an apple on a high branch (Sappho)

This fragment from Sappho is an epithalamium, a poem for a bride on her wedding-day, to be sung praise of her by the bridesmaids.

οἶον τὸ γλυκύμαλον ἐρεύθεται ἄκρῳ ἐπ’ ὔσδῳ,
ἄκρον ἐπ’ ἀκροτάτῳ· λελάθοντο δὲ μαλοδρόπηες,
οὐ μὰν ἐκλελάθοντ’, ἀλλ’ οὐκ ἐδύναντ’ ἐπίκεσθαι.

1 οἶον = οἷον—γλυκύ|μᾱλον ‘sweet apple’ (Ionic-Attic μῆλον, Latin mālum ‘apple’)—ἐρεύθομαι ‘redden, become red’—ὔσδῳ = ὄζῳ dat sg ὄζος ‘branch, bough, twig.’
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Homeric Greek πέλωρ ‘monster’

One of my favorite words is τὸ πέλωρ. The first of its two occurrences in the Odyssey is in apposition to Κύκλωψ ‘Cyclops’ (referring to Polyphemus, the only such creature with which Odysseus comes into contact):


“τοὺς ἀκέων συνέεργον ἐυστρεφέεσσι λύγοισιν,
τῇς ἔπι Κύκλωψ εὗδε πέλωρ, ἀθεμίστια εἰδώς,
σύντρεις αἰνύμενος”

“Without speaking, I fastened [the rams] together with well-twisted osier-twigs,
on which the Cyclops—the monster, expert in lawlessness—slept,
taking them three at a time” (Od. 9.427–429)

The other occurrence is of a creature no less deserving:

Scylla attacking Olysseus's ship

“ἔνθα δ᾽ ἐνὶ Σκύλλη ναίει δεινὸν λελακυῖα. 85
τῆς ἦ τοι φωνὴ μὲν ὅση σκύλακος νεογιλῆς
γίγνεται, αὐτὴ δ᾽ αὖτε πέλωρ κακόν· οὐδέ κέ τίς μιν
γηθήσειεν ἰδών, οὐδ᾽ εἰ θεὸς ἀντιάσειεν.”

Scylla dwells in there, shrieking awfully. 85
Her voice is like that of a new-born puppy,
though she herself is an evil monster; nobody would laugh
upon seeing her, not if it were a god coming face-to-face with her.” (Od. 12.85–88)

But the sole use of πέλωρ in the Iliad makes a curious departure from the image of man-killing creatures who do not abide by the laws set by the gods.


ἦ, καὶ ἀπ᾽ ἀκμοθέτοιο πέλωρ αἴητον ἀνέστη
χωλεύων· ὑπὸ δὲ κνῆμαι ῥώοντο ἀραιαί.

[Hephaestus] spoke, and the terrible monster rose from his anvil,
limping; his frail legs hastened underneath him. (Il. 18.10–11)

The god of the forge, Hephaestus, is rising to greet Thetis, the mother of Achilles, who will ask him to make a shield for her son. Hephaestus is famously lame in both feet, ever since an unfortunate event in his past. He limps everywhere, unable to walk in a normal manner, and is frequently the butt of the other gods’ jokes because of this. In these lines we get a cartoon-like portrayal of Hephaestus, with his legs (technically, his κνῆμαι ‘lower legs’; cf. κνημῖδες ‘greaves‘) fluttering about in frantic circuits only to convey him across the room at an unremarkable pace. Whether or not we are to understand πέλωρ αἴητον ‘terrible monster’ as being ironic for so unthreatening a character, it is worth asking whether it is Hephaestus’ disability, his deviation from what is considered normal physiology, that licenses this use of πέλωρ.

Beyond the noun, its derived adjectives πέλωρος and πελώριος are applied to creatures, gods (Hades, Ares), heroes (Ajax, Hector, and Achilles), and things that are inhuman or prodigious in some way, or deviate majorly from what is considered to be normal for a human.

A derived noun πελωρίᾱ yields the term ‘peloria‘ in modern botany, denoting an aberrant type of floral growth.

