Heat and Lust: Hesiod’s Midsummer Festival Scene Revisited

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7. Towards a Conclusion: The Farmer and His Wife

Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly,
From the river winding clearly …

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Lady of Shallot”

Perhaps the most important fact to arise out of this examination of the Hesiodic festival (WD 582-596) is that this passage integrates seasonal themes that may be linked to local agricultural observances. The plentiful evidence of seasonal/functional songs in the demotic tradition—the song of the cicada, the khelidonisma, and the harvest songs of the women of Avdemi—suggests a continuity in the function and, consequently, in large part, in the content of these songs. This is a point worth stressing, since oral transmission will, so long as is necessary, preserve themes essential to a seasonal/functional context to create “new” songs of comparable or very similar content. [1] A glance at representative specimens of the khelidonismata, for instance, suffices to show how new variants can be engendered out of the same thematic ingredients; what is more, the very usefulness of these songs in certain seasonal rites of passage will guarantee the replication of specific themes or even words. The widely disseminated songs of the cicada—attested in such diverse locales as Cyprus, Chios, Thrace, Macedonia, and Corinth—also show signs of conservative transmission, and because they seem also to be bound up with the harvest primitiae, these songs may ultimately be attributed to the same tradition as the well-known khelidonisma. The swallow-tradition, it should be remembered, can be retrojected at the latest to Athenaeus’ time and surely reaches back to the fifth century B.C. or even Sappho’s day—or still earlier. Further, the similarities in content of the Hesiodic passages dealing with the cuckoo, the crane, and the cicada—all of them seasonal harbingers—may suggest a parallel ancient tradition of seasonal/functional songs memorializing a given creature and the social events associated with its appearance. It is anyway significant that the cicada in the WD undoubtedly has a seasonal function, as has been shown in the preceding chapter; and the evidence, ancient and modern, previously examined, collectively suggests that Hesiod was using a creature whose seasonal and even ethical associations were a matter of public record.

We can in fact safely assume that the cicada has borne enormous symbolic weight in the folklore of the Greek world and that the lore has been rich, and ancient, and widespread. We should not be too surprised if a special type of cicada-song existed in antiquity. Among other types of functional song, including the khelidonisma, seasonal songs relevant to the harvest must have existed; the harvest very probably also entailed a cicada-song, and indeed the demonstrable link to this resilient popular tradition are the swallow-songs. (We may also recall the affinity, in terms of function, between the εἰρεσιώνη [eiresionê], which is itself related to the ancient swallow-song, and the modem cicada-song.)

It would doubtless be inept to claim too confidently that one might reconstruct the ancient song of the cicada; we never shall know its exact form and content. The modem Greek conferenda reviewed earlier may even so possess considerable analogical value and enable us to guess intelligently at (among others) two possibilities.

If we may now suppose that different songs stemming from the same stock of thematic material have always coexisted in ancient tradition, as indeed they do in demotic tradition, then the relation of WD 582-585 to Alcaeus fr. 347a (LP) becomes clear. Each poet rendered the “song of the cicada,” a harvest-time favorite. If the song in question at all resembled the second reconstruction, both poets naturally must have replaced the adjective the women used of themselves with one that appealed to a misogynist audience. If, on the other hand, they were following the first reconstruction, μαχλόταται (‘most wanton’) and μιαρώταται (‘most lustful,’ or ‘polluted in the extreme’) may be the actual words of this version. [5] As evidence of the important common territory between the WD and Alcaeus, we might cite Plutarch’s observation that Alcaeus’ song was current even in his day:

Εἰσῆλθέ τινι τῶν συμποτῶν ὥρᾳ θέρους τουτὶ τὸ πρόχειρον ἅπασιν ἀναφθέγξασθαι, τέγγε πλεύμονας οἴνῳ· τὸ γὰρ ἄστρον περιτέλλεται.

Plutarch Moralia 7.697F-698

It occurred to one of the fellow-drinkers at summer-time to utter the following song, which is available [or common] to everybody: “Soak your lungs in wine, for the Star is on the rise.”

The Alcaic incipit is described as πρόχειρον ἅπασιν, that is, “available to everybody:” was the verse πρόχειρον to a Greek audience simply because it belonged to a well-known poem by Alcaeus, or was it πρόχειρον in the sense of “widely diffused/ a possibility likely in view of our discussion? The song—and presumably other songs of similar content—was not only current in Plutarch’s day, but certifiably functional, as ὥρᾳ θέρους (“at summer-time”) may imply.


[ back ] 1. In this respect seasonal/functional songs do not differ from MG narrative songs or most other genres, for that matter. On the creation of “new” narrative songs and themes, see, e.g., Beaton 1980. 33.

[ back ] 2. Or boys who, in a social reversal typical of harvest-time (cf. the Cronia), assumed the poses of adults and perhaps mocked them: see the ancient and modem swallow- song.

[ back ] 3. Cf. Dover 1987.109 on preliterate song: “The song may refer to animals, birds or insects, either as possessing personalities of their own, or as constituent elements in an event with strong emotional associations, or as symbolic of actual persons or categories of people.”

[ back ] 4. Compare Sappho’s invocation of the swallow, fr. 135 (LP), noted in ch. 1, and the frequent invocation of birds in MG folk-song. Cf. n. 2 above.

[ back ] 5. Μιαρώταται in the sense of ‘polluted in the extreme’ may betray the assumption that women were menstruating at the same time as their sexual ardor intensified; on menstruation cf. WD 753-755. Modern Thracian reapers regard women as ominous at this season: cf. ch. 4 above.

[ back ] 6. For the possibility of a diffuse third source also consult Nagy 1990a. 462-463, especially n. 121 (with further bibliography).