Modus Florum shows poetic, inner-truth alternative to history

So I held my tongue and said nothing;
I refrained from rash words;
but my pain became unbearable.

My heart was hot within me;
while I pondered, the fire burst into flame;
I spoke with my tongue

Literature developed along with concern about misuse of words. With his characteristic subtlety and audacity, Ovid about the time of Jesus proclaimed: “I speak the marvelous lies of the ancient bards.”[1] For the turned-sober fourth-century scholar Augustine, knowledge of actual historical events provided the foundation for speaking and writing with understanding. Augustine warned that without such knowledge, “you will be trying to build castles in the air.”[2] Poetry, however, has long been recognized as being more than lies and castles in the air. The medieval Latin poem Modus Florum provides an exemplum of poetic power relevant from ancient civilization to the present day.

Modus Florum evokes the court of an early emperor. A medieval king set out a poetic game in impersonal, historically distanced terms:

If anyone experienced in lying
should apply himself to deception
so well that he is called a deceiver
by the emperor’s own mouth, that man may marry the daughter.[3]

A man saying that he is lying (is he telling the truth?) was a conundrum that an ancient philosopher put forward.[4] The poetic game was earlier and more serious. Provoking listeners to reject their explicit and willing embrace of deception — willing suspension of disbelief — is a virtuoso display of poetic power.[5]

Modus Florum tells of a Swabian triumphing in that poetic game. The Swabian tells the story of his hunt. On his hunt, he speared a hare. He gutted the hare, cut off its head, and tore off its hide. That could be a parody of brutal philosophical analysis. Then the Swabian turned to fantastic tale-telling:

And as I was lifting the severed head
with my hand,
a hundred measures of honey
spilled out from the wounded ear;
and when I touched the other ear,
it spilled out just as many measures of peas.
I bound them inside the skin and,
while carving the hare itself,
I grasped a royal charter hidden
at the very base of the tail:

That’s a story in the tradition of travelers’ tales and accounts of marvels, but more artful.[6] The Swabian then deftly shifted his story to near reality. The royal charter found at the base of the tail:

It confirms that you are my servant.

Forgetting the agreed frame of deception, the king interjected:

“The charter lies,” the king shouts, “and so do you!”

In the work of a master poet, poetry can deceive so effectively as to compel persons to speak inner truth against their will.[7]

sun flower

The poetry game in Modus Florum is an obscure part of the ancient Story of Ahiqar. Part of that story survives in Elephantine Aramaic papyri dated to more than 2400 years ago. In a Syriac version probably from before the fifth century, the Pharaoh, king of Egypt, challenges Ahiqar, “tell me a word that I have never heard.”[8] That challenge addresses the whole tradition of poetry and story-telling. It’s a creative, linguistic challenge analogous to telling a deception so effectively that listeners are compelled to denounce its falsehood against their own willing suspension of disbelief.

Ahiqar triumphs by fabricating a letter declaring that the Pharaoh owes Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, a huge sum of money. The conclusion of the story isn’t directly recorded. Within understanding of the poetry game of Modus Florum, the conclusion is clear. The Pharaoh is forced to acknowledge that Ahiqar’s poetic skill is sufficient to create a new story against the will of his listeners. The Pharaoh is delighted with Ahiqar. The Pharaoh gives him tribute not related to the size of the loan claimed in the fabricated letter.

In addition to the freely creative poetry game, the Pharaoh sets for Ahiqar more narrow technical challenges related generally to myth-making and story-telling. Simile set-ups challenge Ahiqar to make mythic figures from the dress of the Pharaoh and his counselors. Creating a castle in the air — the poetic figure that Augustine explicitly disparaged — the Pharaoh sets as a challenge for Ahiqar. A challenge involving the interrupted realism of mares and stallions Ahiqar counters similarly with interrupted realism of a cat and a rooster. Ahiqar solves correctly a this-for-that allegory concerning a pillar and associated items. The story of Ahiqar also includes the fantastic challenges of making a rope of sand and sewing together a broken millstone. These seem to be challenges taken from a literature of labors. Unlike heroes in the literature of labors, Ahiqar resolves his tasks mostly through linguistic creativity.

The Life of Aesop, written about the first century, highlights the poetry game of Modus Florum in adapting the Story of Ahiqar. The Life of Aesop expanded the challenge section relative to other sections in the Story of Ahiqar. It eliminated the rope of sand and the millstone sewing challenges. It moved the poetry game to be the concluding challenge.[9] The Life of Aesop thus concludes the Pharaoh’s challenges with Aesop demonstrating complete verbal mastery of his opponents:

King Nectanebo’s friends lied and said, “We’ve seen this and heard of it many times.” Aesop said, “I’m glad you authenticate it. Let him pay the money on the spot, for the due date is past.” King Nectanebo said, “How can you be witnesses to a debt that I don’t owe?” They {Nectanebo’s friends} said, “We’ve never seen or heard of it.” [10]

Aesop, like Ahiqar, made a new account — one never seen or heard before — despite his opponents’ determination to deny to him that creativity.

