Navigation banner for Diotima (6k)

Women, by Semonides of Amorgos (Poem 7)

Translation and notes copyright 1995 Diane Arnson Svarlien; all rights reserved.

        From the start, the gods made women different.
One type is from a pig--a hairy sow
whose house is like a rolling heap of filth;
and she herself, unbathed, in unwashed clothes,
5reposes on the shit-pile, growing fat.
Another type the gods made from a fox:
pure evil, and aware of everything.
This woman misses nothing: good or bad,
she notices, considers, and declares
10that good is bad and bad is good. Her mood
changes from one moment to the next.
One type is from a dog--a no-good bitch,
a mother through and through; she wants to hear
everything, know everything, go everywhere,
15and stick her nose in everything, and bark
whether she sees anyone or not.
A man can't stop her barking; not with threats,
not (when he's had enough) by knocking out
her teeth with a stone, and not with sweet talk either;
20even among guests, she'll sit and yap;
the onslaught of her voice cannot be stopped.
One type the gods of Mount Olympus crafted
out of Earth--their gift to man! She's lame
and has no sense of either good or bad.
25She knows no useful skill, except to eat
--and, when the gods make winter cold and hard
to drag her chair up closer to the fire.
Another type is from the Sea; she's two-faced.
One day she's calm and smiling--any guest
30who sees her in your home will praise her then:
"This woman is the best in all the world
and also the most beautiful." The next day
she's wild and unapproachable, unbearable
even to look at, filled with snapping hate,
35ferocious, like a bitch with pups, enraged
at loved ones and at enemies alike.
Just as the smooth unrippled sea at times
stands still, a joy to mariners in summer,
and then at times is wild with pounding waves--
40This woman's temperament is just like that.
The ocean has its own perplexing ways.
Another type is from a drab, gray ass;
she's used to getting smacked, and won't give in
until you threaten her and really force her.
45She'll do her work all right, and won't complain;
but then she eats all day, all night--she eats
everything in sight, in every room.
And when it comes to sex, she's just as bad;
she welcomes any man that passes by.
50Another loathsome, miserable type
is from a weasel: undesirable
in every way--un-charming, un-alluring.
She's sex-crazed, too; but any man who climbs
aboard her will get seasick. And she steals
55from neighbors, and from sacrificial feasts.
Another type a horse with flowing mane
gave birth to. She avoids all kinds of work
and hardship; she would never touch a mill
or lift a sieve, or throw the shit outside,
60or sit beside the oven (all that soot!).
She'll touch her husband only when she has to.
She washes off her body every day
twice, sometimes three times! then rubs herself
with perfumed oil. She always wears her hair
65combed-out, and dressed with overhanging flowers.
Such a wife is beautiful to look at
for others; for her keeper, she's a pain
--unless he is a king, or head of state
who can afford extravagant delights.
70Another type is from an ape. I'd say
that Zeus made her the greatest pain of all--
his gift to man! Her face is hideous.
This woman is a total laughingstock
when she walks through the town. She has no neck,
75no butt--she's all legs. You should see the way
she moves around. I pity the poor man
who holds this horrid woman in his arms.
She's well-versed in every kind of trick
just like an ape; what's more, she has no shame
80and doesn't care if people laugh at her.
She'd never think of doing something kind
to anyone; she plots the whole day long
to see how she can do the greatest harm.
Another type is from a bee. Good luck
85in finding such a woman! Only she
deserves to be exempt from stinging blame.
The household that she manages will thrive;
a loving wife beside her loving man,
she'll grow old, having borne illustrious
90and handsome children; she herself shines bright
among all women. Grace envelops her.
She doesn't like to sit with other women
discussing sex. Zeus gratifies mankind
with these most excellent and thoughtful wives.
95But by the grim contrivances of Zeus
all these other types are here to stay
side by side with man forever. Yes,
Zeus made this the greatest pain of all:
          If she seems to want to help
100that's when she does her keeper the most harm.
A man who's with a woman can't get through
a single day without a troubled mind.
He'll never banish Hunger from his house:
unwelcome, hateful lodger, hostile god.
105Just when a man seems most content at home
and ready for enjoyment, by the grace
of god or man, that's when she'll pick a fight,
her battle-helmet flashing, full of blame.
A household with a woman is at a loss
110to give a decent welcome to a guest.
The wife who seems the most restrained and good,
she's the most disastrous of them all;
for while her slack-jawed husband gapes at her
the neighbors laugh at how he's been deceived.
115Each man will diligently praise his own
and blame the next man's wife; we just don't see
that we all share alike in this hard luck.
For Zeus made this the greatest pain of all
and locked us in a shackle hard as iron
120and never to be broken, ever since
the day that Hades opened up his gates
for all the men who fought that woman's war.

