In this article, I will introduce you to a woman from the 5th Century BCE who had a prominent reputation by the name of Praxilla. Ian Plant mentions in Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology, that Praxilla was highly regarded for her contributions of Greek lyric poetry and songs, and is dated by an ancient historian named Eusebius to Olympiad 451/450 BCE (Plant, 2004 ,p.39).
Portrait of Praxilla
This painting is by John William Godward, a Victorian Neo-classist who has a various range of paintings available for print and viewing here:
Josephine Balmer admits that when she wrote Piecing Together the Fragments: Translating Classical Verse, Creating Contemporary Poetry, that classical women poets contain little work left of them. Due to this her colleagues expressed skepticism thinking she would be “scraping the barrel” to write her book (Balmer, 2013, p. 104). When reading this, I soon realized how little information was available on Praxilla.
Balmer notes that it was Anticipater of Thessalonica in his first-century epigram who listed Praxilla first among his canon of nine earthly muses named: Praxilla, Moero, Anyte, Myrtis, Erinna, Telesilla, Corinna, Nossis, and Sappho (p.104). Jane Synder in The Women and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome, notes that Anticipater of Thessalonica was known as a Greek writer and an obscure elegiac poet who composed a verse catalog of famous women poets (Synder, 1989, p. 9). This suggests that what is known of Praxilla and her work comes from ancient fragments written by someone else.
I have noted the difficulty in understanding the life of an ancient Greek woman such as Praxilla, where unless you were a goddess or a queen, you may not have been interesting enough to explore. Dillion and James suggest that this is “because the ancient materials on women pose interpretive challenges due to unexamined biases in both the sources themselves and in traditional scholarship on the subject, inherited from the nineteenth century” (James and Dillion, 2012, p.1). Anne Klinck in Women’s Songs in Ancient Greece, mentions that early Greece was known for its oral culture and became a part of everyone’s experience (Klinck, 2008, p.11). Importantly Klinck goes on to say that all kinds of poems and songs must have flourished but only a small fraction transmitted by literary elite survive (p.11).
From this we know that there is a large loss of information available. What is known is how Praxilla was thought to have created the dactylic meter, a three-syllable metrical pattern in poetry. Words such as, “basketball” and “poetry” are examples of a three-syllable metrical pattern. Plant mentions that Choral odes were performed at the festivals of Dionysus where poetry competitions such as dithyramb competitions were held and attracted entries from poets like Pindar and Bacchylides (Plant, 2004, p.38).
Dithyrambs are defined in the online Oxford Classical Dictionary as, “choral songs in honor of Dionysus; who is the origin and meaning of the word itself. It includes three phases in the history of the genre: (1) pre-literary dithyramb; (2) the institutionalization of dithyramb in the 6th Century BCE and (3) the latest phase which began in the mid-5th Century (Zimmermann, 2015). Interestingly, we know that Praxilla is from the 5th century. Plant goes on to discuss that Praxilla was known for having competed at these festivals which suggests that such competitions may have provided the opportunity for a poet like Praxilla to become well known (Plant, 2004, p.38). There is no direct evidence from Praxilla herself, instead what survives is her reiterated poems by other people. Little is known of Praxilla with respect to her personal life outside of being a composer. Some assumptions suggests that she may have been a prostitute but because there is no testimony of Praxilla’s life these interpretations are considered faulty.
Further interpretations will continue to be explored but first I would like to share Praxilla’s origin.
Map Of Ancient Sicyon
Praxilla originated from the ancient city of Sicyon, 16.78 miles from ancient Corinth. Her city enjoyed prosperity during the benevolent rule of the tyrant Kleisthenes who was known to have fostered a well-known group of artists which included Praxilla and the above mentioned earthly muses (Synder 1989, p.54).
Image of Sicyon’s ancient theater where Praxilla may have preformed:
During my research it was evident that Praxilla was held in high regard through the mentions in Thessalonica’s epigram, and the statues dedicated in her honor. If it was not for this information, there would be no information of Praxilla or no Praxilla at all.
One of the images I came across is shown below by Carole Raddato , with the description, “Dancing female figure thought to have been Praxilla” and is part of the Three Exedras at Hadrian’s Villa found at the Palazzo Massimo Alee Terme, Rome. Plant mentions that the fame of Sicyonian artists continued into the fourth century, for at that time it was the home of a great sculptor named Lysippos, who sculpted a statue of her. There is also evidence that the reception of Praxilla’s work was in the comic playwright Aristophanes, “who parodied lines from her poetry both in the Wasp (1238) and the Thesmophoriazusae (528). Not only did he know her work, but his parody implies that he expected his Athenian audience to recognize it too” (Plant, 2004, p.38).
