Erinna (/ᵻˈrɪnə/; Greek: Ἤριννα) was an ancient Greek poet. Biographical details about her life are uncertain: she is generally thought to have lived in the first half of the fourth century BC, though some ancient traditions have her as a contemporary of Sappho; Telos is generally considered to be her most likely birthplace, but Tenos, Teos, Rhodes, and Lesbos are all also mentioned by ancient sources as her home. Erinna is best known for her long poem, the Distaff, a three-hundred line hexameter lament for her childhood friend Baucis, who had died shortly after marriage. A large fragment of this poem was discovered in 1928 at Behnasa in Egypt. Along with the Distaff, three epigrams ascribed to Erinna are known, preserved in the Greek Anthology.
Little ancient evidence about Erinna's life survives, and the testimony which does is often contradictory. Her dates are uncertain. According to the Suda, she was one of Sappho's companions, placing her floruit in the sixth century BC. The latest date given for Erinna in the ancient testimonia is that provided by Eusebius, who suggests the mid-fourth century BC. Scholars now tend to believe that Erinna was an early Hellenistic poet.
Ancient testimony is divided on where Erinna was from: possibilities include Teos, Telos, Tenos, Mytilene, and Rhodes. Sylvia Barnard argues that Erinna was from Telos on the grounds of her dialect, though Donald Levin notes that while based on Doric, Erinna's dialect is a literary creation and does not accurately reflect her own native dialect. 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 Greek world where epigraphical evidence that girls were educated survives.
Three epigrams preserved in the Greek Anthology suggest that Erinna died young – according to Asclepiades shortly after composing the Distaff aged 19, though the earliest source to explicitly fix her date of death at age 19 is the Suda. Marylin B. Arthur, however, argues 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.
Only a few fragments of Erinna’s works remain but she is most noted for the heartfelt and elegiac style poem The Distaff, written in the local Dorian Greek dialect. Although it is unclear as to the nature of their relationship it has been assumed that Baukis (Baucis), is a childhood friend that died, or either married someone else or died before he and Erinna could consummate their love. However, the popular consensus is that Erinna’s poem is about the death of her childhood friend Baukis (Baucis), and this may have played on the irony of her early death; Erinna may have indicated in her poem that she wanted or expected such a fate too.
In The Distaff, Erinna plays on the theme of weaving by using it as a metaphor to assist in her personal retelling of a childhood friend. Weaving is a metaphor for writing poetry and alludes to the thread of life spun by the Fates, as well as referring to a traditional female activity. Erinna recalls her childhood and the games they used to play—the recollection of a shared past is a theme found also in Sappho. Erinna’s mourning seems to have been for the loss of her friend, to marriage, as well as her death. These two themes, death and marriage, are united as early as the myth of Persephone. Erinna’s poem has also been deemed important by scholars for the glimpse it gives us of a girl’s view of her relationship with her mother.
English translation of fragments by Daniel Haberman:
. . . Deep into the wave you raced,
Leaping from white horses,
Whirling the night on running feet.
But loudly I shouted, "Dearest,
You're mine!" Then you, the Tortoise,
Skipping, ran to the rutted garth
Of the great court. These things I
Lament and sorrow, sad Baucis.
These are for me, O Maiden,
Warm trails back through my heart:
Joy, once filled, smoulders in ash;
Young, in rooms without a care,
We held our miming dolls—girls
In the pretense of young brides
(And the toward-dawn-mother
Lotted wool to tending women,
Calling Baucis to salt the meat);
O, what trembling when we were small
And fear was brought by MORMO—
Huge of ear up on her head,
With four feet walking, always
Changing from face to other.
But mounted in the bed of
Your husband, dearest Baucis,
You forgot things heard from mother,
While still the littler child.
Fast Aphrodite set your
Forgetful heart. So I lament,
Neglecting though your obsequies:
Unprofaned, my feet may not leave
And my naked hair's not loosed abroad,
No lighted eye may disgrace your corpse
And in this house, O my Baucis,
Purpling shame grips me about.
Wretched Erinna! Nineteen,
I moan with a blush to grieve. . . .
Old women voice the mortal bloom. . . .
One cries out the lamenting flame. . . .
Hymen! . . . O Hymenaeus! . . .
While the night whirls unvoiced
Darkness is on my eyes . . . ”
Erinna was perhaps the most famous Female Greek poet in the ancient world after Sappho. As she is one of the few female poets whose work has, at least in part, survived, it is ironic that West has argued that the excellence of her poetry makes it impossible for her to have been a woman. West argues that ‘’The Distaff’’ was a clever literary ruse, written by a man in the guise of a young woman. He finds the persona of the poet—an unsophisticated 19-year-old girl pouring out her heart in poetry on the death of her friend—at odds with the polished hexameter poetry. However, there is ample evidence for the education of women in the fourth century BC, including evidence from Teos, one of the possible birthplaces of Erinna. While it is true that there were literary forgeries in the fourth century BC, these works were pseudonymous and were normally attributed to famous poets/writers. Texts were not invented for the unknown female authors. So only when Erinna became famous was there a context for the invention of other works in her name (i.e. the Epigrams), particularly ones which echo the theme of her great poem on the death of Baucis; hence there have been later pseudonymous epitaphs for Baucis by authors purporting to be Erinna.
There are three extant epigrams attributed to Erinna. Two of these epigrams (2 and 3) are epitaphs for Baucis and focus on death and marriage, a popular theme in Hellenistic poetry. The dialect, vocabulary and subject matter of the epigrams are reminiscent of the works of earlier Hellenistic poets like Asclepiades, Theocritus and Anyte.
‘’1. This portrait was made with delicate hands; Prometheus my good friend,
There are people with skill equal to your too.
Anyway, if whoever drew this girl so-true-to-life,
Had added speech, Argathrchis would be complete.
My gravestone, my Sirens, and mourning urn,
Who holds Hades’ meager ashes,
Say to those who pass by my tomb ‘farewell’,
Both those from my town, and those form other states.
Also, that this grave holds me, a bride. Say also this,
That my father called me Baucis, and that my family
Was from Tenos, so that they may know, and that my friend
Erinna engraved this epitaph on my tomb.
I am the tomb of Baucis, a young bride, and as you pass
The much lamented grave-stone you may say to Hades:
‘Hades, you are malicious’. When you look, the beautiful letters
will tell of the most cruel fate of the Baucis,
how her gather-in-law lit the girl’s funeral pyre
with the pine-torches over which Hymen sang.
And you, Hymen, changed the tuneful song of weddings
Into the mournful sound of lamentations.
We came to mighty Demeter, nine
Young girls, all wearing our beautiful clothes,
Wearing our beautiful clothes, and even bright necklaces
Sawn from ivory, just like the light of the sun… ’’
West again argues against their authenticity, pointing out that they are derivative and only contain certain information that was in ‘’The Distaff’’ itself. He sees them as fictions ‘’inspired’’ by Erinna’s work, claiming that “’[t]hey seem to have been intended for inscription’, though this in itself does not mean that they were not written by Erinna”. The epigram on Agatharchus is of a quite a different tone and is similar to the poems of Nossis. West argues on the bases that the poem should be attributed to Nossis, but it is possible that Erinna wrote on more than one theme. Nevertheless, the epigrams were included in the Greek Anthology under Erinna’s name, and it is clear that in antiquity readers accept them as her work.
In the Greek 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 Homer and Sappho, introducing a link between Erinna and more famous poets.