Did You Sleep Ok?

Contemporaneous with any number of erotic epigrams collected in the Greek Anthology are the spells, rituals, and hymns of the Magic Papyri from Greco-Roman Egypt.

As these examples show, the epigrams and magic spells sometimes have nearly identical concerns: disrupting the beloved’s sleep or manipulating her dreams. Both epigram and magic spell seem a form of consolation for the frustrations of unrequited love.  Yet I think it can be said of the epigram that it disciplines the sentiment with meter. 

The magic spell, in contrast, seems an ongoing and futile acting-out. Also, the magic spell has this contradictory character: the lover bewitched by the beloved’s natural charms (her beauty, mind, character, or what have you) must resort to the supernatural to bewitch her in turn. The supernatural might represent awesome power, but its invocation underscores the insufficiency, the relative poverty, of the lover’s own means (his beauty, mind, character, or what have you). And of course the lover’s overvaluation of the beloved is also on display: he thinks only the gods are a match for her! 

Magic‌ ‌Spell‌ ‌to‌ ‌Appear‌ ‌in‌ ‌Dreams‌ ‌(PMG.‌ ‌VII.407-10)‌ ‌

If‌ ‌you‌ ‌wish‌ ‌to‌ ‌appear‌ ‌to‌ ‌someone‌ ‌during‌ ‌the‌ ‌night‌ ‌in‌ ‌dreams,‌ ‌say‌ ‌to‌ ‌the‌ ‌lamp‌ ‌which‌ ‌is‌ ‌lit‌ ‌
everyday,‌ ‌and‌ ‌say‌ ‌it‌ ‌often:‌ ‌“Let‌ ‌such-and-such‌ ‌woman,‌ ‌whom‌ ‌such-and-such‌ ‌bore,‌ ‌ ‌
see‌ ‌me‌ ‌in‌ ‌her‌ ‌sleep—now!‌ ‌now!‌ ‌quick!‌ ‌quick!”‌ ‌ ‌

Meleager‌ ‌(Greek‌ ‌Anthology‌ ‌5.174)‌ ‌ ‌

You’re‌ ‌asleep,‌ ‌Zenophila,‌ ‌soft‌ ‌flower.‌ ‌ ‌
Now,‌ ‌if‌ ‌only‌ ‌I‌ ‌were‌ ‌wingless‌ ‌Sleep‌ ‌
Penetrating‌ ‌your‌ ‌eyelids,‌ ‌stopping‌ ‌him‌ ‌
Who‌ ‌charms‌ ‌even‌ ‌Zeus‌ ‌from‌ ‌visiting‌ ‌you.‌ ‌ ‌
Then‌ ‌I‌ ‌alone‌ ‌would‌ ‌possess‌ ‌you.‌ ‌

Magic‌ ‌Spell‌ ‌to‌ ‌Cause‌ ‌Sleeplessness‌ ‌(PMG‌ ‌XII.‌ ‌376-380)‌ ‌

Taking‌ ‌a‌ ‌live‌ ‌bat‌ ‌by‌ ‌the‌ ‌right‌ ‌wing,‌ ‌write‌ ‌with‌ ‌myrrh‌ ‌the‌ ‌figure‌ ‌below.‌ ‌On‌ ‌the‌ ‌left‌ ‌wing‌ ‌
engrave‌ ‌the‌ ‌7‌ ‌names‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌ ‌god‌ ‌and‌ ‌also‌ ‌this:‌ ‌“Let‌ ‌such-and-such‌ ‌woman‌ ‌whom‌ ‌
such-and-such‌ ‌bore‌ ‌be‌ ‌sleepless‌ ‌until‌ ‌she‌ ‌consents.”‌ ‌And‌ ‌with‌ ‌that,‌ ‌release‌ ‌the‌ ‌bat‌ ‌
again‌ ‌.‌ ‌.‌ ‌.and‌ ‌she‌ ‌will‌ ‌die‌ ‌from‌ ‌sleeplessness‌ ‌within‌ ‌7‌ ‌days.‌ ‌ ‌

Callimachus‌ ‌(Greek‌ ‌Anthology‌ ‌5.23)‌ ‌

May‌ ‌you‌ ‌sleep,‌ ‌Conopium,‌ ‌just‌ ‌as‌ ‌you‌ ‌ ‌
Make‌ ‌me‌ ‌sleep‌ ‌at‌ ‌your‌ ‌cold‌ ‌doorstep.‌ ‌
May‌ ‌you‌ ‌sleep,‌ ‌unjust‌ ‌woman,‌ ‌just‌ ‌as‌ ‌you‌ ‌ ‌
Make‌ ‌the‌ ‌man‌ ‌who‌ ‌loves‌ ‌you‌ ‌sleep.‌ ‌ ‌
Even‌ ‌in‌ ‌your‌ ‌dreams‌ ‌you’re‌ ‌a‌ ‌stranger‌ ‌to‌ ‌mercy.‌ ‌
The‌ ‌neighbors‌ ‌show‌ ‌compassion,‌ ‌but‌ ‌you,‌ ‌
Not‌ ‌even‌ ‌in‌ ‌your‌ ‌dreams.‌ ‌ ‌
But,‌ ‌soon‌ ‌enough‌ ‌grey‌ ‌hair‌ ‌will‌ ‌remind‌ ‌you‌ ‌
Of‌ ‌all‌ ‌this.‌ ‌

Magic‌ ‌Spell‌ ‌to‌ ‌Appear‌ ‌in‌ ‌Dreams‌ ‌(PMG.‌ ‌VII.407-10)‌ ‌

     ᾿Εάν τινι ἐθέλῃς [ἐ]μφανῆναι διὰ νυκτὸς ἐν ὀνείροις, λέγε πρὸς τὸν λύχνον τὸν καθημερινόν, λέγε πολλάκις· ‘χειαμωψει: ερπεβωθ: ἰδέτω με ἡ δεῖνα, ἣν ἡ δεῖνα, ἐν τοῖς  ὕπνοις, ἤδη ἤδη, ταχὺ ταχύ.’ καὶ κοινά, ὅσ’ ἂν βούλῃ.

