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  • Statius, Orpheus, and Callimachus Thebaid 2.269-96
  • Christopher Matthew Chinn (bio)

In this paper I argue that Statius's description of a necklace made by Vulcan in book 2 of the Thebaid alludes at several points to the Orphic Theogony. 1 Drawing on Charles McNelis's (2007, 11-2, 75) suggestive theory that Statius enacts in the Thebaid a conflict between traditional epic and Callimachean poetics, I postulate that these Orphic allusions allow us to read Vulcan's necklace itself as constituting a 'poem' charged with the language of Callimachean aesthetics and of Orphic-influenced poetics. Epic ekphrases frequently comment upon the narrative of which they are a part by using visual language both to emphasize elements of the main narrative and to allude to other exemplary narratives and discourses. 2 Homer's Shield of Achilles, for instance, may be understood as emphasizing the universal nature of the story of Achilles' anger by depicting visually the entire universe on the shield. 3 On the other hand, Vergil's Temple of Juno in Carthage exemplifies the different ways of interpreting the Homeric past and the Roman future. 4 I intend to show that Statius's necklace description engages in a similar kind of commentary by providing a complex meditation on the aesthetics of genre in general and more specifically on different types of epic narrative.

The context of the necklace description is the impending marriage of Polynices to Argia, daughter of Adrastus, king of Argos and soon to be Polynices' main ally in the war against Thebes. We are told that Polynices gives to his new bride a necklace that had been owned by Polynices' ancestress Harmonia. We are then informed that the necklace was made by Vulcan as a tool of revenge against his adulterous wife Venus (Harmonia being the offspring of her relationship with Mars):

Lemnius haec, ut prisca fides, Mavortia longumfurta dolens, capto postquam nil obstat amoripoena nec ultrices castigavere catenae,Harmoniae dotale decus sub luce iugalistruxerat.

(Theb. 2.269-73) [End Page 79]

Now the Lemnian, as the ancient belief was, for a long time chagrined by Mars' intrigue, when punishment proved in no way an obstacle to the affair he had detected and the avenging chains did not mend matters, had created for Harmonia a lovely wedding-gift against the day of her marriage.

(Translation Ritchie and Hall)

The allusion here to the adultery of Mars and Venus, perhaps to the specific version of the story given in Odyssey 8, 5 serves as an acknowledgment of Vergil's tongue-in-cheek handling of the Venus-Vulcan scene in Aeneid 8. In his remake of Thetis's supplication of Hephaestus in Iliad 18, Vergil portrays Venus as having to seduce her husband Vulcan in order to obtain weapons for her illegitimate son Aeneas. 6 Statius appropriates the workshop scene and (proleptically) depicts Vulcan avenging himself on Venus for her adulteries. Statius then goes on to list the craftsmen involved in the creation of the necklace: the Cyclopes, the Telchines, and Vulcan himself:

        hoc, docti quamquam maiora, laborantCyclopes, notique operum Telchines amicacertatim iuvere manu; sed plurimus ipsisudor.

(Theb. 2.273-76)

Over this gift the Cyclopes, though trained to more weighty tasks, labor and the Telchines famed for their craftsmanship helped in a friendly contest of skill; most effort, though, was expended by himself.

(Translation Ritchie and Hall)

This is a densely intertextual and metapoetic passage (see below); for now, it suffices to notice the addition of the Telchines to the workshop scene. In Homer and Vergil, Hephaestus/Vulcan works only with the Cyclopes. Statius adds the Telchines, a group of daimones and craftsmen, to the list of workers. 7 Next comes a description of the actual object:

ibi arcano florentes igne zmaragdoscingit et infaustas percussum adamanta figurasGorgoneosque orbes Siculaque incude relictosfulminis extremi cineres viridumque draconumlucentes a fronte iubas; hic flebile germenHesperidum et dirum Phrixei velleris aurum; tum varias pestes raptumque interplicat atro [End Page 80] Tisiphones de crine ducem, et quae pessima cestonvis probat; haec circum spumis lunaribus unguitcallidus atque hilari perfundit cuncta veneno.

(Theb. 2.276-85)

There he sets smaragdi flowering...


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