Michael Schmidt

A chapter from THE FIRST POETS: LIVES OF THE ANCIENT GREEK POETS

Hipponax of Ephesus (c. 540)



The poet Hipponax is buried here. If you’re a cad, keep off;
if you’re an honest man of blameless lineage, make
yourself comfortable, relax and doze here if you wish.

                  Theocritus’ epitaph for Hipponax


Pliny the Elder, always entertaining and undependable, declares in his Natural History, ‘The face of Hipponax was notoriously ugly’.1 Even six centuries after his death, Hipponax was a by-word for rancour; he was a monster, amusing so long as one was not caught in his line of verbal fire. At a time when poetry was becoming more mannered and polite, when the vigour of Archilochus had declined to the conceits of Semonides, it is refreshing to come upon the thoroughly urban disenchantment of Hipponax, his world of textures and smells, in which the human body at its most gross finds its laureate in the privy, on the street, or in a small dimly-lit room with a woman even more lecherous than he is.

When we speak of Hipponax, are we actually speaking of a persona, a voice from which the poet has created an ironic distance? Or are we, as with Archilochus, persuaded that the voice, for all its deliberately pedestrian metrical artifice, belongs to the man who speaks? In a corner of the National Museum in Athens a grumpy second century B.C. stone head which scholars suggest is Hipponax’ keeps a blind eye on passing tourists. There are vestiges of a wreath around his brow – laurel, or poison ivy? Battered, like a pugilist who is being restrained, he snarls, the eyes frowning and pursed. Time has cut off his nose but the face refuses to be spited.2 Near his grave, now vanished, wasps were said to nest: to the unworthy or dishonest passer-by they gave chase and stung. He ‘snarled even at his parents’ and his verses still sting in Hades.3 His grave was overgrown with bramble and thorn, and the puckering wild pear inducing thirst.

As with the Hesiod of Works and Days and Archilochus, so with Hipponax one has a sense, except in the deliberately ‘poetic’ and the parodic poems, that this is it, the sensibility itself. The exaggerations are part of the voice, not an escape from it. The obscene diction, with half a dozen nick-names for the vagina (including ‘Sindian fissure’4 and in one fragment5 four untranslatable words in Lydian dialect) and the penis, and a sexual undertone to many an image and detail: such things are candid rather than artful. Even though he delivers himself of a misogynistic epigram, ‘In a woman’s life two days stand out as most delectable: when she’s wed, when she is carried out dead,’6 it is clear that he, unlike some of his near contemporaries, enjoyed heterosexual intercourse and acknowledged women as human – in any event, as human as he was and rather more human than his foes.
Hipponax is among the first poets to defecate in verse, to reflect on the stench of faeces and the hungry, pestilential swarming of the dung-beetles, drawn to a reeking pile and to the orifice from which it dropped. M.L. West renders one of his epithets, about the gourmand who frequently retires to defecate in order to continue stuffing his gut, as ‘an interprandial pooper’.7 This is witty but tonally high-table, almost polite when set beside the actual, coarse and incontinent dumps that take place in the poems. Archilochus, whatever his antecedents and no matter how malcontent he was, generally strikes a warriorly, even an aristocratic note. There is nothing aristocratic about Hipponax, except possibly his blood. If he is from a distinguished background, then his poetry systematically breaks rank.

Scholars generally agree that he did come of an established family in Ephesus.8 It is unlikely that a poor man would have been singled out for exile as he was, unless a very early literary precocity earned him enemies. The Suda names his father and mother as the alliterative couple Pytheas and Protis, and adds that he was banished (in the second half of the sixth century B.C.) by the tyrants Athenagoras and Comas, clients of the Persian Darius I. It may not have been such a bad thing to leave Ephesus. Compared with Colophon, and even Smyrna, it was an altogether darker, less cheerful city. At least in Ionia the threats were Lydian, sunnier than those that emanated from sombre Persia.
All the same, to be poor in exile cannot have been easy, and Hipponax, if we believe the poems, was sometimes grindingly poor, and always a notable sour-puss. His poverty is reflected in his obsession with food and clothing, his refusal to rise too far above the ground of mere survival. His poetry has resolved not to fly. Indeed he invented an earthbound metre for the purpose, the choliambic or limping iambic, also known as scazon. His iambic trimeters usually conclude in a spondee (two long syllables or stresses) rather than an iamb, and the effect is to lame the natural dynamic of the iambic line, its tendency to extend into longer cadences. He played other variations, too, mixing iamb and dactyl for example.9 What did such verse sound like in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.? Doggerel, or something more deliberately and artfully crafted? According to Athenaeus, Hipponax was the inventor of parody.10