The word πέλωρ itself is, like a sizable minority of the Homeric vocabulary, taken from the Aeolic dialect. Evidencing this fact is an Attic-Ionic cognate τέλωρ that apparently existed as well. Just like the first sound in Aeolic πίσυρες ‘four’ (Ionic τέσσαρες and Attic τέτταρες), the first consonant of πέλωρ/τέλωρ goes back to Proto-Indo-European *kʷ-. (Aeolic lacks the Attic-Ionic exception where *kʷ becomes *t, not *p, before a front vowel.) The second consonant is the result of dissimilation from final ρ; the reconstructed form for Aeolic πέλωρ is therefore *kʷér-ōr-, built on the well-attested root *kʷer- ‘do, make, build.’

A second Greek word from this same root is τὸ τέρας ‘sign, portent’ < PIE *kʷér-h̥2s-. Whatever the connection between this term and the PIE sense of ‘make, do,’ it is worth pointing out that ‘portent, omen’ is a common first step in the semantic evolution of words meaning ‘monster’; cf. Latin monstro ‘show, point out’ and monstrum ‘sign, omen; monster, monstrosity’ (for the former semantics of monstrum cf. German Muster and Dutch monster, both ‘sample, template’; also English pass muster = “be deemed satisfactory according to a standard”); also, perhaps, δράκων ‘dragon, serpent’ from the zero-grade of the same root as δέρκομαι ‘see, behold.’

What is the semantic connection between *kʷer- ‘make’—whence Sanskrit कृणोति kṛṇoti ‘do,’ कर्म karma ‘deed’; Persian كردن kærdæn ‘do,’ كار kār ‘work’; Old Irish cruth ‘form, shape’—and πέλωρ, which so often is best translated ‘monster, prodigy’?  (*kʷer- is apparently also the root underlying such Balto-Slavic words as Lithuanian kẽras ‘sorcery,’ Polish czar ‘magic, spell,’ Russian чары ‘spells, charms.’) Perhaps the meaning of τέρας ‘portent’ was chronologically intermediate, following ‘something made (by a god?)’ but preceding ‘monster’?

“Who, O Sappho, does you wrong?”

(Featured image: Sappho and Alcaeus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema)

Fragment 1, Sappho’s best-known and most complete work in our possession, is an urgent prayer to Aphrodite that the goddess might use her famous charms to reciprocate an unrequited love.

Sappho 1 painted on Tara’s back in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Sapphic stanza: ¯ ˘ ¯ x ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ ¯ (3x)
¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ¯

Ποικιλόθρον’ ἀθάνατ’ Ἀφρόδιτα,
παῖ Δίος, δολόπλοκε, λίσσομαί σε,
μή μ’ ἄσαισι μηδ’ ὀνίαισι δάμνα,
πότνια, θῦμον,

1   ποικιλόθρον[ε] ποικιλό|θρονος voc sg fem ‘[one with a] multicolored (ποικίλος) throne (θρόνος),’ an exocentric compound adjective; but Ann Carson reads this word as ποικίλοφρον (voc. of ποικιλόφρων) ‘with a spangled (ποικίλος) mind (φρήν)’—Ἀφρόδιτα is the Aeolic vocative of Ἀφροδίτᾱ ‘Aphrodite’

2   Δίος Ζεύς gen sg; here and elsewhere note the recessive accent characteristic of this dialect; Attic and Ionic have Διός—δολόπλοκε δολό|πλοκος voc sg fem ‘weaver (πλοκός, from πλέκω ‘weave’) of wiles (δόλος)’

3   ἀσαισι ἄσᾱ dat pl ‘vexations’—ὀνίαισι ὀνίᾱ dat pl = ἀνίη ‘sorrows’—δάμνα δαμνάω imperat ‘overpower’

4   θῦμον = θυμόν, an accusative of respect

ἀλλὰ τυῖδ’ ἔλθ’, αἴ ποτα κἀτέρωτα 5
τᾶς ἔμας αὔδως ἀίοισα πήλυι
ἔκλυες, πάτρος δὲ δόμον λίποισα
χρύσιον ἦλθες

