Archilochos Offers an Infamous Epode on Sexual Passion

Archilochos P. Cologne 7511

Translated by Steven J. Willett

A Roman Copy of a Hellenistic Portrait Head of Archilochos

Note 1: The Cologne 7511 epode is the longest poetic fragment we have of Archilochos of Paros c. 680-645BC. It was found in the late 1960s among the wrappings of an Egyptian mummy (c. 1st century) from Abusir el Melek. Since then the fragment has been held in the University of Cologne, which explains the technical citation of the poem. Since its publication in 1974 (R. Merkelbach and M. L. West. 1974. “Ein Archilochos-Papyrus.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik) it has “unleashed a storm of controversy much of it centered on the description of a sexual act in the final lines” (J. C. Gilbert. 1994. “Teaching about Manuscripts and Fragments.” Classical Journal 90.1: 67-79). The major problem facing any reader is the setting of the poem: Was it sung in barracks, in a village agora, in a military march, in a singing contest, in a public or private satire or in a drunken brawl? Another problem is the identity of the speaker. Was it Archilochos himself reviewing his own experience as a young man (he doesn’t have a black beard in the poem) or just a playful exercise to show grudges with a noble family? Archilochos has several poems that satirize Neobule and other members of the house. He is reputed to have been betrothed with her, but her father Lycambes ended the relationship, and Archilochos’ savage poetic attack is said to have caused their suicide.

Note 2: Alexandrian scholars placed Archilochos in their canonic list of iambic poets Semonides and Hipponax, but ancient critics also included him with Tyrtaeus and Callinus as developer of the elegy. The Greeks revered him as uniquely great after Homer and Hesiod. I highly recommend that those interested in the details of Archilochos’ life read the Wikipedia article on him.

Note 3: Here are explanations of three unclear statements. The reference “a goddess to young men” refers to Aphrodite, while “the god will consider marriage” means Zeus. The phrase “that sacred matter (thing) refers to marriage.

Archilochos P. Colon. 7511

“…while you’re abstaining completely; but dare to requited love.

If even now you’re eager and your heart drives you,
there’s a girl in our house, who greatly yearns for you,

a beautiful delicate maiden; and I think she
has a faultless figure; make her indeed a dear one.”

Such things she said; but I replied again to her.
“Daughter of Amphimedo, that noble and most blessed

woman, whom moldy earth now confines,
there are so many delights from a goddess to young men

except that sacred matter; just one of these is sufficient.
Calmly when my cheek grows dark to me

I and you with the god will consider marriage.
Shall I obey as you command? Yet passion strongly urges me

to hasten under your cornice and through your gate. 
Do not begrudge me it, dear one; for I’ll alight in a grass-bearing

garden. But truly realize now: Neobule may
another man take for wife. Aiai, overripe she’s become,

and in madness a woman showed the scope of folly.
Go to the ravens! May the lord of gods not command this to me

in order that taking such a wife
I’ll become buffoon to my neighbors. I greatly prefer you instead.

For you are not faithless nor treacherous, 
but she is extremely sharp, and makes excessive friends;

I fear lest blind and untimely children,
pursuing her in reckless haste, I engender just as a female dog.”

Such things I said; the maiden then among flowers
blossoming I took hold and laid her down; in a soft

cloak covering her over, and taking her neck in my arms
she froze a moment just like a fawn near a wolf,

and her breasts I gently grasped with my hands
where she revealed young flesh as harbinger of girlhood;

and all around her beautiful body caressing
I released a white force, lightly touching her golden hair.

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3 Responses to Archilochos Offers an Infamous Epode on Sexual Passion

  1. Barbara Ann says:

    Many thanks for sharing your translation of Archilochos’ poetic fragment.

    His wiki is indeed fascinating. I recognized the fox & hedgehog aphorism that Isaiah Berlin took as the title of his book on Tolstoy. It is also interesting to see that the aphorism against hasty action, that is employed in this poem, has a history going back at least another millennium. I am not surprised his work was banned by the Spartans, given Archilochos’ unabashed admission of abandoning his shield and fleeing in battle.

    Archilochos seems to have been something of an enfant terrible. He diverged from the epic Homeric tradition, while at the same time founding his own, by drawing upon the whole range of personal feelings as subject matter. The quote from the wiki by Dio Chrysostom seems to sum it up well, in recognizing that the “censure” in Archilochos’ poetry provides something “men are in greater need of” [than Homer’s universal praise]. If Archilochos was truly the first poet to unashamedly express his own emotions in poetry and at the same time give birth to satire, he certainly deserves to be held in the highest of esteem today.

    The fact that this poem “unleashed a storm of controversy” after publication, in a permissive age at that, is a testament to the persistent nature of our own prudish impulses, I think.

    On the poem itself:

    I have seen a suggestion that the first part in quotes is Neobule’s younger sister describing herself and addressing the author, and that she is also the subject of the sexual conquest described. This would seem a doubly shameful attack of the family. The invective directed at Neobule is shocking in its ferocity; “overripe” and with “excessive friends” – male ones I assume. Is the reference to cheeks growing dark a reference to passion subsiding?

    The cornice, gate and “grass-bearing garden” analogy is highly amusing. As for the “white force”, when I read that the newly woke Cambridge University Classics faculty are to put up signs explaining why their plaster busts are white, I can only imagine the treatment awaiting Archilochos’ description of the essence of masculinity.

  2. Steven J. Willett says:

    The reference to “cheeks growing dark” refers to the fact that in the dramatic setting Archilochos has no dark beard and is therefore quite young.

    The normal interpretation of the opening speaker is to assume she’s Neobule’s younger sister. In a recent study, however, she was downgraded to a slave or low status girl who wants and affair with the poet with a marriage possibility. The analysis is very complex and not persuading. The author also has a very different explanation for the sexual technique that produces “white force.” He argues, among many possibilities, it’s fellatio. Here’s the citation:

    Chris Eckerman, “Teasing and Pleasing in Archilochus’ First Cologne” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie u. Epigraphik 179 (2011) 11~19.

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