Skidmore College
Classics 224:  The Hero(ine's) Tale
The Hecale of Callimachus
The Hecale of Callimachus
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   The Fragments
   Hints and tips

   A solution
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In CE 1205 the world lost one of the great epics of later antiquity:  the Hecale of Callimachus, an Alexandrian poet and scholar of the third century BCE.  The Hecale was brief, a single scroll of about 1000 lines.  Yet it  was widely read and admired.  It should have survived.

The last known copy belonged to Michael Choniantes, the Archbishop of Athens.  When the Franks invaded, Michael was forced to abandon his library, and his Hecale perished in the destruction.  As the scholar A. S. Hollis notes, after lasting about 1500 years, the poem was lost in the very city whose history it celebrated.

Since 1205 the efforts to recover and reconstruct the Hecale have been ongoing, beginning with Michael's attempt to rebuild his library immediately following the siege.  Most recent is Hollis' 1990 edition of the fragments, which carefully sifts the best available evidence for the content and themes of the poem.

What follows are 45 fragments of the Hecale, more or less in random order, which range in length from one word to several sentences.  Read the fragments (with the testimonia provided) and then try to put them in their proper sequence.  The goal of this exercise is to understand not only what the poem was about, but what made it a classic—a worthy successor to Homer.

Click here to see one possible arrangement of the fragments.

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Requirement.  Due in class, 1 April 1999.

For this assignment compose a one page (typed, double spaced) reconstruction of the Hecale.  Outline the following:

  • the major movements of the poem—its basic structure.

  • the numbers of the fragments that pertain to each movement, placed in their proper narrative order.  If there appears to be several sub-movements, group the frgaments accordingly.

  • List any fragments that you cannot place at the bottom of the page.
You need not explain your reasoning unless you deem it absolutely necessary—and even then you should be as brief as possible.  Your outline should be just that:  a concise sketch of the poem.  There are no right or wrong answers per se.

Click here for an example outline.

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Testimonia.  What follows is an ancient summary of the Hecale known as the Diegesis ("Digest"), written by an unknown author.  It remains the best report from antiquity on the contents of the poem—if not the most sensitive or stirring (see Hints and tips, below).
The Hecale.

"Once on a hill of Erechtheus there lived a woman of Attica..."

Theseus, avoiding the plot of Medea, was kept under close watch by his father, Aegeus, seeing that the lad was brought back to him suddenly and contrary to his expectations.

Yet Theseus, wishing to go forth against the Bull that was causing trouble around the deme of Marathon in order to subdue it, and even though he was kept under guard, he departed, setting out in secret from the house at nightfall.

Yet when a storm broke unexpectedly, after catching sight of a cottage at the foot of a mountain, which belonged to an old woman named Hecale, he was hospitably received within.  Arising at dawn he went out into the countryside, and having subdued the Bull, he went back to Hecale.

But upon finding her dead unexpectedly, and after lamenting how he was cheated of what he had expected, he undertook to repay her for her hospitality [xenia] after death.  He founded the deme that he named after her, and established the sacred precinct of Zeus Hecaleos.

So runs the ancient summary.  Note that you have modern testimonia at your fingertips on the Resources page, where there are links to sites in which you may learn more about the early adventures of Theseus.
The Fragments.  (Translation of Trypanis [1958], adapted.)

1. All wayfarers honored her for her hospitality, for she kept her house open.

2. A salt tear fell from her.

3. [...] and the avenging stork was journeying with us.

4. She took down wood stored away a long time ago.

5. [...] as she saw him also getting up.

6. But tell me into what vessel am I to pour the water for my feet, and from where.

7. [...] dry wood [...] to cut.

8. [...] fennel [...]

9. [...] for that is what the neighbors around called her.

10. From the deme of Colonae somebody brought me to live in the same house.

11. She understood that it was the son of Aegeus.

12. [...] having at once snatched a small tattered garment from the couch.

13. [...] having bent to the earth the terrible horns of the beast.

14. She swiftly took off the hollow, boiling pot.

15. He cast off his wet garment.

16. He was dragging (the bull), and it was following, a sluggish wayfarer.

17. Hold back, child, do not drink.

18. I marvel (as I look upon you).

19. I will sleep in a corner (of my hut). A couch is ready for me.

20. Once on a hill of Erechtheus there lived a woman of Attica.

21. She made him sit on the humble couch.

22. The lips of an old woman are never at rest.

23. Therefore, father, let me go; you would again receive me alive and well.

24. [...] thistles [...]

25. She emptied the tub, and then she drew another mixed draught.

26. [...] where he did harmful deeds.

27. [...] whose tomb is this you are building?

28. You have come unexpectedly.

29. We miserable paupers suffer; and at home all our belongings have been divided out.

30. From the bread box she took and served loaves in abundance, such as women put away for herdsmen.

31. For poverty was not in my family, nor was I a pauper from my grandparents.  O that I, O that I had a third of [...]

32. [...] olives which grew ripe on the tree, and wild olives, and the light colored ones, which in autumn she had put to swim in brine.

33. Go, gentle woman, the way which heart-gnawing worries do not traverse.  [...]  Often, good mother [...] we will remember your hospitable hut, for it was a common shelter for all.

34. [...] the wide hat, stretching out beyond the head, a shepherd’s felt headgear, suited her, and in her hand a stick.

35. [...] was I refusing to hear death calling me for a long time ago, that I might soon tear my garments over you too (dead) [...]

36. These two I brought up on dainties, nor did anybody else in such a manner [...] abundantly rich [...] they should be drenched in a warm bath [...] carrying the children [...] these two of mine sprang up like aspens, which in a ravine [...]

