Astyages's Weblog

May 20, 2012

The Songs of Bilitis

Filed under: Uncategorized — astyages @ 9:11 pm

Translated by Astyages

Chapter 1


Hady`de’moi to`me’lisma. kai` _e’n sy’rhiggi meli’sd_o

k_e’n aul_o*i lale’_o, k_e’n d_o’naki, k_e’n plagiau’l_o*i.”





I had undressed to climb a tree;

my naked thighs embraced smooth, moist bark;

my sandals walked on the branches.


All on high, but still under the leaves

and shaded from the heat, I was horseback

riding in a secluded fork balancing

my feet in the void


It had rained. Drops of water fell and

flowed over my skin. My hands were

dirtied with moss, and my toes were

red, because of the crushed flowers.


I felt the beautiful tree live when the wind

passed through it; then my legs could go no further

and I applied my open lips

to the mossy nape of a branch.



I must sing a pastoral song, to invoke

Pan, god of the summer wind. I guard my

flock and Selenis guards hers, under the round shadow

of a trembling olive-tree.


Selenis is lying in the meadow. She

stands and runs, or searches for cicadas, or

picks flowers with herbs, or washes

her face in the cold water of the stream.

Me, I pull wool from the blond backs of the

sheep to fill my distaff, and I spin it. The hours are long.

An eagle passes across the sky.


The shadows turn: let’s swap the basket

of figs and the jar of milk. I must sing

a pastoral song, to invoke Pan, god of the summer wind.



My mother bathed me in darkness, she

dressed me in full sun and combed my hair in

the light; but if I left by the light of the moon,

she tightened my girdle and made a double knot.


She says to me: “Play with the virgins, dance

with little children; don’t look out the window;

fly from the speech of young men

and doubt the counsel of widows.


“One evening, someone, as for everyone, will

come to carry you over the threshold in the middle of a

large procession of sonorous drums and lover’s flutes.


“On that night, when you grow up, Bilito, you

will leave me three gourds of gall: one for

the morning, one for midday, and the third,

the most bitter, the third for the days of the feast.”




I have black hair, growing long down my back,

and a little round skull-cap. My shirt is

of white homespun. My closed legs

turn brown in the sun.


If I lived in town, I would have jewels of gold,

and gilded shirts and shoes of silver…

I look at my naked feet, in their shoes of dust.


Psophis! Come here, you poor little thing! Take me

to the springs, wash my feet in your

hands and press olives together with violets

to perfume them with the flowers.


Today you will be my slave; you will

follow me and you will serve me, and at the end of

the day I will give you, for your mother,

some lentils from my garden.



An old blind man lived on the mountain.

For having looked upon the nymphs, his eyes

had been dead for a long time. And ever since,

his happiness was a distant memory.


Yes, I saw them, he said to me.

Helopsychria, Limnanthis; they were

awake, near the edge of Physos’ pond.

The bright water was above their knees.


The napes of their necks inclined under their

long hair. Their nails were slender

like the wings of the cicada. Their nipples

were cupped like the flowers of the hyacinth.


Their fingers played with the water

and pulled long-stemmed water-lilies from

an invisible vase. Around their separated thighs,

the ripples spread… “


6 — SONG

Stiff-necked tortoise, what are you doing there in the middle?

I’m winding the yarn and the thread of Miletus.

Alas alas! Don’t you want to come and dance?

I am in great pain. I am in great pain…


Stiff-necked tortoise, what are you doing there in the middle?

I’m cutting a reed for the funerary flute.

Alas! Alas! What happened?

I will not tell, I will not tell.


Stiff-necked tortoise, what are you doing there in the middle?

I’m pressing olives to make the oil for the gravestone [stele]

Alas! Alas! And who has died?

How can you ask me? How can you ask me?


Stiff-necked tortoise, what are you doing there in the middle?

He has fallen into the sea…

Alas! Alas! How did that happen?

From on top of white horses. From on top of white horses.



As I was sitting one evening in front of the door

of the house, a young man came passing by.

He looked at me, I turned my head away.

He spoke to me, I didn’t answer.


He wanted to approach me. I took a cleaver (?) [?faulx?] from

Against the wall and would have split his cheek

If he had advanced a single step.


Then, recoiling a little, he put on a smile and

whispered to me through his hand, saying,

Receive the kiss.” And I shouted and I cried

so that my mother came running.


