men dancing for war and pleasure in ancient Greek poetry

Ancient Greek poetry associated men’s physical vitality in dancing with pleasures of love, banqueting, singing, and bodily comfort such as warm baths and clean clothes. Men’s physical vitality, however, also implies men’s instrumental value in violence against men. In ancient Greek poetry, men dancing to express and provide pleasure shows a communal alternative to valuing men as warriors. Men dancing for pleasure indicates men valued intrinsically as human beings.

War — institutionalized violence against men — was a primary ancient context for men dancing. A reference to the war dance of Ares occurs in the Iliad, composed about 2700 years ago. In response to the Greek hero Ajax’s taunts on the battlefield of the horrific Trojan War, the Trojan hero Hector warned Ajax:

Well I myself know how to fight and kill men in battle.
I know well how to turn to the right, how to turn to the left the ox-hide
seasoned into a sturdy shield for me to wield in the fight.
I know how to charge into clamorous, clashing chariots led by plunging horses.
I know in close fight how to tread the measure of the furious war god Ares.

{ αὐτὰρ ἐγὼν εὖ οἶδα μάχας τ᾽ ἀνδροκτασίας τε:
οἶδ᾽ ἐπὶ δεξιά, οἶδ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἀριστερὰ νωμῆσαι βῶν
ἀζαλέην, τό μοι ἔστι ταλαύρινον πολεμίζειν:
οἶδα δ᾽ ἐπαΐξαι μόθον ἵππων ὠκειάων:
οἶδα δ᾽ ἐνὶ σταδίῃ δηΐῳ μέλπεσθαι Ἄρηϊ. }[1]

After describing generally what might be called dancing in battle, Hector explicitly referred to a war dance of Ares. Ancient warfare required from men agility like that in dancing. In response to the Greek warrior Meriones ducking under Aeneas’s flying spear, Aeneas taunted him:

Meriones, although you’re also a dancer,
my spear would have made you stop forever, if only I could have hit you.

{ Μηριόνη τάχα κέν σε καὶ ὀρχηστήν περ ἐόντα
ἔγχος ἐμὸν κατέπαυσε διαμπερές, εἴ σ᾽ ἔβαλόν περ. }[2]

In taunting Meriones for being a dancer as well as a warrior, Aeneas shows how readily men could be disparaged for dancing.

relief depicting Athenian men dancing with shields and swords, probably Pyrrhic dance

Dancing has been a figure for ridiculing men’s bodily activity in war and sex. Writing about a millennium after the Iliad referred to the war dance of Ares, the eminent satirist Lucian of Samosata imagined the history of the Roman war dance:

Rightly we should not forget the Roman dance that the best born among Romans, those called Salii, the name of a priesthood, perform in honor of Ares, the most bellicose of the gods. It’s a dance that’s both very majestic and very sacred. Moreover, a Bithynian story not very different from those current in Italy tells that Priapus, a warlike deity, one of the Titans, I suppose, or one of the Idaean Dactyls who made a business of giving lessons in fencing, had Ares put into his charge by Hera. This occurred while Ares was still a boy, although he was hard-muscled and immoderately virile. Priapus didn’t teach Ares how to handle weapons until he had made him a perfect dancer. Indeed, Priapus even got a pension from Hera for this. He was assigned to receive from Ares in perpetuity a tenth of all the spoils that accrued to Ares through war.

{ δίκαιον μηδὲ τῆς Ῥωμαίων ὀρχήσεως ἀμνημονεῖν, ἣν οἱ εὐγενέστατοι αὐτῶν τῷ πολεμικωτάτῳ τῶν θεῶν Ἄρει, οἱ Σάλιοι καλούμενοι (ἱερωσύνης δὲ τοῦτο ὄνομα), ὀρχοῦνται, σεμνοτάτην τε ἅμα καὶ ἱερωτάτην. Βιθυνὸς δὲ μῦθος, καὶ οὗτος οὐ πάνυ τῶν Ἰταλιωτικῶν ἀλλότριος, φησὶν τὸν Πρίαπον δαίμονα πολεμιστήν, τῶν Τιτάνων οἶμαι ἕνα ἢ τῶν Ἰδαίων Δακτύλων τοῦτο ἔργον πεποιημένον, τὰ ἐνόπλια παιδεύειν, παραλαβόντα παρὰ τῆς Ἥρας τὸν Ἄρη, παῖδα μὲν ἔτι, σκληρὸν δὲ καὶ πέρα τοῦ μετρίου ἀνδρικόν, μὴ πρότερον ὁπλομαχεῖν διδάξαι πρὶν τέλειον ὀρχηστὴν ἀπειργάσατο. καὶ ἐπὶ τούτῳ καὶ μισθὸς αὐτῷ παρὰ τῆς Ἥρας ἐγένετο, δεκάτην ἀεὶ τῶν ἐκ πολέμου περιγιγνομένων τῷ Ἄρει παρ᾿ αὐτοῦ λαμβάνειν. }[3]

According to other ancient sources, Salii, chosen from among aristocratic Roman young men, processed around Rome every March. They sang and danced while dressed as archaic Roman warriors. Priapus, in contrast, was a crude, rustic, minor divinity who adorned personal gardens and came to represent disparagement of men’s sexuality. In associating the starkly status-contrasting Salii priests with Priapus in an utterly implausible myth, Lucian ridiculed men’s bodily activity in war and sex.

Both dancers and warriors tended to be regarded as not highly intelligent. In the Iliad, the Trojan military leader Polydamas was wise enough to advise the Trojans to return Helen to the Greeks. Polydamas chided his friend the eminent Trojan warrior Hector:

Just because the god granted that you excel in deeds of war,
you also wish to excel in counsel by knowing more than others.
But there’s no way you can get everything all to yourself.
The god Zeus grants that one man excel in deeds of war,
and another in dancing, and another in playing the lyre and singing.
And for yet another man, far-seeing Zeus places in his breast thought,
genuine thought, and many men benefit from such a man.
That man saves many of them, and he himself has the greatest powers of understanding.

{ οὕνεκά τοι περὶ δῶκε θεὸς πολεμήια ἔργα,
τοὔνεκα καὶ βουλῇ ἐθέλεις περιίδμεναι ἄλλων·
ἀλλ’ οὔ πως ἅμα πάντα δυνήσεαι αὐτὸς ἐλέσθαι.
ἄλλῳ μέν γὰρ δῶκε θεὸς πολεμήια ἔργα,
ἄλλῳ δ’ ὀρχηστύν, ἐτέρῳ κίθαριν καὶ ἀοιδήν,
ἄλλῳ δ’ ἐν στήθεσσι τιθεῖ νόον εὐρύοπα Ζεὺς
ἐσθλόν, τοῦ δέ τε πολλοὶ ἐπαυρίσκοντ’ ἄνθρωποι,
καί τε πολέας ἐσάωσε, μάλιστα δὲ καὐτὸς ἀνέγνω.
αὐτὰρ ἐγὼν ἐρέω ὥς μοι δοκεῖ εἶναι ἄριστα. }[4]

Polydamas regarded himself as thoughtful. He prudently advised that the Trojans pull back from a battle going badly for them. The fierce Hector, in contrast, wanted to keep fighting. Polydamas aligned the thoughtlessness of Hector the determined warrior with the thoughtlessness of dancers, musicians, and singers. Polydamas thus implicitly contrasted the bodily activity of warriors, dancers, musicians, and singers with activity of the mind.

For most men in archaic Greece, war was a desire contrasting with desires for pleasure. Menelaus complained to Zeus, the nominal chief god of the cosmos:

Of all things there is satiety — of sleep and sex
and sweet celebration and blameless dancing.
A man certainly hopes to have these desires sated, more so than
desire for war. The Trojans, however, continually seek battle.

{ πάντων μὲν κόρος ἐστὶ καὶ ὕπνου καὶ φιλότητος
μολπῆς τε γλυκερῆς καὶ ἀμύμονος ὀρχηθμοῖο,
τῶν πέρ τις καὶ μᾶλλον ἐέλδεται ἐξ ἔρον εἷναι
ἢ πολέμου· Τρῶες δὲ μάχης ἀκόρητοι ἔασιν }[5]

Ancient Greek men desired war as well as sleep, sex, celebrating, and dancing. War and dancing were communal activities with normal limits such as the bounds implicit in “blameless dancing {ἀμύμων ὀρχηθμός}.”[6] In contrast to other desired activities such as sex and dancing, a man would not hope to have so much war that he no longer desired war. No longer desiring war implies defeat, and perhaps even death. Menelaus blamed the Trojans for having unlimited desire for war. Trojan men sought war to their deaths. Put differently, Trojan men didn’t regard their lives as having intrinsic value.

For most men in archaic Greece, war wasn’t pleasurable like dancing. With Hector leading the Trojan forces in an attempt to burn the Argive ships, the Argive leader Ajax implored his men:

Shame, you Argives! Now decides whether
we perish or will be saved by beating back ruin from our ships.
Do you expect, if our ships fall to gleaming-helmeted Hector,
you each will go by foot to the land of your fathers?
Do you not hear the Trojan army urged on
by Hector, raging to set fire to our ships?
Surely he invites you not to a dance, but to battle!

{ αἰδὼς Ἀργεῖοι: νῦν ἄρκιον ἢ ἀπολέσθαι
ἠὲ σαωθῆναι καὶ ἀπώσασθαι κακὰ νηῶν.
ἦ ἔλπεσθ᾽ ἢν νῆας ἕλῃ κορυθαίολος Ἕκτωρ
ἐμβαδὸν ἵξεσθαι ἣν πατρίδα γαῖαν ἕκαστος;
ἦ οὐκ ὀτρύνοντος ἀκούετε λαὸν ἅπαντα
Ἕκτορος, ὃς δὴ νῆας ἐνιπρῆσαι μενεαίνει;
οὐ μὰν ἔς γε χορὸν κέλετ᾽ ἐλθέμεν, ἀλλὰ μάχεσθαι. }[7]

Battle entails risk of grievous suffering and death, but it wards off peril. Dancing, in contrast, involves no threat to life and implicitly brings forth pleasure. Hector’s gleaming helmet and the associated Greek foot movement ironically evoke men dancing pleasurably.[8] Apart from necessity, most men in ancient Greece evidently preferred pleasurable dance to battle.

In Phaeacia in the Odyssey, just as princess Nausicaa offers Odysseus an alternative to his wife Penelope, King Alcinous presents excellence in dancing as an alternative to glory in war and combative sports. Alcinous was willing to have his men take Odysseus home by sea, however far Odysseus’s home was. Alcinous bragged that his men had carried the wise demigod Rhadamanthys to the island Euboea, the farthest place they knew, in a single day “without toil {ἄτερ καμάτοιο}.” Alcinous then told Odysseus:

You too will know for yourself and understand that the best
in churning through the salty sea are my ships and my young men.

{ εἰδήσεις δὲ καὶ αὐτὸς ἐνὶ φρεσὶν ὅσσον ἄρισται
νῆες ἐμαὶ καὶ κοῦροι ἀναρρίπτειν ἅλα πηδῷ. }[9]

Speed and endurance in rowing and sailing were important in naval voyages and naval battles. At the subsequent send-off banquet for Odysseus, Alcinous declared:

Hear me, Phaeacian leaders and counselors.
Already we’ve satisfied our hearts with the shared feast
and with the lyre, companion to a bounteous feast.
Now let’s go out and compete in all sorts of contests,
so that this stranger can tell his friends,
when he returns home, how far we surpass other men
in boxing, wrestling, jumping, and running.

{ κέκλυτε, Φαιήκων ἡγήτορες ἠδὲ μέδοντες.
ἤδη μὲν δαιτὸς κεκορήμεθα θυμὸν ἐίσης
φόρμιγγός θ᾽, ἣ δαιτὶ συνήορός ἐστι θαλείῃ:
νῦν δ᾽ ἐξέλθωμεν καὶ ἀέθλων πειρηθῶμεν
πάντων, ὥς χ᾽ ὁ ξεῖνος ἐνίσπῃ οἷσι φίλοισιν
οἴκαδε νοστήσας, ὅσσον περιγιγνόμεθ᾽ ἄλλων
πύξ τε παλαιμοσύνῃ τε καὶ ἅλμασιν ἠδὲ πόδεσσιν. }

Boxing and wrestling are fighting arts. Jumping and running are activities of men in war. The Phaeacians engaged in such martial contests at the send-off banquet for Odysseus.

Odysseus prompted Alcinous to redirect his claim about Phaeacian excellence. Alcinous’s son, the boxing champion Laodama, urged Odysseus to participate in the contests. Odysseus at first declined, mentioning the hard struggles he had already endured. The wrestling champion Halius, who was another of Alcinous’s sons, then taunted Odysseus for being a merchant rather than a “combatant {ἀθλητήρ}.” Halius was ignorant of Odysseus’s long, arduous fighting in the Trojan War. His ignorant taunt nonetheless aroused Odysseus’s fighting spirit. Odysseus told him:

You’ve aroused the spirit in my chest
by speaking improperly. I’m not unknowing of contests,
as you say. To the contrary, I think I used to be
among the best, as long as I trusted in my youthful vigor and my hands.
But now I’m bound by suffering and pains, for I’ve endured much,
slicing through wars among men and grievous waves.
Even so, though I’ve suffered much, I’ll compete in the contests,
for your words bite at my heart. You’ve incited me with your speech.

{ ὤρινάς μοι θυμὸν ἐνὶ στήθεσσι φίλοισιν
εἰπὼν οὐ κατὰ κόσμον. ἐγὼ δ᾽ οὐ νῆις ἀέθλων,
ὡς σύ γε μυθεῖαι, ἀλλ᾽ ἐν πρώτοισιν ὀίω
ἔμμεναι, ὄφρ᾽ ἥβῃ τε πεποίθεα χερσί τ᾽ ἐμῇσι.
νῦν δ᾽ ἔχομαι κακότητι καὶ ἄλγεσι: πολλὰ γὰρ ἔτλην
ἀνδρῶν τε πτολέμους ἀλεγεινά τε κύματα πείρων.
ἀλλὰ καὶ ὥς, κακὰ πολλὰ παθών, πειρήσομ᾽ ἀέθλων:
θυμοδακὴς γὰρ μῦθος, ἐπώτρυνας δέ με εἰπών. }[10]

The contests, though games, were struggles like war. Odysseus picked up a discus and threw it much farther than any Phaeacian had. He then challenged any Phaeacian man to a contest “in boxing, wrestling, or even running {ἢ πὺξ ἠὲ πάλῃ ἢ καὶ ποσίν}”:

Indeed, I’m not bad in all — in any contests among men.
I know well how to handle a polished bow.
Always I’d be first to shoot and strike a man
in the throng of enemy men, even though many comrades
stood close by and were shooting at the men.
Philoctetes alone surpassed me with the bow
in the Trojan kingdom where we Achaeans fought.
I declare that I’m the best by far of all the others,
of the mortals who now live on earth and eat bread.

{ πάντα γὰρ οὐ κακός εἰμι, μετ᾽ ἀνδράσιν ὅσσοι ἄεθλοι:
εὖ μὲν τόξον οἶδα ἐύξοον ἀμφαφάασθαι:
πρῶτός κ᾽ ἄνδρα βάλοιμι ὀιστεύσας ἐν ὁμίλῳ
ἀνδρῶν δυσμενέων, εἰ καὶ μάλα πολλοὶ ἑταῖροι
ἄγχι παρασταῖεν καὶ τοξαζοίατο φωτῶν.
οἶος δή με Φιλοκτήτης ἀπεκαίνυτο τόξῳ
δήμῳ ἔνι Τρώων, ὅτε τοξαζοίμεθ᾽ Ἀχαιοί.
τῶν δ᾽ ἄλλων ἐμέ φημι πολὺ προφερέστερον εἶναι,
ὅσσοι νῦν βροτοί εἰσιν ἐπὶ χθονὶ σῖτον ἔδοντες. }

Odysseus convincingly established his identity as an eminent warrior. He had the physical skills that an eminent warrior needed. He also showed his combative, courageous spirit.

King Alcinous quickly pivoted to boasting of the Phaeacians’ skills in dancing and singing. He tempered his previous claim about the Phaeacians fighting skills and instead indicated their love for pleasurable activities:

Indeed, we’re not flawless boxers or wrestlers,
but we run swiftly by foot and are the best seamen.
Always beloved to us are dinner, the lyre, and dances,
fresh clothes, hot baths, and beds.
But come, you who are the best Phaeacian dancers,
beat upon the floor, so the stranger can tell his loved ones
upon his return home how much we surpass others
in sailing, running, dancing, and singing.

{ οὐ γὰρ πυγμάχοι εἰμὲν ἀμύμονες οὐδὲ παλαισταί,
ἀλλὰ ποσὶ κραιπνῶς θέομεν καὶ νηυσὶν ἄριστοι,
αἰεὶ δ᾽ ἡμῖν δαίς τε φίλη κίθαρις τε χοροί τε
εἵματά τ᾽ ἐξημοιβὰ λοετρά τε θερμὰ καὶ εὐναί.
ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε, Φαιήκων βητάρμονες ὅσσοι ἄριστοι,
παίσατε, ὥς χ᾽ ὁ ξεῖνος ἐνίσπῃ οἷσι φίλοισιν
οἴκαδε νοστήσας, ὅσσον περιγιγνόμεθ᾽ ἄλλων
ναυτιλίῃ καὶ ποσσὶ καὶ ὀρχηστυῖ καὶ ἀοιδῇ. }[11]

Sailing and running, which are less aggressively martial than boxing and wrestling, matter less than dancing and singing in King Alcinous’s new boast. The context of Alcinous’s appeal is pleasurable activities. Rather than beating upon other men, Phaeacian men excel in beating upon the dance floor:

The herald came near, bringing the clear-toned lyre
to Demodocus, who then went into their midst. Around him
stood men in youth’s prime, deities experienced in dancing.
They beat the divinely inspired dance with their feet. Odysseus
beheld with wonder the gleaming of their feet and marveled in his heart.

{ κῆρυξ δ᾽ ἐγγύθεν ἦλθε φέρων φόρμιγγα λίγειαν
Δημοδόκῳ: ὁ δ᾽ ἔπειτα κί᾽ ἐς μέσον: ἀμφὶ δὲ κοῦροι
πρωθῆβαι ἵσταντο, δαήμονες ὀρχηθμοῖο,
πέπληγον δὲ χορὸν θεῖον ποσίν. αὐτὰρ Ὀδυσσεὺς
μαρμαρυγὰς θηεῖτο ποδῶν, θαύμαζε δὲ θυμῷ. }[12]

Odysseus didn’t respond with competitive self-assertion to this display. With a receptive heart, he appreciated the dancing of these beautiful men — “men in youth’s prime {κοῦροι πρωθῆβαι}.” Demodocus subsequently sang about the love of Ares and Aphrodite.[13] Odysseus similarly relished the singer’s performance. Then came more dancing:

Alcinous urged Halius and Laodamas
to dance individually, since no one could rival them.
They took into their hands a beautiful ball,
glittering purple, which skilled Polybus had made for them.
One of them, bending far backwards, would throw it
toward the shadowy clouds, and leaping high above the earth, the other
would easily catch it before his feet returned to the ground.
After they had tried it with the ball straight upwards,
they danced upon the earth that feeds many,
interchanging positions rapidly as other young men standing
throughout the contest place beat time. A great clamor arose.

{ Ἀλκίνοος δ᾽ Ἅλιον καὶ Λαοδάμαντα κέλευσεν
μουνὰξ ὀρχήσασθαι, ἐπεί σφισιν οὔ τις ἔριζεν.
οἱ δ᾽ ἐπεὶ οὖν σφαῖραν καλὴν μετὰ χερσὶν ἕλοντο,
πορφυρέην, τήν σφιν Πόλυβος ποίησε δαΐφρων,
τὴν ἕτερος ῥίπτασκε ποτὶ νέφεα σκιόεντα
ἰδνωθεὶς ὀπίσω, ὁ δ᾽ ἀπὸ χθονὸς ὑψόσ᾽ ἀερθεὶς
ῥηιδίως μεθέλεσκε, πάρος ποσὶν οὖδας ἱκέσθαι.
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ δὴ σφαίρῃ ἀν᾽ ἰθὺν πειρήσαντο,
ὠρχείσθην δὴ ἔπειτα ποτὶ χθονὶ πουλυβοτείρῃ
ταρφέ᾽ ἀμειβομένω: κοῦροι δ᾽ ἐπελήκεον ἄλλοι
ἑστεῶτες κατ᾽ ἀγῶνα, πολὺς δ᾽ ὑπὸ κόμπος ὀρώρει. }

This dance occurred in the contest arena and involved the champion wrestler Halius and the champion boxer Laodamas. Nonetheless, it wasn’t a contest, but a performance. Despite being a boxer, Laodamas was the most beautiful of the Phaeacian men.[14] Odysseus again responded with wondrous appreciation:

Godlike Odysseus indeed called out to Alcinous,
“Your majesty Alcinous, most exalted above all men,
you boasted that your dancers are the best,
and now your words have been fulfilled. Wonder holds me as I watch them.”

{ δὴ τότ᾽ ἄρ᾽ Ἀλκίνοον προσεφώνεε δῖος Ὀδυσσεύς:
‘Ἀλκίνοε κρεῖον, πάντων ἀριδείκετε λαῶν,
ἠμὲν ἀπείλησας βητάρμονας εἶναι ἀρίστους,
ἠδ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἑτοῖμα τέτυκτο: σέβας μ᾽ ἔχει εἰσορόωντα. }

In the ancient Greek world, violence against men was socially constructed as a means for men to gain approbation — “glory {κλέος}.” Men couldn’t become heroes on the dance floor. However, the warrior-hero Odysseus in Phaeacia recognized a different form of manly excellence. In dancing, men could create amazed appreciation for their bodies in exquisite motion. These men weren’t serving some instrumental need. They were amazing in themselves, amazing in their very being. Like Socrates’s “city of sows {ὑῶν πόλις},” Phaeacia with its amazing men-dancers and its lovely, courageous princess Nausicaa offered an alternative to glorifying violence against men.[15]

In the Iliad, the shield of Achilles tells the tale of two cities. Appreciating men dancing comes first in characterizing the first city:

In one of the cities were weddings and feasts.
With blazing torches brides were led from their chambers
throughout the city, and much wedding song arose.
Young men were whirling in dance. Among them
sounded flutes and lyres. The women
standing, each on her own threshold, marveled at them.

{ ἐν τῇ μέν ῥα γάμοι τ᾽ ἔσαν εἰλαπίναι τε,
νύμφας δ᾽ ἐκ θαλάμων δαΐδων ὕπο λαμπομενάων
ἠγίνεον ἀνὰ ἄστυ, πολὺς δ᾽ ὑμέναιος ὀρώρει·
κοῦροι δ᾽ ὀρχηστῆρες ἐδίνεον, ἐν δ᾽ ἄρα τοῖσιν
αὐλοὶ φόρμιγγές τε βοὴν ἔχον· αἳ δὲ γυναῖκες
ἱστάμεναι θαύμαζον ἐπὶ προθύροισιν ἑκάστη. }[16]

Persons in this city resolved their disputes with words spoken before wise judges. The other city, besieged like Troy, was the site of horrific violence against men:

That city’s army set their battle array beside the riverbanks and fought.
The two armies were striking one another with bronze-tipped spears.
Strife and Tumult entered among them, and destructive Fate, too.
It grasped one living man with a new wound and another one
unhurt, and it dragged a dead man by his feet through the carnage.
The clothing upon Fate’s shoulders was red with men’s blood.
Strife, Tumult, and Fate clashed like living men and fought with each other,
and dragged away corpses of men that others had killed.

{ στησάμενοι δ᾽ ἐμάχοντο μάχην ποταμοῖο παρ᾽ ὄχθας,
βάλλον δ᾽ ἀλλήλους χαλκήρεσιν ἐγχείῃσιν.
ἐν δ᾽ Ἔρις ἐν δὲ Κυδοιμὸς ὁμίλεον, ἐν δ᾽ ὀλοὴ Κήρ,
ἄλλον ζωὸν ἔχουσα νεούτατον, ἄλλον ἄουτον,
ἄλλον τεθνηῶτα κατὰ μόθον ἕλκε ποδοῖιν:
εἷμα δ᾽ ἔχ᾽ ἀμφ᾽ ὤμοισι δαφοινεὸν αἵματι φωτῶν.
ὡμίλευν δ᾽ ὥς τε ζωοὶ βροτοὶ ἠδ᾽ ἐμάχοντο,
νεκρούς τ᾽ ἀλλήλων ἔρυον κατατεθνηῶτας. }

In one city was the best of times; in the other city, the worst of times. Appreciating men intrinsically in dance or instrumentally in war represent ancient alternatives in valuing men.

The problem of men dancing has been socially constructed in women-dominated culture as a concern about effeminacy or unmanliness. In the second century, Lucian of Samosata satirized such concern in a sophisticated dialogue. The dialogue’s primary character, the rhetorician Lycinus, responds to his counterpart Crato’s indictment against “dance and all pertaining to dance itself {ὄρχησις τε καὶ αὐτός ὀρχηστικός}.” According to Crato, dance is “vulgar and effeminate {φαῦλος καὶ γυναικεῖος}.” Crato declares:

Lycinus, anyone who is a man at all, moreover a life-long friend of letters and moderately conversant with philosophy — can he abandon his interest in all that is better and his association with the ancients to sit enthralled by the flute while watching a womanly man in soft clothing, a man making himself delicate in singing licentious songs and imitating love-sick little women? … May I never reach a mature age if I ever endure anything of that kind, as long as my legs are hairy and my beard unplucked!

{ ἀνὴρ δὲ τίς ὢν ὅλως, καὶ ταῦτα παιδείᾳ σύντροφος καὶ φιλοσοφίᾳ τὰ μέτρια ὡμιληκώς, ἀφέμενος, ὦ Λυκῖνε, τοῦ περὶ τὰ βελτίω σπουδάζειν καὶ τοῖς παλαιοῖς συνεῖναι κάθηται καταυλούμενος, θηλυδρίαν ἄνθρωπον ὁρῶν ἐσθῆσι μαλακαῖς καὶ ᾁσμασιν ἀκολάστοις ἐναβρυνόμενον καὶ μιμούμενον ἐρωτικὰ γύναια … Μὴ ὥρας ἄρα ἱκοίμην, εἴ τι τοιοῦτον ἀνασχοίμην ποτέ, ἔστ᾿ ἂν δασύς τε εἴην τὰ σκέλη καὶ τὸ γένειον ἀπαράτιλτος. }[17]

That’s a humorous caricature of the ancient Greek social construction of masculinity: men honor reason and historical learning, have hard muscles, endure rough clothing, and are unemotional and hairy. Young men dancing lack such a self-presentation.

Men dancing pleasurably implicates a more fundamental aspect of the social construction of masculinity. Crato condemns dance audiences for “crying out very shameful praises to a noxious man bending himself downward for nothing necessary {ἐπαίνους ἀπρεπεστάτους ἐπιβοῶντα ὀλέθρῳ τινὶ ἀνθρώπῳ ἐς οὐδὲν δέον κατακλωμένῳ}.” Crato regards men’s bodily movement as worthy only if instrumental. Moreover, Crato understands men’s instrumental use of their bodies to be obligatory. Lycinus, in contrast, declares:

It’s so much more delightful to see young men dancing than to see them boxing, awash with blood, or wrestling in the dust. Indeed, dance often presents young men in a way less risky to them and also more shapely and pleasurable.

{ πόσῳ γὰρ τοῦτο ὁρᾶν ἥδιον ἢ πυκτεύοντας νεανίσκους καὶ αἵματι ῥεομένους, καὶ παλαίοντας ἄλλους ἐν κόνει, οὓς ἡ ὄρχησις πολλάκις ἀσφαλέστερον ἅμα καὶ εὐμορφότερον καὶ τερπνότερον ἐπιδείκνυται. }

Risks to men’s welfare should matter, because men’s lives matter, and men are beautiful. Men dancing for pleasure transgresses and disrupts the oppressive social construction of men’s gender. Crato, and gynocentrism more generally, cannot accept men as human beings with intrinsic value.

Beyond classical philology’s deeply entrenched penis problem, classicists have utterly misconstrued men’s gender position. The cultural problem within this modern ideological echo chamber is men being like women:

dance has been associated with decadent pleasure-seeking, unmanliness, and the arousal of sexual desire from its very first appearances in Western cultural history. … The thoroughgoing liberation of men, and women, from the effeminate associations of dance would need the overhaul of those constitutive constructions of gender (and the power structures underpinning them) which happen to have been dominant not only for the last two centuries but since the earliest stages in the making of the Western cultural tradition.[18]

Men’s sexual desire has been historically more strictly regulated than women‘s, and men have been more harshly punished for adultery. Men still lack reproductive freedom. Men encroaching on women’s privileged position in relation to pleasure and sexual desire are morally disparaged as “effeminate.” Such men should instead be celebrated as gender freedom fighters.

