The Center for Hellenic Studies

Part II, "The Cicadas"

Yiannis (J.C.B.) Petropoulos
In Greece the cicada fills the air every summer with his piercing, reassuring, significant symphony (not haphazard cacophony; the ancients quite cherished his song, and Hesiod in Works and Days 582 ff. clearly discerned its meaning!). Trusty tettix is a midsummer messenger, an angelos of the harvest and other seasonal drudgery crowned by rich reward— (optimally) a heaping cereal crop and grapes galore. In modern Greek folk tradition the equally onomatopoietic tzitzikas/tzitziki sings a special song at the end of the harvest which is duly performed by farmers and accompanied with a special loaf (on the song see Petropoulos [1994]). The poet Odysseus Elytis devoted a poem to this troubadour in his 1972 collection, Το ρω του έρωτα. Set to music by a number of composers, the piece is now a staple among schoolchildren’s songs in Greece; it sounds seasonal and popular themes, including an allusion to the folktale about the Gorgona’s searching interrogation of sea captains about the fate of her mortal brother Alexander the Great: ‘Is King Alexander alive?’ (“Ζει ο βασιλιάς Αλέξανδρος;"). If the mariner answers ‘no’ the Mermaid sinks his ship. A positive answer sets her singing of her brother’s continuation and ensures the captain safe passage. Her question betrays an anxiety over the durability of so many things: man, legend, culture, indeed Greek literature, even ellinismos.
Elytis’ poem shows how this master creator—a Nobel laureate no less—‘read’ and ‘received’ popular tradition, a tradition born of the lean Greek soil, the Aegean sun and the high seas. I dedicate my translation, such as it is, to Greg, in the full knowledge that he is among the scholars and spirits singularly attuned to the song of the cicada across time. The example of Greg’s teaching and writing has been his answer to the Mermaid’s touchstone query.
Τα τζιτζίκια

Η Παναγιά το πέλαγο
κρατούσε στην ποδιά της
Τη Σίκινο την Αμοργό
και τ' άλλα τα παιδιά της

Από την άκρη του καιρού
και πίσω απ' τους χειμώνες
Άκουγα σφύριζε η μπουρού
κι έβγαιναν οι Γοργόνες

Κι εγώ μέσα στους αχινούς
στις γούβες στ' αρμυρίκια
Σαν τους παλιούς θαλασσινούς
ρωτούσα τα τζιτζίκια:

Ε σεις τζιτζίκια μου άγγελοι 
γεια σας κι η ώρα η καλή
Ο βασιλιάς ο Ήλιος ζει;
κι ' όλ' αποκρίνονταν μαζί:

-Ζει ζει ζει ζει ζει ζει ζει ζει.
Odysseus Elytis
The Cicadas

The Virgin Holy held the sea
in her embrace
Cradling Sikinos isle and Amorgos
and her other children

At the edge of time and weather
and from the far end of winters
I listened to the trumpet conch blow
As the Mermaids swam out

And I amid the sea urchins,
in sandy hollows, by the tamarisks
Like the mariners of old
asked the cicadas:

“My messenger cicadas
hey you, hello! And blessed be your time—
Is King Helios alive?”
and all answered in unison:

Zi-zi zi-zi zi-zi zi-zi!
He’s -'s -'s-'s-'s-'s-'s-'s ALIVE! ”
Translation by Yiannis (J.C.B.) Petropoulos