BMCR 2006.10.03

The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women: Constructions and Reconstructions

, The Hesiodic Catalogue of women : constructions and reconstructions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 1 online resource (x, 349 pages). ISBN 0511115563 £50.00.

Table of Contents

Working with fragments holds an irresistible appeal for some, offering promises of treasures rescued from obscurity and tantalizing hints of more to come. Such a sense of promise underlies this new collection dedicated to the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, a poem alluring in its own right because of its relatively early date, its connection with Hesiod, and the possibility that it was a source (directly or indirectly) for authors at least as late as Ovid.

Most of the papers included here are reworked versions of talks given at a colloquium in Cambridge in May of 2002. The collection covers a wide range of subjects, from in-depth exploration of Hesiodic fragments to broader musings on the Catalogue‘s influence. The breadth of scholarship is matched by the array of scholars lending their talents, from eminent, widely-published leaders in the field to graduate students. Overall, these papers represent a welcome return to a tantalizing assortment of fragments, ones in need of new attention and fresh approaches, especially in the Anglophone world. It is to be hoped that this collection is just the beginning of new work and will encourage other scholars to reexamine what remains of this intriguing poem.

Though not divided into formal sections, this collection falls into four basic parts after a short introduction: papers on the Catalogue as a whole (Osborne, Clay, Irwin), on specific parts of the Catalogue (Haubold, Rutherford, Cingano), on the poetic traditions of which the Catalogue is part (Martin, both chapters by D’Alessio), and papers on the influence and reception of the Catalogue (Hunter, Asquith, Hardie, Fletcher). Unfortunately absent is any real overview of the state of scholarship on the Catalogue, with the result that many of the contributors individually address these issues, recapping many of the same arguments and citing the same sources (e.g., almost all of them address the date of the poem, though Hunter covers it briefly in the introduction). A lengthier introduction would have helped ease those less familiar with scholarship on these fragments into the discussions here and obviated the need for so many repetitive footnotes. Fortunately there is a complete bibliography as well as a general index and list of passages discussed, making this book easy to consult.

The brief introduction does, however, present some of the assumptions underlying the collection, most notably that Martin West’s general observations on the poem are, on the whole, correct (2); there is also a disclaimer that the papers here predate the edition of Hirschberger, who does rearrange some of the fragments.1 Individual contributors occasionally question the placement of a fragment or two in the edition of Merkelbach and West (M.-W.), making D’Alessio’s first piece the most radical departure, since he argues against the attribution of a number of fragments to the poem. Similarly, only one author questions West’s potentially circular use of Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca in reconstructing the Catalogue (Fletcher, 301). Thus, anyone seeking new approaches to the reconstruction of the text and the arrangement of the fragments will be disappointed; these papers build primarily on the received wisdom concerning the poem, though they expand upon it in intriguing, and often successful, ways. For anyone who works or wishes to work on this poem, this volume will now be second on the reading list, right after West.

What follows is an overview of the individual contributions with observations on some of the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments. One general critique is that many of the pieces depend upon the ordering of the fragments as they stand in M.-W. While this dependence affects some approaches more than others, it is worth stressing that all students of fragmentary texts should make sure to keep a close eye on the critical apparatus of the text as they follow these arguments. Similarly, readers should be aware of the disproportionate focus on the longer extant fragments, most notably 43 (Mestra and Erysichthon; mentioned in six of the papers) and 204 (Helen’s suitors; mentioned in seven papers and the introduction). While these fragments provide an obvious focus for scholarly attention, it is dangerous to use them to make claims about missing sections of the poem.

