Anacreon fr. 417: I heard you were a wild one

Another funny little poem by Anacreon, a Greek lyricist writing from the the 6th century BC. In this ode the poet, an old man, clumsily tries to impress a beautiful young girl. In an extended metaphor the narrator compares her to a ‘filly’, a young horse, and asks her why she is avoiding him. After all, he knows what he is doing and could show her a good time.

Thracian filly, why so sharply
shy away with sidelong glances,
thinking I’ve no expertise?

Be assured, I’d put your bit on
smartly, hold the rains and run you
round the limits of the course.

But for now you graze the meadows,
frisk and play, for want of any
good experienced riding man.

Sadly this would-be-seducer is very unconvincing. Worry about his lack of expertise is probably the least of the girl’s concerns. After all the narrator’s promise to ‘put her bit on’ and ‘run her around the course’ does not sound especially appealing. In fact the description of her playing by herself in the meadow sounds far more pleasant than anything of the things he wants to do with her! The narrator completely misunderstands why he is being rejected, suggesting that he is not quite as worldly as he would have us believe.

We have a few fragments where Anacreon takes on the persona of an elderly and unsuccessful lover. I look at his most famous here. The tradition goes that that Anacreon lived to a very old age, and that he was a great lover and laugher all the way up to his death. These poems then are perhaps the poet having a joke at his own expense when he is past his prime. Anacreon unconvincingly tries to pass off his advanced age as experience, however he cannot help but see the funny side as he chases after girls who are well out of his league.

Translation:
West, M. (2008).

Ovid’s spider girl: Unravelling the female gaze

Arachne in Gustave Doré's illustration for Dante's Purgatorio of the Divine Comedy series.

Arachne in Gustave Doré’s illustration for Dante’s Purgatorio of the Divine Comedy series.

Ovid’s epic the Metamorphoses is constantly playing with different narrative voices. In the myth of Arachne we are shown how fleeting our stories can be. Ovid looks at the tension between the male and female voice, exploring the fragility a woman’s tale has in contrast to the authoritative male perspective.

In this myth, the young girl Arachne boasts that she is a better weaver than the goddess Minerva. She challenges the goddess to a contest, and the goddess answers. In her tapestry, Minerva depicts the gods and goddesses in all their divine majesty, and in the corners she weaves mortals who have been punished for daring to challenge the divine. Arachne on the other hand portrays the rapes of the gods. She shows them using disguises to deceive girls into sleeping with them. Unlike Minerva’s stately and structured masterpiece, Arachne’s is confused and fluid, and yet when the goddess inspects it she can find no fault with it. Enraged, Minerva destroys the tapestry. Arachne, who is devoted to her art, is devastated and hangs herself. The goddess feels a modicum of pity and rescues Arachne by turning her into a spider, sentenced to spend the rest of her days spinning webs.

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Philomela and Tereus: Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Female Voice

In ancient literature weaving was a metaphor for poetic creation. However, as weaving was a female activity it also became associated with the female voice within texts. Denied a voice in ancient literature women are portrayed as using a weave to tell their story. Perhaps the most interesting example of this takes place in Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the story of Tereus and Philomena.

After the latest series of Game of Thrones there has been a lot of debate about sexual violence in the media. The Metamorphoses shows us that graphic violence, particularly against women, has been a part of popular culture for a very long time. This is perhaps the most explicit story of Ovid’s epic. The tyrant Tereus has married Procne, the daughter of the King of Athens, and after five years away from home Procne asks her husband to bring her sister Philomena over for a visit. However when Tereus sees Philomena he is maddened by his desire for her. He kidnaps her and rapes her, and when she threatens to reveal his crime he cuts out her tongue. He then keeps her hidden away in a forest and pretends that she has been killed. Philomena however weaves her story and through a servant manages to send the message to her sister. On receiving her sister’s weave Procne rescues Philomela and plots a terrible revenge: she murders her own son and feeds him to Tereus hidden in his dinner.

