Early Greek Poetry - Arion
An Ancient Poet plays the Kithara - The Greek Harp - A Painting from a Vase

In ancient Greece, poets generally sang and chanted their poetry while playing the KITHARA, an  instrument depicted in this vase painting.  The seven stringed Kithara (ancestor of the guitar) was invented by the poet Terpander in the 7th century BC, however 5 stringed instruments appeared earlier.

ARION was one of the greatest poets of ancient Greece.   Born on the island of Lesvos, he lived in the 7th Century B.C.  As a young man, he was invited to Corinth, then the commercial center of the ancient Mediterranean world, where he entertained at the court of King Periander.  He later invented the "dithyramb" which led the way to Greek drama 250 years later.  His poetry does not survive the ages.  The following are fictional re-creations of his poetry.

1993

    MY HOMELAND

On the island of Lesvos

honey flows like wine in summer.

Forests and mountains grace the land.

The sea resonates the sound of waves.

Coastal rocks glisten in the sun.

Zephyrs sing music through the leaves.

Fragrances perfume the air at night.

My homeland visits me in dreams

by day and night, while I think of you, beloved.

MUSIC DRIFTS THROUGH MY MIND

As the boat curls through the sea

My journey lasts several days.

Dark blue is the water,

Sails furl in the wind

The sea is dangerous and cruel.

Many have lost their lives.

O King Neptune, grant us passage

through the islands,

May we set our feet on land.

Music drifts through the mind.

My song cannot outwit Aeolius.

ALCMAN, THE GREAT POET

The great Alcman, my teacher,

the master of all poets

possesses wisdom of the age.

A scholar, he was born a slave.

A passionate man, he never loved.

Born in Lydia, he came to Sparta

a free man in his fortieth year.

O Zeus, what he knows

would fill the heavens.

May his knowledge rain down

and shower me with brilliance.

Next to him, I know nothing.

THE RAPTURE

I sing for a choir of virgin girls

Fifty beauties dancing in a circle

Their voices sound like sea nymphs

calling in the breeze.


Dionysius brings forth purple wine.

Share the joy and get a little tipsy.

But do not touch these girls

They are so pure.

One day they will marry.

Until then Arion invites you to enjoy,

and feel the rapture of these verses.

THE ORACLE

Move graceful through the air

like seagulls along the shore,

While you dance, I dance

on the strings of my harp;

My song in purest voice

fills the hall with lyric singing.

The gods come down to Earth.

Harken to the message.

The Delphic Oracle speaks

and each must listen.

Ask your question wisely

and be prepared for answers.

Woe to the one who expects

good omens yet who knows

his heart betrays the truth.

When the Gods intone the Oracle,

receive their words with grace.

A bad omen may presage beginning

while a good one may bring darkness.

Apollo sings of love and beauty

and his father's wields his wrath.

KING PERIANDER

O Great King Periandros,

I owe allegiance to you.

As one of the wise

you bring me to the gate

of your palace

and beyond the Corinthian door. 

Your trust in me is legion

and I would ever give you my life.

Your love for music

and lust for poetry

guides my inner light.

TRITON

Out of the womb

man wanders the Earth.

Into the womb

man thrusts his seeds.

Triton rules the waves

his spear is mightier

than words of love.

If you have evil in your heart

don't go in the water.

Your blood may redden the waves.

How will you then mate

and bring children to the world?

Evil turns to stone

and goodness melts in water.

CORINTHIAN

O Corinth, O Corinth

Your treasures are known

throughout the world.

Your wealth brings good fortune

to all who engage in commerce

and enterprise.

Your painted vases

are beyond compare.

Your sailing ships

travel near and far.

Your great king speaks wisely

and he reins in that human

taste for luxury.

His taxation is fair.

Listen to his guidance

and taste the fruit of olives

delivered directly to your table

from the western regions -

Magna Graecia.

PLEASE COME TO ME NOW

O love speaks kinder than words.

My arms embrace your power.

In your grasp I am in the clutch

of gods and goddesses.

Please come to me now.

May love follow every footstep

to your presence, and O

sweet love, wherever you are

I will sweeten my way with flowers.

DRINK OF THE EARTH

Lucid are the eyes

I gaze into.

My heart wells up

and I lift out cool water

with clay pot in hands.

Come, drink the freshness

from the Earth

and let me gaze

into the heart of you.

CORINNE

Old Alcman had it right.

The Gods have power over Man.

O Aphrodite I am stung with love.

Even the bee has more

power than I.

And do I die when he stings me?

No, he is the one who dies.

Eros wields arrows of fire

and every one shreds me apart.

O Corinne, cool my brow,

it swelters in love for you.

ISLAND OF LESVOS

In my native Lesvos,

the air is thick with fruits and olives.

Myteline buzzes with action.

There is music in the streets.

Noble men and women

are benevolent.

There are no wars.

Only peace.

On the lands to the east we know

of bloodshed and conquests,

yet who will come to our island

over the water?

What navy dares conquers

a peaceful people?

We have little wealth.

Ours is an oasis of enlightenment

surrounded by a sea of antiquity.

FISH

My father is a fisherman,

we go out at night, lighting lanterns.

My mother tends the olive trees.

They must be pruned in winter.

When we return home,

our nets are filled with fresh-caught fish,

mother cooks them in olive oil.

O, how I love the flavors

all mixed in, according to the season.

I picked herbs in the countryside

yesterday - a delicacy.

My sister cut the vegetables.

