PDF format version of this document.
Alcman: the choral poetry of ancient Sparta.
The poetry of 7th century B.C. Greece though fragmented by the
passage of time, remains as a window in the wall of history:
a view of complexly rich cultures and people. The surviving pieces
of a woven tapestry yield vivid images of individuals as well as
insights into their society.
Alcman's choral poem found at Saqqara1 in 1855 will be one of the poems considered.
I quote from Oswyn Murray's book Early Greece 2 regarding Alcman:
(Fragment 41 = 100D)
No countryman was he, not
clumsy, not one of the uncultured,
no man from Thessaly,
no Erysichean, not a shepherd,
But one from lofty Sardis.
(Fragment 16 = 13D)
Sardis was capital of the Lydian kingdom in Asia Minor; Alkman's poetry certainly reflects a society of high culture open to eastern influences and fascinated by the exotic; he was interested in cosmogony and in stories from the distant Black Sea, and delights in foreign names and objects. Despite their role in public performance, his poems are intimate and full of personal references - to his own skill, his relations with the dancers and theirs with each other; his touch is lighter and more playful even than Sappho's. His dancers have aristocratic names, Agido ('leader'), Astumeloisa ('favorite of the city'), Hagesichora ('leader of the dance'); some of them are known to have been related to royal houses. Their attributes are those of an aristocracy; they recall an earlier age, when Sparta was famous only for her women; they move like racehorses, they are compared with precious metals, their hair is long and flowing:
Do you not see? The Venetian racehorse -
the hair of my kinswoman Hagesichora
blooms like untarnished gold;
her silver face -
but why should I talk with you openly?
The excavations at the shrine of Artemis Orthia have shown that eastern and other objects such as ivories, scarabs and amber beads were being imported from about 700...
...around the middle of the century (550) Spartan culture begins to decline. After Alkman no poets are known
In regard to Alcman's origins in Asia Minor, an observation has been made in Greek Lyric II 3, no. 39:
These words and melody Alcman invented by observing the tongued cry of partridges (caccabides).
He makes it clear that he learned to sing from the partridges. That is why Chamaeleon of Pontus said that the invention of music was devised by the ancients from the birds singing in lonely places.
Paul Friedrich's book, The Meaning of Aphrodite, (The Univ. of Chicago Press, 1978) explores the importance of Aphrodite for 8th and 7th century (b.c.) Greek poetry, particularly of Homer and Sappho. The book is especially interesting because it is a cross discipline of linguistics and anthropology. The roots of Aphrodite can be found as Semitic Ishtar, and the Proto-European *awsos, the Greek Eos, Dawn.
Friedrich also mentions, in discussing the relationship of Eos to the star mythology of Orion, that:
Alcman's Agido is Dawn-like, as he introduces her in the poem:
In Mr. Friedrich's book4, a footnote regarding his very lively and fascinating concept developed using the example of Phryne and Praxiteles relates the following:
The sculpture was the agent to project the beauty which already existed in Phryne, and the people of Phryne's city believed her to be as responsible for the result of the sculpture as was Praxiteles. In like manner, the young women, Agido and Hagesichora ('leader of the dance'), share the same rapport with Alcman, and together they create a projection of beauty, love and a social reality. This reality is further brought into proximity with the divine realm of the gods. It might seem to our minds, of the 20th century a.d., incongruous to slip immediately from the telling of the activities of the gods to the activities of these Spartan women and their relationships and inner thoughts. But no, one becomes a mirror of the other. Telling of the gods would bring the gods to the performance as well as suit the occasion of the ritual, telling of Agido and Hagesichora and their companions in the chorus would allow these women to partake in a proximity to the gods. The people of Sparta would see these, their children, become a heightened expression of love and beauty in Alcman's choral performance. It would seem they were successful! This is a passion that will occupy the minds and hearts of human culture for centuries.
Synthesis - the Louvre partheneion.
When the poet begins his description of Agido and the ensuing life-in-the-present description of the young women of the choir, I was struck by the strange juxtapostion of a light heartedness of the poem compared to the prior lines. The gravity of Fate, fallen warriors, and the suffering from plotting evil painted a dark picture culminating in line 36:
I now quote some illuminating passages from Gilbert Murray's book about Greek religion, Five Stages of Greek Religion,6 which begin to mitigate the abruptness in the change of content of the poem. This change is certainly with purpose since there is no fragmentation explaining this change of topic and mood.:
At the great spring Dromenon the tribe and the growing earth were renovated together: the earth arises afresh from her dead seeds, the tribe from its dead ancestors; and the whole process, charged as it is with emotion of pressing human desire, projects its anthropomorphic god or daemon...a spirit that in the first stage is living, then dies with each year, then thirdly rises again from the dead, raising the whole dead world with him.
An interesting interprtation placed on this by Murray is that the growing year waxes in its fullness with pride or Hubris and is then slain. A twist on this theme is, as he writes:
and then he quotes Anaximander:
[Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, i. 13]
Now, in the light of Murray's thoughts, reading lines 36 - 44 has greater continuity and seems less abrupt:
that man is blessed who devoutly weaves to the
end the web of his day unweeping.
And so I sing of the brightness of Agido: I see her
like the sun, which Agido summons to shine on us as
The renewal of the adult population by the rites of passage offers hope, a bright light of all that is new and devoid of the past failures, that 'valour which was without foundation.' The importance of youth passing through the community rituals of maturity is the link between past and future; it is the future: the valour and the people yet to be.
photography © by
Craig Welch 2001. All rights reserved.
1The poems may be found with an English translation in:
6Murray, Gilbert. Five Stages of Greek Religion. Doubleday, 1955. pp. 29-31.
PDF format version of this document.