Beautiful Mirrors of Beautiful Things

Plutarch, Moralia Dialogue on Love 765 a-b

“When we are sent back there, love does not come near our soul through its own devising but through the body. Just so, teachers of geometry, when their students are not yet capable of comprehending thoughts of the incorporeal or the concepts of immutable essence, they make shapes, manipulable and visible representations of spheres, cubes, and dodecahedrons to give them. In this way, heavenly love creates beautiful mirrors of the beautiful things, mortal versions of the divine, changeable manifestations of the unchanging, and merely sensible representations of pure thought.

By creating these things in the shape and color and image of the beautiful people in their youth, Love moves our memory carefully, and it is kindled first by these things.”

Ἐνταῦθα δὲ πάλιν πεμπομένων αὐτῇ μὲν οὐ πλησιάζει ψυχῇ καθ᾿ ἑαυτήν, ἀλλὰ διὰ σώματος. ὡς δὲ γεωμέτραι παισὶν οὔπω δυναμένοις ἐφ᾿ ἑαυτῶν τὰ νοητὰ μυηθῆναι τῆς ἀσωμάτου καὶ ἀπαθοῦς οὐσίας εἴδη πλάττοντες ἁπτὰ καὶ ὁρατὰ μιμήματα σφαιρῶν καὶ κύβων καὶ δωδεκαέδρων προτείνουσιν· οὕτως ἡμῖν ὁ οὐράνιος Ἔρως ἔσοπτρα καλῶν καλά, θνητὰ μέντοι θείων καὶ ἀπαθῶν παθητὰ καὶ νοητῶν αἰσθητὰ μηχανώμενος ἔν τε σχήμασι καὶ χρώμασι καὶ εἴδεσι νέων ὥρᾳ στίλβοντα δείκνυσι καὶ κινεῖ τὴν μνήμην ἀτρέμα διὰ τούτων ἀναφλεγομένην τὸ πρῶτον.

an Etruscan Mirror and the Dallas Museum of Art

Eternal Beauty or Sensory Truths? Epictetus and Epicurus on the Real

Epictetus, fr. 36

“The truth is an eternal thing and unseen—it does not provide us a beauty which deteriorates with time nor a freedom of speech which is vulnerable to the law. Instead, it provides us with the just and the lawful by separating and refuting injustice from them.”

Ἀθάνατον χρῆμα ἡ ἀλήθεια καὶ ἀΐδιον, παρέχει δὲ ἡμῖν οὐ κάλλος χρόνῳ μαραινόμενον οὔτε παρρησίαν ἀφαιρετὴν ὑπὸ δίκης, ἀλλὰ τὰ δίκαια καὶ τὰ νόμιμα διακρίνουσα ἀπ᾿ αὐτῶν τὰ ἄδικα καὶ ἀπελέγχουσα.

Diogenes Laertius, Epicurus 31

“[Epicureans] dismiss dialectic as being uneccessary—they believe that it is enough for natural scientists to employ the normal words for things. In his Canon, Epicurus asserts that our sensory perceptions and prior experiences and conceptions are the criteria of the truth; and Epicureans also believe that the imagined movements of thoughts are the same. He articulates his own beliefs in his Brief to Herodotus and in his Kurian Beliefs. He says, “Every perception is free of thought and receptive to no memory. Because does not move under its own power or another’s, it cannot add anything or take it away. And there is nothing capable of refuting the senses. For one related perception cannot countermand another because of their equal power nor can inequivalent senses undermine those of a different capacity, since they are not judging the same domains.

Reason depends entirely on perceptions. Different kinds of senses cannot undermine each other, since we use them all. The interdependence of the senses ensures the truth of what we perceive. Our ability to see and hear is just like our ability to feel pain. This is why we must strive to make meaning about unclear things from what actually appears before us.”

Τὴν διαλεκτικὴν ὡς παρέλκουσαν ἀποδοκιμάζουσιν· ἀρκεῖν γὰρ τοὺς φυσικοὺς χωρεῖν κατὰ τοὺς τῶν πραγμάτων φθόγγους. ἐν τοίνυν τῷ Κανόνι λέγων ἐστὶν ὁ Ἐπίκουρος κριτήρια τῆς ἀληθείας εἶναι τὰς αἰσθήσεις καὶ προλήψεις καὶ τὰ πάθη, οἱ δ᾿ Ἐπικούρειοι καὶ τὰς φανταστικὰς ἐπιβολὰς τῆς διανοίας. λέγει δὲ καὶ ἐν τῇ πρὸς Ἡρόδοτον ἐπιτομῇ καὶ ἐν ταῖς Κυρίαις δόξαις. “πᾶσα γάρ,” φησίν, “αἴσθησις ἄλογός ἐστι καὶ μνήμης οὐδεμιᾶς δεκτική· οὔτε γὰρ ὑφ᾿ αὑτῆς οὔτε ὑφ᾿ ἑτέρου κινηθεῖσα δύναταί τι προσθεῖναι ἢ ἀφελεῖν· οὐδὲ ἔστι τὸ δυνάμενον αὐτὰς διελέγξαι. οὔτε γὰρ ἡ ὁμογένεια αἴσθησις τὴν ὁμογενῆ διὰ τὴν ἰσοσθένειαν, οὔθ᾿ ἡ ἀνομογένεια τὴν ἀνομογένειαν, οὐ γὰρ τῶν αὐτῶν εἰσι κριτικαί· οὔτε μὴν λόγος, πᾶς γὰρ λόγος ἀπὸ τῶν αἰσθήσεων ἤρτηται. οὔθ᾿ ἡ ἑτέρα τὴν ἑτέραν, πάσαις γὰρ προσέχομεν. καὶ τὸ τὰ ἐπαισθήματα δ᾿ ὑφεστάναι πιστοῦται τὴν τῶν αἰσθήσεων ἀλήθειαν. ὑφέστηκε δὲ τό τε ὁρᾶν ἡμᾶς καὶ ἀκούειν, ὥσπερ τὸ ἀλγεῖν· ὅθεν καὶ περὶ τῶν ἀδήλων ἀπὸ τῶν φαινομένων χρὴ σημειοῦσθαι.

