Sparta, 7th cent. B.C. (Alcman, Fr. 1.5-101)

A chorus of young girls describe themselves and their ceremonial role in a special song. They appear to be offering a robe to a goddess, possibly Helen, who was worshipped in Sparta. Their erotic attraction to their leaders, Hagesichora and her friend Agido, recalls Sappho’s world; perhaps Aenesimbrota was their teacher and trainer. Emphasis on the beauty of face and hair suggests that they are involved in a ritual that marks the transition (hence perhaps the references to battle) from girlhood to womanhood: the running of races is also a feature of puberty rites for Hera in Olympia and Artemis in Brauron. Comparison to horses may suggest the imminence of marriage, which is often described in metaphors of taming and yoking. Doves frequently represent women’s vulnerability.[1]

The girls readily accept their leaders’ preeminence. But in men’s competition, success is ordinarily accompanied by strong expressions of envy and resentment.

I sing of Agido’s light. I see her as the sun; Agido calls him to testify to us that he is shining. But our famous leader will not let me either praise or criticise her; for our leader seems to us to be supreme, as if one set a horse among the herds, strong, prize-winning, with thundering hooves-horse of the world of dreams. And don’t you see: the race-horse is Venetic; but my cousin[2] Hagesichora’s hair blooms like unmixed gold. And her silver face-why should I spell it out? Here is Hagesichora. And she who is second to Agido in looks, runs like a Colaxian horse to an Ibenian. For the Doves bring the robe to the Goddess of the Dawn for us; they rise like the dog star through the immortal night and fight for us. There is not enough purple to protect us, nor jewelled snake of solid gold, nor Lydian cap-adornment of girls with their dark eyes; nor Nanno’s hair, no nor Areta who is like the gods; not Sylakis and Cleeisera. You wouldn’t go to Aenesimbrota’s house and say: let me have Astaphis; may Philylla look at me, and lovely Damareta and Vianthemis-no, it’s Hagesichora who excites me. For Hagesichora of the fair ankles is near her; close to Agido … she praises our festival. Yes, gods, receive [their prayer]. From the gods [comes] accomplishment and fulfilment. Leader, I could say-a young girl that I am; I shriek in vain from my roof like an owl, and I will say what will please Dawn most, for she has been healer of our troubles; but it is through Hagesichora that girls have reached the peace they long for … 

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1. See especially Calame, 1977.

2. Perhaps the term is metaphorical, signifying only that they are members of the same social group; Calame, 1977, 84-5.