Robin Osborne’s “Ordering women in Hesiod’s Catalogue” (5-24) plays on the double meaning of “order” to examine the way in which the poem presents women and the type of female behavior it emphasizes. Osborne argues that the Catalogue has its own distinct plot, which runs roughly as follows: beautiful women attract men, who in turn pursue women, with a successful pursuit resulting in children. Unique to the Catalogue, he argues, is the focus on the beauty of the women (14) as well as the general insistence that women fit into this pattern (17). But this desire to order women proves a fantasy, as Book 5 of the Catalogue answers the question raised by Pandora’s placement at the beginning of the poem: is it possible to order women? The focus on Helen and the Trojan War declares such ordering to be an impossible dream, and Osborne adduces Semonides 7, another catalogue culminating with Helen, as a poem with a parallel plot and conclusion. While Osborne’s arguments about Helen and his desire to read the poem as a meditation on female behavior are not thoroughly convincing, this piece provides an auspicious start to the collection because of its careful attention to basic details and narrative patterns. The volume as a whole would have benefited from more such analysis. Likely due to the sheer amount of Greek quoted, this piece exhibits the most typographical errors (about a half dozen) in a book that is generally free of any errors or misprints.

In “The beginning and end of the Catalogue of Women and its relation to Hesiod” (25-34), Jenny Strauss Clay touches on issues partially addressed in her recent book,2 arguing that the Catalogue supplements the unity of the Theogony and the Works and Days, spanning the heroic age and defining that time as an “exceptional and ephemeral period of human proximity to the divine” (28). While Clay reads the three poems as unified in terms of offering a cosmic vision, she does not openly argue that Hesiod was the author of all three; she raises the possibility that they share the same author (25-6) but does not press the issue.

Elizabeth Irwin’s “Gods among men? The social and political dynamics of the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women” (35-84) is the last of three papers that look at the poem as a whole, and it is the most ambitious attempt to place the Catalogue within a specific, identifiable context, namely the elite symposium of the archaic polis, for which she argues by attempting to show similarities between the Catalogue and sympotic poetry. Having identified the symposium as a putative performance setting, Irwin views the Catalogue as focusing on “the sexual unions of males of vastly superior order with females of lower status (though nevertheless superlative examples of their kind) and the successful social and political consequences of such liaisons” (52). The elite males of the audience would self identify with the gods, and the poem shows the dangers of marrying for wealth, as most clearly in the episode of Helen’s suitors (frr. 196-204 M.-W.). Irwin identifies such patterns with themes familiar from sympotic poets like Theognis. This poem, she argues, would help in the creation of a social self-identification of the agathoi, in part through its focus on the importance of proper marriage exchanges. Irwin then moves from the general to the specific and tries to establish similarities between the marriage narratives in the Catalogue and famous Athenian marriages, for example that of Megacles’ daughter, which she compares to the wooing of Mestra (fr. 43). While this piece is a useful thought experiment in trying to pin down the Catalogue in a specific context, Irwin may overstate the case for similarities between this poem and sympotic poetry, relying heavily as she does on words and phrases she considers part of an erotic context, though many of these appear elsewhere in Hesiod or in Home, and so can be explained as belonging to epic diction more generally. If Irwin is correct in linking this poem with symposia, it is ironic that the Catalogue, with its focus on procreation, would find its audience in a venue in some ways dedicated to non-procreative sex.

The next three papers focus on specific characters and/or scenes in the Catalogue. Johannes Haubold (“Heracles in the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women,” 85-94) explores the role of Heracles in the fragments, especially the order in which the events of Heracles’ life play out. Haubold argues that the reverse chronological order of these events (i.e. Heracles’ death precedes his birth) depends upon a move in the poem from the cosmogonic to the heroic: the life of Heracles provides a link between the two, with his death a part of the ordering of the cosmos and his labors belonging to the realm of the heroic. Haubold’s basic question about the reverse order of the events in Heracles’ life is an important reminder that the Catalogue poet was interested in more than just genealogy, and his remarks on genre and chronology in archaic Greek epic not only support his arguments about Heracles but will also help others think about such issues in this poem; they certainly provide new avenues for examining the basic narrative of the poem. These arguments, however, rely heavily on the ordering of the fragments; as he says at the outset, “The order of Heracles’ adventures in the Catalogue is the exact reverse of that in Apollodorus” (85).3 While there is no obvious reason to question the ordering of these specific fragments, the explicit comparison with Apollodorus reminds us of the dangers in too closely equating the two texts.

