Sunday, November 24, 2019


Stefano Acerbo, Le tradizioni mitiche nella Biblioteca dello ps. Apollodoro: percorsi nella mitografia di età imperiale. Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert, 2019. Pp. 157. ISBN 9789025613402. €36,00 (pb).

Reviewed by Robert Fowler, University of Bristol (

Version at BMCR home site

Acerbo here develops a new and fruitful way of assessing Apollodoros' relationship with his sources, so as better to appreciate his artistry.1 Traditional Quellenforschung tries to trace unattributed myths in the Library (i.e. most of them) to a specific source, and regards Apollodoros as little more than a cut-and-paste artist. Recently, a rehabilitation of this worthy writer has been under way, and Acerbo's work contributes very well to this trend.

As Acerbo says, Quellenforschung in mythography is doomed to fail given the extreme fluidity of the tradition. Anonymous, free-floating mythographical papyri give a sense of how vast the ocean was. New variants and new combinations of old ones characterize every production in the genre. Nonetheless there are some very interesting connections between Apollodoros and other authors, and understanding the tradition as a whole is important for many reasons. Acerbo's method is to concentrate on what he calls immagini mitiche, which rather than 'mythical images' might best be translated 'mythological motifs' or 'mythemes'. Taking a mytheme such as 'Herakles kills his music teacher' or 'Pelops is butchered and served at a banquet of the gods', Acerbo asks when it first appears, the modalities of its use (why did he kill the teacher? what happened next? who exactly butchered Pelops? did the gods eat any of their supper?, etc.), and how and for what reasons these modalities change over time. His aim is to expose the stratigraphy of the Library, that is, to identify not the specific, named source of a mytheme, but its period and/or genre of origin. This procedure does not simply shift the focus of Quellenforschung—instead of naming, say, Euripides as a source, being satisfied with 'fifth-century tragedy'—while remaining open to the same objections. There will be a reason why the tragedian deployed this motif and we can ask whether that application persists or is modified in Apollodoros, and thus grasp better the nature of his art. Though we can detect older mythemes in Apollodoros, it is wrong to think in terms of survivals (as Quellenforschung did), even if the term is hard to avoid. It is not the case that Apollodoros incorporated mythemes thoughtlessly, without heeding the damage to his own narrative. Myths, even in mythological manuals, simply do not work that way.

After an introduction laying out the methodology and the state of current research on Apollodoros, the first chapter ('La mano del mitografo') analyses the theogony at the opening of the Library, and brings to light largely unnoticed but important differences from Homer and Hesiod arising from new understandings of concepts such as 'king' or 'dynasty' in Apollodoros' day. The second chapter ('La stratigrafia mitica e la Biblioteca') considers the myth of Herakles and his music-teacher Linos, and persuasively argues that Apollodoros' description of the trial that followed the murder can only be credited to a source contemporary with fifth/fourth-century Athenian democracy. He makes the further observation that the absurdity of Herakles' defence (an appeal to the 'law of Rhadamanthys' that permits killing in self-defence, as if in caning his student Linos was intent on murder) smacks of comedy. And Herakles in producing this argument is behaving like a clever Sophist (such as composed imaginary defences of mythological figures) rather than the young hooligan of the Linos story: roles are reversed. If comedy (it would be Middle Comedy) is the source of this version, it would be the first example so far detected in the Library, a point of some importance. The third and final chapter ('Risalire al passato. La polivalenza delle immagini e la prosa mitografica'), addresses two mythemes, the anger of Gaia in the context of the Succession Myth, and the banquet of Pelops, concentrating particularly on the way mythemes lend themselves to re-purposing.