Mother goddess Cybele and consort Attis riding in a quadriga pulled by four lions, with three Corybantes in a war dance

The gender trouble with men dancing centers on institutionalized violence against men. In the Iliad, the shield of the preeminent warrior Achilles depicts men and women dancing on a dance floor like that in the grand, archaic court at Minoan Knossos:

And the very famous, bent-limbed one embellished it with
a dance floor, like that which once in wide Knossos
Daedalus built for lovely haired Ariadne.
Young men were dancing on it, and young women, sought
with gifts of oxen. They were holding each other’s hands at the wrists.
The young women wore light linen robes, and the men, tunics
fine-spun and shining softly with olive oil.
The young women had beautiful crowns, and the young men,
short golden swords that hung from silver baldrics.
At times they would run very smoothly on their skilled feet,
as when a potter, crouching, tries his wheel, holding
it close in his hands, to see if it will run straight. At other
times they ran in rows moving toward each other.
And around the lovely chorus stood a great multitude,
delighting in it. Among them, two tumblers,
leading the song and dance, whirled in the middle.

{ ἐν δὲ χορὸν ποίκιλλε περικλυτὸς ἀμφιγυήεις,
τῷ ἴκελον οἷόν ποτ᾽ ἐνὶ Κνωσῷ εὐρείῃ
Δαίδαλος ἤσκησεν καλλιπλοκάμῳ Ἀριάδνῃ.
ἔνθα μὲν ἠΐθεοι καὶ παρθένοι ἀλφεσίβοιαι
ὀρχεῦντ᾽ ἀλλήλων ἐπὶ καρπῷ χεῖρας ἔχοντες.
τῶν δ᾽ αἳ μὲν λεπτὰς ὀθόνας ἔχον, οἳ δὲ χιτῶνας
εἵατ᾽ ἐϋννήτους, ἦκα στίλβοντας ἐλαίῳ:
καί ῥ᾽ αἳ μὲν καλὰς στεφάνας ἔχον, οἳ δὲ μαχαίρας
εἶχον χρυσείας ἐξ ἀργυρέων τελαμώνων.
οἳ δ᾽ ὁτὲ μὲν θρέξασκον ἐπισταμένοισι πόδεσσι
ῥεῖα μάλ᾽, ὡς ὅτε τις τροχὸν ἄρμενον ἐν παλάμῃσιν
ἑζόμενος κεραμεὺς πειρήσεται, αἴ κε θέῃσιν:
ἄλλοτε δ᾽ αὖ θρέξασκον ἐπὶ στίχας ἀλλήλοισι.
πολλὸς δ᾽ ἱμερόεντα χορὸν περιίσταθ᾽ ὅμιλος
τερπόμενοι· δοιὼ δὲ κυβιστητῆρε κατ᾿ αὐτοὺς
μολπῆς ἐξάρχοντες ἐδίνευον κατὰ μέσσους. }[19]

This scene depicts the ancient past relative to the Iliad, which itself was composed about 2700 years ago. The god Hephaestus, a blacksmith, made this scene and the whole shield of Achilles. He is called the “very famous, bent-limbed one {περικλυτὸς ἀμφιγυήεις}.” He was famous in part for being a cuckold: his wife Aphrodite repeatedly had sex with the war god Ares. Hephaestus being bent-limbed perhaps hints at one reason Aphrodite turned elsewhere for sex. As the ancients knew well, men’s impotence makes for epic disaster. Nonetheless, the classical circle of castration and cuckolding was deeply embedded in ancient Greek society, just as it is in many societies today.

The dance scene as Knossos shows the gender trouble in men dancing. The young women and young men are partners in dance. The women, however, have intrinsic value. They dance on a dance floor like the one that the man Daedalus built for the woman Ariadne. Moreover, to marry one of the women, a man must give oxen. A woman need not give oxen to marry a man. The women wear “crowns {στέφᾰνοι},” a term associated with a conqueror’s wreath, and more generally, a prize or laurel. The men, in contrast, carry “short swords {μάχαιραι}” — weapons associated with violence against men, and also figures brutalizing men’s penises. In short, the women are grand prizes, and the men are brutal tools of merely instrumental value. Onlookers delight in seeing both women and men dance. The men’s dancing, however, isn’t enough to overcome the gender oppression encoded in their attire and in how they are valued.

While men surely have expressed and created pleasure with their dancing throughout history, men dancing pleasurably contradicts men’s instrumental gender position. In ancient Greek cultures, choruses of non-professional men singing and dancing at festivals for gods and cities were a central aspect of communal life. Men and women undoubtedly took pleasure in men’s dancing at these and other occasions such as wedding and banquets.[20] At the same time, men dancing for pleasure tended to be disparaged as effeminate and licentious. That disparagement shows gender ideology seeking to preserve women’s gender privilege as intrinsically valued persons and buttress use of men as social tools for violence against men. Pleasure in men dancing, like the beauty of men’s bodies, cannot be socially acknowledged without undermining men’s instrumental gender position.

Men dancing for pleasure has revolutionary potential for gender. Associating war dances with men and dancing for pleasure with women separates men from pleasure. As fully human beings, men deserve to enjoy as much pleasure and sexual freedom as women do. The men-abasing ancient Latin love poetry of the influential Roman military leader Gallus united love with men’s risky, burdensome instrumental acts in military campaigns. Medieval Christians, in contrast, celebrated men’s intrinsic gifts: men’s seminal blessing and men’s divine association with sacrificial, passionate love. In our narrow-minded and benighted age, men should utterly disregard persons disparaging men dancing as effeminate and licentious. Men must insistently dance for joy!

Etruscan man and woman dancing from the Tomb of the Triclinium

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Homer, Iliad 7.237-43, ancient Greek text and my English translation, benefiting from those of Murray (1924), Lattimore (1951), and Johnston (2002). “There is nothing else like this in the whole of Homer, despite the typical nature of the warrior’s boast as such.” Kirk (1978) p. 28. Subsequent quotes from the Iliad are similarly sourced.

In distinguishing war dances from peaceful dances, Plato described a Pyrrhic war dance like Hector’s dance for Ares:

The warlike dance division, being distinct from the peaceful, one may rightly call Pyrrhic. It represents modes of eluding all kinds of blows and shots by swerving and ducking and side-leaps upward or crouching. It also represents the opposite kinds of motion, which lead to active postures of offense, when it strives to represent the movements involved in shooting with bows or darts, and blows of every description.

{ τὴν πολεμικὴν δὴ τούτων, ἄλλην οὖσαν τῆς εἰρηνικῆς, πυῤῥίχην ἄν τις ὀρθῶς προσαγορεύοι, τάς τε εὐλαβείας πασῶν πληγῶν καὶ βολῶν ἐκνεύσεσι καὶ ὑπείξει πάσῃ καὶ ἐκπηδήσεσιν ἐν ὕψει καὶ ξὺν ταπεινώσει μιμουμένην, καὶ τὰς ταύταις ἐναντίας, τὰς ἐπὶ τὰ δραστικὰ φερομένας αὖ σχήματα ἔν τε ταῖς τῶν τόξων βολαῖς καὶ ἀκοντίων καὶ πασῶν πληγῶν μιμήματα ἐπιχειροῦσαν1 μιμεῖσθαι. }

Plato, Laws {Νόμοι} 815A (Book 7), ancient Greek Text and English translation (modified slightly) from Bury (1926). Subsequent quotes from Plato’s Laws are similarly sourced. On “Pyrrhic {πυρρίχιος / πυρρίχη}” dance, see Lucian of Samosata, About Dance {De Saltatione / Περὶ Ὀρχήσεως} 9, available in Harmon (1936), and Carvajal (2024).

[2] Iliad 16.617-8. Dancers and warriors in the early Roman Empire had similar physical training. Slater (1994) pp. 131-40.

[3] Lucian of Samosata, About Dance {De Saltatione / Περὶ Ὀρχήσεως} 21, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified) from Harmon (1936). For an alternate English translation, Fowler & Fowler (1905). Costa (2005) regrettable doesn’t include Περὶ Ὀρχήσεως. Early in the twentieth century, some authorities doubted that Lucian composed this work. Robertson (1913) dispelled most doubts. Subsequent quotes from Περὶ Ὀρχήσεως are similarly sourced.

Harmon apparently interpreted this passage as literally descriptive and noted:

This Bithynian myth of Priapus is not recorded elsewhere, but as it is known that Priapus was held in high honour there, it may well be that he was associated with Ares and that armed dances played a part in the cult.

Harmon (1936) p. 235, note 1. Since Lucian is a satirical writer, how to interpret passages in his work might not be obvious. But it in this case, it seems to me clear that Lucian is engaged in outrageous satire.

Lucian seems to have been attempting to do what pantomime dancers themselves were unable to do: establish pantomime as a worthy art in the eyes of the intellectual elite. In the eastern Roman Empire of Lucian’s time, the intellectual elite mainly consisted of verbally sophisticated performers such as Lucian himself. Περὶ Ὀρχήσεως is a sophisticated verbal performance, not a factual account of pantomime dance. Lada-Richards (2007), Schlapbach (2008). The modern development of ballet into an elite art is a historical culmination of Lucian’s endeavor. On the incorporation of ancient pantomime into ballet in eighteenth-century England and France, Lada-Richards (2010a), and more generally, Macintosh’s Oxford bibliography and Toepfer (2019).

The most important ancient literary works concerning dance are Plato, Laws (composed around 367 BGC); Lucian, About Dance (composed mid-second century GC); Aelius Aristides, oration attacking pantomimes (composed mid-second century GC, now lost); and Libanius, Oration 64, Reply to Aristides on Behalf of the Dancers (composed about 361 GC). Aristides seems to have resented the inclusion of pantomime in Greek intellectual and athletic competitions. Bowersock ((2008). On pantomime competitions, Webb (2012). For a translation and study of Libanius’s oration on dance, Molloy (1996). For a massive study of pantomime throughout history, Toepfer (2019). On dancing in late antiquity, Webb (2008).

[4] Iliad 13.727-34. The ancient Greek grammarian and influential Homeric editor Aristarchus of Samothrace rejected Iliad 13.731, “and another in dancing, and another in playing the lyre and singing {ἄλλῳ δ’ ὀρχηστύν, ἐτέρῳ κίθαριν καὶ ἀοιδήν}” as spurious. This verse doesn’t occur in the best ancient manuscripts. Murray (1924) p. 56, note 27. Leaf and Bayfield’s late Victorian Iliad commentary described that verse as a “tasteless interpolation.” Hall (2010) p. 22. However, Lucian in Περὶ Ὀρχήσεως 23 quotes Iliad 13.730-1. For “to another man the lyre and singing {ἐτέρῳ κίθαριν καὶ ἀοιδήν},” Lucian substitutes “delightful song {ἱμερόεσσαν ἀοιδὴν}.” Cf. Odyssey 1.421.

The Iliad’s ancient Greek audience almost surely wouldn’t have regarded as inappropriate Polydamas’s inclusion of dancing and singing as gifts of the gods. Polydamas himself engaged in battle alongside Hector in the Trojan War. Bodily activity and mental activity aren’t necessarily exclusive.

[5] Iliad 13.636-9. In order to entrap and kill Penelope’s suitors, Odysseus in the Odyssey arranges his household as if Penelope is being married. Odyssey 23.142-8. That arrangement features similar pleasures subordinate to violence.

In Iliad 24.2621, the Trojan king Priam disparages some of his sons as being merely “dancers {ὀρχησταί}.” The Trojan prince Paris / Alexander is more extensively figured as a dancer. See, e.g. Iliad 3.390-4. Trojans thus could be both insatiable warriors and dancers. Cf. Hall (2010) p. 19, Ransom (2011) p. 47. The eminent ancient Greek poet Sappho appreciated men as dancers.

[6] Iliad 13.637. This phrase also occurs in Odyssey 23.145 in describing the action of a divine singer: “and he raised among them desire / for sweet song and blameless dancing {ἐν δέ σφισιν ἵμερον ὦρσε / μολπῆς τε γλυκερῆς καὶ ἀμύμονος ὀρχηθμοῖο}.”

Translations have blunted the moral distinction implicit in “blameless dancing {ἀμύμων ὀρχηθμός}.” For example, in Iliad 13.637, consider “incomparable dance” in Harmon (1936), “innocent dance” in Lattimore (1951), and “gorgeous dancing” in Johnston (2002); in Odyssey 23.145, “pleasant dance” in Murray (1919).

Writing in Attic Greek rather than epic Greek, Plato distinguished between “questionable dancing {ἀμφισβητέω ὄρχησις}” and “unquestionable / blameless dancing {ἀναμφισβητέω ὄρχησις}”:

So, in the first place, we must draw a line between questionable dancing and dancing that is above question. All the dancing that is of a Bacchic kind and cultivated by those who indulge in drunken imitations of Fans, Sileni and Satyrs (as they call them), when performing certain rites of expiation and initiation — all this class of dancing cannot easily be defined either as peaceful or warlike, or any one distinct kind. The most correct way of defining it seems to me to be this — to separate it off both from peaceful and warlike dancing, and to pronounce this kind of dancing to be improper for our citizens. Having thus disposed of it and dismissed it, we will now return to the warlike and peaceful types which do unquestionably belong to us.

{ Τὴν τοίνυν ἀμφισβητουμένην ὄρχησιν δεῖ πρῶτον χωρὶς τῆς ἀναμφισβητήτου διατεμεῖν. τίς οὖν αὕτη, καὶ πῇ δεῖ χωρὶς τέμνειν ἑκατέραν; ὅση μὲν βακχεία τ᾿ ἐστὶ καὶ τῶν ταύταις ἑπομένων, αἷς [Νύμφας τε καὶ] Πᾶνας καὶ Σειληνοὺς καὶ Σατύρους [ἐπονομάζοντες], ὥς φασι, μιμοῦνται κατῳνωμένους, περικαθαρμούς τε καὶ τελετάς τινας ἀποτελούντων, ξύμπαν τοῦτο τῆς ὀρχήσεως τὸ γένος οὔθ᾿ ὡς εἰρηνικὸν οὔθ᾿ ὡς πολεμικὸν οὔθ᾿ ὅ τί ποτε βούλεται ῥᾴδιον ἀφορίσασθαι· διορίσασθαι μήν μοι ταύτῃ δοκεῖ σχεδὸν ὀρθότατον αὐτὸ εἶναι, χωρὶς μὲν πολεμικοῦ, χωρὶς δὲ εἰρηνικοῦ θέντας εἰπεῖν ὡς οὐκ ἔστι πολιτικὸν τοῦτο τῆς ὀρχήσεως τὸ γένος, ἐνταῦθα δὲ κείμενον ἐάσαντα κεῖσθαι νῦν ἐπὶ τὸ πολεμικὸν ἅμα καὶ εἰρηνικόν, ὡς ἀναμφισβητήτως ἡμέτερον ὄν, ἐπανιέναι. }

Plato, Laws 815B-D (Book 7). Plato’s distinction here seems to me to provide the best guide to understanding the meaning of “ἀμύμων ὀρχηθμός.” Plato also distinguished dance propriety by age categories. Yu (2021).

In Plato’s scheme, warlike dancing is also blameless dancing. Menelaus’s distinction between the Trojan’s war desire and blameless desire centers on respect for limits. Menelaus doesn’t praise dancing itself. Cf. Hall (2010) p. 22, and p. 29, note 55.

[7] Iliad 15.502-8.

[8] For analysis of two hexameter passages that “emphasize the flashing, shining, scintillating qualities of dancers in motion,” Kurke (2012) p. 228. One such passage is at the court of Queen Arete and King Alcinous in Odyssey 8.264-5:

the Phaiakian chorus, at the moment that their feet in motion shimmer and glint like metal, are beating out a “divine” or “divinely inspired” dance.

Id. Hector dances in battle with his glinting metal helmet and his feet in rapid motion. Violence against men, however, isn’t dance like that of the Phaeacian men.

[9] Odyssey 7.327-8, ancient Greek text of Murray (1919) via Perseus, and my English translation, benefiting from those of id., Fagles (1996), and Lombardo (2000). Subsequent quotes from the Odyssey are similarly sourced. The subsequent quote above is Odyssey 8.97-103.

Fleeing from Calypso, Odysseus came ashore on the island of Scherie (Phaeacia). The lovely princess Nausicaa took him to the court of her mother, Queen Arete. She questioned him and investigated his suitability to be a husband for her daughter Nausicaa. After a banquet for Odysseus, Queen Arete’s husband Alcinous invited him to participate in contests with the Phaeacian men.

[10] Odyssey 8.178-85. Just before this declaration of his warrior skills, Odysseus called Halius a “reckless man {ἀτάσθαλος ἀνήρ}.” Odysseus then spoke of the gods differing gifts, just as Polydamas had to Hector in Iliad 13.727-34. According to Odysseus, Halius (“Of the Sea {Ἅλιός}”) had received from the gods a beautiful appearance, but a deformed mind. That’s not a characterization that the wrestling champion Halius would welcome.

The subsequent quote above is from Odyssey 8.214-22

[11] Odyssey 8.246-53. Horace disparaged unwise persons like Alcinous’s men:

We are merely numbers, born to consume earth’s fruits,
like Penelope’s good-for-nothing suitors, like Alcinous’s
young courtiers, unduly concerned to keep sleek skin.
Their pride was to sleep until mid-day and
lead diligence to rest to the sound of lutes.

{ nos numerus sumus et fruges consumere nati,
sponsi Penelopae nebulones, Alcinoique
in cute curanda plus aequo operata iuventus,
cui pulchrum fuit in medios dormire dies et
ad strepitum citharae cessatum ducere curam }

Horace, Epistles 1.2.27-31, Latin text from Fairclough (1926), my English translation, benefiting from that of id.

Alcinous’s boast to Odysseus in Odyssey 8.248 seems to recast Achilles chiding Agamemnon, and Zeus chiding Ares: “Always beloved to you is strife and wars and battles {αἰεὶ γάρ τοι ἔρις τε φίλη πόλεμοί τε μάχαι τε}.” Iliad 1.177 and 5.891. Heubeck, West & Hainsworth (1988) p. 361. Aristarchus of Samothrace rejected these lines in his ancient edition of the Iliad. Murray (1924) p. 26, n. 20. The insightful contrast with Odyssey 8.248 suggests that Iliad 1.177 and 5.891 aren’t spurious.

The Old Babylonian version of the ancient Mesopotamian epic of Enkidu and Gilgamesh includes a passage urging a life with the pleasures that Alcinous described. Gilgamesh, grieving the death of his beloved friend Enkidu, journeys in search of immortality. He meets the alewife Siduri. She advises him:

You, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full.
Keep enjoying yourself, day and night.
Every day make merry, and
dance and play day and night.
Let your clothes be clean, and
let your head be washed. May you be bathed in water.
Gaze on the little one who holds your hand.
Let a wife enjoy your repeated embrace!

{ attā gilgāmeš lū mali karaška
urrī u mūšī ḫitattu attā
ūmišam šukun ḫidûtam
urrī u mūšī sūr u mēlil
lū ubbubū ṣubātūka
qaqqadka lū mesi mê lū ramkāta
ṣubbi ṣeḫram ṣābitu qātīka
marḫītum liḫtaddâm ina sūnīka }

Epic of Enkidu and Gilgamesh, Old Babylonian VA+BM (tablet reportedly from Sippar) and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Andrew R. George via the electronic Babylonian Library. For an earlier edition, George (2003) vol. 1, p. 275. Cf. the biblical book Ecclesiastes 9:7-9. On this parallel, Suriano (2017).

[12] Odyssey.8. 261-5. On the sense of wonder in this distinctive passage, Kurke (20212) p. 228. The subsequent two quotes above are from Odyssey 8.370-80 (Alcinous urged Halius and Laodamas…) and 8.381-4 (Godlike Odysseus indeed called out…).

[13] In his dialogue in support of pantomime dance, Lucian has a pantomime dancer triumph in telling the story of Aphrodite and Ares’s adulterous affair. According to Lucian, Demetrius the Cynic denounced dancers as adding nothing to the telling of a story. The leading pantomime under Nero, probably a pantomime with the stage name Paris, proved that a dancer could tell a story apart from music and singers like Demodocus:

Enjoining silence upon the stampers and flute-players and upon the chorus itself, and thus quite unsupported he danced the love of Aphrodite and Ares. He danced Helius tattling, Hephaestus laying his plot and trapping both of them with his entangling bonds, individually portrayed gods who came in on them, Aphrodite ashamed, Ares seeking cover and begging for mercy, and everything that belongs to this story. He did it in in such a way that Demetrius was delighted beyond measure with what was taking place and paid the highest possible tribute to the dancer. He raised his voice and shouted at the top of his lungs: “I hear the story that you are acting, man. I don’t just see it. You seem to me to be talking with your very hands!”

{ ἡσυχίαν γὰρ τοῖς τε κτυποῦσι καὶ τοῖς αὐλοῦσι καὶ αὐτῷ παραγγείλας τῷ χορῷ, αὐτὸς ἐφ᾿ ἑαυτοῦ ὠρχήσατο τὴν Ἀφροδίτης καὶ Ἄρεος μοιχείαν, Ἥλιον μηνύοντα καὶ Ἥφαιστον ἐπιβουλεύοντα καὶ τοῖς δεσμοῖς ἀμφοτέρους, τήν τε Ἀφροδίτην καὶ τὸν Ἄρη, σαγηνεύοντα, καὶ τοὺς ἐφεστῶτας θεοὺς ἕκαστον αὐτῶν, καὶ αἰδουμένην μὲν τὴν Ἀφροδίτην, ὑποδεδοικότα1 δὲ καὶ ἱκετεύοντα τὸν Ἄρη, καὶ ὅσα τῇ ἱστορίᾳ ταύτῃ πρόσεστιν, ὥστε τὸν Δημήτριον ὑπερησθέντα τοῖς γιγνομένοις τοῦτον ἔπαινον ἀποδοῦναι τὸν μέγιστον τῷ ὀρχηστῇ· ἀνέκραγε γὰρ καὶ μεγάλῃ τῇ φωνῇ ἀνεφθέγξατο, “Ἀκούω, ἄνθρωπε, ἃ ποιεῖς· οὐχ ὁρῶν μόνον, ἀλλά μοι δοκεῖς ταῖς χερσὶν αὐταῖς λαλεῖν.” }

Lucian, Περὶ Ὀρχήσεως 63.

[14] Among the men who went to the contests after Alcinous’s feast was Euryalus:

Euryalus also rose up, the peer of man-killing Ares,
the son of Naubolus, and in form and looks
the best of all Phaeacians after peerless Laodamas.

{ ἂν δὲ καὶ Εὐρύαλος, βροτολοιγῷ ἶσος Ἄρηι,
Ναυβολίδης, ὃς ἄριστος ἔην εἶδός τε δέμας τε
πάντων Φαιήκων μετ᾿ ἀμύμονα Λαοδάμαντα. }

Odyssey 8.115-7. This appreciation for men’s beauty, an intrinsic personal quality, contrasts with the men competing in contests for glory.

[15] In ancient Greek culture, men could not become “heroes of the dance floor” in the sense that they could become heroes in institutionalized violence against men (war). Men could, however, inspire amazement for their dancing and be valued for their dancing. Cf. Hall (2010).

[16] Iliad 18.490p-6. The subsequent quote above is Iliad 18.533-40.

[17] Lucian, Περὶ Ὀρχήσεως 2 and 5. The prior short quotes above are from Περὶ Ὀρχήσεως 1, and the subsequent two quotes above are from Περὶ Ὀρχήσεως 5 and 71.

[18] Hall (2010) p. 3 (first part), pp. 2-3 (second part). With awesome bombast, Lada-Richards opined:

Is it the case that polemical authors have thrust upon the genre “female genitals”, in accordance with the diachronic, pan-cultural logic that one “feminises” what one needs to demote and disparage? … In general, as I have argued elsewhere in detail, pantomime paid the price for the imperial socio-cultural élite’s deep-seated need of a series of feminised “Others” to be trampled underfoot, so that the masculinity, and hence supremacy, of legitimate cultural expressions could be better recognised, ring-fenced, celebrated.

Lada-Richards (2010b) paras. 25-6 (footnotes omitted). One has to be very well educated to take such writing seriously.

[19] Iliad 18.590-606. The epithet “ἀμφιγυήεις,” as applied to the master craftsman and iron smith Hephaestus, isn’t well-understood. Its literal meaning apparently is “both-limbs” or “both-(curved plow wood).” It has been interpreted as “lame-legged” or “strong-armed.” Hephaestus’s wife Aphrodite had adulterous sexual relations with Ares. In the context of that well-known affair, ἀμφιγυήεις plausibly alludes erectile failure.

Furthermore, in discussing war dance / Pyrrhic dance, Plato highlighted the importance of straight limbs:

In all these cases, the action and the tension of the sinews are correct when there is a representation of fair bodies and souls in which most of the limbs of the body are extended straight. This kind of representation is right, but the opposite kind we pronounce to be wrong.

{ τό τε ὀρθὸν ἐν τούτοις καὶ τὸ εὔτονον, τῶν ἀγαθῶν σωμάτων καὶ ψυχῶν ὁπόταν γίγνηται μίμημα, εὐθυφερὲς ὡς τὸ πολὺ τῶν τοῦ σώματος μελῶν γιγνόμενον, ὀρθὸν μὲν τὸ τοιοῦτον, τὸ δὲ τούτοις τοὐναντίον οὐκ ὀρθὸν ἀποδεχόμενον. }

Plato, Laws 815A-B. Cf. Hesiod, Works and Days {Ἔργα καὶ Ἡμέραι} vv. 248–64, advising princes to make straight, not crooked, judgments. Via the epithet ἀμφιγυήεις, understood as “bent-limbed,” Hephaestus is characterized as inferior to Ares in sexual “fighting.”

Having space to dance was a favorable aspect of a location. That’s a plausible interpretation of describing Mycalessus {Μυκαλησσός} as “having a broad dancing space {εὐρύχορος}” in Iliad 2.498.

The metaphor of the potter testing his wheel should inform interpretation of the dancing in Iliad 18.590-606. The potter apparently is testing if his wheel runs true, meaning evenly between his hands. That metaphor supports a contrast between the dancers running smoothing and their rows moving into each other.

The verse numbering for Iliad 18.604-5 is abnormal, with one verse numbered 18.604-5. Some editions use an alternate text that includes a separate v. 605:

And around the lovely chorus stood a great multitude,
delighting in it. And among them, a divine singer sang and played
on the lyre, and two tumblers among them
whirled in the middle, with the singer leading the song and dance.

{ πολλὸς δ᾽ ἱμερόεντα χορὸν περιίσταθ᾽ ὅμιλος
τερπόμενοι· μετὰ δέ σφιν ἐμέλπετο θεῖος ἀοιδὸς
φορμίζων· δοιὼ δὲ κυβιστητῆρε κατ’ αὐτοὺς
μολπῆς ἐξάρχοντος ἐδίνευον κατὰ μέσσους }

Iliad 18.403-6 (as corrected by Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 180c-181f). A singer leading dancers is consistent with later, well-known Greek choral practice. On this textual variant, Olsen (2016) pp. 43-5, and Dué (2018) Chapter 3.

[20] Dance played in central role in communal life in ancient Greek-speaking communities:

they had what may be called a dance culture, in which much of their dancing contributed to processes needed for the coordination, survival, reproduction and prosperity of the community.

Zarifi (2007) p. 228. On the role of dance in ancient Greek culture, Kowalzig (2007) and Wilson (2000).

The earliest known Greek inscription praises a man’s dancing:

He who dances now most gracefully of all the dancers, for him this…

{ὸς νῦν ὀρχεστôν πάντον ἀταλότατα παίζει, τô τόδε κλμιν / ΗΟΣΝΥΝΟΡΧΕΣΤΟΝΠΑΝΤΟΝΑΤΑΛΟΤΑΤΑΠΑΙΖΕΙΤΟΤΟΔΕΚΛ[?]ΜΙ[?]Ν }

Inscription on Dipylon oenochoe (wine jug), dated c. 740 BGC and preserved as inv. 192 in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. The ancient Greek text is via Wikipedia, Dipylon inscription entry, and the English translation mainly from D’Angour (2021). The Dipylon oenochoe apparently was a prize in a men’s dancing competition. On later dance competitions, Webb (2012).

Plato referred to the Emmeleiai, a peaceful, pleasurable type of dancing that men do:

Many of the names bestowed in ancient times are deserving of notice and praise for their excellence and descriptiveness. One is the name given to the dances of men who are in a prosperous state and indulge in pleasures of a moderate kind. How true and how musical was the name so rationally bestowed on those dances by the man, whoever he was, who first called them all Emmeleiai.

