Symmachus

Publishing, classics, mood swings

The Swallow song (Carmina popularia 2 PMG)

ἦλθ’ ἦλθε χελιδὼν
καλὰς ὥρας ἄγουσα,
καλοὺς ἐνιαυτούς,
ἐπὶ γαστέρα λευκά,
ἐπὶ νῶτα μέλαινα.
παλάθαν σὺ προκύκλει
ἐκ πίονος οἴκου
οἴνου τε δέπαστρον
τυροῦ τε κάνυστρον·
καὶ πύρνα χελιδὼν
καὶ τὰν λεκιθίταν
οὐκ ἀπωθεῖται· πότερ’ ἀπίωμες ἢ λαβώμεθα;

εἰ μέν τι δώσεις· εἰ δὲ μή, οὐκ ἐάσομες·
ἢ τὰν θύραν φέρωμες ἢ τὸ ὑπέρθυρον
ἢ τὰν γυναῖκα τὰν ἔσω καθημέναν·
μικρὰ μέν ἐστι, ῥαιδίως νιν οἴσομες.
ἂν δὴ φέρηις τι, μέγα δή τι φέροις·
ἄνοιγ’ ἄνοιγε τὰν θύραν χελιδόνι·
οὐ γὰρ γέροντές ἐσμεν, ἀλλὰ παιδία.

Came, came the swallow
with pleasant seasons,
with the beautiful year.
It is white underneath
and black on the back.
You, roll the fruitcake
out of the rich mansion
and a cup of wine,
and a basket of cheese:
nor wheat bread shall the swallow,
nor pulse bread
refuse. Now should we leave? or else receive?

If so, then give, or else we’re not content
We’ll take the door or the lintel above it
or the woman, she who is sitting outside it,
she’s small indeed, an easy load;
if you will bring, bring something large:
now open, open the door for the swallow,
we are not old men, but only children.

*

A Greek popular song, sung by the children of Rhodes as they went from house to house in what apparently was an ancient version of ‘trick-or-treat‘. According to Theognis of Rhodes, cited by Athenaeus 8.60, who preserves the song, the collection was occasioned by a religious festival in the month of Boëdromion. In Athens, this was an autumnal month. The theme of the present song has been taken as evidence that on Rhodes, Boëdromion came in the spring.

In the European classical tradition, the song has often been quoted as a prime example of naive Greek pastoral, a celebration of life and the beauty of nature. Perhaps the reality behind it is grimmer than we have realised.  In the later European context, ‘trick-or-treat’ indeed took place in the autumn, after the harvest and slaughter was done, when farms and houses were well-stocked. The poor people who performed the trick-or-treat had long winter months to look forward to, and needed every ounce of nutrition they could get.

Now, apparently here the children are dressed up as swallows, with white cloths in front and black on the back. What if the talk about spring and beautiful seasons is only a game, a sort of grimly humourous joke intended to soften the hearts of the rich mansion-owners — and, at the same time an instance of the superstitious euphemic practise so common of Greek society. The beatiful season, καλὰς ὥρας, καλοὺς ἐνιαυτούς, which is coming, is not the spring — but winter. Let’s call the winter beatiful, maybe it will be nicer to us.

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