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.

Sappho After Sophocles

Sappho 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 arms?
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.

In Archaic song, Aphrodite is perhaps most commonly represented as a goddess who sports with mortal hearts, disturbing their peace with amorous suffering. And so it should be something of a surprise when Sappho presents the “many-minded” (ποικιλόφρον’) “plot-weaver” (δολόπλοκε) goddess as genial and helpful.

The unusual picture begs the question, is the judgment of love-mad Sappho reliable?

I say that it is not, and suggest looking at the Sappho-Aphrodite relationship through the lens of the Ajax-Athena relationship in Sophocles’ tragedy, “Ajax.”

For our purposes, what matters in the tragedy is this: Ajax believes the goddess is helping him when in fact she is harming him. She distorts his thinking such that he mistakes heads of cattle for Achaeans who have slighted him, and he proceeds to abuse and kill the animals.

The word most strongly linking Sappho-Aphrodite with Ajax-Athena is “ally” (σύμμαχος). The final words of Sappho’s song is the plea to the goddess to “be an ally” (σύμμαχος ἔσσο) in the fight for love. Ajax himself, blind to the goddess’s deception, exhorts her to “always stand by me as an ally” (ἀεί μοι σύμμαχον παρεστάναι [Soph. Aj. 117]). Athena picks up the word: she tongue-in-cheek describes herself as his σύμμαχος (Soph. Aj.190) while working his ruin.

Ajax does not know that he’s suffered “a god-sent sickness” (θεία νόσος [Soph. Aj. 185]) until he’s humiliated himself. His mad actions, while he was engaged in them, appeared to him the god-assisted fulfilment of his wishes. Athena says, “That man, when he was subject to his sickness / Delighted in his troubles” (ἁνὴρ ἐκεῖνος, ἡνίκ᾽ ἦν ἐν τῇ νόσῳ / αὐτὸς μὲν ἥδεθ᾽ οἷσιν εἴχετ᾽ ἐν κακοῖς ([Soph. Aj. 271-272]). And she encouraged him in this: “I egged him on; cast him into my wicked trap” (ὤτρυνον, εἰσέβαλλον εἰς ἕρκη κακά [Soph Aj. 59-60]).

Sappho is trapped in an amorous cycle whose stations are desire, frustration, and satisfaction. And as the song emphasizes, the cycle repeats. Sappho pursues new loves, always with Aphrodite’s intervention. Sappho supposes the goddess helps her to satisfaction, but the traditions of Archaic song would have it that Aphrodite’s hand is in the animating desire and subsequent frustration too. Tellingly, Sappho does not pray for release from what Hegel might call “the bad infinite” of love. Rather, she prays for Aphrodite to keep her running on the track. Like Ajax, she delights in her troubles.

“I pity him his unfortunate condition” (ἐποικτίρω δέ νιν δύστηνον [Soph Aj. 121-122]), Odysseus says of Ajax. Perhaps that should be our emotional response to the speaker of Sappho 1.

Sappho 1

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.

Maria Callas in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.” Here Lucia has gone mad after the loss of her lover.

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.

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

Did You Say Love or Death?

Joel sings “love is a battlefield” at every department holiday party, and yet no general ever says at muster, “troops, war is loving.” We don’t, that is, ordinarily reverse the terms of a metaphor. In practice, one term stands still and the other term does the work of elucidating it. 

But what if metaphor flowed both ways (metaphorically speaking), such that on one occasion X elucidated Y, and on another occasion Y elucidated X? That is what we find in the Greek Anthology when we compare epigrams across their sepulchral and amatory boundaries. 

It’s a dissonant reading, but one we’re justified in making when topoi arranged to make a poem about death are rearranged to make an equally effective poem about love. Furthermore, I think we can say that when responsibility for clarifying terms (love, death) passes back and forth between the terms themselves, the end result is a body of poems whose referents are one another. 

Here are two pairings of an amatory and sepulchral epigram. In the first, it is the imagery of the sea, and in the second the imagery of robbery, that are employed to account for the phenomenologically distinct experiences of loving and dying. With each pairing, try to think not only of how death is a metaphor for love, but how love is a metaphor for death:

[1] The Sea

Meleager 5.190

Bitter wave of desire,
Restless winds of jealousy,
And a wintry sea of celebrations:
Where to, am I being carried?
Since my heart’s tiller swings this way and that,
Will I see that tender Scylla again?

Leonidas 5.273

The East wind’s savage, sudden gusts,
Night, and waves from Orion’s dark setting
Did me in: I, Callaeschrus, lost my hold on life
While sailing in the middle of the Libyan sea.
Tumbling about in the water, prey for fish,
I died. And so, this gravestone is a liar.

[2] Robbery

Anonymous 7.737

Here I am, a wretched man three times over:
Overpowered by a thief’s violence,
Prostrate, and wept for by no one.

Diophanes of Myrina 5.309

A thief three times over,
That’s what Desire should really be called:
He’s watchful, he’s brazen, he strips you bare.

Meleager 5.190

κῦμα τὸ πικρὸν Ἔρωτος, ἀκοίμητοί τε πνέοντες
ζῆλοι, καὶ κώμων χειμέριον πέλαγος,
ποῖ φέρομαι; πάντῃ δὲ φρενῶν οἴακες ἀφεῖνται,
ἦ πάλι τὴν τρυφερὴν Σκύλλαν ἐποψόμεθα;

Leonidas 5.273

Εὔρου με τρηχεῖα καὶ αἰπήεσσα καταιγίς,
καὶ νύξ, καὶ δνοφερῆς κύματα πανδυσίης [p. 150]
ἔβλαψ᾽ Ὠρίωνος: ἀπώλισθον δὲ βίοιο
Κάλλαισχρος, Λιβυκοῦ μέσσα θέων πελάγευς.
κἀγὼ μὲν πόντῳ δινεύμενος, ἰχθύσι κύρμα,
οἴχημαι: ψεύστης δ᾽ οὗτος ἔπεστι λίθος.

