Skip to content
Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter (A) December 1, 2021

Why Humans Do Not Cast Off Old Skin Like Snakes. Knowledge and Eternal Youth in Nicander’s Theriaca

Olga Chernyakhovskaya
From the journal Philologus

Abstract

In Theriaca 343–358, Nicander recounts a rather unusual myth. After Prometheus had stolen fire, Zeus was seeking the thief and, when men delivered Prometheus over to him, he gave them the gift of youth. Humans entrusted the ass to carry this load, but the ass was seized by thirst and sought the help of the snake, who demanded in return the thing he was carrying on his back. This is how the gift of youth given to men fell to the serpent’s lot. Ever since, inevitable old age has weighed upon them, while the snakes cast off their old skin and gain a new one. Like any digression in Hellenistic epic poetry, this parable certainly is intended to entertain the reader, yet it must have a more serious function: by showing that it was only out of stupidity that men gave away their invaluable gift to the ass, Nicander asserts the great value of knowledge for life. Remarkably, it is precisely in this passage that the poet has inserted the acrostic of his name. The idea that his poetic work will ensure the survival of his name for future generations, directly expressed in the closing lines, is here conveyed with the greatest refinement.

Acknowledgements

My work on the final version of this paper has been made possible by the generous support of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation during a Feodor Lynen fellowship at Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa in winter and spring 2019/2020. I am grateful to Professors Jenny Strauss Clay and Athanassios Vergados for their suggestions and valuable critique of the early draft. My special thanks go to the anonymous reviewers for helpful remarks.

Bibliography

Nicander, The Poems and Poetical Fragments, edited with a translation and notes by A. S. F. Gow and A. F. Scholfield, Cambridge 1953.Search in Google Scholar

Nicandre, Œuvres, Tome II. Les Thériaques, texte établi et traduit par J.-M. Jacques, Paris 2002.Search in Google Scholar

Nicandre, Œuvres, Tome III. Les Alexipharmaques, texte établi et traduit par J.-M. Jacques, Paris 2007.Search in Google Scholar

Nicandro, Theriaká e Alexiphármaka, introduzione, traduzione e commento di G. Spatafora, Roma 2007.Search in Google Scholar

A. Cameron, Callimachus and his critics, Princeton 1995.Search in Google Scholar

J. J. Clauss, “Theriaca: Nicander’s poem of the earth”, SIFC 99, 2006, 160–182.Search in Google Scholar

E. Courtney, “Greek and Latin acrostichs”, Philologus 134, 1990, 3–13.Search in Google Scholar

A. Dalzell, The Criticism of Didactic Poetry. Essays on Lucretius, Virgil, and Ovid, Toronto 1996.Search in Google Scholar

M. Davies, “The ancient Greeks on why mankind does not live forever”, MH 44, 1987, 65–75.Search in Google Scholar

G.-J. van Dijk, ΑΙΝΟΙ, ΛΟΓΟΙ, ΜΥΘΟΙ. Fables in Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic Greek Literature. With a Study of the Theory and Terminology of the Genre, Leiden 1997.Search in Google Scholar

B. Effe, “Der Aufbau von Nikanders Theriaka und Alexipharmaka”, RhM 117, 1974 a, 53–66.Search in Google Scholar

B. Effe, “Zum Eingang von Nikanders Theriaka”, Hermes 102, 1974 b, 119–121.Search in Google Scholar

B. Effe, Dichtung und Lehre. Untersuchungen zur Typologie des antiken Lehrgedichts, München 1977.Search in Google Scholar

M. W. Haslam, “Hidden Signs: Aratus Diosemeiai 46 ff., Vergil Georgics 1.424 ff.”, HSPh 94, 1992, 199–204.Search in Google Scholar

N. Hopkinson, A Hellenistic Anthology, Cambridge 1988.Search in Google Scholar

R. Hunter, “The Periegesis of Dionysius and the traditions of Hellenistic poetry”, REA 106, 2004, 217–231.Search in Google Scholar

T. Karadagli, Fabel und Ainos. Studien zur griechischen Fabel, Königstein/Ts. 1981.Search in Google Scholar

E. Küster, Die Schlange in der griechischen Kunst und Religion, Gießen 1913.Search in Google Scholar

E. Lobel, “Nicander’s Signature”, CQ 22, 1928, 114.Search in Google Scholar

E. Magnelli, “Nicander” in: J. J. Clauss/M. Cuypers (eds.), A Companion to Hellenistic Literature, Malden, MA 2010, 211–223.Search in Google Scholar

Fl. Overduin, Nicander of Colophon’s Theriaca. A Literary Commentary, Leiden 2015.Search in Google Scholar

M. D. Reeve, “A rejuvenated snake”, Acta antiqua Academiae scientiarum Hungaricae 37, 1996/1997, 245–258.Search in Google Scholar

B. E. Richardson, Old Age Among the Ancient Greeks, New York 1933.Search in Google Scholar

M. B. Sullivan, “Nicander’s Aesopic acrostic and its antidote”, in: J. Kwapisz,/D. Petrain/M. Szymański (eds.), The Muse at Play. Riddles and Wordplay in Greek and Latin Poetry, Berlin 2013, 225–245.Search in Google Scholar

P. Toohey, Epic Lessons. An Introduction to Ancient Didactic Poetry, London 1996.Search in Google Scholar

A. Wesselski, Versuch einer Theorie des Märchens, Reichenberg i.B. 1931.Search in Google Scholar

Published Online: 2021-12-01
Published in Print: 2021-11-04

© 2021 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston