The Swiss Army Spear

Archilochus Fr. 2 (West)

Thanks to the spear I’ve got kneaded barley cake,
And thanks to the spear Ismarian wine too.
And so I recline and drink, thanks to the spear.

ἐν δορὶ μὲν μοι μᾶζα μεμαγμένη, ἐν δορὶ δ᾽ οἶνος
Ἰσμαρικός, πίνω δ᾽ ἐν δορὶ κεκλιμένος.

Hybrias Fragment (PMG 25)

My great wealth is spear and sword
And handsome shield, protector of skin–
For thanks to it I sow and thanks to it I reap.
Thanks to it I stomp sweet wine from grape vines,
And thanks to it I’m called the master of slaves.

As for those who won’t hold spear and sword
And handsome shield, protector of skin,
They all fall at my knee,
Kowtowing to their master
And saying “great king.”

ἐστί μοι πλοῦτος μέγας δόρυ καὶ ξίφος
καὶ τὸ καλὸν λαισήϊον, πρόβλημα χρωτός·
τούτῳ γὰρ ἀρῶ, τούτῳ θερίζω,
τούτῳ πατέω τὸν ἁδὺν οἶνον ἀπ᾿ ἀμπέλων,
τούτῳ δεσπότας μνοΐας κέκλημαι.
τοὶ δὲ μὴ τολμῶντ᾿ ἔχειν δόρυ καὶ ξίφος
καὶ τὸ καλὸν λαισήϊον, πρόβλημα χρωτός,
πάντες γόνυ πεπτηῶτες ἁμὸν
< >κυνέοντι δεσπόταν < >
καὶ μέγαν βασιλῆα φωνέοντες.

These rightly famous and enigmatic lyrics (drinking songs, it appears) are attributed to Archilochus (c.7th century BC) and Hybrias (c.6th century BC). I describe them as enigmatic, and perhaps a small example from Archilochus’s song will demonstrate why.

Archilochus’s Greek admits of a wide range of interpretations. For example, I translate the refrain ἐν δορὶ as “thanks to the spear.” That translation, fair to say, might be entirely wrong. 

But if I’m wrong, I’m in extraordinarily good company. So many scholars have offered so many different interpretations of ἐν δορὶ that they can’t all be right–and in fact most, or all, of them are wrong too. 

How varied are the interpretations of this simple preposition and dative-case noun? My “thanks to the spear” takes its place alongside “in the spear,” “on my spear,” “in my ship,” “on the ship’s deck,” and “on active service,” to name just a handful of alternative readings. And obviously one’s entire reading of the poem alters with one’s interpretation of those two little words. 

Bronze spear-head. c.900-780BC. Excavated in Olympia.
The British Museum.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

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