Shadows and Breath: Lyrics on Human Life

A Repeated idea in classical Greek poetry

Aeschylus, fr. 399.1-2

“Humanity thinks only about temporary seeds,
Its pledge is nothing more than the shadow of smoke”

τὸ γὰρ βρότειον σπέρμ’ ἐφήμερα φρονεῖ,
καὶ πιστὸν οὐδὲν μᾶλλον ἢ καπνοῦ σκιά

Sophocles, fr. 13.

“Man is only breath and shadow.”

ἄνθρωπός ἐστι πνεῦμα καὶ σκιὰ μόνον

Pindar, Pythian 8.95

“Alive for a day: What is a person? What is not a person? Man is a dream of a shadow”
ἐπάμεροι· τί δέ τις; τί δ’ οὔ τις; σκιᾶς ὄναρ

Euripides, fr. 532

“Do good while people are alive; when each man dies
He is earth and shadow. What is nothing changes nothing.”

τοὺς ζῶντας εὖ δρᾶν• κατθανὼν δὲ πᾶς ἀνὴρ
γῆ καὶ σκιά• τὸ μηδὲν εἰς οὐδὲν ῥέπει.

fr. 509

“What else? An old man is voice and shadow.”

τί δ’ ἄλλο; φωνὴ καὶ σκιὰ γέρων ἀνήρ.

Tragic Adesp. Fr. 95

“I want to advise all mortals
To live our temporary life sweetly. For after you die,
You are nothing more than a shadow over the earth.”

πᾶσιν δὲ θνητοῖς βούλομαι παραινέσαι
τοὐφήμερον ζῆν ἡδέως· ὁ γὰρ θανὼν
τὸ μηδέν ἐστι καὶ σκιὰ κατὰ χθονός·

Sophocles, fr. 945 (suggested by twitter’s @equiprimordial)

“O wretched and mortal race of men:
We are nothing more than image of shadows,
Wandering back and forth, an excessive weight on the earth.

ὦ θνητὸν ἀνδρῶν καὶ ταλαίπωρον γένος,
ὡς οὐδέν ἐσμεν πλὴν σκιαῖς ἐοικότες,
βάρος περισσὸν γῆς ἀναστρωφώμενοι

Image result for Ancient Greek burial sites

Homer. Od. 10.495

“Persephone allowed him to have a mind, even though he is dead,
He alone is able to think. The others leap like shadows”

τῷ καὶ τεθνηῶτι νόον πόρε Περσεφόνεια
οἴῳ πεπνῦσθαι· τοὶ δὲ σκιαὶ ἀΐσσουσιν.’

The scholia have a few interesting things to add to this.

Schol. ad Hom. Od. 10.495

“They leap like shadows”: The rest of the dead apart from Teiresias are shadows and they move like shadows, just like the shadows that follow men who are moving. This term is used instead of souls [psukhai]. Certainly the poet has the rest of the dead come forward for comparison in this, but the rest of the dead move like shadows”

τοὶ δὲ σκιαὶ ἀΐσσουσιν] οἱ δὲ ἄλλοι νεκροὶ πλὴν τοῦ Τειρεσίου σκιαί εἰσι καὶ ὡς σκιαὶ ὁρμῶσι, καθάπερ αὗται παρέπονται τοῖς κινουμένοις. Q. ἀντὶ τοῦ αἱ ψυχαί. ὁ μέντοι ποιητὴς πρὸς τοὺς ἄλλους νεκροὺς ποιεῖται τὴν σύγκρισιν ἐν τῷ, οἱ δὲ ἄλλοι νεκροὶ ὡς σκιαὶ ἀΐσσουσιν. B.Q.T.

Democritus, fr. B145

“A story is the shadow of the deed”

λόγος ἔργου σκιή

Arsenius, 6.33a

“The shadow of Doiduks”: A proverb applied to nothing.”

Δοίδυκος σκιά: ἐπὶ τοῦ μηδενός.

Michael Apostolios, 5.74

“Shadow instead of a body”: A Proverb applied to those who seem strong but have no power.”

Σκιὰ ἀντὶ τοῦ σώματος: ἐπὶ τῶν δοκούντων κρα-
τεῖν τι, οὐδὲν δ’ ὅμως κρατούντων.

The motif of man as ephemeral is prior to the classical period

Homer, Iliad 6.145-151

“Oh, you great-hearted son of Tydeus, why are you asking about pedigree?
The generations of men are just like leaves on a tree:
The wind blows some to the ground and then the forest
Grows lush with others when spring comes again.
In this way, the race of men grows and then dies in turn.
But if you are willing, learn about these things so you may know
My lineage well—many are the men who know me.”

