Unsuitable Playmates

Anacreon Fr.358

Yet again, hitting me with his bright ball,
Golden-haired Eros calls me out to play
With a girl in richly spangled sandals.

But she—because she’s from fancy Lesbos—
Of my hair—because it’s white—disapproves.
And so, it’s at another girl she gapes.

σφαίρῃ δηὖτέ με πορφυρέῃ
βάλλων χρυσοκόμης Ἔρως,
νήνι ποικιλοσαμβάλῳ
συμπαίζειν προκαλεῖται.

ἣ δ’, ἐστὶν γὰρ ἀπ’ εὐκτίτου
Λέσβου, τὴν μὲν ἐμὴν κόμην,
λευκὴ γάρ, καταμέμφεται,
πρὸς δ’ ἄλλην τινὰ χάσκει.

 

A Comment: 

It’s worth observing that the lyric pairs its nouns with adjectives marking them as attractive: Eros’ ball is “bright” (in the sense of “brightly colored”). Eros himself is “golden-haired,” as befits a god. The young girl has “richly spangled sandals” (a closer approximation of the Greek adjective is perhaps “sandaled in a richly spangled fashion”). Her city, Lesbos, is “fancy” (literally “well built” or “well established”).

The pairing of adjectives and nouns should, in retrospect, mark the bareness of the first line’s unmodified “me” as important. It’s 5 lines later that the speaker’s hair, by synecdoche, stands in for his person, and an adjective finally attaches to him: “white[-haired].” Only the speaker is marked as unattractive in a lyric fixed on desirability.

With that, what becomes easier to see is the lyric’s fundamental contrasts. Eros has golden hair, but the man has white hair. The girl is young (Anacreon calls her “a youth”), but the man is old. In both pairings, the man represents a falling off: both from the god and the girl, and from our expectation of desirability.  

The lyric turns out to be a clever rehearsing of an overworked trope in Archaic lyric: Eros humiliates old men. When we realize the man is old, we also realize it’s grotesque he’d been compelled “to play like a child” (the literal meaning of the Greek verb) with a young girl. 

But in a sense, we should have known what was coming: “yet once more” (δηὖτέ) at the lyric’s opening is a conventional signal of (1) amorous defeat and (2) the would-be lover’s age-unsuitability for the amorous undertaking. 

There is a lot to be had from the lyric–the careful construction of surprise–without fixating on the seeming titillation of same-sex attraction in the final line (i.e., the girl turning her attention to another girl). I hope to have shown that the center of the poem might well be the revelation about the man, and not a revelation about the girl. After all, male anxiety about age, and aging out of desirability, is well attested in Archaic sympotic song; same-sex female desire is not.

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.

Fantasy Poets League

I’m going to put short fragments of Alcaeus, Sappho, and Anacreon to twisted use: linking them into a single narrative which rehearses a common theme of Archaic lyric: the poet driven mad by unrequited love for a youth.

Alcaeus forthrightly states the case:

Alcaeus Fr. 33

A whirlwind totally ripped away their senses.

πάμπαν δὲ τύφως ἔκ ϝ᾿ ἔλετο φρένας

That “whirlwind,” love, disturbs the equanimity of Sappho and Anacreon alike, turning the mind of each against itself:

Sappho Fr.51

I don’t know what to make of this;
I’m of two minds.

οὐκ οἶδ’ ὄττι θέω· δίχα μοι τὰ νοήμματα

Anacreon Fr. 428 (Campbell)

I’m in love again and not in love.
I’m raving mad and not raving mad. .

ἐρέω τε δηὖτε κοὐκ ἐρέω
καὶ μαίνομαι κοὐ μαίνομαι.

The cause of their confusion? Love for young people whose attractiveness is rooted in manifest immaturity:

Sappho Fr.49

There was a time, Athis, long ago,
I was in love with you.
You looked like a child, small and clumsy.

ἠράμαν μὲν ἔγω σέθεν, Ἄτθι, πάλαι ποτά [ ]
σμίκρα μοι πάις ἔμμεν’ ἐφαίνεο κἄχαρις.

Anacreon Fr. 360 (Campbell)

Boy with looks of a virgin girl,
I’m after you and you don’t see it.
You don’t know you hold the reins of my soul.

ὦ παῖ παρθένιον βλέπων
δίζημαί σε, σὺ δ᾿ οὐ κοεῖς,
οὐκ εἰδὼς ὅτι τῆς ἐμῆς
ψυχῆς ἡνιοχεύεις.

Photograph by Hellen van Meene for Garage Magazine.
Nothing stops us imagining it’s Sappho resting her head on the shoulder of Athis.

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.

