Alkman of Sparta, c. 600 BCE
In modern history's common version of the rivalry between Sparta and Athens, the aristocratic communists whose land armies defeated the democratic oligarchs tend to be made the villains. See Raynor's note about the freedoms of Spartan women for a healthy antidote to this hasty dismissal of Spartan culture. Spartan women also competed openly with Spartan men in athletic competitions, apparently successfully, as opposed to the male-only "Olympic" model which we have inherited based on our emulation of Athenian models. Just think what difference it would have made had the signers of the Constitution embraced Sparta's culture more than that of Athens! Notes on individual poems follow.
1) #1 is a comparatively recent discovery from the papyrus scrolls found at Oxyrynchus in Egypt. It is a parthenion or song for girl's chorus. The modern female vocal ensemble strongly resembles this form. Are there any modern events which this poem resembles?
2) #1is written using a "persona" or mask, that of a female singer. See the "I" reference in #1's line 85. Can you tell the gender of the persona in #2? What role does the adoption of a persona, another "identity," play in the creative process producing these two poems?
3) Compare Alkman's description of desire in #6 with the erotic sequence by Archilochus (#15-20). Do you see differences between the ways they evoke the feeling? One might assume that, if all males share the same anatomy and basic psychological makeup, their experiences of desire might be strongly alike. What are some ways we might explain how the creative products of these two male poets differ in this respect? What might this suggest about women poets' potential variety of experience?
4) One way poets learn to stimulate their creativity is by imitation of other poets' work. They let the form of the previous poem direct their thoughts, filling it with new content that follows the same basic sentence structure of the model. It's like a scuptor learning technique by running her fingers over the shapes of a statue. Look at the form of #7. Could you create a similar evocation of some natural state (or even the same one, "nature asleep") using differing examples that provide the same wide-ranging yet compact survey of the cosmos? What does it feel like to let your mind follow the creative rhythms of a Spartan poet who has been dead for 2600 years?
For Paul Halsall's excellent compilation of web sites and documents devoted to the study of ancient Greek culture, click here.