From THE AITIA
Callimachus came from the Creek city of Cyrene in what is
now Libya to Alexandria, where King Ptolemy II of Egypt assigned him
the lob of making a catalogue of the great library; when complete, it
ran to 120 volumes. But Callimachus was also a poet, and an
influential one. The Roman poets of the first century B.C. all
expressed their indebtedness to him.
The Aitia (literally, Causes) was one of Callimachus' major works. It was some 7,000 lines long, and explored the mythic origins ("causes") of contemporary customs and religious rites. We have only fragments of it, most of them on scraps of papyrus from Egypt but it is clear that the length of the poem does not violate the Callilnachean program of keeping poems short, since the Aitia consists of a large number of different stories, none of them told at great length.
The "Prologue" is a programmatic poem written for a second
edition of the Aitia. Like much Alexandrian poetry, it
is packed with literary allusions, some of them no longer fully clear
to us. Demeter's Cornucopia is possibly a long poem by
Philetas of Cos that is contrasted unfavorably with his shorter
poems, and the "fat Lady poem" may be a reference to
Mimnermus' Nanno, a long poem that, again, is dismissed
in favor ofhis shorter efforts. (Hardly any of the work of these two
poets has survived) The flight of the cranes (a reference to Homer)
and the long shots of the Massagetae (a reference to Herodotus?) are
two images for long poems, anda parasang (as anyone
knows who was draggedata slow pace through Xenophon's
Anabasis at school) is a Persian measure of distance, about
three and one-third miles.
The malignant gnomes who write reviews in Rhodes
are muttering about my poetry again
tone-deaf ignoramuses out of touch with the Muse-
because I have not consummated a continuous epic
of thousands of lines on heroes and lords
but turn out minor texts as if I were a child
although my decades of years are substantial.
To which brood of cirrhotic adepts
I, Callimachus, thus:
A few distichs in the pan outweigh Demeter's Cornucopia,
and Mimnermos is sweet for a few subtle lines,
not that fat Lady poem. Let "cranes fly south to Egypt"
when they lust for pygmy blood,
and "the Massigetai arch arrows long distance"
to lodge in a Mede,
but nightingales are honey-pale
and small poems are sweet.
So evaporate, Green-Eyed Monsters,
or learn to judge poems by the critic's art
instead of by the parasang,
and don't snoop around here for a poem that rumbles:
not I but Zeus owns the thunder.
When I first put a tablet on my knees, the Wolf-God
Apollo appeared and said:
"Fatten your animal for sacrifice, poet,
but keep your muse slender."
"follow trails unrutted by wagons,
don't drive your chariot down public highways,
but keep to the back roads though the going is narrow,
We are the poets for those who love
the cricket's high chirping, not the noise of the jackass."
A long-eared bray for others, for me delicate wings,
dewsip in old age and bright air for food,
mortality dropping from me like Sicily shifting
its triangular mass from Enkelados' chest.
No nemesis here:
the Muses do not desert the gray heads
of those on whose childhood
their glance once brightened.
Translated by Stanley Lombardo and Diane Rayor
THE BLINDING OF TIRESIAS
The Fifth Hymn of Callimachus, "The Bath of Pallas," is a
fictional recreation of a ritual enacted att Argos, the bath of the
statue of Athena. There was a similar ceremony at Athens, the
Plynteria, literally, "Washing," for Athens' patron divinity
Pallas Athena. The statue was taken down to the sea and washed (as in
Euripides' play Iphigenia in Tauris). Here the voice,
presumably that of a priestess of the goddess, addresses the women
engaged in the ceremony- 'My dears "-and tells the story of the
blinding of Tir esias, who saw Athena naked as she bathed in the
waters of the spring Hippocrene on Mount Helicon. To see a goddess
naked was a great misfortune. Actaeon, the great hunter and favorite
of the goddess Artemis, saw the goddess bathing in a stream; she
drove his hounds mad and they tore their master to pieces.
There was a time in Thebes, my dears,
Athena loved a nymph, loved her to distraction,
loved her more than any other, the mother
of Tiresias, Khiriklo by name.
And they were always together: when Athena
drove her horses to ancient Thespiai
or to Plataja or Haliartos,
riding through the farmlands of Boiotia,
or on to Koroneia, where her grove is heavy
with incense, and her altars lie close
to the river Kurialos, it was goddess and nymph
in one chariot together.
No party or dance was ever complete
without Khariklo there: then it was sweet.
But even for Khariklo there were tears in store,
dear as she was to Athena's heart.
One day these two unbuckled their robes.
