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.

Coming Together to Feast

Homer Iliad 1.458-476

When they had prayed and scattered barley,
first they pulled back the oxen’s heads,
then they cut their throats and flayed them.
They cut out the thigh bones,
wrapped them in folds of fat,
and put raw flesh on them.
The old man then burnt them on strips of wood
while pouring the libation, red wine, on them.

The young men at his side held five-pronged forks.
When the thigh bones were burnt up,
and they had eaten the innards,
they cut up the rest, put the pieces on spits,
roasted them with care, then pulled them off the spits.

Now their work was done.
They laid a feast and each man had his fill.
Then, freed from hunger for food and drink,
the young men filled the mixing bowls with wine.
They shared the wine with all, pouring in each cup
what’s needed for libations.

And all day long they appeased the god with song—
Achaeans singing the lovely paean,
singing and dancing for Apollo.
He heard them and was glad.

When at last the sun went down and night came on,
they laid down by their ship’s stern-cables and slept.

αὐέρυσαν μὲν πρῶτα καὶ ἔσφαξαν καὶ ἔδειραν,
μηρούς τʼ ἐξέταμον κατά τε κνίσῃ ἐκάλυψαν
δίπτυχα ποιήσαντες, ἐπʼ αὐτῶν δʼ ὠμοθέτησαν·
καῖε δʼ ἐπὶ σχίζῃς ὁ γέρων, ἐπὶ δʼ αἴθοπα οἶνον
λεῖβε· νέοι δὲ παρʼ αὐτὸν ἔχον πεμπώβολα χερσίν.
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ κατὰ μῆρε κάη καὶ σπλάγχνα πάσαντο,
μίστυλλόν τʼ ἄρα τἆλλα καὶ ἀμφʼ ὀβελοῖσιν ἔπειραν,
ὤπτησάν τε περιφραδέως, ἐρύσαντό τε πάντα.
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ παύσαντο πόνου τετύκοντό τε δαῖτα
δαίνυντʼ, οὐδέ τι θυμὸς ἐδεύετο δαιτὸς ἐΐσης.
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ πόσιος καὶ ἐδητύος ἐξ ἔρον ἕντο,
κοῦροι μὲν κρητῆρας ἐπεστέψαντο ποτοῖο,
νώμησαν δʼ ἄρα πᾶσιν ἐπαρξάμενοι δεπάεσσιν·
οἳ δὲ πανημέριοι μολπῇ θεὸν ἱλάσκοντο
καλὸν ἀείδοντες παιήονα κοῦροι Ἀχαιῶν
μέλποντες ἑκάεργον· ὃ δὲ φρένα τέρπετʼ ἀκούων.
ἦμος δʼ ἠέλιος κατέδυ καὶ ἐπὶ κνέφας ἦλθε,
δὴ τότε κοιμήσαντο παρὰ πρυμνήσια νηός·

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.

Winter’s Comin’

Hesiod, Works & Days, 547-558.

Early mornings, from starry sky right down to land,
Mist, good for wheat, stretches across rich people’s fields.
It draws from the always-flowing rivers;
It rises high above the land on gusts of wind,
Sometimes making for evening rain,
Sometimes blowing as a thick mass of clouds
When the Thracian North Wind rushes pell mell.

Finish your work and get home before this,
Or the black cloud from the sky will enfold you,
Wetting your skin and drenching your clothes.
That’s to be avoided.

This is the hardest phase of the moon, winter.
Hard for cattle and hard for men too.

ψυχρὴ γάρ τʼ ἠὼς πέλεται Βορέαο πεσόντος
ἠώιος δʼ ἐπὶ γαῖαν ἀπʼ οὐρανοῦ ἀστερόεντος
ἀὴρ πυροφόρος τέταται μακάρων ἐπὶ ἔργοις·
ὅστε ἀρυσάμενος ποταμῶν ἄπο αἰεναόντων,
ὑψοῦ ὑπὲρ γαίης ἀρθεὶς ἀνέμοιο θυέλλῃ
ἄλλοτε μέν θʼ ὕει ποτὶ ἕσπερον, ἄλλοτʼ ἄησι
πυκνὰ Θρηικίου Βορέου νέφεα κλονέοντος.
τὸν φθάμενος ἔργον τελέσας οἶκόνδε νέεσθαι,
μή ποτέ σʼ οὐρανόθεν σκοτόεν νέφος ἀμφικαλύψῃ,
χρῶτα δὲ μυδαλέον θήῃ κατά θʼ εἵματα δεύσῃ.
ἀλλʼ ὑπαλεύασθαι· μεὶς γὰρ χαλεπώτατος οὗτος,
χειμέριος, χαλεπὸς προβάτοις, χαλεπὸς δʼ ἀνθρώποις.

