“They say that Apollo sang a wedding song at the bridal chamber. So it is fitting for me, youths, since I am devoting my muse to nuptial dance and love, to drop my stricter style in order that I may take part with maidens in the dance in honor of Aphrodite…But that it is difficult to invent a song tender enough for the Goddess we may learn from the poets themselves who though skilful in matters of love, . . . have left the rites of Aphrodite to Lesbian Sappho, the singing to the accompaniment of the lyre and the composition of the song at the chamber. She enters after the contest into the chamber, puts up wreaths, spreads the couch, urges the maidens into the house, brings Aphrodite on the car of the Graces and a band of Loves to join in the revels. She binds with hyacinth the hair of the Goddess except those tresses which she allows to play about Her face or ripple in the breeze. She stations the Loves, their wings and locks adorned with gold, before the car, and as they escort the procession moving their torches on high, she urges them on. For me also this exhortation is necessary …. If a song were needed, I would provide this: ‘0 bride exhaling roses and love! Go to the couch with tender play, sweet to the bridegroom! May Hesperus lead thee as thou dost go willingly, venerating silverthroned Hera of the wedding bond.’ But where are my bands of youths and maidens? My speech yields the rest to you. Let some one seize a great torch: let another shout. Let song pervade all. … I leave the dance to the dancers, but I will stand by the chamber and utter prayers to Fortune and Love and the Gods of birth.”
(Himerius, first oration)
In the Hellenic Tradition the epithalamium is a poem or an oration celebrating a wedding, real or fictional. At its origin, the word presumably designated one particular song among the several kinds traditional at weddings: the epithalamium was the “song at the couch,” that is, the song sung at the door of the nuptial chamber just before the consummation of the marriage. By the time of Sappho, however, the name was applied to the several kinds of wedding songs. Among the varieties of epithalamia in the classical stream are lyrics in the manner of Sappho and Catullus 61, amoebaeans such as Catullus 62, pastorals inspired by Theocritus’s Idyll 18, and epic or rhetorical epithalamia which are descendants, so-to-speak, of Catullus64, and are best represented in the work of Statius and Claudian.
Our first references to the wedding songs appear in the earliest extant works of Hellenic literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey. In the description of one of the cities which decorate Achilles’ shield in the Iliad, there is mention of wedding processions, accompanied by bright torches, music, dancing, and song (18.490-96). In the Odyssey, Menelaus’s palace is the setting for a wedding feast with a singer and two acrobatic dancers (4.15-19). And near the end of the Odyssey, when Odysseus wishes to cover up his actions in the palace, he bids a singer to take up his lyre and lead a dance, “so that anyone outside who hears might say that we are celebrating a wedding” (23.131-36). Song is an ever-present accompaniment to the wedding in Homer, and the frequent mention of wedding songs by authors of all periods of ancient Hellenic literature (Hesiod Shield 272-85, Pindar Pythian 3.15-19, Aeschylus Prometheus Bound 556-57, Euripides Phoenician Women 344-49, Callimachus 75.43 (Pfeiffer), Plutarch Moralia 138B (“Advice to Bride and Groom”), Lucian Dialogues of the Hetaerae 2.3, etc.)
Wedding songs formed such an integral part of the ceremony that the Hellenic word hymenaios, the cry which forms a refrain for some of the songs and is used as the name for wedding songs in general, was sometimes used of the wedding as a whole;
Sappho is the author of most of the songs we have which were composed for actual weddings. According to Servius, she composed a whole book called Epithalamia (In Vergilii Carmina Commentarii, III, p. 139 Thilo-Hagen), and it seems that more poems for weddings were included in her other books, which were arranged by meter.
Alcman is once called hymneter hymenaion, singer of wedding songs (Anthologia Palatina vii. 19), but none of the fragments of his poetry which have come down to us is generally considered to be a wedding song. There is one fragment, however, describing a table laden with poppy bread and a mixture of sesame and linseed which may be part of a description of a wedding feast (19 in D. Page, Poetae Melici Graeci [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962]); poppy and sesame seeds are mentioned elsewhere as wedding food (cf. Aristophanes Birds 159-61, Peace 868-70; Menander fr. 938 Kock.)
We have examples of songs for each of these stages of the ceremony, and these songs are remarkably similar, considering that they were used to accompany the various activities of the different stages. But although the subject of almost all the songs is the couple being wed, the manner of addressing the couple and the tone of the songs vary in the different stages. One type of song which belongs specifically to one part of the wedding, in this case to the wedding feast, is that in which an eikon, or comparison, is made, such as Sappho’s address to the bridegroom (115): “To what, dear bridegroom, may I compare you well? To a slender sapling I compare you most of all.”
