-Mythos in der antiken Literatur): "Die vorliegende Arbeit erörtert die Möglichkeit verlorener Dichtungen und untersucht die erhaltenen Hylas-Texte sprachlich-inhaltlich, strukturell und intertextuell".
5.   The relative chronology of Apollonius and Theocritus also involves the versions of the Amycus myth by both poets (Ap. Rh. Arg. 2.1-177 and Theocr. Id. 22), and these should be given more attention than they get from M.
6.   See especially A. Köhnken (2001), "Hellenistic chronology: Theocritus, Callimachus, and Apollonius Rhodius", in: T.D. Papanghelis & A. Rengakos, A companion to Apollonius Rhodius, Leiden, pp. 73-92.
7.   J.K. Newman (1997), Augustan Propertius: the recapitulation of a genre, Hildesheim. M.'s quote reads: "This is hardly the famous Gallus. Was it, as scholars suggest, his successor in Egypt, Aelius Gallus? Perhaps, but the poet did not mind that older association" (p. 353, n. 22).
8.   Most scholars identify Gallus in Propertius 1.20 with the poet Gallus. To mention only a few items: D.O. Ross (1975), Backgrounds to Augustan poetry: Gallus, elegy and Rome, Cambridge, 74-81; C. Monteleone (1979), "Cornelio Gallo tra Ila e le Driadi (Virgilio, Properzio e una controversia letteraria)", Latomus 38: 28-53, at 38-51; J.K. King (1980), "The two Galluses of Propertius' Monobiblos", Philologus 124: 212-30; D.F. Kennedy (1982), "Gallus and the Culex", CQ 32: 371-389, at 377-80; F. Cairns (1983), "Propertius 1,4 and 1,5 and the 'Gallus' of the Monobiblos", PLLS 4: 61-103, at 83-4; D. Gall (1999), Zur Technik von Anspielung und Zitat in der römischen Dichtung: Vergil, Gallus und die Ciris, Munich, 181-91. R. Syme (1978), History in Ovid, Oxford, 99-103 and P. Fedeli, (1981), "Elegy and literary polemic in Propertius' Monobiblos", PLLS 3: 227-42, at 235-6 do not believe that the Gallus of book 1 is the poet. Their most important arguments have, however, been convincingly refuted by Cairns (above).
9.   "Um attraktiv zu sein, müssen Gegenstände der Natur oder der Kunst bis zu einem gewissen Grad symmetrisch erscheinen (zum Ausdruck des Allgemeinen, Dauerhaften, Gesunden, ...), darüber hinaus aber nicht (zum Ausdruck des Individuellen, Besonderen)" (p. 17).
10.  The golden ratio is approximately the proportion 1:1.61803.... It expresses the relationship that the sum of two quantities (M+m) is to the larger quantity (M) as the larger is to the smaller (m). The Fibonacci sequence, in which every number (from the third onwards) is the sum of the two previous numbers (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, ...), is closely connected to the golden ratio. M. discusses the terms on pp. 20-1.

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