lecture

Women poets.

Identifications
— Corinna
— Telesilla
— Praxilla

1. Fragment of a marble head of a woman from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, c. 550-530 BCE. Cover of Josephine Balmer’s Classical Women Poets. Image: British Museum.

 

2a. Josephine Balmer, Women Classical Poets (1996: 9):

“In the first century AD [=CE], Antipater of Thessalonica‘s enthusiasm for classical women’s poetry was hardly excessive; apart from his nine earthly ‘Muses’ — Praxilla, Moero, Anyte, Myrtis, Erinna, Telesilla, Corinna, Nossis and Sappho — modern scholarship has unearthed the names of at least thirteen additional Greek women poets, while the Roman period yields another seven — twenty-nine names in all. Yet today the question asked first about their poetry is not the customary ‘is it worth reading?’ (although that often comes later), but rather, ‘is there any left to read?’ Here Tillie Olsen’s dictum that ‘we who write are survivors‘ [1978: 39] has a material as well as a metaphorical resonance…And of these twenty-nine, the work of only sixteen is extant, often fragmentary.”

2b. Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (1986: 15):

“When Darwinian theory dominated historical thought, pre-history was seen as a ‘barbaric’ stage in the evolutionary progress of humankind from the simpler to the more complex. That which succeeded and survived was by the fact of its survival considered superior to that which vanished and had thus ‘failed.'”

2c. Tillie OlsenSilences (1979/2003: 39):

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3. Josephine Balmer, Women Classical Poets (1996: 20):

“This is a particular problem with early poetry, originally performed to musical accompaniment, which, like song lyrics, can seem disappointing on the page. Such tampering might appear as cultural arrogance, casting the freshness of classical poetry as ‘inferior’ to the more tortuous semantic complexities of modern (and particularly modernist) poetry. In the case of women poets, there is also the danger of implying — as has often been the case — an ineptitude based on gender.”

4. Corinna, 5th c. BCE? 3rd c. BCE? Tanagra, Boeotia. 

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4a. Josephine Balmer, Women Classical Poets (1996: 33-34):

“To complicate matters futher, although some ancient commentators claim she was a contemporarty with Pindar, a Boeotian male poet of the fifth century BC (and that both were pupils of the poetess Myrtis whose works is now lost), the distinctive spelling conventions found on the surviving manuscript of her work, the Berlin Papyrus, date from the third century BC. An academic debate has ensued…[p34] the arguments seem inconclusive on both sides.”

4b. Pausanias (2nd c. CE), Description of Greece (9.22.3): 

Corinna, the only lyric poetess of Tanagra has her tomb in a, conspicuous part of the city, and in the gymnasium is a painting of Corinna binding her head with a fillet for the victory she won over Pindar at Thebes with a lyric poem. I believe that her victory was partly due to the dialect she used, for she composed, not in Doric speech like Pindar, but in one Aeolians would understand, and partly to her being, if one may judge from the likeness, the most beautiful woman of her time.

4c. Josephine Balmer, Women Classical Poets (1996: 34):

“Modern scholarship has been even less kind; Corinna’s poetry, like that of Sappho and so many other women poets, has often been accused of parochial homeliness and ‘extreme simplicity.’ Feminist critics have been even harsher, charging Corinna’s often brutal mythologies of perpetuating a male-dominated literary traditionn — the ‘male value system’ — with her female world.”

5a. Corinna no. 9* (Balmer): “Songs of Old”:
* transmitted by Oxyrhynchus papyrus, P. Oxy. 2370 (c. 200 CE). Attributed to Corinna because of citations by 2nd c. CE Hephaestion (Ench. 16.3) and 2nd c. CE Antoninus Liberalis (25).

On me my Muse has served her summons
to sing these beautiful songs of old
for Tanagran women in their dawn-
white dresses; as the city takes such
pleasure in my teasing-trilling songs.

for whatever great [deeds great heroes
might perform,] still taller tales [are told,]
the earth their open field for battle.
And so I’ve reset our father’s tales,
[reworked their crown with these new jewels]
as I take up my lyre for my girls:

Often I’ve polished tales of Cephisus,
our country’s own first founding-father,
often of Lord Orion, the fifty
high-and-mighty sons he brought into
being — with help from their mother nymphs;

and then at last I sang of Libya,
[Thebes’ fair fore-mother…]

5b. P. Oxy. 2370 (c. 200 CE). Fragment of Corinna (=5a).