Very often, the comparison is made to the Gods or Heroes, sometimes implicitly, by describing a divine or heroic wedding whose action parallels that of the wedding at hand, and sometimes directly, in a simile. Outright comparison is the focus of the song for the wedding feast described by Lucian (Symposium 41), in which the bride is said to surpass not only other maidens, but even Aphrodite and Helen, and the bridegroom is said to surpass not only his peers, but also Nereus and Achilles. At the conclusion to the song the guests laugh, so we must understand the song to be a parody of the things said in the wedding songs, and its extravagant praise does sound empty since it does not give any details in explanation of the comparisons made. But its objects of comparison are the same as those which were used by Sappho; Himerius tells us that Sappho compared the bridegroom to Achilles, both in person and in deeds (Orationes IX.16), and Sappho 23 compares a woman, quite possibly a bride, to Helen and Hermione. And in a song to be sung when the couple approached the bridal chamber, Sappho compares the bridegroom to Ares(111).
In other songs the bride and groom are compared to a divine or heroic couple indirectly, in songs which contain a scene of a wedding of gods or heroes. In the wedding song at the end of the Birds, the procession of Zeus and Hera to the bridal chamber is described, a scene which parallels the procession of the actors (1731-44): “Once the Fates united the great ruler of the Gods with Hera, Olympian queen, Goddess of lofty throne, amidst these wedding strains. Hymen, 0 Hymenaeus, O! Hymen, 0 Hymenaeus, O! Blooming Eros with His golden wings guided straight the drawn-back reins groomsman of the wedding, sitting by Zeus and blessed Hera. Hymen, 0 Hymenaeus, O! Hymen, 0 Hymenaeus, O!”
Harmonious love and concord should be stressed. Dionysius argues that marriage brings peace, prosperity, and companionship; that it helps a person overcome sorrow and trouble, and makes joyful situations even more delightful. Checked by marriage, men collect the rewards of temperance, and enjoy the beauty of virtue.
Another feature shared by many Hellenic wedding songs is the makarismos of the groom. For example, the earliest extant wedding song, the song of Peleus and Thetis in Hesiod, begins (fr. 211 Merkelbach and West): “Thrice-blessed and four times happy Peleus, son of Aeacus.” This is really another compliment by indirect comparison, since the adjective makar implies comparison to the Gods, the Makares. Other objects of comparison in the songs are not anthropomorphic. The greatest number of these comparisons is found in Theocritus’s Epithalamium to Helen (Idyll 18), in which Helen is compared to a race horse, to spring, to dawn, and to a tall cypress, which brings to mind Sappho’s comparison of the bridegroom to a slender sapling. In the announcement of the bridegroom’s arrival which precedes the procession in the Birds (1706-19), Pisthetaerus is compared to a star or the sun in his radiance.
The most frequent object of comparison aside from Gods or Heroes is plants. I have just mentioned Theocritus’s comparison of the bride to a cypress tree, and Sappho’s of the groom to a sapling. Sappho also compares the bride to an apple; Himerius tells us this (Orationes IX.16 = 105b LP), and the fragment we have which describes a late-picked apple is likely from a wedding song (105a): “Like the sweet-apple which reddens on a high bough, high on the very highest, and the apple-pickers have overlooked it. No, they haven’t really overlooked it; they could not reach it.” Sappho’s comparison of a woman to a hyacinth, if not part of a wedding song, may well be an adaptation of an image taken from a wedding song (105c): “Like the hyacinth which shepherds in the mountains trample with their feet, and the purple blossom is on the ground.”
Prayers for the future happiness of bride and groom are often part of wedding songs. One example is found in an epithalamium from a papyrus in the John Rylands Library (no. 17), which concludes: “. . Now may the Gods give you harmony, and may you soon have children, And children of those children, and reach a ripe old age.”
An exhortation to the couple to unite in love is declared to be essential, Dionysius recommending that the orator must say that such union is in accord with Nature, that the process of generation and conception is common to plants, animals, and all of Nature. Through marriage, men have been liberated from a wild and rambling life, and have acquired a gentle and modest mode of existence (cfr. Demeter Thesmophoria). Further, although the human race is mortal, it becomes immortal through union, for by the birth of children a light is kindled; inasmuch as mankind will continue to propagate, it is a light never to be extinguished.
“Do the light of the torches, and the marriage hymn (hymenaios), the sound of the flutes and the twanging of the lyre and the rhythmic motion of the dancers attract your attention? You see also the women visible through the vestibules as they marvel and all but shout for joy. This is a marriage, my boy, the first gathering of the bridal party, and the bridegrooms are bringing their brides.”
(Philostratus the Younger, Imagines 10)