Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.03.09 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.03.09

Peter Grossardt, Stesichoros zwischen kultischer Praxis, mythischer Tradition und eigenem Kunstanspruch: zur Behandlung des Helenamythos im Werk des Dichters aus Himera. Leipziger Studien zur klassischen Philologie 9.   Tübingen​:  Narr Verlag, 2012.  Pp. xii, 180.  ISBN 9783823367673.  €58.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by P. J. Finglass, University of Nottingham (

The idea for this book, Grossardt explains in his 'Vorwort', came to him as he was rereading War and Peace. In that novel, a character describes how a certain general expressed disbelief in a wonder-working icon of the Mother of God, and was struck blind; in a dream he was told by the Mother that if he believed in her, he would be cured; he begged to be taken to the icon, made appropriate recompense, and duly recovered his sight. This story, Grossardt notes, is remarkably close to the account, famous from Plato onwards, of how Stesichorus offended against Helen in his poetry and was blinded, only to be healed thanks to the composition of a Palinode or 'Retraction-song'; the similarity led Grossardt to undertake a deeper analysis of Stesichorus' poem. The result is a stimulating study of Stesichorus that will interest students of Greek lyric poetry, of comparative literature, and of folk-tale. Moreover, this meritoriously concise monograph is short enough to be read at a single sitting, unlike the novel which provoked it (even if Woody Allen claimed otherwise).

The main part of the book is divided into seven sections. A short 'Einleitung' is followed by chapters entitled 'Helena und die Geburt der Iphigeneia', 'Aphrodite und die Töchter des Tyndareos in PMGF 223', 'Helena und Menelaos in Stesichoros' "Helena"', 'Helena in der "Iliupersis" und in den "Nostoi"', 'Stesichoros und Helena in der "Palinodie"', and a brief 'Schluss'. That takes us only to page eight-five; fifty more are still to come, in the form of an 'Anhang' entitled 'Der Motivkomplex von Blendung und Heilung in der internationalen Erzähltradition'.

The opening couple of chapters consider fragments attributed to Stesichorus, but not to a particular poem, by the ancient authors who quote them. In the former (fr. 191 PMGF), Theseus fathers Iphigenia on Helen, who gives the baby to Clytemnestra to bring up; in the latter (fr. 223), Aphrodite afflicts Tyndareus' daughters with promiscuity to punish him for forgetting her at a sacrifice. Grossardt cautiously attributes both these fragments to the Helen. He well observes (p. 10) that if fr. 191 does indeed come from that poem, and if (as seems likely) Iphigenia's sacrifice also featured there, Helen's adultery would have led to the killing of her own child. Could there be a more piquant contrast with the blameless protagonist of the Palinode?

The following chapter deals with the fragments explicitly attributed to the Helen by ancient sources (frr. 187-9), as well as one more not so attributed which Grossardt nevertheless places in that poem (fr. 190). What is most intriguing here is Grossardt's thesis that the Helen was first performed at Sparta, despite its unfavourable account of Helen's life. (Traditionally, some scholars have claimed a Spartan performance context for the Palinode, arguing that its positive portrayal of Helen was required by a Laconian audience who worshipped Helen as a goddess.) His evidence, however, is less than convincing. First, he points to the Argument of Theocritus 18, the 'Epithalamium for Helen' (= fr. 189), according to which 'certain elements' (τινα) in the Hellenistic poet's work are taken from Stesichorus' Helen, and argues that these elements must have included local Spartan colouring. But that is a mere guess – Theocritus' debt to Stesichorus could lie almost anywhere in his poem. Second, Grossardt refers to the passage of Athenaeus from which fr. 188, a bare mention of a 'footbowl made of litharge', is taken, and notes two fragments of other authors in the vicinity that have a Spartan connexion; the quotation from Stesichorus might have occurred to Athenaeus, he argues, because it too was from a Laconian context. But it is easier to suppose that the Stesichorean fragment is mentioned because, like one of the others nearby, it refers to the mysterious substance litharge. There does not seem to be much of a case here.