It was Jane Synder who noted that Anticipater of Thessalonica composed a verse catalog of famous women poets (Synder, 1989, p. 9), and translated and copied his verse catalog as follows:
“These women Mt. Helicon and Macedonian Rock of PieriaSynder, 1989, p. 9)
raised- with godlike tongues for songs:
Praxilla, Moero, the voice of Anyte
Sappho, the ornament of the fair-tressed Lesbians,
Erinna, Telesilla of wide fame, and you, Korinna,
singing of the impetuous shield of Athena,
Nossis of womanly tongue, and sweet-sounding Myrtis-
all of them composers of pages that will last for all time.
Great Heaven created nine Muses, but Earth
bore these nine, as everlasting delight for mortals”.
Plant mentions that Praxilla wrote poetry intended to be sung at parties from which respectable women would be excluded, has left to speculation that she may have been a hetaera, or courtesan (Plant, 2004, p.38). Can you imagine not being able to socialize with other men? Or that if you were seen frequenting at their parties this meant you were a courtesan? This statement also brings to the foreground the type of society women lived in thousands of years ago. At the end of the day, whether Praxilla was a prostitute or not was never determined but I would like to hope that she enjoyed what she did and especially at her own free will.
A man named Hephaestion who was Alexander the Greats general and Greek grammarian of the second century BCE (Collins, 2014, p.52) , mentions Praxilla’s dithyrambs, as well as the dactylic meter she is said to have invented (Balmer, 2013, p. 112). However, neither do Plant or Balmer provide detailed analysis regarding how she created this meter or who discovered this in the first place. There is only the mention that she was famous for creating the dactylic meter and no information on how this was discovered.
Praxilla’s Fragments and Scholarship Interpretations
“The most beautiful thing I leave is the light of the sun,
second are the shinning stars and the face of the moon,
and cucumbers, and apples, and pears too.“Hymn to Adonis, Fragment #1 (Plant. 2004, p.38)
Fragment #1 has attracted various interpretations and one that I found interesting was how Balmer says that Zenobius informs us that the speaker was the fertility god Adonis, lover of Aphrodite until killed by a wild boar (Balmer, 2013, p.112). She goes on to say that every Greek woman celebrated the festival of Adonis in his memory, laughing and drinking together and leaving gifts of quick-growing vegetables such as those mentioned in the fragment above, to wither in the sun on housetops for 8 days (Balmer, 2013, p.113). This could imply that Praxilla was writing a poem during the same time that this festival was occurring.
Plant suggests that Zenobius lived in the second century and records that sillier than Praxilla’s Adonis had become proverbial, and he cites fragment 1 (above) to illustrate his point (Plant, 2004, p.38).
Balmer suggests that Praxilla’s Adonis became a saying used to describe stupid people, “for anyone who list cucumbers and the rest among sun and moon can only be feeble-minded” (Balmer, 2013, p.113). In riposte, Balmer explains how modern scholars have their own theories about Fragment #1 by pointing to 1929 Wilhelm Schmid and Otto Stählin, who saw Praxilla’s lists as a comic coloration which Aristophanes had appreciated (p.113). Other interpretations mentioned by Balmer were that Praxilla’s cucumbers thought by Holst Warhafts, was a metaphor for male contribution to fertility (Balmer, 2013, p. 114).
“But I never persuaded the anger in your heart”Achilles, Fragment #2 (Plant, 2004, p.38)
“Learn the story of Admetus, my friend, love good people,
and keep clear of cowards, knowing the cowards’ thanks is very small”Scolion, Fragment #3 (Plant, 2004, p.38)
Scolion, Fragment #4 (Plant, 2004, p.38)
“My friend, watch out for a scorpion under every stone”
Could these warnings have been for a serious ritual hymn? Or simply a comic coloration? Fragments #2, 3, and 4 refer to either avoiding anger, along with a warning to keep clear of cowards and scorpions. I wonder then, could there have been strife in Praxilla’s life? Or the possibly of a loved one going through hardship? Was this just a way of adding suspense to her poetry?
Scolion (Praxilleion), Fragment #5 (Plant, 2004, p.38)
“Through the window you look so beautifully,
you virgin (your head), you bride (down below)”.
Fragment #5 is the one in which she is remembered for inventing a dactylic meter named the Praxilleion after her (Plant, 2004, p.38).