File:Epicteti Enchiridion Latinis versibus adumbratum (Oxford 1715) frontispiece.jpg
Epictetus in 1715

Eternal Beauty or Sensory Truths? Epictetus and Epicurus on the Real

Here’s a recent piece on Greek concepts of the truth from The Conversation.

Epictetus, fr. 36

“The truth is an eternal thing and unseen—it does not provide us a beauty which deteriorates with time nor a freedom of speech which is vulnerable to the law. Instead, it provides us with the just and the lawful by separating and refuting injustice from them.”

Ἀθάνατον χρῆμα ἡ ἀλήθεια καὶ ἀΐδιον, παρέχει δὲ ἡμῖν οὐ κάλλος χρόνῳ μαραινόμενον οὔτε παρρησίαν ἀφαιρετὴν ὑπὸ δίκης, ἀλλὰ τὰ δίκαια καὶ τὰ νόμιμα διακρίνουσα ἀπ᾿ αὐτῶν τὰ ἄδικα καὶ ἀπελέγχουσα.

Diogenes Laertius, Epicurus 31

“[Epicureans] dismiss dialectic as being uneccessary—they believe that it is enough for natural scientists to employ the normal words for things. In his Canon, Epicurus asserts that our sensory perceptions and prior experiences and conceptions are the criteria of the truth; and Epicureans also believe that the imagined movements of thoughts are the same. He articulates his own beliefs in his Brief to Herodotus and in his Kurian Beliefs. He says, “Every perception is free of thought and receptive to no memory. Because does not move under its own power or another’s, it cannot add anything or take it away. And there is nothing capable of refuting the senses. For one related perception cannot countermand another because of their equal power nor can inequivalent senses undermine those of a different capacity, since they are not judging the same domains.

Reason depends entirely on perceptions. Different kinds of senses cannot undermine each other, since we use them all. The interdependence of the senses ensures the truth of what we perceive. Our ability to see and hear is just like our ability to feel pain. This is why we must strive to make meaning about unclear things from what actually appears before us.”

Τὴν διαλεκτικὴν ὡς παρέλκουσαν ἀποδοκιμάζουσιν· ἀρκεῖν γὰρ τοὺς φυσικοὺς χωρεῖν κατὰ τοὺς τῶν πραγμάτων φθόγγους. ἐν τοίνυν τῷ Κανόνι λέγων ἐστὶν ὁ Ἐπίκουρος κριτήρια τῆς ἀληθείας εἶναι τὰς αἰσθήσεις καὶ προλήψεις καὶ τὰ πάθη, οἱ δ᾿ Ἐπικούρειοι καὶ τὰς φανταστικὰς ἐπιβολὰς τῆς διανοίας. λέγει δὲ καὶ ἐν τῇ πρὸς Ἡρόδοτον ἐπιτομῇ καὶ ἐν ταῖς Κυρίαις δόξαις. “πᾶσα γάρ,” φησίν, “αἴσθησις ἄλογός ἐστι καὶ μνήμης οὐδεμιᾶς δεκτική· οὔτε γὰρ ὑφ᾿ αὑτῆς οὔτε ὑφ᾿ ἑτέρου κινηθεῖσα δύναταί τι προσθεῖναι ἢ ἀφελεῖν· οὐδὲ ἔστι τὸ δυνάμενον αὐτὰς διελέγξαι. οὔτε γὰρ ἡ ὁμογένεια αἴσθησις τὴν ὁμογενῆ διὰ τὴν ἰσοσθένειαν, οὔθ᾿ ἡ ἀνομογένεια τὴν ἀνομογένειαν, οὐ γὰρ τῶν αὐτῶν εἰσι κριτικαί· οὔτε μὴν λόγος, πᾶς γὰρ λόγος ἀπὸ τῶν αἰσθήσεων ἤρτηται. οὔθ᾿ ἡ ἑτέρα τὴν ἑτέραν, πάσαις γὰρ προσέχομεν. καὶ τὸ τὰ ἐπαισθήματα δ᾿ ὑφεστάναι πιστοῦται τὴν τῶν αἰσθήσεων ἀλήθειαν. ὑφέστηκε δὲ τό τε ὁρᾶν ἡμᾶς καὶ ἀκούειν, ὥσπερ τὸ ἀλγεῖν· ὅθεν καὶ περὶ τῶν ἀδήλων ἀπὸ τῶν φαινομένων χρὴ σημειοῦσθαι.

