The Classical Tradition in Poetry, Chapter 2

Having published my “Apology for Poetry” and Chapter I of Gilbert Murray’s great work, The Classical Tradition in Poetry, I now present the first posting of Chapter II, “The Molpê.” The Classical Tradition in Poetry appeared in 1927. I beg to call my readers’ attention to my two published plays, The Tragedy of King Lewis the Sixteenth and Dido: The Tragedy of a Woman (both available on, as present-day works that in their modest way adhere to the Classical Tradition in poetic drama.

Chapter II


The old histories of Greek literature used to begin with Epic Poetry, and proceed in order to Lyric and Dramatic. A romantic poet could even write: Le monde nait, Homère chante [The world is born, Homer sings]; as if highly elaborate constructions like the Iliad and the Odyssey, with a vast development of both history and technique behind them, had been the first utterance of an almost primitive society. That confusing conception has passed away, and dark as the pre-Homeric stage of poetry is, we can to some extent penetrate into it.

The direct evidence is, of course, both scanty and unreliable. Few scholars put much trust in the lists of supposed poets who were earlier than Homer. But there is a form of indirect evidence which, as far as it goes, can be trusted. It is the evidence of religion. Anthropologists have long established the principle expressed roughly in the epigram that man makes his gods in his own image; or, more exactly, that the instruments, garments, and characteristics attributed traditionally to a god are generally a safe guide to those of the tribe which worshipped or invented him. If Hephaistos, the divine smith, has a hammer and an anvil, we may be sure that a hammer and an anvil were used by human smiths among his worshippers. If Apollo uses a bow and arrows, so must his worshippers have used them; and if his caused disease and pestilence, it is probable that theirs were poisoned. If Poseidon, the sea-god and fisher-god, carries a trident, we may conclude that it was usual among his first worshippers to spear fish with a three-pronged fork. By these instances we learn something of the habits of primitive Greek smiths, warriors, and fishermen. What can we learn about poets?

Most professions have created for themselves a divine ancestor. Smiths are children of Hephaistos; soldiers are children of Ares; heralds, of Hermes; doctors, of course, are sons of Asclepius, while kings are descended from Zeus. But what of poets? Poets are not the children of any one god or goddess:

ἐκ γάρ τοι Μουσέων καὶ ἑκηβόλου Ἀπόλλωνος
ἄνδρες ἀοιδοὶ ἔασιν ἐπὶ χθόνα καὶ κιθαρισταί.

So says our very earliest witness, Hesiod (Theogony, 94): “From the Muses and far-shooting Apollo come bards upon the earth and harp-players.” Apollo and the Muses together made the poetry of heaven: the bard and a chorus must have made that of earth. The poet—or at least the bard, for we may draw a distinction between them later—does not stand alone. He is the leader or director of a chorus, whose movements and emotions are attuned to his. Nor yet does his poetry stand alone; its words are caught up in music, and its rhythm deepened by the swaying of the dance; though, of course, both “dance” and “music” bore a different meaning in those days. Neither had been so specialized and developed. Both were far frailer and gentler things, and they also went always together. The Greek word Molpê means “dance-and-song.”

We have many descriptions of the doings of these early bards. On the shield of Heracles, among the emblazonry, “there was a Dance of the immortals, and in the midst the Child of Zeus and Leto harped with a golden lyre so as to wake longing; and the divine Muses of Olympus started the song, like women lifting up sweet voices.” (Aspis, 201.)

The word εξαρχειν, to “start” the song, is generally used of the bard himself, especially of Apollo. But not always. At the feast in Menelaus’ house a bard was in the midst of the chorus, harping; and there two special tumblers “started” the dance, for the others to join in later. (Odyssey, IV, 17 ff.) On the shield of Achilles there was a “labyrinth-dance”; there a bard “started” the dance with his harping, and the professional tumblers merely added to the entertainment. (Iliad, XVIII, 603 ff.) At the feast at the castle of Alcinous the bard Demodocus was invited to sing a lay (or narrative poem), and he duly sang one; but the procedure seems rather surprising. “So spake Alcinous; and a herald went to fetch the bard’s harp from the King’s house. And there rose up the chosen public umpires, nine in all, and they made smooth the dancing ground (χορóς) and wide the meeting place (αγων). And the herald brought the harp to Demodocus and he went into the middle; and on either side of him rose youths in their prime, skilled in dancing, and they beat the divine floor with their feet. Then he touched his harp and began sweetly to sing.” It is all intelligible enough, except perhaps why the floor should be called “divine.” Probably it was “divine” in the sense of “inspired” or “inspiring”; because, when you came on to that floor, after the nine public umpires had done their best to it, you felt that you were bound to dance. There was magic in it, or, as the Greeks said, some divine power. For the rest, it is all intelligible, but it certainly is surprising. When we ask a modern poet to recite his works to us, we do not expect nine policemen to clear the ground. It is the more curious in that Demodocus did not sing a lyric or a mere song; he sang a regular lay or narrative poem.