The limp of his choliambics was transposed by some later commentators on to the poet himself, condemning him, over and above his poverty, to a physical disability. Pliny says he was thought to have been of a wiry build but immensely strong. From the poems, however, we are tempted to deduce a man with a paunch or a belly. The word ‘stomach’ appears with some frequency, and in one fragment at least, walking along the road to Smyrna and passing various landmarks, the poet concludes, ‘turning your belly towards the sunset’.11 Though it is ‘your’ rather than ‘my’ belly, it seems to belong to the speaker all the same. His most charming stomach features in another small fragment which says, ‘his stomach gurgled like a pot of soup’; the word for ‘gurgle’ is the onomatopoeic eborboruxe.12 A lean beggar, when he feeds and drinks copiously, may distend and gurgle.

Hipponax stayed, even if he did not settle, in Clazomenae, one of the twelve cities of Ionia, below Chytrium, not far from Smyrna. Its most famous native son was Anaxagoras (c. 500-428), the first philosopher to live in Athens, and a friend and teacher of Pericles and Euripides. Nothing much beyond what the fragments tell is known of Hipponax’ life in Clazomenae. He makes no secret of the fact that he hated the sculptor brothers Bupalos and Athenis. He was repelled by the glutton Eurymedontiades. He attacks the wide- or open-arsed painter Mimnes, ‘a slave born of a slave’. His patron saint is Hermes, in particular the infant rogue celebrated in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, the patron of thieves and mischief-makers.13 He invokes him in a charmingly familiar way. He is shivering, chattering, he prays for a cloak, a tunic, sandals, felt shoes (all expressed in diminutive forms, a kind of wheedling baby-talk) and 60 gold staters ‘on the other side’.14 Perhaps he is asking Hermes to assist him in a burglary and ‘on the other side’ implies that he is digging through a wall; or does it mean ‘on the other side of the scales’, to balance them out? The felt shoes (in another version of the same passage) were to keep his chilblains from bursting.

Pliny gives a version of the tale of why Hipponax hated Bupalos and Athenis so much. Though he also says the story is false,15 it ties in obliquely with related anecdotes and illuminates a thorough poetic revenge. Putting the accounts together, we have a story of love and a contest between two art forms. Hipponax sought the hand of Bupalos’ daughter in matrimony but was turned down because of his ugliness. Bupalos and Athenis displayed portraits of the suitor to general hilarity. They may have shown busts or sculptures (caricature in sculpture ‘was almost the origin of Greek portraiture’)16 but they were probably caricatures or even graffiti scratched on the plastered walls of Clazomenae. The poet, following in Archilochus’ famous vendetta-footsteps, set about destroying the reputation and character of his artist assailants with his own instrument, words.
Most accounts omit Bupalos’ daughter and portray two malicious sculptors attacking an easy target, an ugly man, without taking into account how ugly that man could be in deed. They survive only in his verse, their own art lost for ever. The brothers, like the sisters Archilochus ravaged in verse, committed suicide, hanging themselves. The pen was mightier than the chisel.

‘Here, take my coat, I’ll punch Bupalos in the eye...I’ve two right hands and my punches hit their mark.’17 What is the nature of his assault? In some poems he described Bupalos as guilty of incest with his mother who may have been called Arete. In one fragment Bupalos is quite simply a ‘mother-fucker’ (metrokoites) and we witness him about to pull back his ‘godforsaken foreskin’.18 Elsewhere the artist has sex with a poor, blind, crippled old mother when she is asleep: he ‘desecrates’ her ‘sea-urchin’.19 Scholars have conjectured that the sea-urchin may be her daughter’s, and that Bupalos copulates with her while the mother sleeps. In another fragment, and as insultingly, the poet himself goes to lie, or seems to, with Bupalos’ mother or mistress (depending on who we take Arete to be) and she is certainly up for it, bending obligingly towards the lamp so that he can enter her.20 The lamp, often a feature in Greek erotic poetry, helps us to ‘see’ the intimate revenge. In an especially fragmented set of fragments Hipponax goes at it with passionate lechery, tearing off clothes, biting and lusting and (‘she was in a hurry’) thrusting.21 At one point he is ‘withdrawing the head as though drying, or skinning, a sausage’. When they have finished copulating he detumesces, his penis ‘like a wrinkled sail’.

