Theognis 237-54: Remember my name

Theognis of Megara is a Greek elegist, probably writing in the 6th century BC. Much of his poetry is political, addressed to his agathoi – fellow Greek aristocrats. However, his main addressee is Cyrnus, a young man with whom he is in an erotic relationship. Theognis’ relationship with Cyrnus was a stormy one, as the poem below shows. It is a beautiful but bitter piece, notable for its use of Homeric tropes to exact a poetic revenge on his deceitful lover.

237-54

For my part, I have made you wings on which to fly
across the endless sea and all the earth
with ease, you’ll soon be at every dinner, every feast,
and many a man will have you on his lips,
and lovely lads accompanied by alto pipes
will sing of you in voices sweet and clear
and orderly. And when, down in the earth’s dark nooks,
you go to Hades’ house of wailing grief,
not even in death will your fame fade, but men 
will always cherish your immortal name,
Cyrnus, as you roam over all the land of Greece,
and all the islands of the teeming sea,
not riding then on horseback; no, the violet wreathed
Muses will speed you by their noble grace.
Future men likewise, all who have an interest,
will sing of you, while earth and sun exist.
And yet from you I cannot get some slight respect;
you lie to me as if I were a child.

Poetic immortality was a very important concern for the Ancient Greeks. The use of the trope in this poem particularly recalls the following lines in the Odyssey and the Iliad:

Il. 6.357-8
(Helen addressing Hector)

“Zeus has brought an evil fate upon us, and in days to come we shall be a song for those yet unborn.”

Od. 24.93-4
(the ghost of Agamemnon describing the funeral of Achilles)

“So your name was not lost, Achilles, in death, and you will be famous indeed forever among men.”

Theognis uses Homeric imagery to imbue his promises with an epic grandeur. In Homer words are often described as “winged“, and here these wings become those that will transport Cyrnus into immortal fame. However, this grandeur is lost in the sting of the final two lines, where Theognis complains of the indignity of Cyrnus’ treatment towards him.

Continue reading

Advertisements

A Woman’s Place: Female Transgression in the Odyssey

In my posts on Helen of Troy and the Sirens I look at how formidable women use their voices to bewitch men and shape the narrative. In the following episode in Book 22 we see the sad fate of ordinary women, maidservants, who are punished for their transgressions and silenced by the epic.

When Odysseus finally gets back to Ithaca it is to find his home overrun by unruly suitors, all vying for his wife Penelope’s hand in the belief that he is dead. Some of the female servants of Odysseus’ household are sleeping with these men. They are mentioned on two occasions. First is Melantho, Penelope’s foster-daughter, who scorns Odysseus while he is dressed as a beggar:

18.320-5

“So Odysseus spoke, and the maids broke into a laugh, and glanced at one another. And fair-cheeked Melantho rated him shamefully, Melantho, whom Dolius begot, but whom Penelope had reared and cherished as her own child, and gave her playthings to her heart’s desire. Yet even so she had at heart no sorrow for Penelope, but she loved Eurymachus and was wont to lie with him.”

And then in Book 20:

20.5

“And the women came forth from the hall, those that had before been wont to lie with the wooers, making laughter and merriment among themselves.”

In both passages female laughter is associated with sexual misconduct. There is here a link between the female voice and women who need to be contained, just like the sirens who lure men to their deaths with their song.

The fate of these women as a consequence of their affairs is terrible. Once Odysseus has slain the suitors they are forced to clean up the bloody bodies of their former lovers. Then Odysseus hands them over to his son Telemachus, with the order that the punishment for their crimes must be death:

22.461-473

“Then wise Telemachus was the first to speak to the others, saying: ‘Let it be by no clean death that I take the lives of these women, who on my own head have poured reproaches and on my mother, and were wont to lie with the wooers.’ So he spoke, and tied the cable of a dark-prowed ship to a great pillar and flung it round the dome, stretching it on high that none might reach the ground with her feet. And as when long-winged thrushes or doves fall into a snare that is set in a thicket, as they seek to reach their resting-place, and hateful is the bed that gives them welcome, even so the women held their heads in a row, and round the necks of all nooses were laid, that they might die most piteously. And they writhed a little while with their feet, but not long.”

For all their crimes it is a horrible death, and Homer highlights this with the metaphor comparing them to birds caught in a net and describing their twitching feet.

 

Continue reading

A Voyage to the Moon: Science Fiction in Ancient Greece

Lucian is a second century AD Syrian writer. His True Histories is generally viewed as the first science fiction novel, and its bizarre, playful narrative can be viewed as a precursor to writers such as Douglas Adams. Setting out on a voyage, the narrator is caught up in a storm that propels him through the sky, and his ship ends up landing on the moon.

Lucian builds on the Greek idea that the moon is a mirror world to our own. Pythagorean philosophers had a lot of interesting theories about the moon. They thought of it as a sort of reverse parallel of the earth, populated by earth-like beings of great beauty. These creatures do not have messy bodily functions, they lay eggs and do not produce excrement. They are therefore purer and ‘cleaner’ than humans, detached from our worldly selves. One theory held that Helen of Troy, who according to myth was born from an egg, was a moon-woman. Many believed that the moon reflected the sun’s light, and Anaxagoras, a fifth century BC philosopher, called the moon a ‘star of false light’.

And so the moon was associated with lies and distorted realities. This created scope to explore the relationship between truth and fiction, and how the artificial reality of stories can appear to truthfully reflect our own world.

Lucian playfully describes his observations of the Moon-men. In a ridiculous and bawdy passage he describes the strange sexual practices of the Moon-men:

In the interval, while I was living on the moon, I observed some strange and wonderful things that I wish to speak of. In the first place there is the fact that they are not born of women but of men: they marry men and do not even know the word woman at all! Up to the age of twenty-five each is a wife, and thereafter a husband. They carry their children in the calf of the leg instead of the belly. When conception takes place the calf begins to swell. In course of time they cut it open and deliver the child dead, and then they bring it to life by putting it in the wind with its mouth open.

Continue reading

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).

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.

Continue reading

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…

Continue reading

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.
Continue reading