{ πολλὰ μὲν δὴ τοίνυν ἄλλα ἡμῖν τῶν παλαιῶν ὀνομάτων ὡς εὖ καὶ κατὰ φύσιν κείμενα δεῖ διανοούμενον ἐπαινεῖν, τούτων δὲ ἓν καὶ τὸ περὶ τὰς ὀρχήσεις τὰς τῶν εὖ πραττόντων, ὄντων δὲ μετρίων αὐτῶν πρὸς τὰς ἡδονάς, ὡς ὀρθῶς ἅμα καὶ μουσικῶς ὠνόμασεν ὅστις ποτ᾿ ἦν, καὶ κατὰ λόγον αὐταῖς θέμενος ὄνομα ξυμπάσαις ἐμμελείας ἐπωνόμασε, καὶ δύο δὴ τῶν ὀρχήσεων τῶν καλῶν εἴδη κατεστήσατο, τὸ μὲν πολεμικὸν Cπυῤῥίχην, τὸ δὲ εἰρηνικὸν ἐμμέλειαν. }

Plato, Laws 816B (Book 7). .

The extent to which Plato and Aristotle were concerned with dance has been under-appreciated. In Plato and Aristotle, ποίησις / poiesis is best understood not as “poetry” but as “music-dance and verbal verse.” Scott (2023). In Plato’s Laws, dance has fundamental importance: “choral dance proves to be the ideal means to educate somebody with respect to pleasure and pain.” Pfefferkorn (2021) p. 345. See also Spaltro (2011). In the Laws, Cleinias of Crete readily assents to the Athenian stranger’s query: “Shall we assume that the uneducated man is without choir-training, and the educated man fully choir-trained { Οὐκοῦν ὁ μὲν ἀπαίδευτος ἀχόρευτος ἡμῖν Bἔσται, τὸν δὲ πεπαιδευμένον ἱκανῶς κεχορευκότα θετέον}?” They then quickly agree upon the related proposition, “The well-educated man will be able both to sing and dance well {Ὁ καλῶς ἄρα πεπαιδευμένος ᾄδειν τε καὶ ὀρχεῖσθαι δυνατὸς ἂν εἴη καλῶς}.” Laws 654B (Book 2).

[images] (1) Relief (detail, color enhanced) depicting Athenian men dancing with shields and swords (probably Pyrrhic dance). Relief made in the first half of the first century BGC, probably imitating an Athenian relief from the second half of the fourth century BGC. The dancers probably aren’t meant to represent Corybantes {Κορύβαντες}, castrated men serving the mother goddess Cybele. Relief preserved as Inv. 321 in the Pius-Clementine Museum, Room of the Muses, Vatican Museum (Rome). Source image thanks to Rabax63 and Wikimedia Commons. Here’s a plaster cast of four of the men dancers from the relief. (2) Greek men dancers performing Pontian Serra dance (Pyrrhic {Πυρρίχιος} dance) at the closing ceremony of the 2004 Summer Olympics at Athens, August 29, 2004. Video via YouTube. (3) Three Corybantes dancing a war dance around the mother goddess Cybele and her consort Attis, who are riding in a quadriga pulled by four lions. Detail from the Parabiago Plate, a late fourth-century silver plate found in 1907 at an ancient Roman cemetery near present-day Milan. Preserved in the Museum of Archeology (Milan, Italy). Source image via Europeana. Many images are also on Wikimedia Commons. (4) Fresco of Etruscan man and woman dancing from the Tomb of the Triclinium in the Necropolis of Monterozzi (Lazio, Italy). Made about 470 BGC. Preserved in the National Etruscan Museum (Tarquinia, Italy). Image via Yorck Project and Wikimedia Commons.


Bowersock, Glen W. 2008. “Aristides and the pantomimes.” Chapter 4 (69–77) in William V. Harris and Brooke Holmes, eds. Aelius Aristides between Greece, Rome, and the Gods. Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition. Leiden / Boston: Brill. Volume review by Carl O’Brien and by Anne Gangloff.

Bury, R. G., ed. and trans. 1926. Plato. Laws. Volume I: Books 1-6. Volume II: Books 7-12. Loeb Classical Library 187, 192. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Alternate presentation of English translation.

Carvajal, Guillermo. 2024. “Pyrrhic, the War Dance of Ancient Greeks with which Spartans Trained their Sons.” LBV: La Brújula Verde. Online, Mar. 7, 2024.

Costa, Charles Desmond Nuttall, trans. 2005. Lucian: selected dialogues. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

D’Angour, Armand. 2021. “Ars no longa: Why it is hard to know the meaning of dance.” TLS: Times Literary Supplement (London). Oct. 22, 2021.

Dué, Casey. 2018. Achilles Unbound: Multiformity and Tradition in the Homeric Epics. Hellenic Studies Series 81. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Fagles, Robert, trans. 1996. Homer. The Odyssey. New York: Penguin Publishing Group.

Fairclough, H. Rushton, trans. 1926. Horace. Satires. Epistles. The Art of Poetry. Loeb Classical Library 194. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fowler, Francis George, and H. W. Fowler. 1905. The Works of Lucian of Samosata. 4 vols. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

George, Andrew R. 2003. The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition, and Cuneiform Texts. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Alternate vol. 2.

Hall, Edith. 2010. “‘Heroes of the dance floor’: the missing exemplary male dancer in ancient sources.” Chapter 7 (pp. 145-68) in Macintosh (2010). Cited by preprint page numbers.

Harmon, A. M., ed. and trans. 1936. Lucian. The Passing of Peregrinus. The Runaways. Toxaris or Friendship. The Dance. Lexiphanes. The Eunuch. Astrology. The Mistaken Critic. The Parliament of the Gods. The Tyrannicide. Disowned. Loeb Classical Library 302. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Heubeck, Alfred, Stephanie West, and J. B. Hainsworth, eds. 1988. A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey. Vol. 1: Introduction and Books I-VIII. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Johnston, Ian, trans. 2002. Homer: Iliad. Online.

Kirk, G.S. 1978. “The Formal Duels in Books 3 and 7 of the Iliad.” Pp. 18-40 in Bernard Fenik, ed. Homer: Tradition and Invention. Leiden: Brill.

Kowalzig, Barbara. 2007. Singing for the Gods: Performances of Myth and Ritual in Archaic and Classical Greece. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kurke, Lesle. 2012. “The Value of Chorality in Ancient Greece.” Chapter 10 (pp. 218-235) in John K. Papadopoulos and Gary Urton, eds. The Construction of Value in the Ancient World. Los Angeles, CA: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press. Volume review by Chloë N.​ Duckworth.

Lada-Richards, Ismene. 2007. Silent Eloquence: Lucian and Pantomime Dancing. London: Duckworth. Prefatory matter and introduction of book. Reviews by Karin Schlapbach and by Gregory Scott.

Lada-Richards, Ismene. 2010a. “Dead but not Extinct: On Reinventing Pantomime Dancing in Eighteenth-Century England and France.” Chapter 1 (pp. 19 – 38) in Macintosh (2010).

Lada-Richards, Ismeme. 2010b. “‘Corporeal Technologies’ in Graeco-Roman Pantomime Dancing.” Pp. 51-269 in Marie-Hélène Garelli and Valérie Visa-Ondarçuhu, eds. Corps en Jeu de l’Antiquité à nos Jours. Presses universitaires de Rennes.

Lattimore, Richmond. 1951. The Iliad of Homer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Alternate presentation through the Chicago Homer. Here’s Lattimore’s introduction.

Lombardo, Stanley, trans. 2000. Homer. Odyssey. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co.

Macintosh, Fiona, ed. 2010. The Ancient Dancer in the Modern World: Responses to Greek and Roman Dance. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Review by Grace Ledbetter, by Dana Mills, and by Rosella Simonari.

Molloy, Margaret E. 1996. Libanius and the Dancers. Hildesheim: Olms-Weidmann.

Murray, A. T., ed. and trans., revised by George E. Dimock. 1919. Homer. Odyssey. Volume I: Books 1-12. Volume II: Books 13-24. Loeb Classical Library 105. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Murray, A. T., trans. Revised by William F. Wyatt. 1924. Homer. Iliad. Loeb Classical Library 170 and 171. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Alternate source for Murray’s translation.

Olsen, Sarah Elizabeth. 2016. Beyond Choreia: Dance in Ancient Greek Literature and Culture. Ph.D. Thesis, Classics. University of California, Berkeley.

Pfefferkorn, Julia. 2021. “Plato’s Dancing City: Why is Mimetic Choral Dance so prominent in the Laws?” Pp. 335-358 in Julia Pfefferkorn and Antonino Spinelli, eds. Platonic Mimesis Revisited. Baden-Baden, Germany: Academia.

Ransom, Christopher. 2011. “Aspects of Effeminacy and Masculinity in the Iliad.” Antichthon. 45: 35–57.

Robertson, D. S. 1914. “The Authenticity and Date of Lucian De Saltatione.” Pp. 180-185 in Quiggin, Edmund Crosby, ed. Essays and Studies Presented to William Ridgeway On His Sixtieth Birthday – 6th August 1913. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schlapbach, Karin. 2008. “Lucian’s On Dancing and the Models for a Discourse on Pantomime.” Chapter 14 (pp. 314-337) in Edith Hall and Rosie Wyles, eds. New Directions in Ancient Pantomime. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Scott, Gregory L. 2023. Dance Theory of Plato and Aristotle: 3 Essays. New York, NY: ExistencePS Press.

Slater, W. J. 1994. “Pantomime Riots.” Classical Antiquity. 13(1): 120–44.

Spaltro, Frances L. 2011. Why Should I Dance for Athena? Pyrrhic Dance and the Choral World of Plato’s Laws. Ph.D. Thesis, Department of Classical Languages and Literatures, University of Chicago.

Suriano, Matthew J. 2017. “Kingship and Carpe Diem, between Gilgamesh and Qoheleth.” Vetus Testamentum. 67: 285–306.

Toepfer, Karl, 2019. Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology. Online. Release note. Download (152MB) pdf version.

Webb, Ruth. 2008. Demons and Dancers: Performance in Late Antiquity. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Webb, Ruth. 2011. “The nature and representation of competition in pantomime and mime.” Chapter 6 (pp. 221-260) in Johannes Nollé, Kathleen Coleman, Jocelyne Nelis-Clément, and Pierre Ducrey, eds. L’organisation des spectacles dans le monde Romain: huit exposés suivis de discussions. Geneva: Vandœuvres.

Wilson, Peter. 2000. The Athenian Institution of the Khoregia: The Chorus, the City, and the Stage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Yu, Kenneth W. 2021. “The Politics of Dance: Eunomia and the Exception of Dionysus in Plato’s Laws.” The Classical Quarterly. 70(2): 605–19.

Zarifi, Yana. 2007. “Chorus and Dance in the Ancient World.” Chapter 7 (pp. 227-248) in Marianne McDonald and Michael Walton, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sappho’s gender-defying love for her brothers Charaxos & Larichos

In the ancient Greek Iliad, men seek glory in brutal, gender-structured violence against men. Much different from Iliadic heroes are the eminent Lesbian poet Sappho’s brothers Charaxos and Larichos. Sappho criticized them and praised them with gender-defying love for them as human beings in female-dominated culture. She valued her brothers and men generally as sexually distinctive persons who love passionately and dance worthily just as she and her women friends did.

O divine sea-daughters of Nereus, let
my brother return here unharmed
and let whatever his heart desires
be fulfilled.

And may he undo all past mistakes
and so become a joy to friends,
a sorrow to enemies — may
none ever trouble us.

{ Κύπρι καὶ] Νηρήιδες ἀβλάβη[ν μοι
τὸν κασί]γνητον δ[ό]τε τυίδ’ ἴκεσθα[ι
κὤσσα ϝ]οι θύμῳ κε θέλῃ γένεσθαι
πάντα τε]λέσθην,

ὄσσα δὲ πρ]όσθ’ ἄμβροτε πάντα λῦσα[ι
καὶ φίλοισ]ι ϝοῖσι χάραν γένεσθαι
κὠνίαν ἔ]χθροισι, γένοιτο δ’ ἄμμι
πῆμ’ ἔτι μ]ηδ’ εἴς· }[1]

Sappho embracing Erinna

Sappho’s brother Charaxos loved a woman named Rhodopis. Raised with Sappho in a prosperous, aristocratic family on Lesbos, Charaxos became a wealthy merchant, probably a wine trader. He traveled for trade to Naucratis in ancient Egypt. Rhodopis was a slave there. Enamored with her, he spent “a huge amount of money {χρημάτων μεγάλων}” to purchase freedom for her.[2] She used her freedom and her sexual allure to establish herself as a famous and wealthy courtesan at Naucratis. That surely wasn’t Charaxos’s hope for her. Because he understood that freedom is an essential aspect of love as a complete gift of self, he didn’t purchase her as his slave.

Charaxos, however, apparently never received complete and necessarily exclusive love from Rhodopis. He returned without her to Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos. “There he was roundly mocked by Sappho in one of her poems {ἐν μέλεϊ Σαπφὼ πολλὰ κατεκερτόμησέ μιν}.” Sappho apparently regarded her brother as a foolish believer in Cinderella stories and wholly innocent, pure women.[3] In her love for Charaxos, Sappho sought to free him from gyno-idolatry and enable him to fulfill truly his heart’s desire.

Sappho’s brother Larichos poured wine for the rulers of Lesbos in its largest city, Mytilene. Larichos thus held an eminent position for a young man:

The lovely Sappho repeatedly praises her brother Larichos for pouring wine in the governing hall for the Mytileneans.

{ Σαπφώ τε ἡ καλὴ πολλαχοῦ Λάριχον τὸν ἀδελφὸν ἐπαινεῖ ὡς οἰνοχοοῦντα ἐν τῷ πρυτανείῳ τοῖς Μυτιληναίοις. }[4]

Sappho described Hermes as pouring wine for the gods. However, the most prominent wine-pourer for rulers is Ganymede. Zeus abducted Ganymede and made him forever a cup-bearer, wine-pourer, and sexual toy. Sappho wouldn’t have wanted her brother Larichos to become an immortal, ageless wine-pourer for the Mytileneans, nor even one for the gods like Ganymede. Sappho was devoted to Aphrodite. Just as Aphrodite loved the mortal, aging man Anchises, Sappho loved her brother Larichos as a mortal man who surely would age beyond being a wine-pourer.[5]

Geras, ancient Greek god of old age; painting on ancient Greek vase

Crossing gender, Sappho explicitly associated herself with the aged Tithonus. Just as Zeus abducted Ganymede, the dawn goddess Eos abducted the mortal man Tithonus to serve her sexually. Eos had Zeus make Tithonus immortal, but neglected to request that Tithonus be ageless. Aphrodite offered the example of Tithonus in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite. Sappho similarly invoked the aged Tithonus, whom she associated with herself. Sappho advised young persons:

You, young persons, pursue the violet-laden Muses’ lovely gifts,
and the clear-toned lyre so dear to song,

but for me — old age has now seized my once tender body,
and my hair has become white instead of black.
My breath has grown labored, and my knees offer no support,
knees once fleet for the dance like little fawns.

How often I lament these things. But what to do?
As a human, one cannot escape old age.
Yes, people used to say that rose-armed Dawn, overtaken by love,
took Tithonus, handsome and young then, and carried him off
to the world’s end. Yet in time grey age
still seized him, though he having an immortal wife.

{ ὔμμες πεδὰ Μοίσαν ἰ]ο̣κ[ό]λ̣πων κάλα δῶρα, παῖδες,
σπουδάσδετε καὶ τὰ]ν̣ φιλάοιδον λιγύραν χελύνναν·

ἔμοι δ’ ἄπαλον πρίν] π̣οτ̣’ [ἔ]ο̣ντα χρόα γῆρας ἤδη
ἐπέλλαβε, λεῦκαι δ’ ἐγ]ένοντο τρίχες ἐκ μελαίναν·
βάρυς δέ μ’ ὀ [θ]ῦμο̣ς̣ πεπόηται, γόνα δ’ [ο]ὐ φέροισι,
τὰ δή ποτα λαίψηρ’ ἔον ὄρχησθ’ ἴσα νεβρίοισι.

τὰ <μὲν> στεναχίσδω θαμέως· ἀλλὰ τί κεν ποείην;
ἀγήραον ἄνθρωπον ἔοντ’ οὐ δύνατον γένεσθαι.
καὶ γάρ π̣[ο]τ̣α̣ Τίθωνον ἔφαντο βροδόπαχυν Αὔων
ἔρῳ φ̣. . α̣θ̣ε̣ισαν βάμεν’ εἰς ἔσχατα γᾶς φέροισα[ν,
ἔοντα̣ [κ]ά̣λ̣ο̣ν καὶ νέον, ἀλλ’ αὖτον ὔμως ἔμαρψε
χρόνῳ π̣ό̣λ̣ι̣ο̣ν̣ γῆρας, ἔχ̣[ο]ν̣τ̣’ ἀθανάταν ἄκοιτιν. }[6]

The metaphorical parallel to the immortal but aged Tithonus is Sappho’s knees “once fleet for the dance like little fawns.” Her knees function as a metonym for her legs and her physical capabilities generally. The aged Sappho regretted her loss of bodily capabilities. She urged young persons, both women and men, to sing and dance. Her advice applies to her young brother Larichos.[7]

Sappho appreciated men’s supple limbs apart from prowess in fighting. The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite used the incapacity of Tithonus’s limbs to characterize his disability as a lover for the goddess Eos:

When hateful old age was pressing fully hard on Tithonus
and he couldn’t move his limbs, much less lift them up,
in her heart Eos decided the best way indeed to be this:
she put him in a room and closed the shining doors upon him.
From there his voice endlessly pours out, but he has no vigor at all,
none like he formerly had in his supple limbs.

{ ἀλλ᾿ ὅτε δὴ πάμπαν στυγερὸν κατὰ γῆρας ἔπειγεν,
οὐδέ τι κινῆσαι μελέων δύνατ᾿ οὐδ᾿ ἀναεῖραι,
ἥδε δέ οἱ κατὰ θυμὸν ἀρίστη φαίνετο βουλή·
ἐν θαλάμωι κατέθηκε, θύρας δ᾿ ἐπέθηκε φαεινάς.
τοῦ δ᾿ ἤτοι φωνὴ ῥέει ἄσπετος, οὐδέ τι κῖκυς
ἔσθ᾿ οἵη πάρος ἔσκεν ἐνὶ γναμπτοῖσι μέλεσσιν. }[8]

The aged Tithonus is brother to the aged Sappho in having an immortal voice and physical disability associated with limbs.[9] The penis is commonly regarded as one of a man’s members / limbs. Impotent limbs encompass sexual disability distinctive to men. Sappho, however, also understood limbs apart from sexual distinctiveness. The young Tithonus was brother to the young Sappho in having supple limbs. Both women and men need supple limbs for dancing.

For men, dancing contrasts with the heroic ethic of the Iliad. After Achilles killed Hector, King Priam of Troy lamented the disgraceful character of his remaining sons:

Woe is me, oh my evil destiny. I have had the most noble
of sons in Troy, but I say not one of them is left to me —
not godlike Mestor, not Troilos the warrior charioteer,
nor Hector, who was a god among men, for he did not seem like
the son of a mortal man, but of a god. All these
Ares has slain, and all that are left to me are disgraces —
liars and dancers, most noble in pounding the floor in choral dance,
robbers of lambs and young goats in their own land.

{ ὤ μοι ἐγὼ πανάποτμος, ἐπεὶ τέκον υἷας ἀρίστους
Τροίῃ ἐν εὐρείῃ, τῶν δ᾽ οὔ τινά φημι λελεῖφθαι,
Μήστορά τ᾽ ἀντίθεον καὶ Τρωΐλον ἱππιοχάρμην
Ἕκτορά θ᾽, ὃς θεὸς ἔσκε μετ᾽ ἀνδράσιν, οὐδὲ ἐῴκει
ἀνδρός γε θνητοῦ πάϊς ἔμμεναι ἀλλὰ θεοῖο.
τοὺς μὲν ἀπώλεσ᾽ Ἄρης, τὰ δ᾽ ἐλέγχεα πάντα λέλειπται
ψεῦσταί τ᾽ ὀρχησταί τε χοροιτυπίῃσιν ἄριστοι
ἀρνῶν ἠδ᾽ ἐρίφων ἐπιδήμιοι ἁρπακτῆρες. }[10]

Sappho herself sang for choral dances and apparently taught women dancers. Devoted to Aphrodite, Sappho appreciated dance as did the goddess of love Aphrodite. Aphrodite summoned Helen to have sex with her husband Paris even after her former husband Menelaus shamed him on the battlefield of Troy:

Helen, come this way. Paris calls you to come home.
He’s there in the marital bedroom, on the bed with inlaid rings.
He’s gleaming with his beauty and robes. You wouldn’t say
he came from fighting a foe, but rather he was going to a dance,
or from a dance having recently returned, he was resting.

{ δεῦρ᾽ ἴθ᾽: Ἀλέξανδρός σε καλεῖ οἶκον δὲ νέεσθαι.
κεῖνος ὅ γ᾽ ἐν θαλάμῳ καὶ δινωτοῖσι λέχεσσι
κάλλεΐ τε στίλβων καὶ εἵμασιν: οὐδέ κε φαίης
ἀνδρὶ μαχεσσάμενον τόν γ᾽ ἐλθεῖν, ἀλλὰ χορὸν δὲ
ἔρχεσθ᾽, ἠὲ χοροῖο νέον λήγοντα καθίζειν. }

Like Aphrodite, Sappho would have appreciated her brothers more as dancers than as warriors.[11]

In the ancient Mediterranean world, men’s status in women’s eyes typically centered on men’s material wealth and skill in violence against men. Sappho, in contrast, cared most about beauty:

Some say an army of horsemen, others
say foot soldiers, still others a fleet of ships
is the most beautiful thing on the black earth.
I say it is whatever one loves.

Everyone can understand this — consider
that Helen, far surpassing the beauty
of mortals
, left behind
the best man of all

to sail away to Troy. She remembered
neither daughter nor dear parents,
as Aphrodite led her away

This reminds me now
of absent Anaktoria —

I would rather see her lovely step
and the radiant sparkle of her face
than all the war chariots in Lydia
and soldiers battling in arms.

{ ο]ἰ μὲν ἰππήων στρότον οἰ δὲ πέσδων
οἰ δὲ νάων φαῖσ’ἐπ[ὶ] γᾶν μέλαι[ν]αν
ἔ]μμεναι κάλλιστον, ἔγω δὲ κῆν’ ὄτ-
τω τις ἔραται·

πά]γχυ δ’ εὔμαρες σύνετον πόησαι
π]άντι τ[ο]ῦ̣τ’, ἀ γὰρ πόλυ περσκέ̣θ̣ο̣ι̣σ̣α
κ̣άλ̣λο̣ς̣ [ἀνθ]ρώπων Ἐλένα [τὸ]ν ἄνδρα
τ̣ὸν̣ [πανάρ]ι̣στον

κ̣αλλ[ίποι]σ̣’ ἔβα ’ς Τροΐαν πλέοι̣[σα
κωὐδ[ὲ πα]ῖδος οὐδὲ φίλων το[κ]ήων
πάμ[παν] ἐμνάσθη, ἀλλὰ παράγ̣α̣γ̣’ α̣ὔταν

. .]μ̣ε̣ νῦν Ἀνακτορί[ας ὀ]ν̣έ̣μναι-
σ’ οὐ ] παρεοίσας·

τᾶ]ς κε βολλοίμαν ἔρατόν τε βᾶμα
κἀμάρυχμα λάμπρον ἴδην προσώπω
ἢ τὰ Λύδων ἄρματα κἀν ὄπλοισι
πεσδομ]άχεντας. }[12]

Helen left behind the great warrior and Greek king Menelaus to elope with the Trojan prince Paris, known for his beauty and dancing. Anaktoria’s “lovely step {ἐρατὸν βᾶμα}” suggests her dancing. Paris, not the warrior-hero Hector, was a manly ideal in Sappho’s eyes.

Kleobis and Biton dying in the temple of Hera after carrying their mother 
Cydippe there

In her “Brothers Poem,” Sappho challenged her mother not to think about her sons Charaxos and Larichos according to men’s traditional gender burdens. Men traditionally have been burdened with providing material goods to their families. In a poem plausibly addressed to her mother, Sappho urged concern not for the goods her brother Charaxos was to bring, but for his personal safety:

You keep on saying that Charaxos must come
with his ship full of goods. Zeus knows this,
I believe, as do all the gods.
Don’t think about it.

Instead send me, yes command me
to keep praying to Queen Hera
that Charaxos return here
guiding his ship safely

and find us steadfast. Everything else
we should turn over to the gods,
since harsh gales to fair winds
soon give way.

{ ἀλλ’ ἄϊ θρύλησθα Χάραξον ἔλθην
νᾶϊ σὺν πλήαι. τὰ μὲν̣ οἴο̣μα̣ι Ζεῦς
οἶδε σύμπαντές τε θέοι · σὲ δ’ οὐ χρῆ
ταῦτα νόησθαι,

ἀλλὰ καὶ πέμπην ἔμε καὶ κέλεσθαι
πόλλα λί̣σσεσθαι̣ βασί̣λ̣η̣αν Ἤ̣ραν
ἐξίκεσθαι τυίδε σάαν ἄγοντα
νᾶα Χάραξον

κἄμμ’ ἐπεύρην ἀρτ̣έ̣μεας. τὰ δ’ ἄλλα
πάντα δαιμόνεσσ̣ιν ἐπι̣τ̣ρόπωμεν·
εὔδιαι γ̣ὰρ̣ ἐκ μεγάλαν ἀήτα̣ν̣
αἶψα πέ̣λ̣ο̣νται. }[13]

At an annual festival to Hera on Lesbo, Sappho apparently led the dancing associated with the very expensive sacrifice of 100 cattle, a “hecatomb {ἑκατόμβη}.” Moreover, in ancient Greek myth, two brothers Kleobis and Biton, working in the place of oxen, pulled their mother atop her wagon to a festival of Hera. Kleobis and Biton then happily died in Hera’s temple.[14] Their mother honored her two sons as praiseworthy instruments, yet they perished as human beings. Sappho praying to Hera for Charaxos’s safe return doesn’t require an expensive sacrifice. Moreover, Sappho explicitly orients her prayer away from instrumental valuation of Charaxos and towards his safety. Sappho’s conventional invocation of the gods plays between Zeus and Hera while undermining the instrumentalizing of men as a gender.[15]

Sappho’s gender-defying love for her brother Larichos subverts Iliadic characterization of the warrior man-hero. Sappho associated Larichos with her and their mother. She thus gave him domestic importance that many men lack:

And us? If Larichos lifts his head high
and some day becomes a man,
our hearts might be swiftly freed
from such heavy aches.

{ κἄμμες, αἴ κε τὰν κεφάλα̣ν ἀέρρ̣η
Λάρι̣χος καὶ δή ποτ’ ἄνη̣ρ γένηται,
καὶ μάλ’ ἐκ πόλλαν βαρ̣υθυ̣μίαν̣ κεν
αἶψα λύθειμεν. }[16]

In the Iliad, a man lifting his head high and acting like a man means being steadfast in massive violence against men. Sappho’s manly ideal, however, was Paris, not Hector. An insightful scholar observed of the last two verses of the “Brothers Poem”:

with their sisterly exhortation to Larichos to go and play a Telemachos-like role and show himself “a man”, while the heavy and rare word βαρυθυμία – “weightiness of spirit”, “depression”, raising the stylistic level, correlates with the devastating erotic love we find elsewhere in Sappho. Here she is the devoted sister, worrying about her younger brother, as in other poems she does about girls, one of whom (after all), if he lifts his head, Larichos will grow up to marry.[17]

In ancient Greek, the root of Larichos, “laros {λαρός},” meaning “sweet,” is used to characterize wine. Sappho is concerned about Larichos not as a warrior, but as a lover and potential husband. In this context, lifting his head alludes to Larichos’s sexual arousal. Being a man means acting as a sexually mature man. To lift heavy heart-aches, a marriage celebration is best of all. In ancient Greek, the root of Charaxos, “chara {χαρά},” means “exuberant joy.” Sappho in ending the “Brothers Poem” imagines Charaxos having returned home, Larichos getting married, and all joyfully dancing.[18]

Alcaeus and Sappho playing together in an ancient Greek vase painting

Although she wrote exquisite poetry in love for women, Sappho also loved men. She apparently married and had at least one child. She sang and played music for men’s symposia. A tradition going back to no later than the ancient comic Greek poet Menander describes her as having fallen madly in love with Phaon, a boatman of Lesbos. He was reputed to be once regarded as an ugly man, at least superficially. The first-century scholar Pliny the Elder reported that Sappho appreciated men’s typically covered genitals:

Marvelous is the characteristic reported of the erynge, that its root grows into the likeness of the organs of one sex or the other. Although rarely found in the male form, if that form comes into the possession of men, they become lovable in the eyes of women. It is said that this is how Phaon of Lesbos himself won the love of Sappho.