There is a suggestion that Bupalos indulged in oral homosexual acts for eight obols. There are other terrible hints, including punishments which may have been doled out to Bupalos but may also have been visited upon Hipponax himself, the scapegoating rituals (pharmakos) which punished the ugly man in the interests of purifying the city. Another possibility: the ‘punishments’ are in fact ritual treatments for impotence, in this case the poet’s.

Poetry in Hipponax’ time seems to have been able to make something happen. Language had a literal power, not only in recording history but also in making common ground, those shared places where voices sing together and a shared culture is evoked and evolved. As well as forging such harmonies, it could be used to generate pain and anxiety, to destroy. ‘Right from the outset,’ says Jacob Burckhardt, reflecting on Homer, ‘the Greeks thoroughly understood kertomein, the ache in the heart that words can inflict. It is particularly associated with mockery of unsuccessful attempts and actions...In the post-Homeric age, with the iambics of Archilochus, verbal abuse (loidoria) became an artistic genre...’22 Hipponax was the ultimate master.

Iambic poetry, as we have noted before, described at first a genre as much as a metre. The genre presumed that humour would be an ingredient, but humour of a specific kind, humour at someone’s expense, whether the poet’s own (sending himself up as a turn-tail mercenary) or a foe’s. The term ‘iambic’ may derive from the name of the maidservant Iambe, whose tart wit, expressed perhaps in metrical form, brought laughter back to the heart of bereaved and grieving Demeter. Less mythological, more scatological, there may have been another Iambe, an old washerwoman whom Hipponax, walking by the sea, found scrubbing her wool. He touched her washing trough (with whatever nuances we wish to assign to that) and she uttered a line of verse telling him to lay off. Choeroboscus23 offers us a choice between the two accounts. The second is of course anachronistic, because iambic metre predates Hipponax by at least a century. Perhaps the old washerwoman spoke a choliambic (Choeroboscus provides a variant) either because she was prosodically inventive or quite incompetent. In any case, the halting metre appealed to the poet, who made it his hallmark. An unfriendly critic might suggest that this encounter was Hipponax’s initiation, his first transaction with a muse, but his muse, unlike those glamorous inspiritors of other poets, was a warty, snaggle-toothed, horny-handed crone.
He is more purely iambic, in the generic sense, than Archilochus, obsessed with food, sex, excretion, all the processes of a now hungry, now bloated body, a cruising lust and a lust temporarily satisfied. There is more than a touch of buffoonery. Many fragments (one is tempted to call them ‘splinters’ in his case) involve apparently innocent acts or images which grammarians preserved as examples of usage but modern readers see as sexually charged. West identifies sour wine with vaginal secretions, for instance;24 ‘he screeched like an owl in the privy’ is hardly obscure in its meaning;25 there is some highly-charged keel-caulking, some siphoning of new wine (’piercing the lid’) and so on. How much is actually sexual, how much is merely sexually inflected by modern scholars and readers? In the light of the longer fragments, even the most salacious readings seem tenable.
As poetry became more formalised, aureate, ‘civilised’, its diction refined, its tonalities artful and controlled, the rougher iambic poets (Archilochus and Hipponax especially) remember that symposiasts eat and drink, and as a result digest and fart and shit. When they go home they may have sex, or furtively do so in an alley, an inn or out of doors; and beneath good manners deep resentments, rivalries and hatreds simmer. All the same, only an exceptionally ugly poet could come up with the implacable insults and vengeances of Hipponax. Had he been in Ithaca, he would have been the aggressive beggar Arnaios, nicknamed Iros, come to drive disguised Odysseus from his doorway, and he would have earned death at Odysseus’ hand. Certainly Hipponax knew his Odyssey: he asks for a cloak in much the same way as Odysseus does;26 there is a significant Arete, sharing her name with the Phaeacian queen who is so courteous to Telemachus, though in Hipponax she is another class of woman; when he curses an erstwhile friend he envisages a fate as cruel as Odysseus’, wind-blown and battered at sea, washed ashore in Alcinous kingdom at the end of Book V.27

