The Thistle with Graceful Leaves (Why Archilochus is My Favorite Rapper of the 5th century BC)
“One of the Saians now delights in the shield I discarded
Unwillingly near a bush, for it was perfectly good,
But at least I got myself safely out. Why should I care for that shield?
Let it go. Some other time I’ll find another no worse.”
— Archilochus decides that on the battlefield, discretion is the better part of valor
The Archaic Period of Ancient Greece is a little rough around the edges. Running from the 8th to the 5th centuries BC, it’s right between the mythic heroes of the Bronze Age and the polished marble columns of democracy. After this era will come the philosophy and statecraft and drama and everything we generally associate with Ancient Greece. Behind it lie raw, primordial things half-forgotten, so alien they scarcely seem Greek: snake-priestesses and god-kings in death-masks of beaten gold, rough-hewn statues with crude shapes and cryptic, glassy smiles. It was a wild time. The later Greeks plastered over this inner wildness with the veneer of civilization, like wallpaper over a discomfiting stain.
But however wild it was, the Archaic period had a literature, even if much of it is now lost or reduced to tantalizing fragments. In college, I took an amazing course on Archaic-era poetry and became captivated not only by the writing, but by the authors themselves. It seems like every poet of that era was some wild personality who would have felt at home seated at the Algonquin Round Table. Taken together, they sound something like a dysfunctional team of superheroes:
- Stesichorus, who was blinded by the gods for a poem that insulted Helen of Troy, and later had his sight restored for recanting with a second poem.
- Simonides, who developed a mental technique for enhancing the memory, which served him well during a gruesome episode where he was called upon to identify the victims of a building collapse.
- Sappho, the only widely-known female writer in Western Classics, whose beautiful love-poems were addressed to other women.
And then you have my favorite: Archilochus, the warrior-poet, who wrote about wine, war and sex with excruciating grace.
Who was Archilochus? Well, there’s very little we know for certain about him, or any of the other Archaic poets. Later writers would flesh out biographies with colorful tall tales about the lives of these early literary giants (the tallest one being that Sappho killed herself over a man), but much remains mysterious, so we must take the conventional story with a grain of salt. It runs as follows:
Archilochus came from Paros, right in the center of the swirl of rocky islets that makes up much of Greece. His father Telesicles was a priest of the goddess Demeter from a prominent family, while his mother, Enipo, was enslaved. Thus Archilochus was a social outcast, born free because of his father, but illegitimate because of his mother. With limited opportunities at home, Archilochus left Paros at a young age to become a mercenary, fighting in various conflicts between the many city-states of Greece. As Archilochus means “First Sergeant,” it was probably a nickname, common among itinerant mercenaries; one soldier buddy is named in his poetry as Glaukos, Gray Eyes.
At some point in between fighting, sailing, drinking, whoring, and general swashbuckling, Archilochus became a poet. His apparent roughness belied an uncanny way with words, a gift for elevating the basest of subject matter. Hand-to-hand combat he calls “the mournful labor of the sword.” The enthusiastic movements of a prostitute he likens to a fluttering kingfisher perched on a rock. And he writes that the island of Thasos rises from the sea “like the backbone of an ass, bristling with savage woods.” Warning a rival who has crossed him, he invokes the menace of a buzzing insect: “you have taken a cicada by the wing.” His observations about the world are as sharp as they are cynical, particularly his most famous quip: “the fox knows a thousand different tricks, but the hedgehog knows one good one.”
For all his braggadocio, Archilochus could also be surprisingly tender. His is the first-known love lyric in Greek literature: “Oh, to touch Neobule’s hand!” Yet when this same Neobule* (or her father) broke off her engagement to Archilochus, the poet slandered their whole family with polemical verses so vicious they were driven to suicide. This anecdote was repeated for centuries as the Archilochus story par excellence, testament to the shocking power of his verse and his wrath, but there is no evidence it actually happened. Not that it seems entirely out of character. By Archilochus’s own admission, he was always spoiling for a fight, a cicada about to buzz (4–5 seconds from wildin’, as it were). “I am a servant of Enyalios [Ares, god of war] and skilled in the lovely gift of the Muses,” he wrote of himself. Another self-description (albeit apocryphal) is “a loud-mouthed poet who itches for an occasion and an excuse for delivering iamboi [verses].” Archilochus was ready to defend himself, with words or fists, whichever you prefer.