It was by Horse Spring, on Helikon,
and the two were bathing in the beautiful creek.
It was noon on the hill, dead calm, silent heat,
and they were bathing together. High noon. The hillside
was steeped in awesome quiet,
and Tiresias was hunting, alone with his dogs,
roaming that eerie hill.
He was young,
just bearded. Dry thirst led him down to the creek.
And he stumbled upon the forbidden scene.
Controlling her anger, Athena spoke evenly:
"Some god-which one, son of Everes?-
has led you a rough road
with an eyeless return."
And with her words night took the boy's eyes.
He stood there, speechless, pain gluing his knees,
his voice paralyzed with shock. But the nymph screamed:
"What have you done to my boy?
Is this how goddesses
show their friendship?
You've blinded him! 0 my poor baby,
you've seen the breast and thighs
of Pallas Athena
but never the sunlight again.
Mountain of my sorrow, 0 Helikon,
never will I set foot on you again.
You trade too hard,
my son's eyes for a few roe and deer!"
As she said this she cradled her son in her arms,
mourning over him like a nightingale,
and led him away. But the goddess Athena
pitied her friend and said this to her:
"You've spoken in anger, divine woman. Take back your words.
It was not I who struck your son blind.
Putting out your eyes is not sweet to Athena,
but the laws of Kronos demand
that whoever sees an immortal against the god's will
must pay for the sight, and pay dearly.
What is done, divine woman, cannot be undone;
this is the thread the Moirai spun
when you brought him to light. Now, son of Everes,
accept like a man what is only your due.
How many sacrifices would Autonoe burn,
how many would Aristasios, her husband,
to see their son Aktaion merely go blind?
He will run in the company of great Artemis,
but neither their hunts in the hills together
nor all of the arrows they'll shoot
will save him when he sees the bath of the goddess,
not wanting to, mind you, but still his hounds
will chew their master to bits, and his mother will gather
his bones from bushes all over the hill.
She will think you lucky and a fortunate woman
to have your son home from the hills only blind.
"You mustn't grieve so, darling. Your son will be honored,
all for your sake, by divine gift to him.
I'll make him a prophet, his fame will be mythic,
the greatest prophet that ever has been:
He'll know all the birds in the sky, those of good omen
and those whose flight presages doom.
He'll give oracles to the Boiotians, oracles to Kadmos,
oracles to the mighty descendants of Labdakos.
I will give him a great staff to guide his footsteps,
and I will give him time, a long term of life,
and he alone,when he dies, will walk among the dead,
wits intact, honored by Agesilaos, host of the dead."
When she had finished speaking Athena nodded her head,
ensuring fulfillment of all that she said.
Pallas alone of all Zeus' daughters
has received paternal prerogatives,
for no mother bore her, but the high brow of Zeus,
and neither brow bends to affirm what is false,
Translated by Stanley Lombardo and Diane Rayor
For a poet who proclaimed the supremacy of the short poem the epigram was a natural form, and Callimachus was a master of the genre. The third specimen presented here is a courtly compliment to Berenice, the wife of the reigning monarch of Egypt Ptolemy II. The fourth and fifth are two versions of tribute to a fellow poet, Heraclitus, one the classic Victorian translation of Henry Cory, the other a spare (Callimachean) version by Kenneth Rexroth. The sixth is the shortest and perhaps the most moving epigram in the whole enormous range of the genre.
"Is Kharidas beneath this stone?"
"Yes, if you mean Arrimas's son
From Kyrene, I'm his tomb."
"Kharidas, what's it like below?"
"Dark." "Are there exits?" "None."
"And Pluto?" "He's a myth." "Oh, no!"
"All that I'm telling you is true,
But if you want the bright side too,
The cost of living here is low."
He stooped to put flowers on his stepmother's tomb,
Thinking she'd changed since meeting her doom.
He died when her gravestone fell on his head.
Stepmothers are dangerous even when dead.
Four Graces now, for to the Three
One has been added, just modeled
And still wet with perfume:
Blest, radiant Berenike,
Without whom the very Graces are graceless.
Translated by Stanley Lombardo and Diane Rayor
Somebody told me you were dead,
Herakleitos, and I wept when
I remembered how many times
The sun had set as we gossiped
Together when you came to see
Me once from Halikarnassos.
Where are you now? Long, long ago
Ashes. But your "Nightingales" still
Live. Death snatches everything, but
He shall not lay his hand on them.
Translated by Kenneth Rexroth
They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept as I remember'd how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.
And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.
Translated by Henry Cory
His father Philip laid here the twelve-year-old boy
his dearest hope.
Translated by Dudley Fitts