The chapter looking at the presentation of Helen in the Iliu Persis and Nostoi contains a valuable discussion of both poems. Sometimes Grossardt goes a little far, however, in his desire to see connexions between particular works. So the mere phrase ξανθὰ Ἑλένη is unlikely to be 'eine bewusste Neuerung Sapphos' (p. 37) which Stesichorus and Ibycus appropriate in a deliberate act of literary imitation. Were all the poets who sang of Troy before Sappho so keen on brunettes that not one imagined that the most beautiful woman in the world could be blonde? Even if we answer 'yes' to that question, could not the two western poets have come up with the idea of a blonde Helen independently of Sappho? Grossardt's discussion of P.Oxy. 2360 (= fr. 209), a fragment in which Helen interprets an omen for Telemachus, usefully emphasises that Stesichorus' lines are no mere copy of a comparable scene in the Odyssey. The fragment's place in the Nostoi is far from certain, however, and it is disappointing to see Grossardt simply accepting the attribution as 'wahrscheinlich' (p. 40) without acknowledging any difficulty.

The longest chapter is that on the Palinode. Here too we sometimes see an excessive keenness to identify connections between specific works based on trivial resemblances. So (pp. 45-8) ἔβας in the passage quoted by Plato (fr. 192) is hardly a specific allusion to passages of Homer and Sappho where that verb is also used of Helen's journey to Troy. Allusion needs a more substantial, or striking, verbal trigger than the standard Greek word for 'went'. For much of the chapter (pp. 59-68) Grossardt looks at how the goddesses Athena, Demeter, and Isis were associated with blindness – both curing it and meting it out. Grossardt even argues that Stesichorus may have been influenced by the Isis myth.

The Palinode, according to Grossardt, was first performed at Sparta (pp. 68, 83), although he does not seem to argue for this explicitly. If he believes this because the positive presentation of Helen in this poem demands an audience who worshipped her as a goddess (a doubtful inference), we may wonder what this means for his earlier argument that the Helen, with its negative portrayal of the title character, was performed in the same city. Moreover, whether or not Stesichorus performed his poetry at Sparta is a question that requires consideration of more than these two poems. A case has been made for Spartan performance of the Oresteia, too; Grossardt is aware of this hypothesis (p. 11, p. 32 n. 17), but has nothing to say about it other than that it is 'zumindest plausibel' or 'wahrscheinlich'. The attribution of P.Oxy. 2735, which contains lyric fragments that refer to Lacedaemon and to Spartan mythology, is also important in this context: according to West the fragments are by Stesichorus, whereas Page attributes them to Ibycus (fr. S166 SLG = PMGF). Again, Grossardt is aware of the division of opinion (p. 83 n. 10), but fails to argue for, or even to express, his own view. Readers will want to hear Grossardt's opinions, and the reasons for them, on such issues, which are of central importance for a key part of his overall thesis.

The concluding supplement is probably the most useful part of the volume. Grossardt collects and analyses tales from a variety of traditions – orthodox Marian literature, Icelandic sagas, saints' lives – that involve patterns of blindness and healing similar to the one found in Stesichorus' Palinode. Grossardt is keen to work out exactly how one culture's version of the story may have influenced another; but this story pattern (mortal offence – divine punishment – mortal contrition – divine healing) could occur spontaneously in any culture that had developed the concept of gods with a concern for morality and a willingness to intervene in human affairs. The search for parallels could be extended beyond tales associated with blindness: so the account of Zechariah, who was struck dumb when he doubted that his wife could bear a child, only to speak again after he had named that very child (Luke 1.5-25, 57-80), bears similarities to Stesichorus' punishment and healing. A full study of the motif would be welcome.

Grossardt knows, and cites, the scholarly literature well.1 The book is accurately printed; so it ought to be, given the price. Even if we take into account the euro's recent travails, fifty-eight of them is quite a lot to ask for a small paperback, however interesting its contents. Might publication via a couple of lengthy articles in journals available via JStor or the like have been preferable? That would have made it easier for Grossardt's ideas to encounter the critical appreciation that they undoubtedly deserve. ​


1.   (p. 7) Euphorion should be cited from Lightfoot's (Loeb) edition, not Van Groningen's. (p. 60 n. 66) Pherecydes should be cited from Fowler, EGM, not Jacoby, FGrHist. (p. 141) Blomfield's edition of Stesichorus first appeared in Museum Criticum 6 (1816) 256-72; for the date, see C. Stray, 'From one Museum to another: the Museum Criticum (1813-26) and the Philological Museum (1831-33)', Victorian Periodicals Review 37 (2004) 289-314, at 298.

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