Τυδεΐδη μεγάθυμε τί ἢ γενεὴν ἐρεείνεις;
οἵη περ φύλλων γενεὴ τοίη δὲ καὶ ἀνδρῶν.
φύλλα τὰ μέν τ’ ἄνεμος χαμάδις χέει, ἄλλα δέ θ’ ὕλη
τηλεθόωσα φύει, ἔαρος δ’ ἐπιγίγνεται ὥρη·
ὣς ἀνδρῶν γενεὴ ἣ μὲν φύει ἣ δ’ ἀπολήγει.
εἰ δ’ ἐθέλεις καὶ ταῦτα δαήμεναι ὄφρ’ ἐὺ εἰδῇς
ἡμετέρην γενεήν, πολλοὶ δέ μιν ἄνδρες ἴσασιν

Stobaeus (1.49.54) in discussing shadows and death, notes that “if they meet their near and dear, they cannot see them nor can they converse with them, but they are walled off from aesthetic reality, they appear to them something like shadows”

Εἰ δὴ τοῖς οἰκείοις ἐντυγχάνοντες οὔτε ὁρῶσιν αὐτοὺς οὔτε προσδιαλέγονται, ἀνενέργητοι δέ εἰσιν αἰσθητικὴν ἐνέργειαν, πρὸς αὐτοὺς ἐοικότες εἶεν <ἂν> ταῖς σκιαῖς·

He also brings up the image of smoke evoked in the Iliad (23.100-101)

“He could not grasp him, but his soul went over the earth,
Twisted, just like smoke…”

οὐδ’ ἔλαβε· ψυχὴ δὲ κατὰ χθονὸς ἠΰτε καπνὸς
ᾤχετο τετριγυῖα…

An uplifting proverb to close:

Arsenius, 17.66

“Windblown dreams and shadows of glory”: A proverb applied to those hoping for things in vain.

῾Υπηνέμια ὀνείρατα καὶ ἐπαίνων σκιαί: ἐπὶ τῶν μάτην ἐλπιζόντων.

A Story is the Shadow of the Thing: Greek Lyrics on Human Life

A Repeated idea in classical Greek poetry

Aeschylus, fr. 399.1-2

“Humanity thinks only about temporary seeds,
Its pledge is nothing more than the shadow of smoke”

τὸ γὰρ βρότειον σπέρμ’ ἐφήμερα φρονεῖ,
καὶ πιστὸν οὐδὲν μᾶλλον ἢ καπνοῦ σκιά

Sophocles, fr. 13.

“Man is only breath and shadow.”

ἄνθρωπός ἐστι πνεῦμα καὶ σκιὰ μόνον

Pindar, Pythian 8.95

“Alive for a day: What is a person? What is not a person? Man is a dream of a shadow”
ἐπάμεροι· τί δέ τις; τί δ’ οὔ τις; σκιᾶς ὄναρ

Euripides, fr. 532

“Do good while people are alive; when each man dies
He is earth and shadow. What is nothing changes nothing.”

τοὺς ζῶντας εὖ δρᾶν• κατθανὼν δὲ πᾶς ἀνὴρ
γῆ καὶ σκιά• τὸ μηδὲν εἰς οὐδὲν ῥέπει.

fr. 509

“What else? An old man is voice and shadow.”

τί δ’ ἄλλο; φωνὴ καὶ σκιὰ γέρων ἀνήρ.

Tragic Adesp. Fr. 95

“I want to advise all mortals
To live our temporary life sweetly. For after you die,
You are nothing more than a shadow over the earth.”

πᾶσιν δὲ θνητοῖς βούλομαι παραινέσαι
τοὐφήμερον ζῆν ἡδέως· ὁ γὰρ θανὼν
τὸ μηδέν ἐστι καὶ σκιὰ κατὰ χθονός·

Image result for Ancient Greek burial sites

Democritus, fr. B145

“A story is the shadow of the deed”

λόγος ἔργου σκιή

Arsenius, 6.33a

“The shadow of Doiduks”: A proverb applied to nothing.”

Δοίδυκος σκιά: ἐπὶ τοῦ μηδενός.

Michael Apostolios, 5.74

“Shadow instead of a body”: A Proverb applied to those who seem strong but have no power.”

Σκιὰ ἀντὶ τοῦ σώματος: ἐπὶ τῶν δοκούντων κρα-
τεῖν τι, οὐδὲν δ’ ὅμως κρατούντων.

The motif of man as ephemeral is prior to the classical period

Homer, Iliad 6.145-151

“Oh, you great-hearted son of Tydeus, why are you asking about pedigree?
The generations of men are just like leaves on a tree:
The wind blows some to the ground and then the forest
Grows lush with others when spring comes again.
In this way, the race of men grows and then dies in turn.
But if you are willing, learn about these things so you may know
My lineage well—many are the men who know me.”

Τυδεΐδη μεγάθυμε τί ἢ γενεὴν ἐρεείνεις;
οἵη περ φύλλων γενεὴ τοίη δὲ καὶ ἀνδρῶν.
φύλλα τὰ μέν τ’ ἄνεμος χαμάδις χέει, ἄλλα δέ θ’ ὕλη
τηλεθόωσα φύει, ἔαρος δ’ ἐπιγίγνεται ὥρη·
ὣς ἀνδρῶν γενεὴ ἣ μὲν φύει ἣ δ’ ἀπολήγει.
εἰ δ’ ἐθέλεις καὶ ταῦτα δαήμεναι ὄφρ’ ἐὺ εἰδῇς
ἡμετέρην γενεήν, πολλοὶ δέ μιν ἄνδρες ἴσασιν