The small fragments of Hipponax are especially suggestive. In some cases a fragment survives with what may be an error. One corrupted text speaks of the poet’s ‘son’ (a sufficiently worrying notion) where the context suggests the word intended is ‘pig’. ‘May someone pluck his anus,’ says one of Douglas Gerber’s versions, and he speculates that such ‘plucking’ is intended to ‘soften it up’. The actual expression seems to be not ‘anus’ but ‘perineum’, the zone between the scrotum and the anus, and plucking it would seem to promise pain and tension rather than relaxation.28 Perhaps the exercise was cosmetic, to turn a late adolescent back into a hairless boy. Fragment 73 is brutally circumstantial: ‘he pissed blood and shat bile’. Four shards of sense survive in fragment 82: a wide anus, possibly female genitalia, the moon, a cough. We can deduce that it is night and that, in the almost nonsense of the dark, some kind of intercourse is in progress.

Fragment 104 conflates material: it seems to record violence against a man and also sex, and the aftermath of defecation. Perhaps, scholars suggest, it is another ‘scapegoating’ poem, like fragment 78.29 It includes puns and real semantic complexity and ends in what seems to be successful masturbation. In fragment 92 a more troubling cure is in progress, involving whipping the genitals with a fig-branch, insertions in the anus, much excrement and a swarm of dung beetles. One reason such verse is troubling is that it is incomplete and unresolvable. Fragments 70 to 79 from the Oxyrhynchus papyruses are odd as well: parodic ceremonies seem to be occurring, perhaps burglaries as well, defecations from fear. Hermes is on hand.
Why spend time in such squalid, ravenous, uncompromising company? Because Hipponax reeks of the human in every sense, because his poetry includes so much of the material world, a world in which the five senses are continually aroused, repelled, alive. Reason sleeps, to be sure, and monsters emerge, but they are not mythical or legendary. They are the real monsters of need and desire. Introducing Hipponax’s poems, Douglas Gerber declares: ‘Hipponax is revealed as a forceful poet whose verses contain many colourful, foreign, rare, and obscene words.’30 ‘Semonides had followers and influence,’ says C.M. Bowra. ‘In the sixth century, Hipponax wrote in a similar spirit, and after them both came the wide, rich world of Attic comedy, which picked up its art where they left it and applied it in a dramatic form to mock the contemporary scene.’31 A woman in Hipponax is described as a ‘cock-shaker’,32 another is accused, because of the mess of childbirth, of having for a vagina an ‘opening of filth’; another is branded a self-exposer, a clothes-lifter. These are phrases we might expect from Aristophanes, where they would have a social context, and he was a reader of Hipponax. The verse has the repulsive fascination of toilet-wall graffiti.

Callimachus and Herodas much admired Hipponax. Lesky speculates that the poet may have had an influence on Petronius (in the first century A.D.) whose Satyricon is almost as close to the ground as Hipponax’ verse. In the ancient world the poet never lacked for readers.33 He is a kind of ‘realist’, not asking questions or lamenting, as Semonides does, but saying it how it is: a poet of the material and contingent world. As a result, his language is wonderfully impure, laced with foreign and loan words and using something like the dialect of his city in verse, what Lesky calls ‘the everyday speech of the Lydian hinterland’.34 A misfit and outcast he may be, and yet it is impossible not to – well, not to linger in his reeking company and to feel a degree of guarded affection for him. He manages to generate his own kind of squalid dignity.





1 Gerber, op. cit. p. 345

2 Zanker, op. cit. p. xxx

3 Gerber, op. cit. p. 349, test 9

4 fr 2

5 fr 174

6 fr 68

7 fr 114c

8 Lesky, op. cit. p. 115

9 fr 35

10 Scholars at Dinner

11 fr 42

12 fr 29a (Gerber’s translation)

13 See page XXX.

14 fr 32

15 After Hipponax’ invective was said to have killed them, statues by them appeared in Delos and elsewhere.

16 Burckhardt, op. cit. p. 73

17 frs 120-121

18 fr 12

19 fr 70

20 fr 17

21 fr 84

22 Burckhardt, op. cit. p. 72

23 fr 183

24 fr 57

25 fr 61

26 frs 32 and 34

27 fr 116

28 fr 114a

29 which may include parody of a rite to cure impotence

30 Gerber, op. cit. p. 8

31 Bowra, Landmarks in Greek Literature, p. 70

32 fr 135

33 Lesky, op. cit. p. 115

34 see fr 92

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