"And she with her lovely fair hair":

The Partheneia or "Maiden-Songs" of Alcman
celebrate love between young Spartan women

Two papyrus fragments attributed to the Spartan lyrical male poet Alcman (or Alkman) are complex and brilliant renditions of choral poetry written for rituals performed by choirs of young women. The first, and longer, fragment, discovered in 1855 has been considered "a hallmark of choral lyric in archaic times". In both fragments, "there is no mistaking the language of homosexual love used by the maidens of the choir", as one scholar has written.

Almost nothing is known about the only great lyrical poet that Sparta produced. Without these two papyri, we would have only one-liners from Alcman, as quoted by other authors. However Alcman was rumored in ancient times to have been a native of Sparta, or a native of Lydia (in present-day Turkey), or born a slave and brought to Sparta. He flourished around 630 BCE (during the 37th Olympiad), approximately the same time that youthful male Spartan colonists on the island of Santorini were worshipping Horned Apollo with homoerotic ritual and inscriptions. The Suda reports that Alcman was "of an extremely amorous disposition and the inventor of love-poems". Since Alcman was a lyre player, it is possible that he was also an effeminate homosexual - an ancient Greek comedy about a lyre-player describes their stereotype as mincing about in embroidered slippers, trailing his long, elaborate cloaks behind him, while daintily sipping the best wines and indulging in only the finest of cheese-breads. We do know that he died and was buried in Sparta, for his tomb lay there for several centuries (but is now lost).

The first fragment of Alcman, known as the "Louvre Papyrus" or "Louvre Partheneion" is a dense and perplexing song of about 105 lines (many of which are missing due to the poor state of preservation of the papyrus). The maiden choir, consisting of 10 young women, apparently splits into two competing choirs during the performance of the song/ritual. There is a choir leader named Hagesichora who is adored and desired by all the other girls. However, when the choir splits into two semichoirs, a young woman named Agido, who is second in command, takes over one semichoir, and Hagesichora leads the other half. All 10 girls are named within the text and may have been cousins (or this may have been simply a metaphor for their intimacy). Besides the leader and her second, there are Nanno, Areta, Sylacis, and Cleesisera in one semichoir, and Astaphis, Philylla, Damareta, and "sexy" (erata) Wianthemis in the other. This choir is apparently involved in an intense rivalry with another choir of young Spartan women who are referred to as the Peleiades (sic), apparently an allusion to the constellation of the Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters.

The poem composed by Alcman for Hagesichora's choir to sing is specifically a fertility ritual. Athenaeus reports [Deipnosophistai 14. 646a] that young Spartan women carried cakes called krybanon, "shaped like a woman's breast and [which] are used at Sparta for women's feasts, being carried round just before the attendants in the chorus sing the eulogy they have prepared in honor of the parthenos [the maiden = Artemis?]." Alcman's poem itself gives a description of a rite in which the young women are participating: Hagesichora's choir and the Peleiades are competing against each other in the dedication of a new plough just before sunrise, probably on the night of a full moon.

This partheneion or maiden-song is divided into five sections: the first legend; a moral to be drawn from the legend; a second legend; another moral; and finally the choral song proper. The first legend catalogues the deaths of the sons of Hippocoon (who apparently fought some minor gods for the hand of Helen and were killed in their attempt); the accompanying moral is "Man must not fly to heaven, nor attempt to wed Aphrodite, nor a daughter of Porcus", a Spartan sea-god. The second legend is very fragmentary but mentions the Graces, the house of Zeus, and the unforgetable suffering of those who commit wicked deeds. The second moral is summed up as "the vengeance of the gods does exist" and fortunate are those who obey the gods and "weave the day to its end without weeping". So far, the poem seems to be saying that there are some women (especially goddesses) who are not meant to be pursued by men and any violation of them brings the vengeance of the gods.

Then the partheneion opens into the choral song, in which first Agido and her beauty are praised, then Hagesichora even more so. A theme running throughout is the comparison of these two women with horses. Agido first "fancies that she stands out pre-eminent above all, as if there were set among grazing herds a powerful stallion, a prize-winner with ringing hoofs" and later is called a race-horse. And whichever woman claims to compete with Agido's beauty "shall run as a Colaxaean horse against the Ibenian" (scholars aren't sure what these two nouns refer to but it is obvious from the context that Ibenian horses were considered superior to Colaxaean ones). Hagesichora is also referred to as the trace-horse (as well as the helmsman of her ship of maidens).

Hagesichora and her beauty are praised throughout by these young women; they sing that "the hair of my cousin Hagesichora blossoms like unalloyed gold, and as for her face, it shines like silver". Even her ankles are beautiful to the choir members.

There is an interesting exchange in the poem in which the girls of one of the semichoirs sing that their desire for the girls in the other semichoir is surpassed by their love for Hagesichora: "nor will you go to Aenesimbrota's and say, 'may Astaphis be mine, and may Philylla look upon me with desire, or Damareta, or sexy Wianthemis' but it is Hagesichora who keeps watch over me. For is not Hagesichora of the beautiful ankles here in this very place...to commend our festivities?" Apparently Aenesimbrota may have been a purveyor of love-potions, for the girls can resort to her place in order to eventually obtain their heart's desire, the company of their beloved. Alternatively, Aenesimbrota may have been the mother of these four young women.

The dedication of the new plough just before sunrise is made before a goddess who is referred to only once in the text, where she is called Aotis, "she of the dawn". A scrap of Greek commentary that is attached to this portion of the poem glosses Aotis as the Spartan goddess Ortheia, who is roughly identified with the Greek goddess Artemis.

(Two views of the ruins of the temple of Artemis Ortheia in Sparta)

Ortheia (also known as Worthia, Orthosia, or Borthea) was worshipped in Sparta at a temple dedicated to her and she seems to have been the principle goddess of the Spartans (with Athena in a close second). She was believed to have power over birth and growth of the human, animal, and vegetal worlds and her symbol was the sickle. She was a goddess of the moon as well, like Artemis, and was particularly effective in protecting pregnant women during childbirth, again like Artemis, who was a special protectress of women and girls alike.

(Altar stone from the temple of Artemis Ortheia, with a sickle, symbol of fertility, at top)

Spartan women were encouraged to participate in their own gymnasium, and athletic contests (including racing and wrestling) among respectable women were supervised by the state. Same-sex erotic ties between older and younger women were prevalent among Spartans, according to Plutarch (Life of Lycurgus, 18.9). [After describing male paederasty amongst the Spartans, Plutarch writes, "This love was so approved among them, that even the beautiful and good women loved maidens."] However, this could be an example in which female homosexuality is described by a male gaze (in this case Plutarch's) on the model of Athenian male homosexuality. In contrast, the young women in Alcman's verse express their love for their age-mates and peers, not for older women citizens.

Aristotle believed that the high status of women in Sparta was a prime defect in their political system. In his Politics, he states that Spartan women, despite their participation in the gymnasium, were not trained to a hardihood equal to their freedom, and so became licentious and dissolute. These are "homophobic" criticisms I believe.

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