File:Epicteti Enchiridion Latinis versibus adumbratum (Oxford 1715) frontispiece.jpg
Epictetus in 1715

“The One You Love”: The Best Love Poem Ever

Sappho, fr. 16

Some say a force of horsemen, some say infantry
and others say a fleet of ships is the loveliest
thing on the dark earth, but I say it is
the one you love

It is altogether simple to make this understood
since she whose beauty outmatched all,
Helen, left her husband
a most noble man

And went sailing to Troy
Without a thought for her child and dear parents
[Love] made her completely insane
And led her astray

This reminds me of absent Anaktoria

I would rather watch her lovely walk
and see the shining light of her face
than Lydian chariots followed by
infantrymen in arms

Οἰ μὲν ἰππήων στρότον, οἰ δὲ πέσδων,
οἰ δὲ νάων φαῖσ’ ἐπὶ γᾶν μέλαιναν
ἔμμεναι κάλλιστον, ἐγὼ δὲ κῆν’ ὄτ-
τω τις ἔραται

πά]γχυ δ’ εὔμαρες σύνετον πόησαι
πά]ντι τ[οῦ]τ’· ἀ γὰρ πολὺ περσκέθοισα
κά]λλος ἀνθρώπων Ἐλένα [τὸ]ν ἄνδρα
τὸν πανάριστον
/ [κρίννεν ἄρ]ιστον

καλλίποισ’ ἔβας ‘ς Τροίαν πλέοισα
/ ὂσ τὸ πὰν] σέβασ τροΐα[σ ὄ]λεσσ[ε,
κωὐδὲ παῖδος οὐδὲ φίλων τοκήων
πάμπαν ἐμνάσθη, ἀλλὰ παράγαγ’ αὔταν
οὐκ ἀέκοισαν
/ πῆλε φίλει]σαν

Κύπρις· εὔκαμπτον γὰρ ἔφυ βρότων κῆρ
] κούφως τ . . . οη . . . ν
κἄμε νῦν Ἀνακτορίας ὀνέμναι-
σ’ οὐ παρεοίσας

/ Ὠροσ. εὔκ]αμπτον γαρ [ἀεὶ τὸ θῆλυ]
αἴ κέ] τισ κούφωσ τ[ὸ πάρον ν]οήσῃ.
οὐ]δὲ νῦν, Ἀνακτορί[α, τ]ὺ μέμναι
δὴ] παρειοῖσασ,

τᾶς κε βολλοίμαν ἔρατόν τε βᾶμα
κἀμάρυχμα λάμπρον ἴδην προσώπω
ἢ τὰ Λύδων ἄρματα κἀν ὄπλοισι
πεσδομάχεντας.

 

petrarch1

Aelian, Fragment 187/190 (from Stobaeus 3.29.58)

“Solon the Athenian, the son of Eksêkestides, when his nephew sang some song of Sappho at a drinking party, took pleasure in it and asked the young man to teach it to him. When someone asked why he was eager to learn it, he responded: “So, once I learn it, I may die.”

Σόλων ὁ ᾿Αθηναῖος ᾿Εξηκεστίδου παρὰ πότον τοῦ ἀδελφιδοῦ αὐτοῦ μέλος τι Σαπφοῦς ᾄσαντος, ἥσθη τῷ μέλει καὶ προσέταξε τῷ μειρακίῳ διδάξει αὐτόν. ἐρωτήσαντος δέ τινος διὰ ποίαν αἰτίαν τοῦτο σπουδάσειεν, ὃ δὲ ἔφη ‘ἵνα μαθὼν αὐτὸ ἀποθάνω.’

A Happy Side of Madness

Aristotle, On Amazing Things Heard 832b

“The story goes that in Abydos there was a man who was afflicted with madness. He went into the theater and watched for many days as if there were actually people acting and applauded. When he had a respite from his affliction, he said that this was the most enjoyable time of his life.”

Λέγεται δέ τινα ἐν Ἀβύδῳ παρακόψαντα τῇ διανοίᾳ καὶ εἰς τὸ θέατρον ἐρχόμενον ἐπὶ πολλὰς ἡμέρας θεωρεῖν, ὡς ὑποκρινομένων τινῶν, καὶ ἐπισημαίνεσθαι· καὶ ὡς κατέστη τῆς παρακοπῆς, ἔφησεν ἐκεῖνον αὑτῷ τὸν χρόνον ἥδιστα βεβιῶσθαι.

This made me think of Thrasyllos again.

Aelian, 4.25

“Thrasyllos from the deme Aiksône endured an incredible and novel madness. For he left the city and went to the Peiraia and stayed there. He believed that all the ships that sailed in were his and he wrote down their names, checked the list when they left and rejoiced when they returned safely to the harbor again. He spent many years living with this sickness.

When his brother returned from Sicily, he took him to a doctor for treatment and he freed him from that sickness. But he often remembered the avocation of his sickness and used to say that he was never as happy as when he took pleasure at the sight of ships that weren’t his returning safely.”