Anonymous 7.737

ἐνθάδ᾽ ἐγὼ λῃστῆρος ὁ τρισδείλαιος ἄρηι
ἐδμήθην κεῖμαι δ᾽ οὐδενὶ κλαιόμενος.

Diophanes of Myrina 5.309

τρὶς λῃστὴς ὁ Ἔρως καλοῖτ᾽ ἂν ὄντως:
ἀγρυπνεῖ, θρασύς ἐστιν, ἐκδιδύσκει.

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.

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

A Lover Betrayed

“The truth of the matter is that–by an exorbitant paradox–I never stop believing that I am loved. I hallucinate what I desire. Each wound proceeds less from a doubt than from a betrayal: for only the one who loves can betray, only the one who believes himself loved can be jealous…”–Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse.

Dioscorides 5.52 (Greek Anthology)

We swore a mutual oath to Eros,
And based on that oath, Sosipater
Placed his loving trust in Arsinoe.
But she is false, and her oath is empty,
While his love, nonetheless, abides intact.
What the gods can do, hasn’t yet been done:
O Hymenaeus, chant sorrowful songs
At Arsinoe’s latched door, condemning
The betrayal that is her marriage bed.

ὅρκον κοινὸν Ἔρωτ᾽ ἀνεθήκαμεν ὅρκος ὁ πιστὴν
Ἀρσινόης θέμενος Σωσιπάτρῳ φιλίην.
ἀλλ᾽ ἡ μὲν ψευδὴς κενὰ δ᾽ ὅρκια, τῷ δ᾽ ἐφυλάχθη
ἵμερος: ἡ δὲ θεῶν οὐ φανερὴ δύναμις.
θρήνους, ὦ Ὑμέναιε, παρὰ κληῖσιν ἀΰσαις
Ἀρσινόης, παστῷ μεμψάμενος προδότῃ.

5th Century BC Greek loutrophoros, a bathing vessel, depicting a wedding procession.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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.

Commitments in the Absence of a Notary

Meleager 5.8 (Greek Anthology)

Holy Night and Lamp,
We took no other witnesses,
Except you two, for our oaths:
He to be content with me,
I never to desert him.
We swore, and you bore joint witness.
But those oaths, he now says, are written in water.
Lamp, that’s why you see him in the arms of others.

νὺξ ἱερὴ καὶ λύχνε, συνίστορας οὔτινας ἄλλους
ὅρκοις, ἀλλ᾽ ὑμέας, εἱλόμεθ᾽ ἀμφότεροι
χὠ μὲν ἐμὲ στέρξειν, κεῖνον δ᾽ ἐγὼ οὔ ποτε λείψειν
ὠμόσαμεν κοινὴν δ᾽ εἴχετε μαρτυρίην.
νῦν δ᾽ ὁ μὲν μὲν ὅρκια φησιν ἐν ὕδατι κεῖνα φέρεσθαι,
λύχνε, σὺ δ᾽ ἐν κόλποις αὐτὸν ὁρᾷς ἑτέρων.

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.

What A Little Moonlight Can Do

Philodemus 5.123 (Greek Anthology)

Lady of the night,
Two-horned lover of nocturnal revels,
Shine, Selene!
Shine, and as you beam through latticed shutters
Illume golden Kallistion.
There’s no wrong in a goddess watching
The doings of lovers.
To you, she and I are happy, I know, Selene.
For your soul was inflamed by Endymion too.

Note: Selene, the moon, is described as crescent shaped (“two-horned”). She fell in love with, and made love with, Endymion while he slept. The speaker of the epigram seems to suggest that he too will accost his beloved, Kallistion, while she sleeps.

Νυκτερινή, δίκερως, φιλοπάννυχε, φαῖνε, Σελήνη,
φαῖνε, δι᾽ εὐτρήτων βαλλομένη θυρίδων
αὔγαζε χρυσέην Καλλίστιον ἐς τὰ φιλεύντων
ἔργα κατοπτεύειν οὐ φθόνος ἀθανάτῃ.
ὀλβίζεις καὶ τήνδε καὶ ἡμέας, οἶδα, Σελήνη:
καὶ γὰρ σὴν ψυχὴν ἔφλεγεν Ἐνδυμίων.

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.

No Less Romantic than Zeus

Bassus 5.125 (Greek Anthology)

I won’t change into gold, one of these days.
Another might show himself as a bull,
Or as a sweet-voiced swan on the sea shore.
Let Zeus keep these games.
I’ll fork over some obols to Corrina,
Exactly two—and I certainly don’t fly.

οὐ μέλλω ῥεύσειν χρυσός ποτε: βοῦς δὲ γένοιτο
ἄλλος, χὠ μελίθρους κύκνος ἐπῃόνιος.
Ζηνὶ φυλασσέσθω τάδε παίγνια: τῇ δὲ Κορίννῃ
τοὺς ὀβολοὺς δώσω τοὺς δύο, κοὐ πέτομαι.

5th century BC vase attributed to the Berlin Painter.
National Archaeological Museum Tarquinia.

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.