From Barbara Graziosi’s TLS review of Simon Hornblower’s Lykophron: Alexandra:

The Alexandra survived the end of antiquity, and was transmitted to posterity, precisely because it was obscure: the medieval manuscripts that preserve the text include copious scholarly notes on it. Already in antiquity, the pleasures of reading the Alexandra were intertwined with the satisfaction of offering and receiving learned explanation. This is a distinctive feature of the literature produced in the Hellenistic period (conventionally 323–31 BC). Callimachus, the most famous exponent of Hellenistic culture, may have berated the big book, but he acted on his maxim only up to a point: he wrote highly compressed, distilled poetry, together with extensive works of scholarship elucidating earlier literature. Lykophron belonged to the same tradition: he composed difficult verse in full expectation that it would attract commentary on the part of knowledgeable readers. Hornblower even speculates that Lykophron may himself have provided a commentary on his own poem.

The subject of the Alexandra is ideally suited to exegesis: it consists almost entirely of a prophecy delivered by Cassandra (under her alternative name of Alexandra), before the abduction of Helen and the beginning of the Trojan War. In ancient myth, Apollo granted Cassandra foresight in exchange for sex but, when she went back on the deal, cursed her with the capacity to tell the truth without being understood. At the beginning of the poem, a guard reports the words of Cassandra to king Priam, her father, hoping that he may find “a clear path” through them. Readers, meanwhile, have trouble finding such a path. Lykophron’s verse is difficult not because it features particularly complex thoughts, or syntax, but because he uses rare vocabulary and roundabout expressions. Major characters are never mentioned by name: we need to guess their identity by decoding some abstruse periphrasis. Thus, for example, Odysseus is called “the thief of the Phoenician goddess”, because after the fall of Troy he stole the Palladion, a statue of Athena, and in a local Corinthian cult, Athena was worshipped as “Phoenician” (or so we are told in an ancient note on the passage).

I am torn when it comes to that kind of obscurity; on the one hand, I love looking things up and am the proud owner of line-by-line commentaries to Pound, Joyce, and Charles Olson (not to mention various ancient authors), but I also get exasperated by authors who too consistently and perversely refuse to call things by their proper names, and I am especially irritated by entire poetic traditions that depend on such obscurity. Anyway, an interesting subject! (For another take on the book, here‘s Charles McNelis’s BMCR review.)


  1. Trond Engen says

    “The Phoenician godess” suggests to me that the identification of Athena with ‘Anat was still prominent — or was at the time when the kenning was first coined. Or maybe the Palladion of Troy, the virgin idol, really was understood as the Phoenician ‘Anat, and the identification with Pallas Athene was later.

  2. But the obscurity of Cassandra’s prophecy is exactly the point.

  3. Trond Engen says

    Yes, of course. I didn’t mean to suggest that this was common knowledge at the time of the composition of Alexandra. I meant to say that the lines connecting the Parthenon of Troy to the Phoenician godess may have been clearer at the time when the expression “thief of the Phoenician godess” was first conceived of. At Lycophron’s time, when Phoenician precence in the Aegean was a long gone memory and the stolen Parthenon of Troy had been identified with Athena for centuries, it was a riddle that only those knowing the most obscure pieces of ancient history could solve. Or, as it were, those who knew that Athena was worshipped as Phoinike in Corinth.

    It seems to me that Alexandra was a cryptic crossword puzzle of its day. The obscurity was there, not as an artistic or poetic choice of style but as an intellectual challenge and a pedagogical device — a way to transmit and preserve near-forgotten words and allusions to new generations of scholars. And it worked. They kept commenting on it for centuries.

  4. It seems to me that Alexandra was a cryptic crossword puzzle of its day.

    I like it!

  5. the satisfaction of offering and receiving learned explanation

    Unfortunately for the explanation-minded, this functions exactly as it does in a flea-market. The seller has piles of explanation that nobody buys, and customers ask for those he doesn’t carry and then move on without buying.

  6. At the turn of the last century, Basil Gildersleeve wrote:

    Few scholars now-a-days read Lykophron and almost all who do read him claim a reward of merit by writing something about him.

    There was a (relative) flurry of activity in French at the turn of this one, with new translations and a colloquium on the éclats d’obscurité of τὸ σκοτεινὸν ποίημα (the proceedings of which, contrary to Anglo-Saxon standards, can be had new for only €39).

  7. When slogging through something by Heidegger once, it occurred to me that the obscurity of it all was eminently suitable to spawn dissertations by generations of PhD candidates. It has indeed served that function, whether or not this was a deliberate or unconscious goal of his. Just look at it this way: when opportunity knocks, it is foolish to hide behind the door.

    Obscurum per obscurius is one of the stabilizing pillars in the halls of academe. The building would collapse if frequently shaken by lucidity.

  8. Mmm, I think that’s over-egged. Lucidity is very difficult, unless you are Marie-Lucie (in which case it may still be difficult, I don’t know), and people under publish-or-perish pressure may wind up writing obscurely for B. Franklin’s reason: “If in this I have been tedious, it may be some excuse, I had not time to make it shorter.”

  9. That’s exactly my point ! It requires much less effort to be obscure in both style and content, and that is also a hallmark of profundity. A clear presentation of confused ideas exposes the writer to ridicule, as does a confused presentation of clear ideas.

    Consider the legacy of Heidegger, Lacan and Derrida.

  10. marie-lucie says

    JC: Lucidity is very difficult, unless you are Marie-Lucie (in which case it may still be difficult, I don’t know)

    JC, Please don’t embarrass me!

    I am in awe of you and most other Hatters, who blend lucidity with amazing scholarship. Name a language, however obscure, at least one Hatter knows about it, putting professional linguists to shame.

  11. I think, it was a pun on your name…

  12. Oh! Of course I never think about that meaning.

  13. Actually, I didn’t even think of the pun. m-l, your explanations are amazingly clear, even to people who know little of the subject you are expounding.

  14. languagehat, thanks! And thanks for sharing your great posts every week!

  15. Nice to get a compliment from a weasel!

  16. marie-lucie says

    JC, thank you, I try my best but often wonder if I succeed.

  17. I think pretty much everyone here would agree that you do.

  18. marie-lucie says

    Thank you too, LH!


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