Yiannis (J. C. B.) Petropoulos

Wishing upon…a wine cup

THE subject of wine and love fetches to mind the medieval Persian poet Hafez. Having little more than a fleeting acquaintance with his poetry (and only in translation), I have resisted the thought of writing on Hafez’s celebration of sympotic themes. I have turned my hand instead to a topic in ancient Greek poetry that I hope will be of interest to specialists in Persian and comparative literature. It is my small way of paying homage to Holly Davidson as a distinguished colleague and a friend of many years.

Neither love nor wishing is unique to the ancient Greeks. Amatory wishes are hardly particular to the Greeks; but it is worthwhile to explore several types of love wish in ancient Greece because they give us a peek into sub-literary or indeed popular song tradition. Men took turns in singing ditties of two or more lines as they waxed amorous at a symposium, its sequel (the komos), or at a public feast. In these and other social contexts the singers were apt to give vent to conventional or less conventional ideas about a love relationship by performing a fantastic wish for a change into an object or animal or natural phenomenon. The imaginary change served the purpose of gaining access to the beloved:

εἴθ᾿ ἄπυρον καλὸν γενοίμην μέγα χρυσίον
καί με καλὴ γυνὴ φοροίη καθαρὸν θεμένη νόον.

I wish I were a lovely pendant [or vessel], big, fine [i.e. unsmelted] gold,
and a lovely maiden would wear [or carry] me with purity in her heart.[1]

This song, known to classicists as carmen conviviale 901 (PMG [Page]), perhaps dates from as early as the 6th century BC, and represents a broad category of love wish.[2] In this article I shall be focusing on a variation of this type of wish, which, as I have argued elsewhere, originally occurred as a self-contained sung distich and later was integrated in larger compositions.[3] It is likely that like the drinking-song just quoted, this particular type of wish existed well before the third century BC, when it is attested in epigrams and other genres. The wish for a transformation is cast in the optative followed by a final clause specifying the purpose of the change. In terms of structure the formulation recalls escapist wishes for wings in tragedy, for instance, in Euripides Hippolytus 732-4, ἠλιβάτοις ὑπὸ κευθμῶσι γενοίμαν,/ ἵνα με πτεροῦσσαν ὄρ-/νιν θεὸς ἀμφὶ ποταναῖς ἀγέλαις θείη (‘Oh that I might be in the secret hollows of the mountain-steeps, and that there a god might make me a winged bird among the flying flocks.’).[4] (In Euripides a character may wish both to ‘fly away’ and ‘hide in the earth’;[5] in love wishes people hope to do the opposite, i.e. come near someone!)

As said, amatory wishes are attested across various cultures and periods. In Egypt such wishes are recorded in putative banquet songs that date from the New Kingdom (ca 1550-1080 BC); see below. All of the wishes in the Greek songs boil down to the predicament, ‘I am here, she (or he) is there; I wish I could get closer to her (or him)’. The beloved may be a figment of the singer’s imagination. If real, the desired person may not be interested in the speaker (actually the singer) of the wish; or she (or he) may not even be aware of the singer’s interest. In general, the female or male object of desire may be secluded and thus unavailable; or the barriers may be figurative.

Trapped in impossible love, the singer resorts to wishing or to another optative outlet, prayer, as in Sappho’s famous cletic hymn to Aphrodite, fr. 1 (LP).[6] The unnamed girl, who is the object of Sappho’s passion, is inaccessible in some serious sense. ‘I am here, she is there, fleeing from me, turning down my gifts, not returning my love’– we can surmise this much from the three antithetical sentences in Aphrodite’s past prediction, which are in direct speech and cast in the future tense:

καὶ γὰρ αἰ φεύγει, ταχέωc διώξει, |22 αἰ δὲ δῶρα μὴ δέκετ’, ἀλλὰ δώϲει, |23 αἰ δὲ μὴ φίλει, ταχέωc φιλήϲει |24 κωὐκ ἐθέλοιϲα.

||21 ‘For if she is fleeing now, soon she will be pursuing. |22 If she is not taking gifts, soon she will be giving them. |23 If she does not love, soon she will love |24 even against her will.’ [7]

Sappho fr. 1 (LP), possibly a sympotic poem, exceeds the scope of my paper. But it is striking how the entire prayer is fuelled by wishing (v. 17, κὤττι μοι μάλιϲτα θέλω γένεϲθαι, which may mean ‘[you asked] what I most wish to obtain’). In recounting to the goddess her past epiphany, the poet subtly slips into singing in Aphrodite’s voice, moving away from indirect speech to her ipsissima verba. Sappho wishfully changes into the deity best qualified to deliver from her love anguish. She also fancies that ordinary house (or Spanish) sparrows pull Aphrodite’s chariot across the sky like horses. The poet has, then, brought about three transformations of reality: sparrows become a heavenly chariot team, she turns into Aphrodite who in turn ordains that Sappho change from pursuer to pursued. The poem ends on a note of anticipation of, literally, wish fulfillment: 26-7, ὄϲϲα δέ μοι τέλεϲϲαι |27 θῦμοc ἰμέρρει, τέλεϲον (‘however many things |27 my heart [thūmos] yearns to get done, you do for me.’).[8]

