Monday, August 18, 2008

Aeneid: To strike a spark from flint

Achates is first to strike a spark from flint,
then works to keep it alive in dry leaves,
cups it around with kindling, feeds it chips
and briskly fans the tinder into flame.

(Aeneid, Book I, trans. Robert Fagles)

I like reading poetry or other literature from long ago and coming across passages like this, in which everyday activities from the time of writing are described, things that we might know something about (like the lighting of a fire without matches) and sometimes things we know
almost nothing about, like the life of a housewife at the time, as revealed through a description of an early hour of the morning (or late late hour of the night) as the "hour a housewife rises":

that hour a housewife rises, faced with scratching out
a living with loom and Minerva's homespun crafts,
and takes the ashes first to awake the sleeping fires,
adding night to her working hours, and sets her women
toiling on at the long day's chores by torchlight—
and all to keep the bed of her husband chaste
and rear her little boys ...

(Book VIII)

Book V is about the funeral games for Anchises, Aeneas's father, and though I read the book in July, I did think of the Olympics as a descendant of such a description. And then there's this description of Orpheus playing music:

And Orpheus himself, the Thracian priest with his long robes,
keeps their rhythm strong with his lyre's seven ringing strings,
plucking now with his fingers, now with his ivory plectrum.

(Book V)

A better musician than I am, I guess, since I only play with a pick and hardly ever with
my fingers ... :-)

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