The rape is described in a truly horrific way, and the portrayal of Philomena is desperate:

(6.527-530)
The poor child trembled as a frightened lamb,
which, just delivered from the frothing jaws
of a gaunt wolf, dreads every moving twig.
She trembled as a timid injured dove,
(her feathers dripping with her own life-blood)
that dreads the ravening talons of a hawk
from which some fortune has delivered her.

(553-558)
When she first saw his sword above her head.
Flashing and sharp, she wished only for death,
and offered her bare throat: but while she screamed,
and, struggling, called upon her father’s name,
he caught her tongue with pincers, pitiless,
and cut it with his sword —The mangled root
still quivered, but the bleeding tongue itself,
fell murmuring on the blood-stained floor.

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Nero’s Empire in Roman Literature: A Godless Land

In my post on Seneca’s Thyestes I talk about how how texts changed under the Emperor Nero. Literature written in this time was a lot darker and messier, and one of the most striking differences is the disappearance of the gods. In Augustan literature the Roman Empire is ordained by Zeus and a fulfilment of man’s manifest destiny, but under Nero chaos and uncertainty rule the world, there is no divine order or great purpose, and mankind are powerless under their psychotic rulers.

Seneca’s play Thyestes is a very pointed example of this change. In Ancient Greek tragedy the play usually ends with the appearance of a god, who explains to the characters how they can right everything and earn forgiveness for their misdeeds. In Seneca’s tragedy Thyestes however the gods do not appear. Thyestes has been tricked by his brother Atreus into eating his own sons at a feast, revenge for scheming with Atreus’ wife to overthrow him. Horrified by the knowledge of what he has done, Thyestes implores the gods to fulfil their role as divine rulers and punish the two brothers’ unholy crimes, listing Tartarus, Acheron and Phlegethon, places in hell traditionally reserved for the worst sinners. But humanity has been abandoned and there is no justice to be found. He cries go unanswered and where the gods are expected to step in there is a terrible silence.

Saturn Devouring his Son by Rubens (1636)

Saturn Devouring his Son by Rubens (1636)

Seneca’s Thyestes (1004-1021)

ATREUS
…Now, father, spread out thine arms;
they have come. Do you recognise your sons?

[He uncovers the platter, revealing the severed heads of Thyestes’ sons.]

THYESTES
I recognise my brother. How can you bear such a crime,
Earth? Why do you not plunge into the Stygian
darkness below 
and, on a gaping path
to empty chaos, not rip apart this kingdom and it’s king?

Why, tearing this whole palace from the ground,
not raze Mycenas? We should already both be standing
before Tantalus. With prison bars torn apart
on every side, 
if there is a land below Tartarus, 
below our grandfathers, send there your chasm 
with a huge abyss and hide us buried
beneath all of Acheron. Let guilty souls wander
above our heads and fiery Phlegethon,
with its burning waters 
driving burning sands,
flows violently above our place of exile.
 – Why Earth do you still lie an inactive mass?
The gods have fled.

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Sappho Fr. 96: The moonlit girl

This is perhaps Sappho’s most beautiful fragment. She describes a girl who is as lovely as the moon at night, and yet who is consumed by her love for Atthis. It is a truly beautiful image in which the girl’s sad loneliness is echoed in the quiet, moonlit night.

…But now among the women of Lydia
she shines, as after the sun has set 
the rosy-fingered moon will appear, surpassing

all the stars, bestowing her light alike
upon the waves of the briny sea
and on the fields that sparkle with countless flowers.
Everything is bathed in the lovely dew:
roses take their nourishment, and 
soft chervil, and the blossoming honey-lotus.

Often, as she moves on her daily round,
she’ll be eating her tender heart
when she thinks of her love for gentle Atthis…

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Old age and the Greek lyric poets

Fear of old age was a popular theme among the Greek lyricists. This made for some beautiful poetry that is most touching in its bittersweet admiration of youth. Dating from the 7th to the 6th century BC, these four poems are the first we have in a poetic tradition that stretches across Western literature.
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