Dark Earth’s Far-Seen Star: Delos Through the Eyes of Pindar

There is a line by Pindar, a fifth-century-B.C. Greek poet, in which he describes the island of Delos, one of the most barren and inhospitable of all Greek islands, as ‘the dark earth’s far-seen star’:

Hail, god-reared daughter of the sea,
earth-shoot most dear to bright-haired Leto’s children,
wide earth’s immoveable marvel,
who of mortals art called Delos,
but of the blessed gods in Olympus the dark earth’s far-seen star…

Dark earth’s far-seen star – the island as seen from above by the gods, glowing with light in the dark sea – is one of those memorable phrases that turned the famous Roman poet Horace into one of Pindar’s life-long fans. Sadly, not much else of this Procession Song survives today (you’ve just read half of what there’s left).


In ancient Greek times Pindar’s ‘god-built’ and ‘rocky Delos’ was famous for three things: for being the mythical birthplace of the twins Apollo and Artemis; for serving as the treasury of the Delian League and for giving its name to a mathematical conundrum, the Delian Problem. Someday we’ll talk about these latter two but not today; it’s due to the myth about the birth of Apollo and Artemis that Pindar described the barren island in such glowing terms.

The Birth of Apollo and Artemis. Marcantonio Franceschini [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Birth of Apollo and Artemis, Marcantonio Franceschini [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons – on this painting the island appears rather lusher than in reality
In case you’re not familiar with this story, the twins’ mother, Leto, was a Titan who had an affair with Zeus. Soon afterwards, however, Zeus married Hera, who was of a rather jealous disposition. Not even the fact that – so to speak – she had been there first saved Leto from the rage of Zeus’s wife: Hera persecuted the pregnant Leto left, right and centre until no land dared to give her shelter. No land, that is, apart from the barren and miserable Delos that was already so badly off that could lose nothing by invoking the ire of Hera… Desolate Delos, that technically wasn’t even a ‘land’ because it was an island floating on the sea:

For of old time it drifted before the waves and stress of winds from every side;
but when she of Koios [Leto] set foot thereon,
as the swift pains of her travailing drew nigh,
then verily from roots deep down in earth
there sprang upright four pillars with adamantine base,
and on their capitals they held up the rock:
there was the goddess delivered, and looked upon her blessed brood…

Fragment of a Procession Song by Pindar

And there our fragment ends. No more has survived from this particular poem by Pindar. But Delos is worth more than one post, so watch this space…

You might also like:
The Arms of ApolloDelos in Ancient Greek PoetryHymn to Delos by CallimachusDelos: A historical overview on the Ancient History Encyclopeadia

 

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2 thoughts on “Dark Earth’s Far-Seen Star: Delos Through the Eyes of Pindar

  1. Bilal Ahmed

    Great piece of old literature. If there be any other poetry about earth from greek literature. I shall be thankful , Because I need this .

    Like

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