Pure Pagan: Seven Centuries of Greek Poems and Fragments

Pure Pagan: Seven Centuries of Greek Poems and Fragments

by Guy Davenport

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“For there is indeed something we can call the spirit of ancient Greece–a carefully tuned voice that speaks out of the grave with astonishing clarity and grace , a distinctive voice that, taken as a whole, is like no other voice that has ever sung on this earth.”
BURTON RAFFEL, from his Preface

For centuries, the poetry of Homer,


“For there is indeed something we can call the spirit of ancient Greece–a carefully tuned voice that speaks out of the grave with astonishing clarity and grace , a distinctive voice that, taken as a whole, is like no other voice that has ever sung on this earth.”
BURTON RAFFEL, from his Preface

For centuries, the poetry of Homer, Aristophanes, Sophocles, Sappho, and Archilochus has served as one of our primary means of connecting with the wholly vanished world of ancient Greece. But the works of numerous other great and prolific poets–Alkaios, Meleager, and Simonides, to name a few–are rarely translated into English , and are largely unknown to modern readers. In Pure Pagan, award-winning translator Burton Raffel brings these and many other wise and witty ancient Greek writers to an English-speaking audience for the first time, in full poetic flower. Their humorous and philosophical ruminations create a vivid portrait of everyday life in ancient Greece –and they are phenomenally lovely as well.

In short, sharp bursts of song, these two-thousand-year-old poems speak about the timeless matters of everyday life:
Wine (Wine is the medicine / To call for, the best medicine / To drink deep, deep)
History (Not us: no. / It began with our fathers, / I’ve heard).
Movers and shakers (If a man shakes loose stones / To make a wall with / Stones may fall on his head / Instead)
Old age (Old age is a debt we like to be owed / Not one we like to collect)
Frankness (Speak / As you please / And hear what can never / Please).
There are also wonderful epigrams (Take what you have while you have it: you’ll lose it soon enough. / A single summer turns a kid into a shaggy goat) and epitaphs (Here I lie, beneath this stone, the famous woman who untied her belt for only one man).

The entrancing beauty, humor, and piercing clarity of these poems will draw readers into the Greeks’ journeys to foreign lands, their bacchanalian parties and ferocious battles, as well as into the more intimate settings of their kitchens and bedrooms. The poetry of Pure Pagan reveals the ancient Greeks’ dreams, their sense of humor, sorrows, triumphs, and their most deeply held values, fleshing out our understanding of and appreciation for this fascinating civilization and its artistic legacy.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The old Greek poetry has a freshness and immediacy about it that is partly a witty irony, partly a commitment to speaking only about the core concerns of humanity, partly a strange dazzling down-to-earthness, and partly the tragic bite of the Greek conceptual language.  Who better to introduce us to the lesser-known voices of that tradition than Burton Raffel and Guy Davenport?" —Frederick Turner, author of The Culture of Hope and former editor of The Kenyon Review

"This superb gathering of ancient Greek lyrics, pungently translated by Burton Raffel, could not be more timely or more timeless. The poems are by turns hilarious and heartrending, erotic and elegaic, as fresh as the morning and shadowy as the dusk, yet always living, inescapable, and wise. Guy Davenport contributes an arresting introduction to this very welcome collection.” —Robert Fagles, translator of The Iliad and The Odyssey

"Burton Raffel has added titles and translated with great translucency—real panache!—a marvelous array of lesser known poems and poets from ancient Greece. These brief and entrancing lyric intensities ("drink, and get drunk with me," Alkaios insists) are perennially fresh and inviting, surprised by time, quick with life.” —Edward Hirsch, author of How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry and Lay Back the Darkness

"The ancient Greek anthologists collected many of the world's funniest, and saddest, raunchiest, and wisest poems, which Burton Raffel, a guardian angel among American translators, has delivered breathtakingly alive into our own idiom. If poetry ever mattered, which we know it did and does, this book reminds us why." —Brooks Haxton, author of Uproar and translator of Dances for Flute and Thunder

"These are the Greek poets who have endured through the millennia. Burton Raffel's wonderful translations capture their poetry in all its originality, freshness, and rhythm." —Peter Constantine, winner of the 1998 PEN Translation Award and the 1999 National Translation Award

"These epigrams, epitaphs, fragments, and short poems of the Greek lyricists are witty, wise, and elegant, and they demand of a translator an almost impossible range of humanity and fastidious craftsmanship that I delight to see demonstrated, over and over in Burton Raffel’s splendid English versions." —David R. Slavitt, co-editor of the Penn Complete Greek Drama series and of the Johns Hopkins Complete Roman Drama series

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Modern Library Classics Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.27(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.33(d)

Read an Excerpt



All right,
Plant trees.
But first


Give up? How stupid,
Just for bad luck!
Nothing will work.
But Bacchus, Bacchus, if we forget your name
In our weariness, wine is the medicine
To call for, the best medicine
To drink deep, deep.


