“Never Mind The βῶλαξ, Here’s The Sex Pindars”
I stand by that title. Though this is a serious post, and that title might make you think otherwise. Ah well.
In Pindar’s fourth Pythian Ode — the longest surviving choral ode we have — a strange story is told. The ode begins, as Pindar’s odes do, by celebrating a sporting victory: in this case, that of Arcesilaus, King of Cyrene, chariot-race-winner at the Pythian games. Praising him, Pindar recalls his forebear Battus, who had been charged by the oracle to leave his ancestral home (the island of Thira, modern Santorini) and establish a new kingdom in Cyrene, in Libya — which he did. That Battus would do this had been prophesied, long before he was born, by Medea, in a story she related about the voyage of the Argonauts (which voyage was led, of course, by her husband Jason).
This is how that story goes: as the Argo was passing (by or through, I’m not sure) the Libyan lake Tritonis one of the Argonauts, Euphēmus by name, was approached by the sea-god Triton. Triton came disguised as a mortal, as gods are wont to do, calling himself ‘Eurypylus’ and claiming to be a son of Poseidon — Euphemus, as it happened, was also a son of Poseidon. And this is the odd bit: Eurypylus offers Euphemus a gift: a magic clod of soil. Nice! Here, have some dirt — thank you very much.
Euphemus accepts the magic clod but later — the timeline isn’t entirely clear as to when — he loses it. The magic clod is washed overboard: ‘ἐναλίαν βᾶμεν σὺν ἅλμᾳ/ἑσπέρας, ὑγρῷ πελάγει σπομέναν’: ‘it is said a wave washed it into the sea with the spray of evening.’ So Euphemus loses the magic clod, which is a shame for our man, since the poem tells us, had he only kept it, and thrown it to the ground in ‘holy Taenarus’, in the Peloponnese, ‘beside that portal to the underworld’, from it would have grown a whole civilisation, and his family — Pindar specifies: ‘the fourth generation’, so his great-grandson — would have been master ‘of the entirety of that vast continent’ — Europe, Africa, I’m not sure which is meant, though I suppose it’s the latter. Instead of that the clod falls into the sea, floats away and washes up ‘on the island of Thira, before its time’.
Here’s Richard Lattimore’s translation of the relevant passage:
Four generations after Euphemus, Battus leaves Thira and founds Cyrene. The relevance of all this to Pindar’s poem is that Battus is both Euphemus’s great-grandson and also great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather to Arcesilaus, which is where the poem begins. Thirteen generations separate the addressee of the poem from the mythic gift of the magic clod.
This takes us up to line 69 of this 299-line poem, and most of the rest of the ode is given over to an account of the adventures of the Argonauts and the golden fleece. Then the poem ends on on a different note, with a plea to King Arcesilaus on behalf of one of Pindar’s friends — just as Zeus eventually forgave the Titans, says the poet, and released them from their prison in Tartarus, so Arcesilaus should forgive Damophilus, whom he had previously exiled. It seems Damophilus had been party to an unsuccessful aristocratic rebellion. But forgive him, urges Pindar: let Damo return home to Cyrene, and he will, cross-heart-hope-to-die, banquet beside Apollo’s splashy fountains, play his harp and live henceforward a blameless life. That’s where the ode ends.
But let’s go back to this magic clod. What’s going on here? Pindar’s word is βῶλαξ (bōlax), a poetic form of the word βῶλος (bōlos) — a term still in use in English today, of course (though a bolus is more likely nowadays to refer to a lump of chewed food, than a lump of soil). In Homer the word ἐριβῶλαξ [Odyssey 13.235 and often in the Iliad] means ‘bountiful land’, literally ‘large-clod-place’, and in Theocritus [17:80] βῶλαξ is used to describe the abundant soils of the Nile. The connection, clearly, is with fertility. Pindar describes the magic clod as ἄφθιτον Λιβύας σπέρμα (afthiton Libyas sperma), ‘the indestructible sperm of Libya’, and the word βῶλος is etymologically linked to βολβός, ‘bulb’, which is to say: seed. This makes sense, I suppose. Egypt is dry and barren except where the Nile brings its fertile mud. Cyrene, Herodotus [4:158] tells us, has rain where the rest of Libya has none. Thira’s soil is enriched by its volcanic ash. Good for growing.
But what’s going on with Pindar’s actual story, here? Why does Triton appear in disguise when giving him the magic clod? Does he make it entirely clear that the Argonauts need to take it across the Mediterranean to Taenarus? If so, why is Euphemus so careless with the clod? What, exactly, is the consistency of this clod of soil, that it can survive being washed into the sea and carried all the way to the island of Thira? If it is, as it might be, turf, or compost, or mud, wouldn’t it just dissolve in the ocean? What’s the deal with the thirteen-generation wait?