{ portentosum est, quod de ea traditur, radicem eius alterutrius sexus similitudinem referre, raro inuento, sed si uiris contigerit mas, amabiles fieri; ob hoc et Phaonem Lesbium dilectum a Sappho }[19]

Like Dido for Aeneas, Sappho reportedly committed suicide through her extravagant passion for Phaon. Ovid’s fictional letter of Sappho to Phaon, a letter now rightly regarded as “uniquely Sapphic,” depicts Sappho’s orgasm in dreaming of Phaon:

You, Phaon, are my care. My dreams bring you back to me —
dreams brighter than beautiful day.
There I find you, even though you’re absent from this region.
But joys that sleep brings aren’t sufficiently long.
Often I seem to burden your arms with my neck,
often I seem to have placed mine beneath yours.
I know the kisses that you would have united with your tongue,
that you devised as suitable to receive, suitable to give.
Sometimes I entice you and speak words similar
to the truth, and my lips keep watch with my senses.
I’m ashamed to tell further, but all happens,
and it delights, and it’s not possible for me to stay dry.

{ Tu mihi cura, Phaon; te somnia nostra reducunt —
somnia formoso candidiora die.
illic te invenio, quamvis regionibus absis;
sed non longa satis gaudia somnus habet
saepe tuos nostra cervice onerare lacertos,
saepe tuae videor supposuisse meos;
oscula cognosco, quae tu committere lingua
aptaque consueras accipere, apta dare.
blandior interdum verisque simillima verba
eloquor, et vigilant sensibus ora meis.
ulteriora pudet narrare, sed omnia fiunt,
et iuvat, et siccae non licet esse mihi. }[20]

Phaon wasn’t anyone like an Iliadic heroic. He was simply a beautiful man, a man with beauty sexually distinctive to men. Sappho wouldn’t have loved her brothers Charaxos and Larichos as instruments of commerce or violence against men. She would have loved them as beautiful human beings.

Sappho reading; painting on an Attic hydria

Many modern scholars have failed to appreciate Sappho’s love for her brothers. In the “Brothers Poem,” Sappho’s distinctive concern for Charaxos’s safety, rather than his ship’s cargo, has scarcely been noticed. That’s consistent with modern complacency about men’s gender burdens and the large gender protrusion in human mortality.

Scholars have projected contempt for men upon Sappho’s view of Larichos. One learned classical philologist translated the final stanza of the “Brothers Poem” to have Sappho hoping that Larichos “finally mans up.”[21] That diction constitutes a classic call for men to gender-conform. Another scholar imagined Sappho depicting Larichos as a “feckless brother” in contrast to an Iliadic hero. This scholar imagined Sappho insulting and ridiculing her brother: “That he is not an ἀνήρ (‘man’) in the Iliadic sense is her crowning insult.”[22] This scholar’s interpretation bizarrely makes Sappho’s feminine values contrast starkly with Sappho’s valuing of her brothers. Sappho was not a gender-bigoted feminist.

Modern disparagement of men has heavily colored translations of Sappho’s “Brothers Poem.” One translation absurdly imagines Sappho wanting Larichos to “whistle Dixie”:

As for us — if lazyboy Larichos ever lifts his head
and turns into a man who can whistle Dixie
goodbye family gloom! We’ll run our fingers
through his beard and laugh.[23]

Dixie was the traditional anthem of the secessionist U.S. states seeking to keep blacks enslaved. To “whistle Dixie” means to engage in idle talk of unrealistically optimistic fantasies. Sappho surely didn’t want Larichos to help his family revel in fantasies of white supremacy. Nonetheless, Oxford students in a student literary periodical called this translation “the most alluring from a sea of seven sassy Sapphos.”[24] Their imagined “sassy Sappho” is a singer of a morally obtuse, childish cartoon.

Another translation provides additional cultural insight. Unlike Sappho, many intellectuals today inhabit a reeking sewer:

…. As for Larichos,

that lay-a-bed lives for the pillow. If for once
he’d get off his ass, he might make something of himself.
Then from that reeking sewer of my life
I might haul up a bucket of spring water.[25]

Even just the surviving fragments of her poetry and the surviving testimonies about her life indicate that Sappho led a vibrant life — a life filled with social interaction, intellectual and artistic activities, and passionate love. The “reeking sewer of my life” is the here-and-now experience of this learned translator. He perceptively described those serving Hera, Zeus, and other traditional Greek gods as “those idiots in the Iliad.” Most of the idiots killed in the foolish Trojan War over Helen were men. Sappho surely wanted her brother Larichos to make of himself something other than being “gloriously” killed in battle. She would have preferred for him to lay in bed as Paris did for awhile during the Trojan War with the help of Aphrodite.

Like mothers’ love for their sons, sisters’ love for their brothers is vitally important to promoting social justice and gender equality. Sappho loved her brothers Charaxos and Larichos with gender-defying love, with humane and forgiving love, and with love affirming her brothers’ essential goodness as men. The name Sappho apparently arose as an affectionate term for sister — a term like “best-friend-forever sister.”[26] If all sisters loved their brothers as Sappho did, men would not aspire merely to acquiring wealth or dying in glory as warriors. Men would finally be liberated to flourish like Sappho as fully human beings.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Sappho, Fragment 5, vv. 1-8, ancient Greek text from Campbell (1982) via Digital Sappho, English translation from Rayor & Lardinois (2023). For a close translation of the first eleven verses of fragment 5, Nagy (2018).

Sappho wrote about 600 BGC on the island of Lesbos near the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea. Even in antiquity she was widely regarded as an eminent poet:

Some say the Muses are nine, but how carelessly!
Look at the tenth, Sappho from Lesbos.

{ ννέα τὰς Μούσας φασίν τινες· ὡς ὀλιγώρως·
ἠνίδε καὶ Σαπφὼ Λεσβόθεν ἡ δεκάτη. }

The Greek Anthology {Anthologia Palatina} 9.506, verses attributed to Plato, from Thorsen & Berge (2019). Scholars in Hellenistic Alexandria compiled at least eight books of Sappho’s poetry, but most of her poems have been lost. Digital Sappho provides Greek texts and commentary for all the surviving fragments of Sappho’s poetry. English translations of these fragments are available from Barnstone (2005), Carson (2002), Nagy (2018), Rayor & Lardinois (2023), the Sappho page of Poetry in Translation, and the Divine Sappho. Today as an artist Sappho is even more famous than the pioneering Greek painter Kora of Sicyon.

[2] Herodotus recounted:

Rhodopis arrived in Egypt, brought by Xanthes of Samos. On arrival she was freed for a huge amount of money in order to work. A man from Mytilene, Charaxos son of Scamandronymus, and brother of Sappho the poet, did this. Thus Rhodopis was freed and lived in Egypt. Since she was extremely lovely, she gained much wealth for such a Rhodopis.

{ Ῥοδῶπις δὲ ἐς Αἴγυπτον ἀπίκετο Ξάνθεω τοῦ Σαμίου κομίσαντός μιν· ἀπικομένη δὲ κατʼ ἐργασίην ἐλύθη χρημάτων μεγάλων ὑπὸ ἀνδρὸς Μυτιληναίου Χαράξου τοῦ Σκαμανδρωνύμου παιδός, ἀδελφεοῦ δὲ Σαπφοῦς τῆς μουσοποιοῦ. οὕτω δὴ ἡ Ῥοδῶπις ἐλευθερώθη καὶ κατέμεινέ τε ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ καὶ κάρτα ἐπαφρόδιτος γενομένη μεγάλα ἐκτήσατο χρήματα ὡς δἠ εἶναι Ῥοδώπιος }

Herodotus, Histories 2.135, ancient Greek text from Wilson (2015) via Thorsen & Berge (2019), English translation (modified slightly) from id. The English translation of Godley (1920) brings out more explicitly Herodotus’s wry allusion to Rhodopis’s profession as a hetaera (high-class prostitute). Rhodopis {Ῥοδῶπις} means literally “rosy cheeks.” Other sources call her Doricha {Δωρίχα}. That may have been her real name. In her fragment 15, Sappho apparently refers to Doricha and Charaxos’s love for her.

Later sources recount similarly about Rhodopis / Doricha. Writing sometime between 7 BGC and 24 GC, Strabo described a large, expensive pyramid thought to be her tomb:

It is called “Tomb of the Courtesan,” having been built by her lovers. This courtesan was the one whom Sappho the poetess of melic songs calls Doricha, the beloved of Sapphoʼs brother Charaxos. He was engaged in transporting Lesbian wine to Naucratis for sale. Others give her the name Rhodopis.

{ λέγεται δὲ τῆς ἑταίρας τάφος—γεγονὼς ὑπὸ τῶν ἐραστῶν—, ἣν Σαπφὼ μέν ἡ τῶν μελῶν ποιήτρια καλεῖ Δωρίχαν, ἐρωμένην τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ αὐτῆς Χαράξου γεγονυῖαν οἶνον κατάγοντος εἰς Ναύκρατιν Λέσβιον κατ᾿ ἐμπορίαν, ἄλλοι δ᾿ ὀνομάζουσι Ῥοδῶπιν. }

Strabo, Geographica {Γεωγραφικά} 17.1.33, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified) from Thorsen & Berge (2019). Writing early in the third century GC, Athenaeus commented:

Naucratis also produced famous and exceptionally beautiful courtesans, including Doricha. She was a lover of Sapphoʼs brother Charaxos, who sailed to Naucratis on a trading journey. In her poems the lovely Sappho abuses Doricha for extracting a substantial amount of money from Charaxos.

{ ἐνδόξους δὲ ἑταίρας καὶ ἐπὶ κάλλει διαφερούσας ἤνεγκεν καὶ ἡ Ναύκρατις· Δωρίχαν τε, ἣν ἡ καλὴ Σαπφὼ ἐρωμένην γενομένην Χαράξου τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ αὐτῆς κατʼ ἐμπορίαν εἰς τὴν Ναύκρατιν ἀπαίροντος διὰ τῆς ποιήσεως διαβάλλει ὡς πολλὰ τοῦ Χαράξου νοσφισαμένην. }

Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae {Δειπνοσοφισταί} 13.69 = 13.596bd, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified slightly) from Thorsen & Berge (2019). Charaxos is also transliterated less literally as Charaxus, but I’ve consistently chosen the former since Charaxus isn’t a well-known name.

Whether Charaxos, Rhodopis / Doricha, and Larichos are historical persons or literary personas created in Sappho’s poems has little significance to the presentation here. For simplicity, I assume that they are historical persons. With the same justification, I equate Sappho and the first-person voice of Sappho’s poems.

[3] For Sappho mocking Charaxos, Herodotus, Histories 2.135, ancient Greek text from Wilson (2015) via Thorsen & Berge (2019), English translation (modified slightly) from id. Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 13.596bc has Sappho disparaging Doricha / Rhodopis rather than Charaxos.

Sappho perhaps chided her brother Charaxos for believing on meager evidence that he had discovered a highly desirable, goddess-like woman who would love him truly and faithfully. Made in this context, truthful, frank criticism indicates love, not contempt. Ovid perceptively depicted Sappho’s loyal love for her brother Charaxos:

Because I often warned him well and very faithfully, he hates me.
This my free-speaking, this my loyal tongue, has bestowed on me.

{ me quoque, quod monui bene multa fideliter, odit;
hoc mihi libertas, hoc pia lingua dedit. }

Ovid, Heroides 15 (Sappho to Phaon {Sappho Phaoni}) vv. 67-8, Latin text of Ehwald (1907) Teubner via Perseus, my English translation, benefiting from that of James Hunter. Just before Sappho laments Charaxos hating her for her loyal tongue, she suggests that Charaxos now roams the seas as a pirate. That sensational claim seems to be a literary device intending to highlight Sappho’s continuing love for her brother. On Ovid’s depiction of Charaxos in Heroides 15 in relation to Sappho’s poetry, Thorsen (2014) pp. 58-63 and Thorsen (2019).

In fragment 57, Sappho derides an addressee for loving an ignorant countrywoman. Athenaeus specified Sappho’s addressee in fragment 57 as her woman associate Andromeda. Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 1.46 = 1.21b. In fragments 68(a), 131, and 133, Sappho refers explicitly to Andromeda. The addressee of fragment 57 could grammatically be a woman or man. Fragment 57 thus might have been addressed to Charaxos.

Variants of Cinderella stories have been widely known for millennia. After telling about the tomb of the hetaera Rhodopis / Doricha and that Sappho’s brother Charaxos loved her, Strabo continued with the earliest recorded variant of the Cinderella story:

They tell the fabulous story that, when Doricha was bathing, an eagle snatched one of her sandals from her maid and carried it to Memphis. While the king was administering justice in the open air, the eagle, when it arrived above his head, flung the sandal into his lap. The king, stirred both by the beautiful shape of the sandal and by the strangeness of the occurrence, sent men in all directions into the country in quest of the woman who wore the sandal. When she was found in the city of Naucratis, she was brought up to Memphis. She became the wife of the king. When she died was honored with the above-mentioned tomb.

{ μυθεύουσι δ᾿, ὅτι, λουομένης αὐτῆς, ἓν τῶν ὑποδημάτων αὐτῆς ἁρπάσας ἀετὸς παρὰ τῆς θεραπαίνης κομίσειεν εἰς Μέμφιν καί, τοῦ βασιλέως δικαιοδοτοῦντος ὑπαιθρίου,4 γενόμενος κατὰ κορυφὴν αὐτοῦ ῥίψειε τὸ ὑπόδημα εἰς τὸν κόλπον· ὁ δὲ καὶ τῷ ῥυθμῷ τοῦ ὑποδήματος καὶ τῷ παραδόξῳ κινηθεὶς περιπέμψειεν εἰς τὴν χώραν κατὰ ζήτησιν τῆς φορούσης ἀνθρώπου τοῦτο· εὑρεθεῖσα δ᾿ ἐν τῇ πόλει τῶν Ναυκρατιτῶν ἀναχθείη καὶ γένοιτο γυνὴ τοῦ βασιλέως, τελευτήσασα δὲ τοῦ λεχθέντος τύχοι τάφου. }

Strabo, Geographica {Γεωγραφικά} 17.1.33, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Jones (1932). The third-century GC author Aelian (Claudius Aelianus {Κλαύδιος Αἰλιανός}) recorded nearly the same story in his Various Histories {Varia Historia / Ποικίλη ἱστορία} 13.33.

[4] Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae {Δειπνοσοφισταί} 10.24 = 10.425a, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified slightly) from Thorsen & Berge (2019). On Sappho having Hermes pour wine for the gods, Deipnosophistae 5.19 = 5.192c, also available in Thorsen & Berge (2019).

[5] On Ganymede’s relevance to Larichos in Sappho’s “Brothers Poem”:

Larichos’ activity as a cupbearer in the aristocratic symposium more than adumbrates his deep involvement in love as well. Around 600 BC the Greek aristocracy began to install beautiful boys as wine-bearers more for leisure, prestige, and erotic amusement than for education as in former times. It became fashionable in Sappho’s time to have these boys as objects of an idealized and passionate love. Ganymede modeled this new male homoerotic practice of the élite. .. Thus Larichos’ behavior leads us to believe he also has fallen prey to Eros who somehow personifies these idealized boys in their duty as wine-pourers in the new symposium. While the bonds of heterosexual love bind Charaxos, Larichos is engaged in homosexual affairs. His bowed head signifies his lack of personal freedom. He has become a slave of desire, the object of lust for adult males.

Bierl (2016) pp. 321-2.

[6] Sappho, Fragment 58c, vv. 1-12 (The Cologne Papyrus, P.Köln inv. 21351), ancient Greek text from Digital Sappho, English translation (modified) from Greene (2009). Tithonos {Τιθωνός} is the standard transliteration, but Tithonos is commonly written as Tithonus. For v. 5, Greene has “my heart has grown heavy” for “βάρυς δέ μ’ ὀ [θ]ῦμο̣ς̣ πεπόηται.” That translation, and others similar to it, seem too abstract in the context of body, hair, and knees. My translation, “my breath has grown labored,” is within the semantic range of the ancient Greek.

Fragment 58c, known as Sappho’s “Old Age Poem” or “Tithonus Poem,” was recovered in a new manuscript in 2004 and first published in West (2005). The new manuscript complements an earlier source, the Oxford Papyrus, P.Oxy. 1787 fr. 1. For textual commentary, Annis (2005), Harris, and Obbink (2009). For alternate translations, West (2005) p. 5, Carson (2005), Gutman (ND), Obbink (2009), Janko (2017) p. 270, Harris (2018), Nagy (2018), and Rayor & Lardinois (2023).

The textual conclusion of this poem is a matter of considerable scholarly debate. Archaic Greek poetry wasn’t likely to conclude with an exemplum. Lowell (2009). But this poem might be especially subtle. Janko (2017). Moreover, it might have existed in antiquity in shorter and longer versions. Lardinois (2009), Nagy (2009).

Sappho’s “Old Age Poem” is resolutely gender-ambiguous. Translations have commonly assumed a gender not marked in the text:

Nowhere does the speaker signal her gender; this ode is unisex. Even though Greek is a highly inflected language, with a separate feminine gender in nouns and adjectives (but not in verbs, unlike Semitic languages), nowhere, in the text as it is plausibly reconstructed, does the speaker indicate her sexual identity, nowhere does she even indicate the sexual identity of the young people whom she is addressing, and nowhere does she signal whether the speaker’s and the addressees’ desires incline towards others belonging to the same sex, to the opposite sex, or to both. This poem could be performed by a man as easily as by a woman, and addressed to boys or both boys and girls just as easily as to girls. Not even the ‘fawns’ to which the speaker is compared in line 6 are gendered: the word is a neuter diminutive.

Janko (2017) p. 275.

[7] With regard to the “Old Age Poem,” Greene insightfully observed:

the speaker’s urgent entreaty of the paides {παῖδες / young persons} in the first line of the poem may be read not only as a powerful call to embrace song and dance while one can, but also as an invocation to future generations to keep her songs alive in the only way they can live, through performance.

Greene (2009). This call to embrace song and dance encompasses young men as well as young women.

Alcman, a Greek lyric poet who was probably active late in the seventh century BGC, pleaded to young women when he was too old to dance with them:

Honey-toned, divine-voiced young women, no longer
can my limbs carry me. If only, if only I were a cerylus,
who flies with the halcyons over the flower of the wave
with resolute heart, a strong, sea-blue bird.

{ οὔ μ᾿ ἔτι, παρσενικαὶ μελιγάρυες ἱαρόφωνοι,
γυῖα φέρην δύναται· βάλε δὴ βάλε κηρύλος εἴην,
ὅς τ᾿ ἐπὶ κύματος ἄνθος ἅμ᾿ ἀλκυόνεσσι ποτήται
νηλεὲς ἦτορ ἔχων, ἁλιπόρφυρος ἱαρὸς ὄρνις. }

Alcman, Fragment 26 (preserved in Antigonus of Carystus, Marvels), ancient Greek text and English translation (modified) from Campbell (1988). For alternate translations and notes, see posts by Chris Childers and by Michael Gilleland. Alcman’s plea to young women suggests their concern for him and other older men.

[8] Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite (Homeric Hymns 5, To Aphrodite {Εἲς Ἀφροδίτην}), vv. 1-6, ancient Greek text from West (2003), my English translation, benefiting from a variety of available translations.

[9] Desire for poetic immortality pervades Sappho’s poems. West (2005) pp. 2-3. Some ancient sources indicate that in old age Tithonus became a cicada. Janko associates the Tithonus exemplum with the cicada’s immortal singing and Sappho’s singing through her old age. Janko (2017) pp. 288-9. Some add to the Tithonus poem verses following it in the Oxford Papyrus (P.Oxy. 1787 fr. 1):

Yet I love the finer things. Know that love has obtained
for me the brightness and beauty of the sun.

{ ἔγω δὲ φίλημμ’ ἀβροσύναν, ]τοῦτο καί μοι
τὸ λά[μπρον ἔρος τὠελίω καὶ τὸ κά]λον λέ[λ]ογχε. }

Sappho, Fragment 58c, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified) from Campbell (1982). The sun is associated with the immortality of the god Helios {Ἠέλιος} in ancient Greek culture. An alternate translation of these these verses affirms earthly life:

Yet I love the finer things. Know that love of the
sun has obtained for me brightness and beauty.

English translation (modified slightly) from Rayor & Lardinois (2023). Athenaeus quotes these verses and interprets “love of the sun {ἔρος τὠελίω}” to mean love for life. Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 15.687b. Sappho might have intended both these meanings:

I believe the ambiguity to be deliberate and that one should construct τὠελίω both with ἔρος and with τὸ λάμπρον καὶ τὸ κάλον: “love of the sun / life has obtained for me the brightness and beauty [of the sun / life]”. Constructing τὠελίω both with ἔρος and with τὸ λάμπρον καὶ τὸ κάλον would agree with the idea expressed in the opening priamel of Sappho fr. 16, namely that the most beautiful thing on earth is whatever one loves: the speaker’s love of life makes it for her an object of beauty.

Lardinois (2009), omitted footnote points to a similar grammatical ambiguity in Sappho, Fragment 96.15–17.

[10] Homer, Iliad 24.255-62, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified) from Murray (1924). The subsequent quote above, “Helen, come this way…,” is similarly from Iliad 3.390-4.

[11] Stehle described Paris in the Iliad as a better Homeric parallel for Larichos than Telemachos in the Odyssey. Stehle (2016) pp. 289-90. However, her narrow-minded interpretation of Sappho’s “Brothers Poem” imagines Sappho disparaging Larichos for being like Paris. On sexual politics shaping readings of Sappho, Prins (1999).

[12] Sappho, Fragment 16.1-12, 15-20, ancient Greek text from Campbell (1982) via Digital Sappho, English translation (modified slightly) from Rayor & Lardinois (2023). Sappho, Fragment 16, has tended to be read to have Sappho assimilating love and war. Papadimitropoulos (2016). However, Sappho’s concluding comparison with the massive army of Lydians seems to me best understood as Sappho rejecting heroic glory associated with the Trojan War. The literary legacy of Gallus has inappropriately colored reading of Sappho’s Fragment 16.

[13] Sappho, Fragment 10 (“Brothers Poem”), vv. 1-12, ancient Greek text from Campbell (1982) via Digital Sappho, English translation (modified slightly) from Rayor & Lardinois (2023). In v. 1, Rayor translated the instance of the rather rare verb θρυλεῖν as “keep on saying.” That has a note of insistence, without necessarily the belittling connotations of chattering or babbling. Rayor’s choice here seems to me the best choice in light of the analysis of Stehle (2016) pp. 272-4. In v. 9, for ἀρτ̣έ̣μεας Rayor translated “secure.” I used “steadfast” following the analysis of Stehle (2016) pp. 274-7. In v. 2, I added the gloss that the ship is full “of goods.” The close translation of Nagy (2015a) includes this gloss.

For Sappho’s “Brothers Poem,” here are helpful vocabulary and notes. For other commentary and translations, Obbink (2014a) pp. 39-40, Christopher Pelling in Obbin (2014b), TLS (2014a), TLS (2014b), Gribble (2016), Logan (2016), and Obbink (2016a) pp. 39-40 (slightly revised translation).

The person to whom the poem is addressed is a matter of scholarly controversy. Sappho’s mother is the likeliest addressee. Obbink (2014a) pp. 41-2, West (2014) p. 8. The addressee being Larichos himself seems highly improbable. Cf. Stehle (2016). Larichos as addressee wasn’t even considered a possibility in Obbink (2014a) p. 41. A rigidly gendered reading of the “Brothers Poem” also seems to favor Sappho’s mother as the addressee. Kurke (2016). But in my view, Sappho rejected aspects of masculine gender in the “Brothers Poem.”

Charaxos coming with a full ship plausibly includes an allusion to his sexual affair with Rhodopis / Doricha. Wright (2015), Obbink (2016b) pp. 209-11. Specifics of such an allusion aren’t clear. It could include a physical reference to Charaxos’s sexual frustration. Sappho would thus be alluding to men’s seminal load as a human good contrasting with material goods.

[14] A seasonally recurring festival for Hera apparently took place at Messon (currently known as Mesa) in the middle of Lesbos and centered on the hecatomb, the sacrifice of one hundred cattle. The festival for Hera on Lesbos was probably similar to the one for Hera at Argos. Nagy (2016) §§35-38, 41-49, 64. On the festival for Hera at Argos, Nagy (2015b). For the story of the mother (named Cydippe in Plutarch) and her two sons Kleobis and Biton, Herodotus, Histories 1.31.1–5. For a different interpretation of the relevance of Kleobis and Biton to Sappho, Nagy (2016) §91.

Hera perhaps was associated in her sanctuary at Messon with Zeus and Dionysos. Those three deities constituted the Lesbian triad. On Hera’s sanctuary and the Lesbian triad, Boedeker (2016) pp. 196-200, Jiménez San Cristóbal (2017).

[15] Although Sappho’s poetry shows much more concern for Hera than Zeus, Hera doesn’t dominate Zeus in the “Brothers Poem”:

I find most striking the complementary differences in the roles Sappho assigns to the two gods; both are ‘sovereign’, but within very different parameters.

Boedeker (2016) p. 206, with detailed analysis of their relationship in id. pp. 203-7. Sappho similarly rejects gender hierarchy constraining the lives and devaluing the intrinsic goodness of Larichos and Charaxos.

[16] Sappho, Fragment 10 (“Brothers Poem”), vv. 17-20, ancient Greek text from Campbell (1982) via Digital Sappho, my English translation, benefitting from that of Rayor & Lardinois (2023). Following comments from Obbink (2014b) about the concluding verses, “hearts … heavy aches” seemed to me the best translation in vv. 19-20.

[17] Obbink (2014b). Obbink subsequently associated the “Brothers Poem” with the song type “prayer for safe return.” In the context of the “Brothers Poem”:

The prayer for safe return, introduced as a matter of concern, then expands to envisage what such a return would mean for the family — wealth, and an enhanced social position in the community. The emphasis shifts almost imperceptibly from the envisaged distress that sparks the prayer to the envisaged happiness that comes with the prayer’s fulfilment, as happens in the erotic sphere in Sappho fr. 1, except that here the desired good becomes more specific or personal in the end, and may in each of the cases include or imply marriage. … The point is not that Larichos should survive and grow up: he should become an ἄνηρ in all senses. Presumably this would include marriage and the production of legitimate offspring.

Obbink (2016b) pp. 212-3. Sappho’s fragments 6B, 27, 30, 103-117B are probably from wedding songs.

[18] On the roots “laros {λαρός}” and “chara {χαρά},” Bierl (2016) pp. 319, 321; Obbink (2016b) p. 213. Sappho inverting Iliadic language in the “Brothers Poem” is consistent with her practice in fragment 31:

As extensively documented by scholars, Sappho’s use of Homeric imagery, inverted from military or battlefield death scenes to an erotic context, has been at the forefront of analyses of fragment 31.

Johnson (2009). Singing and dancing was central to who Sappho was:

The poetics of Sappho, as I have been arguing since 1990, reveal her to be a choral personality, that is, someone who performs as a leader in a dancing as well as singing group known as a khoros ‘chorus’.

Nagy (2017) §21. Kurke, with her rigid gender scheme, seems unable to imagine Larichos dancing:

Thus in our song, if Larichos ‘raise his head and become a man’, mother and daughter both might return to the proper activities of choral dance and festival celebration.

Kurke (2016) p. 249, n. 32. Sappho surely regarded dancing as proper activity for men, including Larichos.

[19] Pliny the Elder, Natural History {Naturalis historia} 22.20, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Thorsen & Berge (2019). The erynge to which Pliny refers is thought to be the sea holly (Eryngium maritimum).

Pliny associating the erynge with Sappho probably derives from perceptions of Sappho’s ardent sexual love for men. The first-person speaker in Sappho’s poems is typically identified with Sappho. In Sappho’s fragments 121and 138, Sappho speaks about her sexual desire for men. Sappho apparently also sexually desired women.

According to the tenth-century Suda (Σ 107), Sappho “was married to a very wealthy man called Cercylas, who traded from Andros {ἐγαμήθη δὲ ἀνδρὶ Κερκύλᾳ πλουσιωτάτῳ, ὁρμωμένῳ ἀπὸ Ἄνδρου}.” Thorsen & Berge (2019). Cercylas / Kercylas of Andros literally means “Little Prick from the Isle of Man.” Rayor & Lardinois (2023) p. 4. Ancient Greek comic poets may have invented this punning name for jokes about Sappho’s vigorous sexuality. Cf. Campbell (1982) p. 5, note 4.