Translator's Notes

Back up to the top

The following works will be referred to in the notes by author's name (or name and date) only:

Campbell, D. A. Greek Lyric Poetry (London 1967).
----------------. review of Lloyd-Jones, Females of the Species, Phoenix 30 (1976) 97-98.
Gerber, D. E. "Semonides, FR. 7.62," Phoenix 28 (1974) 251-53.
----------------. "Varia Semonidea," Phoenix 33 (1979) 19-24.
Hubbard, Thomas K. "Elemental Psychology and the Date of Semonides of Amorgos," AJP 115.2 (1994) 175-97.
Lattimore, Richmond. "Notes on Greek Poetry," American Journal of Philology 65 (1944) 172-75. (172-73 on Semonides 7.57-62)
----------------. Greek Lyrics (Second Edition, Chicago 1960) 8-11. (translation)
Lloyd-Jones, Hugh, ed., trans. & comm. Females of the Species: Semonides on Women (Park Ridge 1975).
Renehan, R. "The Early Greek Poets. Some Interpretations," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 87 (1983) 1-29. (11-15 on Semonides 7).
Verdenius, W. J. "Semonides über die Frauen: ein Kommentar zu Fr. 7." Mnemosyne 21 (1968) 132-58.
----------------. "Semonides über die Frauen: Nachtrag zum Kommentar zu Fr. 7." Mnemosyne 22 (1969) 299-301.
----------------. "Epilegomena zu Semonides Fr. 7." Mnemosyne 30 (1977) 1-12.
Waanders, F. M. J. "A Note on Semonides 7, 53: alênês," Mnemosyne 33 (1980) 347-49.
West, M. L. Studies in Greek Elegy and Iambus (Berlin and New York 1974).
----------------. Iambi et Elegi Graeci Ante Alexandrum Cantati (Second Edition, Oxford 1992). (text)
----------------. Greek Lyric Poetry (Oxford 1993). (translation)
Wooley, A. Review of Heinz Schreckenberg, Ananke (Munich 1964), in American Journal of Philology 88 (1967) 230.

Please consult Diotima's bibliography on this poem for full references to other helpful materials.

My translation follows the text of West 1992, except where noted below. The line numbers given below are those of the English, followed by the line numbers of the Greek text (in parentheses) where different.

Semonides of Amorgos. Very little is known about the life of Semonides. The island Amorgos, which lies southeast of Naxos, was colonized by Samians, and some of the ancient sources say that Semonides was originally from Samos. He is usually dated to the seventh century B.C.E., but Hubbard argues persuasively for a sixth century date. By writing abusive verse in iambic meter, Semonides was working in the same poetic tradition as his fellow Ionians Archilochus and Hipponax (see West 1974, 22-39 on the genre known as iambos). Semonides' language often echoes Homer and Hesiod, and some of the views on women expressed in Poem 7 are comparable to those expressed by Hesiod. This poem was preserved in the anthology compiled by Stobaeus in the fifth century C.E. It is the longest of Semonides' surviving poems, and indeed the longest surviving non-hexameter poem from before the fifth century B.C.E. (West 1993, xi).

Line 1 (1-2): "From the start, the gods made women different." The word gynê, gynaikos in Greek means both "woman" and "wife."

A more literal translation of the first sentence: "At the beginning, god made the mind of woman separate (chôris)." Chôris has been much discussed (separate from each other? separate from men?); I have sought to preserve the ambiguity in my translation.

Back to the text.

Line 13 (12): "a mother through and through." The meaning of automêtora is disputed. My translation follows the interpretation of Verdenius (1968, 137; following Buchholz-Peppmüller). Other proposed translations include: "the image of her mother" (Campbell 1967), "her mother's own child" (Lloyd-Jones), and "'giving birth without her husband's help,' i.e. promiscuous" (West 1974, 178).

Back to the text.

