Sleep and Death

The association between sleep and death is one of the most consolidated topoi of the literature of all time: Homer praises the power of Hypnos, Thanatos’s brother, in the episode called Διὸς ἀπάτη (‘the deception of Zeus’), when Hera aims to distract his royal husband from the duties of war and to divert him from supporting the Trojans (Il.14.231-7):

There she met Sleep, the brother of Death;

and she clasped him by the hand, and spake and addressed him:

“Sleep, lord of all gods and of all men,

if ever thou didst hearken to word of mine,

so do thou even now obey, and I will owe thee thanks all my days.

Lull me to sleep the bright eyes of Zeus beneath his brows,

so soon as I shall have lain me by his side in love. (transl. Murray)

Hypnos and Thanatos are entrusted with the task of shipping Sarpedon’s body to Lycia so that he may receive his funeral honors (Il. 16.677-83):

So spake he, nor was Apollo disobedient to his father’s bidding,

but went down from the hills of Ida into the dread din of battle.

Forthwith then he lifted up goodly Sarpedon forth from out the range of darts,

and when he had borne him far away, bathed him in the streams of the river,

and anointed him with ambrosia, and clothed him about with immortal raiment,

and gave him to swift conveyers to bear with them, even to the twin brethren, Sleep and Death,

who set him speedily in the rich land of wide Lycia. (transl. Murray)

In his depiction of golden race, Hesiod says that the heroes ‘died as overcome by sleep’ (Th.116) in order to depict their ideal, painless death. Later on, he offers a long description of the relationship between sleep and death (Th. 755-66):

 

Hypnos and Thanatos

and the one holds all-seeing light for them on earth,

the other holds in her arms Sleep the brother of Death,

even evil Night, wrapped in a vaporous cloud.

And there the children of dark Night have their dwellings,

Sleep and Death, awful gods. The glowing Sun never looks

upon them with his beams, neither as he goes up into heaven,

nor as he comes down from heaven.

And the former of them roams peacefully over the earth

and the sea’s broad back and is kindly to men;

but the other has a heart of iron, and his spirit within him

is pitiless as bronze: whomever of men he has once seized he holds fast:

and he is hateful even to the deathless gods. (transl. G. Evelyn-White)

The lyric poet Alcman (7th century BC) beautifully compares the heart-breaking gaze of the beloved girl to sleep or death (fr. 3 Davies):

 

. . . and with limb-loosening desire, and she looks (at me?)

more meltingly than sleep or death, and not in vain is she

sweet. But Astymeloisa makes no answer to me; no, holding

the garland, like a bright star of the shining heavens or a

golden branch or soft down (transl. D.A. Campbell)

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« Know thyself »

La morte di Socrate (J. Louis David 1787)

The death of Socrates (J. Louis David, 1787)

The motto γνῶθι σ(ε)αυτόν (“know thyself”) was one of the maxims inscribed on the pediment of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, along with μηδὲν ἄγαν (“nothing in excess”), inviting mankind to exercise moderation in life. It was through these maxims that Apollo’s oracle – one could think of it as one of the “mass-media” of ancient times – invited men to self-investigation, prompting them to discover that the essence of one’s life is not to be searched for in the world outside, but instead within ourselves.

This emphasis on the inner life and on the importance of knowing oneself will become a core element of the philosophy of Socrates, whose Protagoras (343a-b) traces the history of the Delphic inscription back to the Greek Seven Sages:

Such men were Thales of Miletus, Pittacus of Mytilene, Bias of Priene, Solon of our city, Cleobulus of Lindus, Myson of Chen, and, last of the traditional seven, Chilon of Sparta. All these were enthusiasts, lovers and disciples of the Spartan culture; and you can recognize that character in their wisdom by the short, memorable sayings that fell from each of them: they assembled together and dedicated these as the first-fruits of their lore to Apollo in his Delphic temple, inscribing there those maxims which are on every tongue—“Know thyself” and “Nothing overmuch.(μηδὲν ἄγαν)”.(Translation by W. R. M. Lamb)

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Being young in Ancient Greece


In ancient Greek poleis laws and customs varied and so it did the ‘path’ that young people had to make to become a citizen.

If we consider the two most representative models, i.e. the Athenians and the Spartans, we notice that the educational processes were already distinguished in their name: while the Athenian program was universally known as παιδεία (paideia), Spartans rather called it ἀγωγή (agōgē).

The παιδεία consisted of physical, cultural and psychological education aimed at achieving the individual’s harmonious participation to society through the assimilation of the Athenian ethos.

At the centre of παιδεία is the παῖς (pais), who concludes its education with a two-year period of ephebeia, preparing itself for the military tasks of the hoplite: the future citizen must share the ideology of the polis and take on his duties towards the community as a counterpart to those rights he would enjoy.