5   τυῖδ[ε] ‘to here, hither’ (Aeolic)—αἴ ποτα = εἴ ποτε—κἀτέρωτα = καὶ ἀτέρωτα ‘also at another time’  = ‘also at a previous time’

6   τᾶς ἔμας αὔδως = τῆς ἐμῆς αὐδῆς—ἀίοισα = ἀίουσα αἰω fem pres part ‘hearing,’ taking genitive object τᾶς ἔμας αὔδωςπήλυι = τηλοῦ ‘far away’

7   λίποισα = λιποῦσα λείπω fem aor part

8   χρύσιον ambiguous as to whether it agrees with l. 7 δόμον or l. ἄρμ[α]; the latter seems better

ἄρμ’ ὐπασδεύξαισα· κάλοι δέ σ’ ἆγον
ὤκεες στροῦθοι περὶ γᾶς μελαίνας 10
πύκνα δίννηντες πτέρ’ ἀπ’ ὠράνω αἴθε-
ρος διὰ μέσσω.

9   ὐπασδεύξαισα = ὑποζεύξασα ὑπο-ζεύγνυμι ‘put under the yoke’—ἆγον = ἦγον ἄγω 3 pl imperf

10   στροῦθοι = στρουθοί ‘sparrows’—περὶ γᾶς μελαίνας = ὑπὲρ γῆς μελαίνης

11   πύκνα ‘close-packed; numerous’—δἰννηντες pres part ‘whirling, spinning’—ὠράνω = οὐρανοῦ; earlier *εhε and *οhο contract into η and ω, not ει and ου, respectively (cf. the present active infinitive ending in l. 19 ἄγην)

αἶψα δ’ ἐξίκοντο· σὺ δ’, ὦ μάκαιρα,
μειδιάσαισ’ ἀθανάτῳ προσώπῳ
ἤρε’, ὄττι δηὖτε πέπονθα κὤττι 15
δηὖτε κάλημι,

15   ἤρε[ο] = ἤρεο 2 sg aor mid ‘asked’—ὄττι ‘what (indirect question)’; this begins the threefold line of indirect questioning, which becomes direct in l. 18)—δηὖτε = δὴ αὖτε ‘now, this time’—πέπονθα πάσχω 1 sg perf ‘I have undergone’; note the switch to present-tense (well, present perfect) here and in l. 16 κάλημι and in l. θέλω to make the dialogue sound more immediate—κὤττι = καὶ ὄττι

16   κάλημι = καλέω; verbs in -άω, -έω, -όω tend to be -μι verbs in Aeolic; cf. l. 20 ἀδίκησι

κὤττι μοι μάλιστα θέλω γένεσθαι
μαινόλᾳ θύμῳ· ‘τίνα δηὖτε Πείθω
μαῖσ’ ἄγην ἐς σὰν φιλότατα, τίς σ’, ὦ
Ψάπφ’, ἀδίκησι; 20

17   γένεσθαι = γενέσθαι, an aorist infinitive with recessive accent

18   μαινόλᾳ μαινόλης ‘raving, frenzied’; technically a noun, but here in apposition to θύμῳ—ΠείθωPersuasion’; accusative subject of infinitive l. 19 ἄγην and the object of μαῖσαι; “Whom do you now want Persuasion to bring … ?”

19   μαῖσ[αι] μάομαι 2 sg ‘desire’—ἄγην = ἄγειν—ἐς σὰν φιλότατα lit. ‘into your love’ = ‘into loving you’

20   Ψάπφ[α] Ψάπφω voc; the narrator is Sappho herself—ἀδίκησι = ἀδικεῖ ‘does wrong to’

καὶ γὰρ αἰ φεύγει, ταχέως διώξει,
αἰ δὲ δῶρα μὴ δέκετ’ ἀλλὰ δώσει,
αἰ δὲ μὴ φίλει, ταχέως φιλήσει
κωὐκ ἐθέλοισα.’