(note:‌ ‌I’ve‌ ‌excluded‌ ‌the‌ ‌indecipherable‌ ‌magic‌ ‌words‌ ‌with‌ ‌which‌ ‌the‌ ‌incantation‌ ‌begins)‌ ‌ ‌

Meleager‌ ‌5.174‌ ‌

εὕδεις‌,‌ ‌‌Ζηνοφίλα‌,‌ ‌‌τρυφερὸν‌‌ ‌‌θάλος‌.‌ ‌‌εἴθ᾽‌‌ ‌‌ἐπὶ‌‌ ‌‌σοὶ‌‌ ‌‌νῦν‌ ‌ ‌
ἄπτερος‌‌ ‌‌εἰσῄεινὝπνος‌‌ ‌‌ἐπὶ‌‌ ‌‌βλεφάροις‌,‌ ‌ ‌
ὡς‌‌ ‌‌ἐπὶ‌‌ ‌‌σοὶ‌‌ ‌‌μηδ᾽‌‌ ‌‌οὗτος‌,‌ ‌‌ὁ‌‌ ‌‌καὶ‌‌ ‌‌Διὸς‌‌ ‌‌ὄμματα‌‌ ‌‌θέλγων‌,‌ ‌ ‌
φοιτήσαι‌,‌ ‌‌κάτεχον‌‌ ‌‌δ᾽‌‌ ‌‌αὐτὸς‌‌ ‌‌ἐγώ‌‌ ‌‌σε‌‌ ‌‌μόνος‌.‌ ‌ ‌

Magic‌ ‌Spell‌ ‌to‌ ‌Cause‌ ‌Sleeplessness‌ ‌(PMG‌ ‌XII.‌ ‌376-380)‌ ‌

‌᾿Αγρυπνητικόν.‌ ‌λαβὼν‌ ‌νυκτερίδαν‌ ‌ζῶσαν‌ ‌ἐπὶ‌ ‌τῆς‌ ‌δεξιᾶς‌ ‌πτέρυγος‌ ‌ζωγράφησον‌ ‌ζμύρνῃ‌ ‌τὸ‌ ‌ὑποκείμενον‌ ‌ζῴδιον,‌ ‌ἐπὶ‌ ‌τῆς‌ ‌ἀριστερᾶς‌ ‌τὰ‌ ‌ζ′‌ ‌ὀνόματα‌ ‌κατάγραψον‌ ‌θεοῦ‌ ‌καὶ‌ ‌ὅτι·‌ ‌‘ἀγρυπνείτω‌ ‌ἡ‌ ‌δεῖνα,‌ ‌ἣν‌ ‌δεῖνα,‌ ‌ἕως‌ ‌συνφωνήσῃ.’‌ ‌καὶ‌ ‌οὕτως‌ ‌αὖ‌ ‌αὐτὴν‌ ‌ ἀπόλυσον.‌ ‌ἐν‌ ‌ἀποκρούσει‌ ‌δὲ‌ ‌αὐτὸ‌ ‌ἀποτέλει‌ ‌τριταίας‌ ‌οὔσης‌ ‌τῆς‌ ‌θεοῦ,‌ ‌καὶ‌ ‌ἄυπνος‌ ‌τελευτήσει‌ ‌μὴ‌ ‌διαμηκύνασα‌ ‌ἡμέρας‌ ‌ζ′.‌ ‌ ‌

Callimachus‌ ‌5.23‌ ‌

οὕτως‌‌ ‌‌ὑπνώσαις‌,‌ ‌‌Κωνώπιον‌,‌ ‌‌ὡς‌‌ ‌‌ἐμὲ‌‌ ‌‌ποιεῖς‌ ‌ ‌
κοιμᾶσθαι‌‌ ‌‌ψυχροῖς‌‌ ‌‌τοῖσδε‌‌ ‌‌παρὰ‌‌ ‌‌προθύροις‌ ‌ ‌
οὕτως‌‌ ‌‌ὑπνώσαις‌,‌ ‌‌ἀδικωτάτη‌,‌ ‌‌ὡς‌‌ ‌‌τὸν‌‌ ‌‌ἐραστὴν‌ ‌ ‌
κοιμίζεις‌:‌ ‌‌ἐλέου‌‌ ‌‌δ᾽‌‌ ‌‌οὐδ᾽‌‌ ‌‌ὄναρ‌‌ ‌‌ἠντίασας‌.‌ ‌ ‌
γείτονες‌‌ ‌‌οἰκτείρουσι‌:‌ ‌‌σὺ‌‌ ‌‌δ᾽‌‌ ‌‌οὐδ᾽‌‌ ‌‌ὄναρ‌‌ ‌.‌ ‌‌ἡ‌‌ ‌‌πολιὴ‌‌ ‌‌δὲ‌ ‌ ‌
αὐτίκ᾽‌‌ ‌‌ἀναμνήσει‌‌ ‌‌ταῦτά‌‌ ‌‌σε‌‌ ‌‌πάντα‌‌ ‌‌κόμη‌.‌ ‌

Helen Van Meene. #151. Untitled.

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.

Dreaming of the Catalog of Ships?

Philostratus, Heroicus 6. 3-4

“I am sailing from Egypt and Phoenicia for twenty-five days at this point, somehow. As the ship was drawing up into Elaious, I dreamed I was reading the words of Homer when he describes the catalog of the Achaeans and that I was inviting all the Achaeans to get on to my ship as if it were large enough to hold them all!

When I was waking from the dream because some shiver had spread over me, I supposed that it prophesied a slow and long journey. For visions of the dead are bad signs for eager people.”