In “Mestra at Athens: Hesiod fr. 43 and the poetics of panhellenism” (99-117), Ian Rutherford places his argument within the context of the Catalogue poet’s attempt at “reconciling and building connections between myths and genealogical traditions from different parts of Greece” (101). Specifically, he (like others) imagines the origins of the Catalogue in northern Greece but sees the process of connecting myths from across Greece culminating with Athens, not necessarily because of an Athenian poet but rather “a poet with an amphictyonic or panhellenic perspective, concerned to represent Athenian mythology as linked to the mythology of the rest of Greece” (117). To argue for this, he investigates the Mestra ehoie and its connection with Athens, based on a possible melding in the poem between an Aeolid and Attic Erysichthon, though the connection is far from obvious.4 The strength of this piece is its detailed reconsideration of fr. 43, the first fifty lines of which are especially tricky because of their fragmentary nature. A slight drawback is the occasional absence of brackets in the English translation to show where the Greek has been restored, raising the possibility that the unwary might suppose the text to be more secure than it is.

Like Rutherford’s piece, Ettore Cingano’s “A catalogue within a catalogue: Helen’s suitors in the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women (frr. 196-204)” (118-152) focuses primarily on one part of the poem, the fragments concerning the wooing of Helen, especially fr. 204. He explores the arrangement and restoration of these particular fragments, in part by investigating who was and was not on the list of Helen’s suitors and is the first person in the volume really to question the editorial decisions in M.-W. Discussing the patterns and methods of this section of the narrative he proposes changes, the most noteworthy of which are the suggestions that fr. 196 was not the beginning of this section (he hypothesizes an invocation to the Muses) and that lines 1-5 of fr. 197, which are the entry for Agamemnon and Menelaus, “should be placed elsewhere in the Catalogue of Suitors, if at all” (140). Particularly valuable are his analysis of the motif of the wedding contest and the comparisons of the Catalogue material with Homer and other sources for Helen’s suitors, which reveals the poet’s integration of disparate versions of these myths to his own ends.

Richard P. Martin’s entertaining “Pulp epic: the Catalogue and the Shield,” (153-175) shows just how much basic work needs to be done in terms of convincing people to look anew at these fragments, which is, of course, the obvious aim of this volume. After citing earlier scholarship on the Aspis which criticizes it on artistic and stylistic grounds, Martin attempts to redeem the text by applying a “trash aesthetic,” which is linked with pulp fiction. As he defines it, “[p]ulp poetics depends on a simple overriding rule: more is more” (164). With this aesthetic as his criterion, Martin demonstrates the success of the Aspis, which is laden with noise effects, gore, and extensive details. While this reading of the Aspis is valuable in itself, Martin takes the next step and argues that the same person composed the Aspis and the Catalogue, and that the shield episode may have been the end of the Catalogue‘s fourth book. Unfortunately for the reader, this piece ends before Martin applies his “trash aesthetic” to more than a few lines of the Catalogue, but he has left the door open for an appreciation of the poem as poetry, rather than simply as genealogical or cultural evidence.

Giovan Battista D’Alessio contributes a more technical piece than anything else in the collection with “The Megalai Ehoiai : a survey of the fragments” (176-216), almost jarringly so considering the general absence of such pieces from the collection. D’Alessio argues that there is no reason to consider the Megalai Ehoiai ( ME) and the Catalogue the same poem, and examines ancient references to the two works before discussing the tendencies of the works themselves. In surveying the fragments of the ME (188-205 M.-W.), he identifies certain subject matters and tendencies, most notably a focus on Heracles and his descendants, which he argues are different than the focuses of the Catalogue and more akin to the Wedding of Ceyx and the Aspis (unfortunately, he does not take Martin’s observations about the Aspis into account). D’Alessio’s most valuable contribution in terms of the big picture is questioning how we assign unattributed fragments to the Catalogue or ME, and he looks at several episodes generally assigned to the former, arguing that they might in fact belong to the latter (most notably the Cyrene- ehoie, frr. 215-17, which has ramifications for the dating of the Catalogue). D’Alessio adds a brief appendix on “The Placing of the Atalanta- ehoie in the Catalogue” (213-16).