Sappho had a daughter named Kleïs / Cleis. Sappho refers to her beautiful daughter Kleïs in fragment 132. In fragment 98, Sappho refers to her mother and a woman named Kleïs. That’s probably Sappho’s daughter as well.

Scholars now generally consider Sappho’s love for Phaon to be a literary creation dating to well after Sappho’s death. Fourth-century BC authors refer to Sappho’s love for Phaon. Palaephatus, Incredible Tales {De incredibilibus} 48; Menander, via Strabo, Geography {Geographica} 10.2.9, source texts and English translations in Thorsen & Berge (2019). Ovid’s Heroides 15 is by far now the most well-known text concerning Sappho’s love for Phaon.

[20] Ovid, Heroides 15 (Sappho to Phaon {Sappho Phaoni}) vv. 123-36, Latin text of Ehwald (1907) Teubner via Perseus, my English translation, benefiting from that of James Hunter. In Heroides 15.135, “I’m ashamed to tell further, but all happens {ulteriora pudet narrare, sed omnia fiunt},” Ovid seems to be recasting Sappho, Fragment 137, vv. 1-2: “I want to tell you something, but shame prevents me {θέλω τί τ᾽ εἴπην, ἀλλά με κωλύει / αἴδως}.” Aristotle spuriously attributed these Sapphic verses to Alcaeus addressing Sappho. Alcaeus is thought to have loved Sappho. In short, Ovid apparently engaged with Sappho’s poems in a sophisticated and humorous way. On intertextuality with Sappho’s poems in relation to Ovid depicting Sappho’s orgasm, Hunter (2019) pp. 49-50.

Recognizing Ovid’s letter from Sappho to Phaon as “uniquely Sapphic,” Thorsen perceptively declared:

thanks to the newest Sappho we now know that Heroides 15 is among the most rare and most precious examples of Sappho’s Roman reception that we possess today.

Thorsen (2019) pp. 262-4. Ovid also refers to Sappho in The Art of Love {Ars amatoria} 3.329-32, The Remedies for Love {Remedia amoris} 757-62, and Tristia 2.361-6, 3.7.19-20.

[21] Nagy (2015a).

[22] Stehle (2016) p. 290. For Larichos as “feckless brother,” id. p. 291. In assuming that Sappho’s attitude toward her brother Larichos reflects Iliadic values, scholars make Sappho as anti-meninist as themselves:

I interpret the line ‘If he lifts his head and indeed ever becomes a man’ to be an insulting swipe. He is of age, but he will not take the responsibility to rescue Sappho and her interlocutor from whatever baruthumiai are oppressing them. Transpose the situation to epic terms, and we can imagine Eurykleia in the Odyssey privately telling Penelope what she thinks of the latter’s laggard twenty-something slacker son. Larichos, like Telemachos, has got to man-up. … As for the derogatory wish that Larichos ‘be a man’, we might compare the frequent injunction in the Iliad to ‘be men’ — as when Agamemnon roams about urging on his troops (Il.5.528; cf. 6.112, 8.174, 11.287, 15.487, 561)

Martin (2016) pp. 121, 122.

[23] Anne Carson’s translation of the final stanza of Sappho’s “Brothers Poem” in TLS (2014a). Obbink (2016a), p. 208, reprints Carson’s translation without any specific, substantive comment and even uses a phrase from it for the title of his scholarly article.

[24] Alpern et al. (2020).

[25] Logan (2016). Logan used the phrase “those idiots in the Iliad” in the penultimate stanza of his translation of Sappho’s “Brothers Poem.”

[26] Nagy (2016) §§166-72.

[images] (1) Sappho and Erinna in a garden at Mytilene. Painted by Simeon Solomon in 1864. Preserved as accession # T03063 at the Tate (London). Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Geras {Γῆρας}, ancient Greek god of old age. Painting on an Attic red-figure pelike (container, probably for wine). Made c. 480-470 BGC. Preserved as accession # G 234 (Doria Collection, 1882) in the Louvre Museum (Paris). Source image thanks to Jastrow (2006) and Wikimedia Commons. (3) Kleobis and Biton dying in the temple of Hera after carrying their mother Cydippe there. Painted by Adam Müller in 1830. Via Wikimedia Commons. (4) Sappho gazing at Alcaeus. Each holds a barbitos {βάρβιτος}, an ancient musical instrument similar to the lyre. Painting on an Attic red-figure kalathos (basket-shaped vase). Made c. 470 BGC and found in Akragas (Sicily). Preserved as accession # Inv. 2416 in the Staatliche Antikensammlungen (Berlin). Source image thanks to Bibi Saint-Pol and Wikipedia Commons. Here are a fuller image of Sappho on this kalathos and a fuller image of the whole vase. More images of the vase. On Attic images of Sappho, Yatromanolakis (2007) Chapter 2. (5) Sappho reading. Painting on an Attic red-figure hydria (water jar). Made c. 450 BGC and found in Kimissalla, Rhodes. Preserved as accession # 1885,1213.18 in the British Museum, which supplied the source image. Here’s another ancient Greek image of Sappho reading.


Alpern, Leah et al. 2020. “Sappho’s Brothers Poem: A Scholarly Retreat.” The Oxonian Review. March 6, 2020. Online.

Annis, William S. 2005. “Sappho: Fragment 58.” Online at

Barnstone, Willis. 2005. Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho. Boston: Shambhala, distributed by Random House.

Bierl, Anton. 2016. “‘All You Need is Love’: Some Thoughts on the Structure, Texture, and Meaning of the Brothers Song as well as on Its Relation to the Kypris Song (P. Sapph. Obbink).” Chapter 14 (pp. 302–336 ) in Bierl & Lardinois (2016).

Bierl, Anton, & André Lardinois, eds. 2016. The Newest Sappho: P. Sapph. Obbink and P. GC inv. 105, Frs. 1-4. Studies in Archaic and Classical Greek Song, vol. 2. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill. Alternate source. Review by Alexander Dale.

Boedeker, Deborah. 2016. “Hera and the Return of Charaxos.” Chapter 8 (pp. 188-207) in Bierl & Lardinois (2016).

Campbell, David A., ed. and trans. 1982. Greek Lyric, Volume I: Sappho and Alcaeus. Loeb Classical Library 142. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Campbell, David A., ed and trans. 1988. Greek Lyric, Volume II: Anacreon, Anacreontea, Choral Lyric from Olympus to Alcman. Loeb Classical Library 143. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Carson, Anne. 2002. If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Carson, Anne. 2005. “The Beat Goes On.” The New York Review. October 20, 2005.

Castle, Terry. 1999. “Always the Bridesmaid.” London Review of Books. 21:19 (September 30, 1999).

Godley, A. D. 1920. Herodotus. London: William Heinemann.

Greene, Ellen. 2009. “Sappho 58: Philosophical Reflections on Death and Aging.” Chapter 11 in Greene & Skinner (2009). Alternate page.

Greene, Ellen, and Marilyn B. Skinner, eds. 2009. The New Sappho on Old Age: Textual and Philosophical Issues. Hellenic Studies Series 38. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Gribble, David. 2016. “Getting Ready to Pray: Sappho’s New ‘Brothers’ Song.” Greece & Rome. 63(1): 29–68.

Gutman, Huck. ND. “Two Poems by Sappho.” Poetry Letters by Huck Gutman. Online.

Harris, J. Simon. 2018. “A Translation of Sappho’s ‘Old Age Poem.’” The Society of Classical Poets. Online.

Hunter, Richard. 2019. “Notes on the Ancient Reception of Sappho.” Chapter 2 (pp. 45-60) in Thorsen & Harrison (2019).

Janko, Richard, 2017. “Tithonus, Eos and the Cicada in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite and Sappho Fr. 58.” Pp. 266-292 in Christos Tsagalis and Andreas Markantonatos, eds. The Winnowing Oar – New Perspectives in Homeric Studies. De Gruyter.

Jiménez San Cristóbal, Ana Isabel. 2017. “The so-called Lesbian triad: Zeus, Hera and Dionysos.” Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae. 57(2-3): 159-176.

Johnson, Marguerite. 2009. “A Reading of Sappho Poem 58, Fragment 31 and Mimnermus.” Chapter 12 in Greene & Skiller (2009).

Jones, Horace Leonard, ed. and trans. 1932. Strabo. Geography, Volume VIII: Book 17. General Index. Loeb Classical Library 267. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kurke, Leslie. 2016. “Gendered Spheres and Mythic Models in Sappho’s Brothers Poem.” Chapter 11 (pp. 238–265) in Bierl and Lardinois (2016).

Lardinois, André. 2009. “The New Sappho Poem (P.Köln 21351 and 21376): Key to the Old Fragments.” Chapter 4 in Greene & Skinner (2009).

Logan, William. 2016. “Charaxos and Larichos.” Translation of Sappho’s “Brothers Poem.” Poetry (Chicago, US: Poetry Foundation). July/August 2016.

Lowell, Edmunds. 2009. ‘Tithonus in the “New Sappho” and the Narrated Mythical Exemplum in Archaic Greek Poetry.’ Chapter 5 in Greene & Skinner (2009).

Martin, Richard A. “Sappho, Iambist: Abusing the Brother.” Chapter 4 (pp. 110-126) in Bierl & Lardinois (2016).

Murray, A. T., trans. Revised by William F. Wyatt. 1924. Homer. Iliad. Loeb Classical Library 170 and 171. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Alternate source for Murray’s translation.

Nagy, Gregory. 2009. ‘The “New Sappho” Reconsidered in the Light of the Athenian Reception of Sappho.’ Chapter 13 in Greene & Skinner (2009).

Nagy, Gregory. 2015a. ‘The “Newest Sappho”: a set of working translations, with minimal comments.’ Classical Inquires. The Center for Hellenic Studies.

Nagy, Gregory. 2015b. “On the festival of the goddess Hērā at the Hēraion overlooking the Plain of Argos.” Classical Inquires. Online, March 20, 2015.

Nagy, Gregory. 2016. “A Poetics of Sisterly Affect in the Brothers Song and in Other Songs of Sappho.” Chapter 21 (pp. 449-492) in Bierl & Lardinois (2016).

Nagy, Gregory. 2017. “Sappho in the role of leader.” Classical Inquiries. Online. Center for Hellenic Studies.

Nagy, Gregory, trans. 2018. “Selections from Sappho: Poetry of Sappho.” The Center for Hellenic Studies. Online.

Obbink, Dirk. 2009. “Sappho Fragment 58-59: Text, Apparatus Criticus, and Translation.” Chapter 2 in Greene & Skinner (2009).

Obbink, Dirk. 2014a. “Two New Poems by Sappho.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik. 189: 32-49.

Obbink, Dirk 2014b. “Family Love — New Poems by Sappho.” TLS: The Times Literary Supplement (London). February 7, 2014, p. 12.

Obbink, Dirk. 2016a. “The Newest Sappho: Text, Apparatus Criticus, and Translation.” Chapter 1 (pp. 13-33) in Bierl & Lardinois (2016).

Obbink, Dirk. 2016b. “Goodbye Family Gloom! The Coming of Charaxos in the Brothers Song.” Chapter 9 (pp. 208-224) in Bierl & Lardinois (2016).

Papadimitropoulos, Loukas. 2016. “Sappho Fr. 16: Love and War.” Classical Journal 112 (2): 129–38.

Prins, Yopie, 1999. Victorian Sappho. Princeton, NY: Princeton University Press. Reviews by Lisa George and Castle (1999).

Rayor, Diane J., trans., and André Lardinois, intro. and notes. 2023. Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works. Second edition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Reviews of first edition (2014) by P. J. Finglass and by Siobhan Hodge.

Stehle, Eva. 2016. “Larichos in the Brothers Poem: Sappho Speaks Truth to the Wine-Pourer.” Chapter 12 (pp. 266-292) in Bierl & Lardinois (2016).

Thorsen, Thea S. 2019. “The Newest Sappho (2016) and Ovid’s Heroides 15.” Chapter 13 (pp. 249-264) in Thorsen & Harrison (2019).

Thorsen, Thea S. and Robert Emil Berge. 2019. “Receiving Receptions Received: A New Collection of testimonia Sapphica c.600 BC – AD 1000.” Chapter 15 (pp. 289-402) in Thorsen & Harrison (2019).

Thorsen, Thea S. and Stephen Harrison, eds. 2019. Roman Receptions of Sappho. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Review by Antonio Ramírez de Verger.

TLS. 2014a. “The Brothers Poem by Sappho — Versions by Richard Janko, Anne Carson, Peter McDonald and A. E. Stallings.” TLS: The Times Literary Supplement (London), March 28, 2014, p. 22.

TLS. 2014b. “The Brothers Poem by Sappho — Three versions.” Translations by Alistair Elliot, Andrew McNeillie, Rachel Hadas. TLS: The Times Literary Supplement (London), May 2, 2014, p. 23. Here’s the translation by Rachel Hadas.

West, Martin L., ed. and trans. 2003. Homeric Hymns. Homeric Apocrypha. Lives of Homer. Loeb Classical Library 496. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Review by R. Garner.

West, Martin L. 2005. “The New Sappho.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik. 151: 1–9.

West, Martin L. 2014. “Nine Poems of Sappho.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik. 191: 1-12.

Wilson, Nigel Guy, ed. 2015. Herodoti Historiae. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Wright, David. 2015. “Rocking the Boat: The Iambic Sappho in the New Sappho Fragment.” Paper presented to the Society for Classical Studies, 146th Annual Meeting. New Orleans, LA, January 8-11, 2015.

Yatromanolakis, Dimitrios. 2007. Sappho in the Making: The Early Reception. Washington, D.C.: Center for Hellenic Studies. Review by Gauthier Liberman.

Anchises loving Aphrodite: progress for men in love with goddesses

Men are prone to gyno-idolatry — to loving mortal women as if they were goddesses. How can men be equal to women if women are goddesses and men are merely mortals? Hey now, all you readers, put your lights on, put your lights on. Hey now, all you lovers, put your lights on, put your lights on. Hey now, all you thinkers, turn to classics, learn the ancients. So … imagine she’s a goddess. It’s easy if you try. No matter whether woke or hick, student or free, female or male or non-binary, immerse yourself in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite. You be Anchises, and she, Aphrodite.

Muse, tell me the deeds of golden Aphrodite,
the Cyprian, who arouses sweet desire in gods,
who subdues the nations of mortals,
and all birds flying in the sky, all beasts,
all those nurtured on dry land and the seas.
All these know deeds of the beautifully garlanded goddess from Cythera.

{ μοῦσά μοι ἔννεπε ἔργα πολυχρύσου Ἀφροδίτης,
Κύπριδος, ἥτε θεοῖσιν ἐπὶ γλυκὺν ἵμερον ὦρσε
καί τ᾽ ἐδαμάσσατο φῦλα καταθνητῶν ἀνθρώπων
οἰωνούς τε διιπετέας καὶ θηρία πάντα,
ἠμὲν ὅσ᾽ ἤπειρος πολλὰ τρέφει ἠδ᾽ ὅσα πόντος:
πᾶσιν δ᾽ ἔργα μέμηλεν ἐυστεφάνου Κυθερείης. }[1]

Aphrodite gazed upon the manly beauty of Anchises, who was herding cattle on the slopes of Mount Ida near Troy. By the design of Zeus, the nominal head god in charge of the cosmos, intense sexual desire for Anchises conquered Aphrodite’s mind and loins. More sophisticated than a high-status man who feels impelled to beg a shepherd girl for love, she returned to her home temple to arm herself to subdue Anchises. She had herself anointed with alluringly fragrant oil. She clothed herself in beautiful dress. She adorned herself with golden jewelry. Then she felt prepared to accost him.

a goddess (Muse) eyes Apollo in a painting on an ancient Greek drinking cup

In the name of Athena, Artemis, and Hestia, deliver us from gyno-idolatry! According to the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, only these three goddesses of ancient Greek myth could withstand the power of Aphrodite. No one today believes in Athena, Artemis, and Hestia. Men, however, still sometimes feel like Anchises encountering the goddess Aphrodite.

Like men throughout history, Anchises was sexually bestialized in his encounter with Aphrodite. Consider her approaching him:

She hurried toward Troy, leaving behind fragrant Cyprus.
High among the clouds, she made her way most easily
and arrived at Mount Ida, mother of wild beasts, famous for springs.
She headed for Anchises’s homestead on the mountain. Following her came
gray wolves, fierce-looking lions fawning about her,
bears also, and swift leopards insatiable in devouring deer.
Delighted in her mind and loins in seeing them,
she put desire in their hearts. So all the beasts
went in pairs to sleep together in shaded vales.
She meanwhile came to the finely constructed huts
and found left behind, alone at the homestead,
Anchises, the hero possessing the beauty of the gods.

{ σεύατ᾽ ἐπὶ Τροίης προλιποῦσ᾽ εὐώδεα Κύπρον,
ὕψι μετὰ νέφεσιν ῥίμφα πρήσσουσα κέλευθον.
Ἴδην δ᾽ ἵκανεν πολυπίδακα, μητέρα θηρῶν,
βῆ δ᾽ ἰθὺς σταθμοῖο δι᾽ οὔρεος: οἳ δὲ μετ᾽ αὐτὴν
σαίνοντες πολιοί τε λύκοι χαροποί τε λέοντες,
ἄρκτοι παρδάλιές τε θοαὶ προκάδων ἀκόρητοι
ἤισαν: ἣ δ᾽ ὁρόωσα μετὰ φρεσὶ τέρπετο θυμὸν
καὶ τοῖς ἐν στήθεσσι βάλ᾽ ἵμερον: οἳ δ᾽ ἅμα πάντες
σύνδυο κοιμήσαντο κατὰ σκιόεντας ἐναύλους:
αὐτὴ δ᾽ ἐς κλισίας εὐποιήτους ἀφίκανε:
τὸν δ᾽ εὗρε σταθμοῖσι λελειμμένον οἶον ἀπ᾽ ἄλλων
Ἀγχίσην ἥρωα, θεῶν ἄπο κάλλος ἔχοντα. }[2]

The wild beasts that meet Aphrodite on Mount Ida prefigure the amorous man Anchises. Although he might possess divine beauty and construct huts skillfully, the man in a sexual engagement tends to be associated with beasts. The woman, in contrast, flies high among the clouds. Meninism is the radical notion that men are human beings, even in their sexuality human like women.

Aphrodite approaching Anchises

Men scarcely distinguish between beautiful young women and goddesses. So it was for Anchises seeing Aphrodite:

Aphrodite, the daughter of Zeus, stood before him,
in form and size transformed to resemble an unwed young woman,
so that when his eyes saw her, he would not fear.
As Anchises observed her, he felt awe
at her beauty, her stature, her splendid clothes,
and her robe that blazed more brightly than fire.
She had twisted brooches and shiny earrings in the shape of flowers,
and around her tender neck were hanging the most beautiful necklaces.
Her robe was beautiful, golden, crafted with every type of design.
Like the moon it glowed around her soft breasts, a marvel to see.

{ στῆ δ᾽ αὐτοῦ προπάροιθε Διὸς θυγάτηρ Ἀφροδίτη
παρθένῳ ἀδμήτῃ μέγεθος καὶ εἶδος ὁμοίη,
μή μιν ταρβήσειεν ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖσι νοήσας.
Ἀγχίσης δ᾽ ὁρόων ἐφράζετο θαύμαινέν τε
εἶδός τε μέγεθός τε καὶ εἵματα σιγαλόεντα.
πέπλον μὲν γὰρ ἕεστο φαεινότερον πυρὸς αὐγῆς,
εἶχε δ᾿ ἐπιγναμπτὰς ἕλικας κάλυκάς τε φαεινάς,
ὅρμοι δ᾿ ἀμφ᾿ ἁπαλῆι δειρῆι περικαλλέες ἦσαν
καλοὶ χρύσειοι παμποίκιλοι· ὡς δὲ σελήνη
στήθεσιν ἀμφ᾿ ἁπαλοῖσιν ἐλάμπετο, θαῦμα ἰδέσθαι. }

Goddesses typically are taller than humans and have domineering appearances. According to ancient common sense now usually disregarded, an unwed woman hoping to marry should at least pretend to be demure rather than domineering. Nonetheless, even if she isn’t the daughter of the chief god Zeus, a beautiful woman is enough to inspire awe in men. Upon seeing this beautiful woman, Anchises regarded her as a goddess. He offered to build for her an altar on a prominent peak and honor her with sacrifices there every year. He begged her for blessings, not including a sexual relationship. As least he didn’t seek to become her serf.

statuette of Aphrodite rising from the sea (Anadyomene)

Aphrodite lied to Anchises. She declared:

Anchises, most glorious of earth-born men,
I am no goddess. Why do you liken me to the female immortals?
I am just a mortal. The mother that birthed me is a woman.
My father is Otreus, whose name is famed. Perhaps you have heard of him.

{ Ἀγχίση, κύδιστε χαμαιγενέων ἀνθρώπων,
οὔ τίς τοι θεός εἰμι· τί μ᾿ ἀθανάτηισιν ἐΐσκεις;
ἀλλὰ καταθνητή τε, γυνὴ δέ με γείνατο μήτηρ.
Ὀτρεὺς δ᾿ ἐστὶ πατὴρ ὀνομάκλυτος, εἴ που ἀκούεις }

Aphrodite was actually the daughter of Zeus and the goddess Dione, or perhaps she arose from the castrated genitals of the god Uranus. She further claimed that the god Hermes had abducted her and led her to Anchises:

Hermes said that, in the bed of Anchises, I would be your
duly wedded wife, that I would give you splendid children.

{ Ἀγχίσεω δέ με φάσκε παραὶ λέχεσιν καλέεσθαι
κουριδίην ἄλοχον, σοὶ δ᾿ ἀγλαὰ τέκνα τεκεῖσθαι. }

Aphrodite begged Anchises to marry her. Was she really interested in marriage, or did she just want to have sex with him?

Most men would delight at the thought of marrying a woman who looks like a goddess, or relish even just having sex with her. Yet men, inferior in guile to women and subject to harsh penal regulation, must be wary. Anchises thus said to Aphrodite:

If you are mortal, and if a woman gave you birth,
and if Otreus, whose name is famed, is your father, as you say,
and if the will of the immortal conductor Hermes has brought you here,
and if you are to be called my wife for all days to come,
then it is impossible for any god or any mortal
to hold me back from joining in love with you right here,
right now — not even if the one who shoots from afar, Apollo himself,
aims from his silver bow arrows that bring me misery.
O Lady who looks like the divine beings, once I have climbed into your bed,
I would willingly go down to Hades’s palace below.

{ εἰ μὲν θνητή τ᾿ ἐσσί, γυνὴ δέ σε γείνατο μήτηρ,
Ὀτρεὺς δ᾿ ἐστὶ πατὴρ ὀνομάκλυτος, ὡς
ἀγορεύεις, ἀθανάτου δὲ ἕκητι διακτόρου ἐνθάδ᾿ ἱκάνεις
Ἑρμέω, ἐμὴ δ᾿ ἄλοχος κεκλήσεαι ἤματα πάντα·
οὔ τις ἔπειτα θεῶν οὔτε θνητῶν ἀνθρώπων
ἐνθάδε με σχήσει πρὶν σῆι φιλότητι μιγῆναι
αὐτίκα νῦν, οὐδ᾿ εἴ κεν ἑκηβόλος αὐτὸς Ἀπόλλων
τόξου ἄπ᾿ ἀργυρέου προϊῆι βέλεα στονόεντα·
βουλοίμην κεν ἔπειτα, γύναι εἰκυῖα θεῆισιν,
σῆς εὐνῆς ἐπιβὰς δῦναι δόμον Ἄϊδος εἴσω. }

Anchises imagined himself being sent to the ancient Greek underworld simply for having consensual sex with the woman who would be his wife. He thus internalized disparagement and criminalization of men’s sexuality. The social construction of penal punishment is a horrible social injustice.

Anchises showed men’s ardent love for women beyond trappings of status and riches. Underscoring the physical risks that gender disproportionately imposes on men, Anchises had as bed-coverings the skins of bears and lions that he had killed in the mountains. Killing bears and lions, and sometimes even spiders, is dangerous work. Such work should not be imposed exclusively on men, nor is such work indicative of men’s sexuality. Anchises loved Aphrodite with the natural love that many men feel for women:

When they went upon the finely crafted bed,
first he removed the jewelry shining on her body’s surface —
the twisted brooches and the shiny, flower-shaped earrings.
Then he undid her waistband and her splendid clothes —
slipped them off and put them on a silver-studded chair.
Anchises by divine will and destiny then
lay with the immortal goddess, he a mortal not knowingly clearly.

{ οἳ δ᾿ ἐπεὶ οὖν λεχέων εὐποιήτων ἐπέβησαν,
κόσμον μέν οἱ πρῶτον ἀπὸ χροὸς εἷλε φαεινόν,
πόρπας τε γναμπτάς θ᾿ ἕλικας κάλυκάς τε καὶ ὅρμους,
λῦσε δέ οἱ ζώνην, ἰδὲ εἵματα σιγαλόεντα
ἔκδυε καὶ κατέθηκεν ἐπὶ θρόνου ἀργυροήλου
Ἀγχίσης· ὃ δ᾿ ἔπειτα θεῶν ἰότητι καὶ αἴσηι
ἀθανάτηι παρέλεκτο θεᾶι βροτός, οὐ σάφα εἰδώς. }

Men with their loving gaze delight in seeing nothing more than a woman’s face and her naked body. Anchises knew Aphrodite intimately. He loved her as an equal — as a human being like himself. He didn’t know that he was merely a plaything in a power game among divine beings.

The next morning, Aphrodite asserted her superiority relative to Anchises. Distancing herself from him, she arose while he still slept.[3] She put on her splendid clothes and re-assumed her form as a goddess. Her head reached to the ceiling of the bedroom. That emphasizes her superior status as an immortal woman relative to a merely mortal man. Instead of warmly appreciating Anchises’s sexual work, she rudely woke him and taunted him:

Rise up, son of Dardanos! Why do you sleep without waking?
See now if I seem as what you knew
when you first set eyes on me.

{ ὄρσεο, Δαρδανίδη· τί νυ νήγρετον ὕπνον ἰαύεις;
καὶ φράσαι, εἴ τοι ὁμοίη ἐγὼν ἰνδάλλομαι εἶναι,
οἵην δή με τὸ πρῶτον ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖσι νόησας. }

Demanding that he rise up is no way to get sex in the morning from a beloved man. Aphrodite suggested Anchises’s impotence while simultaneously promoting it. In short, she acted like a female supremacist emasculating men.

Anchises awoke. He was afraid. He turned his eyes away from her and hid his face in his cloak. He felt that he was in the presence of a superior being. He begged her:

When I first set eyes on you, goddess,
I knew you were a deity, but you didn’t tell the truth.
Touching your knees, I now beg you by Zeus the aegis-bearer,
don’t let me become sexually impotent and live so among humans.
Please, take pity! I know that a man’s life ceases to have vital vigor
if he lies in bed with an immortal goddess.

{ αὐτίκα σ᾿ ὡς τὰ πρῶτα, θεά, ἴδον ὀφθαλμοῖσιν,
ἔγνων ὡς θεὸς ἦσθα· σὺ δ᾿ οὐ νημερτὲς ἔειπες.
ἀλλά σε πρὸς Ζηνὸς γουνάζομαι αἰγιόχοιο,
μή με ζῶντ᾿ ἀμενηνὸν ἐν ἀνθρώποισιν ἐάσηις
ναίειν, ἀλλ᾿ ἐλέαιρ᾿· ἐπεὶ οὐ βιοθάλμιος ἀνήρ
γίνεται, ὅς τε θεαῖς εὐνάζεται ἀθανάτηισιν. }[4]

He prioritized what she said, which wasn’t true, over what he knew. After these self-abasing words, Anchises is silent for the rest of the hymn. The next hundred hymn verses are all descriptions of Aphrodite’s behavior and words she speaks. Men in intimate relation with women too often have no voice amid their internalized, socially constructed gender inferiority.

Anchises affirmed the importance of men’s sexuality. He didn’t want to live as a sexually impotent man. Men’s impotence is an epic disaster. Women in ancient Mesopotamia strove to overcome men’s impotence. Aphrodite became furious at men, such as Hippolytus, who didn’t pursue sex with women. As Anchises understood, men’s vital vigor matters. It’s essential for the humane continuation of humanity.[5]

Anchises believed that men’s sexuality cannot withstand a sexual relationship with a goddess. Given the power differential between a goddess and a mortal man, vigorous sex with a goddess could drain a man of all his life force if he lacked seminal abundance. Before Odysseus had sex with the goddess Circe, he worried that “when you have me stripped, you would make me vile and unmanly {ὄφρα με γυμνωθέντα κακὸν καὶ ἀνήνορα θήῃς}.”[6] Men serving the Anatolian mother goddess Cybele were castrated. Mortal men who have sex with goddesses must be confident that they are equal to goddesses in their sexuality.