ΟΙΝ. Πλέω μὲν ἐξ Αἰγύπτου καὶ Φοινίκης πέμπτην καὶ τριακοστὴν ἤδη που ταύτην ἡμέραν. κατασχούσης δὲ τῆς νεὼς εἰς Ἐλεοῦντα τοῦτον ἔδοξα τὰ Ὁμήρου ἔπη ἀναγινώσκειν, ἐν οἷς τὸν κατάλογον τῶν Ἀχαιῶν φράζει, καὶ ξυνεκάλουν τοὺς Ἀχαιοὺς ἐμβῆναι τὴν ναῦν ὡς ἀποχρῶσαν ὁμοῦ πᾶσιν. 4ἐπεὶ δὲ ἐξέθορον τοῦ ἐνυπνίου (καὶ γάρ με καὶ φρίκης τι ὑπεληλύθει), ξυνεβαλόμην μὲν αὐτὸ ἐς βραδυτῆτα τοῦ πλοῦ καὶ μῆκος· αἱ γὰρ τῶν ἀποθανόντων ὄψεις ἀργοὶ τοῖς ἐσπουδακόσι.

Detail showing a painting of ships in a harbour from the illuminated border of the Treaty of Amiens between England and France, 18 August 1527. Catalogue reference E 30/1113. The full image is available through our Image Library.
From the UK National Archives

Homeric Orchards and Trees: Metaphors for Origins and Reception

Simonides, fr. 6.3

“Simonides said that Hesiod is a gardener while Homer is a garland-weaver—the first planted the legends of the heroes and gods and then the second braided together them the garland of the Iliad and the Odyssey.”

Σιμωνίδης τὸν ῾Ησίοδον κηπουρὸν ἔλεγε, τὸν δὲ ῞Ομηρον στεφανηπλόκον, τὸν μὲν ὡς φυτεύσαντα τὰς περὶ θεῶν καὶ ἡρώων μυθολογίας, τὸν δὲ ὡς ἐξ αὐτῶν συμπλέξαντα τὸν᾿Ιλιάδος καὶ Οδυσσείας στέφανον.

MS M.644 fol. 252v

Take a minute and imagine a tree in a park or garden. Make it a really nice tree, one you’d notice and remember if you lingered on it a bit, one that has been well situated in its environment. Think about the tree’s imperfect symmetry, the way it occupies its space.

Now think about this: someone planted the tree; others tended to it and trimmed it; more people spent generations selecting this domesticated tree from its ancestral stock. Think about the uncountable hands that made this tree possible, the saplings transplanted, the varieties combined over time. What were their lives like? What stories did they tell? What were trees to them?

Then think about the tree’s beauty, its aesthetics. What makes us set this tree apart from others? What is essential about it? Our appreciation is based on other trees we might not remember as well as an entire ‘grammar’ of human beings and the environment. Like any other native language, you learned its basic syntax without trying. You have a sense of the way trees should be.

You probably judge a tree differently from a shrub for historical aesthetic reasons. You have expectations on what trees should do, how they should look, and what function they fulfill. You are mostly not cognizant of these assumptions. But you almost certainly have different notions about a shrub or a bush.


Sure, the shrub comment may seem a bit of an aside, but it is really about genre. We have different sets of expectations for different categories of form based on explicit and implicit criteria.

Now, if someone asks you who is responsible for the tree, what do you say? Is it someone who designed the park? Is it a gardener? Is it the first person who imagined a tree in the garden?

Any single answer ignores those countless hands, minds, and environments that contributed to the treeness of this tree. It also ignores the salient fact that you are the one judging the tree and that your gaze is shaped by non-tree things.

For me, the Homeric epics are like that tree. They come out of a complex relationship between performance traditions, new technologies, and aesthetics that are both products and producers of the same song culture. The reception and transformation of this ancient song culture into something fixed and reanalyzed as a text with an author has shaped our own culture too.

How we respond to ‘arboreal’ questions is keyed into individual psychology and cultural discourse. We always simplify our interpretation of where the tree came from because our minds are too small to understand we are part of mind-networks and our lives are two abbreviated to trace time’s larger sweep. We impose simple origin stories on art and human products because it is hard to escape our own single experience of culture and see how it works in the aggregate.

(for more on Homer and psychology, see my recent book The Many-Minded Man)

These individual psychologies are shaped as well by a cultural system deeply interested in teleology and the import of design. Two aspects of this among many that interest me. First, our search for meaning in the empty universe encourages us to argue that design necessitates a designer. Second, our system of values and credit under capitalism emphasizes the metaphor of authorship as an opportunity for creating and maintaining value.

The two aspects are part of a shared problem: we assign meaning to the world we see based on patterns and human-mirroring things. We re-cast the pattern as a design and in that an intention we assign to authority and authors. So group activities that result in notable patterns are reanalyzed as communications of some type of an authorial intention.

And yet, we know that meaning is made from observation and reflection.

We impose a god/author model on complex things for cultural and psychological reasons. It is a fallacy to insist that design implies a designer when we recognize design as viewers conditioned to do so. The history of Homeric scholarship and its so-called ‘question’ (of which there are actually many) is dominated by the problem of design without an urgent exploration of what design may entail until the 20th century (in addition to work by Greg Nagy (recently Homer the Pre-Classic and Homer the Classic), see Casey Dué’s recent Achilles Unbound and Barbara Graziosi’s Inventing Homer).

There’s no smoking gun about Homeric authorship. There will never be a clear answer to the issue. That we care so much about it is a problem. it is, dare I say, the rot at the core of ‘western’ liberalism and capitalism, this desperate search for ancient authority combined with a pathological need to extract profit from everything.

In searching for “Homer”, most people find what they want to find. (Something Casey Due makes the case for in looking at the invention of Ossian). My experience of teaching, reading, and writing about the epics for over two decades is that people cleave almost painfully to what they believe about authorship and art before they really listen to the Homeric poems.. That’s also why I keep returning to the bench and thinking as much about who is thinking about Homer and why.

And when I turn back I think less in terms of “who wrote the Iliad” than what the people were like who domesticated the epics and set them aside and why we still look at them today.

Plato, Ion

“For poets certainly tell us that they bring us songs by drawing from the honey-flowing springs or certain gardens and glades of the Muses just like bees. And because they too are winged, they also speak the truth.”

