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Alcman: the choral poetry of ancient Sparta.

Copyright (c) by Craig Welch 2000. All Rights Reserved.

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.

I will add a list of links and printed references that can be useful.

Edited on July 28, 2008

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:

The final subjection of Messenia was to have long term effects; but the immediate consequence was a prosperity which is reflected in contemporary Spartan culture. All signs of tension are absent from Alkman's songs, written about 600 for the choirs of young women who performed at the festivals:

For in place of steel comes the beauty of the lyre

(Fragment 41 = 100D)

Alkman seems to be describing himself at the start of one of his 'Maiden-songs':

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?

(Fragment I.50-6)

The rite is probably concerned with the passage from girlhood to woman's status, and the occasion is the presentation of a new robe to Artemis Orthia.

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: Athenaeus, Scholars at Dinner

Some writers call partridges caccábae as does Alcman when he says,

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.

(editor's note:)The species in question is the chukar partridge (Alectoris chukar), which calls kakkabi; since the bird is found in Asia Minor and the eastern Aegean islands but not to the west, the passage may be evidence that Alcman grew up in Lydia, not in Sparta; see K. Borthwick ap. W. G. Arnott, C.Q. 27 (1977) 337 n. 1.

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.

She [Dawn] is heralded by the Morning Star, who, in the Iliad (23,226), is her son. She then rises in a chariot drawn by two horses.

Friedrich also mentions, in discussing the relationship of Eos to the star mythology of Orion, that:

The myth of Orion's becoming a constellation after his affair with Dawn is ancient even in Homer and is, in fact, the earliest astral myth of the Greeks.

Alcman's Agido is Dawn-like, as he introduces her in the poem:

And so I sing of the brightness of Agido: I see her like the sun, which Agido summons to shine on us as our witness;

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 life of Phryne ends on an optimistic note. As Clark puts it (1956:83 - Kenneth Clark5) "It was a triumph for beauty; and to the Greek mind this beauty was not simply created by Praxiteles, but was already present in the person of his model, Phryne. She shared with him the credit for the beautiful figure with which he enriched the Greek world."

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:

    There is such a thing as the vengeance of the gods

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.:

    The classification of people according to their age is apt to be sharp and vivid in primitive communities. We, for example think of an old man as a kind of man, and an old woman as a kind of woman; but in primitive peoples as soon as a man and woman cease to be able to perform his and her due tribal functions they cease to be men and women, andres and gynaikes: the ex-man becomes a geron; the ex-woman a graus. We distinguish between 'boy' and 'man,' between 'girl' and 'woman'; but apart from the various words for baby, Attic Greek would have four sharp divisions, pais, efibos, anir, geron. In Sparta the divisions are still sharper and more numerous, centring in the great initiation cerimonies of the Iranes, or full-grown youths, to the goddess called Orthia or Bortheia. These initiation ceremonies are called Teletai, 'completions': they mark the great 'rite of transtion.' from the immature, charming, but half useless thing which we call boy or girl, to the teleios anir, the full member of the tribe as fighter or counsellor, or to the teleia gyne, the full wife and mother.


    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:

    The death is deserved, but the slaying is a sin: hence comes the next Year as Avenger, or as the Wronged One re-risen.

and then he quotes Anaximander:

    All things pay retribution for their injustice one to another according to the ordinance of time.

    [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:

    There is such a thing as the vengeance of the gods:
    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
    our witness

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:
Campbell, D.A.,Greek Lyric II of the Loeb Classical Library. Suffolk, UK, St. Edmondsbury Press, 1988, pp. 360-369.

2Murray, Oswyn. Early Greece. Stanford, California, Stanford University Press, 1983. pp.165-166.

3Campbell, D.A., Greek Lyric II, op. cit., p. 425.

4Friedrich, David, The Meaning of Aphrodite, The University of Chicago Press, 1978. p.220.

5Clark, Kenneth, The Nude, a Study in Ideal Form. Bollingen Series XXXV.2. New York, Pantheon Books, 1956.

6Murray, Gilbert. Five Stages of Greek Religion. Doubleday, 1955. pp. 29-31.

Short film based on a poem by Sappho.

References to Alcman from antiquity.

The Oxyrhynchus Project for the imaging of papyri.

Return to the Main Index.

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