The fifth fragment has attracted various interpretations, but the most common one as interpreted by Plant, is about a prostitute. Plant suggests that prostitutes are often characterized in Greek poetry as looking out for their customers “unlike respectable women, who stay secluded” (Plant, 2003, p.39). It is important to note that the poem itself is not necessarily about Praxilla, the speaker of the poem could be referring to someone else, making assumptions such as these are problematic and lead to a misogynistic point of view.
Cazzato and Lardinois in The Look of Lyric: Greek Song and the Visual, notes that the key in understanding the lines of Praxilla’s Hymn to Adonis are not simple due to the lost continuation of the poem. They argue that it could be the tentative view of a wedding song, but where the poem may have gone on to build a more complicated picture these are only tentative attempts at interpreting the meaning behind her poem (Cazzato and Lardinois, 2016, p.186).
Cazzato and Lardinois suggests that rather than being addressed to a prostitute, it may be an address to a bride made by a chorus notionally positioned outside the bridal chamber and it is surprising that despite the fancifulness of some of the previous interpretations, this more straightforward one has never been defended (Cazzato and Lardinois, 2016, p.213).
Below are fragments that include the mention of Praxilla in Anticipater of Thessalonica’s epigram rather than the words of her poetry quoted:
But Praxilla of Sicyon says that Chrysippus was carried off by Zeus.Fragment #6, (Plant, 2004, p.38)
Fragment #7, (Plant, 2004, p.38)
Praxilla wrote that Carneius was the son of Europa and Zeus, and Apollo and Leto raised him.
Fragment #8, (Plant, 2004, p.38)
The Carneia: Praxilla says that it was named after Carnus, the son of Zeus and Europa, who was Apollo’s eronemos.
Praxilla’s Drinking Songs
Information regarding Praxilla’s influence in society as mentioned, stems from her performing art contributions, specifically poetry and her drinking songs. Her drinking songs were a popular form of entertainment amongst the participants at aristocratic symposia (Snyder, 1989, p.55). Synder notes that the word skolia meant crooked. She wrote in her book that Athenacus a second-century BCE compiler of literary excerpts and anecdotes, claimed that the name comes from the irregular crisscross pattern formed by the participants at aristocratic drinking parties (p. 55).
Cazzato and Lardinois offer the perspective that “drinking songs known as skolia, were called skolia not because their pattern of composition was crooked, but because their pattern was said to be a relaxed form of song (Cazzato and Lardinois, 2016, p.64). These relaxed songs performed at drinking parties were well known and enjoyed into the second century BCE (Plant, 2004, p.38).
Cazzato and Lardinois also mention that they were a part of three genera which includes songs associated with social gatherings (Cazzato and Lardinois, 2016, p.166). “The first it was customary for everyone to sing, the second type everyone sang also, but in order, one taking it over from another, and as for the third and most highly ranked type, not everyone participated, but only those who seemed sagacious, was sung by one that seemed to give some advice” (p.166). This could suggests that in her fragments rather than giving a warning, she could have been advising the listener to keep clear of the cowards and watch for scorpions under stones.
Athenaeus also reports that Praxilla of Sicyon was admired for her compositions and goes on to claim that only those with truly excellent voices would sing for the rest of the company (Synder, 2004, p.55). Synder notes that Athenaeus included a group of twenty-five of these short Attic Skolia of which two can be connected to Praxilla (p.55). She goes on to suggests that the song consists of some aristocratic maxim illustrated through a reference to nature, Greek myth, or in some cases Athenian history (p.55).
In this song Synder interprets how, “she alludes to the legend of Admetus who offered the chance to extend his life by arranging for someone else to go to Hades for him, found that only his courageous wife, Alcestis, was willing to die in his place” (Synder, 2004, p.55).
O my friend, since you know the story of Admetus,(Synder, 1989, p. 55)
love the brave.
Keep away from cowards, knowing that from cowards
the return is small.
According to the version of the story in the play Alcestis by the Athenian dramatist Euripides, Admetus was exceptionally lucky, for Herakles took pity on his household and wrestled with Death himself to win Alcestis back (Synder, 2004, p.55). Synder notes how Alcestis although not mentioned by name, is an example of bravery par excellence whom Praxilla has in mind (p.55).
Music in Antiquity
For more art enjoyment the Louvre Museum in Paris has digitized over 400,000 artworks and are available to view here:
It is evident that music and poetry has been shared and enjoyed with various cultures in Greek society for thousands of years. Over all, Music is enjoyed in every society and appear as tradition carried over through time where music continues to be used for ritual, ceremonial purposes, or as entertainment. Another interesting point about ancient music is the complexity in understanding that the sound of music does not survive. If we speculate how different our understanding of modern music might be if only the words survived and none of the sound, you can start to grasp the challenges behind understanding ancient music.
