Translating Fragments III: Aeschylus’s Myrmidons

by Josephine Balmer

As my last two blogs in this series have shown, the translation of ancient fragments has long been problematic. Should they be elongated to provide a contextual framework? Or should they be left incomplete, a mysterious shard from a long-vanished world? Aeschylus fragment 134 is particularly challenging. It is attributed to the tragedian’s lost masterpiece, Myrmidons, which dramatised the Greek hero Achilles’s withdrawal from the Trojan War after a disagreement with his war-leader Agamemnon, with tragic consequences; Achilles’s lover and fellow warrior, Patroclus, fights in his place only to be slain by the Trojan prince Hector. The damaged text of the two-line fragment appears to read as follows: ‘…[our] gilded horse-cockerel [mastheads], crafted by careful labour, are dripping [like wax?]…’

Even shortly after Aeschylus’s death, the comic playwright Aristophanes was quoting the fragment as an example of Aeschylus’s incomprehensible verse – and in fact this is how the fragment survived. In particular, Aristophanes joked about the hippalektruon or ‘horse-cockerel’ referred to by the fragment, a beast from Greek mythology with a horse’s head and cock’s tail. This, as Aristophanes has Aeschylus himself explain in Frogs (l. 934), apparently refers to the wooden masthead of a Greek warship, presumably burnt when the Trojans took advantage of Achilles’ absence from the battlefield – as the subsequent reference to the verb stazei or ‘drip’seems to attest.

Clearly, even to the ancients, these were difficult and impenetrable lines. My version, originally published in the Transitions issue of Modern Poetry in Translationbut now updated here (and included in my collection The Paths of Survival), looks to a radical way of approaching the fragment’s translation, by embedding the piece within the poetic narrative of a longer piece. In the form of Seamus Heaney’s ‘sonnet and a half’, this offers a means to enact not just the fragment’s literal meaning but also the complexity of its reception, even within the ancient world. Through a monologue by a fictional historical character, a third century BC Alexandrian boatman who shares his name, Charon, with the ferryman of the dead in Hades, the poem describes a crucial moment in the transmission – and loss – of the text. Here the Alexandrians, eager to built up texts for their new Library by decreeing that all works found on boats in their harbour would be borrowed for copying, decide to retain the original of Aeschylus’s work, breaking all their previous promises. In this way, the confusion (and also wonder) of the fictional characters reflects our own. In addition, the alluring opaqueness of the fragment can be preserved, alongside its integrity, as well as a narrative context for modern readers.

Charon’s Roll

(Alexandria, c.230 BC) 

The lads tease me, call me Charon. I row
out to anchored ships at night, take my tax
as ferryman, not of pennies but texts,
as our Law decrees, seizing plays, poems
for transcribing in our new Musaeum,
swearing to return all works I ‘borrow’.

 Last week I took some rolls of Aeschylus
to Callimachus, our famed Librarian:
gilded horse-cockerels, we read, perplexed,
crafted mastheads, now melting, drip by drip,
in the corrosive fires of burning ships…
We joked how they must drink, these Athenians.

 Callimachus did not laugh. It was fate
he said: here were the Greek prows at Troy, torched
as Achilles sulked. Myrmidons. Lines thought
so prized now that he would not give them back.
We all groaned, aghast. Yet more horse-cocks.

And then I glanced at Callimachus’s face
caught in a shifting taper as he talked –
like a city put to flame, molten wax
about to twist the world into new shapes.