On The Music Box: Oxycanta
I have wanted to cover Archilochos’s poetry for quite awhile… He is practically unknown now, but at one time, he was indeed the Bees Knees for classical works, right after Homer… Sadly, most of his work is in fragments at this point. Maybe one day a cache of his writings will be discovered…. All the comments are extracted from various writers… sorry, no listings of who were available.
Thursday Afternoon – Left Coast of Turtle Island.
The Fragments of Archilochos’s poetry give us a personal, intimate view of this 7th century B.C. poet’s world. This poet-soldier’s poetry and life reflect his era-a time of Greek colonization (not always peaceful), political, social, and economic unrest. Archilochos was the younger son of an aristocratic father and a slave mother. He participated in attempts by his native island of Paros colonize the island of Thasos. Archilochos’s poetry reveals him as a sensitive, superb poet who used his poetry to articulate strong opinions about war, love, religion, sex, poetry, politics, and the human condition. He was a survivor: one poem brags about fleeing the battlefield and living to fight another day-a radical departure from the ‘Homeric code’ of values which prized a warrior’s honor. ‘Our earliest extant example of lyric poetry, Archilochos’s poetry represents a dramatic departure from the Iliad and Odyssey’s ‘epic’ style.
Be bold! That’s one way
of getting through life.
So I turn upon her
and point out that,
faced with the wickedness
of things, she does not shiver.
I prefer to have, after all,
only what pleases me.
Are you so deep in misery
that you think me fallen?
You say I’m lazy, I’m not,
nor any of my kin-people.
I know how to love those
who love me, how to hate.
My enemies I overwhelm
with abuse. The ant bites!
The oracle said to me:
“Return to the city, reconquer.
It is almost in ruins.
With your spear give it glory.
Reign with absolute power,
the admiration of men.
After this long voyage,
return to us from Gortyne.”
Pasture, fish, nor vulture
were you, and 1, returned,
seek an honest woman
ready to be a good wife.
I would hold your hand,
would be near you, would have run
all the way to your house.
I cannot. The ship went down,
and all my wealth with it.
The salvagers have no hope.
You whom the soldiers beat,
you who are all but dead,
how the gods love you!
And I, alone in the dark,
I was promised the light.
Fragment of a Poem by Archilochus
Back away from that, [she said]
And steady on [ ]
Wayward and wildly pounding heart,
There is a girl who lives among us
Who watches you with foolish eyes,
A slender, lovely, graceful girl,
Just budding into supple line,
And you scare her and make her shy.
O daughter of the highborn Amphimedo,
I replied, of the widely remembered
Amphimedo now in the rich earth dead,
There are, do you know, so many pleasures
For young men to choose from
Among the skills of the delicious goddess
It’s green to think the holy one’s the only.
When the shadows go black and quiet,
Let us, you and I alone, and the gods,
Sort these matters out. Fear nothing:
I shall be tame, I shall behave
And reach, if I reach, with a civil hand.
I shall climb the wall and come to the gate.
You’ll not say no, Sweetheart, to this?
I shall come no farther than the garden grass.
Neobulé I have forgotten, believe me, do.
Any man who wants her may have her.
Aiai! She’s past her day, ripening rotten.
The petals of her flower are all brown.
The grace that first she had is shot.
Don’t you agree that she looks like a boy?
A woman like that would drive a man crazy.
She should get herself a job as a scarecrow.
I’d as soon hump her as [kiss a goat’s butt].
A source of joy I’d be to the neighbors
With such a woman as her for a wife!
How could I ever prefer her to you?
You, O innocent, true heart and bold.
Each of her faces is as sharp as the other,
Which way she’s turning you never can guess.
She’d whelp like the proverb’s luckless bitch
Were I to foster get upon her, throwing
Them blind, and all on the wrongest day.
I said no more, but took her hand,
Laid her down in a thousand flowers,
And put my soft wool cloak around her.
