Callimachus: "Hecale"

Callimachus is said to have written this poem as a riposte to critics who claimed that he was incapable of writing a long poem; but even so it was not more than a thousand lines long, much shorter than the traditional Greek epic poem. This type of poem, which became popular in Hellenistic and Roman times, is called an epyllion by modern scholars. The device by which Callimachus introduced separate stories within his narrative (such as in fragment 260) had a great influence on later poets.

The last known manuscript of the poem was destroyed in 1205 A.D., but many fragments have survived from it.   The Greek text of the fragments can be found on the website.

The Story

[T1]    An ancient summary of the poem, known as the Diegesis ('Digest'). 

"Once on a hill of Erechtheus there lived a woman of Attica ..."

Theseus, avoiding the plot of Medea, was kept under close watch by his father, Aegeus, seeing that the lad was brought back to him suddenly and contrary to his expectations. Yet Theseus, wishing to go forth against the Bull that was causing trouble around the deme of Marathon in order to subdue it, and even though he was kept under guard, he departed, setting out in secret from the house at nightfall. Yet when a storm broke unexpectedly, after catching sight of a cottage at the foot of a mountain, which belonged to an old woman named Hecale, he was hospitably received within.  Arising at dawn he went out into the countryside, and having subdued the Bull, he went back to Hecale. But upon finding her dead unexpectedly, and after lamenting how he was cheated of what he had expected, he undertook to repay her for her hospitality {xenia} after death.  He founded the deme that he named after her, and established the sacred precinct of Zeus Hecaleos.

[T2]    Plutarch, Life of Theseus, ch.14. 

But Theseus, desiring to be at work, and at the same time courting the favour of the people, went out against the Marathonian bull, which was doing no small mischief to the inhabitants of the Tetrapolis. After he had mastered it, he made a display of driving it alive through the city, and then sacrificed it to the Delphinian Apollo. Now the story of Hecale and her receiving and entertaining Theseus on this expedition seems not to be devoid of all truth. For the people of the townships round about used to assemble and sacrifice the Hecalesia to Zeus Hecalus, and they paid honours to Hecale, calling her by the diminutive name of Hecaline, because she too, when entertaining Theseus, in spite of the fact that he was quite a youth, caressed him as elderly people do, and called him affectionately by such diminutive names. And since she vowed, when the hero was going to his battle with the bull, that she would sacrifice to Zeus if he came back safe, but died before his return, she obtained the above mentioned honours as a return for her hospitality at the command of Theseus, as Philochorus has written.

The Fragments.

Adapted by Daniel Curley   from the translation of C.A.Trypanis (1958).   There is a more recent edition and translation by A.S.Hollis.

[230]   Once on a hill of Erechtheus there lived a woman of Attica.

[231]   All wayfarers honoured her {Hecale} for her hospitality, for she kept her house open.

[232]   She {Medea?} understood that it was the son of Aegeus.

[233]   Hold back, child, do not drink.
Probably spoken by Aegeus to Theseus, when Medea was attempting to poison him.

[234]   You have come unexpectedly.
Probably spoken by Aegeus to Theseus, after Theseus returned from Troezen.

[235]   For in Troezen, he put it under a hollow stone together with the boots.
The boots and a sword were put there by Aegeus as tokens of recognition.

[236]   . . . whenever the child {Theseus} should be strong enough to lift up with his arms the hollow stone.  Having seized the sword of Aedepsos...and the boots, which the abundant rotting mould had not ruined.

[238]   Therefore, father, let me go; you would again receive me alive and well.

{ 10 lines missing }

While it was still midday, and the earth was warm, for so long the brilliant sky was clearer than glass, not was a wisp of vapour to be seen, and cloudless stretched the heavens . . . But when to their mother . . . [the daughters] ask for the evening meal, and take their hands from work, then . . . First over Parnes, and then farther forward and larger on the summit of thyme-covered Aegaleos, stood [the cloud?] bringing much rain . . . and thereupon a double . . . of rugged Hymettus . . . and lightning was flashing . . . as when . . . on the Ausonian Sea . . . and the swift northern squall from Merithus fell upon the clouds.
The fragment probably starts with a dialogue between Theseus and his father before he sets out for Marathon, and ends with a description of the storm that forced him to take refuge with Hecale.

[239]   He cast off his wet garment.

