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Roger Sworder- Theognis Of Megara & Parmenides

Interior of a kylix from Tanagra, Boeotia, 5th century B.C. (from 525 to 475 BCE): The scene depicts a recumbent symposiast with crotala, playing with a hare, sings “O pedon kalliste”, the beginning of a Theognidian verse. Collection: National Archaeological Museum in Athens: Inventory no. 1357 (previous CC1158).


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an extract of ‘Science and Religion in Archaic Greece’, by the late professor Roger Sworder. From page 234 to 238. Here Theognis of Megara, a Greek Elegiac poet, is presented in plausible connection with Parmenides, shown as his student. When the ‘milieu’ (here Elea) is also taken care of and NOT just semiotics, such finding happen and encourage a better understanding of the time and the people involved. This is an example of Roger Sworder’s stimulating way of linking people, places and events, by showing possible connections, thus creating an ‘Aha’ moment in the reading: Theognis of Megara, teacher of Parmenides of Elea ! An exciting theory to ponder and expand on.


The late Dr. Roger Sworder (1946-2016). Picture by Pia Johnson and Nancy Roger.

‘We know something of Elean religious practice from ancient sources. We are told by Herodotus that on the advice of a man from Posseidonia the Eleans established a cult of the hero Cyrnus when they founded their city. Parmenides describes himself as god of the sun, and the hero cults were often assimilated into the worship of the gods. One example we have seen is Grynus, eponymous hero of Grynea near Phocaea where the temple of Apollo Gryneios was situated. And there was the Spartan cult of Apolllo Carneios. It is certainly possible that Cyrnus too was worshiped as a surrogate of Apollo by the Eleans, and the more likely since at the direction of Pythian Apollo the Phocaeans had founded their colony in Cyrnus, Corsica. The Eleans were anxious to comply with the directions of this god as best they could in their new circumstances. From another point of view the cults were expressive of the group spirit of their members. The founding of a cult to Cyrnus by the city of Elea made Cyrnus the type of the Eleans, the man they should all strive to be. Parmenides made laws for his city, Diogenes tells us. In that act above all others he would be the living representative of the spirit of his people. But we do not know at what stages in his life he wrote his poem and made laws

The Megarian poet Theognis wrote poems to a Cyrnus at about this time. Here is one of them:

“More accurate than compass, rule and square must that man be on his guard to be, Cyrnus, to whom the priestess of the god gives and oracle from the rich shrine of Pytho. If he were to add anything, he would never find an escape. Nor if he omitted anything could he outstrip his offence in the eyes of the gods.”

This poem must be connected to Herodotus’s story of the founding of Elea. There the Phocaeans had been told by the Delphic oracle to found a colony in Cyrnus, Corsica as they thought. That colony they had been forced to abandon despite their great courage, and they remained stateless in Rhegium until a man from Posseidonia proposed a solution to the problem of the oracle. The solution was to found a cult of the hero Cyrnus. The Eleans-to-be surely saved Delphi’s veracity and authority by taking responsibility for having misinterpreted the oracle’s words. This cannot be coincidence. Theognis is speaking of Elea. Like the advice of the man from Posseidonia, Theognis’ poem is an attempt to restore the oracle’s claim to prescience in the context of a famous case which called that prescience into question.

Here is another of his poems to Cyrnus:

“I have given you wings on which you may rise and fly with ease over the endless sea and over the whole earth. You will be present at all feasts and banquets, on the tongues of many men; and the young men will sing loud and clear of you during their lovely revels, accompanied by their little clear toned flutes. And when you pass into the hiding places of the dark earth, into the house of Hades filled with lamentation, not even then, not even when dead will you lose your glory, but since your name will be undying among men, you will be famous, Cyrnus, as you circle round the land of Greece and the islands, crossing the unharvested fish-rich sea, not ridding on mortal horses. The shining gifts of the violet-crowned Muses will send you on your way, for you will be with all those who care and who will care for songs, as long as there is earth and sun. Yet, I do not have even a little respect from you, but you deceive me with your words, as if I were a little child.”

