Reading the fragments in Classics

As I was kissing Agathon, I had to hold back my soul on my lips,
for the poor thing had come in the hopes of crossing over.

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

Another funny little poem by Anacreon. Here the poet, an old man again, 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 is an experienced lover 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 rather 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. The description of her in the third stanza playing in the meadow sounds far more pleasant than anything of the things Anacreon wants to do with her. This misunderstanding as to why he is being rejected also suggests that the narrator is not as worldly as he would have us believe. 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 far 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, Ovid uses myth to explore the tension between the fragility of the female voice in literature, in contrast to the authoritative male narrator.

Arachne boasts that she is a better weaver than the goddess Minerva, and challenges the goddess to a contest. Minerva accepts, but when both have completed their tapestries, she can find no faults in her opponent’s work. She destroys Arachne’s tapestry in a fit of rage and, devastated, Arachne tries to commit suicide by hanging herself. At this, Minerva feels a modicum of pity and so spares Arachne by turning her into a spider. She is now sentenced to spend the rest of her days weaving webs.

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

In ancient literature weaving is a metaphor for poetic creation. However, as weaving was a female activity it was often used as a way to convey female messages in texts. One of the most striking examples of this takes place in Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the story of Tereus and Philomena.

The myth is an extremely violent one. 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 accompany her sister Philomena as she travels 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 a record of what has happened to her, and through a servant manages to send this message to her sister. Procne rescues Philomela and plots a terrible revenge: she murders her own son and feeds him to an unwitting Tereus.

The rape and mutilation of Procne is described in a truly horrific way:

(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, a play would often end with the appearance of a god, who would then explain to the characters how to earn forgiveness for their misdeeds. In Seneca’s tragedy Thyestes however, the gods do not appear when they are summoned. 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 their unholy crimes. He asks that they are banished to whatever places lie below Tartarus, Acheron and Phlegethon, places in hell traditionally reserved for the worst sinners. But humanity has been abandoned and his cries go unanswered. Where the gods are expected to step in there is only 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. The two lovers are separated, but Sappho consoles Atthis by reminding him that across the sea in Lydia his beloved is thinking of him.

…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

Lamenting old age was a popular trope 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 some of the first we have in a poetic tradition that stretches across Western literature.
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