D’Alessio changes gears in his second contribution, “Ordered from the Catalogue : Pindar, Bacchylides, and Hesiodic genealogical poetry” (217-38), in which he examines both the nature of the catalogue formula and the possible use of the Catalogue by Pindar and Bacchylides. D’Alessio begins by attempting to identify a “catalogic strategy,” and suggests an original connection with the hymn, in which form it is desirable to list a deity’s offspring and/or cultic sites. Particularly fruitful is the notion that the ehoie formula is a way of emphasizing each item in a catalogue, putting them all at an equal level, which, as D’Alessio notes, would be particularly important for a panhellenic poem. The second part of the piece examines the connection between Hesiod, Pindar and Bacchylides, necessitated by the fact that Hesiod is the only poet to whom both Pindar and Bacchylides refer by name, and that the Pindaric scholia often identify Hesiod as a source. D’Alessio tries to trace the influence of the Catalogue on these poets, mostly by focusing on how these later poets deal with genealogical traditions, even going so far as to suggest that the form of certain myths in the Catalogue became canonical (227). Similarly, he asserts of the Coronis myth in Pythian 3 that “Pindar’s innovations presuppose previous knowledge of the Hesiodic version in the audience” (234). Three objections to this argument are that it assumes that said version existed only in or was identified exclusively with the Catalogue, that Pindar was singing to an audience so familiar with this poem even in Sicily that they would understand his interaction with it, and that the audience’s enjoyment of the poem would be predicated on such a small passage. Like many allusions, it would seem rather to be the icing on the cake than the cake itself. Despite D’Alessio’s investigation, it remains a frustrating fact that we still know very little about the early reception of the Catalogue.

Looking for the influence of the Catalogue on later literature, however, is in many ways more seductive, because we have a better idea of where to look, as well as a group of poets, Alexandrian and Roman, whom we consider to be playful scholar-poets. Accordingly, Richard Hunter’s “The Hesiodic Catalogue and Hellenistic poetry” (239-265), is the first of four pieces dealing broadly with the reception of the Catalogue, a proportion of the total number of contributions that seems a bit high. Hunter rightly notes that the Catalogue was far and away the least influential of Hesiod’s three poems and sets out to question why this would be the case. Unfortunately, he does not give much of an answer beyond the lack of a personal voice in the poem and devotes more time to identifying possible allusions and linguistic episodes in Hellenistic poets, specifically Apollonius Rhodius and Callimachus. The ultimate impression Hunter gives is ambivalent, for he identifies many places where there may or may not be allusions to the poem or signs of Hesiodic influence. What Hunter seems to be discussing at times is genealogical poetry more generally, e.g., “Even if POxy 2509 [about Actaeon] is not from the Catalogue, Callimachus’ way of intertwining his stories is in part a product of the stimulus to collection and analysis of the ocean of mythical story which the Catalogue, and poems like it, passed on to poets and scholars with the leisure and resources to benefit from its inheritance” (259). Such an inheritance is so broadly framed as to have little meaning for our understanding of the poem’s reception. Some of Hunter’s specific analyses are more persuasive and unequivocal, most notably the discussion of the Boreads in the Catalogue and the Argonautica, though even here Hunter is rightly cautious in positing a direct connection between the two texts (245-6) because we have lost so many intervening texts.