Line 20 (19): "even among guests." The speaker of the poem is somewhat preoccupied with the effect a wife has on a man's relations with his guests (xenoi); compare lines 29 and 109-110 (106-7). The final lines of the poem, with their reference to Helen and the Trojan War, reflect this preoccupation: Paris' abduction of his host's wife, and the war that follows, is an extreme case of xenia gone wrong, and it leads, ironically, to Hades receiving dead warriors as his guests. See notes on lines 49 and 121-22 (117-18) below.

Back to the text.

Line 26 (25): "--and, when ..." West's text, following Ahrens. Others follow Schneidewin's correction of the text to oud' ên, "not even when" (i.e., the earth-woman is too sluggish even to pull her chair up when she's cold).

Back to the text.

Line 41 (42): "The ocean has its own perplexing ways." This is a problematic line. The Greek of lines 41-42 seems to mean, "Such a woman is most of all like that [the sea] in temperament (orgê); but the sea has a different appearance (phyê)." So West, in his 1993 verse translation: "That's what this kind of woman's like--in mood, / I mean; there's no resemblance in her looks!" Orgên stands at the beginning of line 42, prominently, in enjambment, followed immediately by phyên de; it certainly looks as if the poet is drawing a contrast between inward disposition and outward form. But for the poet to cap his description of the sea-woman with, "But a large body of salt water is unlike a woman in physical appearance!" seems bizarrely inept.

Another approach is to take phyê as a synonym for physis, "inward nature," and de as a continuing rather than a contrasting particle. Lloyd-Jones, following this course, explains alloiên, "different," as euphemistic for "different in a sinister way," and gives parallels; he translates, in his commentary, "'And the sea has a nature unlike that of other things,' i.e., a nature that is sinister and uncanny" (73). My translation follows this approach the most closely, although by leaving de untranslated I leave open the possibility that the poet is drawing a contrast between the sea-woman and the sea.

A third approach is to emend the text. See Renehan for an overview of proposed solutions (which include deleting the line). Renehan deletes the word orgên, which "perhaps originated as a gloss or variant to phyên, inspired by v. 11," and inserts allot' before alloiên (the phrase allot' alloiên, "changing from one moment to the next," is also found in line 11). The sense of the line is then that of Lattimore's translation: "This woman's disposition is just like the sea's / since the sea's temper also changes all the time." Renehan's account of how the text could have become corrupted is persuasive, and he may be right, but if he is I feel disappointed in Semonides. Renehan rightly points out that (contrary to received opinion) Semonides is "a more than competent poet," yet Renehan's solution seems to me a weak ending to the sea-woman passage.

Back to the text.

Line 48: "And when it comes to sex ..." The phrases that I have translated as "sex" in this line and in lines 53 and 93 (91) are more colorful in the Greek; they all use the adjective aphrodisios, "having to do with Aphrodite." In line 48 the phrase is ergon aphrodision, "the work of Aphrodite"; in 53, eunês aphrodisiês, "the bed of Aphrodite"; in 93 (91), aphrodisious logous, "aphrodisiac words."

Back to the text.

Line 49: "she welcomes ..." The verb used here (dechomai) is the normal verb for welcoming or receiving a guest. It is also used in lines 110 (107) ("give a decent welcome") and 121 (117) ("opened up his gates") below. Cf. notes on lines 20 (19) and 121-22 (117-18). The ass-woman is indiscriminate in her hospitality.

Back to the text.

Line 53: "sex-crazed." See note on line 48 above on "sex." My translation "crazed" follows the manuscript reading alênês. For a proposed etymology of this word (glossed by Hesychius as mainomenos) see Waanders. West accepts the conjecture adênês, "ignorant, inexperienced." See West (1974) 178 on this and the following line.

Back to the text.

Lines 53-54 (54): "climbs aboard." I follow West's reading, perônta, "crossing over (as in a ferry)" for the nautical metaphor. Others read pareonta, "being present." Lloyd-Jones, followed by Gerber (1979) 20, takes ton andra ton pareonta to mean either "whatever husband she has for the time being" or "whatever man is with her," and attributes the man's nausea to the weasel-woman's bad smell. Verdenius (1977) 6 interprets ton andra ton pareonta as "Besucher" (guest).

Back to the text.

Line 57 (58): "she avoids ..." Editors have disagreed as to whether the verb in the manuscripts, peritrepei, can mean anything like "avoid." Various emendations have been proposed. Campbell notes, "either peritremei (suggested in L.S.J) or peritrechei (Lattimore [1944]) would suit a fastidious mare." Lloyd-Jones and West 1992 accept the manuscript reading.

