Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Archilochus of Paros


The Chigi Vase (ca. 640-630 BC)
Museo Villa Guila, Roma

"From Paros
The lovely
We march."

Long before the larks this morning, I was up and continuing my medieval scribe-like activities downstairs while my human and animal family slept, copying legal ethics rules from one book into another.  I'm doing this for a perfectly good reason, but still it reminded me of the old Spartan admonition, which I'm sure my mother used to provide me as direction only lightly, simply because she found it amusing to say:

"Come home with your shield or on it".

So, after finishing copying Chapter 1 (this being the second stage of copying -- transcrbing cursive handwritten notes to computer text because even I have trouble reading my own script), I took a break and decided to hunt down images of Archilochus of Paros, the 6th century B.C. Greek warrior-poet, who wrote in response:

"Some Saian mountaineer
Struts today with my shield.
I threw it down by a bush and ran
When the fighting got hot.
Life seemed somehow more precious.
It was a beautiful shield.
I know where I can buy another
Exactly like it, just as round."

Bust of Archilocus, 1st or 2nd century AD after an original dating to 3rd or 2nd century BC, Italy;
Louvre, Paris (former Borghese Collection; purchased 1807)

Like his near contemporaries, Sappho and Alkman, Archilocus' work is preserved for us mainly in fragments.  They make compelling, almost addictive reading and once you begin a round of Archilocus consultation, it's almost impossible to stop:

"Let him go ahead.
Ares is a democrat.
There are no privileged people 
On a battlefield."

"As a dove to a sheaf of wheat,
So friends to you."

"Curl hung
In curl."

"Truth is born
as lightning strikes."

"Her hair was as simple
As flax, and I,
I am heavy with infamy."

The Archilocus translations I read are found in Guy Davenport's 7 Greeks set of translations (New Directions, 1995), which I can highly recommend.  However, I am not a Greek scholar and there are possibly other translations preferred by experts.

But from the time I first read Archilochus (many of these fragments also appeared in an earlier Davenport collection) a long time ago, I found his combination of close observation and descriptions of the physical world and daily activity, including human vanity, faithlessness and other foibles, and his terseness, toughness and sarcasm to be irresistible.  Although I think he meant to stir things up, he calms me down.

Oddly, I discovered that the poet's name is also that of a small Genus of hummingbirds whose portraits are found below.  I found a rather savage photo of one of these creatures in the warrior act of killing a yellowjacket, but I won't post that.  It's a remarkable shot.

Archilochus alexandri (Black chinned hummingbird)

Archilochus colubris (Ruby-throated hummingbird)


  1. Davenport, of course, a pal of Harry G.

  2. The thought never fails to cross my mind. The 7 Greeks volume, if you don't have it, is well worth owning. Some of the material originally appeared in Davenport's earlier Herakleitos and Diogenes, a thin book (only two Greeks) with an interesting blue cover. It's raining here heavily; I guess it will be pouring all day from Philly to NY. I know we need the rain, but I wish it weren't. It will compllcate the day. Curtis

  3. Thanks for the post. Beautiful and interesting.

    1. Thanks for your nice note and for visiting. And please visit again soon. Best regards from Berwyn, Pennsylvania (in the Philadelphia suburbs). Curtis