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.

Inhumanity: Then And Now

Euripides Heracles, 51-59

We hang on in this place where we lack everything—
Food, drink, clothes—and lay our bodies on the bare ground.
Shut out from home, we sit here despairing of rescue.
But now I see which friends are not true friends,
while the ones who are, sincerely cannot help us.
Such is the calamity for men and women.
May this never happen to those even somewhat kind to me.
(Being somewhat kind: the sure-fire test of who is a friend.)

πάντων δὲ χρεῖοι τάσδ᾽ ἕδρας φυλάσσομεν,
σίτων ποτῶν ἐσθῆτος, ἀστρώτῳ πέδῳ
πλευρὰς τιθέντες: ἐκ γὰρ ἐσφραγισμένοι
δόμων καθήμεθ᾽ ἀπορίᾳ σωτηρίας.
φίλων δὲ τοὺς μὲν οὐ σαφεῖς ὁρῶ φίλους,
οἳ δ᾽ ὄντες ὀρθῶς ἀδύνατοι προσωφελεῖν.
τοιοῦτον ἀνθρώποισιν ἡ δυσπραξία:
ἧς μήποθ᾽ὅστις καὶ μέσως εὔνους ἐμοὶ
τύχοι, φίλων ἔλεγχον ἀψευδέστατον.

21st-century Reality:

“Children stranded near the border with Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia since the end of August have been struggling with hypothermia, exhaustion, and hunger, while their mental and physical health have deteriorated from their perilous journeys and the drawn-out situation they’re facing.”

“[Until] a few weeks ago unthinkable for me as a medical professional that in the 21st century there are children and women and pregnant women in the middle of the forest in Western civilization and that they are suffering because . . . of the cold, because they don’t have drinking water, and they don’t have food.”

Image credit: CNN.

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.

Fantasy Poets League

I’m going to put short fragments of Alcaeus, Sappho, and Anacreon to twisted use: linking them into a single narrative which rehearses a common theme of Archaic lyric: the poet driven mad by unrequited love for a youth.

Alcaeus forthrightly states the case:

Alcaeus Fr. 33

A whirlwind totally ripped away their senses.

πάμπαν δὲ τύφως ἔκ ϝ᾿ ἔλετο φρένας

That “whirlwind,” love, disturbs the equanimity of Sappho and Anacreon alike, turning the mind of each against itself:

Sappho Fr.51

I don’t know what to make of this;
I’m of two minds.

οὐκ οἶδ’ ὄττι θέω· δίχα μοι τὰ νοήμματα

Anacreon Fr. 428 (Campbell)

I’m in love again and not in love.
I’m raving mad and not raving mad. .

ἐρέω τε δηὖτε κοὐκ ἐρέω
καὶ μαίνομαι κοὐ μαίνομαι.

The cause of their confusion? Love for young people whose attractiveness is rooted in manifest immaturity:

Sappho Fr.49

There was a time, Athis, long ago,
I was in love with you.
You looked like a child, small and clumsy.

ἠράμαν μὲν ἔγω σέθεν, Ἄτθι, πάλαι ποτά [ ]
σμίκρα μοι πάις ἔμμεν’ ἐφαίνεο κἄχαρις.

Anacreon Fr. 360 (Campbell)

Boy with looks of a virgin girl,
I’m after you and you don’t see it.
You don’t know you hold the reins of my soul.

ὦ παῖ παρθένιον βλέπων
δίζημαί σε, σὺ δ᾿ οὐ κοεῖς,
οὐκ εἰδὼς ὅτι τῆς ἐμῆς
ψυχῆς ἡνιοχεύεις.