Acerbo's discussion of Pelops' banquet has important implications for Pindar's baffling treatment in the first Olympian. Scholars have argued endlessly, and it would be rash to assert that Acerbo has finally cracked the old chestnut. But he has a chance. Since the discussion may elude the notice of Pindarists, I give an account of it here. Apollodoros writes (Epitome 2.3) that 'when Pelops was cut up and boiled in the feast of the gods, upon being restored to life he bloomed with greater youth (ὡραιότερος γέγονε) and his beauty was outstanding. He became Poseidon's lover...'. Emphasising the proper meaning of ὡραῖος as ripe or seasonable, particularly in relation to sexual relations, rather than 'beautiful' as it is often translated, Acerbo compares stories of rejuvenation or immortalisation by boiling and comparable methods (dipping in the Styx, roasting in a fire) and argues that Pindar refers in lines 25–7 not to the story he wishes to reject, but to a version in which Pelops' boiling was a magical process to speed up his maturation.2 This is exactly what Demeter does to Demophon in the Homeric Hymn, if not instantly then over the course of a very short period (235, 241). There, her actions are meant at the same time to immortalise her charge; functionally, rejuvenation and immortalisation are equivalent. Pelops' shoulder, like Achilles' heel, would be the part that was overlooked; the gods replaced it with an ivory one. The rejuvenation / immortalisation worked, in fact, until owing to Tantalos' offence the gods returned Pelops to earth (65–6). There, he resumed normal human growth to full manhood (67–8); had he stayed on Olympos he would have been young forever. Apollodoros' ὡραιότερος is a hint of this earlier version (and he gives no indication of blasphemy or wickedness, though admittedly the Epitome has omitted much).

Acerbo also reads Lykophron's cryptic reference to Pelops having been young twice (Alex. 156–8) in the same way, and cites Tzetzes' comment on the passage that Pelops twice reached his ἀκμή, first in the normal manner then by being boiled (Tzetzes drew on Apollodoros; both he and Lykophron stress youth ahead of beauty). Pindar goes on to say that there are many marvels in world, but people tend to elaborate upon them and tell fibs; he, however, will tell the real story, which is that Poseidon carried Pelops away at a well-ordered feast—not some grisly perversion—arranged by Tantalos for the gods. It is the same occasion on which Klotho pulled Pelops from the cauldron. Klotho is there because this is a new start to life; a re-birth. The boiling and the shoulder are the wonder; Pindar fully accepts them. What he objects to is the false explanation. It was Tantalos' neighbours, motivated by envy (47), who put about the story of cannibalism. This was probably the more popular and better-known explanation of the shoulder, so Pindar is particularly emphatic in his denial. (Incidentally, Pindar says vaguely that 'they'—those attending the feast—cut Pelops to pieces (τάμον, 49). Tantalos' part in it, if any, is not specified, and grammatically 'they' is actually the gods who do the carving and eating in 51. The reason for Tantalos' fall from grace is given in the next lines as his sharing nectar and ambrosia with his friends; nothing to do with serving the gods a human casserole.) The notorious ἐπεί in 26 ('when' or 'because') retains the temporal sense that most scholars now agree is required, but (as the word itself does in Greek) also has a causal connotation. When (temporal) Pelops emerged from the cauldron, Poseidon was overcome with desire (41), and for that reason (causal) carried him off, just as Zeus later did Ganymede (who, not coincidentally, was immortalised). The interpretation is not immune from criticism; the emphatic 'unlike earlier men (i.e. poets) I will say' in 36 leads one to think that this is a wholly new version, and, if so, we are left to guess what Pindar means us to think about the cauldron and shoulder. Magical rejuvenation is a lot to infer, and allusive though he is, Pindar does not leave us floundering in this manner. But on any reading of the passage there are some questions it refuses to answer. 'Unlike earlier poets' may not mean all of them; a pretence of originality is rhetorically effective. Though the details may escape us, it is surely possible that a more positive version of Pelops' boiling existed in the archaic period. If this is granted, Acerbo's reading makes good sense of the whole passage.

Throughout the book the arguments are extremely well informed. All aspects of the selected passages are treated in detail (including, for instance, possible Orphic influence—or the lack of it—on the Bibl.). The reasoning is tight, though perhaps not always allowing sufficiently for the gaps in our record. The book is well produced, with few typographical errors (tending to occur more in the Greek than the Italian). One error I must correct. At 99 n. 120 Acerbo cites Pherekydes fr. 37a, and goes on to say 'Secondo uno scolio all' Elettra di Sofocle (Sch. Soph. El. 504) sempre Ferecide aveva già descritto la successiva uccisione dell' auriga. Il frammento non è, però, accolto negli E[arly] G[reek] M[ythography]' (di Fowler). Um, yes it is: it's fr. 37b.


1.   I shall continue to call him 'Apollodoros' rather than 'pseudo-Apollodoros'. Even if the attribution is a mistake by somebody who thought the book was by Apollodoros of Athens, its author doesn't deserve to be called 'Fake Apollodoros' because of it. Call it 'Anon. Bibl.' if you must.
2.   Acerbo here draws in some respects on Carlo Brillante, 'Tantalo nell' Olimpica I di Pindaro', QUCC 38 (1991) 15–24, but differs significantly in others.

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