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.

Play, Work, and Death

In the three disparate pieces below, female gatherings occasion song-singing or song-making:  an ancient Greek children’s game; a Sappho fragment modeled on a work song; and a lyric poem by the Hellenistic writer Callimachus. 

The paradigmatic “women’s work” of weaving and sewing links them all. 

And so too does loss, which perhaps should be considered a paradigmatic female experience in the period. Here we see a young girl playing at being a woman whose son has died; then, a mother losing her daughter to Aphrodite (and by extension, to marriage); and finally, a circle of female friends losing one of their number to death. 

Young girls at play (Campbell 876)

The “Tor-i-Tortoise” is a young girls’ game, similar to [a boys’ game] the “Pot.” Here, a girl sits down and is called “tortoise” as the other girls go around her in a circle, asking: 

<group of girls> Tor-i-tortoise, why are you in the middle?
<girl in the middle> I was weaving wool and Milesian thread.
<group of girls>And your son, how did he die?
<girl in the middle> He jumped from his white horses into the sea!

ἡ δὲ χελιχελώνη, παρθένων ἐστὶν ἡ παιδιά, παρόμοιόν τι ἔχουσα τῇ χύτρᾳ· ἡ μὲν γὰρ κάθηται καὶ καλεῖται χελώνη, αἱ δὲ περιτρέχουσιν ἀνερωτῶσαι·

   χελιχελώνα, τί ποιεῖς ἐν τῷ μέσῳ;
ἡ δὲ ἀποκρίνεται
ἔρια μαρύομαι καὶ κρόκαν Μιλησίαν.
εἶτ᾿ ἐκεῖναι πάλιν ἐκβοῶσιν
ὁ δ᾿ ἔκγονός σου τί ποιῶν ἀπώλετο;
ἡ δέ φησι
λευκᾶν ἀφ᾿ ἵππων εἰς θάλασσαν ἅλατο

Mother and daughter at work (Sappho Fr.102)

Sweet mother, I can’t weave at the loom
Broken by longing for the slender boy.
Aphrodite’s to blame!

γλύκηα μᾶτερ, οὔτοι δύναμαι κρέκην τὸν ἴστον
πόθῳ δάμεισα παῖδος βραδίναν δι’ Ἀφροδίταν

A circle of friends (Callimachus 7.459)

Crethis—
A font of stories, that girl.
Known for good banter.
Samian girls often look for her,
Their sweetest sewing-mate
And chatty all the time.
Well, here she is—
Sleeping the Sleep that comes to all girls.

Κρηθίδα τὴν πολύμυθον ἐπισταμένην καλὰ παίζειν
δίζηνται Σαμίων πολλάκι θυγατέρες,
ἡδίστην συνέριθον ἀεὶ λάλον: ἣ δ᾽ ἀποβρίζει
ἐνθάδε τὸν πάσαις ὕπνον ὀφειλόμενον.

Terracotta oil flask. C.550-530 BC. Attributed to the Amasis Painter.
The vase depicts women at work, and most visible here is the central image of women at an upright loom.
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.

Don’t. Betray. Sappho.

Sappho, fr. 55

“When you die you will lie there and no one will remember you.
And there will no longing for you later on. You will not receive
Any roses from Pieria. But you will wander unseen through Hades’ home
Flitting away from the dirty corpses.”

κατθάνοισα δὲ κείσηι οὐδέ ποτα μναμοσύνα σέθεν
ἔσσετ’ οὐδὲ πόθα εἰς ὔστερον· οὐ γὰρ πεδέχηις βρόδων
τὼν ἐκ Πιερίας· ἀλλ’ ἀφάνης κἀν ᾿Αίδα δόμωι
φοιτάσηις πεδ’ ἀμαύρων νεκύων ἐκπεποταμένα.

Image result for ancient greek underworld scene sarcophagus
Roman Sarcophagus, Abduction of Persephone

Baudelaire Among the Greeks

At age 17, Charles Baudelaire wrote to his stepfather: 

“I’m writing with a request which will very much surprise you. You’ve promised me lessons in fencing and horse riding. But instead of that, I ask you–if you’re willing, if it’s possible, if you don’t mind–for a private tutor . . . 

What I would ask of him, among other things, would be Greek–yes, to teach me Greek, which I don’t know at all (like all those who learn it in middle school) . . .

You know I’ve got a taste for ancient languages, and Greek inspires a great curiosity in me. I believe, whatever people say nowadays, that it brings not only great pleasure, but also practical advantage. Why stifle these tastes?”