How can we truly know what ancient music sounded like? It is possible that Praxilla’s songs accompanied a musical instrument called the lyre as shown in the above image of a muse playing a Phorminx on a Greek vase. A Phorminx is one of the oldest of the ancient Greek stringed musical instruments, having more than one string, arranged parallel to the sound board, and attached to a wooden beam (Synder,1989, p.54).
Here is an interesting musical composition of a modern reception of Praxilla’s song and poetry:
Lyric poetry is very complex and multiple meanings are hidden in their verses. The Homeric poems are written in hexameter which features a metrical line of six feet, most often dactylic. To briefly explain, a foot is the basic unit of measurement of an accentual-syllabic meter. An accentual-syllabic meter is a verse whose meter is decided by the number and alternation of its stressed and unstressed syllables, organized into feet. For example, ending on a stressed symbol could signify a stressful occurrence or add emphasis to the meaning being portrayed. Here is an example from Writing Forward:
The website Writing Forward, offers a nice article written by Melissa Donovan on Poetry: Rhythm and Meter, if you are interested in learning more.
Since this project is focused on Praxilla rather than poetry, this brief description was meant to portray how complicated the poems realistically were and how many meanings can be hidden within their lines. Different lyrical meters were applied to poems on a wide range of topics including wine, women, song as well as politics, who all composed for solo performance (Klink, 2008, p.8).
Pop Culture Reception
While searching for information on Praxilla, I came across a fun-looking game where Praxilla is a character in an action-adventure stealth video game published by Ubisoft. Created by Patrice Désilets, Jade Raymond, and Corey May. The Assassin’s Creed series depicts a fictional millennia-old struggle between the Assassins who fight for peace with free will, and the Templars who desire peace through order and control.
In this game, Praxilla is understood as a Greek healer who resided on the Green Mountains region of Cyrenaica during the 1st century BCE. She devoted her life to healing the poor in a makeshift clinic in Balagrae. Her personality and characteristics are shown in this YouTube video and displays how she was held in high regard including her unique ability to create many poems with ease. As a healer in the game, Praxilla makes an Oath to never cause death, however to defend innocent people, she could fight and kill. Although this is not an accurate historical representation of Praxilla because her story has been altered, it does however allow for a visual of the type of person she may have been.
Who was Praxilla other than a composer? Did she have children, or how did she die? Unfortunately there are many unanswered questions left.
In retrospect, there is no denying that Praxilla wase a talented artist but there is reason to question why she was regarded as a prostitute because she wrote a poem about a woman looking out the window. Praxilla seemed passionate in her poetry which leads me to believe that this was a big part of her life.
Researching these mysterious, unknown texts was a challenge but also a privilege to be a part of. I hope you find Praxilla from ancient Sicyon as interesting as I did!
Balmer, J. (2013). Piecing Together the Fragments: Translating Classical Verse, Creating Contemporary Poetry. Oxford University Press. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.acadiau.ca:2048/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=698125&site=ehost-live&scope=site
Cazzato V., and Lardinois A. (2016). The Look of Lyric: Greek Song and the Visual. Brill. Retrieved April 2, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1163/j.ctt1w8h2ct.1
Collins, Andrew. (2014). The Modern Pronunciation of the Classical Proper Name “Hephaestion” in English Literature. Lexington, KY, 27(2), 52-54.
James, Sharon., & Dillon, Sheila. (2012). A Companion to Women in the Ancient World. Chicester: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.
Klinck, Anne. (2008). Woman’s Songs in Ancient Greece. Montréal, CA: McGill-Queen’s University Press. https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.acadiau.ca:9443/lib/acadia/detail.action?docID=3332045
Plant, I. M. (2004). Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An anthology. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Snyder, J. (1989). The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.acadiau.ca:2048/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=11565&site=ehost-live&scope=site
Donovan, M. (2019). Poetry: Rhythm and Meter: Writing forward. Retrieved April 16, 2021, from https://www.writingforward.com/poetry-writing/poetry-rhythm-and-meter
Jameson et al. (2003). Ancient Muses: Archaeology and Art. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press.
Zimmermann, B. (2015). Dithyramb. Retrieved April 16, 2021, from https://oxfordre.com/classics/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199381135.001.0001/acrefore-9780199381135-e-2253#:~:text=The%20dithyrambic%20contest%20was%20a,Prometheia%2C%20the%20Hephaestia%3B%20cf