Later I will pick up my lyre

and sing a hymn to the goddess

of appreciation.

The sun sets violet, red and orange.

THE DOLPHIN

Who is this creature

swum out of the blue world?

A dolphin I suppose.

But who is he?

What is he?

A fish too fast to catch.

He blows air above his head.

I hear him breathe.

He likes to play with me,

come near my side.

His skin feels so smooth.

Will he be my guide?

O  ZEUS

Winds of the sea rise up.

Whitecaps crown the waves.

Our sails whip the air fast and hard.

The boat weaves through water.

Will we outlast the storm?

Or will king Neptune claim

us for his own?

The fish dive even deeper.

We are listing awfully far.

O Zeus, save us from death

and a trip down to the netherworld.
 

PERIANDER'S OMEN

The king has returned home

after a trip to Delphi

where he consulted the Oracle.

His face is ashened, bloodless.

He possesses the look of doom.

I sing to him and play the lyre,

yet to no avail.  He will not stir.

O Periandros.  I fear the worst.

You cannot even put on a brave face.

My music does not move you.

The gods have given you bad omens.

Come, hear my words of grace.

WILL YOU BE MINE?

I have rapture on my face

when I think of you Corinne.

Your skin is more translucent

than sculptured marble.

Your eyes sparkle like the Pleiades

and your smile is radiant with sunlight.

I love you with a passion unknown

even to my song-filled heart.

Will you be mine in love?

WINE

At issue is the womb,

song of fertile Earth.

Within you we are born,

Children of the gods

and goddesses, never fear.

Bacchus comes on wings

of song to lighten our night

and fulfill our days.

Drink the wine of purple

nectars and I will dance

the dance only satyrs shine

upon their hoofs.

The flute shouts joyful songs

as we honor all virgins.

DIONYSIUS

Fifty virgins dancing in a circle

softly singing love songs

in the Lydian mode.

At the center, Dyonisius

dancing in a wild frenzy

plays the flute in ecstasy.

From the hall fifty youths

stream out in unison

and form a larger circle

outside the virgin girls.

The men move right,

The girls move left.

Dionysius raises his flute

to a higher power,

the dance quickens`

the song grows louder

until it reaches piercing shrills.

Then dies away.

All grow silent, then move away.

FOR MY LOVE

Corinne, Corinne,

I love you deeply.

Be my lover now.

I wish to hold you

in my wings

and fly you

to Apollo's world

where we shall drink

the nectar of the Gods.

Come, soar away

with me forever,

O Corinne,

my lovely Corinne.

TERPANDER - THE GREAT POET

I owe my soul to my fellow countryman

son from Lesbos - Terpandros

inventor of the choral Ode.

He influenced Alcman, my teacher

and thus me. O muse,

grant me inspiration to sing such poetry

that would bring Zeus back to Earth.
ds.

KITHARA - THE LYRE

Terpandros added three strings to the lyre

transforming four into seven.  O glory be.

Music will never be the same.

It shines forth with fresh sound and harmony

adding dimension to the song.

Terpandros, you have given us a vision

we poets, bow down our heads to you.

A LOVE SONG

I sing lyrics of great beauty,

of life, nature and the gods.

Hear my chant to you, Corinne.

mistress of my heart,

enchantress of my soul.

My harp strums golden tones

let them pierce your heart,

these arrows of love,

may they sear your skin

with my kisses.

O Corinne, I love you so.

A CHORAL ODE

Beloved one, dawn arises

with a breath of spring.

As we sleep in harmony

we awaken to a new song.

Our love is pure.

Listen to the sounds of birds.

They too sing a choral ode.

GREEN MORNING

My love, the morning is green

with the light of forest trees.

Let us go up into the mountains

and wander the streams.

The rocks speak your name

and each word is a poem

inscribed in my heart.

O Corinne, my Corinne.

MASTER FROM THE SEA

Dolphin, you saved me from death

and Triton's watery tomb.

For this I owe you my eternal gratefulness.

The greatest friendship I ever knew

lasted only for a day and night.

A dolphin saved me from a plight

that would have surely led me to death

beneath the ocean waves.

I was carried on his back safe to shore

and lived to tell the tale,

how the dolphin "Seamaster"

rescued me from fate.

All through the night we spoke in poetry.

In Greek and Dolphinese.

Don't ask me how we communicated

We simply talked and understood

each other's language by osmosis.

Now he's gone to the watery depths.

Somewhere in my mind I see him

swimming with his family,

navigating the sea, swallowing fish

and thinking still of me.

GRATITUDE TO DOLPHINS

O Pearl, Seamaster's mate,

you led us through the night,

flanked by your progeny

Target and Gull-watcher,

you brought up the rear,

protecting us from harm.

I am alive because of you.

May the sea-nymphs

ever guide you on your way.

A WARNING

The Oracle speaks.

You will go to Magna Graecia

and win the prize of prizes.

Danger lurks upon homecoming

and you must be careful.

The waters might take you.

INTO DREAMS

Artemis, sister of Apollo,

I serve you with devotion.

The mountain peaks grow dark.

The animals vanish for the night

The sea falls into slumber.

The birds quiet on their wings.

Into deep dreams I go.

Arion's paraphrase of Alcman's poem.

A FRESH MORNING

In the fresh morning we awaken

to the sound of waves crashing.

Orange blossoms perfume the air.

My love, these joyous days

inspire the muse to chant new songs.

Look!  Doves are circling overhead.

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