On the “norm of the polyp” in early Greek epic

Andrea Debiasi

During my research talk one week ago (02/23/2012), I discussed the outcomes of a study I have conducted at the CHS on a specific epic fragment. In this post I wish to present, in a condensed form, some of these points by fulfilling at the same time the promise I made in the previous post to touch on the Alcmeonis.

The starting point is an epic fragment [1] containing the first formulation of the so-called “norm of the polyp”:

The sources report the lines as anonymous, although Antigonus, by mentioning generically “the poet’” seems to imply an Homeric authorship. Such lines are included in the modern editions of the Greek epic fragments, where they are either recorded under the voice “Homerus” (fr. 3 Davies) or ascribed tentatively to the Cyclic epic Thebais (fr. 4 Berbabé = 8* West).

The attribution to the Thebais may receive some support by the fact that the precept is addressed to an Amphilochus, whose name is connected with the Theban Cycle: here Amphilochus is the son of Amphiaraus, one of the Seven who failed the assault on Thebes. Based, among other things, on a Pindaric fragment (fr. 43a Maehl.) inspired by these lines, it has been reasonably supposed that here too the speaker must be Amphiaraus, addressing his own son Amphilochus.

The context in which Amphiaraus advised Amphilochus does not emerge from the sources. It has been assumed that Amphiaraus expressed the “norm of the polyp” together with the injunction he gave to his sons to avenge him by murdering Eriphyle. The hypothesis is attractive, but it can encounter some difficulties. In both the literary and iconographic sources Amphiaraus gives the order to avenge him especially to Alcmaon, his eldest son, as he prepared to set out. In the “chest of Cypselus” described by Pausanias 5.17.7 Alcmaon is a boy, where Amphilochus is a baby being carried by a nurse. Such a scene occurs almost identically in other figurative representations. An invocation such as “hero Amphilochus” (line 1 of the fragment), no matter how ornamental the epithet is, together with the sage tone of the advice addressed to Amphilochus (without resentment nor reference to vengeance) hardly fits with the departure of Amphiaraus; it is instead far more suitable to a situation where Amphilochus has grown, with such a maturity of judgment that he can endorse his father’s suggestions [2].

Such a situation can be found in the Alcmeonis, a later epic than the Thebais but integrated as well with the Theban Cycle [3]. It is my assumption that the epic lines with the “norm of the polyp” can be attributed to the Alcmeonis.

The note by Antigonus, who incidentally quotes the first line in a secondary form, is not binding, not only because of the generic character of the mention to “the poet”, but especially due to the well-documented use to ascribe to Homer whatever poem one meant to promote.

More than the Thebais, the Alcmeonis presents a plot where an “hero Amphilochus”, brother of the main character Alcmaon and himself one of the Epigonoi, fully stands out (cf. fr. °11 Bernabé). Both the foundation legends and the use of the eponyms were crucial in the economy of the poem, so the paramount role played by Amphilochus can be inferred by his being the eponym of a city that Alcmaon founded in Acarnania and named it Argos Amphilochia “after his brother Amphilochus” (fr. °9 Bernabé). According to other versions Amphilochus himself founded the city in the course of his wanderings. It is highly likely that the Alcmeonis included some references to Amphilochus’ wanderings, providing a striking parallelism with the vicissitudes of the wandering hero Alcmaon – an essential feature in that poem.

The enterprise of the Seven against Thebes and especially the deeds and the fate of Alcmaon’s father Amphiaraus must have been mentioned in the Alcmeonis. The fate of Amphiaraus partly diverges from that of his fellows. During the rout of the Seven’s army near Thebes, Zeus split the earth and Amphiaraus vanished with his chariot: he remained alive underground whence he kept on issuing prophecies. Among these prophecies the one he gave to the Epigonoi deserves some attention. It is remarkable a passage of Pindar, Pyth. 8.39-55, most likely inspired by the Alcmeonis: the oracular consultation occurred during the campaign against Thebes, when the Epigonoi were engaged both in besieging the city and in sustaining the counterattack of the Thebans. Amphiaraus predicts to the Epigonoi that Thebes will fall, and the victory will be primarily due to the bravery of the real leader of the expedition, Alcmaon, as he will be the first to enter the city.

A peculiar feature of the Alcmeonis is the prominence given to the oracles. A meeting between Amphiaraus, evoked as an oracle near the place where he vanished, and his sons proves to be a salient event consistent with the nature of the Alcmeonis. In such a context not only Alcmaon but also the “hero” Amphilochus may have benefited from the prophetic skills of Amphiaraus, whose advice to behave as the polyp betrays pride and fatherly love, and fits well with Amphilochus, especially in view of his future wanderings.

It is noteworthy that such background has been conjectured in order to explain a single line from the Alcmeonis containing the invocation “Mistress Earth, and Zagreus highest of all the gods” (fr. 3 Bernabé/West) [4]. The explanation of the line as a prayer in which the Epigonoi, notably Alcmaon and Amphilochus, call the power of the earth to evoke the oracle of Amphiaraus is compelling. The setting must have been that of the oracular consultation during the siege of Thebes. Amphiaraus could not remain indifferent to such prayer by his sons: thus he issued the prophecy of victory most likely together with the “norm of the polyp”.


[1] Consisting of two hexameters transmitted by both Athen. 7.317a (based on Clearch. fr. 75 Wehrli) and Antig. Caryst. Mirab. 25a, as well as by a third line quoted by both Zenob. 1.24 and Diogenian. 1.23.

[2] From this perspective two different proposals of attribution have been advanced. T.W. Allen, CR 27, 1913, 191 ascribed the fragment to the Cyclic Nostoi, where the advice would be addressed by the mentor Teiresias to Amphilochus; I. Löffler, Die Melampodie, Meisenheim am Glan 1963, 56-8 suggested an attribution to the Melampodia: in this case the precept would be addressed by Alcamon to his son Amphilochus (II). Both the interpretations prove to be weak where they diverge from the more natural “dialogic nexus”, between Amphiaraus and Amphilochus (I).

[3] Detailed discussion in A. Debiasi, Alcmeonis, in M. Fantuzzi & C. Tsagalis (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to the Greek Epic Cycle, forthcoming. I am persuaded of the independence of the Alcmeonis from the Epigonoi.

[4] Cf. F.G. Welcker, Der epische Cyclus oder die homerischen Dichter, II, Bonn 1882, 381-2; M.L. West, Greek Epic Fragments, Cambridge, MA/London 2003, 61 n. 17.

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