Θράσυλλος ὁ Αἰξωνεὺς παράδοξον καὶ καινὴν ἐνόσησε μανίαν. ἀπολιπὼν γὰρ τὸ ἄστυ καὶ κατελθὼν ἐς τὸν Πειραιᾶ καὶ ἐνταῦθα οἰκῶν τὰ πλοῖα τὰ καταίροντα ἐν αὐτῷ πάντα ἑαυτοῦ ἐνόμιζεν εἶναι, καὶ ἀπεγράφετο αὐτὰ καὶ αὖ πάλιν ἐξέπεμπε καὶ τοῖς περισωζομένοις καὶ ἐσιοῦσιν ἐς τὸν λιμένα ὑπερέχαιρε· χρόνους δὲ διετέλεσε πολλοὺς συνοικῶν τῷ ἀρρωστήματι τούτῳ. ἐκ Σικελίας δὲ ἀναχθεὶς ὁ ἀδελφὸς αὐτοῦ παρέδωκεν αὐτὸν ἰατρῷ ἰάσασθαι, καὶ ἔπαυσεν αὐτὸν τῆς νόσου οὗτος. ἐμέμνητο δὲ πολλάκις τῆς ἐν μανίᾳ διατριβῆς, καὶ ἔλεγε μηδέποτε ἡσθῆναι τοσοῦτον, ὅσον τότε ἥδετο ἐπὶ ταῖς μηδὲν αὐτῷ προσηκούσαις ναυσὶν

Related image
Bodleian 264

Beautiful Mirrors of Beautiful Things

Plutarch, Moralia Dialogue on Love 765 a-b

“When we are sent back there, love does not come near our soul through its own devising but through the body. Just so, teachers of geometry, when their students are not yet capable of comprehending thoughts of the incorporeal or the concepts of immutable essence, they make shapes, manipulable and visible representations of spheres, cubes, and dodecahedrons to give them. In this way, heavenly love creates beautiful mirrors of the beautiful things, mortal versions of the divine, changeable manifestations of the unchanging, and merely sensible representations of pure thought.

By creating these things in the shape and color and image of the beautiful people in their youth, Love moves our memory carefully, and it is kindled first by these things.”

Ἐνταῦθα δὲ πάλιν πεμπομένων αὐτῇ μὲν οὐ πλησιάζει ψυχῇ καθ᾿ ἑαυτήν, ἀλλὰ διὰ σώματος. ὡς δὲ γεωμέτραι παισὶν οὔπω δυναμένοις ἐφ᾿ ἑαυτῶν τὰ νοητὰ μυηθῆναι τῆς ἀσωμάτου καὶ ἀπαθοῦς οὐσίας εἴδη πλάττοντες ἁπτὰ καὶ ὁρατὰ μιμήματα σφαιρῶν καὶ κύβων καὶ δωδεκαέδρων προτείνουσιν· οὕτως ἡμῖν ὁ οὐράνιος Ἔρως ἔσοπτρα καλῶν καλά, θνητὰ μέντοι θείων καὶ ἀπαθῶν παθητὰ καὶ νοητῶν αἰσθητὰ μηχανώμενος ἔν τε σχήμασι καὶ χρώμασι καὶ εἴδεσι νέων ὥρᾳ στίλβοντα δείκνυσι καὶ κινεῖ τὴν μνήμην ἀτρέμα διὰ τούτων ἀναφλεγομένην τὸ πρῶτον.

an Etruscan Mirror and the Dallas Museum of Art

What Does Helen Look Like?

Last year twitter friend asked me about the appearance of Helen recently:

This came at a time when many are talking about the ethnicity of Homeric heroes and rightly arguing that so many of our ideas about race, color, and identity have little to do with the ancient world and everything to do with our own. (See also the discussion on Pharos.) Within this debate is the important realization that ancient concepts of hue and range of color-representation may have been altogether different from our own. In addition to Tim Whitmarsh’s essay (cited above) Maria Michel Sassi’s  essay does well to explore gaps between how we conceive of color and how the ancients may have.

As @spannycat notes, Greek poetry describes Helen as xanthê and kuanopis. An insensitive and simplistic reading of these facts might claim that she was “blonde” with “blue eyes” (and I am not at all implying that @spannycat is doig this). Not only is the situation far more interesting and complicated than this, but I am pretty sure that even if we accept these two words as applying to Helen they would not be equivalent to the appearance these two terms denote in modern English.

Let’s start with the barest fact. What Helen actually looks like is never stated in Homer. When the Trojans look at her, they say she has the “terrible appearance of goddesses” (αἰνῶς ἀθανάτῃσι θεῇς εἰς ὦπα ἔοικεν). This, of course, is not terribly specific.

Elsewhere, she is “argive Helen, for whom many Achaeans [struggled]” (᾿Αργείην ῾Ελένην, ἧς εἵνεκα πολλοὶ ᾿Αχαιῶν, Il. 2.161) she has “smooth” or “pale/white” arms (῏Ιρις δ’ αὖθ’ ῾Ελένῃ λευκωλένῳ ἄγγελος ἦλθεν, 3.121), but this likely has to do with a typical depiction of women in Archaic Greece (they are lighter in tone than men because they don’t work outside) or because of women’s clothing (arms may have been visible). Beyond that? In the Odyssey, She has “beautiful hair” (῾Ελένης πάρα καλλικόμοιο, 15.58) and a long robe (τανύπεπλος, 4.305).

If anyone is looking for a hint of the ideal of beauty from the legend who launched a thousand ships, they will be sorely disappointed. Why? I think the answer to this partly has to do with the nature of Homeric poetry and with good art in general. Homeric poetry developed over a long duration of time and appealed to many different peoples. To over-determine Helen’s beauty by describing it would necessarily adhere to some standards of beauty while alienating others.

