In the common view, the only achievement of poets in the epoch of Hellenism is an adaptive exploitation of their far greater archaic predecessors. Representatives of this literary era like Callimachus, Theocritus or Apollonius Rhodius are, accordingly, seen as following literary conventions, not as the inspired creators of something new.
Gyburg Radke has made an impressive start on her academic career. The youngest person ever awarded the prestigious Leibniz Price of the German Research Council (
Radke tries to prove her thesis that Hellenism marks the beginning of modernity by advancing a simple, yet original assumption: the Hellenistic poets are on the one hand deliberately following the footsteps of the mythological tradition of archaic authors like Homer and Hesiod, yet they have shifted the focus to the childhood of gods and heroes, hence “the childhood of myth” of the German title. By this maneuver they proclaimed an entirely distinctive poetic program.
Radke links the death of the past and the subsequent birth of a new tradition with two literary phenomena she identifies in the works of the Hellenistic poets. On the one hand, poets of the Hellenistic period seemed to have been nearly obsessed with funeral epigrams on their predecessors. Most of them are devoted to the memory of Homer, but Anacreon and others are commonly lamented in epigrammatic form. Radke comes to the conclusion that the very abundance of funeral epigrams for archaic poets in this period is not a product of sheer coincidence or taste, but a conscious, creative method to re-create them as figures of the literary past. The second, even more obvious way to pronounce the beginning of something new is, according to Radke, the plot device already mentioned that concentrates on the childhood of myth. Gods and heroes usually described at the height of their power and strength are in the Hellenistic period portrayed in their childhood and youth. This picture of childhood becomes such a central motif that Radke is convinced that these patterns have to be read as poetic references, and that the underlying programmatic idea is a shared attempt to declare the literary tradition as past.
As a paradigm for this new way of thinking Radke appoints Callimachus’ hymn to Delos, which describes the numerous efforts of Zeus’ mistress Leto to find an appropriate place to give birth to their son Apollo. But Leto is constantly being hindered by a betrayed and jealous Hera who forces nature to retreat from her pregnant rival. Eventually it is the island of Delos that accepts Leto and the unborn Apollo, who will later be worshipped in his own sanctuary on the island. Although Apollo surprisingly delivers a proper speech from his mother’s womb, prophesizing the birth of Ptolemy II Philadelphos, he is described as a baby not yet in full possession of his divine powers. This is not the common description of a god as a child, which can also be found in archaic poetry like the Homeric hymn to Hermes: Callimachus is stripping Apollo of his later power and by doing so is constructing the dawn of the traditional mythological world. At the same time the author is combining his hymn to Delos with a contemporary encomiastic element, the praise of the future ruler Philadelphos who in Callimachus’ own time is to become an important patron of the Alexandrian poets. Yet this praise does not stand out of the mythological narration, but is subtly interlaced with it, and even becomes an integral part of Callimachus’ composition. Radke convincingly argues that the poet is combining literary and historical elements and is creating an innovative synthesis that is strictly based on aesthetics. By using the typical generic elements of hymns he is at the same time proclaiming a new and dynamic “Apollonian” era of poetry.
Radke finds other examples for this proposed ‘infantilising’ tendency in Hellenistic poetry. In Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica, deliberately set a generation earlier than Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey, even the ruler of Olympus, Zeus himself, does not play the central role he usually occupies in archaic poetry. Rather, his power is yet to come, and the reader learns that Zeus’ bolts are still being made in the workshop of the Cyclopes. So the epic world of Homer and Hesiod familiar to the audience has yet to become fully evolved from these early days in which the power of the Titans has been just freshly overcome and the power of the Olympic gods has not fully developed. As Radke points out, Apollonius makes it quite easy for the reader to identify this deliberate staging by using obvious scenes of childhood and youth.
Radke finds the same device in the bucolic poetry of Theocritus. The Polyphemus in Idyll 11 is not the cruel monster presented to the reader in the ninth book of the Odyssey, but a youthful shepherd who has fallen in love with the nymph Galatea. Polyphemus is still ugly in his enormousness, but the reader is easily inclined to feel sympathy with him when he starts by trying, in a loutish manner, to make himself appealing, and later tries to free himself from a world of romance he evidently does not belong to. Again the reader of Theocritus meets the traditional and well-known characters and motifs from archaic poetry, but finds an unanticipated original approach.
The most obvious sign that Radke has identified for the modernity of the Hellenistic poets is their preference to compose aitia, as these allow writers to create historical fantasies that help to construct the world as space. Again it is Callimachus who in the famous prologue to his Aitia has blurred the borders of autobiographical narration and myth: Apollo himself admonishes and directs the young poet in his artistic choices. This bit of autobiographical fiction may be interpreted as an apt portrayal of Callimachus’ own role within the creation and composition of a new literary era.
Radke tries to prove her claim about the modernity and originality of Hellenistic poetry not only with the examples mentioned and numerous others, but by adducing a comparable modern literary epoch that in the same way focused on childhood and early times, Romanticism of the 18th and 19th centuries. Confronted with the achievements of the period of Weimar classicism exemplified by Goethe and Schiller that were naturally regarded as superior and unachievable, the brothers August Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel, who may count as the critical leaders of the Romantic movement in Germany, innovated the idea of modern literary history to mark a fresh start.
Radke’s book is not an easy read, as she is constantly arguing on a highly theoretical level and does not spare the reader numerous philosophical citations and digressions. Her own originality seems overemphasized at certain points, as Radke is certainly not the first scholar who has identified the traditional, yet modern character of Hellenistic poetry.1 One might also ask how the modernistic approach of the Hellenistic poets and their alleged effort to declare the literary heritage as concluded and past can be harmonized with the contrasting movement of Alexandrian grammarians to explicitly preserve and comment on these older works.
Still Die Kindheit des Mythos is an important book that is far more than a simple analysis of the achievements of Hellenistic poetry. On closer inspection it is the ambitious project of a young German scholar to breathe new life into the subject of classical philology, and to correct its reputation, together with that of Hellenistic poetry, as simply reflective and past-oriented. According to her own thesis that youth sets out in new directions, Gyburg Radke might be the perfect choice to bring our discipline back into the limelight of literary discourse.
1. It might be sufficient to mention the recent collection of essays by M. Fantuzzi, R. Hunter, Tradition and Innovation in Hellenistic Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004; cf. Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.11.30.