Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar

GIS Report: 13/11/2015

On Friday 13th November GIS was all about the soul. We learnt of the relationship between some animals and the human soul, and of the strong psychagogic powers associated with the female lamenting voice featured prominently in the second paper of the day. Chiara Blanco showed us her interests in the anthropology of the ancient world and its religion in action in a paper on two animal symbols of the soul, and Valeria Pace gave a paper on her reading of the female singers of Theocritus’ Idylls 2 and 15.

Chiara, a second-year PhD student, talked to us about how the bee and the butterfly come to represent the soul in Greco-Roman antiquity. In her paper entitled ‘Animal Symbolism in Greece and Rome: the Bee and the Butterfly, Two Representations of the Soul’ she showed us that these two symbols, although both thought to represent the soul, carried opposed meaning. We learnt that, counter to our intuitive expectations, the butterfly, an animal that we could easily imagine to offer a beautiful image of our soul, was in fact an animal carrying funereal, dark connotations. The notional connection between butterflies and souls was so strong that in both Greek and Latin, a relationship of homonymy between the two was established. The bee, a ritually pure animal, was thought instead to be the symbol of new beginnings (these ideas connected to the bee were fully dramatized in rituals such as that of the Roman bugonia); it represented the pure soul before incarnation. Ethological traits of these two animals suggested the connection with the human soul. The butterfly was thought of as the receptacle of the soul of the dead for its tendency to strive after sources of light. The bee carried more positive connotations for its characteristic of being a particularly zealous animal, forming complex societies that strikingly resembled human organisation. Chiara showed us how ideas of the polarity of these two animals were persistent in various types of cultural products. Scientific and agricultural treatises in fact underscore how the butterfly was thought to be particularly noxious to the bee, bringing death in the beehive through its habit of destroying bee’s wax. Literature too fashioned a relationship between the two animals; in Phaedrus’ fables we find it powerfully encapsulated in a dialogue between a wasp (thought to be a more bellicose version of the bee) and a butterfly.

Valeria, a second-year PhD student herself, argued for a reconsideration of how gender colours poetry in Theocritus’ Idylls 2 and 15 in a paper titled ‘Magic, Genre and Gender in Theocritus’ Idylls 2 and 15’. Set in the city, these two poems are exceptional in the Theocritean corpus as they are the only ones that feature virtually exclusively female characters interacting in a non-mythical setting. Another important point of contact between the two poems is established by the fact that the scholia give us notice for them only that they are to some extent reworkings of two mimes by Sophron. Theocritus’ bucolics, the poems that stand at the origin of a poetic form that will have great fortune in the European literary imaginaire—pastoral poetry—too undoubtedly show literary debts to the mime form, and scholars have often found it easy to construct arguments based on intuitive polarities ‘bucolic-urban’ and ‘male-female’. Given the complete absence of female voices in the bucolic scenario, some scholars have even gone as far as to argue that poetry-making in the Theocritean world always involves a degree of exclusion of women, that the bucolic world itself is a fantasy of escapism from women. Scholars have since shown how profoundly concerned with song and its power these two poems in fact are, and Valeria proposed to us that instead of looking at singing women and singing herders in terms of opposition, it could be more productive to look at them as parallels of one another. Following Kathryn Gutzwiller’s idea that what it means to sing ‘bucolic’—a term that has long puzzled scholars—song is to a large extent predicated by cultural ideas associated with what it means to be a herder/cowherd in Ancient Greece, Valeria argued that thinking of what it means to sing ‘female songs’ for an Hellenistic poet might have informed how poetry is presented in Idylls 2 and 15. Valeria did that by showing how echoes of the genre ‘lamentation’, one that is particularly strongly connected with women throughout Greek literature subtly resound in these two poems, coming to shape their plot and influence the way in which poetry is articulated. The close notional connection between lamentation and magic on which both poems play, Valeria argued, are used to frame reflections on the nature and the effects of poetry.

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