I turn to my main witness of ‘wishing upon a cup of wine’, a poem listed as Anacreontea 22 (West). Dating from late antiquity, it handsomely encapsulates the genre of fantastic love wish which is my subject:

ἡ Ταντάλου ποτ᾿ ἔστη
λίθος Φρυγῶν ἐν ὄχθαις,
καὶ παῖς ποτ᾿ ὄρνις ἔπτη
Πανδίονος χελιδών.
5 ἐγὼ δ᾿ ἔσοπτρον εἴην,
ὅπως ἀεὶ βλέπῃς με·
ἐγὼ χιτὼν γενοίμην,
ὅπως ἀεὶ φορῇς με.
ὕδωρ θέλω γενέσθαι,
10 ὅπως σε χρῶτα λούσω·
μύρον, γύναι, γενοίμην,
ὅπως ἐγώ σ᾿ ἀλείψω.
καὶ ταινίη δὲ μασθῷ,
καὶ μάργαρον τραχήλῳ
15 καὶ σάνδαλον γενοίμην·
μόνον ποσὶν πάτει με.

Once upon a time Tantalus’ daughter [sc. Niobe] became a stone standing among the Phrygian hills; once upon a time Pandion’s daughter [sc. Philomela] became a bird and flew, a swallow. If only I could be a mirror, so that you would always look at me; an undergarment, so that you would always wear me; water, that I might wash your skin; perfume, lady, that I might anoint you; a bra for your breast, a pearl for your neck, and a sandal would that I became —only trample me [imper.] underfoot![9]

The poem is probably addressed to a courtesan. Taking his cue from the mythic examples of Niobe and Philomela, the singer fancies that he undergoes a catalogue of metamorphoses. Changing into a bird, even for a man (Tereus), is quite common in myth. The singer uses the traditional format of a wish + a final clause in lines 5-12 and then varies the structure in the remaining lines. All of the seven objects he wishes to turn into are items of a woman’s toilette and dress: a mirror, an undergarment, bath water, perfume, a bra, a pearl necklace, and finally and with a touch of magnified humour, a sandal. For wishes to change into a female accessory compare the carmen conviviale above and this modern Greek song, a rhymed distich recorded near Mt Olympus in the late 19th century:

Νάμουνα στο σοκάρδι σου κουμπί μαλαματένιο,
να φίλουνα το στήθος σου το μαργαριταρένιο.

If only I were a gold button on your inner garment,
If only I kissed your pearl-like breast.[10]

Consider also the ancient Egyptian song, supposedly performed by a boy:

Would that I had
a morning of looking,
like the bronze that spends a lifetime with her!
Lovely the land of Isy [?Cyprus]
and precious its tribute [sc. bronze and copper]!
Joyous the mirror
receiving her gaze![11]

In the Anacreontic poem the man’s shape-shifting will daily afford him intimate access to the addressee; by means of the first two changes he will enjoy perpetual contact (line 6). μασθός (cf. μαστoί/μαζoί), i.e. ‘breasts’ (line 13), is a sexually charged term, unlike e.g. στέρνα. The first four final clauses spell out the results of the transformation. When the singer fantasises about becoming a ‘bra’ and a ‘pearl’ he leaves out the final clauses; but it is readily understood that by being a bra he will pleasurably envelope the woman’s torso, and by being a necklace he will caress her neck. Once changed into a sandal, however, the singer switches to an outright imperative, ‘trample me underfoot’, which here serves as the equivalent of a final clause. This command (on which more anon) concludes the kaleidoscope of wishes. As Patricia Rosenmeyer suggests, the ancient song, with its proliferation of two-line sympotic wishes, may be a parody of skolia (i.e. short drinking-songs) and their performance.[12] The singer delivers a train of ditties that ordinarily would have been sung by a company of drinkers one after another. The effect of this expansion is quite funny.

The wishes in the Anacreontic poem suggest a spectrum of passive and active roles. For instance, turned into perfume the man will anoint his lady, playing a doting but active role. The anticipation of ὅπως ἀεὶ βλέπῃς με (line 6,so that you would always look at me’) implies a mixing of roles: the woman will gaze at him—an active action emerging from her self-inspection; but the man, being a mirror, will voyeuristically survey her—will spy on her. The two are linked by mutual reflection. The singer’s fantasy does not, however, envisage love-making outright.