A wild man in a wild time, the warrior-bard died around 450 BC, when he was no older than 35, in brawl or battle with a fellow hardened fighter who called himself Corax, The Crow (another mercenary nickname). Sometime after cutting down Archilochus with his war-axe, so the story goes, The Crow was denied service by the Oracle of Delphi, who scolded him in the divine voice of Apollo, “Get out of this temple! You slew the servant of the Muses!” So the gods recognized Archilochus’s gift, in the end, and cherished it in spite of his harsh and paradoxical nature; that strange combination of characteristics that would lead the poet Meleager to call him, long after his death, “a thistle with graceful leaves.”
Who would be the nearest equivalent to Archilochus in the modern world? Ernest Hemingway, maybe? He, too, was both a soldier and a poet, someone who died in violence but created beauty. Both men used their considerable skill at expressing a lot in a few words to glorify masculinity. Both fought in wars, and both had some deep-seated issues with women. Just the titles alone of Men Without Women and The Old Man and the Sea sound like everyday life in Ancient Greece.
But I see even more of Archilochus in modern hip-hop, especially certain male artists like Drake or The Weeknd whose lyrics also vacillate between extremes, hyper-masculine swagger shot through with tender vulnerability. Rap often touches on the same familiar masculine tropes as Archilochus: the glorification of pain-numbing substances and thought-numbing violence, the elevated meditation on the love-object juxtaposed with the dehumanization of the sex-object. (And there is plenty of sex in Archilochus; when he’s not longing to touch Neobule’s hand, his verses about prostitutes are as explicit and creatively disgusting as, say, a pre-marriage Kanye West.) Archilochus’s poetic takedown of Neobule and her family is like a diss track taken to the ultimate extreme. The longest existing Archilochus fragment describes a classic cold-blooded playboy antic (reeling from Neobule’s rejection, the poet seduces her sister), but, in true Archilochus fashion, the subject is approached with such feeling that no two translators seem to be able to agree on the tone, or whether it should be interpreted as mocking or venerating the maiden in question.**
In writing this, I’m not trying to make you like Archilochus, the man (who seems like he must have been a bit of an asshole, or at best, someone it was hard to get close to). Rather, I’m trying to explain what it is I like about his writing. On the surface, I’m an unlikely choice for Archilochus’s #1 fan. I’m gay and not traditionally masculine in the least, and I idolize strong women and femininity. I shrink from confrontation and I’ve never been in a physical fight, except for once in the third grade when I “punched a kid in the face” who was bothering me (he ran into my hand). I lean much more towards the Muses than Enyalios. So why do I have this fascination with one of Ancient Greece’s most bro-friendly poets? Why does he resonate with me more than, say, Sappho or Anacreon, who in his odes to twinks and parties and his fear of growing old was basically a walking gay male stereotype?
I think the reason I love Archilochus is that he has a unique talent for tapping into what is darkest and most beautiful in human beings; the primal bestiality that simmers inside all of us, both alluring and disturbing. This is something that the Ancient Greeks knew all about, and feared increasingly as they retreated into their own ideal of civilization. Yet there were times when they expressed this wild side under safely controlled circumstances. Built-up tension could be released in ecstatic religious rituals like the cult of Dionysus, and in venerating poets like Archilochus, whose words burn with a violent power most would rightly fear to touch. The fear, and the pull, of the wildness within, and the idea that it may lie closer to the surface than we realize, is an underpinning theme throughout Greek literature. Take for instance Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchae, which ends (spoiler alert) with a wannabe whistleblower for the feral cult of Dionysus slain by his own mother while she is under the god’s irresistible sway. I think also of a quote from Donna Tartt’s murder-among-the-Classics-majors novel The Secret History (1992), which beautifully distills this essential quality of Ancient Greek civilization, contrasting it with the Romans and their fearful suppression of chaos:
“[The Greeks] had a passion for order and symmetry, much like the Romans, but they knew how foolish it was to deny the unseen world, the old gods. Emotion, darkness, barbarism….how bloody, terrible things are sometimes the most beautiful…it’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves? Euripides speaks of the Maenads: heads thrown back, throat to the stars, ‘more like deer than human being.’ To be absolutely free!”
