The Will to Dance: The Knees of Old Poets

Sappho 58

The heart in me is now a burden
The knees can’t carry.
They were once quite quick to dance,
The equal of fauns.
These are the things I grieve,
Time and again.
Yet, can I achieve anything,
Doing this?

An unaging mortal being—
This is not possible.
In the old times people said
Dawn with the roseate arms, for love,
Went to the ends of earth leading Tithonus,
A beautiful being,
And young!
But even him,
A man with an immortal wife,
Grey old age got hold of at last!

Alcman 26

O sweet-voiced girls with miraculous song,
these legs can carry me no longer.
How I wish I were a kingfisher,
One who flits across the flowering sea swell
In the company of halcyons,
Fearless in heart,
A divine bird.

Sappho 58

βάρυϲ δέ μ’ ὀ [θ]ῦμο̣ϲ̣ πεπόηται, γόνα δ’ [ο]ὐ φέροιϲι,
τὰ δή ποτα λαίψηρ’ ἔον ὄρχηϲθ’ ἴϲα νεβρίοιϲι.
τὰ ⟨μὲν⟩ ϲτεναχίϲδω θαμέωϲ· ἀλλὰ τί κεν ποείην;
ἀγήραον ἄνθρωπον ἔοντ’ οὐ δύνατον γένεϲθαι.
καὶ γάρ π̣[ο]τ̣α̣ Τίθωνον ἔφαντο βροδόπαχυν Αὔων
ἔρωι φ̣ ̣ ̣α̣θ̣ε̣ιϲαν βάμεν’ εἰϲ ἔϲχατα γᾶϲ φέροιϲα[ν,
ἔοντα̣ [κ]ά̣λ̣ο̣ν καὶ νέον, ἀλλ’ αὖτον ὔμωϲ ἔμαρψε
χρόνωι π̣ό̣λ̣ι̣ο̣ν̣ γῆραϲ, ἔχ̣[ο]ν̣τ̣’ ἀθανάταν ἄκοιτιν.

Alcman 26

οὔ μ᾿ ἔτι, παρσενικαὶ μελιγάρυες ἱαρόφωνοι,
γυῖα φέρην δύναται· βάλε δὴ βάλε κηρύλος εἴην,
ὅς τ᾿ ἐπὶ κύματος ἄνθος ἅμ᾿ ἀλκυόνεσσι ποτήται
νηδεὲς ἦτορ ἔχων, ἁλιπόρφυρος ἱαρὸς ὄρνις.

FILE — Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou dance on the 89th birthday of the poet Langston Hughes at the The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where Hughes’ ashes were buried beneath the floor, in New York, Feb. 22, 1991. Baraka, a poet and playwright of pulsating rage, whose long illumination of the black experience in America was called incandescent in some quarters and incendiary in others, died Jan. 9, 2014. He was 79. (Chester Higgins, Jr./The New York Times)

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

Tawdry Tuesday: Raising the Dead

Greek Anthology 5.129 Automedon

“I praise the dancer from Asia, the one who moves
From the tips of her fingernails with devious positions,
Not because she shows every passion or because she throws
Her delicate hands delicately this way and that,
But because she knows how to dance around a worn out stump
And doesn’t try to flee its aging wrinkles.
She tongues it, kneads it, throws her hands around it–
And if she throws her leg over me, she raises my staff back from hell.”

εἰς πόρνην ὀρχηστρίδα

Τὴν ἀπὸ τῆς Ἀσίης ὀρχηστρίδα, τὴν κακοτέχνοις
σχήμασιν ἐξ ἁπαλῶν κινυμένην ὀνύχων,
αἰνέω, οὐχ ὅτι πάντα παθαίνεται οὐδ᾽ ὅτι βάλλει
τὰς ἁπαλὰς ἁπαλῶς ὧδε καὶ ὧδε χέρας,
ἀλλ᾽ ὅτι καὶ τρίβακον περὶ πάσσαλον ὀρχήσασθαι
οἶδε καὶ οὐ φεύγει γηραλέας ῥυτίδας·
γλωττίζει, κνίζει, περιλαμβάνει· ἢν δ᾽ ἐπιρίψῃ
τὸ σκέλος, ἐξ ᾅδου τὴν κορύνην ἀνάγει.

 Detail from a Paestan red-figure skyphos, ca. 330-320 BC.

Dancing With the Heroes

Schol ad Pind. Pyth 2:

 “He used the word Kastorian because of the account of some that the Dioskouri invented the dance in armor. For some say that the Dioskouroi are dancers. Epicharmus, however, says that Athena played the martial song for the Dioskouri on an Aulos and for this reason the Lakonians march against the enemy to the same sound. But others claim that he Kastorean is a certain rhythm and that the Laconians use it when attacking the enemy.

There is also a distinction between the dance of the pyrrikhê for which the hyporkhêmata were composed. For some say that the Kouretes invented dancing in armor and performed this dance, or that Pyrrikhos of Krete or Thaletas first created them. But Sosibios argues that all hyporkhêmata are Cretan.

Still, some say that the pyrrhic dance is not named from Pyrrikhos of Crete but from Achilles’ son Pyrrhos who danced in his arms over his victory over Telephos, which the Kyprians call the prulis, making the name pyrrikhê from the pyre.”