[240]   She made him sit on the humble couch.
Hecale welcomes Theseus into her hut.

[241]   . . . having at once snatched a small tattered garment from the couch.

[242]   She took down wood stored away a long time ago.

[243]   . . . dry wood . . . to cut.

[244]   She swiftly took off the hollow, boiling pot.

[245]   But tell me into what vessel am I to pour the water for my feet, and from where.

[246]   She emptied the tub, and then she drew another mixed draught.

[248]   . . . olives which grew ripe on the tree, and wild olives, and the light coloured ones, which in autumn she had put to swim in brine.
Hecale also offered cabbages and wild vegetables to Theseus during the rustic meal.

[251]   From the bread box she took and served loaves in abundance, such as women put away for herdsmen.

[253]   I go down to Marathon, so that . . . and [Pallas] leads the way. [You have thus learned from me] what you asked me. And you, good mother, [tell me, for I also] wish to hear you for a while [speaking] . . . you live an old woman in a lonely . . .

{ about 32 lines missing }

They guarded my threshing floor, trod in a circle by the oxen. Horses [brought] him from Aphidnae, looking like . . . and who were Zeus' sons . . . I remember the beautiful . . . mantle held by golden brooches, a work of spiders . . .
This is probably the conversation between Hecale and Theseus during the meal - the start spoken by Theseus and the end spoken by Hecale.

[254]   For poverty was not in my family, nor was I a pauper from my grandparents.  O that I, O that I had a third of . . .
This and the following fragment probably come from the continuation of Hecale's speech.

[256]   I will sleep in a corner [of my hut]. A couch is ready for me.

[257]   . . . as she saw him also getting up.

[258]   . . . having bent to the earth the terrible horns of the beast.
This and the following two fragments describe the fight of Theseus against the Marathonian bull.

[259]   He was dragging [the bull], and it was following, a sluggish wayfarer.

[260]   The other [strap] he fastened and put in his sword . . . when they saw it they all trembled and shrank from looking face to face on the great hero and the monstrous beast, until Theseus called to them from afar: "Have courage and stay, and let the swiftest go to the city to bear this message to my father Aegeus - for he shall relieve him from many cares: 'Theseus is close at hand, bringing the bull alive from Marathon rich in water.' " Thus he spoke, and when they heard, they all cried out "Hurrah!" and stayed there. The south wind does not shed so great a fall of leaves, nor the north wind, even in the month of falling leaves, as those which in that hour the countryfolk threw all around and over Theseus, the countryfolk who . . . encircled him, while the women . . . crowned him with belts . . .

{ about 22 lines missing }

But Pallas left him {Erichthonius}, the seed of Hephaestus, long within [the chest], until for the sons of Cecrops . . . the rock . . . secret, unutterable, but I neither knew, nor learned whence he was by descent, but a report [spread] among the primeval bird that Earth herself bore him to Hephaestus. Then she, that she might set up a guardian for her land, which she had newly obtained by vote of Zeus and the twelve other immortals, and by witness of the snake, was coming to Pellene in Achaea. Meanwhile, the maidens that watched the chest planned to do an evil deed . . . undoing the fastenings [of the chest] . . .

{ about 22 lines missing }

Thus she rejected our [race], nor . . . but may you never fall from her favour. The anger of Athena is ever grievous. But I was present as a little one, for this is my eighth generation, but . . . the tenth for my parents.
Spoken by a crow; crows were supposed to live for ten generations. Crows were punished by Athena for announcing the discovery of Erichthonius: see the summary of the story by Antigonus, Mir. 12.

{ about 8 lines missing }

"May I have [this] alone as protection for my belly against evil hunger . . . and barley groats, that dripped from the brew upon the earth . . . messenger of bad news . . . O that you were still alive then to know this: how the nymphs inspire the old crow. . . . Yes by my old shrivelled skin, yes by this tree though dry, all the suns have not yet disappeared in the West with a broken pole and axle. But it shall be evening, or night, or noon, or dawn, when the raven, which now might vie in colour even with swans, or with milk, or with the finest cream of the wave, shall put on a sad plumage, black as pitch, the reward that Phoebus will one day give him for his message, when he learns terrible tidings of Coronis, daughter Phlegyas, that she has gone with Ischys, the driver of horses." While she spoke thus, sleep seized her and her hearer. They fell asleep, but not for long. For soon the frosty early dawn came, when the hands of thieves are no longer seeking for prey. For already the lamps of dawn are shining. Many a gatherer of water is singing the Song of the Well, and the axle creaking under the wagons wakes him who has his house beside the highway, while many a blacksmith slave, with hearing deafened, torments the ear . . .
According to legend, Apollo changed the colour of the raven from white into black, after it brought news of the infidelity of Coronis.

