Erinna and ancient lament

“… Baucis, these tears are your embers
and my memorial, traces glowing in my heart,
now all that we once shared has turned to ash …” (Erinna, trans. Josephine Balmer)

These lines are from The Distaff, a 300-line hexameter poem that survives only in fragments. It’s attributed (though debated) to Erinna, an ancient Greek women whose poetry seems to have been respected in antiquity as being second to Sappho’s. Erinna’s dating is uncertain, though it seems that she wrote either during or before the classical period. The Distaff seems to be a lament for her childhood friend Baucis, as attested in these lines.

One of the many startling associations in ancient poetry is between marriage and death, as suggested in the Persephone myth: Persephone marries Hades, the personification of death, causing her mother to lament, forcefully. The myth’s allegorical potential—that marriage signified the death of one’s childhood identity, leaving behind one’s old life, entering a new family in a culture in which family names can hold meaning and power—can be hard for us to hold, both because of our modern views on marriage and the myth’s disturbing kidnap element, and Zeus’ role in it.

Further in the poem, Erinna laments that when Baucis “set sail/for a man’s bed,” she “let it slip away.” Though I’m not sure what the referent for “it” is. She continues, “Desire stole all memory away…”

Is Erinna lamenting her friend’s death, marriage, or both? Is it possible to hold the ambiguity close?

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