Καστόρειον εἶπε διὰ τὸ τὴν ἔνοπλον ὄρχησιν κατ᾽ ἐνίους τοὺς Διοσκούρους εὑρεῖν· ὀρχηστικοὶ γάρ τινες οἱ Διόσκουροι. ὁ δὲ Ἐπίχαρμος τὴν Ἀθηνᾶν φησι τοῖς Διοσκούροις τὸν ἐνόπλιον νόμον ἐπαυλῆσαι, ἐξ ἐκείνου δὲ τοὺς Λάκωνας μετ᾽ αὐλοῦ τοῖς πολεμίοις προσιέναι. τινὲς δὲ ῥυθμόν τινά φασι τὸ Καστόρειον, χρῆσθαι δὲ αὐτῶι τοὺς Λάκωνας ἐν ταῖς πρὸς τοὺς πολεμίους συμβολαῖς. διέλκεται δὲ ἡ τῆς πυρρίχης ὄρχησις, πρὸς ἣν τὰ ὑπορχήματα ἐγράφησαν. ἔνιοι μὲν οὖν φασι τὴν ἔνοπλον ὄρχησιν πρῶτον Κούρητας εὑρηκέναι, καὶ ὑπορχήσασθαι, αὖθις δὲ Πύρριχον Κρῆτα συντάξασθαι, Θαλήταν δὲ πρῶτον τὰ εἰς αὐτὴν ὑπορχήματα. Σωσίβιος δὲ τὰ ὑπορχηματικὰ πάντα μέλη Κρηταικὰ λέγεσθαι. ἔνιοι δὲ οὐκ ἀπὸ Πυρρίχου τοῦ Κρητὸς τὴν πυρρίχην ὠνομάσθαι ἀλλὰ ἀπὸ τοῦ παιδὸς τοῦ Ἀχιλλέως Πύρρου ἐν τοῖς ὅπλοις ὀρχησαμένου ἐπὶ τῆι κατὰ Εὐρυπύλου τοῦ Τηλέφου νίκηι. ᾽Αριστοτέλης δὲ πρῶτον Ἀχιλλέα ἐπὶ τῆι τοῦ Πατρόκλου πυρᾶι τῆι πυρρίχηι κεχρῆσθαι, ἣν παρὰ Κυπρίοις φησὶ πρύλιν λέγεσθαι, ὥστε παρὰ τὴν πυρὰν τῆς πυρρίχης τὸ ὄνομα θέσθαι.

Paradoxographus Vaticanus 58

58 “First of the Greeks, the Cretans were possessing the laws which Minos set down. Minos claimed to have learned them from Zeus after he wandered for nine years over a certain month which is called the “cave of Zeus”. The children of the Cretans are raised in common and brought up hardy with one another. They learn the arts of war, and hunts, and they also practice uphill runs without shoes and they work hard on the pyrrhic dance which Purrikhos invented first.”

Κρῆτες πρῶτοι ῾Ελλήνων νόμους ἔσχον Μίνωος θεμένου· προσεποιεῖτο δὲ Μίνως παρὰ τοῦ Διὸς αὐτοὺς μεμαθηκέναι ἐννέα ἔτη εἴς τι ὄρος φοιτήσας, ὃ Διὸς ἄντρον ἐλέγετο. Οἱ Κρητῶν παῖδες ἀγελάζονται κοινῇ μετ’ ἀλλήλων σκληραγωγούμενοι καὶ τὰ πολέμια διδασκόμενοι καὶ θήρας δρόμους τε ἀνάντεις ἀνυπόδετοι ἀνύοντες καὶ τὴν ἐνόπλιον πυρρίχην ἐκπονοῦντες, ἥντινα πρῶτος εὗρε Πύρριχος.

Zenobius 3.71

“To dance in darkness”: A proverb applied to those who toil over unwitnessed things—their work is invisible.”

᾿Εν σκότῳ ὀρχεῖσθαι: ἐπὶ τῶν ἀμάρτυρα μοχθούντων, ὧν τὸ ἔργον ἀφανές.

 A war-dance was performed in honor of Athena’s birth in full-armor at the Panathenain festival (pyrrhiche). See Walter Burkert, Greek Religion 1985, 102.

Image result for hero dancing vase

Homer, Odyssey 7.250-253

Come, however so many are the best dancers of the Phaeacians.

Dance, so that our guest may tell his family

once he gets home how much we surpass

the rest of mankind in sailing, running, dancing and song!


ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε, Φαιήκων βητάρμονες ὅσσοι ἄριστοι,

παίσατε, ὥς χ᾽ ὁ ξεῖνος ἐνίσπῃ οἷσι φίλοισιν

οἴκαδε νοστήσας, ὅσσον περιγιγνό μεθ᾽ ἄλλων

ναυτιλίῃ καὶ ποσσὶ καὶ ὀρχηστυῖ καὶ ἀοιδῇ.


Alkinoos tells this and then the Phaeacians perform their dance, part of which involves the use of a ball passed and forth between two princes. (Some ancient form of hacky-sack?) In way, this ritual has something to do with Greece in the World Cup, right? Here’s the full text.