When courage is what he needs
He finds it in himself.

Drink, and Get Drunk with Me

Melanippus: drink, and get drunk with me.
Once you’ve crossed the swirling Acheron
And landed in darkness, what makes you think
You’ll ever see sunlight again?
Don’t be a fool–don’t try too hard.
King Sisyphus, son of Aeolus, was the smartest man alive
And thought he could run from death,
But Fate drove him across the Acheron, then drove him over again, And the king of darkness, Cronos’ son, Set him a miserable task down under the black earth. Don’t even hope for such things.


Drink. Why wait for the lamps?
There’s only a finger of daylight left.
Get the big cups, the ones with pictures.
Bacchus gave us wine to drown our sorrows.
Mix one of water to two of wine,
Fill them to the brim,
And let one cup quickly follow the other.


As you please
And hear
What can never


Friends? My friends are nothing,
And I weep for them,
And for me.


Not us: no.
It began with our fathers,
I’ve heard.


I loathe Love, wasting his arrows on me
Instead of aiming at huge wild beasts.
Do gods win glory by burning up men?
Is my head a noble trophy to hang from his belt?


Wine, now, and more wine, and more,
And more,
Now that Myrsillus is dead.

Movers and Shakers

If a man shakes loose stones
To make a wall with,
Stones may fall on his head


Even if he came from somewhere else,
You would say you did, too.


Drink: the Dog Star
Is coming back, so




Pigs whip up muck mud slop


He wants power
He has power
He wants more
And his country will break in his hands,
Is breaking now.


O Poverty, you and your sister Helplessness
Fall like wolves
On this country
Once so great.

Social Relations

I had you to dinner, once,
Gave you tender goat, juicy pork:
How to win friends
And influence people.


You’ve made me completely forget sorrow.

True Luxury

And the sky god pours down rain,
And the clouds whirl, and rivers freeze:
So: keep your fire high
And pour out honey-sweet wine
And lie back
With a pillow on this side,
And a pillow on that side.






Fate and Necessity

The thread
Runs thin,
The need
Runs hard,

Gluttonous Alkman

And a huge cauldron, hot
With your dinner, soon.
But still cold, until that thick winter soup
For gluttonous Alkman
Comes boiling up.
No fancy slop for Alkman, no.
Like ordinary people he likes real food.

Not Aphrodite, No

Not Aphrodite, no. But like a child,
Wild, Love comes down,
Almost as though walking on flowers–
But should not touch them,
Should not,

O Dancers

O dancers, singers, honey-voiced girls,
Loud, clear: no more, I cannot!
God, O God, if I were only a kingfisher,
Purple like the sea, flying never afraid
Out over the waves

Set Seven Couches

Set seven couches
And seven tables
And cover them with poppy cakes,
And linseed cakes,
And sesame cakes,
In and among the wooden bowls.


Tantalus, Evil placed in the middle of Good,
Sat under a hanging rock, ready to fall,
And thought he saw,
And saw

The Peaks Are Asleep

The peaks are asleep
And gulleys
And ravines are asleep
And creeping things
Out of the dark earth
And the beasts on the hills are asleep
And bees, all bees
And monsters deep in the sea are asleep
And asleep, too, every flying bird everywhere asleep.

Try Singing

For feasts
For feasting
For eating with men
Try singing as you eat.


A Mirror

Look: I look back. You look with eyes
But I am eyeless.
And I can speak, having no voice. You have
A voice, but all I have is lips, and they move, soundless.

An Epitaph

I was Callicrita, I bore twenty-nine children
And all of them lived, and still live.
I died at a hundred and five
And never needed a cane to steady my hand.

An Oracle

This isthmus: no digging, no fencing.
If Zeus had wanted an island he’d have made one.


He lived by his sling,
Hunting winged geese,
Creeping silently up
As they fed, watching on every side
But not seeing him.
He lived poor, he died poor.
Now he lives in the darkness
And his sling hangs motionless,
No hand to whirl it
Swift and sure,
And the geese fly over his tomb.


Once corpses left the city behind them, dead,
But now the living carry the city to her grave.