Λέγουσι γὰρ δήπουθεν πρὸς ἡμᾶς οἱ ποιηταί, ὅτι ἀπὸ κρηνῶν μελιρρύτων ἢ ἐκ Μουσῶν κήπων τινῶν καὶ ναπῶν δρεπόμενοι τὰ μέλη ἡμῖν φέρουσιν ὥσπερ αἱ μέλιτται. καὶ αὐτοὶ οὕτω πετόμενοι, καὶ ἀληθῆ λέγουσι.

Trees in Homer: Paris’ Ship, Odysseus’ Raft, and Laertes’ Orchards

My metaphor of a tree for seeing Homer as something organic and exhibiting aesthetic beauty without a designing authority may seem a bit whimsical, if not outlandish. But I am in part inspired by what we find in Homer. In Homeric poetry trees are objects of wealth, inheritance and memory. They appear at a crucial moment in Odysseus’ return to Ithaca when he meets his father. Odysseus follows the patterns established earlier in the book and attempts to deceive his father before they both weep and he tries to prove who he is, first by pointing to his scar, and then by pointing to the trees.

Odyssey 24. 336–339

“But, come, if I may tell you about the trees through the well-founded orchard
The ones which you gave to me—when I was a child I asked you about each
As I followed you through the garden. We traced a path through them
And you named and spoke about each one.”

εἰ δ’ ἄγε τοι καὶ δένδρε’ ἐϋκτιμένην κατ’ ἀλῳὴν
εἴπω, ἅ μοί ποτ’ ἔδωκας, ἐγὼ δ’ ᾔτευν σε ἕκαστα
παιδνὸς ἐών, κατὰ κῆπον ἐπισπόμενος· διὰ δ’ αὐτῶν
ἱκνεύμεσθα, σὺ δ’ ὠνόμασας καὶ ἔειπες ἕκαστα.

As Erich Auerbach famously observes, Odysseus’ scar is an entry-point into a universe of aesthetic thought. As I see it it, the scar is a metonym for identity and story traditions. It marks experiences and potential stories to be told. The trees are metonyms for stories themselves and they have are metapoetic as well. Alex Purves (2010:228) characterizes steps as Odysseus “taking an imaginary walk through the orchard in his mind just as [Elizabeth] Minchin has suggested that Homer takes a cognitive walk through the Peloponnese in order to recount the Catalogue of Ships (2001: 84-7).”

As Elton Barker and I explore in Homer’s Thebes (78) Whether or not Laertes’ trees mind the Iliad’s Catalogue of Ships, the trees are suggestive of the stories that are or could be told. [Cf. Henderson 1997:87 for the trees as “epic wood.” So too, “… the trees may stand metonymically for epic poems… the combined product of nature and nurture which have been shaped by the judgment (aesthetic and political) of countless constant gardeners” (628).

Of course, these assertions seem strange if we don’t look at other Homeric trees. For me, a signal moment in epic poetry comes when Odysseus is authorized to build a raft to escape from Ogygia and try to return home. The narrative pays special attention to enumerating the trees and specifying Odysseus’ skill in using them: 

Odyssey 5.238-262

“She gave him the smooth axe and then took him on the path
To the farthest part of the island where the tale trees were growing,
Alder, ash and fir trees reaching to the sky,
Dry for a long time, long-seasoned, perfect for sailing.
Once she showed him where the great trees were growing,
Kalypso, the beautiful goddess, returned to her home,
While he was cutting out planks. The work went quickly.
He picked out twenty altogether and cut them with bronze.
He skillfully planed them down and made them straight with a level.
At the same time, the shining goddess Kalypso was bringing him augers
And he drilled all the pieces and fit them together.
As wide as a man who is skilled in wood-working
Traces out the line of a merchant ship—that’s
How wide Odysseus made his skiff.
Once he set up the deck beams he attached them to the
Close-placed ribs. And then he finished out the raft with long gunwales.
He fashioned a mast and placed on it a yard-arm.
He also made a rudder to steer with and then
He fashioned willow-branches and brush into a wall
To stand against the waves around the vessel.
And then Kalypso brought him a bolt of cloth
To make into a sail. He crafted that too, skillfully.
He tied into the raft braces, and restraints, and sheets
And using levers moved it down toward the shining sea.
It was the fourth day and everything was complete.”

…· ἦρχε δ’ ὁδοῖο
νήσου ἐπ’ ἐσχατιήν, ὅθι δένδρεα μακρὰ πεφύκει,
κλήθρη τ’ αἴγειρός τ’, ἐλάτη τ’ ἦν οὐρανομήκης,
αὖα πάλαι, περίκηλα, τά οἱ πλώοιεν ἐλαφρῶς.
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ δὴ δεῖξ’ ὅθι δένδρεα μακρὰ πεφύκει,
ἡ μὲν ἔβη πρὸς δῶμα Καλυψώ, δῖα θεάων,
αὐτὰρ ὁ τάμνετο δοῦρα· θοῶς δέ οἱ ἤνυτο ἔργον.
εἴκοσι δ’ ἔκβαλε πάντα, πελέκκησεν δ’ ἄρα χαλκῷ,
ξέσσε δ’ ἐπισταμένως καὶ ἐπὶ στάθμην ἴθυνε.
τόφρα δ’ ἔνεικε τέρετρα Καλυψώ, δῖα θεάων·
τέτρηνεν δ’ ἄρα πάντα καὶ ἥρμοσεν ἀλλήλοισι,
γόμφοισιν δ’ ἄρα τήν γε καὶ ἁρμονίῃσιν ἄρασσεν.
ὅσσον τίς τ’ ἔδαφος νηὸς τορνώσεται ἀνὴρ
φορτίδος εὐρείης, εὖ εἰδὼς τεκτοσυνάων,
τόσσον ἐπ’ εὐρεῖαν σχεδίην ποιήσατ’ ᾿Οδυσσεύς.
ἴκρια δὲ στήσας, ἀραρὼν θαμέσι σταμίνεσσι,
ποίει· ἀτὰρ μακρῇσιν ἐπηγκενίδεσσι τελεύτα.
ἐν δ’ ἱστὸν ποίει καὶ ἐπίκριον ἄρμενον αὐτῷ·
πρὸς δ’ ἄρα πηδάλιον ποιήσατο, ὄφρ’ ἰθύνοι.
φράξε δέ μιν ῥίπεσσι διαμπερὲς οἰσυΐνῃσι,
κύματος εἶλαρ ἔμεν· πολλὴν δ’ ἐπεχεύατο ὕλην.
τόφρα δὲ φάρε’ ἔνεικε Καλυψώ, δῖα θεάων,
ἱστία ποιήσασθαι· ὁ δ’ εὖ τεχνήσατο καὶ τά.
ἐν δ’ ὑπέρας τε κάλους τε πόδας τ’ ἐνέδησεν ἐν αὐτῇ,
μοχλοῖσιν δ’ ἄρα τήν γε κατείρυσεν εἰς ἅλα δῖαν.
τέτρατον ἦμαρ ἔην, καὶ τῷ τετέλεστο ἅπαντα·