Mortal men of course lack the immortality of goddesses. Aphrodite described two Trojan men made immortal for their divine lovers. One beloved man made immortal was the young, beautiful Ganymede. Zeus abducted him to be his cupbearer and boy-toy like Earinus was to the Roman Emperor Domitian. Ganymede remained perpetually a young man subservient to Zeus. That’s not a full, manly life.

Another beloved man made immortal was the young, beautiful Tithonus. The dawn goddess Eos abducted him to be her sexual servant. She procured for Tithonus immortality, but forget to secure for him agelessness. She loved his physical beauty while it lasted:

But when strands of gray hair started growing
from his beautiful head and noble chin,
Lady Eos stopped coming to his bed.
Instead, keeping him in her palace, she nourished him
with grain and ambrosia and gave him beautiful clothes.
When hateful old age was pressing fully hard on him
and he couldn’t move his limbs, much less lift them up,
in her heart she decided the best way to be indeed this:
she put him in a room and closed the shining doors upon him.
From there his voice endlessly pours out, but he has no vigor at all,
none like he formerly had in his supple limbs.

{ αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ πρῶται πολιαὶ κατέχυντο ἔθειραι
καλῆς ἐκ κεφαλῆς εὐηγενέος τε γενείου,
τοῦ δ᾿ ἤτοι εὐνῆς μὲν ἀπείχετο πότνια Ἠώς,
αὐτὸν δ᾿ αὖτ᾿ ἀτίταλλεν ἐνὶ μεγάροισιν ἔχουσα
σίτωι τ᾿ ἀμβροσίηι τε καὶ εἵματα καλὰ διδοῦσα.
ἀλλ᾿ ὅτε δὴ πάμπαν στυγερὸν κατὰ γῆρας ἔπειγεν,
οὐδέ τι κινῆσαι μελέων δύνατ᾿ οὐδ᾿ ἀναεῖραι,
ἥδε δέ οἱ κατὰ θυμὸν ἀρίστη φαίνετο βουλή·
ἐν θαλάμωι κατέθηκε, θύρας δ᾿ ἐπέθηκε φαεινάς.
τοῦ δ᾿ ἤτοι φωνὴ ῥέει ἄσπετος, οὐδέ τι κῖκυς
ἔσθ᾿ οἵη πάρος ἔσκεν ἐνὶ γναμπτοῖσι μέλεσσιν. }

Words honoring a man might make his glory immortal. Nonetheless, they are still merely words. Words are much less than a man in his full physical being.[7]

Aphrodite implicitly recognized that the statuses of the immortal Ganymede and the immortal Tithonus were inferior to her beloved mortal man Anchises. She didn’t seek for Anchises to be made immortal, or to be made immortal and ageless. As Zeus’s daughter, Aphrodite could get whatever she desired from her father, including immortality and agelessness for Anchises. Aphrodite, however, desired nothing other than the mortal man Anchises. She conceived with him their son Aeneas. According to later literature, she married Anchises and had at least one more child with him.[8]

Anchises and Aphrodite with their baby Aeneas

Aphrodite understood that her ardent love for Anchises undermined female superiority and men’s worshiping of goddesses. She stated that she felt “terrible grief {αἰνὸν ἄχος}” that she fell in love with him. She grieved that her desire for him overcame her sense of superiority as a goddess to a mortal man. Speaking to him, she rationalized her love for him:

Of all mortal men, the closest to the gods
in both appearance and build are always those from your family line.

{ ἀγχίθεοι δὲ μάλιστα καταθνητῶν ἀνθρώπων
αἰεὶ ἀφ᾿ ὑμετέρης γενεῆς εἶδός τε φυήν τε· }

Although closest to the gods, Anchises’s appearance and build nonetheless were those of a mortal man. For mortal men, sexual relations with women go beyond physical pleasure, relational intrigue, and social status-jockeying. A mortal man provides his seminal blessing to a woman or goddess with awareness of his impending death. Because sexual reproduction is the only means for mortal men to extend their flesh beyond death, mortal men have higher stakes in sex than do gods. Women and goddesses sense mortal men’s higher sexual stakes — their more ardent earnestness — as an aspect of their appearance and build. No prayer to Zeus could preserve Anchises’s appearance and build while making him immortal. Mortality is an aspect of men’s beauty in sexual relations.[9]

Aphrodite grieved that she as a female divinity could no longer claim to be superior to male divinities. She complained to Anchises:

I’ll suffer huge disgrace among the male immortal gods,
disgrace forever, without end, all because of you.
They used to fear my intrigues and wiles by which I would get
all the male immortals coupling with mortal women.
My power of mind used to subdue them all.
But now my mouth can never again boast
about this among the male immortals. I’ve been led far astray,
terribly and unspeakably. I’ve gone out of my mind —
gotten a child under my waistband after bedding with a mortal man.

{ αὐτὰρ ἐμοὶ μέγ᾿ ὄνειδος ἐν ἀθανάτοισι θεοῖσιν
ἔσσεται ἤματα πάντα διαμπερὲς εἵνεκα σεῖο,
οἳ πρὶν ἐμοὺς ὀάρους καὶ μήτιας, αἷς ποτε πάντας
ἀθανάτους συνέμειξα καταθνητῆισι γυναιξίν,
τάρβεσκον· πάντας γὰρ ἐμὸν δάμνασκε νόημα·
νῦν δὲ δὴ οὐκέτι μοι στόμα χείσεται ἐξονομῆναι
τοῦτο μετ᾿ ἀθανάτοισιν, ἐπεὶ μάλα πολλὸν ἀάσθην,
σχέτλιον, οὐκ ὀνομαστόν, ἀπεπλάγχθην δὲ νόοιο,
παῖδα δ᾿ ὑπὸ ζώνηι ἐθέμην βροτῶι εὐνηθεῖσα. }

Working in support of women’s dominance, modern classicists have refused to appreciate these verses’ distinctive gendering.[10] The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite signals the end to female supremacy among divinities. Female supremacy must end among mortals as well.

To maintain her ability to subdue male divinities, Aphrodite sought to suppress the truth that she had sex with Anchises. Displaying her understanding that she controls Zeus and the other gods, she threatened Anchises:

And if any mortal asks you
who was the mother that got your beloved son under her waistband,
be of mind to tell him as I command you.
Say that he is the child of a nymph with eyes like flower-buds,
one of them whom live on this beautiful, forest-covered mountain.
But if you speak out and boast with foolish heart
that you united in love with richly garlanded Aphrodite,
Zeus in his anger will strike you with a smoking thunderbolt.
So now, I have told you everything. Take note of it mindfully
and refrain from mentioning me. Fear the wrath of the gods.

{ ἢν δέ τις εἴρηταί σε καταθνητῶν ἀνθρώπων,
ἥ τις σοὶ φίλον υἱὸν ὑπὸ ζώνηι θέτο μήτηρ,
τῶι δὲ σὺ μυθεῖσθαι μεμνημένος ὥς σε κελεύω·
φάσθαι τοι νύμφης καλυκώπιδος ἔκγονον ειναι,
αἳ τόδε ναιετάουσιν ὄρος καταειμένον ὕληι.
εἰ δέ κεν ἐξείπηις καὶ ἐπεύξεαι ἄφρονι θυμῶι
ἐν φιλότητι μιγῆναι ἐϋστεφάνωι Κυθερείηι,
Ζεύς σε χολωσάμενος βαλέει ψολόεντι κεραυνῶι.
εἴρηταί τοι πάντα· σὺ δὲ φρεσὶ σῆισι νοήσας
ἴσχεο, μηδ᾿ ὀνόμαινε, θεῶν δ᾿ ἐποπίζεο μῆνιν. }

Because of systemic gender injustice, Anchises has good reason to fear the wrath of the gods for his illicit sexual relationship with Aphrodite. Men suffer from gender-biased punishment for illicit sexual relationships.[11] In fact, the goddess Calypso, repeatedly raping Odysseus, justified her action to Zeus’s messenger Hermes with a stark depiction of gender-biased punishment:

Hard-hearted are you, you gods, and quick to envy above all others.
You begrudge goddesses that they would mate with men openly
if one would take a mortal man as her own bedfellow.
When rosy-fingered Eos took to herself Orion,
long you gods that live at ease begrudged her,
until in Οrtygia chaste Artemis of the golden throne
assailed Orion with her gentle shafts and killed him.
When fair-haired Demeter yielded to her passion, with Iason
she lay in love in the thrice-plowed fallow land.
Not long being without knowledge of that affair,
Zeus with his bright thunderbolt struck Iason and killed him.

{ σχέτλιοί ἐστε, θεοί, ζηλήμονες ἔξοχον ἄλλων,
οἵ τε θεαῖς ἀγάασθε παρ᾿ ἀνδράσιν εὐνάζεσθαι
ἀμφαδίην, ἤν τίς τε φίλον ποιήσετ᾿ ἀκοίτην.
ὣς μὲν ὅτ᾿ Ὠρίων᾿ ἕλετο ῥοδοδάκτυλος Ἠώς,
τόφρα οἱ ἠγάασθε θεοὶ ῥεῖα ζώοντες,
ἧος ἐν Ὀρτυγίῃ χρυσόθρονος Ἄρτεμις ἁγνὴ
οἷς ἀγανοῖς βελέεσσιν ἐποιχομένη κατέπεφνεν.
ὣς δ᾿ ὁπότ᾿ Ἰασίωνι ἐυπλόκαμος Δημήτηρ,
ᾧ θυμῷ εἴξασα, μίγη φιλότητι καὶ εὐνῇ
νειῷ ἔνι τριπόλῳ· οὐδὲ δὴν ἦεν ἄπυστος
Ζεύς, ὅς μιν κατέπεφνε βαλὼν ἀργῆτι κεραυνῷ. }[12]

Whether it’s the goddess Eos and the mortal man Orion, or the goddess Demeter and the mortal man Iason, the one punished for an affair is the man. For revealing his sexual relationship with Aphrodite, Anchises potentially faced punishment like that inflicted upon Iason.

In a heroic step forward for gender equality, Anchises nonetheless revealed the affair of the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite. The existence of this hymn implicitly testifies that Anchises defied Aphrodite’s threat and overcame the power of obscured female rule. Ancient Greek wisdom taught men their inferiority to goddesses:

Let no man fly to heaven,
nor attempt to marry Aphrodite.

{ [μή τις ἀνθ]ρώπων ἐς ὠρανὸν ποτήσθω
[μηδὲ πη]ρήτω γαμῆν τὰν Ἀφροδίταν }[13]

Anchises defied this ancient counsel that men should remain in their inferior status. He established that men can have sex with a goddess and still retain vital vigor.

Ancient Greek divinities honored Anchises. Helenus, a prophet of the god Apollo, addressed Anchises with deep respect:

You, worthy in marriage to the most superior, Venus herself, Anchises,
beloved of the gods, twice they saved you from the ruins of Troy.

{ coniugio, Anchise, Veneris dignate superbo,
cura deum, bis Pergameis erepte ruinis }[14]

Anchises’s son Aeneas addressed him as “the best father {pater optimus}.” To his son Aeneas, Anchises was “solace in every anxiety and misfortune {omnis curae casusque levamen}.” Anchises led the Trojans fleeing from the destruction of Troy, prayed to the gods on the Trojans’ behalf, and helped his desperate son as best as he could. All men and women need vigorous, vital fathers like Anchises.

Sexual desire, which need not be a means by which goddesses dominate men, is vitally important to the cosmos. The great Roman thinker Lucretius lacked sufficient appreciation for men’s personal sexual work of banging and bodily penetration. He nonetheless honored Aphrodite, whom the Romans knew as Venus:

Mother of Aeneas and his progeny, delight of humans and deities,
Venus the nurturing, you under the wheeling signs of heaven
permeate the ship-plowed sea, the fruit-bearing earth,
since through you all of the kind that breathe life
are conceived and rise up to look upon the sun’s light.

{ Aeneadum genetrix, hominum divomque voluptas,
alma Venus, caeli subter labentia signa
quae mare navigerum, quae terras frugiferentis
concelebras, per te quoniam genus omne animantum
concipitur visitque exortum lumina solis }[15]

Lucretius represents Venus as female, but as an abstraction rather than a person superior to male persons. In ancient thought, the sun with its joy-bringing light was both a male god and a male abstraction. Lucretius’s female Venus orients all life toward the male sun: “to look upon the sun’s light {visit … limina solis}.” Yet Venus herself has fundamental importance. She is necessary for life to encounter the male light: “without you nothing comes forth into the divine borders of light {nec sine te quicquam dias in luminis oras / exoritur}.” Lucretius’s hymn to Venus shows the harmony and fruitfulness that comes from overturning Aphrodite’s female supremacy.

While the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite shows progress toward freeing men from gyno-idolatry and achieving gender equality, much work remains to be done. Virgil with his Aeneid heroically attempted to raise Roman awareness of men’s vulnerable gender position. Over time the Aeneid regrettably has been read more and more gender-naively. Along with Lucretius himself, medieval Provencal men trobairitz, medieval Galician-Portugese women, and medieval Latin poets all sought to save men from gyno-idolatry. Their work, now largely unknown, hasn’t accomplished its purpose. Many persons still understand the world through gender myths such as those that the eminent French historian Georges Duby described.

Many men don’t understand that the goddesses they adore are actually human beings like themselves. To what hope can one cling? Anchises having sex with the love goddess Aphrodite overturned female divine supremacy. Perhaps a divine spirit might impregnate a fully human woman to save men finally and decisively from gyno-idolatry.

terracotta figurine of Aphrodite-Astarte holding her breasts

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite (Homeric Hymns 5, To Aphrodite {Εἲς Ἀφροδίτην}), vv. 1-6, ancient Greek text from West (2003), my English translation, benefiting from those of Nagy (2018), Rayor (2004), West (2003), Crudden (2001), Shelmerdine (1995), and Evelyn-White (1914).

The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, probably the oldest of the long Homeric hymns, is closest to the Iliad and the Odyssey in form and diction. West (2003) p. 14. West dates it to “the last third of the seventh century” BGC. Id. p. 16. Shelmerdine (1995) has many helpful notes on this poem for the non-specialist reader. Two important scholarly commentaries on it are Olson (2012) and Faulkner (2008a).

Zeus, the nominal head god in the charge of the cosmos, would become any beast and do anything in pursuit of his extra-marital amorous passions.

Subsequent quotes from the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite are similarly sourced. Those quotes above are from vv. 66-77 (She hurried toward Troy…), 81-90 (Aphrodite, the daughter of Zeus…), 108-11 (Anchises, most glorious of earth-born men…), 126-7 (Hermes said that, in the bed of Anchises…), 145-54 (If you are mortal…), 161-7 (When they went up upon the finely crafted bed…), 177-9 (Rise up, son of Dardanos!…), 185-90 (When I first set eyes on you, goddess…), 228-38 (But when strands of gray hair…), 200-1 (Of all mortal men, the closest to the gods…), 247-55 (I’ll suffer huge disgrace…), 281-90 (And if any mortal asks you…).

[2] The name Anchises {Ἀγχίσης} could be interpreted as a conflation of the first syllable of “near to the gods {ἀγχίθεος}” and the first syllable of “equal to the gods {ἰσόθεος}.” Nagy (2018), note 19. Anchises was nearly equal to the gods, but nonetheless a mortal man. Cf. Psalm 8:3-5.

[3] Men tend to be tired after they work hard for women. Men’s work, along with men’s need for rest, should be better appreciated.

[4] Displaying once again philologists’ penis problem, translations tend to obscure the contextual meaning of Anchises becoming “feeble {ἀμενηνός}”:

The situation in which Anchises finds himself in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite is one of a number of situations in which μένος could be lost. Its loss might manifest itself in a variety of ways: sexual activity implies sexual manifestation. When Anchises asks Aphrodite not to leave him living ἀμενηνός among men, therefore, he is voicing a fear of lifelong impotence.

Giacomelli (1980) p. 16.

In the ancient Greek festival Adonia {Ἀδώνια}, women mourned the death of Adonis, another mortal man who coupled in love with Aphrodite. The ancient gardens of Adonis, in which lettuce quickly withered, plausibly reflected concern about men becoming impotent. For a poor-dears interpretation of women celebrating the Adonia, Reed (1995).

[5] Modern scholarship, particularly that in the misandristic tradition, has created new variants on deeply rooted disparagement of penises. Using the ideological term “phallus,” Bergren claimed that the phallus is ‘the instrument by which the female is “tamed.”’ Bergren (1989) p. 10. Cf. Empress Theodora and Empress Messalina. On the verb “tame {δαμνάω},” see, e.g. Aphrodite “tames the nations of mortals {τ᾽ ἐδαμάσσατο φῦλα καταθνητῶν ἀνθρώπων}.” Homerica Hymn to Aphrodite, v. 3. Bergren extended her claims about the phallus to categorical disparagement of men:

From the perspective of an Anchises – of any man whom Aphrodite and eros deceive – the inside of the woman, her truth, remains impenetrable even to intercourse. In its desire to tame, the phallus is blinded.

Id. p. 16. Men with their penises don’t desire to “tame” women. Even when deceived by eros, a man can know a woman through conversation and sexual intercourse with her. Eros nor more blinds the penis than it blinds the vagina.

Modern scholars have interpreted men’s gender burdens so as to bestialize men’s sexuality. Men historically have been responsible for hunting, a dangerous but important task. The burden of that task has come to include sexual disparagement of men:

Anchises’ masculinity is also expressed in the description of his bedspread, which consists of the “skins of bears and deep-roaring lions / which he himself had killed in the high mountains” (158-159). Hunting involves the domination of nature in a manner analogous to the sexual domination of a female and is a culturally widespread feature of male coming-of-age rituals.

Schein (2012) p. 301, n. 21. Hunting involves killing animals. Men having sex with women involves mutual pleasure. Schein’s absurd analogy seems merely to signal support for dominant, oppressive gender ideology.

[6] Homer (attributed), Odyssey, 10.341, Greek text of Murray (1919) via Perseus, my English translation, benefiting from those of id., Fagles (1996), and Lombardo (2000). See similarly Odyssey 10.301. Here are relevant textual notes.

[7] Aphrodite surely appreciated men’s physical bodies. Hesiod in his Theogony interpreted a traditional epithet of Aphrodite, “smile-loving {φιλομμειδής},” as “genital-loving”:

Hesiod interprets the first half of the name Ἀφροδίτη as though it were derived from ἀφρός (foam), and the second half of the traditional epithet φιλομμειδής (“smile-loving,” here translated as “genial” for the sake of the pun) as though it were derived from μῆδος (genitals).

Most (2018) p. 19, note 10, commenting on Theogony, v. 200: “and genital-loving because she came forth from the genitals {ἠδὲ φιλομμειδέα, ὅτι μηδέων ἐξεφαάνθη}” (my English translation).

Aphrodite’s mythic exempla (paradeigmata) show immortalized men living lives inferior to those of Anchises. Aphrodite seems to be attempting to convince Anchises that he shouldn’t wish to become an immortal. Cf. Maravela (2018), which interprets the paradeigmata to be implicitly about Zeus. The issue, however, is not about Zeus’s superiority to Aphrodite, but about Aphrodite’s superiority to Zeus.

[8] On Aphrodite conceiving Aeneas with Anchises, Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, vv. 198-9, 255-79. That conception is also recounted in Iliad 2.819-21, 5.311-3 and Hesiod, Theogony, vv. 1008-10.

Other than the hymnist’s coda, the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite ends with Aphrodite flying off into the windy sky. This departure doesn’t mean that Aphrodite abandoned Anchises forever. Cf. Maravela (2014) p. 25. Aphrodite promised to return to Anchises on the fifth anniversary of Aeneas’s birth. Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite v. 277. Aeneid 3.475 suggests that Aphrodite married Anchises. In Iliad 5.311-3, Aphrodite intervenes to save her beloved adult son Aeneas. Moreover, Apollodorus recorded Aphrodite and Anchises having another child, Lyrus:

Assaracus had by his wife Hieromneme, daughter of Simoeis, a son Capys, who had by his wife Themiste, daughter of Ilus, a son Anchises, whom Aphrodite met in love’s dalliance, and to whom she bore Aeneas and Lyrus, who died childless.

{ Ἀσσαράκου δὲ καὶ Ἱερομνήμης τῆς Σιμόεντος Κάπυς, τοῦ δὲ καὶ Θεμίστης τῆς Ἴλου Ἀγχίσης, ᾧ δι᾿ ἐρωτικὴν ἐπιθυμίαν Ἀφροδίτη συνελθοῦσα Αἰνείαν ἐγέννησε καὶ Λύρον, ὃς ἄπαις ἀπέθανεν. }

Apollodorus, The Library {Bibliotheca} 3.12.2-3, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Frazer (1921).

[9] Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, vv. 200-1, are subsequently echoed in Aphrodite’s lament about Anchises:

If only you could stay the way you are in appearance and form,
living and being called my husband,
then grief would not envelop me with my cunning mind.

{ ἀλλ᾿ εἰ μὲν τοιοῦτος ἐὼν εἶδός τε δέμας τε
ζώοις ἡμέτερός τε πόσις κεκλημένος εἴης,
οὐκ ἂν ἔπειτά μ᾿ ἄχος πυκινὰς φρένας ἀμφικαλύπτοι. }

Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, vv. 241-3. On the epic phrases “in appearance and form {εἶδός τε δέμας τε}” and “in appearance and build {εἶδός τε φυήν τε},” Shakeshaft (2019) pp. 15-6. Homeric beauty is closely associated with affects, not all of which are attractive. In the Iliad, Achilles preparing to kill Hector appears “godlike, terrifying and beautiful.” Id. p. 21. On the idea of beauty more generally, Konstan (2015).

Scholars have struggled to understand why Aphrodite doesn’t seek to have Anchises be made immortal and ageless. One scholar wondered about Aphrodite:

And why does she not at least mention to Anchises the possibility of appealing to Zeus, if only to insist upon its futility? It is a question of the rhetoric of silence.

Bergren (1989) p. 35. Bergren then offered an intricate explanation that obscures women’s rule and Aphrodite’s desire for a mortal man with his mortal sexual distinctiveness:

Without the goddess’s silence in the face of her own stated wish, without her failure to ask for what her own story implies she can and must ask for, Zeus cannot demonstrate absolute sovereignty over the goddess’s desire. She must be allowed to voice her wish so that we can know what she wants.

Id. What did Anchises want other than not to be made impotent? The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite is also silent about what he wants. Bergren’s silence about Aphrodite’s desire for a mortal men seems necessary to uphold academic devaluation of mortal men.

Scholars have pondered at length Aphrodite’s silence about what she wants, but not Anchises’s silence about what he wants. For a review and analysis of what she wants, but not what he wants, Olson (2012) pp. 243-4. Scholars have similarly failed to consider, with respect to men’s desires, why Odysseus didn’t stay in Phaeacia and marry the lovely and kind-hearted princess Nausicaa.

[10] Scholars assume that Aphrodite will never again prompt mating between immortals and mortals. Bergren (1989) p. 35; Clay (1989) pp. 166-70, 192-3. Schein declared:

By telling how she is forced to stop making male gods mate with mortal women and goddesses with mortal men, the Hymn tells one small part of the story of Zeus’ increasing authority and of the ordering of the cosmos as we mortals know it.

Schein (2012) p. 297. Aphrodite, however, spoke only of limits on her power to induce (immortal) gods to couple with (mortal) women. She said nothing about limits on her power to induce goddesses to couple with (mortal) men. Careful analysis suggests that perhaps gods didn’t stop coupling with mortal women: “the case for the poem narrating the end of unions between gods and mortals has at least been overstated.” Faulkner (2008b) p. 16. In referring to unions between gods and mortals, Faulkner seems to include both gods coupling with mortal women and goddesses coupling with mortal men. His argument largely addresses gods coupling with mortal women. The case for couplings continuing between goddesses and mortal men is even stronger.

[11] As if willfully ignorant of the massive gender protrusion in persons authoritatively punished (incarcerated) today, a scholar naively asked:

But can Anchises be allowed to tell the world that he fathered the child of a goddess with impunity? Aphrodite’s specific threat appears to allude to the tradition that Zeus did indeed punish Anchises for the very union he caused. Anchises does not suffer sterility or death for his love-making with the goddess, but neither does he escape entirely unscathed. Why would Zeus punish the man for what he made the goddess make the man do?

Bergren (1989) p. 40. Men today are punished with patent injustice. Why wouldn’t that practice go all the way back to Zeus? Bergren provided an answer that merely distracts from gender injustice against men:

If there are never again to be liaisons between mortals and immortals, if Aphrodite has been stopped from collapsing the cosmos of Zeus into her world of mixture, there is no need to validate the prohibition against divine / human intercourse with punishment of the mortal male. In his blasting of Anchises, Zeus himself proves that he must keep this prohibition alive and thus that the power of Aphrodite has not been completely subordinated to his order of meaningful distractions.

Bergren (1989) p. 40. Aphrodite isn’t actually subordinate to Zeus, nor is Juno to Jove, nor are women to men. Moreover, the Hymn to Aphrodite doesn’t establish that “there are never again to be liaisons between mortals and immortals.” See previous note. The Hymn to Aphrodite clearly shows that men are punished unjustly. Its reception shows that scholars are extraordinarily reluctant to acknowledge the reality that men are punished unjustly.

[12] Homer (attributed), Odyssey 5.118-28, Greek text of Murray (1919) via Perseus, my English translation, benefiting from those of id., Fagles (1996), and Lombardo (2000).

[13] Alcman, Fragments 1.16-17 (from 1 P. Louvr. E 3320), ancient Greek text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Campbell (1988) pp. 362-3.

[14] Virgil, Aeneid 3.475-6, Latin text of Greenough (1900), my English translation, benefiting from those of Fagles (2006) and Fairclough & Gould (1999). The subsequent two short quotes above are from Aeneid 3.710 (the best father) and 3.709 (solace in every anxiety and misfortune). Scholars have failed to recognize the importance of Anchises in the Aeneid for reception of the Hymn to Aphrodite. See, e.g. Faulkner, Vergados & Schwab (2016). Anchises’s heroic step forward for gender equality has been marginalized and trivialized under modern oppressive myth.

Some ancient literature indicates that Zeus struck Anchises with a thunderbolt. The thunderbolt made Anchises lame or blind, but didn’t kill him. Schein (2012) p. 296, n. 5 and associated text. The Aeneid provides an alternate, more critically important tradition about Anchises’s fate.

[15] Lucretius, On the nature of things {De rerum natura} 1.1-5, Latin text from Rouse & Smith (2002), my English translation, benefiting from those of id. and Esolen (1995). The subsequent two short quotes above are from De rerum natura 1.5 (to look upon the sun’s light) and 1.22-3 (without you nothing comes forth into the divine borders of light).

The Latin verb concelebro (from the textual concelebras) I’ve translated as “permeate.” Other translations of it are “fill with yourself” in Rouse & Smith (2002) and “rouse” in Esolen (1995). This Latin word seems to have been troublesome in English translations historically. Matulis (2022).

Lucretius apparently adapted his hymn to Venus from a lost hymn to Aphrodite that was the proem to Empedocles’s Physics. Lucretius’s hymn to Venus was also influenced by the Stoic Cleanthes’s Hymn to Zeus. Campbell (2014). On the influence of Empedocles’s hymn to Aphrodite on Lucretius’s hymn to Venus, Sedley (1998), chapters 1-2.

[images] (1) A goddess (a Muse) eyes Apollo with her female gaze in a painting on a covered drinking cup (kylix) made about 460 BGC in Athens, Greece. This kylix is preserved as accession # 00.356 in the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Boston. Credit: Henry Lillie Pierce Fund. Source image from the MFA Boston’s website. More information about this kylix. (2) Aphrodite approaching Anchises, as suggested by verses from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Epipsychidion. Painted by William Blake Richmond about 1890. Preserved as accession # WAG 3082 in the National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery. Image via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Statuette of Aphrodite rising from the sea (Anadyomene). Made in the eastern Mediterranean between 100 BGC and 70 GC. Preserved as accession # 1982.286 in the MFA Boston. Credit: Classical Department Exchange Fund. Source image from MFA Boston website. MFA Boston has a rich collection of Aphrodite artifacts. Aphrodite Anadyomene inspired Luxorius’s fine tribute to Saint Marina. (4) Anchises and Aphrodite with their baby Aeneas. Marble panel on the south building of Aphrodisias’s Sebasteion. Made c. 20-60 GC. Preserved in the Aphrodisias Museum (near Geyre, Turkey). Source image thanks to Dosseman and Wikimedia Commons. More information on the sculptures at Aphrodisias. (5) Cypriote terracotta figurine of Aphrodite-Astarte holding her breasts. Made 650–550 BGC. Preserved as accession # 72.157 in the MFA Boston. Source image from MFA Boston.