It is probably from this sort of lay that the epic eventually arose. It came when the adventurers in the Sea Migrations wanted poetry, but had left their “dancing floors” and bands of maidens or the like far behind at home. Like Achilles in Iliad IX, they had only themselves and their ship and their story; and the story grew, taking the place of the dance and song.

Usually in this early poetry we seem to find a choral song, and a choral dance or procession. For example, in the Hymn to Apollo we hear how that prototype of all poets conducted his business: “He goes forth harping on his way toward rocky Pytho, his raiment is fragrant and immortal, and his harp beneath the golden striker makes a sound that awakes longing; then up, swift as a thought, he springs to Olympus, to the Hall of Zeus. And straightway all the hearts of the immortals are full of harping and song. And the Muses in divisions answering one another sing with sweet voices. . . . And Apollo in the midst of them strikes his lyre, stepping fair and high.”

What the Muses sang about we shall consider later on; but the method of their singing and dancing is already clear in outline. We can see the bard, in the midst, with his lyre or harp, “starting” or “conducting” the Molpê, and the choir around him performing it. Here it is Apollo and the Muses; at Delos, as Professor J. A. K. Thomson has shown in his fascinating study of this subject [Studies in the Odyssey, chap. 10.], it seems to have been Homer and the Delian Maidens; in a Bacchic dance it is the God, or his human representative, and the Maenads: in each case a “conductor,” with a chorus, generally female. It is interesting that Hesiod, who is inspired by the Muses of Helicon without the intervention of Apollo, is himself chosen by them as their leader and presented with a staff or sceptre of growing laurel. Hesiod, like Homer, is an inspired exarchon. (Theogony, 22 ff.)

We can make out something about the movements and the place of these dances. The harvest dances naturally took place on a threshing-floor. It was charged with the magic of fruitfulness; it was large and round and level, and there was normally one in every village. Indeed, the words αλως (threshing-floor) and χορος (chorus or dancing place) are sometimes used interchangeably. Then there were springs and altars: the Muses in Hesiod danced round the mountain spring of Helicon and the altar of Zeus. (Theogony, 1-5.) The chorus in tragedy danced round an altar; and one may presume that the Delian Maidens of the Hymn to Apollo did so, though it is not definitely so stated. And in very early times, before the days of temples, a spring was generally a sacred object and formed a natural centre for a dance. On vase-paintings the dance is often round an altar. But we hear a good deal also of a Molpê that is more like a march or procession, not merely a dance round some centre in a sacred place. Hesiod’s Muses, for example, when they have bathed their soft bodies in the aforesaid holy spring, set up their dances on the highest top of Helicon, and then comes the best of it: they set off, through the night, unseen, only the lovely voices sounding through the mist, to visit all their haunts in the mountains [Theogony, 8.]. We are not told their final destination; but when Apollo leads them in the Hymn (182 ff.), the dance moves from the altar of Delos in the sea to that of Pytho among the hills; then up, up, to the highest and most untrodden heights of Mount Olympus, and from there away to Heaven and the House of Zeus. It is the human “Mountain Walk,” or Oreibasia, transferred to the gods.

The dancing was as integral a part of the bard’s duty as his singing or his invention. That explains the punishment of Thamyris the Thracian, who boasted with his newfangled sort of poetry to surpass the Muses: “And they in wrath made him a maimed man, and took away from him his heavenly Song and made him forget his harping [Iliad, II, 59; ff.].” Scholars have taken the word πηρον, maimed or lame, to mean something different, because to later ages lameness was no great disqualification to a poet. They thought Thamyris must have been struck blind or dumb. But a passage in Aratus’ poem about the stars really settles the matter. He describes there a constellation called ’Εν γονασιν, the Man on his Knees, and explains how this man trails wearily on one knee because he is lame; and the scholiast explains that the man is Thamyris. (Aratus, Phaenomena, 63 ff., and Scholia.) The curse of the Muses was terribly complete. Thamyris used to sing, to harp, and to dance; and they disabled him from all three. He developed, one may suppose, a really vicious style, and every talent he had was poisoned by it.

