Women's voices have not survived from the past as well as we might like, and this is more true in ancient history than in modern. In worlds where most of the writing was done by and for men, the few literate women whose writings were did not always survive. But there are a few wonderful exceptions, and one of these is Miss Praxilla of Sicyon, who flourished some time around 450 B.C.
She was an accomplished poet who wrote hymns to the Greek gods, wedding choruses and possibly some drinking songs. But, while sadly only fragments of her work survive, there is at least one sweet poem which comes down to us intact.
It is worth quoting and reflecting on for a brief moment. The poem is entitled "Adonis in the Underworld," and I quote from Sherod Santos' delightful book, "Greek Lyric Poetry" published by Norton Press, which is certainly worth the price of its purchase. Praxilla places her words in the mouth of a god confined to Hades and they are deceptive in their simplicity.
Of all the pleasures in the upper world
what I miss most is sunlight
after that the stars, a full moon
summer's late season harvest of fruits
cucumber, apple, pomegranate, pear.
Adonis was the name given by the Greeks to a number of fertility gods who died and rose in Middle Eastern salvation cults. In one Greek version of the myth, Adonis was a beautiful youth born from a questionable union with a foreigner, and whose beauty attracted the affection of Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual love. To keep her hands on the beautiful lad, she shut him in a chest and entrusted him to Persephone, the unfortunate goddess married to Hades, lord of the dead. But forlorn Persephone also fell in love with beautiful Adonis and refused to let him go back to the goddess of love and the light of the upper world. When the case was submitted to Zeus, the king of the gods, he ruled that the young hunk had to spend four months with Persephone, four with Aphrodite and four with the goddess of his choosing. Adonis chose Aphrodite, giving him eight months of life, but he was still consigned to four months among the dead, and so Praxilla gives us his words there.
Annual festivals, which involved sacrifices attended by large numbers of weeping women, commemorated in historical times, ritually mourned the annual departure of the gorgeous young lover to the dead. Adonis was associated not only with sexuality but with fertility in general, and his cult was well known not only to Praxilla, but also to most of the people in antiquity.
Although Praxilla appears to have been well thought of in antiquity, it was a criticism of her that caused her poem to survive. The second century A.D. Roman writer Zenobius mocked her work as he quoted it and referred to a proverb which referred to something completely preposterous as "sillier than Praxilla's Adonis." How could anything as important as a dying and rising god have anything to do with matters as mundane as cucumbers and pears and sunshine?
But clever Zenobius misses some very important points. First in Greek, the work "cucumber" is "sikyos" and is probably a pun on the home of Praxilla, the city of Sicyon. Perhaps the god misses Praxilla, or at least her home? The pomegranate is the food of the dead, whose blood-red seed had in an earlier myth condemned Persephone herself to her dismal home when she ate its forbidden seed. Perhaps the condemned god misses the actual pomegranates of the living as opposed to the fare of the dead? Some modern feminist scholars have suggested that the cucumber may itself be a fertility symbol, suggesting that the young god misses the living affection of people on earth as opposed to the cold hands of the dead. Such arguments, while colorful, elude another more basic point to the poem.
Praxilla's view of Adonis focuses not on the sufferings of the ladies on earth who will miss his attentions, but on his own sufferings as he is imprisoned. As anyone who has been locked up could tell us, the loss of sun, stars, fresh air and fresh foods would be a loss to the imprisoned young god. Her words bring a break with the religious tradition of the dying god, and consider him an incarcerated man who pines for the skies, fresh food and daily experiences of the free.
For Praxilla's Adonis, salvation lies in the mundane, the ordinary and the simple rather than the loud ritualistic cults which filled his earthly temples. Perhaps Praxilla has a lesson for us 24 centuries after her death. If we pause to take pleasure in our daily possession of fresh air, the beauty of nature, the stars and sun and the taste of good food when we are hungry, we should learn to be content with what we have rather than pining for things more costly and elaborate. Even the immortal gods, she suggests, would like to be as fortunate as we.
Not much out there on Praxilla ...