In his fourth Iambus, Calimachus tells what he says is an old Lydian story of a quarrel between two trees, a laurel and an olive. They are arguing about which of them is the more important, and they refer to the various uses to which men put them, and to the place they occupy in religious usage. That Callimachus says it is an old Lydian story is not in itself a certain proof of barbarian origin. but this kind of debate between two nonhuman rivals is a standard form in Mesopotamian literature, going back to Sumerian times. In both instances, the quarrel is put in former days, and the general tone and manner are alike. Here are some extracts from Callimachus:
Foolish o[live . . . (the laurel speaks)
What house does not have me at its door?
What seer, what sacrificer, does not carry me?
The Pythian priestess seats herself on laurel
And sings of laurel and her floor is laurel
And I for my part go to feasts and dances
Of Pythaists; and I am made a prize
And the olive in the course of its reply says:
What has the laurel for fruit? What use to us?
Eat it not, drink it not, use it not for unguent.
And here is some of the Babylonian dispute between the tamarisk and the palm, from tablets of different dates from about 1700 to about 1000 BCE:
The Tamarisk opened his mouth and addressed the Palm:
Consider what items of your equipment are to be found in the palace. It is from my dish that the king eats. It is from my bread-basket that the warriors eat
I am the exorcist and purify the temple
Where I am not present the king does not libate
My rites are performed, and my twigs are heaped up on the ground
And the palm in the course of its speech says:
You, Tamarisk, are a useless tree. What are your branches? Wood without fruit!
And then the palm, just like the olive in Callimachus, goes on to praise the qualities of its own fruit. Clearly then, this is a case of the passage of Near Eastern material into Greek literature.
Source (list of abbreviations)
Callimachus, Iambi 4
|West 1969, 118-119||West, Martin L. Near Eastern material in Hellenistic and Roman literature. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 73 (1969) 113-134. [JSTOR (requires subscription)]|
Links (external links will open in a new browser window)
Sumerian dispute poems
Erik van Dongen
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