Photograph by Hellen van Meene for Garage Magazine.
Nothing stops us imagining it’s Sappho resting her head on the shoulder of Athis.

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.

Hesiod’s House of Horrors

Hesiod: Theogony 720-744

. . . As far as heaven is from earth
Just as far is earth from gloomy Tartarus.
Bronze space junk would tumble through the sky
Nine nights and days, reaching earth on the tenth;
And so a bronze anvil tumbling from earth would fall
Nine nights and days, reaching Tartarus on the tenth.

A bronze wall was thrown up around Tartarus.
Triple-layered night was poured around its neck,
And the roots of earth and barren sea grew above it.
It’s there the Titan gods were locked away
—the will of Zeus, cloud gatherer—
In gloomy darkness, damp musty place
At the vast earth’s distant end.

They cannot leave.
Poseidon set bronze doors in place,
And a wall encircled the whole.
There Gyes and Cottus established themselves,
And great-hearted Obriareus did too,
Trusted watchmen for aegis-bearing Zeus.

The source and limit of everything
Line up there: that of dark earth,
Gloomy Tartarus, the barren sea,
And the star-studded sky.
Horrid damp musty—even the gods detest it.

A huge pit, this: you couldn’t reach bottom
in a year, assuming you got within its gates.
No, bruising squall after squall would carry you
This way and that. A Terrible monstrosity,
Even to the deathless gods.

. . . ὅσον οὐρανός ἐστ᾽ ἀπὸ γαίης:
τόσσον γάρ τ᾽ ἀπὸ γῆς ἐς Τάρταρον ἠερόεντα.
ἐννέα γὰρ νύκτας τε καὶ ἤματα χάλκεος ἄκμων
οὐρανόθεν κατιὼν δεκάτῃ κ᾽ ἐς γαῖαν ἵκοιτο:
ἐννέα δ᾽ αὖ νύκτας τε καὶ ἤματα χάλκεος ἄκμων
ἐκ γαίης κατιὼν δεκάτῃ κ᾽ ἐς Τάρταρον ἵκοι.
τὸν πέρι χάλκεον ἕρκος ἐλήλαται: ἀμφὶ δέ μιν νὺξ
τριστοιχεὶ κέχυται περὶ δειρήν: αὐτὰρ ὕπερθεν
γῆς ῥίζαι πεφύασι καὶ ἀτρυγέτοιο θαλάσσης.
ἔνθα θεοὶ Τιτῆνες ὑπὸ ζόφῳ ἠερόεντι
κεκρύφαται βουλῇσι Διὸς νεφεληγερέταο
χώρῳ ἐν εὐρώεντι, πελώρης ἔσχατα γαίης.
τοῖς οὐκ ἐξιτόν ἐστι. θύρας δ᾽ ἐπέθηκε Ποσειδέων
χαλκείας, τεῖχος δὲ περοίχεται ἀμφοτέρωθεν.
ἔνθα Γύης Κόττος τε καὶ Ὀβριάρεως μεγάθυμος
ναίουσιν, φύλακες πιστοὶ Διὸς αἰγιόχοιο.
ἔνθα δὲ γῆς δνοφερῆς καὶ Ταρτάρου ἠερόεντος
πόντου τ᾽ ἀτρυγέτοιο καὶ οὐρανοῦ ἀστερόεντος
ἑξείης πάντων πηγαὶ καὶ πείρατ᾽ ἔασιν
ἀργαλέ᾽ εὐρώεντα, τά τε στυγέουσι θεοί περ,
χάσμα μέγ᾽, οὐδέ κε πάντα τελεσφόρον εἰς ἐνιαυτὸν
οὖδας ἵκοιτ᾽, εἰ πρῶτα πυλέων ἔντοσθε γένοιτο,
ἀλλά κεν ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα φέροι πρὸ θύελλα θυέλλῃ
ἀργαλέη: δεινὸν δὲ καὶ ἀθανάτοισι θεοῖσι
τοῦτο τέρας. . . .

Ancient sources attest that this sign was prominently displayed on the gates of Tartarus.

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.