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The flow that regulates life

It is always a pleasure and a great privilege to introduce my students to Archilochus. We have been focusing on the very famous fr. 128 West, written in catalectic trochaic tetrameters: one must face the storms of life and be able to rise again, confronting fiercely the enemies and any hardship that may come our way.

θυμὲ κυκώμενε...Θυμέ, θύμ’, ἀμηχάνοισι κήδεσιν κυκώμενε,
ἀναδύεο· μένων δ’ ἀλέξεο προσβαλὼν ἐναντίον
στέρνον, ἐνδόκοισιν ἐχθρῶν πλησίον κατασταθεὶς
ἀσϕαλέως· καὶ μήτε νικέων ἀμϕάδην ἀγάλλεο,
μηδὲ νικηθεὶς ἐν οἴκῳ καταπεσὼν ὀδύρεο,
ἀλλὰ χαρτοῖσίν τε χαῖρε καὶ κακοῖσιν ἀσχάλα
μὴ λίην, γίνωσκε δ’ οἷος ῥυσμὸς ἀνθρώπους ἔχει.

Let us try our hand at translating this fascinating text. All translations from Archilochus are loosely based on Douglas E. Gerber’s LOEB translation.

My heart, my heart, shaken by unrelenting woes

The apostrophe to the heart reminds us of Odysseus, who, having returned incognito to Ithaca, silently fumes at the sight of his young servants in cahoots with Penelope’s suitors τέτλαθι δὲ κραδίη, καὶ κύντερον ἄλλο ποτ᾽ ἔτλης, “Endure, my heart, you have suffered even more biting torments” (Odissey XX, 18). It is worth noting Archilochus’ use of the verb κυκάω (κυκώμενε “shaken”), which is etymologically linked with κῦμα, the wave of the sea to hint once again at the metaphor of life as a (potentially tempestuous) sea-voyage. (more…)

Music of Ancient Greece

The album “Musique de la Grèce Antique” has been published some decades ago but still stimulates curiosity and interest. The album results from the pioneering researches of Gregorio Paniaguaand his ensemble, the Atrium Musicae of Madrid. Even if musicological studies have since then progressed, the original spirit of this recording is still worthy of consideration.

While we can admire many extraordinary literary and architectural examples of ancient Greek culture, as for ancient music we have only scattered fragments that miraculously survived on papyrus and later documents.

The album gathers for the first time the rare Greek musical fragments, including the only one that dates back to imperial Rome (four damaged bars belonging to a work of Terence).

The album offers an overview of the music practiced in Greece on the most disparate occasions, being (the music) an essential part of everyone’s daily life. Luckily, musical theory has not suffered the same destiny, for we have received numerous treaties (in Greek, Latin or Arabic).

Greek music used two systems of notation: the instrumental notation, composed of fifteen different signs which probably derived from an archaic alphabet, and the vocal notation, which was formed, by contrast, by the twenty-four letters of the Ionic alphabet. (more…)

Ostracism in Ancient Greece

‘In ancient Athens, ostracism was the process by which any citizen, including political leaders, could be expelled from the city-state for 10 years.

Once a year, ancient Athenian citizens would nominate people they felt threatened democracy—because of political differences, dishonesty, or just general dislike. Today, although we can vote politicians out of office, we can’t exactly banish them from politics for a decade. Do you think ostracism would work in a democracy today? Would you vote to ostracize someone? Why?’

Check out this National Geographic video:

https://www.nationalgeographic.org/media/ostracism-ancient-greece/#.W5dwrI1k2Wg.facebook

Codrus sacrifices himself for his own country

In his oration Against Leocrates, the fourth century BC Athenian orator Lycurgus accuses his fellow citizen Leocrates of having left the city just before the battle of Chaeronea in order to escape the dangers of war, thus failing his duties towards his country and his fellow citizens.

The passage belongs to the middle of the oration (chh. 84-7), when Lycurgus makes a list of mythical and historical examples which demonstrate the abnegation, the sense of duty, and the heroism of the Athenians of the past in order to emphasise by contrast Leocrates’ pusillanimity.

Domenico Beccafumi: Il sacrificio di re Codro
(Siena, Palazzo Pubblico. Fonte: Wikimedia commons)

The example of the heroic sacrifice of the last mythical Athenian king, Codrus, is interesting. The story is set during a famine, when the Peloponnesians declare war on Athens to conquer its territories and exploit its resources. Before embarking on military operations, the Spartans sent a delegation to Delphiin order to consult Apollo’s oracle on the outcome of the war. According to the tradition, the oracle replied: ‘Dear Spartans, you will overthrow Athensonly if you do not kill his king, Codrus’. The Peloponnesians, then, left the oracle self-confidently and warned their soldiers not to kill king Codrus for any reason. However, a certain Delphian called Cleomantis learned about the response of the oracle and secretly informed the Athenians.

Here is the text of the first part of the passage: (more…)

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