Here we find a balance between nature and skill, between the material found and offered and the creative power of a maker authorized by a god. If the trees at the end of the Odyssey are symbols of tales that might be told, these Ogygian planks are echoes of stories that were told and lost. They also tell us about the relationship between narrative agent and story. As I write in my recent Many-Minded Man: “In this passage’s detail and the dramatization of Odysseus’s labors, the epic offers an anticipatory metaphor for the rebuilding of the hero’s identity. The material available has been there for years—it is not of Odysseus’s own making, but his skill and agency are critical for forming it into something new, something that can make a path or journey of its own. The selection of the trees stands in for the selection of stories and aspects of the self that will be reassembled as Odysseus journeys home.” ( 2020, 11).

But in this analysis, I might focus overmuch on the epic’s hero and not enough on the epic stuff itself. There is a relationship between the basic matter (the wood, the trees) and the stuff matter makes: ships, homes, vessels of meaning and vessels for meaning. It may be too cute to juxtapose, but there may be more to the Greek word for “matter” hule, which can also mean wood, than meets the eye.

Epic is deeply concerned with what comes after and some of its figures, like Hektor, imagine singular monuments, tombs that can be seen and act as reminders for men to come. In a way, the grave is a kind of scar left on the earth conveying its own story. But groves of trees and the ships they provide can carry on meaning and life in different ways. I am reminded here of a brief aside from the Iliad.

Iliad 5.59-68 

“Mêrionês then killed Phereklos, the son of the carpenter,
Son of Joiner, who knew who to fashion all sorts of intricate tings
With his hands. Pallas Athena loved him especially.
He is the one who designed Alexander’s fantastic ships,
Those kindlers of evil which brought evil on all the Trojans
And on him especially, since he understood nothing of the divine prophecies.
Well, Mêrionês, once he overtook him in pursuit,
Struck him through the right buttock. The sharp point
Went straight through his bladder under the bone.
He fell to his knee and groaned. Then death overtook him.

Μηριόνης δὲ Φέρεκλον ἐνήρατο, τέκτονος υἱὸν
῾Αρμονίδεω, ὃς χερσὶν ἐπίστατο δαίδαλα πάντα
τεύχειν· ἔξοχα γάρ μιν ἐφίλατο Παλλὰς ᾿Αθήνη·
ὃς καὶ ᾿Αλεξάνδρῳ τεκτήνατο νῆας ἐΐσας
ἀρχεκάκους, αἳ πᾶσι κακὸν Τρώεσσι γένοντο
οἷ τ’ αὐτῷ, ἐπεὶ οὔ τι θεῶν ἐκ θέσφατα ᾔδη.
τὸν μὲν Μηριόνης ὅτε δὴ κατέμαρπτε διώκων
βεβλήκει γλουτὸν κατὰ δεξιόν· ἣ δὲ διαπρὸ
ἀντικρὺ κατὰ κύστιν ὑπ’ ὀστέον ἤλυθ’ ἀκωκή·
γνὺξ δ’ ἔριπ’ οἰμώξας, θάνατος δέ μιν ἀμφεκάλυψε.

Ok, this passage may seem unconnected and offering it may seem indulgent even for me, but consider the way Phereklos is marked out as a carpenter’s son and how the ships that carried Paris to war are positioned as the vehicles of evil for them all.  While as scholiast (Schol. bT ad Il.5.59) glosses the name Phereklos as “one who brings the turmoil of war through the ships” (Φέρεκλος ὁ φέρων κλόνον διὰ τῶν νέων), I would also like to believe that name Phere-klos, might make someone think of ‘fame-bringer’. And the connection between poetic fame and the activity of the war arises elsewhere in this passage two.

Note that the this Phere-klos is the son of Harmonidês, a man who, according to the passage, is the one who build the ships “the bringers of evil” (ἀρχεκάκους) for Paris (those ships which carried him from Troy to Sparta…). The name Harmonidês is not insignificant: Gregory Nagy has etymologized Homer as “one who fits the song together”. Phereklos’ father is a “craftsman” (“tektôn”) who built the very ships that allowed his son (and Paris) to bring the conflict to Troy and generate the fame of the songs it generated. Here, the ships are positioned as the first steps in evil, but I would suggest, that as the means by which the songs themselves travel across the sea, the ships are, as products of specialized craftsmen, both metonymns for the stories themselves and necessary vehicles for their transmission.

And here, even if asymmetrical, I find myself considering a life-cycle of Homeric trees: the way one set were cut down to fan the flames of war that launched myriad ships; that others fell to bring Odysseus home to gaze upon his ancestral orchards, potentials tales to be told or curtailed…once Odysseus journeys to a land where no one remembers the sea.

“Nothing Wakes the Dead”: Your Weekly Reminder that Life is Short

IG IX,2 640 from Thessaly, c. ? from PHI

“They say either the Fates’ thread or some god’s rage
raged terribly at me, Parmonis, and violently
Rushed me out of bed unwillingly
when I was longing for my sweet husband Epitunkhanos.