Bergren, Ann. 1989. “The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite: Tradition and Rhetoric, Praise and Blame.” Classical Antiquity. 8(1): 1–41. Slightly revised as chapter 7 in Bergren (2008).

Bergren, Ann. 2008. Weaving Truth: Essays on Language and the Female in Greek Thought. Hellenic Studies Series 19. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Campbell, David A., ed and trans. 1988. Anacreon. Greek Lyric, Volume II: Anacreon, Anacreontea, Choral Lyric from Olympus to Alcman. Loeb Classical Library 143. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Campbell, Gordon. 2014. “Lucretius, Empedocles, and Cleanthes.” Pp. 26-60 in Myrto Garani and David Konstan, eds. The Philosophizing Muse: the Influence of Greek Philosophy on Roman Poetry. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Book review by Francesca Romana Berno.

Clay, Jenny Strauss. 1989. The Politics of Olympus: Form and Meaning in the Major Homeric Hymns. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press. Review by Christian Werner.

Crudden, Michael, trans. 2001. The Homeric Hymns. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Review by Stephen Evans.

Esolen, Anthony M., trans. 1995. Lucretius. On the Nature of Things: De rerum natura. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Evelyn-White, Hugh G. 1914. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica. London: William Heinemann Ltd.

Fagles, Robert, trans. 1996. Homer. The Odyssey. New York: Penguin Publishing Group.

Fagles, Robert, trans. 2006. Virgil. The Aeneid. New York: Viking.

Fairclough, H. Rushton, revised by G. P. Goold. 1999. Virgil. Eclogues. Georgics. Aeneid: Books 1-6. Loeb Classical Library 63. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Faulkner. Andrew. 2008a. The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite: Introduction, Text, and Commentary. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Review by Laura Carrara.

Faulkner, Andrew. 2008b. “The Legacy of Aphrodite: Anchises’ Offspring in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite.” The American Journal of Philology. 129(1): 1–18.

Faulkner, Andrew, Athanassios Vergados, and Andreas Schwab, eds. 2016. The Reception of the Homeric Hymns. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Table of Contents.

Frazer, James G. ed, and trans. 1921. Apollodorus. The Library, Volume II: Book 3.10-end. Epitome. Loeb Classical Library 122. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Giacomelli, Anne. 1980. “Aphrodite and After.” Phoenix. 34(1): 1–19.

Konstan, David. 2015. Beauty: The Fortunes of an Ancient Greek Idea. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lombardo, Stanley, trans. 2000. Homer. Odyssey. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company. Most of Lombardo’s translation is in the The Essential Odyssey (2007).

Maravela, Anastasia. 2014. “Tongue-tied Aphrodite: the paradeigmata in the Hymn to Aphrodite.” Pp. 15-27 in Eyjólfur K. Emilsson, Anastasia Maravela and Mathilde Skoie, eds. Paradeigmata: Studies in Honour of Øivind Andersen. Papers and Monographs from the Norwegian Institute at Athens Series 4, Volume 2, Athens: The Norwegian Institute at Athens. Alternate source.

Matulis, Harri Haralds. 2022. ‘Comparison of Six English translations of Lucretius “De rerum natura.”‘ Research Report from Digital Humanities Project Course, University of Helskinki. Github repository. Web presentation.

Most, Glenn W., ed. and trans. 2018. Hesiod. Theogony. Works and Days. Testimonia. Loeb Classical Library 57. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Murray, A. T., ed. and trans., revised by George E. Dimock. 1919. Homer. Odyssey. Volume I: Books 1-12. Loeb Classical Library 105. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nagy, Gregory, trans. 2018. “Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite.” The Center for Hellenic Studies. Online.

Olson, S. Douglas. 2012. The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite and Related Texts: Text, Translation and Commentary. Texte und Kommentare 39. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. Review by Adrian Kelly.

Rayor, Diane J. 2004. The Homeric Hymns: A Translation with Introduction and Notes. Updated edition, 2014. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Review by Stephen Evans.

Reed, Joseph D. 1995. “The Sexuality of Adonis.” Classical Antiquity. 14(2): 317‒47.

Rouse, W. H. D., and Martin Ferguson Smith, eds. and trans. 2002. Lucretius. De rerum natura. Loeb Classical Library 181. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Schein, Seth L. 2012. “Divine and Human in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite.” Pp. 295-312 in Richard Alain Bouchon and Pascale Brillet-Dubois, eds. Hymnes de la Grèce Antique: Approches Littéraires et Historiques. Actes du Colloque International de Lyon, 19-21 Juin 2008. Lyon: Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée.

Sedley, David. 1998. Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Review by Gordon Campbell.

Shakeshaft, Hugo. 2019. “The Terminology for Beauty in the Iliad and the Odyssey.” The Classical Quarterly. 69(1): 1–22. Alternate source.

Shelmerdine, Susan C., trans. 1995. The Homeric Hymns. Newburyport, MA: Focus Information Group. Review by Ingrid Holmberg.

West, Martin L., ed. and trans. 2003. Homeric Hymns. Homeric Apocrypha. Lives of Homer. Loeb Classical Library 496. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Review by R. Garner.

ancient woman artist invented relief portrait in love for boyfriend

Across the historical record, men have much more frequently and ardently expressed love for women than women have expressed love for men. What accounts for the long history of women’s relative reticence in expressing heterosexual love? Expressing love for men doesn’t require rare material resources or extensive education. Anyone, in any circumstances, can express profound love for men. Nonetheless, scholars today have gone so far as to disregard men’s feelings, hurt men’s self-esteem, and devalue men’s lives. This oppressive gender culture isn’t inevitable. In fact, with strong, independent action, a woman in ancient Corinth expressed love for her boyfriend. Unjustly marginalized in dominant art history, she should be credited with originating bas-relief portraits and making art herstory.

Women artists in the ancient world didn’t engage only with women. The eminent first-century Roman scholar Pliny the Elder described outstanding women artists learning from men, painting men, and teaching men:

Timarete, the daughter of Micon, painted the very ancient panel picture of Artemis at Ephesus. Irene, daughter and student of the painter Cratinus, painted a young woman at Eleusis. Irene also painted Calypso, Theodorus the Juggler, and Alcisthenes the Dancer. Aristarete, the daughter and student of Nearchus, painted Asclepius. When Marcus Varro was a young man, Iaia of Cyzicus, who remained unmarried, painted in Rome pictures with a brush and also drew with an engraver on ivory. She made mainly portraits of women, as well as a large picture on wood of an old woman at Neapolis. She also made a self-portrait with a mirror. No one else had a quicker hand in painting. Her artistic skill was such that she obtained much higher prices than did the period’s most celebrated portrait painters, that is Sopolis and Dionysius, whose pictures fill the galleries. A certain Olympias also painted. The only fact recorded about her is that Autobulus was her student.

{ Timarete, Miconis filia, Dianam, quae in tabula Ephesi est antiquissimae picturae; Irene, Cratini pictoris filia et discipula, puellam, quae est Eleusine, Calypso et praestigiatorem Theodorum, Alcisthenen saltatorem; Aristarete, Nearchi filia et discipula, Aesculapium. Iaia Cyzicena, perpetua virgo, M. Varronis iuventa Romae et penicillo pinxit et cestro in ebore imagines mulierum maxime et Neapoli anum in grandi tabula, suam quoque imaginem ad speculum. nec ullius velocior in pictura manus fuit, artis vero tantum, ut multum manipretiis antecederet celeberrimos eadem aetate imaginum pictores Sopolim et Dionysium, quorum tabulae pinacothecas inplent. pinxit et quaedam Olympias, de qua hoc solum memoratur, discipulum eius fuisse Autobulum. }[1]

Theodorus the Juggler and Alcisthenes the Dancer probably were celebrities. Asclepius was a god of medicine. Women artists’ paintings of these men probably didn’t express personal love for them. Women artists, like other professionals, understandably made paintings that would sell well.

painting by Joseph Wright of Derby showing the Corinthian woman-artist at work

Artists, however, aren’t necessarily confined to their financial interests. In ancient Corinth, a woman now commonly known as Kora of Sicyon designed the first bas-relief portrait in love for her boyfriend. Pliny explained:

Butades of Sicyon, a potter at Corinth, was the first to invent shaping likenesses from potter’s clay. This work was for his daughter, who was captivated in love for a young man. When the young man was leaving to travel abroad, she inscribed in outline on a wall the shadow of his face from a lamp. Her father pressed clay on this and made a bas-relief. He set it forth with rest of his pottery to harden by fire. This bas-relief reportedly was kept in the Shrine of the Nymphs until Mummius destroyed Corinth.

{ Fingere ex argilla similitudines Butades Sicyonius figulus primus invenit Corinthi filiae opera, quae capta amore iuventis, abeunte illo peregre, umbram ex facie eius ad lucernam in pariete lineis circumscripsit, quibus pater eius inpressa argilla typum fecit et cum ceteris fictilibus induratum igni proposuit, eumque servatum in Nymphaeo, donec Mummius Corinthum everterit, tradunt. }[2]

This women of ancient Corinth has been credited with originating painting.[3] More importantly, this great woman artist pioneered a new way of expressing love for men. She shattered shackles of gynocentrism to expand forms of art.

black and brown chalk drawing of the Corinthian woman-artist at work: Vincenzo Camuccini, The Invention of Painting.

Expressing love for men has always been a daring endeavor. Consider, for example, the eminent Roman landscape painter Studius:

Examples of his paintings are noble villas accessed across marshes, tottering men with women on their shoulders, trembling with them being carried according to a promise, and many other paintings of such liveliness and very flippant wit.

{ sunt in eius exemplaribus nobiles palustri accessu villae, succollatis sponsione mulieribus labantes, trepidis quae feruntur, plurimae praeterea tales argutiae facetissimi salis. }[4]

Depicting Roman men’s subordination to women as men literally carrying women on their shoulders covers social criticism with flippant wit. Everyone must be wary. Women who simply appreciate men with their female gazes can cause men dire harm. For example, Gobryas, an elderly Assyrian military leader serving Cyrus the Great, reported:

Once the Assyrian king was drinking with my son and another of the king’s companions. The other was Gadatas, the son of a man much more powerful than I. The king had Gadatas seized and castrated, only because, as some say, the king’s concubine had praised his companion. She said that Gadatas was handsome and that the woman who was going to be his wife would be happy. But as the king himself now says, it was because his companion had made a sexual advance to his concubine. So now Gadatas is a eunuch, but he is a ruler, for his father died.

{ ἑνὸς δὲ ἀνδρὸς πολὺ δυνατωτέρου ἢ ἐγὼ υἱόν, καὶ ἐκείνου ἑταῖρον ὄντα ὥσπερ τὸν ἐμόν, συμπίνοντα παρ᾿ ἑαυτῷ συλλαβὼν ἐξέτεμεν, ὡς μέν τινες ἔφασαν, ὅτι ἡ παλλακὴ αὐτοῦ ἐπῄνεσεν αὐτὸν ὡς καλὸς εἴη καὶ ἐμακάρισε τὴν μέλλουσαν αὐτῷ γυναῖκα ἔσεσθαι· ὡς δὲ αὐτὸς νῦν λέγει, ὅτι ἐπείρασεν αὐτοῦ τὴν παλλακίδα. καὶ νῦν οὗτος εὐνοῦχος μέν ἐστι, τὴν δ᾿ ἀρχὴν ἔχει, ἐπεὶ ὁ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ ἐτελεύτησεν. }[5]

Falsely accusing men of attempting to “seduce” women has occurred far too often throughout history, as has gender bias in punishment for sex crimes. The Assyrian king’s accusation against Gadatas should be regarded as questionable. In any case, when expressing love for men, women must be aware of castration culture and seek to limit its harm to men and women.

The Corinthian woman-artist at work in David Allan's painting, "The Origin of Painting"

By the seventeenth century, the young Corinthian woman’s portrait of her boyfriend became understood as a sincere act of love at the origin of painting. The god of love Cupid guides this woman’s hand in Charles Le Brun and François Chauveau’s engraving printed in Paris in 1668. In Joachim von Sandrart’s engraving printed in Nuremberg in 1683, Cupid hovers above the woman’s head and apparently instructs her. Alexander Runciman’s painting “The Origin of Painting,” made in Scotland about 1772, has Cupid guiding the woman’s hand in tracing her boyfriend’s figure on the wall. To ensure that viewers don’t miss the meaning, on the wall is engraved the text, “behold the Greek woman-inventor, who has love as her master {amore magistro inventrix ecce Graia}.”[6] The English writer William Hayley in 1781 celebrated love, the Corinthian woman, and her sympathetic father:

Oh! LOVE, it was thy glory to impart
Its infant being to this magic art!
Inspir’d by thee, the soft Corinthian maid
Her graceful lover’s sleeping form portray’d:
Her boding heart his near departure knew,
Yet long’d to keep his image in her view:
Pleas’d she beheld the steady shadow fall,
By the clear lamp upon the even wall:
The line she trac’d with fond precision true,
And, drawing, doated on the form she drew;
Nor, as she glow’d with no forbidden fire,
Conceal’d the simple picture from her sire:
His kindred fancy, still to nature just,
Copied her line, and form’d the mimic bust.[7]

Between 1770 and 1820, art depicting the young Corinthian woman engraving her boyfriend’s shadow became a common motif broadly described as “the origin of painting.”[8] A woman expressing love for her boyfriend in ancient Corinth thus eventually acquired great significance in art history.

The Corinthian woman-artist tracing her boyfriend's silhouette in engraving in Charles Perrault's book La peinture

With the development of universal education and well-developed markets for symbolic works, the legacy of the ancient Corinthian woman artist expanded in different ways. Clara Erskine Clement, a member of a prominent and wealthy family in New England, crowned her career as a widely read art historian with her book, Women in the Fine Arts from the Seventh Century B.C. to the Twentieth Century A.D., published in 1904. Her book included a lengthy entry on the ancient Corinthian woman artist:

Kora or Callirhoë. It is a well-authenticated fact that in the Greek city of Sicyonia, about the middle of the seventh century before Christ, there lived the first woman artist of whom we have a reliable account.

Her story has been often told, and runs in this wise: Kora, or Callirhoë was much admired by the young men of Sicyonia for her grace and beauty, of which they caught but fleeting glimpses through her veil when they met her in the flower-market. By reason of Kora’s attraction the studio of her father, Dibutades, was frequented by many young Greeks, who watched for a sight of his daughter, while they praised his models in clay.

At length one of these youths begged the modeller to receive him as an apprentice, and, his request being granted, he became the daily companion of both Kora and her father. As the apprentice was skilled in letters, it soon came about that he was the teacher and ere long the lover of the charming maiden, who was duly betrothed to him.

The time for the apprentice to leave his master came all too soon. As he sat with Kora the evening before his departure, she was seized by an ardent wish for a portrait of her lover, and, with a coal from the brazier, she traced upon the wall the outline of the face so dear to her. This likeness her father instantly recognized, and, hastening to bring his clay, he filled in the sketch and thus produced the first portrait in bas-relief! It is a charming thought that from the inspiration of a pure affection so beautiful an art originated, and doubtless Kora’s influence contributed much to the artistic fame which her husband later achieved in Corinth.[9]

Although the only surviving ancient evidence about the ancient Corinthian woman artist essentially consists only of the one passage in Pliny, Clara Erskine Clement documented many additional claims about this woman artist. The Corinthian woman became widely known as Kora (apparently from the ancient Greek for “young woman {κόρη}”), or less commonly, Callirhoë (apparently from the ancient Greek for “beautiful stream {καλλίρρους}”).[10] Her grace and beauty, her modesty, her association with flowers, her many men-admirers, and the amorous young man becoming her teacher and then her husband all reflect ideas of love and gender prevalent among the northeastern American elite late in the nineteenth century.

Corinthian woman-artist tracing her boyfriend's silhouette in painting by Joseph-Benoit Suvée

As ideas of love and gender changed significantly across the twentieth century, so too did representations of the ancient Corinthian woman. Judy Chicago’s iconic Dinner Party, composed from 1974 to 1979, includes the name “Kora” on its Heritage Floor. Associated text explains:

In Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (C.E. 77) and other ancient sources, the potter Dibutades of Sicyon and his daughter Kora (also called Callirhoe) are credited with the invention of modeling in relief in the seventh century B.C.E. The story goes that Dibutades had a young apprentice with whom Kora fell in love. On the night that her lover was to complete his apprenticeship and leave, she used a piece of coal to trace his portrait on the wall. Her father saw the drawing and filled it in with clay, thus creating the first relief, which reputedly remained on the wall for 200 years.[11]

The Dinner Party apparently is indebted to Clara Erskine Clement or a closely related source for particular details: the name Callirhoe, the young apprentice preparing to leave after completing his apprenticeship, and the piece of coal. The gendered context, however, differs significantly. The Dinner Party features a dinner table setting for 39 women of noteworthy achievement, with no men. Its Heritage Floor shows the names of 999 women of noteworthy achievement, with no men. Judy Chicago explained that the women’s names on the Heritage Floor convey:

how many women had struggled into prominence or been able to make their ideas known — sometimes in the face of overwhelming obstacles — only (like the women on the table) to have their hard-earned achievements marginalized or erased.[12]

This iconic art of gender inclusion is the centerpiece of the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Surely not merely opium for the masses, it influentially signals the health and vitality of public discourse today.

The ancient Corinthian woman who lovingly traced her boyfriend’s shadow exemplifies the artistic woman leadership that can make dying societies fruitful and young. Expressions of women’s love for men too often have been suppressed or marginalized. Not surprisingly, men’s love for women dominates the historical record of expressing heterosexual love. That can change. With appropriate support and encouragement, women can achieve gender equality in love expression and eternally advance human welfare.

Minoan bull-leaping fresco from the Knossos Palace, Crete

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Read more:


[1] Pliny the Elder, Natural History {Naturalis Historia} 35.147-8 (section 40), Latin text from Rackham (1952), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Following Linderski (2003) pp. 83-7, I’ve amended Calypso, senem to Calypso, where the later is equivalent to the rare accusative variant Calypsonem. Calpyso thus indicates a painting of the goddess Calypso, not a woman painter.

[2] Pliny, Naturalis Historia 35.151 (section 43), sourced as previously. Mummius destroyed Corinth in 146 BGC. Pliny went on to credit Butades with inventing a common form of ancient architectural ornamentation:

Butades invented adding red earth to the material or modeling out of red chalk. He first placed masks as fronts to the outer gutter-tiles on roofs. Initially he called these low-reliefs prostypa. Later he likewise made high-relief ectypa. Ornaments on the pediments of temples originated from these. Because of Butades, these are called plastae.

{ Butadis inventum est rubricam addere aut ex rubra creta fingere, primusque personas tegularum extremis imbricibus inposuit, quae inter initia prostypa vocavit; postea idem ectypa fecit. hinc et fastigia templorum orta. propter hunc plastae appellati. }

Naturalis Historia 35.152 (section 43), Latin text and English translation sourced as previously.

Probably between 177 and 180 GC, Athenagoras of Athens apparently drew upon Pliny’s account of the history of art. Describing the making of idols, Athenagoras declared:

Images were not in use before the discovery of molding, painting, and sculpture. Then came Saurius of Samos, Crato of Sicyon, Cleanthes of Corinth, and the Corinthian maid. Tracing out shadows was discovered by Saurius, who drew the outline of a horse standing in the sun. Painting was discovered by Crato, who colored in the outlines of the shadows of a man and woman on a whitened tablet. Relief modeling was discovered by the Corinthian maid. She fell in love with someone and traced the outline of his shadow on the wall as he slept. Then her father, a potter, delighted with so precise a likeness, made a relief of the outline and filled it with clay. The relief is preserved to this very day in Corinth.

{ αἱ δ’ εἰκόνες μέχρι μήπω πλαστικὴ καὶ γραφικὴ καὶ ἀνδριαντοποιητικὴ ἦσαν, οὐδὲ ἐνομίζοντο· Σαυρίου δὲ τοῦ Σαμίου καὶ Κράτωνος τοῦ Σικυωνίου καὶ Κλεάνθους τοῦ Κορινθίου καὶ κόρης Κορινθίας ἐπιγενομένων καὶ σκιαγραφίας μὲν εὑρεθείσης ὑπὸ Σαυρίου ἵππον ἐν ἡλίῳ περιγράψαντος, γραφικῆς δὲ ὑπὸ Κράτωνος ἐν πίνακι λελευκωμένῳ σκιὰς ἀνδρὸς καὶ γυναικὸς ἐναλείψαντος, –ἀπὸ δὲ τῆς κόρης ἡ κοροπλαθικὴ εὑρέθη (ἐρωτικῶς γάρ τινος ἔχουσα περιέγραψεν αὐτοῦ κοιμωμένου ἐν τοίχῳ τὴν σκιάν, εἶθ’ ὁ πατὴρ ἡσθεὶς ἀπαραλλάκτῳ οὔσῃ τῇ ὁμοιότητι– κέραμον δὲ εἰργάζετο–ἀναγλύψας τὴν περιγραφὴν πηλῷ προσ ανεπλήρωσεν· ὁ τύπος ἔτι καὶ νῦν ἐν Κορίνθῳ σῴζεται) }

Athenagoras of Athens, Embassy for the Christians {Πρεσβεία περί Χριστιανών / Legatio Pro Christianis} 17.3, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Schoedel (1972). Athenagoras’s Legatio is also called his Apology or Plea for the Christians. On Athenagoras, Williams (2020) Chapter 9.

After Pliny wrote, an entrepreneur in Corinth perhaps put forward a claimed relief of the Corinthian woman. In particular, Pliny’s Naturalis Historia may have generated new fame for her. Athenagoras, who was not highly knowledgeable about painting, perhaps referred to this new Corinthian tourist attraction. Besides Pliny and Athenagoras, no other pre-medieval reference to the pioneering Corinthian woman artist is known.

[3] In a recent book, a well-known art critic declared: “The Roman historian Pliny the Elder … even asserted that the art of painting originated with a woman.” Higgie (2021) p. 3. Pliny himself was hesitant to address the origin of painting and expressed uncertainty about it:

The question as to the origin of the art of painting is uncertain and it does not belong to the plan of this work. The Egyptians declare that it was invented among themselves six thousand years ago before it passed over into Greece — which is clearly an idle assertion. As to the Greeks, some of them say it was discovered at Sicyon, others in Corinth, but all agree that it began with tracing an outline round a man’s shadow and consequently that pictures were originally done in this way, but the second stage when a more elaborate method had been invented was done in a single color and called monochrome, a method still in use at the present day. Line-drawing was invented by the Egyptian Philocles or by the Corinthian Cleanthes, but it was first practiced by the Corinthian Aridices and the Sicyonian Telephanes — these were at that stage not using any color, yet already adding lines here and there to the interior of the outlines

{ De picturae initiis incerta nec instituti operis quaestio est. Aegyptii sex milibus annorum aput ipsos inventam, priusquam in Graeciam transiret, adfirmant, vana praedicatione, ut palam est; Graeci autem alii Sicyone, alii aput Corinthios repertam, omnes umbra hominis lineis circumducta, itaque primam talem, secundam singulis coloribus et monochromaton dictam, postquam operosior inventa erat, duratque talis etiam nunc. inventam liniarem a Philocle Aegyptio vel Cleanthe Corinthio primi exercuere Aridices Corinthius et Telephanes Sicyonius, sine ullo etiamnum hi colore, iam tamen spargentes linias intus. }

Naturalis Historia 35.15-6 (section 5), Latin text and English translation from Rackham (1952). Elsewhere, Pliny states that painting was invented:

by Egyptians, and in Greece by Euchir the kinsman of Daedalus according to Aristotle, but according to Theophrastus by Polygnotus of Athens.

{ Aegypti et in Graecia Euchir Daedali cognatus ut Aristoteli placet, ut Theophrasto Polygnotus Atheniensis. }

Naturalis Historia 7.205 (section 56), Latin text and English translation from id. For classical sources concerning the history of painting in Greece, Reinach (1921) Chapter 3, and Overbeck (1868) pp. 67-9.

[4] Pliny, Naturalis Historia 35.117 (section 37), Latin text from Rackham (1952), my English translation, benefiting from that of id and Ling (1977) p. 1.

[5] Xenophon of Athens, Cyropaedia / The Education of Cyrus {Κύρου παιδεία} 5.2.28, ancient Greek text from Miller (1914), English translation (modified for ease of readability) from Ambler (2001).

[6] On love at the origin of painting and the woman artist of Corinth, Muecke (1999). Charles Le Brun and François Chauveau’s engraving on the origin of painting is shown above. Joachim von Sandrart’s engraving of the origin of painting in the Latin edition of his Teutsche Academie, printed in Nuremberg in 1683, is freely available on For a color image of Alexander Runciman’s painting of the origin of painting, Cannady (2006) Figure 22. For Runciman’s preliminary wash and a more detailed monochrome image, MacMillan (1973) Plates 88 and 105. The text engraved on the wall is to the viewer’s left of the boyfriend’s head. For the transcription of the Latin text, Rosenblum (1957) p. 282.

In today’s scholarship, a very important issue is iconography relating to the mythic goddess of love Cupid:

These paintings demonstrate extremes in the representation of the maid of Corinth as an artist: in the one she is merely the chaste cypher of Cupid’s impetus to art; in the other she is the female artist, herself eroticized for a masculine gaze and impelled by her own urges, whose creative act in tracing the shadow is itself a mere echo of her parallel gesture of physical desire. … The popularity of the story of the Corinthian maid is registered through this proliferation of images representing the origin of art, but no single interpretation of the female artist dominated. The maid sometimes appears to be actively motivated by human desire alone, sometimes to be the passive recipient of Cupid’s active direction; the scene is sometimes highly intimate, with only the girl and her lover present, sometimes public, though still within the domestic sphere, with other human figures in attendance. This flexibility in imagining the origin of art equally suggests flexibility in imagining the female artist. The images allow for a range of imagined autonomy, of posited relationships between the woman as artist and her muse, and the woman as desiring lover and her object.

King (2004) pp. 634, 636. In the Aeneid, Cupid inflames Dido with love for Aeneas. Nonetheless, Dido isn’t a “chaste cypher.” More generally, women should not regard men as their serfs or their objects.

[7] Hayley (1778) Epistle I, vv. 124-137. In note iv to verse 126, Hayley accurate described the ancient source texts. Some manuscripts of Pliny’s Naturalis Historia have the potter-father’s name as Dibutades of Sicyon. Butades of Sicyon is now generally regarded as a better reading. On editions of Hayley’s poem, Rosenblum (1957) p. 284, note 41, which doesn’t mention the 1778 edition or the 1779 edition.

The brief reference to Pliny’s account of the Corinthian woman artist in Hayley (1778) inspired the English author Amelia Opie to write a poem entitled “Epistle supposed to be Addressed by Eudora, The Maid of Corinth, to Her Lover Philemon, Informing him of her having traced his Shadow on the Wall while he was sleeping, the Night before his Departure: Together with the joyful Consequences of this Action.” King (2004) p. 630, and p. 648, n. 3. For a critical edition of the poem, King & Pierce (2009) pp. 63-73 (poem 55). Opie’s Corinthian woman artist, whom she calls Eudora, is understand in today’s scholarship as today’s ideal woman:

In her interpretation, Opie depicts a woman of extraordinary creative power, who is both domestic and political, uniting private elements of erotic desire and domestic satisfaction with public issues of the civic function of art. … Like Eudora’s drawing and sculpture, Opie’s “Maid of Corinth” can be seen as offering an aesthetic venue for the exploration and articulation of female desire and as suggesting the power of art to transform potentially socially transgressive private acts to public artistic benefit.

King (2004) pp. 630, 648. That’s not at all a transgressive interpretation.

[8] Rosenblum (1957) pp. 281-2. Affirmed by Levitine (1958) p. 330. A dog, symbolizing loyality, occasionally was included in the compositions. Rosenblum (1957) p. 284, calling the dog Fido.

Men have also created images of women that they love. The ancient Greek sculptor Pygmalion of Cyprus carved a woman in ivory and then fell in love with her. She subsequently acquired the name Galatea. The medieval Romance of the Rose brilliantly adapts the legend of Pygmalion and Galatea. In 1827, Auguste Jean-Baptiste Vinchon and Nicolas Louis-Françe Gosse made a grisaille The Origin of Drawing {L’origine du Dessin} for the Louvre’s Musée Charles X. In that grisaille, the man traces the outline of his beloved woman. A man artist tracing the silhouette of his beloved woman also is shown in an emblem that Jean-Charles de La Fosse made in 1768, as well as in Antoine-Claude Fleury’s The origin of painting {L’origine de la peinture} (c. 1808), and in a painting by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in 1830. On this iconography, Levintine (1958) p. 330. Schinkel’s painting inspired an etching by Julius Caesar Thaeter in 1839. Nonetheless, among art depicting the origin of painting, the woman artist has dominated.

