The ancient Hellenic writers were dedicated historians, but they often neglected to mention the achievements of ancient Hellenic women. Now it so happens that I am a woman and I quite like having a few female heroes to look up to, so I want to introduce you to them. Today: Erinna of Talos.

Erinna (Ἤριννα) of Talos was a Hellenic poet, possibly a contemporary and friend of Sappho, though scholars now tend to believe that Erinna was an early Hellenistic poet. She was either a native of Rhodes or the adjacent island of Telos or even possibly Tenos, which flourished about 600 BC. Little ancient evidence about Erinna's life survives, and the testimony which does is often contradictory. It is likely that Erinna was born into a wealthy family, and would have been taught to read and write poetry – Teos, one of Erinna's possible birthplaces, is one of the few places in the ancient Hellenic world where epigraphical evidence that girls were educated survives.

Three epigrams preserved in the Greek Anthology suggest that Erinna died young--according to Asclepiades aged 19, though the earliest source to explicitly fix her date of death at age 19 is the Suda. Often this is linked to the poem, the Distaff, which is about a 19 year old girl. It's argued though, that though the character of Erinna in the Distaff was 19, it is not necessarily the case that she did compose the poem when she was that age.

Erinna was perhaps the most famous female Hellenic poet in the ancient world after Sappho. In the Palatine anthology Asclepiades, Leonidas, and an anonymous poet, sing her praises. Meleager honored her with a place in his "'Garland’ of poets", likening her work to a "sweet, maidenly colored crocus". Antipater of Sidon says that, "although she wrote few verses, her work was inspired by the muses, and she would always be remembered" (7.713). Her work is compared favorably both with Homeros and Sappho, introducing a link between Erinna and more famous poets.She wrote in a mixture of Aeolic and Doric Greek. Three epigrams ascribed to her probably belong to a later date, though some debate on the first epigram exists.

Her most famous poem is undoubtedly The Distaff, which has not survived unharmed, but remains in large part. For centuries, all that was known about Erinna’s poem was that it was three-hundred lines long and, according to one commentator, ‘more powerful than those of so many others’. A few of the poet’s epigrams, laments for Erinna’s childhood friend, Baucis, had survived in the Greek Anthology, alongside a couple of short, two-line extracts of her poetry quoted in later commentators.

And then in 1928, as if by a miracle, Italian archaeologists excavating at Oxyrhynchus discovered a tattered piece of papyrus which contained a new, 54 line fragment of Erinna’s epic. To everyone’s great surprise it transpired that this work, too, like Erinna’s extant epigrams, was another lament for her friend Baucis. However, in places the text was so damaged that scholars could not always agree how it should read. The most truthful version I have been able to find is the following, by Josephine Balmer:

… the rising moon …
                         … falling leaves …
                                             … waves spinning on a mottled shore …
                                         …and those game, Baucis, remember?
Two white horses, four frenzied feet – and one Tortoise
to your hare: ‘Caught you,’ I cried, ‘You’re Mrs Tortoise now.’
But when your turn came at last to catch the catcher
you raced on far beyond us, out from the great shell
of our smoke-filled yard…
                  … Baucis, these tears are your embers
and my memorial, traces glowing in my heart,
now all that we once shared has turned to ash …
                                                                        … as girls
we played weddings with our dolls, brides in our soft beds,
or sometimes I was ‘mother’ allotting dawn wool
to the women, calling for you to help spin out
the thread …
                       …and our terror (remember?) of Mormo
the monster – big ears, long tongue, forever flapping,
her frenzy on all fours, those changing shapes – a trap
for girls who had lost their way …
                                           … But when you set sail
for a man’s bed, Baucis, you let it slip away,
forgot the lessons you had learnt from your ‘mother’
in those far-off days – no, never forgot; that thief
Desire stole all memory away…
                                                          … My lost friend,
here is my lament: I can’t bear that dark death-bed,
can’t bring myself to step outside my door, won’t look
on your stone face, won’t cry or cut my hair for shame …
But Baucis this crimson grief
                                                          is tearing me in two …

The tortoise refers to the game described by Pollux ix. 125 : one girl (called the Tortoise) sat among others and spoke with them in alternate lines. At the end of the last line the Tortoise leapt up and tried to catch, or touch, one of the others - who would then take her turn as Tortoise. The last two lines are given by Pollux as : (Girls) "What was your son doing when he died?" (Tortoise) "From white horses into the sea he leapt" (on the last word the Tortoise leaps up) : hence the first line here.