With Valentines day just around the corner, I thought I’d spend a few minutes on some ancient Greek lyric. If you were expecting the ancient equivalent of Shakespearean sonnets… turn away now! The fragment below provides a rather shocking reminder that while ancient Greece can be touted as the birthplace of democracy, the cradle of Western civilization, it was nevertheless a world very different to our own…
Semonides fr.7 (the anti-Valentine?)
Semonides fr.7 is fairly well known, as far as lyric fragments go. In the song Semondes details the various kinds of wives that Zeus created, comparing them to different animals. Whether this song was conceived as (what we might term) misogynistic invective, or rather as a parody, is open to debate.
There are ten comparisons that Semonides makes:
- The ‘hairy sow‘ who ‘eats herself fat and wallows in the muck‘.
- The ‘wicked vixen‘ who ‘misses nothing so long as it’s bad‘.
- The ‘bitch‘ who ‘by herself gets pregnant‘.
- The ‘lame duck‘ who is ‘ignorant of good and ill alike. The only skill she knows is eating…‘.
- ‘Another from the sea‘ who ‘has two moods‘.
- The ‘obstinate grey ass‘ who ‘after thwacks and curses just consents to the minimum‘.
- The ‘weasel‘ who is ‘quite resourceless in the bed of love, making the passenger seasick‘.
- The ‘fancy mare… this woman makes a lovely sight for others, but a plague for the man she belongs to‘.
- The ‘monkey‘ has an ‘ugly face – the whole town sniggers when this sort goes past‘.
- The ‘bee… he’s lucky who gets her, for she’s the only one on whom no blame alights‘.
This is just a brief selection of the rather vivid comparisons that Semonides draws (translations taken from M.West’s ‘Greek Lyric Poetry’). After having made his views on the role of the wife quite clear (keeping quiet and doing chores) Semonides supports his views with a mythological/ historical precedent:
“Zeus made wives as his worst pestilence and fettered us in bonds unbreakable. It’s long been so: remember those who fought round Troy’s old city for a woman’s sake…”
These views appear very shocking to us now, but they were relatively commonplace in ancient Greece. However, before this Valentines Day post becomes too pessimistic and dispirited, ancient Greek literature provides us with some truly touching and loving moments, from the poetry of Sappho, to the discussions in Plato’s Symposium. My personal favourite though, comes from Xenophon’s Symposium.
Xenophon’s Symposium (the Valentine?)
It is the end of the evening and Kallias’ dinner guests have had their fill of food and philosophising. At just the right moment the Syracusan who had organised the evening’s entertainment announces:
“Gentlemen, Ariadne will now enter the chamber set apart for her and Dionysus; after that, Dionysus, a little flushed with wine drunk at a banquet of the gods, will come to join her; and then they will disport themselves together.”
The guests admire the courtship scene of Ariadne and Dionysus, the two lovers’ dance inspires their hearts:
“Then when Dionysus arose and gave his hand to Ariadne to rise also, there was presented the impersonation of lovers kissing and caressing each other. The onlookers viewed a Dionysus truly handsome, an Ariadne truly fair, not presenting a burlesque but offering genuine kisses with their lips; and they were all raised to a high pitch of enthusiasm as they looked on. For they overheard Dionysus asking her if she loved him, and heard her vowing that she did For they overheard Dionysus asking her if she loved him, and heard her vowing that she did, so earnestly that not only Dionysus but all the bystanders as well would have taken their oaths in confirmation that the youth and the maid surely felt a mutual affection. For theirs was the appearance not of actors who had been taught their poses but of persons now permitted to satisfy their long-cherished desires.”
Such was the depiction of love that the dinner guests were inspired:
“…seeing the dancers in each other’s embrace and obviously leaving for the bridal couch, the guests who were unwedded swore that they would marry, and those who were already married mounted horse and rode off to their wives that they might be with them.”
On that note, I wish everyone a very happy Valentines Day, whether you are sharing it with another or not!