On the usual reading these lines are addressed by an older man to his younger boyfriend who is reproached for giving the poet a difficult time after the poet has made his name famous throughout the Greek world for ever. In his first words, on this account, the poet refers to other poems he has written to Cyrnus before this one, and in the collection of poems attributed to Theognis there are many poems to Cyrnus. We may feel on this reading what the poet clearly did not intend us to feel, that young Cyrnus has some just complaint against a lover more concerned with his own achievements than those of his beloved.

But if we take it that Cyrnus is Parmenides, then the poem is less boastful and more specific. The wings which the poet has given to Cyrnus are not not now the wings of his own songs but the very wings of songs themselves, on which Cyrnus, become a poet with Theognis’ help, has arisen to make his own undying reputation as a poet. Theognis compliments Parmenides throughout by imitating and alluding to Parmenides’ own poem. No longer horses, now the gifts of the Muses escort him. The palace of Night is the palace of Hades, the piping shriek of the axle of the clear toned flutes of the revellers. The Muses are crowned with violets, the crown of dusk or dawn between the crowns of unmixed fire and night (XII). More than this is the sense of the sun’s chariot circling and circling above the world over sea and land. Cyrnus’s descent into Hades is qualified, for even when he is dead he will rise again as the sun does. His continuing is enacted by the poet’s long central sentence and by his repetitions of land and sea and earth. Cyrnus will matter to all those wo care for songs while earth and sun exist. and so he ahs, and not only through Theognis’ lines.

If these lines were addressed to Parmenides as Cyrnus, Theognis was claiming that he had taught Parmenides the art of Poetry. There is nothing we know of Theognis that contradict this claim. He wrote at some time during the sixth or early fifht century B.C., and may well have come from Sicilian Megara not far from Elea. His poems to Cyrnus about the oracle show his concern with Elea. He says in another poem to Cyrnus that he is world famous but does not please all his townsfolks in Megara. Perhaps he did better in Elea. The quality of this poem is sufficient evidence of the skill he would need to have taught Parmenides. And this even though the poem is an imitation after Parmenides. But this, of course, is why he wrote an imitation, to show that he could do what Parmenides had done and thereby justify his own first words. Like all his works the poem is in elegiacs while Parmenides wrote in hexameters. Elegiacs are a foot shorter that hexameters every second line. This may be why in other poems Theognis calls Cyrnus Polypaides, son of Polypaos the many footed.

The last two lines of Theognis’ poem are a masterpiece of disingenuousness. After saying that he has taught Cyrnus and showing he could do as well, at the same time praising his alleged pupil to the skies, he finishes by complaining of how he is completely baffled and deceived by his pupil’s words. If Cyrnus is Parmenides we must all agree with Theognis here. Bafflement is exactly what any perusal of Parmenides’ poem brings us to. And so Parmenides himself warns us when Night tells the rider to learn of the deceptive order of her words concerning the opinions of mortals. (VIII). In his last two lines Theognis alludes again to Parmenides’ poem, and in complaining he does not understand it, proves how well he does. Theognis is a true teacher who prides himself finally on the fact that his student has surpassed him.

And of course, if Thoegnis’ Cyrnus is Parmenides in this poem and Theognis knew Parmenides’s poem, then Theognis’ poem to Cyrnus about the Delphic oracle acquires a quite new meaning. Now Theognis is advising Parmenides to be scrupulously careful in his handling of the oracle which he, Parmenides, has personally been given by the Delphic oracle. In this way, Theognis’ poem about the oracle’s ‘collapses’ Parmenides ‘ poem into the Cyrnus oracle. It is the clearest evidence we have of the link between them except perhaps for lines in which Night calls her own words deceptive (VIII).’

Latin translation Of Thoegnis ‘ elegiac poetry published by Basileae : Ex officina Ioannis Oporini, 1561.
More about Theognis of Megara: 🌿 More about Parmenides: 🌿 More about Roger Sworder: 🌿and:
Roger Sworder- Theognis Of Megara & Parmenides

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