The Graces

 

Gratia cum Nymphis geminisque sororibus audet
ducere nuda choros.
The Grace, with the Nymphs and her twin sisters, dares
to lead the dances unrobed.
Horace, Odes IV ll. 5-6

A sixth former had been reading this Ode on her own account, and now she had a question: which of the Graces is Horace singling out, and why?  Is it Aglaia, Thalia or Euphrosyne?

The consensus seems that he is not singling out any of them: Gratia is generic. Although this seemed bathetic to mention, the plural Grātĭaē is a cretic ¯ ˘ ¯  and so will not fit into a  hexameter.

Other questions followed, and she researched the answers.

Did the Graces have a Roman origin?

  • No. Gratiae is a translation of Charites.

Are they mentioned in Homer?

  • Yes—and I mentioned a passage that this student has already shown a liking for: it is when Athene goes to the palace of Alcinous to give Nausicaa a dream:

βῆ δ᾽ ἴμεν ἐς θάλαμον πολυδαίδαλον,  ᾧ ἔνι κούρη
κοιμᾶτ᾽ ἀθανάτῃσι φυὴν καὶ εἶδος ὁμοίη,
Ναυσικάα, θυγάτηρ μεγαλήτορος Ἀλκινόοιο,
πὰρ δὲ δύ᾽ ἀμφίπολοι, Χαρίτων ἄπο κάλλος ἔχουσαι,
σταθμοῖιν ἑκάτερθε: θύραι δ᾽ ἐπέκειντο φαειναί.
She made her way to a richly wrought chamber in which a girl
lay asleep, like to the immortals in form and beauty,
Nausicaa, daughter of Alcinous great of heart;
and near her lay two handmaids gifted with beauty from the Graces,
on either side of the doorposts: and the polished doors were closed.
Odyssey VI ll.15-19

Who first gives their names?

  • Hesiod in Works and Days line 909. They are Aglaië, Euphrosyne and Thalië: Splendour, Gladness and Joy. They are children of Eurynome, daughter of Ocean, and Zeus.

Why have people been so enchanted by them?

  • Is it perhaps because people unconsciously accept that having beauty, or seeing it, is dependent on one’s state of mind, which is what their names would suggest?

The icon of the three Graces, dancing and holding hands, has been reproduced ever since antiquity, in different forms and images, some showing them as girls, some as adult women. I drew the student’s attention to their image in Botticelli’s Primavera (see Images menu above).

Next post: The role of Classics in a 21st century school.