No one knows who wrote these poems. The poem said to be by Sappho survives only because it was quoted by a tutor of the Roman emperor 800 years after the poet died. In “Liar,” Archilochos may be cursing the father of his former fiancée. The old man canceled the engagement, the story goes, because the poet’s mother was a slave. On the other hand, Archilochos may not have written it.
All that remains are a few lines on a tattered shred of papyrus, a fragment with no title and no author’s name. The whole poem may have existed in countless manuscripts all over ancient Greece, but what we have of it survives because it was used as mummy-cloth in a burial ground near the Nile. After the destruction of the great classical libraries, the poem drifted out of existence for 2000 years, as did most poetry of that world forever.
The marks on that mummy-cloth must have been made hundreds of years after the poet died. The Greeks had conquered the world they knew in the meantime; Rome conquered almost everything that had been Greek; and then Rome fell. Christian and Islamic cultures came into being. Old worlds vanished. New worlds took shape everywhere, new languages and up-to-date technologies.
But the art of writing remains to me the most uncanny technology of all time—letters of an ancient alphabet on mummy-cloth under the desert sand, in their fidelity to a poet’s momentary love or rage, like the magnetic signature of a millennial tape recording, unearthed one hundred years ago, and popped again into the player of the literate mind.
Archilochos, 7th-century BCE
Swept overboard, unconscious in the breakers,
strangled with seaweed, may you wake up in a gelid
surf, your teeth, already cracked into the shingle,
now set rattling by the wind, while face-down,
helpless as a poisoned cur, on all fours you puke
brine reeking of dead fish. May those you meet,
barbarians as ugly as their souls are hateful,
treat you to the moldy wooden bread of slaves.
And may you, with your split teeth sunk in that,
smile, then, the way you did when speaking as my friend.
From Papyri Oxyrhyncus
Possibly Alkman, 7th-century BCE
We, who come among the dead as far
as to the very Goddess, nine girls,
maidens, lovely in our dancing,
in bright loveliness of folded
woven-work, with fine-sawn necklaces
of ivory, shine, brilliant
to the dead eye as forgotten daylight.
Message From the Court of Apollo
Anonymous, 4th-century CE
Tell your king, the sculpted walls lie fallen
in the dust. The lord of prophecy, Apollo,
keeps no shelter here, no laurel, and no priest.
No longer does the fountain in the courtyard speak.
Even the waters left here, whispering into the sun.
Anakreoteia, date uncertain
Black earth drinks.
Trees drink from it.
The sea drinks rivers
and the sun the sea.
I saw an old moon
drink the sun. Still
my friends say, Fight
your thirst. And I do
what I can: I drink.
Anakreonteia, date uncertain
People like to think of you, cicada,
when you sing down from the treetop,
having sipped the clear dew,
happy, high, and full of music
as a king, that you speak praise
of everything you see, the farms,
the woods, and under you the farmer,
grateful that you damage nothing,
holds this prophecy in honor,
portent of the summer fruit.
Even the Muses love your voice,
vibrating, as if out of the sun itself.
And old age never comes to you,
but only the earthborn wisdom
of your song, no hint of suffering,
or of the blood of passion, spirit,
we say, almost equal to the gods’.
Sappho; less often attributed to Alkaios, 7th-century BCE
In ancient Crete around Love’s altar where the delicate
grasses flowered graceful women with a quickening
of soft footsteps kept time in the choral dance.
Fragment From Papyri Oxyrhncus
Alkaios, 7th-century BCE
All … demolish … burn …
I gain control … I suffer …
shameful … O! [a person’s name?] …
Of uncertain date and place
Everything is laughter and unthinkable dust.
Out of nothing without reason comes what is.