Compared to the Story of Ahiqar and the Life of Aesop, Modus Florum presents poetic creativity more artfully. Modus Florum means the song of flowers. It depicts poetic creativity not with a conventional monetary instrument, but with a story that prompts an emotional assertion of truth. It ends with the King and the Swabian becoming family through marriage. That’s story and fundamental human experience.[11]

Languishing for love of you
I arose
at dawn
and made my way
across the snows
and cold,
and searched
the desolate seas
to see if I could find
sails flying in the wind,
or catch sight of the prow
of a ship.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:

Update: I’m grateful to Professor Ioannis Konstantakos, a leading authority on the Story of Ahiqar and the Life of Aesop, not just for important work informing this article, but also for corrections to it.


Prologue / epilogue: Psalm 39:2-3. Cambridge Songs 14A, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (1994) p. 69.

[1] Ovid, Amores, 3.6.17: Prodigiosa loquor veterum mendacia vatum, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (1994) p. 219.

[2] Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 2.7: ne subtracto fundamento rei gestae, quasi in aere quaeratis aedificare. Similarly, Sermon 8.1: ne substracto fundamento, in aere velle aedificare videamur (“or else after removing the foundation, we seem to seek to build on air”). On the history of Christian concern not to be building the Christian church in the air, see Lubac (2000) pp. 47-50.

[3] Modus Florum, Cambridge Songs 15, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (1994) p. 71. The subsequent three quotes are from id. Modus Florum is the earliest known tale of the type “Hero forces the Princess to say ‘that is a lie'” (ATU 852, Uther (2004) p. 41). Ziolkowski (1994) p. 218. A broader tale type is “contest in lying” (ATU 1920, Uther (2004) p. 514). The earliest known tale within that type is The Tale of Truth and Falsehood, an Egyptian story attested about 3300 years ago. Konstantakos (2011) pp. 229-30.

[4] The philosopher Eubulides of Miletus (4th century BGC), a pupil of Euclid, formulated the paradox, “A man says: ‘What I am saying now is a lie.'” Better known is the Cretan Epimenides of Knossos (c. 600 BGC). He was said to have composed, “The Cretans, always liars.” That’s echoed in Titus 1:12-3. But Epimenides is described as a figure living before Plato formulated philosophy as a rival of poetry. The context in Epimenides and Titus isn’t paradoxical. Analysis of Epimenides’s statement in relation to paradox is an artifact of eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy.

[5] The phrase “willing suspension of disbelief” is from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (1817), Ch. XIV.  Coleridge sought to invoke “the dramatic truth of such emotions as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real.” Id.

[6] The contrast in quality between the honey and the peas and locating the royal charter at the hare’s rectum are striking poetic choices. For a brief review of ancient tales of marvels, Konstantakos (2011) p. 230.

[7] Modus Florum begins by presenting itself as a ridiculous trifle:

The lying ballad that I sing,
I will give (highly recommend) to little boys,
so that they may bring great laughter
to listeners through lying little measures of song.

Trans. Ziolkowski (1994) pp. 69, 71. The emphasis on lying seems to me programmatic, and the trivialization of the song, ironic.

[8] Story of Ahiqar, from Syriac trans. Conybeare, Harris & Lewis (1913) p. 119. On dating, id. p. 176. Ahikar is another common spelling for Ahiqar.

[9] The expansion and re-arrangement of the challenges (riddles) are described in Konstantakos (2013) pp. 11-4.

[10] Life of Aesop {Vita Aesopi}, from Greek trans. Lloyd Daly in Hansen (1998) p. 157. Kurke (2011) shows that the Life of Aesop provides important insights into the development of Greek prose from Herodotus in the fifth-century BGC. Modus Florum provides a similarly important perspective for understanding the development of poetry in relation to history.

[11] Modus Florum is not the work of merely a lyrical poet. The author of Modus Florum is closely associated materially, thematically, and stylistically with the author of the medieval Latin poem Modus Liebinc (Cambridge Songs 14), an early poetic version of the story of the snow child. Ziolkowski (1994) p. 219. Modus Liebinc provides forceful critique of unjust paternity attribution and forced fatherhood. Few persons throughout history have found potent means to speak about these continuing, oppressive social injustices.

[image] Photograph by Douglas Galbi.


Conybeare, F. C., J. Rendel Harris, and Agnes Smith Lewis. 1913. The story of Ahikar from the Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Old Turkish, Greek and Slavonic versions. Cambridge: University Press.

Hansen, William F., ed. 1998. Anthology of ancient Greek popular literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Konstantakos, Ioannis M. 2011. “Ephippos’ Geryones: A comedy between myth and folktale.” Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae. 51 (3-4): 223-246.

Konstantakos, Ioannis M. 2013. Summary of Akicharos, vol. 3: The Tale of Ahiqar and the Vita Aesopi. Athens: Stigmi Publications.

Kurke, Leslie. 2011. Aesopic conversations: popular tradition, cultural dialogue, and the invention of Greek prose. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Lubac, Henri de. 2000. Medieval exegesis. Vol 2. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans.

Uther, Hans-Jörg. 2004. The types of international folktales: a classification and bibliography, based on the system of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Academia Scientiarum Fennica.

Ziolkowski, Jan M., ed. and trans. 1994. The Cambridge songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia). New York: Garland Pub.

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