21   διώξει διώκω 3 sg fut ‘follow’

24   κωὐκ = καὶ οὐκ—ἐθέλοισα = ἐθέλουσα; this is the only word in the poem that explicitly identifies Sappho’s beloved as female (note that the masculine participle ἐθέλων would not fit the meter)

ἔλθε μοι καὶ νῦν, χαλέπαν δὲ λῦσον 25
ἐκ μερίμναν, ὄσσα δέ μοι τέλεσσαι
θῦμος ἰμέρρει, τέλεσον· σὺ δ’ αὔτα
σύμμαχος ἔσσο.

25   χαλέπαν is an Aeolic 1st-declension genitive plural, like l. 26 μερίμναν

26   μερίμναν gen pl ‘cares, thoughts’—ὄσσα ‘as much as …’ = ‘whatever …’; its correlative τόσσα is implied with l. 27 τέλεσον

27   ἰμέρρει = ἱμείρει ‘longs for, desires’

28   σύμμαχος ‘ally, co-fighter’—ἔσσο εἶναι 2 sg pres imper ‘be!’; for the deponent morphology, cf. also the future ἔσεσθαι

And now, a treat for making it to the end of the poem (or at least for mousing down to my translation). Here is a enthralling rendition of Sappho 1, with music and in a solid reconstructed pronunciation. The faithfulness to the meter of the poem, on the part of both the singer and the guitarist, is impressive and refreshing. I cannot speak to the authenticity of the melodies; reconstruction of ancient music is something I have great curiosity about but have not spent a substantial amount of time looking into. I would be very interested to know how the music was put together.

Fragment 1 (Sappho)

Immortal Aphrodite of the pied throne,
child of Zeus, weaver of wiles, I entreat you—
do not overwhelm me with vexations and sorrows,
Lady, in my mind;

Rather, come hither, if ever once before 5
you—listening to my voice from afar—
heard me, and you left your father’s house
and came, yoking

your golden chariot; lovely ones led you,
swift sparrows, over the black earth, 10
whirling their many wings, out of the sky through
the middle of the air.

They arrived immediately; and you, O blessed one,
smiling with your deathless countenance,
asked what I have undergone this time and why 15
I call this time

and what it is that I most wish to happen
in my raving heart; “Whom this time do you wish Persuasion
to lead into loving you? Who, O
Sappho, wrongs you? 20

For even if she flees, she will soon follow you,
and if she does not receive your gifts, she will give to you,
and if she does not love you, she will soon love,
even unwillingly.”

Come to me even now, and release me from grievous 25
thoughts, and whatever my heart wishes you
to do for me, do it; and you yourself
do be my ally.

Fragment 4 (Sappho)

Ἄστερες μὲν ἀμφὶ κάλαν σελάνναν
ἂψ ἀπυκρύπτοισι φάεννον εἶδος,
ὄπποτα πλήθοισα μάλιστα λάμπῃ
  γᾶν ἐπὶ παῖσαν
… ἀργυρία … 5

Sapphic stanza: ¯ ˘ ¯ x ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ ¯ (3x)
         ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ¯

1   κάλαν ‘beautiful, lovely’; Aeolic for καλήν—σελάνναν ‘moon’; Aeolic for σελήνην

2   ἄψ (adverb) ‘back’—ἀπυκρύπτοισι (ἀπο-κρύπτω 3pl present active indicative) ‘conceal, keep hidden, hold back’; Aeolic for ἀπο-κρύπτουσι; the Aeolic resolution of palatalized *-ntˢ- always results in loss of *n with compensation in a true diphthong whose offglide element is ι (cf. also l. 3 πλήθοισα < *-ontˢya and l. 4 παῖσαν < *-antˢyan)—φάεννον ‘radiant, shining’; Aeolic for φαεινός—εἶδος (neut. accusative singular) ‘form, appearance’

3   ὄπποτα ‘whenever’; Aeolic for ὅποτε—πλήθοισα (πλήθω present participle fem. nominative singular) ‘being full’ = ‘full’; Aeolic for πλήθουσα—μάλιστα (adverb) ‘the most’; take this with πλήθοισα—λάμπῃ (λάμπω 3sg present subjunctive) ‘give light, shine’; its subject is πλήθοισα [σελάννα]