Helen Asquith’s “From genealogy to Catalogue : the Hellenistic adaptation of the Hesiodic catalogue form,” (266-286) was not one of the papers delivered at the Cambridge conference but was written as a response to Hunter’s contribution. Asquith attempts to show the influence of the Catalogue on Hellenistic catalogue poets by moving beyond the mere form of the poems, focusing instead on formulae and the choice of subject matter, both of which were adapted by poets like Phanocles and Hermesianax and adapted to fit contemporary tastes. Asquith identifies a simplified use of formulae like ‘ehoie’ in these two poets, one connected only with narratives as opposed to the more complicated use of the formula in the Catalogue (which is still unclear). Less convincing is her argument that the Catalogue exerted a strong influence by being an aetiological poem and, more importantly, by treating “the events of major epic in a manner that seems to give them only secondary importance” (269). Clearly there are many myths in the Catalogue that do not fit this description (e.g. the wooing of Helen, which seems anything but secondary), so it is difficult to imagine the poem, even in its current form, giving this impression, or being associated with such preferences. Asquith also argues that the Catalogue was influential in its focus on erotic stories (in part by arguing against “the existence of a body of personal, non-Hesiodic catalogue poetry,” 285), but again it is difficult to read the poem as focused on such matters in the way that a poem like Phanocles’ Erotes seems to have been.

Philip Hardie’s brief “The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women and Latin poetry” (287-298) departs from the two pieces preceding it because of his (perhaps cavalier) willingness to identify specific influences from the Catalogue on Latin poetry (by which he means, primarily, Catullus, Vergil, Propertius and Ovid), making it in some ways a more traditional paper on intertextuality. The piece falls into two sections, “Cosmic Histories” (287-92) and “Catalogues and Catalogue” (292-98). The first, which builds naturally on Hardie’s previous work, addresses the use of the Catalogue to provide structure, as, for example, in Vergil’s sixth Eclogue, while the latter offers a tantalizing glimpse into how Propertius and Ovid use the catalogue form. I found most interesting his discussion of Propertius’ repetition of ‘qualis’ in 1.3 as like the ‘ehoie’ formula (292f.) and his argument that the open-ended nature of the catalogue form allows Propertius to add Roman elements. Indeed, the agglutinative nature of catalogue poetry makes it an obvious choice for Romans looking to connect themselves with the Greek world. Similarly, even Hardie’s brief treatment of Ovid suggests that there is much to gain from a more detailed examination of Ovid’s connection with the Catalogue.5

Richard Fletcher (no relation), “Or such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses…” (299-319), contributes an engaging piece that starts by examining how modern readers have dealt with the fragments of the Catalogue and tried to construct a reading, most notably the hypothesis, based on fr. 1 when it was first discovered, that this poem was a systematic treatment of the “amours” of the gods. Though most now agree that this is not the case, Fletcher focuses on the Catalogue‘s intentionally misleading introduction as a way into reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the tension there between its announced chronological focus ( ab origine mundi … ad mea tempora) and its genealogical interest. Thus, the intratextual tension of the Catalogue serves as a way of reading the (reversed) intratextual tension of the Metamorphoses, which also manifests itself as a tension between heroic genealogy and its origins in divine rape. In many ways, this is the most ambitious piece in the collection, though the closing remarks on how Ovid’s exploration of this tension might be relevant for Augustan ideology are either too adventurous or simply too brief to be convincing.

This collection is a welcome sign, signaling new attention to a complicated and tantalizing set of fragments. As with any treatment of fragments, the results are uneven, but none of the contributions lacks new insight, and no student of the Catalogue of Women will come away from this book without a different approach to try out for him or herself, or without repeatedly thinking while reading, “I don’t quite remember that fragment…” and wanting to look at the poem anew.


1. Martin West. The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women. Oxford 1985. Martina Hirschberger. Gynaikôn Katalogos und Megalai Ehoiai. Ein Kommentar zu den Fragmenten zweier hesiodeischer Epen. BzA 198. München/Leipzig. 2004.

2. Jenny Strauss Clay. Hesiod’s Cosmos. Cambridge 2003.

3. A possible parallel that Haubold does not mention is Ovid’s ordering of the death and then birth of Hercules in Metamorphoses 9. But cf. Fletcher’s remark on p. 317.

4. Though Rutherford himself echoes West’s assertion that the Catalogue was a model for the Bibliotheca, it is worth noting that Mestra does not appear in the Bibliotheca, and neither does the Athenian Erysichthon.

5. Such a topic seems from the references to it to be a focus of Joseph Farrell’s forthcoming “Ovid the mythographer,” which several contributors cite.