In addition, why describe her beauty at all when the audience members themselves can craft an ideal in their mind. As a student of mine said while I mused over this, Helen “Cannot have descriptors because she is a floating signifier”. She is a blank symbol for desire upon which all audience members (ancient and modern, male and female) project their own (often ambiguous) notions of beauty. To stay with the ancient world, think of that seminal first stanza in Sappho fr. 16:

Some say a force of horsemen, some say infantry
and others say a fleet of ships is the loveliest
thing on the dark earth, but I say it is
[whatever] you love

Οἰ μὲν ἰππήων στρότον, οἰ δὲ πέσδων,
οἰ δὲ νάων φαῖσ’ ἐπὶ γᾶν μέλαιναν
ἔμμεναι κάλλιστον, ἐγὼ δὲ κῆν’ ὄτ-
τω τις ἔραται

As long as beauty is relative and in the eye of the beholder any time we disambiguate it by saying that it is one thing and not another we depart from an abstract timeless idea and create something more bounded and less open to audience engagement. I think that part of what makes Homeric poetry work so well is that it combines a maximum amount of specificity within a maximized amount of ambiguity.

Outside of Homer, Helen is described with a little more detail, but in each case the significance of the signifier is less than it appears. In Hesiod, she has nice hair again (῾Ελένης ἕνεκ’ ἠυκόμοιο,Works and Days 165; this is repeated a lot in the fragmentary Hesiodic Catalogue). In fr. 9 of the Cypria she is merely a “Wonder for mortals” (θαῦμα βροτοῖσι·). Much later she has “spiraling eyebrows/lashes” (῾Ελένης ἑλικοβλεφάροιο, Quintus Smyrnaeus, 13.470).

If we want to learn more about Helen, she has additional features outside of epic poetry in lyric. I would be bold enough to claim that the more personal and erotic character of the genre is a better explanation for this specificity than anything else.

In lyric (e.g. Mesomedes, κυανῶπι θεά, θύγατερ Δίκας,) Helen is “cyan-eyed”, but if we look at the semantic range of this nominal root—which describes dark stones and eyes of water divinities—I think we can argue fairly that this indicates a dark and shiny, even watery texture (like lapis lazuli). I suspect this is about the sheen of eyes rather than their hue.

Eustathius remarks that the epithet κυανώπιδα is common (κατὰ κοινὸν ἐπίθετον) and is often used for dark sea creatures, describing as well his hair (Ποσειδῶνα κυανοχαίτην, Ad Hom. Il 1.555.23). Indeed, nymphs in general are “dark-eyed” in lyric (καὶ Νύμφαι κυανώπιδες, Anacr. fr. 12.2) and water deities remain so in Homer (κῦμα μέγα ῥοχθεῖ κυανώπιδος ᾿Αμφιτρίτης, Il. 12.60). Outside of Homer marriageable women also receive this epithet, including Helen’s sister Klytemnestra (Hes. Fr. 23a κού[ρην Τυνδαρέοιο Κλυταιμήσ]τρην κυανῶπ[ιν· cf. fr. 23.27 and for Althaia, 25.14, Elektra (169).

From Robert Beekes. Etymological Dictionary of Greek. Leiden: Brill, 2010

kuane

So, in lyric, Helen has dark pools for eyes. But what about her hair? At Sappho fr. 23 Helen is described as “xanthai” ([ ] ξάνθαι δ’ ᾿Ελέναι σ’ ἐίσ[κ]ην; cf. Stesichorus Fr. S103: [ξ]α̣νθὰ δ’ ῾Ελένα̣ π̣ρ[ ; Ibycus, fr. 1a.5: ξα]νθᾶς ῾Ελένας περὶ εἴδει ). But it is important to note that in this context there is a first-person narrator speaking (“I liken you to fair Helen…”). Note as well that there is something formulaic in these lyric lines: the epithet seems to begin the phrase each time.

When it comes to Hair color, xanthus is used in Homer to describe heroes, but not Helen (Menelaos is Xanthus, for example). A byzantine etymological dictionary suggests that the core meaning of this root has something to do with fire (Ξανθὴν, πυῤῥοειδῆ) and argues that the hair “symbolizes the heat and irascibility of the hero” (αἰνίττεται, τὸ θερμὸν καὶ ὀργίλον τοῦ ἥρωος, Etym. Gud, s.v.). But outside the Iliad and Odyssey the adjective is applied to goddesses: both Demeter (H. Dem. 302) and Aphrodite (Soph. fr. 255) are called Xanthê. Modern etymology sees this as anywhere from yellow to brown. But this is altogether relative again. “Light hair” in a group of people who are blond is almost white; among black/brown haired people, light hair can merely be a different shade of brown.

Again, from Beekes 2010:

xanthe

In the second book of Liu Cixin’s “Three Body Problem Trilogy” The Dark Forest, one of the main characters Luo Ji creates an ideal woman to love in his mind and goes so far as to converse with her, leave his actual girlfriend for her, and go on a trip with her. When he consults a psychologist about this, his doctor tells him his is lucky because everyone is in love with an idea–where the rest of the world will inevitably be disillusioned when they realize this, Luo Ji will never suffer this loss.

