Alexander's Feast, or the Power of Music Symbols, Allegory and Motifs
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Written by Connie Skibinski
In the classical world, much like in the world today, roses were associated with love and desire. In Greek and Roman myth, roses represented the love goddess Aphrodite/Venus. Roses were also common symbols in epic song and poetry, as they symbolise the great strength and determination of the empire. Roses were also often used to celebrate an individual's great achievements, as can be seen through the poem, which praises Phillip's military victory.
The myrtle represents growth, expansion and conquest. This alligns with widely held Classical values of strength, honour and military achievement. Myrtle, like many other plants, was also a symbol of death and rebirth. Ancient Greeks carried myrtle with them when they colonised new land to represent their expansion and represent the new possibilities and opportunities brought about through the new land. Furthermore, myrtle was closely associated with the rose as a symbol of love, as both roses and myrtles were closely connected to the goddess Aphrodite.
Musical instruments are a key motif throughout the poem. References to music contribute to the grand, optimistic tone of the poem. Lines such as "Timotheous ... with flying fingers touched the lyre" contribute to the magical, playfu quality of the poem. Furthermore, references to musical instruments in the imperative declaration "Sound the trumpets, beat the drums!" create a sense of a grand celebration and engender notions of heroism, legacy and praise. This motif is further significant given the religious and classical overlay of the poem, in particular, references to the Greco-Roman diety Bacchus. In classical times, Bacchian celebrations were characterised by excessive dance, song and music. In this way, the musical instrument motif also adds historical authenticity, while proclaiming the predominant theme of celebration and community spirit.
In ancient literature and poetry, snakes represent the wielding of great power. Serpents and snakes represent both positive and negative traits. While they can represent healing and transformation (due to the snake's ability to shed its skin), they are also associated with cunning and deception, as a number of ancient myths depict snakes as misleading, trickster figures. In Greco-Roman mythology, snakes predominantly a symbol of fear and power. This can be seen through numerous snake-like creatures, such as the Gorgon and the Giants, who were powerful mythological adversaries. This is strengthened through the poem's explicit reference to "the Furies", mythological figures with snake-like hair, as well as the frightening description "See the snakes that they rear How they hiss in their hair," which suggests an ominous strength.
Torches were powerful symbols in Greek and Roman art and funerary monuments. A torch held upwards symbolises life and truth. These positive notions are conveyed through the optimistic image "Behold how they toss their torches on high". Torches also symbolised the eternal power of the flame and notions of strength and regeneration.
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This is obviously an ode. The poem describes the feast that Alexander the Great gives after he captures Persepolis. At the feast, there is a bard called Timotheus, who accompanies the event with his performance. First, he starts with the...