There is a word which occurs in two forms, οιμος; and οιμη, derived from a root meaning “to go”: it is a verbal noun and must mean “a going.” In practice the masculine form generally, but not always, means a journey, or a wandering; the feminine means simply a song or lay. The two went always together: when you sang, you went. Just so in English the verbal noun from the root “dig” has two forms, “dyke” and “ditch,” which are now divided in meaning, though they began by denoting the same concrete object, the dug ground. The reason is that, whenever you found a “ditch” dug, you found a “dyke” thrown up beside it. So with οιμη and οιμος. Demodocus, we may remember, sang, or at least recited, to the harp, his narrative poem; he can hardly have danced it. But the dancers were at their work before he began, and as soon as he finished two very special dancers took the floor. That is perhaps why the early poems that we call the “Homeric Hymns” were in Greek called προοιμια—“preludes,” or things that come before the οιμη, or, indifferently, before the οιμος. The dance, of course, was not like our dancing. At times it may have been something with fixed steps and movements; at times we know that it was mimetic, trying magically to bring about some effect which it imitated. But in its essence it is only the yearning of the whole dumb body to express that emotion—the Greeks would say that “longing” (ιμερος)—for which words and harp and singing are not enough. The word constantly applied to all good singing or harping is ιμερóεις, not merely “beautiful,” but possessing that sort of beauty which makes the heart yearn. Ιμερος and ‘ρυθμóς, longing and rhythm, are the two special elements which the voice finds strengthened in the movements of the body.

It is difficult at this distance of time to estimate the relative importance in this early Molpê of the bard and the chorus respectively. In development, one would conjecture, the group came first and the individual after; and in later literature one certainly seems to find the individual gradually emancipating himself. We hear of competitions between separate choruses; also between bards who lead and conduct their respective choruses; while the special chorus of the Delian Maidens seems to have been at the disposal of all the various competing poets, and could sing in all the different dialects that were required. Fifth-century poets like Pindar and Bacchylides express themselves entirely through a chorus which they “teach”; so do the great tragedians, though in both cases the poet on particular occasions might conduct or lead the dancing himself. But at the same time, or earlier, the Lesbian poets and poetesses were singing or speaking their lyrics alone, and together with the cessation of the chorus the element of dancing seems to have disappeared or diminished. We hear also of the chorus being divided into “semi-choruses” or other groups, as in drama, for the purpose of a continuous performance, or perhaps of an epic lay. One half could rest while the other danced and sang; or at times, perhaps, the singers could rest while others danced. It is curious, and perhaps significant, that this “amoebaean” form of recital, in which one semi-chorus or group answered another, is the form that seems specially to be called ομηρεια or ομηρευσις—“Homer-ing.” The Muses in Hesiod tell their story αμειβóμεναι οπι καλη / φωνη ομηρευσαι [Saying what is and what will be and what has been, / With voices in tune, and a sound flows tirelessly] [Theogony, 38; cf. Iliad, I, 604, Odyssey, XXIV, 60].

What subjects were treated in this Molpê? The evidence is not very clear, because no doubt certain subjects were assumed to be obvious and natural. Hesiod and Homer do not define the subjects, but speak generally of them. The Muses of Hesiod, as they dance invisibly through the night, “sing of aegis-bearing Zeus and queenly Hera, and Athena, and Phoebus Apollo, and Artemis, and Poseidon, and Themis,” and others, and, indeed, of “all the race of the Blessed who live for ever” [Theogony, 11-21]. The Gods seem to form a great part of their song. But also they help the bard to sing “tales of men and women aforetime” [Hymn to Apollo, 160]; they sing of the things “that are and that shall be and that were long ago”; they even sing of the “laws and good customs of the immortals” [Theogony, 38, 66]. But the great message which they gave to Hesiod in his vision consisted of a confession and a promise: “We know how to utter many false things that look like real; but we also know, when we choose, how to speak truth” [Ibid., 27, 28]. In the Hymn to Apollo, again, they sing “the immortal gifts of the Gods and the endurances of men—θεων δορ’ αμβροτα ηδ’ ανθροπον τλημοσυνας” [Hymn to Apollo, 190]. Life consists, it would seem, of a long grey struggle to keep alive, and not to lose heart; but across the grey there flash on occasion such things as love and delight and victory and surprising deliverances— the “immortal gifts” of the Gods.

There is nothing very explicit in this. We know, of course, that there were Molpai for sowing and harvest; Molpai for rain or for sun; for fertility in man, beast, and fruit; for the averting of pestilence, and for most of the other things that people pray for. We hear of choric songs for marriage and death and victory and the like.

[To be continued.]

David Lane

I am the author of two published plays, The Tragedy of King Lewis the Sixteenth and Dido: The Tragedy of a Woman, in both of which I used regular traditional metrics (blank verse) and the traditional language of poetry, all but universal from the Trojan War to the First World War. I am a retired editor and a veteran of the Vietnam War. For nearly twenty years, I have served as Chairman of Una Voce New York, an organization dedicated to restoring traditional Roman Catholicism, especially the ancient Latin Rite superseded by the heavily revised vernacular liturgy born of the Second Vatican Council, an event that introduced sweeping changes into the Catholic Church and ignited fierce controversy that rages to this day.

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