It’s mid-August, and I’m in the midst of preparing for the upcoming school year, so I don’t have time for a long blog entry right now. However, I couldn’t resist passing on this lovely poem by Alcman, a (male) Spartan lyric poet from the 7th century BCE. I thought it might be of particular interest to all of us who are teaching either the 5th or 10th grade, since in Waldorf schools, those are the years that we focus on Greek history.
Apart from Sappho’s poems, we have very few depictions of ancient Greek girlhood that don’t involve somewhat depressing images of girls and women being confined to the house, in scenarios more reminiscent of the Taliban than the “glory that was Greece” depictions that were popular among the Victorians. (Who, not incidentally, had their own program of repression they were famous for imposing on women.)
However, as is well-known, Spartan girls were different. Spartan women were given much greater liberty than in other Greek city-states; they were even encouraged to exercise heartily and dance in public. Of course, all this was for the greater aim of making them strong, healthy child-bearers for the State–not exactly the same goals we have in mind when we encourage our daughters and students to develop their physical abilities. But if we’re looking for pictures of a free, relatively uninhibited (for the time period) ancient Greek girlhood, look no further than Sparta.
Alcman’s poem is precious to us in this regard–he not only extols the beauty of two individual Spartan girls (Agido and Hagesikhora), he also gives us a wonderful picture of girls as a group racing (presumably in a foot-race), and the crowd cheering them on, often by name. Another terrific aspect of the poem is his imagination that he himself is one of the girls in the choir singing at the race. Such a beautiful, awe-inspiring picture!
Without further ado, then, here is the poem. It is a part of a longer piece, of which much is just in fragments. Luckily for us, the part that survives the best is the part about the girls. The translation comes from this excellent site that focuses on women and gender issues in the ancient world.
And I, I sing of Agido,
Of her light. She is like the sun
To which she makes our prayers,
The witness of its radiance.
Yet I can neither praise her nor blame her
Till I have sung of another,
Sung of our choirmaster,
Who stands among us as in a pasture
One splendid stallion
Paws the meadow, a champion racer,
A horse that runs in dreams.
Imagine her if you can. Her hair,
As gold as a Venetian mane,
Flowers around her silver eyes.
What can I say to make you see?
She is Hagesikhora and
Agido, almost, almost as beautiful,
Is a Kolaxaian filly running behind her
In the races at Ibeno.
A Pleiades of doves they are
Contending at dawn before the altar of Artemis
For the honor of offering the sacred plow
Which we have brought to the goddess.
They are the white star Sirius rising
In the honey and spice of a summer night.
Neither abundance of purple
Can defend us with its glory,
Nor golden snakes engraved with eyes and scales,
Nor bonnets from Lydia and brooches,
Nor our sweet violet eyes.
Nor can Nanno’s hair, Areta’s goddess face,
Thylakis nor Kleësithera,
Nor Ainesimbrota to whom we cry
Let Astaphis be ours,
Let Philylla look our way sometimes,
Damareta and the lovely Wianthemis,
Keep back defeat unless
Hagesikhora alone, our love,
Be our victory’s shield.
And she is, she is our own,
The splendid-ankled Hagesikhora!
With Agido, by whose side she lingers,
She honors the rites with her beauty.
Accept her prayers O gods,
For she is your handiwork,
Perfect of her kind.
And I, I, O Choirmaster,
Am but an ordinary girl.
I hoot like an owl in the roof.
I long to worship the goddess of the dawn
Whose gift is peace. For Hagesikhora
We sing, for her we virgin girls
Make our lovely harmonies.
Enjoy the rest of your summer. To my fellow-teachers, bon courage in the weeks ahead!