The Rise of the Pleiades in Alcm. PMGF 1

The so-called First Parthenion of Alcman (PMGF 1) is one of the most important findings in the ‘era of the papyri’: in fact, it is one of the most extended fragments of archaic Greek poetry. Since its first publication by Egger, the First Parthenion has attracted the attention of several scholars. The seminal work on poem is the interpretation of Calame. According to Calame, the poem possibly describes a step in the sequence of rituals that led the young Spartan women to the adulthood. The context of a Greek poem is very important: ancient Greek poetry was radically different from the modern one and it was linked directly – at least in its first performance – to a particular occasion and to a well defined audience. Let me dwell on four lines, which are, to my mind, crucial to the interpretation of this poem.


ταὶ Πεληάδες γὰρ ἇμιν for the Pleiads fight against us,
Ὀρθρίᾳ φᾶρος φεροίσαις who carry a pharos to Orthia
νύκτα δι᾽ ἀμβροσίαν ἅτε Σήριον though the night of ambrosia, because
_ ἄστρον ἀϝηρομέναι μάχονται. they raise up the star Sirius.

                (Alcm. PMGF 60-63)

(transl. Campbell, reworked)


These lines present several difficulties, but in the present post I focus only on πεληάδες: its interpretation depends on the previous (cf. γάρ) and the following lines. The ll. 39-59 are based on two metaphorical images, that of the brightness and that of the speed. As to the brightness, the persona loquens sings the light of Agido (l. 40), which is compared to the sun (l. 41), whereas Hagesichora is ἐκπρεπής (l. 46) and her hair blooms like gold (ll. 53 f.). As for the speed, at l. 48 Hagesicora is compared to a racehorse (an erotic metaphor too): both Agido and Hagesichora are horses that run (δραμήται l. 59, probably a ‘performative’ future). The γάρ at l. 60 can indicate that the comparison goes on with the image of the flight of the doves. However, ll. 62 f. mention Sirius: it is possible that this star is linked with the image of the light, but no epithet supports this idea.

The grammatical structure of these lines is difficult to understand. There are two possible interpretation: ἅτε can be either comparative or causal. If ἅτε is interpreted as comparative, the sentence would be awkward: if the point of comparison is the movement and the πεληάδες are  the ‘doves’, why are the doves compared to Sirius, which is not as quick as the flight of the birds and whose movement is different from that of the doves? Perhaps the image involves a hint at the brightness, but this is not self-evident. If the πεληάδες are stars, it is to be noticed that the Pleiades are not as bright as Sirius; instead, their rise from the horizon is obviously similar to that of Sirius, such as that of several stars.

Why Sirius? In my opinion, a causal meaning of ἅτε offers a more meaningful sense. If ἅτε has causal meaning, it follows that ‘doves’ for πεληάδες is almost impossible, but, if πεληάδες is interpreted as ‘Pleiades’, the meaning of the sentence makes perfect sense: «the Pleiades fought against us, who carry a pharos to Orthria through the night of ambrosia, because they raise up Sirius». To understand this image, it is worth noticing that the stars were important to the agricultural calendar of ancient Greece, as, e.g., Hesiod testifies (Op. 383-630). Sirius and the Pleiades especially were important, because the Pleiades indicated the moment of the ploughing, the harvest and the seeding, whereas Sirius that of the ὀπώρα, of the cutting of the wood and the beginning of the rainy season. To which moment does Alcman refer in these lines? The poem was performed during the night (l. 62) or, more precisely, just before the sunrise: in fact, Agido testifies (l. 42 μαρτύρεται) to the chorus that the sun appears (ὁρῶ / ϝ᾽ ὥτ᾽ ἄλιον, ὅνπερ ἇμιν / Ἀγιδῶς μαρτύρεται / φαίνην). The only moment in the agricultural calendar, when Sirius, the sun and the Pleiades appear almost together is at the heliacal rising of Sirius, at the end of July, the moment that indicates the ὀπώρα: the sun and Sirius rise together, whereas the Pleiades run to the top of sky (from a mythological point of view, they flee Orion and his dog Sirius); then, the Pleiades disappear just before the sunrise.


In other words, to a spectator of this astronomical event, the Pleiades, with their quick φυγή upwards in the sky, appear to be raising up Sirius from the horizon or as if Sirius is pursuing them. To conclude, it is possible to notice that several indications in the poem (sunrise at l. 41 ff., the run at ll. 59, the hints at stars l. 60) have a pragmatical function, i.e. they refer to an extra-textual context and thus have not (only) a metaphorical meaning: it is worth noting, in this context, that ταί at l. 60 is suggestive. It may have a deictic meaning.




Selected Bibliography


Boll F. 1909. Fixsterne, RE VI/2 2407-2431.
Burnett A. P. 1964. The Race with Pleiades. «CPh» LIX 30-34.
Caciagli S. 2009. Un contesto per Alcm. PMGF 1. «Eikasmós» XX 19-46.
Calame C. 1977. Les chœurs de jeunes filles en Grèce archaïque. I-II. Roma.
Gianotti G. F. 1978. Le Pleiadi di Alcmane. «RFIC» CVI 257-271.
Page D. L. 1951. Alcman. The Partheneion. Oxford.
West M. L. 1978. Hesiod. Works & Days. Oxford 1978.