It struck me today that I’ve been a little heavy on the male poets. It’s not that I don’t like female poets. It’s just that I don’t know many. So I took a stroll through Wikipedia’s List of Female Poets. I clicked on Erinna because the name leaped out. Contemporary of Sappho, lovely. Died young. Wrote one of the most beautiful epitaphs for a friend in existence, of which only fragments survive. Yeah. We’re highlighting her.
I love her poems for a few reasons. First, she didn’t load her poetry down with ten trillion references to the gods, which was the failing of too many ancient Greek poets. Secondly, she’s expressing a friendship and grief that remind us just how timeless those human emotions are. Thirdly, through her, I now know a lot more about what it was like to be a woman in ancient Greece, and it’s fascinating.
The Distaff and Other Poems
…into the deep wave
you jumped from the white horses with a crazy step.
“I’ve got you,” I cried, “my friend.” And when you were the tortoise
jumping out you ran through the great hall’s court.
Unhappy Baucis, these are my laments as I cry for you deeply,
these are your footprints resting in my heart, dear girl,
still warm; but what we once loved is already ashes.
Young girls, we held our dolls in our bedrooms
like new wives, hearts unbroken. Near dawn your mother,
who handed out wool to her workers in attendance,
came in and called you to help with salted meat.
What terror the monster Mormo brought when we were both little girls:
on her head were massive ears and she walked
on four legs and kept changing her face.
But when you went to the bed of a man
you forgot all you heard from your mother while still a child,
my dear Baucis. Aphrodite filled your thoughts with forgetting.
As I weep for you now I desert your last rites,
for my feet may not leave the house and become unclean
nor is it right for me to look upon your corpse,
nor cry with my hair uncovered; but a red shame
From here an empty echo reaches into Hades.
But there is silence amongst the dead, and darkness closes their eyes.
My gravestone, my Sirens, and mourning urn,
who holds Hades’ meagre ashes,
say to those who pass by my tomb “farewell,”
both those from my town and those from other states.
Also, that this grave holds me, a bride. Say also this,
that my father called me Baucis, and that my family
was from Tenos, so that they may know, and that my friend
Erinna engraved this epitaph on my tomb.
I am the tomb of Baucis, a young bride, and as you pass
the much lamented grave-stone you may say to Hades:
“Hades, you are malicious.” When you look, the beautiful letters
will tell of the most cruel fate of Baucis,
how her father-in-law lit the girl’s funeral pyre
with the pine-torches over which Hymen sang.
And you, Hymen, changed the tuneful song of weddings
into the mournful sound of lamentation.