Play, Work, and Death

In the three disparate pieces below, female gatherings occasion song-singing or song-making:  an ancient Greek children’s game; a Sappho fragment modeled on a work song; and a lyric poem by the Hellenistic writer Callimachus. 

The paradigmatic “women’s work” of weaving and sewing links them all. 

And so too does loss, which perhaps should be considered a paradigmatic female experience in the period. Here we see a young girl playing at being a woman whose son has died; then, a mother losing her daughter to Aphrodite (and by extension, to marriage); and finally, a circle of female friends losing one of their number to death. 

Young girls at play (Campbell 876)

The “Tor-i-Tortoise” is a young girls’ game, similar to [a boys’ game] the “Pot.” Here, a girl sits down and is called “tortoise” as the other girls go around her in a circle, asking: 

<group of girls> Tor-i-tortoise, why are you in the middle?
<girl in the middle> I was weaving wool and Milesian thread.
<group of girls>And your son, how did he die?
<girl in the middle> He jumped from his white horses into the sea!

ἡ δὲ χελιχελώνη, παρθένων ἐστὶν ἡ παιδιά, παρόμοιόν τι ἔχουσα τῇ χύτρᾳ· ἡ μὲν γὰρ κάθηται καὶ καλεῖται χελώνη, αἱ δὲ περιτρέχουσιν ἀνερωτῶσαι·

   χελιχελώνα, τί ποιεῖς ἐν τῷ μέσῳ;
ἡ δὲ ἀποκρίνεται
ἔρια μαρύομαι καὶ κρόκαν Μιλησίαν.
εἶτ᾿ ἐκεῖναι πάλιν ἐκβοῶσιν
ὁ δ᾿ ἔκγονός σου τί ποιῶν ἀπώλετο;
ἡ δέ φησι
λευκᾶν ἀφ᾿ ἵππων εἰς θάλασσαν ἅλατο

Mother and daughter at work (Sappho Fr.102)

Sweet mother, I can’t weave at the loom
Broken by longing for the slender boy.
Aphrodite’s to blame!

γλύκηα μᾶτερ, οὔτοι δύναμαι κρέκην τὸν ἴστον
πόθῳ δάμεισα παῖδος βραδίναν δι’ Ἀφροδίταν

A circle of friends (Callimachus 7.459)

A font of stories, that girl.
Known for good banter.
Samian girls often look for her,
Their sweetest sewing-mate
And chatty all the time.
Well, here she is—
Sleeping the Sleep that comes to all girls.

Κρηθίδα τὴν πολύμυθον ἐπισταμένην καλὰ παίζειν
δίζηνται Σαμίων πολλάκι θυγατέρες,
ἡδίστην συνέριθον ἀεὶ λάλον: ἣ δ᾽ ἀποβρίζει
ἐνθάδε τὸν πάσαις ὕπνον ὀφειλόμενον.

Terracotta oil flask. C.550-530 BC. Attributed to the Amasis Painter.
The vase depicts women at work, and most visible here is the central image of women at an upright loom.
Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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

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