“O Rachel, Why This Bitter Tear?”: Another Greek Epigram

Back with another new poem, this time Greek Anthology 1.43. The previous poem dealt with the magi coming from the East; this one is on the Massacre of the Holy Innocents, via Matthew’s quotation of Jeremiah 31:15 in Matthew 2:

A voice was heard in Ramah,

weeping and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.


The original is two lines of dactylic hexameter that form a dialogue: the first asks Rachel why she weeps, and the second, spoken by Rachel, answers. In this way, the poet turns Matthew’s narrative into a tragic drama in miniature.

Once again, I give the Greek text as found in the Loeb edition, followed by the Loeb translation, followed by my verse translation, which is in iambic tetrameters that follow an ABBA rhyme-scheme.

The Greek text:

Εἰς τὴν Ῥαχήλ

—τίπτε, Ῥαχήλ, γοόωσα πικρὸν κατὰ δάκρυον εἴβεις;

—ὀλλυμένην ὁρόωσα γονὴν κατὰ δάκρυον εἴβω.

One feature in the Greek that did not make its way into my English is the use of words that onomatopoeically mirror the sounds of lamentation via repeated “o” sounds: see especially γοόωσα, with its thrice-repeated “o,” and the nearly identical ὁρόωσα, as well as the participle ὀλλυμένην, which evokes the sound of the verb ὑλάω, “to howl” (cf. Latin ululare).

The Loeb translation:

“Why do you mourn, Rachel, and shed bitter tears?”

“Because I see my children slain I shed tears.”

Trans. W.R. Paton, rev. by Michael A. Tueller

My translation:

On Rachel

“O Rachel, why this bitter tear

Do you in lamentation shed?”

“I look upon my children dead;

Therefore I shed this bitter tear.”

We’ve seen this episode somewhat recently in Sedulius, too. In addition, it seems to make an appearance in the final verse of Bob Dylan’s scorching “Man of Peace” off of his Infidels album, which nicely ties together the poems from last week and this week:

Somewhere Mama’s weeping for her blue-eyed boy

She’s holding them little white shoes and that little broken toy

And he’s following a star

The same one them three men followed from the East

I hear that sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace


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