Constantine Cavafy (who enjoys a canonical status in modern Greek poetry comparable with that of Hafez in Iran today) conjures an antique mirror that relishes contact with a young man of ‘perfect beauty’. Here is his poem, ‘The mirror in the entrance’ (Ο καθρέπτης στην είσοδο):

Το πλούσιο σπίτι είχε στην είσοδο
έναν καθρέπτη μέγιστο, πολύ παλαιό·
τουλάχιστον προ ογδόντα ετών αγορασμένο.

Ένα εμορφότατο παιδί, υπάλληλος σε ράπτη
(τες Κυριακές, ερασιτέχνης αθλητής),
στέκονταν μ’ ένα δέμα. Το παρέδοσε
σε κάποιον του σπιτιού, κι αυτός το πήγε μέσα
να φέρει την απόδειξι. Ο υπάλληλος του ράπτη
έμεινε μόνος, και περίμενε.
Πλησίασε στον καθρέπτη και κυττάζονταν
κ’ έσιαζε την κραβάτα του. Μετά πέντε λεπτά
του φέραν την απόδειξι. Την πήρε κ’ έφυγε.

Μα ο παλαιός καθρέπτης που είχε δει και δει,
κατά την ύπαρξίν του την πολυετή,
χιλιάδες πράγματα και πρόσωπα·
μα ο παλαιός καθρέπτης τώρα χαίρονταν,
κ’ επαίρονταν που είχε δεχθεί επάνω του
την άρτιαν εμορφιά για μερικά λεπτά.[13]

In the entrance of that sumptuous home
there was an enormous mirror, very old;
acquired at least eighty years ago.

A strikingly beautiful boy, a tailor’s shop-assistant,
(on Sunday afternoons, an amateur athlete),
was standing with a package.  He handed it
to one of the household, who then went back inside
to fetch a receipt.  The tailor’s shop-assistant
remained alone, and waited.
He drew near the mirror, and stood gazing at himself,
and straightening his tie.  Five minutes later
they brought him the receipt.  He took it and left.

But the ancient mirror, which had seen and seen again,
throughout its lifetime of so many years,
thousands of objects and faces—
but the ancient mirror now became elated,
inflated with pride, because it had received upon itself
perfect beauty, for a few minutes.[14]

The poet-narrator celebrates in the final stanza the extraordinary good luck of the mirror in receiving the reflection of ‘perfect beauty’. The phrase ‘But the ancient mirror’ is amplified with a substantial relative clause, then repeated alone; we wonder what will follow. The narrator has paused, caught his breath before breaking into a cadence of delectation and joy: ‘but the ancient mirror now became elated,/ inflated with pride’. The personified mirror has not only seen the beautiful youth, it has ‘received upon itself/ perfect beauty, for a few minutes’. The sighting of the ‘strikingly beautiful boy’ is described almost as ecstatic sexual consummation. A reflection—a visual imprint– turns into contact that fills the poet-mirror with frissons of delight. Through his looking glass Cavafy has taken an erotic step further than the man in the Anacreontic poem.

The final line in the ancient poem is worth considering. ‘Only trample me’ is at first sight self-abasement (‘masochism’ in the diagnosis of one classicist), but how serious is it? What lies behind this and all the wishes in the Anacreontic song is the desire to gain access to the woman and belong to her. Wine-soaked hyperbole discourages more clinical interpretations of this line, as may be suggested by other ancient wishes by men which, though nominally implying passivity, should not be taken literally. In Longus’ novel Daphnis and Chloe men ogling the heroine utter wishes which the author paraphrases (Daphnis & Chloe II. 2. 2):

οἱ δὲ ἐν ταῖς ληνοῖς ποικίλας φωνὰς ἔρριπτον ἐπὶ τὴν Χλόην καὶ ὥσπερ ἐπί τινα Βάκχην Σάτυροι μανικώτερον ἐπήδων καὶ ηὔχοντο γενέσθαι ποίμνια καὶ ὑπ᾿ ἐκείνης νέμεσθαι, ὥστε αὖ πάλιν ἡ μὲν ἥδετο, Δάφνις δὲ ἐλυπεῖτο.

Meanwhile the men in the wine presses flung manifold compliments at Chloe and pranced madly about her like satyrs about a maenad, praying to be turned into sheep and pastured by her, so that now she was pleased and he [sc. Daphnis] was pained.[15]

The setting, notably, is the vintage on Lesbos which, as J. R. Morgan remarks in this connection, ‘was a privileged occasion when normal social inhibitions were relaxed, as at the Athenian comic festival of the Lenaia’.[16] The vintagers’ rampant, satyr-like romping is in tune with the innuendoes which they hurl at the girl but which go over her head. (In the event she interprets their wishes as a compliment of her shepherding skills.) Their wish to be pastured by Chloe belongs to the atmosphere of macho abandonment. ‘To be pastured’ in the literal sense of ‘to be controlled (by someone wielding a shepherd’s staff)’ is quite out of the question here.[17] In their group fantasy the men wish that Chloe were theirs in more ways than one.

