Unsuitable Playmates

Anacreon Fr.358

Yet again, hitting me with his bright ball,
Golden-haired Eros calls me out to play
With a girl in richly spangled sandals.

But she—because she’s from fancy Lesbos—
Of my hair—because it’s white—disapproves.
And so, it’s at another girl she gapes.

σφαίρῃ δηὖτέ με πορφυρέῃ
βάλλων χρυσοκόμης Ἔρως,
νήνι ποικιλοσαμβάλῳ
συμπαίζειν προκαλεῖται.

ἣ δ’, ἐστὶν γὰρ ἀπ’ εὐκτίτου
Λέσβου, τὴν μὲν ἐμὴν κόμην,
λευκὴ γάρ, καταμέμφεται,
πρὸς δ’ ἄλλην τινὰ χάσκει.


A Comment: 

It’s worth observing that the lyric pairs its nouns with adjectives marking them as attractive: Eros’ ball is “bright” (in the sense of “brightly colored”). Eros himself is “golden-haired,” as befits a god. The young girl has “richly spangled sandals” (a closer approximation of the Greek adjective is perhaps “sandaled in a richly spangled fashion”). Her city, Lesbos, is “fancy” (literally “well built” or “well established”).

The pairing of adjectives and nouns should, in retrospect, mark the bareness of the first line’s unmodified “me” as important. It’s 5 lines later that the speaker’s hair, by synecdoche, stands in for his person, and an adjective finally attaches to him: “white[-haired].” Only the speaker is marked as unattractive in a lyric fixed on desirability.

With that, what becomes easier to see is the lyric’s fundamental contrasts. Eros has golden hair, but the man has white hair. The girl is young (Anacreon calls her “a youth”), but the man is old. In both pairings, the man represents a falling off: both from the god and the girl, and from our expectation of desirability.  

The lyric turns out to be a clever rehearsing of an overworked trope in Archaic lyric: Eros humiliates old men. When we realize the man is old, we also realize it’s grotesque he’d been compelled “to play like a child” (the literal meaning of the Greek verb) with a young girl. 

But in a sense, we should have known what was coming: “yet once more” (δηὖτέ) at the lyric’s opening is a conventional signal of (1) amorous defeat and (2) the would-be lover’s age-unsuitability for the amorous undertaking. 

There is a lot to be had from the lyric–the careful construction of surprise–without fixating on the seeming titillation of same-sex attraction in the final line (i.e., the girl turning her attention to another girl). I hope to have shown that the center of the poem might well be the revelation about the man, and not a revelation about the girl. After all, male anxiety about age, and aging out of desirability, is well attested in Archaic sympotic song; same-sex female desire is not.

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.

Leave a Reply