Take what you have while you have it: you’ll lose it soon enough. A single summer turns a kid into a shaggy goat.


Seafarer, don’t bother about my name.
Pray for a kinder sea.

Lovers’ Dialogue

He: Hello, pretty one.
She: Hello.
He: Who walks ahead of you?
She: None of your business.
He: But I have business in mind.
She: My mistress.
He: Is there any hope?
She: For what?
He: One night.
She: How much can you pay her?
He: Gold.
She: There’s hope.
He: Here’s what I have.
She: That’s all? Forget it.
She charges more for hope.

Message to the Living

I’m dead, but waiting for you, and you’ll wait for someone:
The darkness waits for everyone, it makes no distinctions.


Here I lie, beneath this stone, the famous woman
Who untied her belt for only one man.

On Being Old

I was young,
I was poor.
Now I’m old
And I’m rich.
Only I of all men living
Have been miserable
In youth and in age.
I could have used riches
When I had none,
And now I have them
And what can I use them for?

On Homer

Let Homer be worshiped as a god, if he is a god.
But if not a god, let him appear godlike all the same.

On Love

Venus, who saves sailors: save me,
Dear goddess, who die, shipwrecked, here on dry land.


Spring makes leaves,
Leaves make the earth lovely
Just as stars make the heavens shine,
And these beautiful fields make Greece lovely,
And these brave men
Make their country wonderful.


Zeus, king, give us good even if we don’t pray for it,
And give us nothing evil even if that is what we pray for.

Antipater of Sidon


My name was Alkmenes. I drove birds
From the fields, starlings and high-flying robber cranes.
I was swinging my sling at a crowd
Of birds when a viper bit my ankle,
Injected her bitter poison in my veins,
And stole the sunlight.
See? I was watching the air
And never saw what was right on the ground in front of me.


Amyntor, Philip’s son, lies in this Lydian soil.
His hands were full of iron war.
No sickness led him into the darkness:
He died holding his shield over a wounded friend.

Ares, God of War

Who gave me these shining shields,
Hung them, unstained, on my walls?
Who gave me these unbroken helmets?
Murderous Ares needs no ornaments.
Will no one drag them out of my temple?
Give them to drunkards,
Give them to men of peace:
I have no use for tinsel and show.
I want trophies hacked by the sword,
I want the blood of dying men,
For I am Ares,
I am the Destroyer of men and weapons.


Diodorus, son of Calligenes of Olynthus,
Diodorus, who could take a ship as far as Atlas
And knew the waters of Crete
And could sail the Black Sea,
Diodorus died in port,
Dropping into the waves
As he leaned over the bow
And threw up what he’d eaten and drunk.
How shallow a depth of water
Drowned him, he who had conquered
All the wide oceans!

Antipater of Thessalonika

A Quarrel

The ship broke apart
And two men fought in the water,
Fighting for a wooden beam.
Antagorus hit Pisistratus.
It was no crime,
For his life was at stake,
But Justice saw and frowned.
So Pisistratus swam to safety
And Antagorus was swallowed by a shark.
Justice is always Justice,
Even out on the ocean.


Europa costs you a dollar. No one cares,
Including her. She’s got clean sheets
And a fire in winter. Why bother
Becoming a bull, O Zeus!

Poetic Gift

Antipater sends you a birthday poem,
Piso, a poem he wrote in one night.
Take it to your heart
And praise its maker,
As Zeus is won
By a gift of perfume.


Epitaph for a Slave

He was a slave, alive.
Dead, he’s as great as mighty Darius.


Here I stand
At the crossroads,
Next to the windswept trees,
Near the gray cold beach.
I offer tired travelers rest.
The water I offer
Is cold and pure.


Stranger, weary from much walking: rest under this elm,
Hear the sweet breeze in its green leaves,
Drink cold water from this fountain: here
Is where travelers always rest, in our burning heat.


This is Venus’ place,
For she loves to smile at the bright sea
And make sailors happy.
All around her the sea trembles,
Seeing her loveliness.


In the Beginning

Begin with Zeus, on every man’s lips.
The streets are full of Zeus, and all the marketplaces;
The sea is full of Him, and the harbors:
All of us need Zeus everywhere we go.
For Zeus has fathered us all, and smiles on us,
And shows us his kindness, and sends us off to our work, Reminding us what must be done. He tells us when to yoke up oxen, When to hoe, when to sow seed, and what to plant. For it was Zeus who gave us the heavens And divided the sky into stars, And shaped each star differently, And then made each star point to a season So men could read His heavens and understand, And all things could grow as they should. We pray to Him first, we pray to Him last: Hail, Father, wonder-worker, men’s great blessing, Hail to You and to those who came before You. And hail, gentle Muses, smiling on men: Guide my song, help me, For I bow to you and pray.