I should not be surprised if love songs containing wishes occurred in Persian poetry. The particular wishes I have discussed are as old as the time when men and women fell in love or generally desired someone and had to surmount actual or metaphorical barriers to intimacy. The singers and speakers of these wishes were susceptible (ευφαντασίωτοι) daydreamers, capable of vivid ‘visualisations’ (φαντασίαι, visiones), as Quintilian, the first century AD teacher of rhetoric, might say.[18] In the case of ancient Greece the human propensity for daydreams and idle fantasies was harnessed not only to high genres such as oratory but also to sub-literary and popular song.


Barrett, W. S. (1964), ed., Euripides Hippolytus, Oxford.

Campbell, D. A. (1988), Greek lyric II: Anacreon, Anacreontea, Choral lyric from Olympus to Alcman, LCL 143, Cambridge, MA.

Cavafy, C. P. (1984), Ποιήματα 1897-1933, Ίκαρος: Athens (now online).

Fowler Hughes, B. (1994), Love lyrics of ancient Egypt, Chapel Hill & London.

Henderson, J. (2009), ed. & tr., Longus, Daphnis and Chloe, Xenophon of Ephesus, Anthia and Habrocomes, LCL 69, Cambridge, MA & London.

Mendelsohn, D. (2012), C. P. Cavafy, Collected poems, Translation with an introduction & commentary, New York (now online).

Morgan, J. R. (2004), Longus: Daphnis and Chloe (with a reprint of Reeve’s text & a commentary), Oxford.

Nagy, G. (2015), ‘Once again this time in Song 1 of Sappho’, Classical Inquiries, November 5 (online).

Oikonomides, A. C. (1881), ed., Τραγούδια του Ολύμπου, Athens.

Petropoulos, J. C. B. (1993), ‘Sappho the sorceress—Another look at Fr. 1 (LP)’, ZPE 97: 43-56.

Petropoulos, J. C. B. (2003), Eroticism in ancient and medieval Greek poetry, London.

Rosenmeyer, P. A. (1992), The poetics of imitation: Anacreon and the Anacreontic tradition, Cambridge.

West, M. L. (1993), tr., Greek lyric poetry: the poems and fragments of the Greek iambic, elegiac, and melic poets (excluding Pindar and Bacchylides) down to 450 BC, Oxford.


[1] My tr.; cf. West (1993), 178.

[2] On love wishes in ancient and medieval Greek literature and modern Greek folk song, see Petropoulos (2003), ch. V.

[3] Petropoulos, ibid.

[4] Tr. Barrett (1964), 299 with note ad loc. Sophocles Oenomaos fr 476 (Lloyd-Jones) is formally identical with the amatory wishes in question.

[5] Barrett op. cit., 397 ad 1290-3.

[6] Petropoulos (1993), 43-56.

[7] Tr. Nagy (2015).

[8] Tr. Nagy (2015).

[9] Text in Campbell (1988), 192; tr. Campbell, op. cit., 193 (slightly modified).

[10] Oikonomides (1881), 150.

[11] Fowler (1994), 42.

[12] Rosenmeyer (1992), 165-6.

[13] Cavafy (1984).

[14] Tr. Mendelsohn (2012).

[15] Tr. & text in Henderson (2009), 60-1.

[16] Morgan (2004), 177 ad II. 2. 2.

[17] In a soliloquy Chloe delivers an outright amatory wish for transformation that is modelled on a sympotic or festive ditty, εἴθε αὐτοῦ σῦριγξ ἐγενόμην, ἵν᾿ ἐμπνέῃ μοι· εἴθε αἴξ ἵν᾿ ὑπ᾿ ἐκείνου νέμωμαι/ ‘I wish I could be his syrinx, so he could breathe into me! I wish I could be a goat, so I could be in his flock!’ (I. 14. 3). She is still clueless about love; hence her wish bespeaks a diffuse sexuality as yet untutored in roles. Gnathon, the parasite enamoured of Daphnis, utters a nearly identical love wish, ἡδέως δ᾿ ἂν αἲξ γενόμενος πόαν ἐσθίοιμι καὶ φύλλα τῆς Δάφνιδος ἀκούων σύριγγος καὶ ὑπ᾿ ἐκείνου νεμόμενος/ ‘I would gladly become a she-goat and eat grass and leaves so long as I could listen to Daphnis’ syrinx and have him take me to pasture’ (IV. 16.3). He however is hoping here for a passive role, since Daphnis rejected his earlier approach as an eager erastes (IV. 11. 12). Text & tr. in Henderson op. cit., 32-3, 168-71.

[18] Cf. his advice to orators in Institutio oratoria VI. ii. 29-31.