4   γᾶν (γή accusative singular) ‘earth’; Aeolic for γῆν—παῖσαν (πᾶς fem. accusative singular) ‘all, entire’; Aeolic for πᾶσαν

5   ἀργυρία (fem. singular) ‘silvery’; cf. Ionic ἀργυρέη

The stars, around the lovely moon,
hold back their brilliant appearance
whenever she shines at her fullest
 upon all the earth
… silvery … 5

(Detail from Night Landscape by Natalia Basova)

gone under is the moon (Sappho)

Δέδυκε μὲν ἀ σελάννα
καὶ Πληίαδες· μέσαι δὲ
νύκτες, παρὰ δ’ ἔρχετ’ ὤρα·
ἔγω δὲ μόνα κατεύδω.

Hagesichorian meter: × ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ ¯

Look for some of the major features of Sappho’s Aeolic dialect:

  • psilosis (ψίλωσις)—i.e. the “rough breathing” has been lost
  • recessive accent—the accent moves as far leftward in the word as is allowed
  • retention of long α, which becomes η in Attic and Ionic

At some point in the future I will upload a basic introduction to the Aeolic dialect, which will go into some depth about the phonological and morphological features of this dialect as compared to the perhaps more familiar Attic-Ionic dialects, and I will look a bit into the historical processes underlying these differences.

Also note that μέσαι νύκτες (sc. εἰσί) does not refer to nights that are in the middle, but rather to the middle parts of the night. This is the same syntactic phenomenon found in e.g. in medias res, which means not “into the events that are in the middle” but “into the middle of events.”

Gone under is the moon
and the Pleiades, it is the middle
of the night, the hour passes by,
and I am sleeping alone.

The first two lines of the Greek contain a minor disagreement between the singular verb δέδυκε ‘has gone down’ and what eventually turns out to be a plural subject ἀ σελάννα … καὶ Πληίαδες ‘the moon … and the Pleiades,’ where the latter are something of an afterthought. I have preserved this incongruity in translating it, although a different way of handling this would have been a parenthetical “the Pleiades, as well.”

(Photo by lillie kate)

Fragment 102 (Sappho)

Γλύκηα μᾶτερ, οὔ τοι δύναμαι κρέκην τὸν ἴστον
πόθ δάμεισα παῖδος ϝραδίναν δι’ Ἀφροδίταν.

Meter: ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ ¯ | ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ ¯

γλύκηα (γλυκύς fem. vocative singular) ‘sweet’—in Attic or Ionic we would find γλυκεῖα, both of these reflect earlier *glukéwya, an innovative feminine form of *glukús (since u-stems did not originally distinguish masculine and feminine)—μᾶτερ (μήτηρ vocative singular) ‘mother!’—here we see *ā (Proto-Indo-European *eh₂) preserved, where it has become η in Ionic and Attic. Look for this conservative feature elsewhere in this fragment!—τοι here is the ethical dative of the pronoun σύ.—κρέκην ‘to weave’ is an Aeolic present infinitive, equivalent to Attic-Ionic infinitives in -ειν.—ἴστον ‘loom’; this word (ἱστός in Attic-Ionic) is from *sistós ‘propped up,’ related to the verb ἵστημι. Note the absence of the rough breathing in Aeolic.

In translating κρέκην τὸν ἴστον we may better render the verb as “work” or “ply,” to preserve its transitive nature with respect to “loom”; in English one weaves at a loom, which does not quite capture the sense of the Greek direct object.

δάμεισα (= δαμεῖσα) is the aorist passive participle of δαμάζω: ‘conquered’ or ‘overcome’; this root (PIE *demh₂- ‘build, domesticate’) also underlies tame—The narrator is overcome by πόθος ‘yearning, longing’ for παῖδος ‘boy, child.’ Note that παῖς does not unambiguously refer to a male person.—ϝραδίνν δι’ Ἀφροδίτν—the preposition διά conveys personal agency; “slender Aphrodite” has conquered the narrator, with πόθος as her instrument.

Sweet mother, I just can’t work the loom,
overcome with yearning for the boy because of slender Aphrodite.