Trying to make Helen look like an actual person is not only impossible, but it is something which Homeric epic avoids for good reason.

Special thanks to .@spannycat for asking the question. Her own conclusions on the topic are pretty much the same.

Image result for ancient greek helen
From Wikipedia

Eternal Beauty or Sensory Truths? Epictetus and Epicurus on the Real

Here’s a recent piece on Greek concepts of the truth from The Conversation.

Epictetus, fr. 36

“The truth is an eternal thing and unseen—it does not provide us a beauty which deteriorates with time nor a freedom of speech which is vulnerable to the law. Instead, it provides us with the just and the lawful by separating and refuting injustice from them.”

Ἀθάνατον χρῆμα ἡ ἀλήθεια καὶ ἀΐδιον, παρέχει δὲ ἡμῖν οὐ κάλλος χρόνῳ μαραινόμενον οὔτε παρρησίαν ἀφαιρετὴν ὑπὸ δίκης, ἀλλὰ τὰ δίκαια καὶ τὰ νόμιμα διακρίνουσα ἀπ᾿ αὐτῶν τὰ ἄδικα καὶ ἀπελέγχουσα.

Diogenes Laertius, Epicurus 31

“[Epicureans] dismiss dialectic as being uneccessary—they believe that it is enough for natural scientists to employ the normal words for things. In his Canon, Epicurus asserts that our sensory perceptions and prior experiences and conceptions are the criteria of the truth; and Epicureans also believe that the imagined movements of thoughts are the same. He articulates his own beliefs in his Brief to Herodotus and in his Kurian Beliefs. He says, “Every perception is free of thought and receptive to no memory. Because does not move under its own power or another’s, it cannot add anything or take it away. And there is nothing capable of refuting the senses. For one related perception cannot countermand another because of their equal power nor can inequivalent senses undermine those of a different capacity, since they are not judging the same domains.

Reason depends entirely on perceptions. Different kinds of senses cannot undermine each other, since we use them all. The interdependence of the senses ensures the truth of what we perceive. Our ability to see and hear is just like our ability to feel pain. This is why we must strive to make meaning about unclear things from what actually appears before us.”

Τὴν διαλεκτικὴν ὡς παρέλκουσαν ἀποδοκιμάζουσιν· ἀρκεῖν γὰρ τοὺς φυσικοὺς χωρεῖν κατὰ τοὺς τῶν πραγμάτων φθόγγους. ἐν τοίνυν τῷ Κανόνι λέγων ἐστὶν ὁ Ἐπίκουρος κριτήρια τῆς ἀληθείας εἶναι τὰς αἰσθήσεις καὶ προλήψεις καὶ τὰ πάθη, οἱ δ᾿ Ἐπικούρειοι καὶ τὰς φανταστικὰς ἐπιβολὰς τῆς διανοίας. λέγει δὲ καὶ ἐν τῇ πρὸς Ἡρόδοτον ἐπιτομῇ καὶ ἐν ταῖς Κυρίαις δόξαις. “πᾶσα γάρ,” φησίν, “αἴσθησις ἄλογός ἐστι καὶ μνήμης οὐδεμιᾶς δεκτική· οὔτε γὰρ ὑφ᾿ αὑτῆς οὔτε ὑφ᾿ ἑτέρου κινηθεῖσα δύναταί τι προσθεῖναι ἢ ἀφελεῖν· οὐδὲ ἔστι τὸ δυνάμενον αὐτὰς διελέγξαι. οὔτε γὰρ ἡ ὁμογένεια αἴσθησις τὴν ὁμογενῆ διὰ τὴν ἰσοσθένειαν, οὔθ᾿ ἡ ἀνομογένεια τὴν ἀνομογένειαν, οὐ γὰρ τῶν αὐτῶν εἰσι κριτικαί· οὔτε μὴν λόγος, πᾶς γὰρ λόγος ἀπὸ τῶν αἰσθήσεων ἤρτηται. οὔθ᾿ ἡ ἑτέρα τὴν ἑτέραν, πάσαις γὰρ προσέχομεν. καὶ τὸ τὰ ἐπαισθήματα δ᾿ ὑφεστάναι πιστοῦται τὴν τῶν αἰσθήσεων ἀλήθειαν. ὑφέστηκε δὲ τό τε ὁρᾶν ἡμᾶς καὶ ἀκούειν, ὥσπερ τὸ ἀλγεῖν· ὅθεν καὶ περὶ τῶν ἀδήλων ἀπὸ τῶν φαινομένων χρὴ σημειοῦσθαι.

