Reprinted with permission from Marilyn B. Skinner, "Ladies' Day at the Art Institute: Theocritus, Herodas and the Gendered Gaze." In Andre Lardinois and Laura McClure, eds., Making Silence Speak: Women's Voices in Ancient Greek Literature and Society. Forthcoming from Princeton University Press, March, 2001.
This picture is the work of sensitive hands. My good Prometheus,
there are even human beings equal to you in skill.
At least, if whoever painted this maiden so truly
had just added a voice, you would have been Agatharkhis entirely.
In the introduction to his Garland, an anthology of Greek epigrams compiled around 100 B.C.E., Meleager of Gadara lists "the sweet maiden-complexioned crocus of Erinna" among his florilegium of poets (Anth. Pal. 4.1.12); the three preserved epigrams attributed to her may originally have been attached to manuscripts of the Distaff. If Erinna's traditional date of 353/2 B.C.E is correct, this is the earliest Greek ekphrastic epigram (an epigram describing a work of art). Erinna values the lifelike quality of the portrait; in an enthusiastic tribute to artistic creation, she compares the painter to the demigod Prometheus because Prometheus' action in molding humanity from clay involves not merely achieving an illusion of life but producing life itself.
This is the site of the Cyprian, since it is agreeable to her
to look ever from the mainland upon the bright sea
that she may make the voyage good for sailors. Around her the sea
trembles looking upon her polished image.
The Arcadian poet Anyte of Tegea lived at the beginning of the third century B.C.E. She chooses what was, at the time, atypical epigrammatic material: in her twenty or so genuine epigrams, verses expressing pity for the deaths of young women and animals and affectionate delight in children far outnumber those glorifying masculine achievements. She is the acknowledged inventor of the pastoral epigram, introducing evocations of peaceful idyllic landscapes into the repertoire of themes. Her most important contribution to the construction of the female viewer is her "introspective" approach to ekphrases of paintings and statues. Far from offering a detached, strictly empirical, report of visual experience, they infer, from observed phenomena, the internal disposition of the object portrayed. This epigram illustrates her strategy: Aphrodite's benevolent mood is mirrored in the translucent expanse of water viewed from her headland and transmuted into concern for the mariners she beholds from afar. In the third line, there is an abrupt switch in perspective to the reverent tremor of the water as it, in turn, observes the goddess' glistening statue. Descriptively, the epigram presents a contrast of emotive reactions to separate ocular experiences linked by the mutual apprehension of a brightly sunlit surface. Anyte's efforts to create audience empathy with the visualized object blur strict boundaries between textual perceiver and thing perceived, and consequently between that perceiver and the reader.
Nothing is sweeter than desire. All other delights are second.
From my mouth I spit even honey.
Nossis says this. Whom Aphrodite does not love,
knows not her flowers, what roses they are.
Over the course of centuries, Sappho's lyrics inspired a host of ancient imitations. For the history of women's literature, none are as important as those of Nossis, an epigrammatist active in south Italian Locri in the third century B.C.E. There we meet Sappho refracted through eleven, or perhaps twelve, unusually subjective epigrams composed by a learned Hellenistic woman. This is an introductory sphragis or signature-poem in which the author, in the process of identifying herself, simultaneously articulates her artistic principles and defines her poetic concerns. Here she alludes to Sappho twice: in recalling Sappho's pronouncement that desire is paradoxically sweet and bitter (glukypikros) and in stating, at the end, that those not in Aphrodite's favor will not recognize her "flowers" (a metaphor for her poems) as Sapphic roses.
Most reverend Hera, you who often descending from heaven
behold your Lacinian shrine fragrant with incense,
receive the linen wrap that with her noble child Nossis
Theophilis daughter of Cleocha wove for you.
At Locri, it was customary for girls to present robes to Persephone, Aphrodite, or other goddesses when they married (votive plaques from the shrine of Aphrodite commemorate this ritual). The robe being presented to Hera is made of linen and is therefore a costly garment: Nossis was of high social rank, as she herself claims. At the conclusion of the epigram she traces her descent back two generations through the female line. The conventional metonymic association between weaving and poetry also allows Nossis, in portraying herself as an apprentice to the dominant craftswoman, Theophilis, to pay tribute to her mother as her earliest creative mentor.
Let us go (elthoisai) to Aphrodite's temple to see her statue,
how finely it is embellished with gold.
Polyarchis dedicated it, having made a great fortune
out of the splendor of her own body.
Placed for emphasis at the beginning, the participle denoting the act of departure is grammatically feminine. We readers are welcomed into the circle of women surrounding the speaker and invited to discover in Polyarchis' statue what they themselves behold. The overtones of metallic brightness in the word "splendor" combine with the prior description of the statue as "embellished with gold" to create an impression of exact correspondence between gift and donor. Thus Polyarchis herself must have posed for the sculptor. When we recall that Aphrodite in the Hellenistic period was traditionally depicted nude, we see that the statue is a thank-offering that also advertises the donor's beauty, spoken of so admiringly in the last line.
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