On weaving and sewing as technical terms for ancient Greek verbal arts

2017.03.20 | By Ellen Harlizius-Klück and Giovanni Fanfani

Two researchers from the Deutsches Museum continue the conversation on metaphors for ancient Greek verbal arts.

The Fates from the Krater of Kleitias and Ergotimos, Florence Museo Archeologico Nazionale, 4209 the (so-called François-Vase), drawing from Furtwängler and Reichhold, as presented on the cover of Spinning Fates.
The Fates from the Krater of Kleitias and Ergotimos, Florence Museo Archeologico Nazionale, 4209 the (so-called François-Vase), drawing from Furtwängler and Reichhold, as presented on the cover of Spinning Fates.


Ellen Harlizius-Klück and Giovanni Fanfani
Research Institute for the History of Technology and Science
Deutsches Museum, Munich

With this post we would like to contribute to the discussion set out by Gregory Nagy in his post from 2017.01.19 on metaphors of weaving and sewing in archaic Greek poetry. Nagy engaged there with a recent joint contribution of ours, that is, the chapter “(B)orders in Ancient Weaving and Archaic Greek Poetry,”[1] where we explored the potential correspondences between a structural feature of weaving on the warp-weighted loom, namely, the ordering band providing the starting border of the fabric, and the function of the cross-generic prooimion in a sample of archaic Greek poetry. With this posting we thank Nagy for his commitment and for inviting us to further the discussion in Classical Inquiries, which gives us the opportunity to share our thoughts with a scholar whose pioneering work on the interactions between fabric- and song-making has been a great inspiration for us.

Before we go into the details of the discussion, we want to explain our main point by presenting some considerations on the fabrics shown in the image featured in this post and in the corresponding post of Nagy: the Fates from the Krater of Kleitias and Ergotimos.

We see a composition of patterned stripes, figured bands, ornamented borders, and plain fabrics. Unfortunately we have no textile finds of such garments;[2] however, there are enough scraps for example in the salt mines of Hallstatt from which we can learn how such parts were integrated into a whole.[3] Some borders are starting borders and serve to provide the warp threads for the bigger fabric woven on the loom (see the leftmost diagram below). This means that the rows of weft threads inserted into the band are prolonged on one side of the selvedge to serve as a series of vertical warp threads on the warp-weighted loom. Often this starting border continues as left and right selvedge for the weave integrated by the weft threads that then run across the whole width of the new fabric (see the diagram in the middle).

Diagrams of starting border, selvedge and hem. Compare Grömer et al. 2013: figures 25 and 27.

This principle of integration of threads from an existing weave into a new or next one is often also applied to the last border of the fabric. There are various techniques to do this, ranging from plaiting a very different structure with the threads provided by the larger fabric (see the final example on the right) to weaving an additional band where the row of loose warp threads from the weave are integrated step by step into the new fabric as weft.

The question is what the Greeks called this fabric composition/connection. In German, there are words that probably once described these techniques but are out of use today like vorweben, anweben, abweben. In English, no words like these are known. In both languages the nowadays most frequent word for connecting fabrics has the meaning to sew (German: nähen). We join fabrics by cutting and sewing and call this tailoring. But the idea of tailoring was not common in Ancient Greece.