File:Epicteti Enchiridion Latinis versibus adumbratum (Oxford 1715) frontispiece.jpg
Epictetus in 1715

“The One You Love”: The Best Love Poem Ever

Sappho, fr. 16

Some say a force of horsemen, some say infantry
and others say a fleet of ships is the loveliest
thing on the dark earth, but I say it is
the one you love

It is altogether simple to make this understood
since she whose beauty outmatched all,
Helen, left her husband
a most noble man

And went sailing to Troy
Without a thought for her child and dear parents
[Love] made her completely insane
And led her astray

This reminds me of absent Anaktoria

I would rather watch her lovely walk
and see the shining light of her face
than Lydian chariots followed by
infantrymen in arms

Οἰ μὲν ἰππήων στρότον, οἰ δὲ πέσδων,
οἰ δὲ νάων φαῖσ’ ἐπὶ γᾶν μέλαιναν
ἔμμεναι κάλλιστον, ἐγὼ δὲ κῆν’ ὄτ-
τω τις ἔραται

πά]γχυ δ’ εὔμαρες σύνετον πόησαι
πά]ντι τ[οῦ]τ’· ἀ γὰρ πολὺ περσκέθοισα
κά]λλος ἀνθρώπων Ἐλένα [τὸ]ν ἄνδρα
τὸν πανάριστον
/ [κρίννεν ἄρ]ιστον

καλλίποισ’ ἔβας ‘ς Τροίαν πλέοισα
/ ὂσ τὸ πὰν] σέβασ τροΐα[σ ὄ]λεσσ[ε,
κωὐδὲ παῖδος οὐδὲ φίλων τοκήων
πάμπαν ἐμνάσθη, ἀλλὰ παράγαγ’ αὔταν
οὐκ ἀέκοισαν
/ πῆλε φίλει]σαν

Κύπρις· εὔκαμπτον γὰρ ἔφυ βρότων κῆρ
] κούφως τ . . . οη . . . ν
κἄμε νῦν Ἀνακτορίας ὀνέμναι-
σ’ οὐ παρεοίσας

/ Ὠροσ. εὔκ]αμπτον γαρ [ἀεὶ τὸ θῆλυ]
αἴ κέ] τισ κούφωσ τ[ὸ πάρον ν]οήσῃ.
οὐ]δὲ νῦν, Ἀνακτορί[α, τ]ὺ μέμναι
δὴ] παρειοῖσασ,

τᾶς κε βολλοίμαν ἔρατόν τε βᾶμα
κἀμάρυχμα λάμπρον ἴδην προσώπω
ἢ τὰ Λύδων ἄρματα κἀν ὄπλοισι
πεσδομάχεντας.

 

petrarch1

Aelian, Fragment 187/190 (from Stobaeus 3.29.58)

“Solon the Athenian, the son of Eksêkestides, when his nephew sang some song of Sappho at a drinking party, took pleasure in it and asked the young man to teach it to him. When someone asked why he was eager to learn it, he responded: “So, once I learn it, I may die.”

Σόλων ὁ ᾿Αθηναῖος ᾿Εξηκεστίδου παρὰ πότον τοῦ ἀδελφιδοῦ αὐτοῦ μέλος τι Σαπφοῦς ᾄσαντος, ἥσθη τῷ μέλει καὶ προσέταξε τῷ μειρακίῳ διδάξει αὐτόν. ἐρωτήσαντος δέ τινος διὰ ποίαν αἰτίαν τοῦτο σπουδάσειεν, ὃ δὲ ἔφη ‘ἵνα μαθὼν αὐτὸ ἀποθάνω.’

What Does Helen Look Like?

Last year twitter friend asked me about the appearance of Helen recently:

This came at a time when many are talking about the ethnicity of Homeric heroes and rightly arguing that so many of our ideas about race, color, and identity have little to do with the ancient world and everything to do with our own. (See also the discussion on Pharos.) Within this debate is the important realization that ancient concepts of hue and range of color-representation may have been altogether different from our own. In addition to Tim Whitmarsh’s essay (cited above) Maria Michel Sassi’s  essay does well to explore gaps between how we conceive of color and how the ancients may have.

As @spannycat notes, Greek poetry describes Helen as xanthê and kuanopis. An insensitive and simplistic reading of these facts might claim that she was “blonde” with “blue eyes” (and I am not at all implying that @spannycat is doig this). Not only is the situation far more interesting and complicated than this, but I am pretty sure that even if we accept these two words as applying to Helen they would not be equivalent to the appearance these two terms denote in modern English.

Let’s start with the barest fact. What Helen actually looks like is never stated in Homer. When the Trojans look at her, they say she has the “terrible appearance of goddesses” (αἰνῶς ἀθανάτῃσι θεῇς εἰς ὦπα ἔοικεν). This, of course, is not terribly specific.

Elsewhere, she is “argive Helen, for whom many Achaeans [struggled]” (᾿Αργείην ῾Ελένην, ἧς εἵνεκα πολλοὶ ᾿Αχαιῶν, Il. 2.161) she has “smooth” or “pale/white” arms (῏Ιρις δ’ αὖθ’ ῾Ελένῃ λευκωλένῳ ἄγγελος ἦλθεν, 3.121), but this likely has to do with a typical depiction of women in Archaic Greece (they are lighter in tone than men because they don’t work outside) or because of women’s clothing (arms may have been visible). Beyond that? In the Odyssey, She has “beautiful hair” (῾Ελένης πάρα καλλικόμοιο, 15.58) and a long robe (τανύπεπλος, 4.305).

If anyone is looking for a hint of the ideal of beauty from the legend who launched a thousand ships, they will be sorely disappointed. Why? I think the answer to this partly has to do with the nature of Homeric poetry and with good art in general. Homeric poetry developed over a long duration of time and appealed to many different peoples. To over-determine Helen’s beauty by describing it would necessarily adhere to some standards of beauty while alienating others.