Archilochus’s verses have a taste of this electrifying freedom, this ultimate rush of adrenaline, which he must have felt often as someone who made a living fighting anyone he was asked to fight. In his poetry the crude becomes transcendent, the dark, desirable, the bitter, sweet (compare Sappho, who called unrequited love glukúpikron, “sweet-bitter”). Archilochus channels the force of berserker rage into the deadly saber-thrusts of a fencer, so careful and precise that they must be remarked upon for their technique, if not their intent. To images, words and concepts that you might intellectually dispute or find problematic, Archilochus gives a lingering beauty that sticks in your head. In this sense, he is very much like a darkly brooding rapper after all. Think of him as the Ancient Greek XXXTentacion. The Greeknd. The poet who best exemplifies the Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy of the Archaic Age.
* Neobule literally means “New Decision”, and could also be translated as “Fickle.” Not a real name, but a nickname indicating the woman’s character as perceived by Archilochus. He calls her father Lycambes, “Dancing Wolf.”
** Explicit as ever, Archilochus describes ejaculating (“I release my white force”) while lying in the grass with the young woman and stroking her hair, without ever entering her. Some authors think it’s meant to be funny, a ribald joke about finishing the deed too quick. Some find it repulsive and misogynistic. Others interpret this totally differently, as a serious moment between two lovers where the girl is reluctant to give up her physical virginity, so Archilochus agrees to non-penetrative sex (frottage) to preserve her reputation.
A Meditation on Archilochus P. Colon. inv. 7511
He still thinks about her.
He thinks about her when he drinks. When Gray Eyes talks about his wife back in Patmos or some fucking place. He thinks about her when he pays for a woman, and when he doesn’t. When the sun shines on the water and he has to squint, he remembers how she shielded her eyes from the sun the last time he saw her, by lifting the edge of her veil.
He had crushed that veil in his fingers that day. How he had savored it.
Not her, the girl he was supposed to marry. Now she’s dead he hardly thinks of her at all anymore. But he thinks about the other one. The sister.
…I said no more but laid her down in the flowers, draping her with my cloak, wrapping my arms around her…
He turned it into a poem hoping to push it out of himself, like pushing out an arrow through its entry-point. He wanted to be rid of it. But the poem didn’t help him forget; it helped him remember.
…she was as a fawn…
If only she hadn’t died. He hadn’t bargained on her dying. But death was the only thing cheaper than life. He’d meet another girl tomorrow. Then why was he still thinking about that afternoon in the grass, with the sun overhead and her afraid and him comforting her, caressing her?
Leaving her. Killing her.
It wasn’t his fault. How was he supposed to know the damn songs would become so popular? It was nonsense between friends, ribald joking around the barracks. It felt good to let it out. But then the insults piled on, worse and worse. It became a game, who could say the worst about her, about her lying wolf of a father.
He was in a tavern when he first heard the news. He’d said “Hmmph,” to himself and got on with his wine. It had felt proper. Just, even. He had left an offering to Nemesis. But then he heard the father was dead too. And the sisters, all of them, hanging in the sun like cuttlefish drying. Like Penelope’s brace of lying maids, who let their mistress’s suitors warm their beds while hers was cold with duty, every night for twenty years.
He hasn’t slept well since then. Now the Muses keep him up at night, and the Lord of Mud and Blood rules his day.
…I came with my fingers knotted in her hair…