I slid my arm under her neck
To still the fear in her eyes,
For she was trembling like a fawn,
Touched her hot breasts with light fingers,
Straddled her neatly and pressed
Against her fine, hard, bared crotch.
I caressed the beauty of all her body
And came in a sudden white spurt
While I was stroking her hair.
This poem only survives in fragments. It was written by Archilochus, a famous Greek lyric poet of the seventh century. Later Greeks thought he was the greatest poet after Homer, and placed him as an equal beside Pindar and Sophocles. He was especially famous as a writer of invectives, but wrote with a boisterous lust for the joys of life. He was born on Paros, in the Cyclades, but joined a colony on Thasos. He apparently traveled from place to place, driven by economic necessity and wanderlust, until he finally returned to Paros, where he was killed in a fight. His great genius stemmed from his ability to manipulate a number of meters, and he is credited with perfecting iambic metrical forms.
His tumultuous life and a deep sense of anger permeate his poems, which were brutally abusive to his enemies and only slightly less so to his friends. He was particularly incensed with Lycambes, who promised him his daughter Neoboule and then unjustly broke the engagement. The story goes that Archilochus produced such a vicious, torrential outpouring of invective that Lycambes and his family hanged themselves from the shame.
This poem seems to fit within this series of poems, as the poetic persona, presumably Archilochus, seduces a virgin of Neoboules house, perhaps a younger sister. Despite its fragmentary nature, it is fairly clear what is going on. The seducer promises the young girl that he will spare her virginity, and not go all the way. The divine thing is a euphemism for sexual intercourse, and the gate and garden imagery are also common sexual metaphors for womens bodies. Some scholars argue based on the fragmentary last lines that he does not keep his promise. I, however, interpret them to describe the culmination of intercrural sex, and therefore the girls maidenhead is intact, even though deflowering her might fit within the context of insulting the family. The historical context of the poem is too uncertain for it to be allowed to influence its interpretation, and based on what survives, I think the lover does do as promised.
The interest of this poem for this exhibit, besides its beauty as a piece of erotic writing, is in its frank description of a realistic sexual encounter with a sympathy for the female participant. The young virgin is presented in a way that was probably as familiar to the men of Archilochus time as it is today. She is shy, reluctant, but curious; it is hard to say what moral stigma, if any, might have been attached to a man who seduced an inexperienced and vulnerable girl. She is worried for her chastity and reputation, but her would-be lover assures her that he will stop short of deflowering her, merely initiating her into the joys of love.
Although the lovers final goal may be to insult the virgins family by attacking her chastity, the actual description of the act is tender and erotic. He is gentle with her, laying her down on a cloak in the soft grass (grass is a potent sexual metaphor for the female pubis, and the image of blooming flowers is a clear connection to the girls fresh readiness and virginity) and caressing her breasts and body. Although the girl is described as still with fear like a fawn, further connecting her with nature, her lover seems to try to ease her fear with his caress, not heighten it, and we do not find tones of domination or taming in the surviving portion, as we see so often in the Attic records.
Although this poem was composed fully two hundred years before the popularity of Athena Parthenos in Athens, it still demonstrates the same Greek ideal of feminine beauty. Archilochus says that he prefers he freshness and innocence to the over-ripe maturity of Neoboule, who, we may interpret, has been around the block a few times. While he is undoubtedly trying to flatter her so that she will give in to his seduction, his sincere description of her loveliness seems to show that a young, naïve, inexperienced girl was something to be coveted. The attraction of a proper citizen girl was in her potential, her ripeness, and her lack of experience; she was fresh and new for only one man. The kylix, with its explicit scenes and grotesque humor, was perhaps the least titillating piece in the exhibit. Contrast it with the young, if not virginal, girl of the tondoshe fits in to a poem like this far better than her unfortunate colleagues. As we have seen in the other pieces of the exhibit, in the ancient Greek world, the promise and potential for sex was often as titillating and erotic as pornographic depictions of the actual act.