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

Olga Chernyakhovskaya
From the journal Philologus


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.


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.


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

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