Monday, January 11, 2016

TFBT: Posidippus Epigram 55

I am a little disappointed in Professor Nagy’s latest “Classical Inquiries”  Posidippus Epigram 55  According to Nagy this epigram is about a girl named Nikomakhe who dies unwed. Nagy’s translates the opening of the poem as follows:  

Everything about Nikomakhe, all her pretty things and, come dawn, as the sound of the weaving pin is heard, all of Sappho’s love songs, songs sung one after the next, are all gone, carried away by fate, all too soon, and the poor girl  is lamented by the city of the Argives…But then, ah, there came the time when all her would-be husbands, pursuing her, got left behind, with cold beds for them to sleep in.” 

(I removed the required line about the local goddess raising the young person in question like a tender sapling.)   My disappointment with Nagy’s interpretation is that it is so specific that I found it unsatisfying.  I thought the purpose of poetry was to have several layers of meaning.  After all didn’t her mother Demeter loudly lament the wedding of Persephone to Lord Hades?  Can’t the Argive’s likewise lament the loss of their daughters when “carried away” by their husbands?  Can’t the age-group maiden’s lament the disappearance of their numbers one after the next as they are taken to their husbands’ homes? Can’t Nikomakhe and the Argives dread her becoming a spinster?  Only to leave behind all the would-be husbands when carried away by her own husband.  Here is another layer of meaning to the poem that should be addressed in any interpretation.  Maybe it is obvious  to people smarter than I and that’s why it was included.   

The phrase “weaving pin” is now the one used by Nagy instead of ‘weaving shuttle’ thanks to a friend.  The reason for the change should have been in the footnotes instead of taking up so many inches in the paper.   

After his new found insights on weaving pins, Nagy compares “weaving pins” to swallows at dawn.  [i]I expected at this point a discussion about how the battle before Troy stops when Helen stops weaving about it (Iliad 3.151-154).   Or how as long as Penelope day by day  wove Laertes’ shroud, and then by night would unravel it[ii]…Odysseus could not come home and the moment she finished he arrived at her front door.  Surely comparing the actions of young maidens to the dancing swallows that summon the sun, should have given rise to notions about the Fates weaving the fabric of destiny. [iii]  Disappointingly Nagy does not address this traditional interpretation of woman weaving either.

 Somewhat confused the intent of the rest of the paper slipped away from me.  I’m disappointed I am not smart enough to grasp the technicalities of this paper. 

[i] (Antipater of Sidon Greek Anthology 6.160.1–2  & Philippos Greek Anthology 6.247.1) 
[ii] Od. 19. 149)  
[iii] Greek Lyric V Anonymous, Fragments 1018 (from Stobaeus, Anthology) (trans. Campbell) :


  1. Generally, I agree with Prof. Nagy that the text is definitely about death. For me, no alternative interpretation can be convincing. The line you omitted, about "goddess Hera, who cradled her in her arms", reminded me about a Scottish verse lamenting an early death: "Out of God's hand into the hand of God."

    However, I agree with you that the weaving hints at the unseen, all-powerful entities that were weaving the thread of Nikomakhe's life, and have now decided to cut it.

  2. Maya,

    Thanks for sharing your opinion on this, "...the text is definitely about death For me, no alternative interpretation can be convincing." There is a certain poetry in words there.


  3. Thank you!
    That same line about Nikomache "raised by the goddess Hera, who cradled her in her arms like a tender seedling" reminds me of Thetis talking about Achilles: "He shot up like a young tree, and I nurtured him... but I shall never again receive him won home."

  4. OT: Did you on purpose include the answer in one of the questions in your quiz (about the Heliades' mother)?

    1. Maya,

      No I did not desire to deliver a "little hint". Think that's why no one missed that one? Ha, ha! Thanks