Worried, thinking that I had been stung by

a scorpion, I cried: “He kissed me.”

My mother also kissed me and took me

into her arms.



It was already fully day… I had to be

up! But morning sleep is sweet and

the warmth of my bed keeps me curled up.

I want to stay and sleep some more.


Soon I shall be in the stable. I

will give grass and flowers to the goats,

and the goatskin of cold water drawn from

the well, where I will drink at the same time as they.


Then I shall tie them to a stake to milk

their sweet warm udders; and if the

kids are not anxious, I shall suck

with them their now-supple heads.


Did not Amaltheia nourish Zeus?

I will go then. But not yet. The sun

came up too soon and my mother is not yet awake.



The gentle rain has moistened everything, very

softly, and in silence. It is still raining a

little. I shall go out under the trees. Feet

naked, so as not to dirty my shoes.


The rain in spring is delicious. The

branches loaded with moist flowers have a

perfume which makes me giddy. I can see the

delicate skin of the bark shining in the sun.


Alas! For the flowers on the earth! Have

pity on the fallen flowers. You must not

sweep them into the dirt; but

save them for the queen bees.


The scarabs and the snails cross the

way between the puddles of water; I don’t want

to walk on them, nor to startle the sleeping

lizard which stretches itself and blinks its eyelids



Nymphs of the woods and streams, beneficent

friends, I have come. Do not hide,

but come and help me because I am sorely pained

by so many plucked flowers


I wish to choose from among the whole forest one

poor hamadryad with raised arms. And from

her hair, the colour of leaves I shall pick

my most sultry rose.


See: I have taken so many to the fields that

I could not carry them back unless you make me

A bouquet. If you refuse me, take care:


Those of you with red hair I

Saw yesterday made erect like a beast by the

Satyre Lamprosathes, and I denounce

the impudence.



I threw myself into her arms and cried, and

for a long time she felt my hot tears

cool on her shoulder, before my sadness

let me speak:


Alas! I am just a child; the

young men do not look at me. When

will I have the breasts of a young girl like yours

which swell the robe and tempt to kiss?


No-one has curious eyes if my tunic

slips; no-one will pick up a flower fallen

from my hair; no-one tells me he will kill me if

my mouth gives itself to another.


She replied to me tenderly: “Bilitis,

little virgin, you cry like a cat at

the moon and you distress yourself without cause. The

most impatient girls are not the earliest chosen.



Wagtail, bird of Kypris, sing

with our first desires! The new bodies

of young girls are covered in flowers like

the earth. The night of all our dreams approaches

and we chat amongst ourselves.


Sometimes we compare out beauty,

so different, our hair already long,

our young breasts still small

our pubes round like quails and giddy under

their new-born feathers.


Yesterday I wrestled with destiny against Melancthon

my elder. She was proud of her chest which

sprang up in only a month, and, pointing to

my flat tunic, called me: “little child”.


Not a man could see us, we

mimicked nakedness in front of the girls, and if she

won on one point, I took it further on others.

Wagtail, bird of Cyprus, sing with our first desires!



I was bathing alone in the river

In the forest. Without doubt I scared

The nyads as I hardly understood their troubles from

So far off, under the dark water.


I called them. To resemble them

Entirely, I wove Irises, black as my hair

behind my toes, with the

clusters of yellow wallflowers.


From the long floating grass, I made

Myself a green girdle, and to see it I

pressed my breasts and inclined my head a little.


And I called out: “Nyads! Nyads! Come

And play with me! Be nice!” But the nyads

Were transparent, and perhaps, without

Knowing it, I had caressed their supple arms.



When the sun burns less fiercely

We shall go to play beside the river, we

Shall wrestle for a fragile crocus or for a moist hyacinth.


We will make a necklace for the bout and a

garland for the race. We will take each other

by the hand and by the tails of our tunics.


Phitta Meliai! Give us honey. Phitta

Nyads! Let us bathe with you. Phitta Miliades!

Give us sweet shade for our sweaty bodies.


And we offer you, beneficent Nymphs,

Not disgraceful wine, but oil and

Milk and goats and curved horns.



The travellers who return to Sardis

speak of the necklaces and precious stones which

burden the women of Lydia, from the top of

their hair down to their painted feet.


The girls of my country have no bracelets

nor diadems, but their finger carries one

golden ring, and on the setting is engraved

the triangle of the goddess.


