In this semester’s Sunoikisis Greek course, we have covered a substantial selection of the poetry of Callimachus. Our knowledge of classical cultures has been rigorously challenged by its frequent use of allusion, and our imaginations have been piqued by its creative adaptation of Archaic genres and unique poetic outlook. For those of us who have studied the later Latin poet Catullus, Callimachus’ famous maxim “μέγα βιβλίον μέγα κακόν”–that is, mega biblion, mega kakon, translated “a big book is a big evil”–is all too familiar. Callimachus started a poetic tradition that both looked back toward the oral-epic traditions of old Greece and pushed forward with a bold new aesthetic that prized erudition and conciseness.
The poems of Archaic Greece existed for a long time without being written down. They were part of a fluid, living tradition that was later distilled in a very limited form into the two major written Greek epics titled Iliad and Odyssey and a few other texts including hymns. The texts as we have them now are not the tradition itself; they are merely static, two-dimensional reflections of it. The Greek oral tradition was a phenomenon that was far greater than any single version of a tale or collection of tales. It was a memetic network of plots and heroic archetypes familiar to all members of society that any individual bard could draw from to craft a performance. They are a fragment of a script of an ancient performance the precise details of whose players, settings, and patrons we will never know.
As the technology of writing became commonplace in Greek city-states, standard versions of these great cultural documents were preserved in writing. Not only were ancient traditions recorded, but also novel works of literature–most significantly plays–philosophy, literary theory, and science were composed in written form. By the Classical period, Greece had adopted an entirely new form of cultural expression.
By the Hellenistic period, the impact of literacy upon poetry becomes particularly conspicuous. Hellenistic poets generally wrote neither to entertain live audiences nor for theatrical competitions–they wrote to be read. This brings us back to Callimachus. During the fourth week of our course, Professor Ben Acosta-Hughes from Ohio State University gave a lecture on Callimachus’ Hymn to Apollo, which all of the students in the Hellenistic Literature course had read in Greek that week. Acosta-Hughes began by establishing the geographic and cultural background of Callimachus’ life and summarizing the known contents of his oeuvres. During his discussion of the actual text, I was taken aback by the notion that Callimachus’ hymn was written straightforwardly as such–i.e., that Callimachus’ Hymn to Apollo was just as much a performative religious text as the Homeric original that inspired it. That it was probably written for a particular temple–the one in Cyrene–and that it would have formed the basis of some ritual in honor of the god Apollo. The extent of my surprise at this assertion owed to the fact that my initial reaction to the text starkly contrasted the perspective Acosta-Hughes was offering. I had read the hymn as a purely artificial literary creation that took the hymnic genre as its inspiration, but adapted the Homeric model to its own aesthetic purposes. When I heard Acosta-Hughes’s lecture, I began to question whether I had inappropriately applied very postmodern-inflected generalities about literacy and textuality to the Hellenistic period. Our widely divergent perspectives on this text serve to demonstrate that there is often more to Callimachus than meets the eye, and that even the most defensible generalizations about literary periods should be applied with caution.