If there is any memory for the dead, well, I led a blameless life—
Abandoning only my husband, a man I beg to stop
Torturing his heart with terrible grief and the terrible struggle.

For this is nothing more—since nothing wakes the dead—
Than wearing down the soul of those who still live. For there is nothing else.”

1 ἢ μίτος ὥς φασιν Μοιρῶν ἢ δαίμονος ὀργή,
ἥτις ἐμοὶ δεινῶς ἐχολώσατο καί με βιαίως
ἐξ εὐνῆς ποθέουσαν ἐμῆς ἀνδρὸς γλυκεροῖο
Παρμονὶν ἐξεδίωξε Ἐπιτυνχάνου οὐκ ἐθέλουσα[ν].

5 εἴ γέ τις οὖν μνήμη θνητοῖς, βίον ἔσχον ἄ[μ]εμπτον,
ἄνδρα μόνον στέρξασα, ὃν εἰσέτι θυμὸν ἀνώγω
παύσασθαι δεινοῦ πένθους δεινοῦ τε κυδοιμοῦ.
οὐδὲν γὰρ πλέον ἐστί —— θανόντα γὰρ οὐδὲν ἐγείρει ——
ἢ τείρει ψυχὴν ζώντων μόνον· ἄλλο γὰρ οὐδέν.
10 {²duae rosae partim deletae}²

Not quite sure about Παρμονὶν here, but I think it is her name…

Related image
A different Epitaph from the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg.


Sickness and Knowledge

Sophocles, Trachiniae 1120-1121

“Say what you need to and leave! I am sick
And I can’t understand any of your ancient subtleties”

εἰπὼν ὃ χρῄζεις λῆξον· ὡς ἐγὼ νοσῶν
οὐδὲν ξυνίημ᾿ ὧν σὺ ποικίλλεις πάλαι.


Euripides, Orestes, 229-230

“Look, when someone is sick, their bed is dear.
It may be an annoying thing, but it’s still what they need.”

ἰδού. φίλον τοι τῷ νοσοῦντι δέμνια,
ἀνιαρὸν ὄντα κτῆμ᾿, ἀναγκαῖον δ᾿ ὅμως.


“Even if someone isn’t sick, but thinks they are,
They are struck by exhaustion and helplessness.”

κἂν μὴ νοσῇ γάρ, ἀλλὰ δοξάζῃ νοσεῖν,
κάματος βροτοῖσιν ἀπορία τε γίγνεται.


[Menelaos] “What thing do you suffer? What disease destroys you?
[Orestes]: “Understanding—that I know the terrible things I have done.”

ΜΕΝΕΛΑΟΣ τί χρῆμα πάσχεις; τίς σ᾿ ἀπόλλυσιν νόσος;
ΟΡΕΣΤΗΣ ἡ σύνεσις, ὅτι σύνοιδα δείν᾿ εἰργασμένος.

Hans Sebald Beham, The Death of Herakles

O Sappho, Who Wrongs You?

Sappho, fr. 1

Many-minded immortal Aphrodite,
Child of Zeus, plot weaver, I implore you:
Don’t with vexations and frustrations break
My heart, O queen.

Instead, come here, if ever in past times
From far off you heard, and heeded, my calls;
And quitting your father’s golden palace,
You came,

After yoking the chariot. Small birds,
Handsome, swift, bore you across the black earth.
Their fast wings whirred from the upper heavens
down through the middle air.

Quick, their arrival. Then you, blessed one,
A smile on your immortal countenance,
Asked: what is it, this time, that’s happened to me;
Why, this time, do I call;

And what does my crazed heart most desire:
“Whom, this time, must I persuade—
Go out, that is, and bring into your love?
O Sappho, who wrongs you?

Even if she’s fleeing, soon she’ll pursue.
If she’s refusing gifts, she’ll give them.
If she’s not in love, soon she’ll be in love—
Even if against her will.”

Come this time too. Release me from hard cares.
Whatever my heart wishes to see done,
Bring about. And you yourself, be my ally
In this fight.

ποικιλόφρον’ ἀθανάτ Ἀφρόδιτα,
παῖ Δίος δολόπλοκε, λίσσομαί σε,
μή μ’ ἄσαισι μηδ’ ὀνίαισι δάμνα,
πότνια, θῦμον,

ἀλλὰ τυίδ’ ἔλθ’, αἴ ποτα κἀτέρωτα
τὰς ἔμας αὔδας ἀίοισα πήλοι
ἔκλυες, πάτρος δὲ δόμον λίποισα
χρύσιον ἦλθες

ἄρμ’ ὐπασδεύξαισα· κάλοι δέ σ’ ἆγον
ὤκεες στροῦθοι περὶ γᾶς μελαίνας
πύκνα δίννεντες πτέρ’ ἀπ’ ὠράνωἴθε-
ρος διὰ μέσσω·

αἶψα δ’ ἐξίκοντο· σὺ δ’, ὦ μάκαιρα,
μειδιαίσαισ’ ἀθανάτωι προσώπωι
ἤρε’ ὄττι δηὖτε πέπονθα κὤττι
δηὖτε κάλημμι

κὤττι μοι μάλιστα θέλω γένεσθαι
μαινόλαι θύμωι· τίνα δηὖτε πείθω
[βαι]σ’ ἄγην ἐς σὰν φιλότατα; τίς σ’, ὦ
Ψάπφ’, ἀδικήει;

καὶ γὰρ αἰ φεύγει, ταχέως διώξει,
αἰ δὲ δῶρα μὴ δέκετ’, ἀλλὰ δώσει,
αἰ δὲ μὴ φίλει, ταχέως φιλήσει
κωὐκ ἐθέλοισα.

ἔλθε μοι καὶ νῦν, χαλέπαν δὲ λῦσον
ἐκ μερίμναν, ὄσσα δέ μοι τέλεσσαι
θῦμος ἰμέρρει, τέλεσον, σὺ δ’ αὔτα
σύμμαχος ἔσσο.

