Thursday, March 02, 2006

Michael Choniates, a reader of Nicander

Michael Choniates was Metropolitan of Athens in the early 13th century, a learned man who loved the ancient world and wrote with sadness about the barbarous conditions to which Athens had fallen in his time. I found him through a letter he'd written which in part praised the work another man had done in making Nicander accessible to others. In the following poem (number 6) the opening is unmistakably--though metaphorically--Nicandrean:

Δράκοντι δηχθεὶς καὶ νοητοῖς σκορπίοις,
θνήσκων τε μικροῦ καὶ τὰ λοίσθια πνέων
ἀναθεωρῶ τὸν κρεμασθέντα ξύλῳ,
ὡς καὶ θανών πως ἀναβιῴην πάλιν.
'Having been bitten by a dragon and by mental scorpions, close to death and breathing my last, I reconsider the one hanging on the wood, how even having died I might somehow return to life.'

The poem continues (with two more Nicandrean images), but I'll leave it for now since I really should be getting ready for the German exam. There are a few things I have questions about (ζωὴ μόνος?), but for the most part it's clear: a prayer for everlasting life.

Ἀνάστασις γάρ ἐστι καὶ ζωὴ μόνος, (5)
ὡς ἀμνὸς αἴρων κοσμικὴν ἁμαρτίαν.
Εἰ χάλκεος γὰρ καὶ τυπικός τις ὄφις
ἑρπυστικῶν δήγμασι θανατουμένους
ἐζωοποίει προςδεδορκότας μόνον,
πῶς οὐκ ἂν αὐτὸς ἐξαναστήσεις, ἄναξ, (10)
κέντρῳ πεπληγότα με τῆς ἁμαρτίας
καὶ κείμενον δείλαιον ὡς τεθνηκότα
καὶ βλέμμ’ ἀνατείνοντα πρὸς σὲ καὶ μόνον;
Ἀλλ’, ὦ πρὸς ὕψος ἀναβὰς θεοῦ λόγε,
ὡς πάντας ἄρδην πρὸς σεαυτὸν ἑλκύσαις, (15)
ὡς αἰχμαλωτεύσειας αἰχμαλωσίαν,
ὡς αὐτὸς εἶπας καὶ Δαυὶδ ψάλλων ᾄδει,
ἕλκυσον, ἀπάλλαξον αἰχμαλωσίας
καὶ προςλαβοῦ με τὸν κακοῖς ἀπωσμένον
χερσὶ ταθείσαις σταυρικῇ διατάσει, (20)
καὶ ζωοποιῷ σῷ τριταίῳ θανάτῳ
ἔμπνευσον ἐμπνεύσαντι παλινζωίαν
ὡς πνεύματι ζῶ σήν τε νέκρωσιν φέρω
καὶ συμμετάσχω, σῶτερ, ἀειζωίας.


eric said...

That's really interesting--where did you come across Choniates?

dennis said...

Through the ever helpful TLG, looking for references to Nicander.

eric said...

Actually, as I think about it a little more, it strikes me as even more interesting. Serpentine imagery, and especially the metaphor of 'poison', is all over Latin Christian poetry. Obviously, a lot of this goes back to the Garden, and probably to other major sources such as the second book of the Aeneid, but I wonder whether there sometimes might be a Nicandrean (Nicandrian?) hint as well.

eric said...

And, funny enough, the first thing I see when I sit back down to Prudentius is a snake-image (this one referring to Moses' staff-turned-serpent):

...vinclis dum subdita colla/ solvit et Aegyptum virga serpente coercet? (Hamartigenia 469-70)

dennis said...

Choniates treats the Theriaca as a very important text. He seems to be praising an interlinear commentary or paraphrase written by a fellow called George which made intelligble what was 'unknown even to Solomon':

οὕτω ἀρχαιοτάτοις καὶ οἷον ἑτερογλώσσοις καὶ τούτοις ἐξαληλιμμένοις στοιχείοις εἰς ἀμυδρὸν ὑποκεχάρακτο, ὥστε θᾶττον ἄν τις ὁδὸν ὄφεως ἐπὶ πέτραν γνοίη, τὸ καὶ Σολομῶντι ἄγνωστον, ἢ τὰ ἐν αὐτῷ περὶ ὄφεων ἐποποιὰ διηγήματα.
(vol. 2, ep. 109)

What I like especially here are the other meanings, both the acknowledgement of the literary value of Nicander and the apparent Christian spiritual interpretation that may have informed his poem:

'... so that one might know more quickly the way of a snake upon the rock, unknown even to Solomon, or the epic tales within about snakes.'

The first part could refer simply to learning about the habits of snakes, but that's sort of restated in the second more naturally. If we read ἐπί as 'against' it may be clearer that Michael Choniates is referring to an allegorical reading of the Theriaca in which envenomation represents the devil's effects on the mind and soul of man. (Recalling what he does in his own poem.)