In addition, why describe her beauty at all when the audience members themselves can craft an ideal in their mind. As a student of mine said while I mused over this, Helen “Cannot have descriptors because she is a floating signifier”. She is a blank symbol for desire upon which all audience members (ancient and modern, male and female) project their own (often ambiguous) notions of beauty. To stay with the ancient world, think of that seminal first stanza in Sappho fr. 16:

Some say a force of horsemen, some say infantry
and others say a fleet of ships is the loveliest
thing on the dark earth, but I say it is
[whatever] you love

Οἰ μὲν ἰππήων στρότον, οἰ δὲ πέσδων,
οἰ δὲ νάων φαῖσ’ ἐπὶ γᾶν μέλαιναν
ἔμμεναι κάλλιστον, ἐγὼ δὲ κῆν’ ὄτ-
τω τις ἔραται

As long as beauty is relative and in the eye of the beholder any time we disambiguate it by saying that it is one thing and not another we depart from an abstract timeless idea and create something more bounded and less open to audience engagement. I think that part of what makes Homeric poetry work so well is that it combines a maximum amount of specificity within a maximized amount of ambiguity.

Outside of Homer, Helen is described with a little more detail, but in each case the significance of the signifier is less than it appears. In Hesiod, she has nice hair again (῾Ελένης ἕνεκ’ ἠυκόμοιο,Works and Days 165; this is repeated a lot in the fragmentary Hesiodic Catalogue). In fr. 9 of the Cypria she is merely a “Wonder for mortals” (θαῦμα βροτοῖσι·). Much later she has “spiraling eyebrows/lashes” (῾Ελένης ἑλικοβλεφάροιο, Quintus Smyrnaeus, 13.470).

If we want to learn more about Helen, she has additional features outside of epic poetry in lyric. I would be bold enough to claim that the more personal and erotic character of the genre is a better explanation for this specificity than anything else.

In lyric (e.g. Mesomedes, κυανῶπι θεά, θύγατερ Δίκας,) Helen is “cyan-eyed”, but if we look at the semantic range of this nominal root—which describes dark stones and eyes of water divinities—I think we can argue fairly that this indicates a dark and shiny, even watery texture (like lapis lazuli). I suspect this is about the sheen of eyes rather than their hue.

Eustathius remarks that the epithet κυανώπιδα is common (κατὰ κοινὸν ἐπίθετον) and is often used for dark sea creatures, describing as well his hair (Ποσειδῶνα κυανοχαίτην, Ad Hom. Il 1.555.23). Indeed, nymphs in general are “dark-eyed” in lyric (καὶ Νύμφαι κυανώπιδες, Anacr. fr. 12.2) and water deities remain so in Homer (κῦμα μέγα ῥοχθεῖ κυανώπιδος ᾿Αμφιτρίτης, Il. 12.60). Outside of Homer marriageable women also receive this epithet, including Helen’s sister Klytemnestra (Hes. Fr. 23a κού[ρην Τυνδαρέοιο Κλυταιμήσ]τρην κυανῶπ[ιν· cf. fr. 23.27 and for Althaia, 25.14, Elektra (169).

From Robert Beekes. Etymological Dictionary of Greek. Leiden: Brill, 2010

kuane

So, in lyric, Helen has dark pools for eyes. But what about her hair? At Sappho fr. 23 Helen is described as “xanthai” ([ ] ξάνθαι δ’ ᾿Ελέναι σ’ ἐίσ[κ]ην; cf. Stesichorus Fr. S103: [ξ]α̣νθὰ δ’ ῾Ελένα̣ π̣ρ[ ; Ibycus, fr. 1a.5: ξα]νθᾶς ῾Ελένας περὶ εἴδει ). But it is important to note that in this context there is a first-person narrator speaking (“I liken you to fair Helen…”). Note as well that there is something formulaic in these lyric lines: the epithet seems to begin the phrase each time.

When it comes to Hair color, xanthus is used in Homer to describe heroes, but not Helen (Menelaos is Xanthus, for example). A byzantine etymological dictionary suggests that the core meaning of this root has something to do with fire (Ξανθὴν, πυῤῥοειδῆ) and argues that the hair “symbolizes the heat and irascibility of the hero” (αἰνίττεται, τὸ θερμὸν καὶ ὀργίλον τοῦ ἥρωος, Etym. Gud, s.v.). But outside the Iliad and Odyssey the adjective is applied to goddesses: both Demeter (H. Dem. 302) and Aphrodite (Soph. fr. 255) are called Xanthê. Modern etymology sees this as anywhere from yellow to brown. But this is altogether relative again. “Light hair” in a group of people who are blond is almost white; among black/brown haired people, light hair can merely be a different shade of brown.

Again, from Beekes 2010:

xanthe

In the second book of Liu Cixin’s “Three Body Problem Trilogy” The Dark Forest, one of the main characters Luo Ji creates an ideal woman to love in his mind and goes so far as to converse with her, leave his actual girlfriend for her, and go on a trip with her. When he consults a psychologist about this, his doctor tells him his is lucky because everyone is in love with an idea–where the rest of the world will inevitably be disillusioned when they realize this, Luo Ji will never suffer this loss.

Trying to make Helen look like an actual person is not only impossible, but it is something which Homeric epic avoids for good reason.

Special thanks to .@spannycat for asking the question. Her own conclusions on the topic are pretty much the same.

Image result for ancient greek helen
From Wikipedia