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  Nr. 87 - November 2005
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The Archilochos Conference

by Jeffrey Carson, November 2005
After much and careful preparation, the International Conference on Archilochos, “Archilochos and His Age”, which took place on Paros 7-9 October, was a big and enduring success. And big is the right word. Several dozen philologists, archaeologists, and even three poets convened to discuss matters close to their heart: Paros’s great poet Archilochos, who lived at the beginning of the Lyric Age, at the middle of the seventh century BCE, and was considered by ancient critics to be second only to Homer.

There were three days of lectures, a tour through the museum, a trip to Despotikon (the latter two thanks to Yannos Kourayios, whose talk brought us up to date on his great Archaic excavation-in-progress), several convivial meals, and lots of good conversation over coffee and sweets. And the photography exhibition on the walls, Elizabeth Carson’s “Stone Translucence”, made the speakers want to see for themselves.

The conference was held at the Archilochos Hall, which had undergone the appropriate renovations during the summer. There was simultaneous translation and a large outdoor screen in the courtyard for people who couldn’t get in to watch the proceedings, and a general air of festivity pervaded Paroikia. The weather was cool and clement, and Paros enchanted the speakers, a dozen of whom had given preliminary papers a year ago at the Aegean Center. And they all want to come back, now that they have a new perspective on what Archilochos was writing about: sea, sky, mountain, the rhythms of the land, why figs are cheap, and more. Some of the participants discovered that a swim in the Aegean can be worth a week in the library.

The conference opened with short speeches by representatives of the three chief sponsors. Ioannis Rangoussis, Mayor of Paros, spoke for the Demos, Dora Katsonopoulou, the President, spoke for the Archilochos Institute of Paros and the Cyclades, and President Spyros Mitrogiannis spoke for the Archilochos Cultural Society of Paros. And immediately after these the conference plunged straight into the matter at hand.

Poetry needs context, and a chief raison d’etre for such a conference is to enable scholars willing to delve into little-known times and fragmentary texts to make their work generally available, to answer questions of other scholars, and to revise their work in the light of new ideas. When Archilochos mentions war, what does he mean? Was it as scandalous to throw one’s shield away in 650 BCE as it was later in 480 BCE? In what kind of boat did he travel to Thasos? Is he singing, chanting, or reciting? To whom? Are we justified in considering what seem personal details of his life trustworthy? Is he damning that woman for a slut or praising her for doing a good job?

The point of all the blah-blah, often enjoyable in itself, was to make the poems more truly alive and beautiful, and to keep us from the decadence of admiring fragments merely for themselves, as if Aphrodite of Melos looks better without arms or the Peplos Kore without colour. We know Archilochos only by 500 lines, all fragments, that by chance have defied the ravages of time; carefully, we can make more of them.

Perhaps the most eagerly awaited talk – two talks really – was by Dirk Obbink, who presented the new thirty-line fragment, found among the tattered heaps of papyrus from Oxyrynchus, an ancient rubbish dump in Egyptian sand.

Oxford University scientists have employed new multispectral imaging technology to bring to light a hoard of new papyri, with the hope that perhaps many lost Greek comedies, tragedies and poems will soon be brought to rebirth. Over the summer a substantial new fragment by Sappho whetted our expectation. The new Archilochos fragment seems to be in elegiac pentameter, and tells of Telephos, whose elaborate myth includes heroism at Troy. Verse translations are on their way.

The next two days were chock-a-block with lectures. Diskin Clay summed up some of his conclusions on the cult of Archilochos on Paros (the archaeological evidence is in the museum), from his recent book, “Archilochos Heros”; David Tandy filled in the economic background; Brian Lavelle told us about war; Jenny Clay-Strauss about love; Jaume Portulas about oracles, Ewen Bowie about the poet’s conjoining of sex and politics; Ann Coulie about pots from the poet’s Thasos; John Petropoulos about using later folk materials to elucidate lost meanings; local poet Christos Georgousis about Archilochos’ influence on Modern Greek poetry… it went on and on, and the hall never emptied out. And always, half the audience was made up of Parians, eager to learn more about their great poet.

The closing ceremonies – standing room only, but that was the rule – featured a cantata composed and conducted by Nikos Sarris, based on his demotic reworkings of the some of the fragments; the melodies make use of elements from the Islands, from Smyrna, from contemporary Greek art song, and something purely Nikos’ own. The three soloists – Thodoros Kritikos, Manolis Rangousis, and young Roula Biza (you’ll hear that name again!) sang beautifully, accompanied by santouri, violin, flute, guitar, piano, and percussion. Nikos promises us a fuller version in the future. The departing speakers were begging him for a CD.

Many of the papers presented at the conference will be published in a book next year. So the hundreds of points that flashed by us will be there for consideration.

W. B. Yeats imagined scholars coughing over their texts in a silent reading room, and concluded his poem “The Scholars”, thus:

Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?

Well, we know what we would have done had roistering Archilochos joined us: given him some of the fine Parian wine we were all drinking, and asked him to dance.
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