Hair and hair-binding in pre-Classical Greece

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Nereides undoing their hair in mourning for Akhilleus, Louvre Museum (Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve been doing a lot of research on hair-binding lately, as a way of exploring and strengthening my commitment. After discussing the subject with a few other Hellenic polytheists, I have decided to share the product of my study with you all!

The document is rather long (9 pages) but it gives a general survey of hair across thirteen centuries of pre-Greek history, offers a theory as to how and why hair-binding and veiling developed, and contains a number of illustrations of ancient hairstyles, so if you’re interested in any of that, click on the link below to download the PDF 🙂

Hair and hair-binding in Ancient Greece

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To Hermes Psychopompos

Hermes, you who speak, you who negotiate, you who shatter all boundaries, you who understand, Friend of Humanity, you who have a great heart, do you know what festers in mine? Do you know that pain, that cold mud that, after plunging yourself so many times into the Styx, coats your veins? Do you ever rest on your journey, Traveller? Do you ever long to set down the burden of souls that you carry on your shoulders? What do you feel as you work? Do you feel? Do you shake it off, Careless One, do you harden your hands by pulling up those who collapsed at the sight of Charon, do you harden your heart, your soul, do you turn towards the sun, towards the Moirai, do you tell yourself that there is a reason to everything, that your father Zeus who knows all rules the world with justice? Do you weep? You who mock solemnity and make light of honour, are there times when the road becomes too steep, when the river becomes too deep, when our eyes become too glassy? Do you wonder, sometimes, what those eyes have seen? Do you attempt to picture, Immortal, what ultimate mystery we take part in? What emotion accompanies us? When you lie down on Olympus where laughter is inextinguishable, as you wait for sleep, do your thoughts drift towards our suffering? Do you dream of legs that are too heavy, of whimpers, of hiccups mingled with blood? Do you press a fist to your chest to stifle its aching? Do you recite our names, one by one, spending years of your eternity to remember all those with whom you have travelled? Or do you cleanse yourself of us after each crossing? Do you forget? Is that how you are still able to descend after so many centuries, so many deaths, is it from indifference that you draw your strength? Do you laugh, Endless One, at the sobs of we who see so little and yet suffer so much? Or will you, on our final meeting, let the same tears fall from your cheeks?

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The Orphic Hymn to Artemis

As part of my project to record some of my favourite ancient texts in the original language and pronunciation, today I am sharing with you the Orphic Hymn to Artemis.

After the Hymn to Hypnos, the Hymn to Artemis was the second Orphic text I learnt. I still have a video of me reciting it at the top of a mountain, my voice half-covered by the wind, the few words that can be heard spoken in a hesitant French accent. I was still a baby Hellenic polytheist then – I had just committed to it four months earlier. I hardly knew with what words I was invoking my Goddess.

Since recording that video, I have gained a much better understanding of Artemis and her Hymn – and what a beautiful hymn it is! I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I did reciting it.

 

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The Orphic Hymn to Hypnos in Ancient Greek

When I committed to following the Gods back in early 2014, one of the first things I did was learn the Orphic hymns. I needed a devotional activity that I could do every day, but that didn’t require much time, and that led me to learning the Hymn to Hypnos and reciting it every night. It’s now been almost two years and I’ve hardly missed an evening. Though I’ve struggled with sleep all my life, the Hymn calms me and helps me to let go and lie down in the arms of Hypnos.

After I posted a recording of the Odyssey in reconstructed Ancient Greek pronunciation last year, someone commented that it would be nicer without the background music. That got me thinking. There are very few recordings out there with a simple, raw presentation, the way a Hellenic polytheist would speak the words to the Gods – in fact, there are hardly any recordings done by Hellenic polytheists, and those that exist are in modern Greek pronunciation. It’s a shame, because hymns hold an important role in our religion.

So I decided to fix that. I’m no linguist, but I have been learning Ancient Greek for four and a half years and am currently studying it at university, where we use reconstructed Ancient Greek pronunciation. And so, for a start, I decided to record my much-loved Orphic Hymn to Hypnos.

My pronunciation isn’t perfect, and I may have forgotten an iota subscript here or there, but I did my best. Let me know if you have any requests for further recordings! 🙂

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The Summit of the World

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She runs between these trees, somewhere just out of my sight. This is her home: these cliffs, they are hers, and so are the yellow-brown hills and the jagged shards of ice piled up on the shores of the lake. I stand within the realm of Artemis, Lady of the Forest, Companion to the Chamois and the Ibex, and all that I see belongs to her. Even I.