Baudelaire lettre au Colonel Aupick, 26 February 1839:

Je t’écris pour te faire une demande qui te surprendra fort. Tu m’as promis des leçons d’arme, de manège; au lieu de cela, je te demande, si tu le veux, si c’est possible, si cela ne te gêne pas, un répétiteur . . .

Ce que je lui demanderais aussi, ce serait du grec – oui, de m’apprendre le grec, que je ne sais pas du tout, comme tous ceux qui l’apprennent au collège . . .

Tu sais que je me suis pris de goût pour les langues anciennes, et le grec m’inspire une grande curiosité. Je crois, quoi qu’on dise aujourd’hui, que cela procure non seulement de grandes jouissances, mais encore un avantage réel. Pourquoi étouffer ces goûts-là?

We don’t know whether Baudelaire got his tutor, but we do know that he read a lot of Greek literature in his school days and won prizes for his translations. 

Let’s assume that when in his maturity he sat down to write, somewhere in his memory there was a poem the likes of this Hellenistic “aubade,” the song of lovers interrupted by the arrival of daybreak:

Antipater of Thessalonica 5.3 (Greek Anthology)

The early-morning light came some time ago, Chrysilla,
And dawn’s rooster, with his proclaiming, brings jealous daybreak.
Most envious birds, be gone! You chase me from my own house
And out into the profusion of young men’s blabbing.
You’re growing old, Tithonus.
Why else drive Dawn from your bed at first light?

Antipater of Thessalonica 5.3 (Greek Anthology)
ὄρθρος ἔβη, Χρύσιλλα, πάλαι δ᾽ ἠῷος ἀλέκτωρ
κηρύσσων φθονερὴν Ἠριγένειαν ἄγει.
ὀρνίθων ἔρροις φθονερώτατος, ὅς με διώκεις
οἴκοθεν εἰς πολλοὺς ἠιθέων ὀάρους.
γηράσκεις, Τιθωνέ: τί γὰρ σὴν εὐνέτιν Ἠῶ
οὕτως ὀρθριδίην ἤλασας ἐκ λεχέων;

Spiritual Dawn

In the room of the debauched, the white and vermillion dawn
Forms a league with the gnawing Ideal,
And by the workings of an avenging mystery
An angel awakens in the drowsy brute.

The inaccessible azure of the spiritual heavens,
For the stricken man who still dreams and suffers,
Opens and gapes with the lure of the abyss.
Thus, dear Goddess, Being light and pure,

Above the smoking debris of stupid orgies
Your memory, clearer, more roseate, more charming,
Flutters incessantly before my widened eyes.

The sun has darkened the candles’ flame;
Thus, ever victorious, your phantom is equal,
Resplendent soul, to the immortal sun!

L’Aube Spirituelle

Quand chez les débauchés l’aube blanche et vermeille
Entre en société de l’Idéal rongeur,
Par l’opération d’un mystère vengeur
Dans la brute assoupie un ange se réveille.

Des Cieux Spirituels l’inaccessible azur,
Pour l’homme terrassé qui rêve encore et souffre,
S’ouvre et s’enfonce avec l’attirance du gouffre.
Ainsi, chère Déesse, Être lucide et pur,

Sur les débris fumeux des stupides orgies
Ton souvenir plus clair, plus rose, plus charmant,
A mes yeux agrandis voltige incessamment.

Le soleil a noirci la flamme des bougies ;
Ainsi, toujours vainqueur, ton fantôme est pareil,
Ame resplendissante, à l’immortel soleil !

Pierre Bonnard. “Man and Woman.” (1900) Musee d’Orsay.

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.

Wheel of (Mis)Fortune

Seemingly every card-carrying Greek in antiquity bemoaned the workings of chance in human affairs. 

Stobaeus (5th century AD) preserved a fragment by one Hermolochus (no biographical facts are known) who expressed the familiar idea with admirable simplicity.

Aristotle too rehearsed the theme, but shifted the emphasis from the facticity of chance to the character traits necessary to weather it. 

Hermolochus: Fr. 846 (PMG)

All of life bewilders.
Nothing in it secure,
And chance takes it off course.
Hope cheers the heart,
But exactly what’s to come,
And which way one’s carried,
No mortal knows.
A god guides all . . . and yet,
Often, some terrible breeze
Blows against good luck.

Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, I.1100b.22-b.32

Things of varying magnitude happen by chance, and little bits of luck, good or bad, are clearly not the decisive things in life. 

However, when a multitude of great chance events are favorable, life is more blessed, for by their very nature such events lend it beauty, and they are put to noble and good use. 

Conversely, some chance events crimp and spoil our bliss, for they bring pain and interfere with many things we do.  But all the same, even in these instances, nobility shines through whenever someone good-naturedly bears a multitude of great misfortunes, and does so not because he’s numb to pain, but because he’s noble and great-souled.  