When they turn the point outwards

this means: Psyche is to take them. When

they turn the point inwards, that

means: Psyche has taken them.


The men there believe. The women don’t.

for me I don’t look much at which way

the point is turned, because Psyche delivers

them easily. Psyche is always to take them.



On the soft grass, at night, the young

girls with violets in their hair danced

together, and one of two made

reply to the suitors.


The virgins said: “We are not for

you” And as they were shameless

they hid their virginity. An Egyptian [?aegipan?]

played a flute under the trees.


The others said: “You must

come and look for us.” They clawed at the robes

and tunics of the man, and they struggled without

energy while mingling their dancing legs.


Then each one proclaimed himself vanquished, and took

his friend by the ears as one takes a cup by the

two handles, and, with inclined heads,

drank their kisses.



The river is nearly dry; the withered

reeds are dying in the mud; the air burns,

and, far from the hollow banks,

a clear stream trickles over the gravel.


It is there where from morning to night naked little

children come to play. They bathe,

no higher than their calves, because the

river is low.


But they wade in the current, and

slip sometimes on the rocks and the

little boys throw water over the

laughing little girls.


And when a group of merchants passes,

leading enormous white bulls to drink in the stream,

they crossed their hands behind their backs

and watched the huge beasts.



I am loved by little children; those who

See me, run to me and cling

to my tunic, clasping my legs in

their little arms.


If they have cut flowers, they give them all

to me; if they have caught a scarab they

put it into my hand; if they have nothing, they

kiss me and make me sit down in front of them.


Then they kiss me on the cheek, they

rest their heads against my breast; and beg

me with their eyes. I know very well what

that means.


That means: “Dear Bilitis, tell us,

as we are good, the story of the hero

Perseus or the death of little Helle.”



Our mothers were pregnant at the same time and this

night she was married, Melissa, my

dearest friend. The roses are still on the

road; the torches have not finished burning.


And I return by the same path, with

Mummy, and I imagine: Thus, today is hers,

so I too will be able to also.

Am I not already a big girl?


The procession, the flutes, the nuptial song and

the flowered chariot of the spouse, all these festivities,

one more night, unrolls in front of me,

among other things, olive branches.


As at this same hour Melissa, I

shall reveal myself in front of a man, I shall know

love in the night, and later the little

children will nourish themselves at my swelling breasts…



The next day, I went to her house, and

we blushed when we saw each other.

She bade me enter into her bedroom

so we could be alone together.


I had lots of things to say to her; but

I forgot them all upon seeing her. I

didn’t even dare to throw myself

upon her neck. I looked at her high girdle.


I was astonished that nothing was changed on her

face, that she seemed to be still my friend and yet

in the interval, since the vigil, she had

Learned so much that startled me.


Suddenly I sat on her knees, and I took

Her into my arms, I whispered into her ear

Quickly, anxiously. Then she put her mouth

Against my ear, and told me everything.



At night, the hair of the women tangles in the

branches of the willows. I

walk beside the water’s edge. Suddenly,

I heard singing: Only then I

recognized that they were young girls.


I said to them: “What are you singing?” They

answered: “The Homecomers.” The one

waited for her father and the other her brother; but

the one who waited for her fiancé was the most impatient.


They had woven for themselves coronets

and garlands, cut palms from

palm-trees and pulled lotuses from the water. They

held each other by the neck and sang, one

after the other.


I had walked the length of the stream, sadly,

and all alone, but when I looked around

me, I saw that behind the large trees the

Moon with blue eyes had led me back.


22 — REFLECTIONS (not translated)

(Okay piglets, here is the first collection of songs from ‘The Life of Bilitis’; this ‘lyrical novel’ is written in three parts of which ‘The Bucolic Life in Pamphylia’ is the first. As there were more songs than I remembered there being, I have posted not only the first half-dozen, but the first 21 or 22. NB Song no. 22 is not translated because this is a little device by the author to suggest authenticity through the use of deliberate lacunae. There are, at various places in the text, a handful of words I have been unable to translate; I think they mostly refer to either ancient items of clothing, or other ancient items whose names are not commonly used in modern French; at least, I couldn’t find them in my French/English dictionary. Where there was the least bit of doubt as to the intended meaning of a word, I have given that word in brackets after its translation. Asty).


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