At first she is unseen, untouchable, a divine mist slipping through my fingers. I know she is there, but wherever I turn, she vanishes, and only her voice lingers in the creaking of the ice as she calls her nymphs. They steal their way to her through the blackness of the frozen lake under my feet, gliding through the waters. Once, my mind’s eye catches a glimpse of her as she gazes down at me, perched on the edge of a cliff, upright and unshakeable as stone, her golden bow and arrows in her hands – but she is gone before I can see her face. You don’t win what is given to you, she seems to say. Are you looking for me? Then catch me.

So I straighten my back and give chase, because that is what she has always taught me, to tuck in my begging hands and pursue my goals myself. Rocks tumble down to the water ahead of me, and the waterfalls are white and still. The sun slips an arm through the clouds. Alone on the ice, my skates scratching winding lanes into the landscape, I show her what person she has made me. I stand surrounded by mountains, Gods in their own right, and yet I stand. No hands reached out to catch me as I slipped forward, no mouth brushed against my ear and whispered which cracks to step over and which pools to avoid, and yet I am here. I stand.

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That is when she appears to me first, her arrowtips glistening in the growing sunlight. She is tall, taller than the mountains, and she smiles at me like a mother at her child taking its first steps – but there is something terrible in that smile too, in that curving of the lips, that baring of the teeth, which reminds me of a lynx. You think you have conquered me? Look up. An avalanche rumbles far away. Suddenly, fear pulls at my knees.

I feel like a young girl, offering snail shells and twigs I picked off the side of the road to my mother, asking if she likes them, if she finds them pretty, pulling at her sleeve and begging her to give me treats in exchange, tracing her footsteps as she walks away, insisting that I’m an adult because my toddler’s feet stand where she did. I’m mimicking her, as if I were not mortal – a baby in her eyes – and she a Goddess greater and more complex than I could ever know. Do I ever try her patience? Does she love me regardless?

I understand, now, why the people of these mountains used to look up to them like Gods and fear the spirits that roamed them. Our modern cities may have forgotten, but those that walk on the summit of the world have power – more power than all of our nations together could bear.

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She faces me without a word, white teeth reflecting light in a smile like death. Her arrows stand steady in her quiver. But the bowstring stays undrawn. You will not catch me, her hard eyes declare, not this time. But you tried, and for that I am proud. For that I made you mine.

When I skid back to the chalet, icy awe and warm pride slush together inside me. This beautiful, austere landscape that surrounds me is hers, and so am I. I am only a stone somewhere on the slopes of her mountain, but though she could strike me to the ground at any time, I am here. I am part of the whole that makes up this world.

And with each step that she pushes me forward, together, we reach toward the sky.

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Happy New Year, and may whichever God to whom you belong keep you safe and contented, return to you tenfold all the kindness you share with others, push you forward in all your endeavours and lead you to the place in the cosmos where you most feel at home.

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Paean to Apollon

Midnight. The lights of the hospital car park blink outside my window. My head is heavy with the weight of the medicine I have been given. I should be asleep, but the stinging in my stomach keeps me awake.

On the table next to my bed, a face watches over me, calm, serious, radiant despite the darkness. He is made of paper, and yet he is more real than I ever will be. He is the Healer. The Leader of the Muses. The Shining One.

Apollon.

They say he had a song called the Paean, which healed those who listened to it. The Paean is long gone, of course. But when my voice escapes my lips, broken and so quiet, dying before it even leaves my hospital room, it doesn’t matter. He is there. He hears me. He is Apollon Paean, Apollon Mousagêtes, Apollon Iatros, and his song will soothe me to sleep.

Hallelujah, I sing, because it means praise God and even though the God of Hallelujah is not my God, on this empty night, I will praise mine. There’s a blaze of light in every word, I sing, it doesn’t matter which you heard  I’ll stand before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah…

My eyelids are heavy, the ache in my stomach has dulled. A face golden like the sun bends over me. Sleep, he whispers.

Hallelujah…

(I’m currently recovering from an operation, which is what inspired this post. Everything went well and it’s nothing serious, but I’m still very tired and nauseous. Prayers and well wishes are appreciated. On a side note, I recorded the song just one day after the operation. I decided to keep it, despite all its flaws, because of its rawness. It is my Paean to Apollon.)

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History’s Oldest Songs: What did Ancient Music sound like?

Music, in my opinion, is one of the most amazing things human beings have created. It has the power to make us feel happy, sad, roused, calm, to tell a story, to bring back memories, all through a limited number of sounds woven together. It is an expression of creativity, cultural identity and even religion – Apollon and the Muses being the Hellenic examples. I previously wrote about my connection to Apollon through classical music.