Love Blows

It was commonplace in Archaic Greek lyric to liken the frenzy of erotic desire to the violence of the wind:

Sappho Fr. 47

Eros shook my core
Like a mountain wind
Slamming into oaks.

Ἔρος δ’ ἐτίναξέ μοι
φρένας, ὠς ἄνεμος κὰτ ὄρος δρύσιν ἐμπέτων.

The metaphor of Eros as wind could be made quite elaborate, and it could be enriched by comparison with a tranquil state of affairs:

Ibycus Fr. 286

The rivers’ streams, in springtime,
Water Cydonian apple trees
Where there’s a pristine maidens’ garden
And the buds on grapevines swell
Under leafy shading shoots.

For me, desire has no season of repose.
Always under fiery lightning flashes
The Thracian North Wind, thanks to Cypris,
Sweeps down black and undaunted
In a scorching frenzy. Violent—
And it devours my heart from the root.

ἦρι μὲν αἵ τε Κυδώνιαι
μηλίδες ἀρδόμεναι ῥοᾶν
ἐκ ποταμῶν, ἵνα Παρθένων
κῆπος ἀκήρατος, αἵ τ᾿ οἰνανθίδες
αὐξόμεναι σκιεροῖσιν ὑφ᾿ ἕρνεσιν
οἰναρέοις θαλέθοισιν· ἐμοὶ δ᾿ ἔρος
οὐδεμίαν κατάκοιτος ὥραν·
†τε† ὑπὸ στεροπᾶς φλέγων
Θρηίκιος Βορέας ἀίσ-
σων παρὰ Κύπριδος ἀζαλέ-
αις μανίαισιν ἐρεμνὸς ἀθαμβὴς
ἐγκρατέως πεδόθεν †λαφύσσει†
ἡμετέρας φρένας.

The association of the erotic with wind persisted into the Hellenistic period, and in the epigram below wind embodies, rather than assails, the lover:

Anonymous (Greek Anthology 5.83)

If only I were wind
And you walked in the sun
Breasts exposed
And received me blowing.

εἴθ᾽ ἄνεμος γενόμην, σὺ δ᾽ ἐπιστείχουσα παρ᾽ ἀυγὰς
στήθεα γυμνώσαις, καί με πνέοντα λάβοις.

Palm tree at the hurricane, Blur leaf cause windy and heavy rain

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.

The Fight You Can’t Win

Archilochus told us, long before Pat Benatar in 1983 AD, that love is a battlefield.

His martial metaphor for love–or rather, for the lover struck down by Eros–is possibly the earliest such which survives. He sketched, for posterity as it were, the battlefield consequences of losing to Eros: inability to stand, lifelessness, wound, and pain:

Archilochus Fragment (193 West)

I lie here wretched with longing,
And lifeless,
Pierced through my bones
With bitter pains.
The gods’ doings, this.

δύστηνος ἔγκειμαι πόθῳ
ἄψυχος, χαλεπῇσι θεῶν ὀδύνῃσιν ἕκητι
πεπαρμένος δι᾽ ὀστέων.

By the Hellenstic period, what might have been fresh in Archilochus’ hand was now a well-worn trope.

Here is Rufinus employing the martial metaphor. In his light and clever epigram the lover contemplates resisting Eros, but with defeat a foregone conclusion (and Archilochus having articulated what defeat entails) he simply surrenders:

Rufinus (Greek Anthology 5.93)

I’ve strapped reason around my chest,
Armor against Eros.
He won’t defeat me: it’s one against one,
Mortal engaging immortal.
But, if he’s got Bacchus as his helpmate,
What can I, a man alone, do against two?

ὥπλισμαι πρὸς ἔρωτα περὶ στέρνοισι λογισμόν,
οὐδέ με νικήσει, μοῦνος ἐὼν πρὸς ἕνα:
θνατὸς δ᾽ ἀθανάτῳ συστήσομαι. ἢν δὲ βοηθὸν
Βάκχον ἔχῃ, τί μόνος πρὸς δύ᾽ ἐγὼ δύναμαι;

Image from Geoff Winningham’s Friday Night in the Coliseum.
Outclassed, alarmed, defeated…like a man who takes on Eros.

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.

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)

Crethis—
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 featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

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.