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Headword: *bwmoloxeu/saito
Adler number: beta,488
Translated headword: (if one) were to play the wit at the altar
Vetting Status: high
Meaning [if] one were to say something vulgar or cheap. Aristophanes in Clouds on corruption of the harmonics: "[them] tuning the harmony that our fathers passed on.[1] But if one of them were to play the wit at the altar or were to bend some turn [from harmony]" -- that is, were to bring out the song in a bent voice[2] -- "such as these intricate-twisted (tunes) in the style of Phrynis that singers today sing, let him be creamed, struck many blows,[3] as one doing away with the Muses."
And elsewhere: "there are many examples of his 'altar wit' and flattery current; among them note the following."[4]
Greek Original:
*bwmoloxeu/saito: a)nti\ tou= a)gorai=o/n ti ei)/poi h)\ eu)tele/s. *)aristofa/nhs *nefe/lais peri\ diafqora=s a(rmonikw=n: e)nteiname/nous th\n a(rmoni/an, h(\n oi( pate/res pare/dwkan. ei) de/ tis au)tw=n bwmoloxeu/soit' h)\ ka/myeie/ tina kamph/n: oi(onei\ keklasme/nh| th=| fwnh=| th\n w)|dh\n proene/gkoito: oi(/as oi( nu=n ta\s kata\ *fru/nin, tau/tas ta\s duskoloka/mpous, e)pitribe/sqw tupto/menos polla\s, w(s ta\s *mou/sas a)fani/zwn. kai\ au)=qis: polla\ me\n ou)=n kai\ a)/lla th=s tou/tou bwmoloxi/as te kai\ ai(muli/as martu/ria diarrei=, e)n dh\ toi=s a)/ra kai\ e)kei=noi.
The headword optative comes from Aristophanes, Clouds 968 (web address 1). The passage in which the clause occurs is also cited in Suda entries on "bends, twists" from harmony made by the poets of the new dithyramb (delta 1650, kappa 2647; cf. discussion in the notes to delta 1029). For the concepts of "altar-ambushers" and "wit at the altar" see also beta 486, beta 487, beta 489, beta 490, chi 296. Here youngsters are warned not to make fools of themselves singing in an empty, crowd-pleasing (cf. beta 490) style with the same goal as that of the "altar-ambushers", to trick people into giving a little money, or follow the style of Phrynis (phi 761).
[1] This phrase commencing with a participle in the accusative plural depends on the context omitted before it (966-67), where the music-teacher of old taught boys to sing traditional songs; "tuning" agrees with that object. The rest of the quotation reads the third person singular of the present middle-passive imperative of tri/bw, instead of the third person singular of the imperfect indicative passive found in the text of Aristophanes and the Suda's quotation at kappa 2647 (but not at delta 1650). This turns the historical account of proper education in music into a moral exhortation to teachers. The verb is a strong one, suggesting schoolboy slang, appropriate to the context (web address 2).
[2] There is debate over the musical innovation implied by this phrase used for the 'new music' of the second half of the fifth century BC and at least some of the fourth (here associated with Phrynis). Most take it for modulation between the new scales made possible by the new models of cithara (see West 194-96, Campbell 40 note 1, 63 notes 3-5). "Harmony" (alpha 3977, pi 162, pi 163) in the days of Aristophanes referred explicitly to the tuning of the seven-stringed lyre in the traditional enharmonic scale developed by Terpander with two tetrachords. The introduction of the twelve-stringed cithara by Melanippides the younger (mu 454; cf. Pherecrates fr.155 PCG vol.7) and eleven-stringed by Timotheus (tau 620; cf. his Persians) allowed for octaves, a greater vocal range, chromatic coloring and, probably, modulations into the chromatic and diatonic scales.
The verb ka/mptw (web address 3) is used for diverting, bending or interrupting (i.e. breaking) a straight line in geometry or travel, as is its near-synonym kla/w (or katakla/w) (web address 4) used in the Suda's definition. Both must imply, in terms of the ancient harmonics, diversions from, or interruptions of, the "straight line" (the o)/rqios no/mos, omicron 573, omicron 574) of the traditional enharmonic scale. To understand how this would apply to modulation see West's sections on "The new music" (356-72) and the chromatic scale (162-71 and see Index). The phallic double entendre of 'hard' and 'limp' given by Aristophanes to the musical terms "straight" and "bent down" is misunderstood by LSJ (web address 4), where the inappropriate meaning 'effeminate' is given to the second musical term.
Alternatively and perhaps more plausibly, the terms imply heterophony (West 205, Barker 237 note 200), a practice known to Plato (Laws 812D-E, contemporary to the style) where the strings play one melody and the song bends away on another. This practice, at once requiring virtuosity and departing from the accepted theory of music, would justify its association here with "altar-ambushing", a term applied elsewhere to a crowd-pleasing wit without intellectual point (see note 4 below, and beta 489, beta 490).
[3] The feminine plural adjective 'many' is used here as a cognate or internal accusative, implying plaga/s 'blows', as the scholiast says (sch. rec. 972c). See pi 1872, citing the identical construction in the NT (Luke 12:47), a phrase often quoted in patristic writers.
[4] This truncated quotation introduces the following example of the 'altar-wit' of a certain Iortius in Aelian (fr. 111c Domingo-Forasté, 108 Hercher, citing Plutarch as his source: cf. epsilon 157, iota 423, mu 321). Iortius (RE 9.1929-30) was a parasite (hanger-on) of Maecenas, the prefect of Rome under Augustus and patron of Vergil, Horace and other poets. "At the dinner of Maecenas there was below the (diners') couch a rectangular table, enormous in size and unbeatable in beauty. And, as was proper, everyone was praising it, each in his own fashion. But Iortius, not having at hand anything marvelous to say, when there was a silence, said, 'My dear fellow guests, don't you notice it, how circular it is, how too well-rounded?' At this pure flattery, as you can guess, laughter broke out. Plutarch." The remark intended to flatter is at the same time amusing, because it has absolutely no element of truth and thus parodies flattery, but pointless because it lacks the metaphors, puns and other figures of humor that give wit its rational bite. It thus seems to illustrate how the "altar-ambushers" cracked 'altar-wit' jokes to gain a bite to eat and how schoolboys in Aristophanes' comedy would make fools of themselves if they sang the songs of Phrynis and the other writers of new dithyramb.
Barker, A. Greek Musical Writings I: The Musician and his Art (edition and translation of pseudo-Plutarch, de Musica,1984) 204-57, esp. notes, pp. 236-40
Campbell, D.A. (ed.) Greek Lyrics vol. 5 (Loeb edn.)
Hagel, S. Modulation in altgriechischer Musik. Antike Melodien im Licht antiker Musiktheorie (2000)
West, M.L. Ancient Greek Music (1992)
Associated internet addresses:
Web address 1,
Web address 2,
Web address 3,
Web address 4
Keywords: biography; chronology; comedy; daily life; dialects, grammar, and etymology; ethics; imagery; meter and music; poetry
Translated by: Robert Dyer on 2 March 2002@16:12:16.
Vetted by:
David Whitehead (cosmetics) on 2 September 2002@08:04:32.
Catharine Roth (betacode cosmetics) on 1 October 2005@16:26:48.
Catharine Roth (upgraded link 1, added italics) on 12 August 2012@00:50:53.
Catharine Roth (tweaks and cosmetics) on 17 August 2012@01:07:02.
David Whitehead (more keywords; further adjustments) on 17 August 2012@03:25:10.
Catharine Roth (updated reference) on 13 June 2013@01:22:00.


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