Applying the more complex technology of fabric connection by weaving parts together to the broad semantic range of rhaptein may reinforce the pattern of interaction between weaving and sewing metaphors for song-making that is so pervasive in the poetics of archaic Greek literature. A case in point is represented by ancient scholarly interpretations of the words rhapsōidos/rhapsōdeîn (ῥαψῳδός/ῥαψῳδεῖν), as Nagy has thoroughly discussed in Poetry as Performance (pp. 66–68) and summarized in his posting for 2017.01.19: the process of bringing together and connecting different and previously scattered parts of Homeric poetry into a unified whole—as both performance practice of historical rhapsōidoi and compositional ‘aetiology’ for the making of the epē—is traced back to the operation of rhaptein. In both our main sources, the Scholia Vetera to Pindar Nemean 2.1d (pp. 30–31 ed. Drachmann) and Eustathius to Il. 1 (pp. 628–635 ed. Stallbaum), the idea of poetic rhaptein is associated with, and somewhat qualified by, the notion of heirmós (εἱρμός), a term attested in post-classical literature, mostly in philosophical and rhetorical contexts, with the meaning of ‘series, sequence, connection’. The derivation of heirmós (εἱρμός) from the verb eirein (εἴρειν, often found in the compound form συνείρειν) ‘to string together, connect in rows’ grounds the semantics of the term in textile technology:[4] the plaiting of crowns in Pindar Nemean 7.77 (εἴρειν στεφάνους ἐλαφρόν) may be evoking the pragmatics of the epinician performance, whilst an explicit link with choral dancing is established by Plato in Laws 654a, where the gods are said to lead men in choruses, stringing them together with one another by means of songs and dances (ᾠδαῖς τε καὶ ὀρχήσεσιν ἀλλήλοις συνείροντας).

While the juxtaposition of rhapsōidein (ῥαψῳδεῖν) and suneirein (συνείρειν) in Philo of Alexandria (De migratione Abrahami 111.4 ῥήσεις μακρὰς συνείροντες καὶ ῥαψῳδοῦντες ‘stringing together and declaiming long speeches’) remains entirely within the frame of rhetorical imagery, the association of the terms heirmós (εἱρμός from εἴρειν) and rhaphē (ῥαφή from ῥάπτειν) to illustrate the particular poetics of joining/connection which defines the art of the rhapsōidoi might point to a specific operation of textile technology. In the context of a survey of competing interpretations of the term ῥαψῳδοί as glosses to Pindar’s paraphrasis ῥαπτῶν ἐπέων ἀοιδοί (‘singers of verses sewn-together’) in Nemean 2.1, the scholiast (Σ Pindar Nemean 2.1d p. 30 Drachmann) reports an explanation according to which the practice of rhapsōideîn (ῥαψῳδεῖν), consisting in bringing the scattered-about pieces of Homeric poetry into one unified whole through performance, is comparable to some kind of εἱρμός and ῥαφή (εἱρμῷ τινι καὶ ῥαφῇ παραπλήσιον). In pretty much the same terms Eusthatius (at Il. 1, pp. 6.30–32), also referring to Pindar Nemean 2.1, explains the concept of poetic rhaptein (ῥάπτειν) as ‘bringing uniformly into one, through some kind of heirmós (εἱρμός) in the art of rhaptein (ῥαφῇ), things (that had been) separated [that is, the scattered parts of Homeric poetry]’. While interpreting heirmós (εἱρμός) in the primary meaning of the term as ‘sequence/sequencing’ is certainly possible in this context, we would allow for the possibility that the substantive points to the idea, central in the semantics of eirein/suneirein (εἴρειν/συνείρειν), of connecting through stringing together in a series or row. The operation of joining together and integrating different pieces into a single (poetic) fabric (εἰς ἓν ὕφος, Eustathius at Il. 1, p. 6.32) is thus seen as characterized by a technique that encompasses both eirein (εἴρειν) and rhaptein (ῥάπτειν): could the two verbs in certain contexts be denoting a kind of fabric connection effected through inserting threads from a former fabric into a newly created one? This is indeed a possibility, but then, rhaptein (ῥάπτειν) in such cases is not sewing in our current sense.

The most important difference between those two concepts of composing a fabric is related to the inner structure of the fabric, to the series of threads that need to integrate into the other type of fabric respectively. The diagrams of border-fabric connections show clearly how elaborately and artfully such joints are made. In the process of doing this, a needle might have been used, but not for stitching the fabrics together with a sewing thread running parallel to the border without taking into account the structure of the joint fabrics, but by carefully inserting the loose threads into the structure. This structure of joints is clearly different from pieces sewn together: threads continue across these different structures, each structure providing a series of elements for the other.