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6. Telesilla, 5th c. BCE. Argos

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6a. Pausanias (2nd c. CE), Description of Greece (9.20.8-9): 

Above the theater [at Argos] is a sanctuary of Aphrodite, and before the image is a slab with a representation wrought on it in relief of Telesilla, the lyric poetess. Her books lie scattered at her feet, and she herself holds in her hand an helmet, which she is looking at and is about to place on her head. Telesilla was a distinguished woman who was especially renowned for her poetry. It happened that the Argives had suffered an awful defeat at the hands of Cleomenes, the son of Anaxandrides, and the Lacedaemonians [494 BCE]. Some fell in the actual fighting; others, who had fled to the grove of Argus, also perished. At first they left sanctuary under an agreement, which was treacherously broken, and the survivors, when they realized this, were burnt to death in the grove. So when Cleomenes led his troops to Argos there were no men to defend it.

[2.20.9] But Telesilla mounted on the wall all the slaves and such as were incapable of bearing arms through youth or old age, and she herself, collecting the arms in the sanctuaries and those that were left in the houses, armed the women of vigorous age, and then posted them where she knew the enemy would attack. When the Lacedaemonians came on, the women were not dismayed at their battle-cry, but stood their ground and fought valiantly. Then the Lacedaemonians, realizing that to destroy the women would be an invidious success while defeat would mean a shameful disaster, gave way before the women.

6b. Telesilla no. 35* (Balmer): “Artemis”:
*transmitted by 2nd/3rd c. CE Athenaeus (Deipnosphistae 11.567); 2nd c. CE Hephaestion (Ench. 11.2); 2nd c. CE Pausanias (2.28.2).

on the round
of the threshing-floor

*

[sing now of] Artemis, my daughters,
slipping
through Alpheus‘ watery fingers

*

of her mountain temple
on the peaks of Coryphum

6c. Pausanias (2nd c. CE), Description of Greece (2.28.2):

As you go up to Mount Coryphum [at Epidaurus] you see by the road an olive tree called Twisted. It was Heracles who gave it this shape by bending it round with his hand, but I cannot say whether he set it to be a boundary mark against the Asinaeans in Argolis, since in no land, which has been depopulated, is it easy to discover the truth about the boundaries. On the top of the mountain there is a sanctuary of Artemis Coryphaea (of the Peak), of which Telesilla made mention in an ode.

7. Praxilla, Sicyon (Gulf of Corinth). 5th c. BCE. 

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7a. Jane Snyder, The Woman and the Lyre (1989: 56):  

“[Praxilla’s] association with such songs [=skolia] has led to one quite unreasonable conclusion, drawn not surprisingly by Wilamowitz (whose distortions of Sappho’s poems were discussed in chapter 1). He concluded, in essence, that only a woman who was not a lady could have written drinking songs and that therefore Praxilla must have been a hetaira, roughly the ancient equivalent of a Geisha girl. There is no evidence of such an assumption.”

7b. Praxilla no 38* Balmer:
*transmitted by commentary tradition to 5th c. BCE Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae (528):

[in love
beware:]

a scorpion waits
under every stone

7c. Praxilla no 39* Balmer: “Adonis in Hades”:
*transmitted by 2nd c. CE Zenobius (4.2). Zenobius translated by Campbell Loeb (1990); Praxilla by Balmer, p55.

In her hymn this Praxilla represents Adonis as being asked by those in the underworld what was the most beautiful thing he left behind when he came, and giving as his answer:

“The loveliest sight I’ve left behind is the sun’s light
or clear stars on a dark dark sky, a full-faced moon;
and fruits in summer — ripe cucumbers [σίκυος, Sicyon?], apples, pears…”

For anyone who lists cucumbers and the rest alongside sun and moon can only be regarded as feeble-minded.

7d. Praxilla no 41* Balmer: “Snatches of Song”:
*parodied in 5th c. BCE Aristophanes’ The Wasps (1236, with commentary):

If you want to cheat death like Admetus could,
my friend, let’s keep up and keep in with the good.
In the meantime let’s drink, let’s live and let’s learn:
bad company can bring only bad return…

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