Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Turtledove

Greek folk culture can be a far cry from Victorian niceties. Some of its themes and imageries can be outright shocking, brutal and surreal. But this, of course, can be said about many pre-modern folk traditions (think of the American "Pretty Polly"). In 1927, folklorist Georgios Megas published a collection of Greek children stories, Παραμύθια, illustrated by Photes Kontoglou. Ellenika Paramythia has been reprinted many time; the latest, 7th edition is still available at Estia publishing house and bookstore. An English translation, Folktales of Greece, was published in 1970 (Chicago University Press). Four years ago, when my niece was born, I bought her a copy. Kristina is now old enough to have Greek folk tales read to her and my sister is going through the collection. Both have realized, however, that compared to Dr. Seuss, the Green Caterpillar, or Goodnight Moon, Greek folktales can keep you up at night with nightmares.

Last week, I wrote about a sexually charged lullaby that my grandmother sang to my sister in 1967, the Partridge. To see the function of another bird in a 19th century folksong from Nauplion, see "Lady 'Reen, the Little Bird, and the Pirate," in Surprised by Time. The bird here tells of incest. Seeking lullabies for my own daughter, I am thankful to my koumpara Anna Androulaki for sending The Great North Wind and other Traditional Songs for Children, a compilation by Domna Samiou, who is a monumental figure in Greek folk music as both interpreter and folklorist. She is the Alan Lomax of Greece. I first saw Samiou perform on the steps of the Gennadius Library in 1999, as a fellow at the American School. Harris Kalliga, director of the Gennadius at the time, had invited Samiou to perform. Looking back at the festivities, I wonder how many American students appreciated the concert. Many faculty and students, I remember, danced their hearts out, including Ioulia Tzonou-Herbst, the best Greek-dancer of the School.

In Samiou's 2-CD collection of children songs, we find another bird, Τρυγώνα (Turtledove) from Epeiros. It is a beautiful song, but it's theme, the discovery of a dead corpse, would surely scare the wits of any modern child. Here are the lyrics:

High up upon your way, turtledove,
down low as you pass by, sweet beautiful turtledove,
might you have caught sight
of my beloved, turtledove,
my sweetheart, my dearest man?
"Last night we saw him
or the night before
laid out upon the plane.
Black birds were eating him,
white birds circling above him."

or in Greek,

Αυτού ψηλά που περπατείς, τρυγόνα, μωρή τρυγόνα,
και χαμηλά λογιάζεις, τρυγόνα μου γραμμένη
μην είδες τον ασίκη μου, το άντρα το δικο μου
-Εψές προψές τον είδαμε στον κάμπο ξαπλωμένο
μαύρα πουλία τον τρώγανε κι άσπρα τον τριγυρνούσαν.

Note how the turtledove
is γραμμένη (striped, marked, or fated), same as my grandmother's partridge. Based on a reference in the Song of Songs, the turtledove has been a Judeo-Christian symbol of love. We find it in many English and American folk songs of loss of love; see, William Shakespeare's "The Phoenix and the Turtle."

1 comment:


On Oct. 24, 2010, my good friend Elias Markolefas clarified some of my translation problems by email. I quote his erudite corrections: "I was reading your blog after we talked (I do it every six months or so) and I came along the partridge entry of January 2009. To 'mari' means 'mori', to 'nai mani' of the second verse means 'imouna', to 'mo' in the third verse is probably 'mou', to 'mantrifyli' means 'ton Mai trifylli', and the last line says 'kai ton Augousto stafyli' (no reference to kydonia). The idea is that in May grows the trifylli and in August the grapes; I guess these are partridge delicacies. You are right about the connotations; this is a cheating song. As for 'grammeni' it means 'well-shaped', from the geometrical sense of 'graphein', i.e to describe a figure."

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States