[261]   . . . and she {Athena}, high-girdled, was going up to the city bearing a great fragment; and I met her by the beautiful ever-brilliant gymnasium of the Lycean Apollo.
Spoken by the crow, as part of the story in fragment 260.

[262]   . . . whose tomb is this you are building?
Probably spoken by Theseus, when he returned from Marathon and found a neighbour burying Hecale.

[263]   Go, gentle woman, the way which heart-gnawing worries do not traverse.  . . .  Often, good mother . . . we will remember your hospitable hut, for it was a common shelter for all.
Spoken by Theseus, or by a neighbour of Hecale, as a farewell after her death.

{ The remaining fragments from here onwards cannot be assigned to a definite place within the narrative. }

[271]   . . . and the avenging stork was journeying with us.

[275]   We miserable paupers suffer; and at home all our belongings have been divided out.

[278]   That is why in this city alone even the dead receive no coin as fare, which it is the custom for others to carry in dry mouths.
The coin was the fare paid to Charon for transport across the river Acheron. "In Aegialus there is a way down to Hades, which Demeter came to and learned from the locals about Korē, and endowed them with exemption from the ferry-fee" (Suda, P'2072).

[281]   But you have been shorn to the skin, child.
Theseus, when visiting Delphi, is supposed to have shorn the front part of his head. #

[282]   . . . for the ears are as well-informed as the eyes are ignorant.

[283]   . . . where he did harmful deeds.
Perhaps a reference to the damage that the bull had caused around Marathon.

[284A]   These two I brought up on dainties, nor did anybody else in such a manner . . . abundantly rich . . . they should be drenched in a warm bath . . . carrying the children . . . these two of mine sprang up like aspens, which in a ravine . . .

{ about 8 lines missing }

. . . was I refusing to hear death calling me for a long time ago, that I might soon tear my garments over you too (dead) . . .

{ 3 lines missing }

[? Cercyon] . . . wrestlings . . . city, who fled from Arcadia and took up residence near us, a bad neighbour . . .

{ about 8 lines missing }

may I pierce his impudent eyes with thorns while he is still alive, and if it is not a sin, eat him raw . . . to bring horses from the Eurotas plentiful in mint . . . the wave . . . for they unloosened the cables under the wings of the sea-gull. With this omen may I neither myself [set sail], not a person who has [undertaken a commission?] for me.
This fragment has been formed from many different fragments in the standard Greek text - 337 + 366 + 247 + 284 + 350 + 294 + 368 + 327 - which are now known to be connected;   but the context is still unclear.

[288]   Scylla, a whore, having no untrue name, cut the purple lock.
Nisus, a legendary king of Megara, had a lock of purple hair, on which depended his life, and the fate of his city. His daughter Scylla cut it off, and betrayed the city to Minos. The story is told by Ovid in book 8 of the Metamorphoses.

[289]   . . . but you are hideous and your eyes have white spots on them.

[292]   . . . the wide hat, stretching out beyond the head, a shepherd's felt headgear, suited her, and in her hand a stick.

[298]   . . . for god did not give miserable mortals even the possibility of laughing without crying.

[304]   . . . and there encircled his head a round felt hat, lately come from Haemonia; it was a guard against the midday heat.

[310]   The lips of an old woman are never at rest.

[313]   A salt tear fell from her.

[321]   . . . the son--in-law of Erechtheus.
This refers to Boreas, who carried off Orithyia, the daughter of Erechtheus, to be his bride.

[328]   . . . where unfriendly wrestling-arenas are full of gore and blood.
In the "palaestra of Cercyon", near Eleusis, the robber is supposed to have wrestled with passers-by, and killed them; see Pausanias, 1.39'3.

[342]   . . . for that is what the neighbours around called her.

[358]   . . . and if avenging Dikē has not punished you at once, she will be twice as severe returning among the majority.
Dikē was the personification of Justice; 'the majority' were the dead.

Attalus' home page   |   11.10.21   |   Any comments?