Maybe it simply doesn’t make sense. This used to be what people said of Pindar: beautiful poetry, but nonsense. Voltaire said his were ‘des vers que personne n’entend/Et qu’il faut pourtant qu’on admire’, ‘verses that nobody understands, and yet which nevertheless we must all admire’. A century ago Gilbert Norwood said Pindar ‘thought like a child, though he sung like an archangel’.
But this isn’t an approach likely to endear itself to the dedicated scholar nowadays. Various interpretations of the clod have been proposed. In his influential monograph on the poet [Bowra, Pindar, Oxford 1964] C. M. Bowra argues that this little myth is ‘an allusion to the failure of the Spartan attempt, under Dorieus, to establish a colony on the river Cinyps half a century earlier [Herodotus, 5:42–43].’ I don’t know how likely this is: Cinyps is in Tripolitania, far to the west of Libya; Pindar’s Cyrene is far to the east, near Egypt. Dorieus did sail with a team of Spartan colonists c.520 BC, but they only lasted three years before being driven out by indigenous tribes (Dorieus returned to Sparta, and later tried again in Sicily). What this has to do with Thira, or thirteen generations, or a magic bolus, isn’t clear to me.
Belgian scholar Marcel Detienne proposed a structuralist/anthropological reading of this story. He diagnoses what he considers to be the underlying mytheme: the hero, on a quest, crosses the ‘pathless waste’ of pontos (the sea) in order to bring back a divine gift to mortals: a magical object or some prized knowledge. Detienne thinks the most enduring form of this myth is Menelaus’s wrestling-match with the shape-changing sea-god Proteus, which is described in the Odyssey: Menelaus hangs-on to Proteus through a series of terrifying metamorphoses and so extracts from him the secret knowledge that enables his homeward voyage. For Detienne, the episode in Pindar’s ode, ‘stresses the interchange between land and sea. The meeting that is fateful for the marine creation of Cyrene, then, takes place in a realm of changing shapes and shifting elements: between earth and sea, divine and human, life and death (cf. the reference to the entrance to Hades), safe return and endless voyage, the firm foundation of a mainland and the undemarcated, limitless sea.’ If, as the phrase goes, this is the kind of thing you like, then you may well like this.
A gift of soil is among the things offered to a monarch at their coronation, symbolising the land over which they are receiving dominion. Dracula, in Bram Stoker’s famous novel, must carry some magical βώλᾰκες with him when he travels: these are clods from his native land, and do more than symbolise, they actualise, in some magic manner, his connection with his ancestral soil. The βῶλαξ offered to Euphemus is ‘the first thing that came to hand’ for Triton, so is presumably a chunk of Africa. In this case Triton’s mission is: ‘take this piece of Libyan soil across the sea to Taenarus and the gateway to the underworld’ and perhaps ‘then bring it back here.’ But it is Triton that is offering it, so in another sense the βῶλαξ comes from a divine source — the clod of God — and that’s what makes it so powerful, so consequential.
I don’t know what the answer is, or even if there is an answer. But I’d note a few things. On the question of the texture of the clod: βῶλαξ does mean ‘a lump, clod of earth, turf’ and by extension ‘land, soil’; but it also means ‘a nugget of gold’, which suggests a certain rigidity. You can compare the synonym, πηλός (pēlos), which means ‘clay, earth, such as is used by potters’, as well as ‘mud, mire’ and ‘thick or muddy wine’. That sounds rather looser. So perhaps this mythological ‘seed’ was more like a gold-nugget or a dragon-egg or something, than a messy sod of soil, which would explain how it could bob away.
I suppose the carelessness of the argonauts, and the generational-delay, is a way of speaking about the power of agriculture — it’s speculative of me, and, really (if I think about it for a moment) hard to justify, but I wonder if this isn’t a myth-memory of the shift from hunter-gathering to farming, ten thousand years earlier? Soil is wealth, but it looks like nothing: dirt, rubbish, easily overlooked. And it takes generations to bring it to full cultivation, so all the benefits can be enjoyed. What else? Well, ‘Thira’ takes its name from the word for hunting (θήρα) and ‘Cyrene’ comes from κυρος, ‘power, authority’, which in turn comes from a set of words relating to fertility and growth: for instance κυέω (kuéō, ‘I am fertile, I am pregnant’). So the myth is really saying: take this magic ball — it is fitting, though somewhat etymologically complicated, that bolus leads to ball which leads to the English word bollock, which takes us back to bollacks, βῶλαξ — you must take this thing from ‘hunting’ to ‘fertility’, but do it via death (the gate of the underworld at Taenarus). This latter thing is needful because, unlike hunting where you chase after vibrant, fugitive life, farming involves the mystical death and burial of the seed, followed by its magical life-affirming rebirth. As it says in the Bible: si le grain ne meurt — ‘verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit’ (John 12, of course). It is, in the broadest sense of the word, about sex. At any rate, that’s what I think is going on in this small piece of Pindariana.