A wayward thought:

The conventional reading of the lyric assumes that the speaker is a lover (name: Sappho) who needs Aphrodite’s help to win (or punish) a reluctant beloved. An alternative interpretation: Sappho is a singer who needs Aphrodite’s help not to win a lover but to compose a persuasive love song. This reading turns first on the summons “come here” and “come”, and then on the god’s epiphany—or rather, the unexpected sounding of the god’s voice.

The temptation is to hear in the call to Aphrodite the traditional summons of lyric hymn. There, the suppliant speaker calls on the god to perform some beneficial task. For example, Anacreon 357:

On my knees I beg you,
Come to me,
Listen to my pleasing prayer:
To Cleobulus be
A good counselor so that he accepts
My love, O Dionysus.

In Sappho 1, things are somewhat different. The call to Aphrodite more resembles an invocation to the muse, the plea to enable song making (not find a lover). We might associate this practice with epic, but of course it exists in Archaic lyric too. Alcman 27:

Come, Muse Calliope, daughter of Zeus—
Begin with lovely verses—
Put charm into our hymn—
And make our dance a graceful one.

In Alcman’s figural language, the muse is to “begin” the very song Alcman himself is beginning to sing. Hesiod says of the muses, “they breathed into me wonderous song,” (Theog. 31-32) and Alcman asks the same of his muse. And so does Sappho. But what’s distinctive about Sappho is that she makes literal what is only metaphorical in the tradition. The voice of her responsive god literally issues from her throat as she sings her song (strophes 5 and 6). This is what it means for the god to have come: it is Aphrodite who “begins” when Sappho sings, enabling her song. The struggle of song-making: That’s the fight in which she needs an ally. In the absence of the allied muse, song-making would be an exercise in “vexations and frustrations.”

Anacreon 357 (excerpt)

γουνοῦμαί σε, σὺ δ’ εὐμενὴς
ἔλθ’ ἡμίν, κεχαρισμένης
δ’ εὐχωλῆς ἐπακούειν·
Κλεοβούλωι δ’ ἀγαθὸς γένεο
σύμβουλος, τὸν ἐμόν γ’ ἔρωτ’,
ὦ Δεόνυσε, δέχεσθαι.

Alcman 27

Μῶσ᾿ ἄγε Καλλιόπα, θύγατερ Διός,
ἄρχ᾿ ἐρατῶν ϝεπέων, ἐπὶ δ᾿ ἵμερον
ὕμνῳ καὶ χαρίεντα τίθη χορόν.

Terra Cotta amphora. Attributed to the Berlin Painter. c.490 BC. Young man singing and playing the Kythera. 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.

Let’s Talk About Sweat, Baby

sweating profusely” sudans multum, Fronto

“much sweat was pouring down” πολὺς δ’ ἐξέρρεεν ἱδρὼς, Quintus Smyrnaeus

Aristotle, Problems 2, 866b10 (Problems Concerning Sweat) Selections

“Why does head sweat not stink or at least stink less than that from the body? Is it because the top of the head is well aired?”

Διὰ τί ὁ ἱδρὼς ἐκ τῆς κεφαλῆς ἢ οὐκ ὄζει ἢ ἧττον | τοῦ ἐκ τοῦ σώματος; ἢ ὅτι εὔπνους ὁ τῆς κεφαλῆς τόπος

“Why does the face sweat most of all?”

Διὰ τί ἱδροῦσι μάλιστα τὰ πρόσωπα;

“Why do our backs sweat more than our fronts?”

Διὰ τί ἱδροῦμεν τὸν νῶτον μᾶλλον ἢ τὰ πρόσθεν;

“Why do we sweat less while we are toiling than when we stop?”

Διὰ τί ἧττον ἱδροῦσιν ἐν αὐτῷ τῷ πονεῖν ἢ ἀνέντες;

Hippocrates, Prorrhetic 1.39 (Full Greek text on the Scaife Viewer)

“To sweat acutely, especially with an unpleasant perspiration over the head, is bad; even more so if it comes with dark urine. Difficult breathing in these patients is bad” 
Οἱ ἐφιδρῶντες καὶ μάλιστα κεφαλὴν ἐν ὀξέσιν ὑποδύσφοροι, κακόν, ἄλλως τε καὶ ἐπ᾿ οὔροισι μέλασι, καὶ τὸ θολερὸν πνεῦμα ἐν τούτοισι κακόν.
Hippocrates, Coan Prenotions 561 (Full Greek text on the Scaife Viewer)
“The best sweat is one that breaks a fever on the necessary day, but one that brings relief is also useful. A cold sweat developing only around the head and neck is not good and also indicates limited time and danger.”
Ἱδρὼς ἄριστος μὲν ὁ λύων τὸν πυρετὸν ἐν ἡμέρῃ κρισίμῳ, χρήσιμος δὲ καὶ ὁ κουφίζων· ὁ δὲ ψυχρὸς καὶ μοῦνον περὶ κεφαλὴν καὶ τράχηλον γινόμενος, φλαῦρος, καὶ γὰρ χρόνον καὶ κίνδυνον σημαίνει.

Unmasking Characters In Power

Plutarch, Life of Sulla 30 5.10

“It is understandable that he brought a prejudice on the highest offices in the land, which would no longer allow people to return the characters they started with, but instead could make them mean, boastful, and inhumane. Whether this is a movement or a change of nature because of chance or it is an unmasking of the truth when there is evil in authority, some other investigation will discover.”

εἰκότως προσετρίψατο ταῖς μεγάλαις ἐξουσίαις διαβολὴν ὡς τὰ ἤθη μένειν οὐκ ἐώσαις ἐπὶ τῶν ἐξ ἀρχῆς τρόπων, ἀλλ’ ἔμπληκτα καὶ χαῦνα καὶ ἀπάνθρωπα ποιούσαις.  τοῦτο μὲν οὖν εἴτε κίνησίς ἐστι καὶ μεταβολὴ φύσεως ὑπὸ τύχης, εἴτε μᾶλλον ὑποκειμένης ἀποκάλυψις ἐν ἐξουσίᾳ κακίας, ἑτέρα τις ἂν διορίσειε πραγματεία.