Hermolochus Fr. 846 (PMG)

ἀτέκμαρτος ὁ πᾶς βίος οὐδὲν ἔχων πιστὸν πλανᾶται
συντυχίαις· ἐλπὶς δὲ φρένας παραθαρσύνει· τὸ δὲ μέλλον ἀκριβῶς
οἶδεν οὐδεὶς θνατὸς ὅπᾳ φέρεται·
θεὸς δὲ πάντας †ἐν κινδύνοις θνατοὺς† κυβερνᾷ·
ἀντιπνεῖ δὲ πολλάκις εὐτυχίᾳ δεινά τις αὔρα.

Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, I.1100b.22-b.32

πολλῶν δὲ γινομένων κατὰ τύχην καὶ διαφερόντων μεγέθει καὶ μικρότητι, τὰ μὲν μικρὰ τῶν εὐτυχημάτων, ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ τῶν ἀντικειμένων, δῆλον ὡς οὐ ποιεῖ ῥοπὴν τῆς ζωῆς, τὰ δὲ μεγάλα καὶ πολλὰ γινόμενα μὲν εὖ μακαριώτερον τὸν βίον ποιήσει (καὶ γὰρ αὐτὰ συνεπικοσμεῖν πέφυκεν, καὶ ἡ χρῆσις αὐτῶν καλὴ καὶ σπουδαία γίνεται), ἀνάπαλιν δὲ συμβαίνοντα θλίβει καὶ λυμαίνεται τὸ μακάριον: λύπας τε γὰρ ἐπιφέρει καὶ ἐμποδίζει πολλαῖς ἐνεργείαις. ὅμως δὲ καὶ ἐν τούτοις διαλάμπει τὸ καλόν, ἐπειδὰν φέρῃ τις εὐκόλως πολλὰς καὶ μεγάλας ἀτυχίας, μὴ δι᾽ ἀναλγησίαν, ἀλλὰ γεννάδας ὢν καὶ μεγαλόψυχος.

Tyche, the goddess of fortune. Her sheaf of wheat represents prosperity, and her turreted crown is a symbol of security. The Tyche of Antioch. Roman copy (c.300 BC) of Greek original. The statue is in the Vatican.

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.

Three Options in War

The many Greek epigrams on martial themes could lead to the belief that the only reaction to grim war was to fight valiantly and kill, kill, kill. That was of course the celebrated option:

Simonides 6.2 (Greek Anthology)

This bow, now retired from tear-filled battle,
Rests under the roof of Athena’s temple.
Often the cause of groans
In the chaos of men’s wars,
It’s been cleansed in the blood of Persian horsemen.

But as Timocreon, a contemporary of Simonides, demonstrated, one might also defect to the enemy, and cheer the exposure of other turncoats:

Timocreon Fr.729

It was not Timocreon alone
Who swore an oath to the Medes.
There were other rogues;
Mine is not the only clipped tail.
There are other foxes.

Archilochus showed yet another alternative to fighting: take the life-preserving coward’s path of dropping your weapons and running away:

Archilochus Fr.5

Some Saion is strutting with my shield,
Pristine gear I dropped by a shrub.
Thoughtless.
But, I did save myself!
What’s that shield to me?
Screw it!
The new one I get will be no worse.

Simonides 6.2 (Greek Anthology)

τόξα τάδε πτολέμοιο πεπαυμένα δακρυόεντος
νηῷ Ἀθηναίης κεῖται ὑπορρόφια,
πολλάκι δὴ στονόεντα κατὰ κλόνον ἐν δαῒ φωτῶν
Περσῶν ἱππομάχων αἵματι λουσάμενα.

Timocreon Fr.729

οὐκ ἄρα Τιμοκρέων μόνος
Μήδοισιν ὁρκιατομεῖ,
ἀλλ᾽ ἐντὶ κἆλλοι δὴ πονη-
ροί κοὐκ ἐγὼ μόνα κόλου-
ρις· ἐντὶ κἄλλαι ᾽λώπεκες.

Archilocus Fr.5

ἀσπίδι μὲν Σαΐων τις ἀγάλλεται, ἣν παρὰ θάμνῳ
ἔντος ἀμώμητον κάλλιπον οὐκ ἐθέλων:
αὐτὸν δ᾽ ἔκ μ᾽ ἐσάωσα: τί μοι μέλει ἀσπὶς ἐκεινη;
ἐρρέτω: ἐξαῦτις κτήσομαι οὐ κακίω.

Corinthian helmet. c.700-480 BC.
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.