17 February 2019
When love comes knockin’ at your door
To the joy and relief of some, the magic of Valentine’s Day has now vanished, taking heart-shaped chocolates and romantic cards with it. A different perspective of love is offered by a motif popular in the Classical world: the so-called paraclausithyron.
This term, used by Plutarch (Moralia 753B), refers to a song of lament and despair sung by an ‘excluded lover’ (amator exclusus) at the firmly shut door of their beloved. The lover usually carries a garland and has walked at night by torchlight to reach their beloved’s house, where they plead to be admitted without success.
In Greek literature, the motif occurs in different genres. An illustrious example is found in Theocritus’ Idyll 3, where the lover, a goatherd, begs his mistress Amaryllis to let him come into her cave. He laments in despair:
Just look: there’s such pain in my heart. If only I could turn into a buzzing bee and come into your cave through the ivy and fern that hide you! Now I know what love is: he’s a cruel god. Truly he was suckled by a lioness, and his mother gave birth to him in a thicket: he’s making me smoulder with love and torturing me deep in my bone. (translated by N. Hopkinson)
The beginning of Theocritus, Idyll 3 (15th century): Add MS 11885, f. 12r
A number of surviving epigrams relate to the scene of the closed door. This one, by the poet Asclepiades of Samos from the 3rd century BC, emphasises the lover's sorrow at not being admitted into the house:
Abide here, my garlands, where I hang ye by this door, nor shake off your leaves in haste, for I have watered you with my tears — rainy are the eyes of lovers. But when the door opens and ye see him, shed my rain on his head, that at least his fair hair may drink my tears. (translated by W. R. Paton)
Another poem by Meleager of Gadara, written roughly 2,100 years ago, contains several elements typical of the motif:
O stars, and Moon, lighting well the way for those disposed to love, and Night, and you, my instrument that accompanies my revels — will I gaze upon my wanton one, still awake on her bed, singed often by her lamp? Or does someone share her bed? I will take off my suppliant garland, douse it with tears, and fix it on her porch, inscribing on it just this: “Cypris, to you Meleager, the initiate in your revels, hung up these spoils of love. (translated by Paton)
Detail of a heart (15th century): King's MS 322, f. 1r
It is not only male lovers who might be excluded. The ‘Alexandrian Erotic Fragment’ (Papyrus 605 verso) relates the lament of an ‘excluded woman’. The motif of the ‘abandoned woman’ is well-known in Classical mythology: one thinks immediately of poor Ariadne, deserted by Theseus, or Medea who, left by Jason for another woman, killed her own children to punish him.
Medea killing her children (c. 1450–1460): Harley MS 1766, f. 33r
The text of this papyrus was copied by Dryton, a cavalry-man, after 10 October 174 BC. His family archive is now dispersed across the world. A small fragment in the Sackler Library, Oxford, supplies a few more words of the second column of the British Library papyrus.
The poem has a complex metrical scheme, although its language is simple. It starts abruptly, with the woman remembering the old promise of love, having Aphrodite as a security (all translations by P. Bing):
Our feelings were mutual, we bound ourselves together. (ll. 1–2)
The tender memories of the past torture her, because her lover has proven to be an ‘inventor of confusion’ (l. 7). An invocation to the stars and night begins her journey to the house:
O beloved starts and lady Night, companions in my desire, take me even now to him. (ll. 11–12)
The trip is lightened not by a torch, but by the fire that enkindles her soul:
My guide is the potent torch that’s ablaze in my soul. (ll. 15–16)
The woman pleads to be admitted in a vortex of feelings, being mad, jealous and ready to submit to her beloved. After all, ‘if you devote yourself to just one, you will just go crazy’ (l. 31), she explains. She has a ‘stubborn temper’ when she gets in a fight (ll. 33–34), yet she now seeks reconciliation. Unfortunately, the second column of the papyrus is fragmentary.
The ‘Alexandrian Erotic Fragment’: Papyrus 605 verso
Ancient authors had different views on these lovers’ practices. Plato considered that imploring one's beloved and sleeping on doorsteps was a form of slavery (Symposium 183A), whereas Plutarch thought that serenading and decorating the beloved’s threshold with garlands might bring some ‘alleviation that is not without charm or grace’ (De cohibenda ira 455B–C).
We should add a word of warning. Should you plan to serenade your lover, make sure that the right person is listening. In Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, two young lovers exchange love songs. One of them invokes his beloved to open the door, but the person who opens it is not exactly whom the young man was hoping for …
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