But although Schubert and Beethoven will always remind me of Apollon’s presence in my life, there is no greater testament to his immortality than the music of our ancestors.

Because music’s greatest gift is that it lasts.

People have been singing, and playing tunes, for tens of thousands of years – so long that we don’t know when we started. We were brought together by music before we could write, before we could farm, maybe even before all of us were homo sapiens. Now, thanks to archeologists, we can be brought together by music even across time.

So what did ancient music sound like? And how was it played?

Though it is impossible to know when we first began to sing, archeological finds can give us an idea of when the first instruments were made. So far, the oldest instrument recovered is a flute that dates back 40’000 years. It has been the subject of much controversy, some scholars arguing it was made by Neanderthals, some arguing it was made by Cro Magnons, some arguing it isn’t a flute at all but a chewed bone. What is indisputable, however, is that the holes are spaced out perfectly so that they form four notes of the diatonic scale (do, re, mi, fa). This gives the flute the flexibility to play many modern tunes, as well as imitate birdsong and other sounds. Whether or not it was intended for music, when Ljuben Dimkaroski reconstructed and played it, the sound was certainly eerie:

With the invention of writing, the preservation of music suddenly became much easier. Sadly, the oldest songs we have found were recorded without musical notation, so while we have an idea of the text, we can only imagine what the tune sounded like. Even so, using ancient depictions of instruments as well as archeological finds, some enthusiasts have created their own interpretations of these songs. While they may not always be accurate, they are fun to listen to!

We also know that ancient epics, amongst which the Iliad and the Odyssey, were accompanied by music. Here is an interpretation of the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest works of literature, written 5000 years ago:

The oldest preserved musical notation is also Sumerian. It dates back to 1950 B.C., during the reign of king Lipit-Ishtar for whom it was written. Unfortunately, the fragment that we have isn’t a song but a set of tuning instructions for an ancient lyre.

The Hurrian Hymn no.6 is the earliest song that we have and that is preserved enough to be played. It was discovered in Ugarit, in present day Syria, and was dated to approximately 1400 B.C. At the time, Ugarit was right on the border between Egypt and the culturally closer kingdom of Mitanni, in whose language – Hurrian – the recovered hymns were written. No.6 was dedicated to Nikkal, a Goddess of the moon. Even though she does not belong to my religion, it makes me happy that after being forgotten for so long, her hymns are being sung again 🙂

Here is an instrumental version:

At last, in the Classical period, we are brought to Greece by a short piece composed for the theatre. Though the only surviving copy is from the 3rd century, the text is from Euripides’ Orestes, which was written two centuries earlier. It is a rather grim stasimon – a song performed by the chorus during a play – which laments Orestes’ fate. The lyrics are as follow:

κατολοφύρομαι, κατολοφύρομαι
ματέρος αἷμα σᾶς, ὅ σ’ ἀναβακχεύει,
ὁ μέγας ὄλβος οὐ μόνιμος ἐν βροτοῖς,
ἀνὰ δὲ λαῖφος ὥς τις ἀκάτου θοᾶς τινάξας δαίμων
κατέκλυσεν δεινῶν πόνων ὡς πόντου
λάβροις ὀλεθρίοισιν ἐν κύμασιν.

Translation: I lament, I lament the blood of your mother that drives you mad; great happiness is never lasting for mortals, but like the sail of a swift ship shaken by some God, so it is submerged with terrible suffering into the harsh and deadly waves of the sea.

The 2nd century B.C. brings us a new set of hymns from Greece. The two Delphic hymns, dedicated to Apollon, were found in the sanctuary at Delphi. The first was composed by a certain Athenaios son of Athenaios, and the second by Limenios, son of Thoinos. This is significant: they are the first composers in history whose music is preserved and known to be theirs.

Last but not least, the Song of Seikilos, composed sometime between 100 B.C. and A.D. 100, is the oldest song that has been completely preserved. I have written about it before, but it’s a perfect ending to this playlist, and simply too beautiful not to share. Seikilos’ inscription above the song is particularly poignant in this context:

Εἰκὼν ἡ λίθος εἰμί. Τίθησί με Σείκιλος ἔνθα μνήμης ἀθανάτου σῆμα πολυχρόνιον.

It translates as: I, this stone, am an image. Seikilos placed me here as the ageless symbol of a deathless memory.

Seikilos, Athenaios, Limenios and the other nameless composers may be long-gone, but here we are, listening to the same sounds they listened to, singing the words they wrote, communing with them as if we were sitting around the same hearth despite the years that separate us.

Is that not the very definition of immortality?

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