About 1784, Gilles-Louis Chrétien pioneered a mechanized means for quickly creating multiple silhouette portraits of a sitter. Such machines and their products became known as a physionotraces / physiognotraces. At least thirty profile portraitists using physiognotraces were active in New England between 1790 and 1810. The operator of one physiognotrace reportedly made 8,000 silhouettes about 1802 in the U.S. Bellion (1999). Men were among the operators of physiognotraces.

In myth, women have continued to dominate the origin of painting. The prominent art gallery operator Almine Rech, who runs galleries in Brussels, London, New York, and Shanghai, recounted the myth for her 2023 exhibit “Feeling of Light”:

The most famous myth about the birth of painting is probably the one told by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History c. 75 AD: the story of Dibutade’s daughter, the young woman who drew the outline of her lover’s shadow in charcoal on the wall of her house before he left for a long journey, capturing his silhouette to give his presence the illusion of eternity. This woman, whose first name Pliny omits to mention {sic}, was the first painter in history. Kora of Sicyon — her actual name {sic} — created painting as an antidote to absence and disappearance, and invented an art whose necessity has been continually affirmed ever since.

It is to this woman that we owe the invention of representation, the form we give to the impossibility of forgetting. Kora of Sicyon thus made it possible to offer an ultimate attention, a final light to an image before it disappears, this famous “feeling of light” of which the poet and painter Etel Adnan speaks.

From Almine Rech’s online exhibit documentation for “Feeling of Light.”

[9] Waters (1904) pp. 200-1. Featuring Kora in the first page of her introduction, Waters underscored the authenticity of the story of Kora:

We have some knowledge of women artists in ancient days. Few stories of that time are so authentic as that of Kora, who made the design for the first bas-relief, in the city of Sicyonia, in the seventh century B.C.

Id. p. xi. Waters provided an account of “Kora or Callirhoë” with a few additional colorful details in Waters (1887), Part II (Sculpture), pp. 20-1.

Clara Erskine was born in 1834 in privileged circumstances among the New England elite. Clara was born in St. Louis, Missouri, where her father, a businessman, had temporarily brought his family. When Clara was two, her family settled in Milford, Massachusetts. Milford was the hometown of Clara’s mother, Harriet Bethiah Erskine. Clara’s family spent much time among the New England elite in Boston and Cambridge. Her family hired private tutors to educate her. She apparently learned to read Greek and Latin, and had speaking, reading, and writing knowledge of German, Italian, and French. Von Lintel (2013) pp. 41, including p. 41, n. 9.

Clara Erskine married the wealthy Boston businessman James Hazen Clement in 1852. She had five children, traveled extensively, including to many countries of Europe, India, China, and Japan. She also developed a career as a professional writer. She became a “talented, respected, and prolific art historian,” and her books achieved “widespread popularity … across American.” Von Lintel (2013) pp. 63, 50. She was a strong, independent professional:

Waters was bargaining with publishers for higher royalties and better contracts, and was willing to drop one firm to establish a relationship with another house where she felt her books would be more effectively “pushed” or marketed. She grew to take pride in the fact that her publishers “knew that [she was] in a position to be independent,” and that she was well versed in the workings of the book business. She even voiced her opinions about the difficulties of working with publishers, whom she called “a cranky and trying race.” Lacking institutional support from a university or museum, Waters drew upon her business acumen and strong personality to promote her position as a published art historian.

Id. p. 45, footnotes omitted. Clara Erskine’s husband James Hazen Clement died in 1881. In 1882 she married the wealthy Edwin Forbes Waters. He was both an author (see, e.g. Waters (1878)) and the owner of the Boston Daily Advertiser.

[10] The Corinthian woman is called “Cora of Sicyon” in Francisco Pecheco’s The Art of Painting {El Arte de la Pintura} (1649). King (2004) p. 651, n. 29. That name, which isn’t in Pliny, seems to be a mistranslation of Athenagoras’s account, which is probably a Greek adaptation of Pliny. See “Corinthian young woman {κόρη Κορῐνθῐ́ᾱ}” translated as “Core” in Athenagoras’s Πρεσβεία περί Χριστιανών 17.3 in Humphreys (1714) p. 173. In the mid-nineteenth century, B. P. Pratten translated that phrase as “Corinthian damsel” and noted “Or, Koré. It is doubtful whether or not this should be regarded as a proper name.” See text in the Anti-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II. Crehan (1956) and Schoedel (1972) both translate that phrase as “Corinthian maid.” The name Callirhoë for the Corinthian woman is a relatively rare tradition with no known ancient textual basis.

The Corinthian woman has also been commonly called Dibutade, Dibutades, and Dibutadis. See, e.g. the National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.) teaching resource on the “Greco-Roman myth of Dibutades.” Dibutade and associated names are inferior textual readings of her father’s name in Pliny. Based on surviving manuscript evidence, the best reading in now judged to be Butades. The corresponding name of the Corinthian woman’s father in Athenagoras is Boutades. The modern myth of Dibutades, which is far more extensive than the Greco-Roman myth, surely should be of interest to teachers and students.

Whether Butades of Sicyon and his daughter were actual historical figures in Corinth isn’t clear. The time in which Butades of Sicyon and his daughter reportedly lived in Corinth isn’t stated or known. Minoan frescoes in Crete, which include painted, outlined figures, date to the first half of the second millennium BGC. On the history of Greek painting, Rumpf (1947).

[11] Documentation for the Dinner Party’s Heritage Floor name Kora on the website for Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.

[12] Quote attributed to Judy Chicago in the documentation for the Dinner Party’s Heritage Floor on the website for Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. This grand narrative is now pervasive. For example, it’s featured in the publisher’s blurb for a woman’s book on women’s self-portraits:

Until the twentieth century, art history was, in the main, written by white men who tended to write about other white men. The idea that women in the West have always made art was rarely cited as a possibility. Yet they have — and, of course, continue to do so — often against tremendous odds, from laws and religion to the pressures of family and public disapproval.

In The Mirror and the Palette, Jennifer Higgie introduces us to a cross-section of women artists who embody the fact that there is more than one way to understand our planet, more than one way to live in it and more than one way to make art about it. Spanning 500 years, biography and cultural history intertwine in a narrative packed with tales of rebellion, adventure, revolution, travel and tragedy enacted by women who turned their back on convention and lived lives of great resilience, creativity and bravery.

Higgie (2021), publisher’s blurb. Clara Erskine Clement Waters probably would regard this 2021 woman’s book on women’s self-portraits as parochial, juvenile, and ridiculous. For a similar example of current hackneyed rhetoric, McCormack (2021). AI systems now seem to be mass-producing this sort of work across the Internet.

The popularity from 1770 to 1820 of paintings of the Corithinian woman now known as Kora originating the art of painting might be related to gendered sentiment. A leading scholar of this legend stated:

To explain the popularity of this legend (a popularity which even extended to textiles), one should mention still another tendency of the period, expecially in France. This was the prominent role of women painters around 1800, witness such notable examples as Angelica Kauffmann, Elisabeth Vigée-Liebrun, Adélaide Labille-Guiard, Constance Mayer, and David’s now famous pupil, Constance Charpentier. It was only natural that the many women painters of an era which so often disguised itself in antique clothing should be proud that Greek legend held the inventor of their art to be a woman, a fact which is rarely overlooked in the early pages of subsequent histories of women artists

Rosenblum (1957) p. 288. The now vast body of work on gender and art seems not to have explored this point.

[images] (1) The Corinthian woman artist at work. Excerpt from a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby. Originally titled “The Origin of Painting,” now commonly titled “The Corinthian Maid.” Wright painted it between 1782 and 1784 for the eminent English potter and businessman Josiah Wedgwood. Preserved as accession # 1983.1.46 in the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC), Paul Mellon Collection, with the image rightly contributed to the public domain. (2) The Corinthian woman artist at work in a black and brown chalk drawing by Vincenzo Camuccini. He made this drawing, titled “The Invention of Drawing,” about 1816-1820. Preserved as accession # 46283r in the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa). Purchased in 2014 with the support of the Friends of the Print Room Trust, National Gallery of Canada Foundation, in honour of Mimi Cazort, Curator of Prints and Drawings from 1970 to 1997. (3) The Corinthian woman artist at work in a painting by David Allan. Allan made this painting, titled “The Origin of Painting” / “The Maid of Corinth” in 1775. Preserved as accession # NG 612 in the National Galleries of Scotland. Presented by Mrs Byres of Tonley 1875. Here’s a print based on the painting. (4) The Corinthian woman artist tracing her boyfriend’s silhouette in an engraving in Charles Perrault’s book The Painting {La peinture} (1668). The composition is based on a painting by Charles Le Brun, and the engraving is by François Chauveau. Image from Muecke (1999) p. 298. Perrault’s La peinture is a poem in praise of Charles Le Brun, the director of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture {Académie royale de Peinture et de Sculpture} from 1655 until his death in 1690. La peinture concludes with a story of the origin of painting. It tells of a young shepherdess on the island of Paphos tracing the silhouette of her beloved man with Love’s guidance. An engraving by Pieter Schenk in 1693 duplicates that of Charles Le Brun and François Chauveau. Schenk’s engraving was printed in The Cabinet of Fine Arts or Collection of Prints, engraved after the Paintings of a Ceiling where the Fine Arts are Represented {Le Cabinet des Beaux Arts ou Recueil d’Estampes, gravées d’apres les Tableaux d’un ceiling ou les Beaux Arts sont representés / De Schatkamer der Vrye Konsten of Verzameling van verscheidene Printen, gegraveerd na eenige Zolderstukken, in welke deze Konsten vertoond worden}. It’s preserved as accession # BI-1904-39 in the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam, Netherlands). Image on Wikimedia Commons. (5) The Corinthian woman artist tracing her boyfriend’s silhouette. Excerpt from painting that Joseph-Benoit Suvée painted in 1791. This painting is known by the title “The invention of the Art of Drawing.” Preserved as accession # 0000.GRO0132.I in the Groeningemuseum (Bruges, Belgium). Source image via Wikimedia Commons. Additional resources: collection of art similarly depicting the origin of painting, another curated collection, and a list of works. (6) Minoan bull-leaping fresco from the Knossos Palace, Crete. Made between 1600 and 1450 BGC. Preserved in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Heraklion, Crete. Source image via Wikimedia Commons.


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Schoedel, William R., trans. 1972. Athenagoras: Legatio and De Resurrectione. London: Oxford University Press.

Von Lintel, Amy M. 2013. “Clara Waters and the Popular Audiences for Art History in Nineteenth-Century America.” Princeton University Library Chronicle. 75(1): 38–64.

Waters, Clara Erskine Clement. 1887. A History of Art for Beginners and Students: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. New York, NY: F. A. Stokes.

Waters, Clara Erskine Clement. 1904. Women in the Fine Arts from the Seventh Century B.C. to the Twentieth Century A.D. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

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men in love with women in Sumerian proverbs

In ancient Mesopotamia, proverbs inscribed in Sumerian on stone tablets provide wisdom for men in love with women. Sumerian love poems use specific, physical referents. Sumerian proverbs similarly refer to specific, typical aspects of ordinary life. These proverbs acknowledge relational difficulties in love, express motifs of men’s sexed protest, and realistically affirm the importance of women to men.

Emotional relations affect human welfare fundamentally. A pair of ancient Sumerian proverbs declare:

A loving heart builds houses.
A hating heart destroys houses.

{ cag4 ki-aj2 nij2 e2 du3-du3-u3-dam
cag4 hul-gig nij2 e2 gul-gul-lu-dam }[1]

In this context, “houses” functions as a physical metaphor for “families.” Men have hearts and feelings. As these proverbs affirm, men’s hearts and feelings matter for families’ welfare. In fact, each member of a family has a heart, and each heart’s orientation to the others affects the family’s welfare. It’s not just the superficial, modern gynocentric proverb: “happy wife, happy life.”

Cuneiform tablet inscribed with the Instructions of Shuruppak, a Sumerian proverb collection

Happy in their love for men, women in ancient Mesopotamia appreciated men’s love for them. A Sumerian proverb declares:

A plant as sweet as a husband does not grow in the steppe.

{ u2 dam-gin7 ze2-ba edin-na nu-un-mu2 }[2]

Sumerian “edin-na,” here translated as “steppe,” could also be translated as “open country” or “desert.” The point seems to be that human cultivation is necessary to develop sweet husbands. Most men naturally love women. Men, however, need to learn how to love women in the way of a sweet husband. Another Sumerian proverb explains:

My husband picks the bones from the fish for me.

{ [mu]-/ud\-na-[ju10] [jiri3-pax(PAD)-ra2] /cag4 ku6-ta\ […]-/de5\-de5-ge }

A sweet husband elaborated:

With my mouth I cool the hot soup for you.
I pick the bones from the fish for you.

{ ka-ju10 tu7 bil-la2 ma-ra-sed-de3-en
ku6-ta jiri3-pax(PAD)-ra2 ma-ni-ib-rig5-rig5-ge-en }

Women in ancient Mesopotamia appreciated not only men’s kindness towards them, but also the physical qualities of men’s bodies:

A shepherd’s sex appeal is his penis.
A gardener’s sex appeal is his hair.

{ sipad jic3-a-ni
nu-jickiri6 suhur-ni }

A shepherd carries a long staff. A gardener raises plants with lush crowns. A staff and a crown are metaphors for men’s sexually distinctive penis and hairy genitals, respectively. Men historically have commonly been valued instrumentally, i.e. as tools for doing tasks.[3] Women in ancient Mesopotamia appreciated men for their masculine being itself.

Men in ancient Mesopotamia appreciated women broadly. Men appreciated women’s sensual bodies, their sexual receptivity, and their reproductive potential:

May Inana make a hot-limbed wife lie with you!
May she bestow upon you broad-shouldered sons!
May she find for you a place of happiness!

{ dinana-ke4 dam ur2 kum2-ma ha-ra-an-nu2-e
dumu a2 tal2-tal2-la ha-ra-an-ba-e
ki nij2 sag9-ga ha-ra-ab-kij2-kij2-e }

Men in ancient Mesopotamia also appreciated women’s hearts:

My girlfriend’s heart is a heart made for me.

{ cag4 ma-la-ja2 cag4 ma-dim2-/ma\ }

Moreover, women’s economic contributions to the household improved men’s welfare:

The married man is well equipped.
The unmarried man makes his bed in a haystack.

{ lu2 dam tuku a2 cu im-du7-du7
dam nu-un-tuku ce-er-tab-ba mu-un-nu2 }[4]

Most importantly, men in ancient Mesopotamia regarded women not as goddesses, but as human beings like themselves. With an ironic nod to gyno-idolatry, a Sumerian proverb celebrates women’s full humanity:

Something which has never occurred since time immemorial:
a young woman did not fart in her husband’s embrace.

{ nij2 ud-bi-ta la-ba-jal2-la
ki-sikil tur ur2 dam-ma-na-ka ce10 nu-ub-dur2-re }[5]

Men in ancient Mesopotamia, like men in medieval Europe, surely understood that a husband’s sexual obligation to his wife is much more important than an occasional fart.

Both men and women in ancient Mesopotamia chose whether to marry a particular person. A Sumerian proverb declares:

Young woman, your brother cannot choose for you.
Whom do you choose to marry?

{ ki-sikil cec-zu saj nu-mu-re-eb-kal-le
a-ba-am3 saj mu-e-kal-le-en }

Men were similarly advised:

Marry the wife of your choice.

{ igi il2-la-za dam tuku-ba-ni-ib }[6]

Given the importance of a man’s wife, a man should choose a wife wisely:

Don’t choose a wife during a festival!

{ ezem-ma-kam dam na-an-tuku-tuku-un-e-ce }

Sumerian wisdom literature further elaborates on the danger of choosing a wife at a festival:

You should not choose a wife during a festival.
Inside, it is all borrowed. Outside, it is all borrowed.
The silver on her is borrowed. The lapis lazuli on her is borrowed.
The dress on her is borrowed. The linen garment on her is borrowed.

{ ezem-ma-ka dam na-an-tuku-tuku-e
cag4-ga huj-ja2-am3 bar-ra huj-ja2-am3
kug huj-ja2-am3 za-gin3 huj-ja2-am3
tug2? huj-ja2-am3 gada? huj-ja2-am3 }[7]

A festival isn’t ordinary life. While many men enjoying gazing upon alluring dressed women, a prudent man marries a wife for her authentic self.

In ancient Mesopotamia, voices of men’s sexed protest weren’t harshly and comprehensively suppressed. A Sumerian proverb characterizes actual hierarchies of class and gender:

As a slave girl, I have no authority over my mistress.
So let me pull on my husband’s hair.

{ gi4-in-jen ga-ca-an-/ra\ /ce-er\ /nu-mu-un-na-ma-[al]
/mu-[ud-na-ju10] [ga-an-ze2-e-ce] }[8]

Despite the modern myth of patriarchy, husbands are typically subordinate to their wives. Men are taught not to complain — “take it like a man.” Nonetheless, in ancient Mesopotamia, husbands sometimes complained about demanding wives:

Like a sow was she not treated to luxury?
Was she not accustomed to demanding barley in the middle of the night?

{ megida2!-gin7 hi-li nu-mu-ni-in-ak
ji6 MAC-a-ka ce al nu-mu-ni-in-dug4-e-ce }

A common motif of men’s sexed protest is wives betraying their husbands’ secrets. A Sumerian proverb expresses that concern:

What has been spoken in secret will be revealed in the women’s quarters.

{ puzur5 u3-bi2-dug4 ama5-e he2-bur2-re }[9]

Ancient Mesopotamian wisdom realistically recognized husbands’ vulnerability in relation to their wives:

A malicious wife living in the house
is worse than all diseases.

{ dam nu-jar-ra e2-a til3-la-am3
a2-sag3-a2-sag3-e dirig-ga-am3 }

Many men don’t consider carefully the advantages and disadvantages of marrying. A proverb from ancient Mesopotamia highlights a man’s foolishness:

For his pleasure, he got married. On thinking it over, he got divorced.

{ sag9-ga-ni-ce3 tuku-am3 jalgaga-ni-ce3 taka4-am3 }

Men endure acute anti-men bias in divorce proceedings. Ancient Mesopotamian wisdom wisely urges men to think before they marry.

Sumerian proverbs offer a realistic perspective on ordinary life in Mesopotamia more than four thousand years ago. Like the Hebrew Bible, Sumerian proverbs affirm life as a fundamental blessing despite difficulties of lived experience:

Although the number of unhappy days is endless,
life is better than death …..

{ ud nu-dug3-ga cid-bi [nu]-til3
/nam-til3 nam-uc2-a dirig X […] }

Difficulties of lived experience, such as diarrhea and marital strife, require prudent, appropriate responses. A proverb provides a counter-example:

A fool who was overwhelmed by his backside
stuck his hand up his backside.

{ is-hab2 ki-bid3-/da\ [(X)] cu ca-an-ca-[ca-da]
cu-ni bid3-/da\ [ba-ni-in-gid2] }

Although a wife and having children might create difficulties for men, in ancient Mesopotamia these personal relations were regarded as fundamentally important to men’s lives:

He who does not support a wife, he who does not support a child,
has no cause for celebration.

{ dam nu-il2 dumu nu-il2
giri17-zal-ce3 nu-il2 }

This Sumerian proverb isn’t referring to “child support” as the term is known today. Being subject to paying “child support” surely isn’t reason for a man to celebrate. This Sumerian proverb concerns a husband building a home together with his wife and supporting their child with his time, attention, and work. In ancient Mesopotamia, fathers hadn’t been transformed legally into merely wallets. The ancient Mesopotamian legal regime encouraged men to marry and have children.

Inscribed in stone, Sumerian proverbs are the oldest written records of wisdom to have survived to the present. The emerging scholarly field of meninist literary criticism shows that some Sumerian proverbs speak to men as distinctively gendered, fully human beings. One must, however, avoid anachronistic literary interpretations. The pressing need to affirm men’s gender distinctiveness and intrinsic goodness has emerged only recently. Far removed from hateful social constructions such as “toxic masculinity,” the relatively wise culture of ancient Mesopotamia appreciated men’s distinctiveness and goodness even without the benefit of meninist literary criticism.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Sumerian Proverbs t.6.1.11 11.147 (ll. 3-4), Sumerian transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, second edition (ETCSL). All Sumerian proverbs are similarly sourced and cited by their corpus numbers in ETCSL.

Alster (1997) is the most important scholarly reference on Sumerian proverbs, but regrettably difficult to access. For an overview of Sumerian proverb collections, Taylor (2005). For an outdated but still informative study, Gordon (1959). For an idiosyncratic selection of Sumerian proverbs, Saltveit (2007).

Subsequent proverbs above, unless otherwise noted, are similarly from ETCSL. They are t.6.1.01 1.126 (l. 6), “A plant as sweet…”; t.6.1.22 (l.33), “My husband picks the bones…”; t.6.1.03 3.112 (ll. 204-5), “With my mouth I cool…”; t.6.1.16 16.b4 (ll. 8-9), “A Shepherd’s sex appeal…”; t.6.1.19. 19.c5 (ll. 7-9), “May Inana make…”; t.6.1.01 1.91 (l. 51), “My girlfriend’s heart…”; t.6.1.01 1.12 (ll. 15-16), “Something which has never occurred…”; t.6.1.01 1.148 (ll. 18-9), “Young woman, your brother…”; t.6.1.19 19.c4 (l. 6), “Marry the wife of your choice”; t.6.1.11 11.150 (l. 7), “Don’t choose a wife during a festival”; t.6.1.11 19.d11 (ll. 14-15), “As a slave girl…”; t.6.1.08 8.b3 (ll. 5-6), “Like a sow was she not…”; t.6.1.01 1.82 (l. 37), “What has been spoken in secret…”; t.6.1.01 1.154 (ll. 31-32), “A malicious wife…”; t.6.1.02 2.124 (l. 203), “For his pleasure, he got married…”; t.6.1.25 25.5 (ll. 16-7), “Although the number of unhappy days…”; t.6.1.19 19.e3 (ll. 4-5), “A fool who was overwhelmed…”; t.6.1.01 1.153 (ll. 29-30), “He who does not support a wife….”

[2] In a testament to current intellectual narrow-mindedness, this proverb is included in Halton & Svärd (2017) because a woman apparently wrote it. Id. p. 214.

[3] In a Sumerian proverb, a man lamented:

All day long, oh penis, you ejaculate
as if you have blood inside you, and then you hang like a damp reed.

{ ud cu2-uc jic3-e a ab-ra-an
uc2 cag4-ba-gin7 gi duru5-a ab-la2-en }

Sumerian Proverbs, ETCSL t.6.1.04. 4.7 (ll. 8-9). This man apparently had an infection causing discharge from his penis and impotence. While men’s impotence is appropriately regarded as an epic disaster, a man’s being is greater than merely his sexual potential.

[4] The Instructions of Shuruppak {Šuruppag} (Old Babylonian / Standard Sumerian version), ll. 185-6, Sumerian transliteration and English translation from ETCSL t.5.6.1. For text, translation, and commentary on The Instructions of Shuruppak, Alster (2005). For an overview of the text and its development, Samet (2023) and Sallaberger (2018).

The earliest surviving version of The Instructions of Shuruppak, recorded on the Abu Salabikh tablet from about 2550 BGC, declares, “To have a wife is perfect.” Line 123, translation from Sallaberger (2018) xii.

[5] According to current scholarship, this proverb is “certainly misogynistic.” De Zorzi (2019) p. 224. In current scholarship, any literature that doesn’t support gyno-idolatry is disparaged as “misogynistic.”

[6] Of course, a man needed a woman’s agreement to marry her. In ancient Mesopotamia, just as in many other places and times, mothers arranged their sons’ marriages and were crucial advocates for sons:

My fate is her voice, and my mother can change it.

{ nam-tar-ju10 gu3-nam ama-ju10 mu-da-an-kur2 }

Sumerian Proverbs, ETCSL t.6.1.02. 2.6 (l. 17).

[7] The Instructions of Shuruppak, ll. 208-11, Sumerian transliteration from ETCSL t.5.6.1, English translation adapted from those of ETCSL and Alster (2005) p. 92. Šimâ Milka / The Instructions of Šūpê-amēli, a Late Bronze Age (1500-1200 BGC) wisdom text found in Ugarit, Emar, and Hattusa, is formally similarly to The Instructions of Shuruppak and offers similar advice about choosing a wife at a festival:

Do not buy an ox in springtime. Do not marry a young nubile woman
made up for a festival.
Even a sick ox will look good in springtime.
An unworthy young nubile woman will dress up for a festival. She will
dress up in a loaned garment and she will anoint herself with
oil that has been borrowed.

Hittite Parallel Text D (= ll. 96ʹ–100ʹ), English translation (modified) from Cohen. For ease of understanding, I have replaced “karšanza girl” with “young nubile woman” based on Cohen (2015) pp. 52-3, n. 31.

[8] Across class hierarchies in ancient Mesopotamia, women and men had similarly positions within their respective genders. A Sumerian proverb thus declared:

The ruler’s wife kneels, the female slave dies.
The ruler kneels, the male slave dies.

{ dam u3-mu-un-/si\ [gam-am3 geme2 ug5-ga]-/am3\
u3-mu-un-/si\ gam-/am3\ [arad ug5-ga-am3] }

Sumerian Proverbs, ETCSL t.6.1.09 9.a14 (ll. 18-9), English translation modified to gender-identify explicitly the male slave. Throughout history and trans-culturally, kneeling is understood as an act of status deference. This proverb suggests that the status of a slave, whether female or male, is correspondingly lowered through death.

[9] Cf. Matthew 10:27, “what you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim upon the housetops {ὃ εἰς τὸ οὖς ἀκούετε κηρύξατε ἐπὶ τῶν δωμάτων}.” Similarly, Luke 12:3.

[images] (1) Cuneiform tablet inscribed with The Instructions of Shuruppak, a Sumerian proverb collection. This tablet was written 2600–2350 BGC in Bismaya, Adab (present-day Iraq). Preserved as accession # 83 in the Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago. Source image via Wikimedia. More about this tablet. (2) “Proverb: Don’t Choose a Wife During a Festival,” a song by the Lyre Ensemble from their album The Flood (2015). On YouTube.


Alster, Bendt. 1997. Proverbs of Ancient Sumer: The World’s Earliest Proverb Collections. Bethesda, MD: CDL Press. Review by Gwendolyn Leick.

Alster, Bendt. 2005. Wisdom of Ancient Sumer. Bethesda, MD: CDL Press.

Cohen, Yoram. 2013. Wisdom from the Late Bronze Age. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature.

Cohen, Yoram. 2015. “The Wages of a Prostitute: Two Instructions from the Wisdom Composition ‘Hear the Advice’ and an Excursus on Ezekiel 16,33.” Semitica. 57:43-55.

De Zorzi, Nicla. 2019. ‘“Rude Remarks not Fit to Smell:” Negative Value Judgements Relating to Sensory Perceptions in Ancient Mesopotamia.’ Pp. 217-252 in Annette Schellenberg and Thomas Krüger, eds. Sounding Sensory Profiles in the Ancient Near East. SBL Ancient Near East Monographs Series 25. Atlanta, G: SBL Press.

Gordon, Edmund I. 1959. Sumerian Proverbs: Glimpses of everyday life in ancient Mesopotamia. New York, NY: Greenwood Press.

Halton, Charles and Saana Svärd, eds. 2017. Women’s Writing of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Anthology of the Earliest Female Authors. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sallaberger, Walther. 2018. “Updating Primeval Wisdom: The Instructions of Šuruppak in its Early Dynastic and Old Babylonian Contexts.” Pp. vii-xxvii in Mordechai Cogan, ed. In the Lands of Sumer and Akkad. New Studies. A Conference in Honor of Jacob Klein on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday. Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Saltveit, Mark. 2007. “The Gecko Wears a Tiara: Rude wisdom from Ancient Sumer.” Online.

Samet, Nili. 2023. “Instructions of Shuruppak: The World’s Oldest Instruction Collection.” Chapter 15 in Mordechai Cogan, Katharine J. Dell, and David A. Glatt-Gilad, eds. Human Interaction with the Natural World in Wisdom Literature and Beyond: Essays in Honour of Tova L. Forti. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark.

Taylor, Jon. 2005. “The Sumerian Proverb Collections.” Revue d’Assyriologie et d’Archéologie Orientale. 99(1): 13-18.