ἀποκαλύπτειν, [anakaluptein] “to unveil, uncover,” perhaps, “unmask”; “to disclose or uncover one’s mind”

ἀποκάλυψις, ἡ [apokalupsis]: “a revelation, disclosure, making known of a fault”, perhaps “unmasking”

From Wikimedia Commons

The Master’s Fantasy

This perverse epigram in the form of a sepulchral inscription is preserved without attribution in the Greek Anthology.

7.179 (Greek Anthology)

Even now, from beneath the earth, master,
I’m steadfast in my devotion to you,
Just like in the old days.
I haven’t forgotten how you got me
Back on my feet, three times, when I was sick.
Now you’ve laid me under this sheltering
Cover, which declares: Manes, a Persian.
You did right by me, master, and for that
You’ll have slaves who are indebted to you
And who are all the more eager to serve.

σοὶ καὶ νῦν ὑπὸ γῆν, ναί, δέσποτα, πιστὸς ὑπάρχω,
ὡς πάρος, εὐνοίης οὐκ ἐπιληθόμενος,
ὥς με τότ᾽ ἐκ νούσου τρὶς ἐπ᾽ ἀσφαλὲς ἤγαγες ἴχνος,
καὶ νῦν ἀρκούσᾐ τῇδ᾽ ὑπέθου καλύβῃ,
Μάνην ἀγγείλας, Πέρσην γένος. εὖ δέ με ῥέξας
ἕξεις ἐν χρείῃ δμῶας ἑτοιμοτέρους.

A Thought:

Plato on the Docile Slave. For Plato the problem of slavery isn’t ethical, but practical: how to make a human being “readily accept the condition of servitude” (ῥᾷον δουλεύσειν) and become “as docile as possible” (εὐμενεστάτους)? (Laws 777d and 776d, respectively). To accomplish this, he counsels “the best strategy is to treat them properly” (εἰς δύναμιν ὅτι μάλιστα, τρέφειν δ᾽ αὐτοὺς ὀρθῶς), by which he means masters should not physically injure their slaves (Laws 777d). Plato’s assumption is that “kind” treatment would induce obedience.

Aristotle on Asian Slaves. For Aristotle, non-Greeks comprise “a community of slaves, male and female alike” (ἡ κοινωνία αὐτῶν δούλης καὶ δούλου) and Greeks are their rightful masters (Politics I.1252b7-8). But Asians come in for particularly harsh judgement: “Concerning the people of Asia, although they are intelligent and capable, they lack spirit, and as a consequence they are always ruled over and enslaved (τὰ δὲ περὶ τὴν Ἀσίαν διανοητικὰ μὲν καὶ τεχνικὰ τὴν ψυχήν, ἄθυμα δέ, διόπερ ἀρχόμενα καὶ δουλεύοντα διατελεῖ [Politics VII. 1327b27-28]).

The Idealized Slave: There’s congruence between Plato’s exhortation to good treatment (his admonition against injury) and the epigram’s account of the master nursing the sick slave. Also, the epigram’s slave isn’t just docile, but ideally so. We can say that if there were two routes out of slavery, manumission and death, the master denied the slave the former, but this fictional slave denied himself the latter. Even death is not the end of his happy servitude. It’s no wonder that the grave marker identifies him as Persian–his race (γένος), according to Aristotle, marked him out for servitude. The epigram is a fantasy about servitude, and it’s as distasteful as Plato’s and Aristotle’s views.

Athenian red-figure jug attributed to the Pan Painter, 500-450 BC. A youth, probably a slave, carries a couch and table for a symposium. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

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.

Debate-Me Guys and the Nature of Bigness

Plato, Phaedo 101 and 102

“But you wouldn’t mix things up like those debate-me guys who talk about a principle and its results at the same time if you really want to discover something real. These guys probably have not one single understanding or concern for the truth.

They’re just good enough to please themselves with their ‘wisdom’, even though they’re mixing everything up.”

ἅμα δὲ οὐκ ἂν φύροιο ὥσπερ οἱ ἀντιλογικοὶ περί τε τῆς ἀρχῆς διαλεγόμενος καὶ τῶν ἐξ ἐκείνης ὡρμημένων, εἴπερ βούλοιό τι τῶν ὄντων εὑρεῖν; ἐκείνοις μὲν γὰρ ἴσως οὐδὲ εἷς περὶ τούτου λόγος οὐδὲ φροντίς· ἱκανοὶ γὰρ ὑπὸ σοφίας ὁμοῦ πάντα κυκῶντες ὅμως δύνασθαι αὐτοὶ αὑτοῖς ἀρέσκειν· σὺ δ’, εἴπερ εἶ τῶν φιλοσόφων, οἶμαι ἂν ὡς ἐγὼ λέγω ποιοῖς.

“Bigness seems to me not only never willing to be big and small at the same time, but the bigness in us is never eager to accept smallness nor to be surpassed, but it does two things: it flees or shrinks whenever the opposite—smallness—is present or, once it has approached, it perishes.”

ἐμοὶ γὰρ φαίνεται οὐ μόνον αὐτὸ τὸ μέγεθος οὐδέποτ’ ἐθέλειν ἅμα μέγα καὶ σμικρὸν εἶναι, ἀλλὰ καὶ τὸ ἐν ἡμῖν μέγεθος οὐδέποτε προσδέχεσθαι τὸ σμικρὸν οὐδ’ ἐθέλειν ὑπερέχεσθαι, ἀλλὰ δυοῖν τὸ ἕτερον, ἢ φεύγειν καὶ ὑπεκχωρεῖν ὅταν αὐτῷ προσίῃ τὸ ἐναντίον, τὸ σμικρόν, ἢ προσελθόντος ἐκείνου ἀπολωλέναι· ὑπομένον δὲ καὶ δεξάμενον τὴν σμικρότητα.