As recent research demonstrates, investigation into ancient textile technology and the respective terminology may enhance literary interpretation by providing more reliable reconstructions of the material reality on which references to particular crafts (weaving, spinning, plaiting), techniques, or tools are grounded. [5] Furthermore it enables a reorientation of the relationship between the ‘literal’ and the ‘figurative’—with a shift of focus from the latter to the former—especially for certain areas of weaving imagery: [6] in other words, the conceptual import of a given analogy or metaphor is not simply illustrated, but generated by the particular principles of weaving technology at the root of the ‘literal’ element in the figure. In the case of ancient weaving, that is, literary imagery seems best accessed through technology, and technology helps positioning particular images within a less opaque frame or discourse.



Barber, E. J. W. 1991. Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean. Princeton, NJ.

Edmunds, S. T. 2012. “Picturing Homeric Weaving.” In Donum natalicum digitaliter confectum Gregorio Nagy Septuagenario a Discipulis Collegis Familiaribus Oblatum, ed. V. Bers, D. Elmer, D. Frame, and L. Muellner. Center for Hellenic Studies. http://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/4365.

Fanfani, G., Harlow, H., Nosch, M.-L.,eds. 2016. Spinning Fates and the Song of the Loom. The Use of Textiles, Cloth and Cloth Production as Metaphor, Symbol and Narrative Device in Greek and Latin Literature. Oxford and Philadelphia.

Gallet, B. 1990. Recherches sur Kairos et l’ambiguïté dans la poésie de Pindare. Bordeaux.

Grömer, K., Kern, A., Reschreiter, H. and Rösel-Mautendorfer, H., eds. 2013. Textiles from Hallstatt: Weaving Culture in Bronze and Iron Age Salt Mines = Textilien aus Hallstatt: Gewebte Kultur aus dem bronze- und eisenzeitlichen Salzbergwerk. Archaeolingua 29. Budapest.

Harlizius-Klück, E. 2004. Weberei als episteme und die Genese der deduktiven Mathematik: In vier Umschweifen entwickelt aus Platons Dialog Politikos. Berlin.

Nagy, G. 1996. Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond. Cambridge. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Poetry_as_Performance.1996.

Nosch, M.-L. 2015. “The Loom and the ship in ancient Greece. Shared knowledge, shared terminology, cross-crafts, or cognitive maritime-textile archaeology?” In Weben und Gewebe in der Antike: Materialität ‒ Repräsentation ‒ Episteme ‒ Metapoetik = Texts and Textiles in the Ancient World: Materiality ‒ Representation ‒ Episteme ‒ Metapoetics, ed. H. Harich-Schwarzbaue. 109–132. Oxford.

Schmidt-Colinet, A., and Stauffer, A. 2000. Die Textilen aus Palmyra. Neue und alte Funde. Mainz.



[1] The paper is included in Fanfani, Harlow, and Nosch 2016:61–99.

[2] Some pieces of fabric from Palmyra may give an impression of such textiles: compare Schmidt-Colinet and Stauffer 2000: plate 64.

[3] Compare Grömer et al. 2013.

[4] The use of eirein (εἴρειν) and suneirein (συνείρειν) in reference to verbal production (compare, for example, the εἰρομένη λέξις ‘continuous style’ of the new dithyrambographers in Aristotle Rhetoric 1409a29) is a semantic extension from the primary meaning of the verb rooted in the materiality of the craft.

[5] Compare Barber 1991, esp. 260–282, 358–382; Edmunds 2012; Nosch 2015.

[6] Sustained analogy in philosophical argumentation: compare Harlizius-Klück 2004 on Plato’s use of weaving technology as a paradeigma for correct diaeresis in the Statesman; literary ambiguity (syllepsis): Gallet 1990 on the original identity of the abstract term kairós (καιρός) and the weaving implement kaîros (καῖρος )as emerging in a number of gnomic passages in Pindar’s epinikia.


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