Dry Fruit

My arms hold Archansa, a shriveled old whore
Whose wrinkles were once love’s sweetness.
O lovers who picked her young blossoms, piercing fresh, brilliant, What a fiery furnace you came through!


Remember, O Night, how tricky Pythias
Plays her usual games. I came
When she called me; she called me, and I came. Just once
Let her stand at my door and cry as I’m crying.


Nico, famous Nico, swore by solemn Demeter
She’d come tonight. But the night’s half gone
And where is she? Could she have lied, and to me?
Slaves: blow out the lights.


An Epitaph

He was a stranger; he did not stay here long;
He needs no long-winded story.
“Here lies a man of Crete, Theris, Aristos’ son.”
But how long a story for me!


A:Stone: do you stand on the grave of Charidas?
B:The son of Arimmas of Cyrene?
He lies here.
A:Charidas: what’s it like down there?
C:Dark, all dark.
A:And do the dead come back?
C:Lies, all lies.
A:And Pluto?
C:A myth, no more.
A:I’ve no hope left.
C:I speak the truth.
But I can tell you good news, too:
Meat is cheap, down here.

Critas’ Tomb

If you go to the north, you’ll find
Hippacus and Dido with no trouble. Their family is famous.
Give them my painful message: tell them I stand
Covering Critas’ tomb, Critas, their beloved son.


I hate poems that go on and on and on.
I hate roads where everyone walks.
I loathe wandering lovers, nor will I drink from just any well. I detest everything common. Oh, you’re handsome, Lysus, you’re very handsome. But even as Echo says it again, I hear: “He belongs to someone else.”

My Hunter Love

Hunters in the hills track down every rabbit,
Every deer, running through the snow.
Show them a wounded animal
And they leave it where it lies.
Just so my love: it hunts whatever runs
And ignores what lies waiting.

My Mind

All the shining perfumes I splashed on my head,
And all the fragrant flowers I wore,
Soon lost their scent.
Everything I put between my teeth
And dropped into my ungrateful belly
Was gone by morning.
The only things I can keep
Came in through my ears.


A boy bent to drape flowers on his stepmother’s grave,
Thinking that death had changed her,
But the stone toppled and killed him.
Stepsons! Be wary even when they’re dead!

The Statue of Apollo at Delos

“Are you the Delian Apollo?”
“I am.”
“Are you thirty feet high?”
“By the god I am, I am.”
“All of gold?”
“All of gold.”
“And naked?”
“Wearing only a belt.”
“And why do the goddesses of beauty and charm stand in your right hand,
while you keep your great bow in your left?”
“My bow aims at fools. It keeps them from arrogance. But I offer beauty to the good, and I offer it freely.”

The Unknown’s Tomb

Who are you, shipwrecked stranger? Leontias found you,
Dead on this beach, and buried you,
Weeping for his own uncertain life, for he too skims
The waves like a gull, and never rests.

Winning and Losing

The winning poet is brief.
“I won,” he says. No more.
But ask the losing poet.
“Oh, it’s a damned hard business!” he cries.
Zeus: let the miserable wail at length.
Give me shortness of breath.

Dionysios of Andros

An Epitaph

No wonder I slipped, and fell, and died,
Soaked by Zeus outside,
Soaked by Bacchus within.
The odds were two to one
And they were gods.


Daphnis and Pan

A:Nymphs, O nymphs, tell me
The truth. Did Daphnis pass here,
Rest with his white goats?
B:Yes, piper Pan, yes.
He cut a message in the bark of that poplar,
A message for you.
“Pan, Pan, go to Malea,
Come to the mountain of Sophis.
You’ll find me there.”
A:Farewell, nymphs!



Passing this tomb, some somber stranger
Might say: “Here the courage of a thousand Spartans
Stopped a million Persians, and died facing
The enemy. This is what Sparta means.”


On Clito

Here is his hut, the bit of land
He planted, the thin old vines
He grew, his patch of brushwood.
But he lived here eighty years!

Leonidas of Tarentum

An Epitaph

Stranger, listen to Orthon of Syracuse:
“Don’t go out drunk on a winter night.”
I died in the snow, drunk,
And instead of resting in my own rich country
I lie forever wearing this foreign earth.

Production Manager, Composition
North Market Street Graphics

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