Back to the text.

Line 61 (62): "She'll touch her husband only when she has to." The meaning of this line (anankêi d' andra poieitai philon, "she makes a man a philos by compulsion [anankê]") is disputed. Gerber (1974) gives an overview of past interpretations, which for the most part fall into two camps, "namely 'she forces a man (or her husband) to love her' and 'only when forced does she get married (or show love for her husband)'" (251). Gerber himself favors the first interpretation; he explains philos as "loving" and argues on stylistic grounds that line 62 goes less naturally with the lines that precede ("the list of activities she dislikes") than with those that follow ("those which she enjoys," sc. making herself beautiful so that a man can't help but love her).

However, if andra poieitai philon, "she makes her husband her philos," is understood as a euphemism for sex, and anankê as the coercion (implicit or otherwise) that the husband exerts upon his wife, then line 62 provides a seamless transition between what precedes and what follows. The horse-woman is fastidious about her body: she dislikes dirty household tasks; she performs her conjugal duties, but only because she has to; she bathes frequently (the Greek is even stronger: "she washes off the filth") and rubs perfume on her skin. Wooley rightly (and tersely) suggests that anankê here "is better understood by comparing the anankê in line 44 (mogis [just barely; with difficulty]) and by seeing the statement about the Mare-Woman as in responsion to that about the immediately preceding Cat-Woman [=weasel-woman] (line 53), who is man-crazy." The husbands of both the ass-woman and the horse-woman must rely on anankê to keep their wives in line, though the types of compulsion involved no doubt differ in degree and kind. When it comes to sex, the weasel-woman is eager but unappealing; the horse-woman is attractive but reluctant. On the horse-woman's prissiness, see Verdenius (1968) 145 on habrê in the Greek of line 57, which he translates "üppig"; see also his notes on line 62 (1968, 146-7; 1977, 6-7).

Campbell (1967) and Lloyd-Jones favor the interpretation of Lattimore (1944), "she makes her husband intimate with hard times."

Back to the text.

Line 67 (68): "a pain." The word that I translate "pain" here and in lines 71 (72), 98 (96), and 118 (115) is in Greek kakon, "a bad thing, " the same word that Hesiod applies repeatedly to womankind (e.g. Theogony 570, 600 and Works and Days 88-89). The horse-woman is, like Pandora in Hesiod's Theogony, a kalon kakon, "a beautiful bad thing" (Theogony 585; Semonides 67-68 [66-67 trans.]). Semonides applies kakon to women in this poem more often than is evident from my translation; women are called kakon, or doers of kakon, in the Greek of lines 55 (she does bad things to neighbors), 77 ("horrid woman"), 82 and 98 ("harm") as well as in 72, 96, and 115.

Back to the text.

Line 86 (84): "stinging blame." Literally, "on her alone blame does not alight." The verb is appropriate to a bee, as Campbell points out.

Back to the text.

Lines 121-22 (117-18): "the day that Hades opened up his gates / for all the men who fought that woman's war." This is clearly a reference to Helen, the cause of the Trojan War; it is a fitting ending to a poem concerned with the multifarious wickedness of women in general, and their ill effect on guest-host relations in particular (see note on line 20 [19] above).

Hades, the god of the underworld, is thought of in early Greek poetry as the ultimate host; he is called "welcomer of many," "receiver of all," "having many xenoi," etc. See N. J. Richardson, The Homeric Hymn to Demeter (Oxford 1974) 145 (on poludektê, line 9) for a list of references. On the verb dechomai ("opened up his gates") see the note on line 49 above.

Some editors have felt that Semonides' poem as we have it is incomplete, because of the particles te and men in line 117 of the Greek, which can imply that there is more to follow. To others, including the present translator, the idea of a lost continuation seems unlikely. Campbell (1976) 98 and Renehan 13-15 argue strongly for the completeness of the poem.

Back to the text.

Acknowledgments: I am grateful to Professors Jenny Strauss Clay, Mark Rasmussen, and John Svarlien for reading this work in progress and offering valuable advice. I would also like to thank the editors of Diotima, Professors Ross Scaife and Suzanne Bonefas, for suggesting this project and providing unfailing help.

Permission is hereby granted to distribute for classroom use, provided that both >Diane Arnson Svarlien and Diotima are identified in any such use. Other uses not authorized in writing by the translator or in accord with fair use policy are expressly prohibited.