37. For in Troezen, he put it under a hollow stone together with the boots.  [...]  whenever the child should be strong enough to lift up with his arms the hollow stone.  Having seized the sword of Aedepsos...and the boots, which the abundant rotting mold had not ruined.

38. They guarded my threshing floor, trod in a circle by the oxen. Horses (brought) him from Aphidnae, looking like [...] and who were Zeus’ sons [...] I remember the beautiful [...] mantle held by golden brooches, a work of spiders [...]

39. Thus she rejected our (race), nor [...] but may you never fall from her favor. The anger of Athena is ever grievous. But I was present as a little one, for this is my eighth generation, but [...] the tenth for my parents.

40. I go down to Marathon, so that [...] and (Pallas) leads the way. (You have thus learned from me) what you asked me. And you, good mother, (tell me, for I also) wish to hear you for a while (speaking) [...] you live an old woman in a lonely [...]

41. (Cercyon) [...] wrestlings [...] city, who fled from Arcadia and took up residence near us, a bad neighbor [...] may I pierce his impudent eyes with thorns while he is still alive, and if it is not a sin, eat him raw [...] to bring horses from the Eurotas plentiful in mint [...] the wave [...] for they unloosened the cables under the wings of the sea-gull. With this omen may I neither myself (set sail), not a person who has (undertaken a commission?) for me.

42. While it was still midday, and the earth was warm, for so long the brilliant sky was clearer than glass, not was a wisp of vapor to be seen, and cloudless stretched the heavens [...] But when to their mother...(the daughters) ask for the evening meal, and take their hands from work, then [...] First over Parnes, and then farther forward and larger on the summit of thyme-covered Aegaleos, stood (the cloud?) bringing much rain [...] and thereupon a double [...] of rugged Hymettus [...] and lightning was flashing [...] as when [...] on the Ausonian Sea [...] and the swift northern squall from Merithus fell upon the clouds.

43. But Pallas left him, the seed of Hephaestus, long within (the chest), until for the sons of Cecrops [...] the rock [...] secret, unutterable, but I neither knew, nor learned whence he was by descent, but a report (spread) among the primeval bird that Earth herself bore him to Hephaestus. Then she, that she might set up a guardian for her land, which she had newly obtained by vote of Zeus and the twelve other immortals, and by witness of the snake, was coming to Pellene in Achaea. Meanwhile, the maidens that watched the chest planned to do an evil deed [...] undoing the fastenings (of the chest) [...]

44. The other (strap) he fastened and put in his sword [...] when they saw it they all trembled and shrank from looking face to face on the great hero and the monstrous beast, until Theseus called to them from afar: "Have courage and stay, and let the swiftest go to the city to bear this message to my father Aegeus—for he shall relieve him from many cares: ‘Theseus is close at hand, bringing the bull alive from Marathon rich in water.’ " Thus he spoke, and when they heard, they all cried out "Hurrah!" and stayed there. The south wind does not shed so great a fall of leaves, nor the north wind, even in the month of falling leaves, as those which in that hour the countryfolk threw all around and over Theseus, the countryfolk who [...] encircled him, while the women [...] crowned him with belts [...]

45. "May I have (this) alone as protection for my belly against evil hunger [...] and barley groats, that dripped from the brew upon the earth [...] messenger of bad news [...] O that you were still alive then to know this: how the nymphs inspire the old crow. [...] Yes by my old shrivelled skin, yes by this tree though dry, all the suns have not yet disappeared in the West with a broken pole and axle. But it shall be evening, or night, or noon, or dawn, when the raven, which now might vie in color even with swans, or with milk, or with the finest cream of the wave, shall put on a sad plumage, black as pitch, the reward that Phoebus will one day give him for his message, when he learns terrible tidings of Coronis, daughter Phlegyas, that she has gone with Ischys, the driver of horses." While she spoke thus, sleep seized her and her hearer. They fell asleep, but not for long. For soon the frosty early dawn came, when the hands of thieves are no longer seeking for prey. For already the lamps of dawn are shining. Many a gatherer of water is singing the Song of the Well, and the axle creaking under the wagons wakes him who has his house beside the highway, while many a blacksmith slave, with hearing deafened, torments the ear [...]

Hints and tips.

Here are some strategies to help you navigate this assignment successfully.

  • Remember Homer.  As we learned from Apollonius, later poets were very aware of how their characters reflected those of Homer.  Which characters does Callimachus recall?  The same line of reasoning applies to themes as well.  Apollonius reinvents the Homeric code of honor.  How does Callimachus handle the code of xenia?

  • Remember the Shield of Heracles.  Not the actual poem, but its disproportionate nature.  In the Iliad, the shield-ekphrasis is a great moment, but it is only a moment, whereas in the SH, the fight with Cycnus seems to have been invented so as to serve as a framework the ekphrasis itself.  That is, the ekphrasis is out of proportion with the surrounding poem.

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    Apply this kind of thinking to the Hecale, which takes its name from the old woman who hosts Theseus.  The Diegesis emphasizes the quest of against the bull of Marathon;  but this emphasis itself may be disproportionate to the poem's actual focus.  In other words, the Diegesis can guide you, but in the end you must be accountable to the fragments.
  • Remember the spoken word.  Some fragments are clearly third person narration, while others are clearly spoken in the first person—even though no quotation marks are given.  Listen to what these fragments are telling you.  OIften it is easy to infer who is speaking, and to whom, and in what context.

  • Remember your online resources.  Callimachus was, like Apollonius, fond of demonstrating his knowledge of myth.  Fragment 45, for instance, mentions someone named Coronis.  Before you throw your hands up in despair, use the virtual resources at your disposal to find out who Coronis was.  Let the web be your Library of Alexandria.

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Last modified 29 March 1999