The Songs of Bilitis

The Songs of Bilitis


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These passionate verses were published in Paris in 1894 as the lost works of a disciple of Sappho. Between their open celebration of lesbian love and the eventual revelation of their true authorship—the verses actually were written by French novelist and poet Pierre Louÿs—they became a succès de scandale. Although debunked as a work of antiquity, The Songs of Bilitis remains a classic of erotic literature.
More than 160 sensual illustrations by the famed Hungarian-born American artist Willy Pogány grace the pages of this lovely keepsake edition. Reprinted from a sensitive translation of the original French edition by Alvah C. Bessie, it features extensive annotations. Contains adult material.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486256702
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 06/01/1988
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.37(w) x 8.45(h) x 0.50(d)

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The Songs of Bilitis

By Pierre Louÿs, Alvah C. Bessie, Willy Pogány

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2010 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-12219-9






I undressed to climb a tree; my naked thighs embraced the smooth and humid bark; my sandals climbed upon the branches.

High up, but still beneath the leaves and shaded from the heat, I straddled a wide-spread fork and swung my feet into the void.

It had rained. Drops of water fell and flowed upon my skin. My hands were soiled with moss and my heels were reddened by the crushed blossoms.

I felt the lovely tree living when the wind passed through it; so I locked my legs tighter, and crushed my open lips to the hairy nape of a bough.


One must sing a pastoral song to invoke Pan, God of the summer wind. I watch my flock, and Selenis watches hers, in the round shade of a shuddering olive-tree.

Selenis is lying on the meadow. She rises and runs, or hunts grasshoppers, picks flowers and grasses, or bathes her face in the brooklet's cooling stream.

I pluck the wool from the bright backs of my sheep to supply my distaff, and I spin. The hours are slow. An eagle sails the sky.

The shadow moves; let us move the basket of flowers and the crock of milk. One must sing a pastoral song to invoke Pan, god of the summer wind.


My mother bathes me in the dark, she dresses me in the sunlight and coifs me in the soft glow of the lamp; but if I go out in the moonlight she ties my girdle and makes a double knot.

She tells me: "Play with the virgins, dance with the little children; do not look out of the window; fly the conversation of young men and fear the widow's counsel.

"Some evening, someone, as has always been, will come to lead you over the threshold in the midst of a great cortege of sounding drums and amorous flutes.

"That evening, when you go out, Bilitis, you will leave me three gourds of gall: one for the morning, one for the afternoon, and the third, the bitterest, for the festival days."


I have long black hair down my back, and a little round cap. My frock is of white wool. My sturdy legs are browning in the sun.

If I lived in town I should have golden trinkets and gold-embroidered frocks and silver slippers.... I look at my naked feet in their slippers of dust.

Psophis! come here, little creature! carry me to the brook, bathe my feet in your hands, and press some olives with some violets, to scent them among the flowers.

Today you shall be my slave; you shall follow me and serve me, and at the end of the day I will give you some lentils from my own garden ... to give your mother.


An old blind man lives on the mountain. For having looked at the nymphs his eyes have long been dead. And from that time his happiness has been a far-off memory.

"Yes, I saw them," he told me: "Helopsychria, Limnanthis; they were standing near the bank, in the green pool of Physos. The water shimmered higher than their knees.

"Their necks were bent beneath their heavy hair. Their nails were filmy, like the wings of grasshoppers. Their breasts were deep, like the calyx of the hyacinth.

"They trailed their fingers upon the water, and pulled long-stemmed lilies from the unseen silt. About their separated thighs, slow circles spread. . . "


Torti-tortue, what are you doing there? —I am winding wool and I spin Milesian thread.

• Alas! alas! Why don't you come and dance?

• I am so sad. I am so sad.

Torti-tortue, what are you doing there? —I cut a reed to make a funeral pipe. —Alas! alas!

And tell me what has happened. —I'll never tell. Oh, I shall never tell.

Torti-tortue, what are you doing there? —I am crushing olives to make a funeral oil. — Alas! alas! And who has died, mayhap? —How can you ask? Oh, say, how can you ask?

Torti-tortue, what are you doing there? —He fell into the sea. . . —Alas! alas! and tell me how was that? —From his white horses' backs. From his white horses' backs.*


One evening, as I sat before my door, a young man passed me by. He looked at me, I turned away. He spoke to me, I did not answer him.

He would have come nearer. I took a scythe that leaned against the wall and should have split his cheek had he advanced one pace.

Then, stepping back a little, he began to smile, and blew across his hand, saying: "A kiss for you." I screamed and wept. My mother ran to me,

Anxiously, thinking I had been stung by a scorpion. I cried, "He kissed me." My mother kissed me too, and bore me off in her arms.


It is already daylight. I should have long arisen. But morning sleep is sweet, and the warmth of the bed keeps me snuggled up. I want to stay still longer.

Soon I'll go to the stable. I'll give grass and flowers to the goats, and a skin of fresh water, drawn from the well; and I shall drink out of it, just as they.

Then I'll tie them to the post and draw the milk from their warm udders; and, if the kids are not jealous, we all shall suck the soft teats together.

Did not Amalthea give suck to Zeus? Then I shall go. But not yet. The sun arose too soon, and mother has not yet awakened.


Softly and in silence the fine rain has moistened everything. It is still raining a little. I am going to stroll under the trees. Bare-footed, not to soil my sandals.

The spring rains are delicious. Branches laden with rain-soaked blossoms daze me with their perfume. The delicate skin of the bark shines in the sun.

Alas! how many blooms have fallen to earth. Pity the fallen flowers. Pray do not sweep them up, or crush them in the mud: but leave them to the bees.

Beetles and snails promenade in the pathways between the pools of water; I do not wish to tread upon them, nor frighten this gilded lizard which stretches and blinks its eyes.


Nymphs of the woods and fountains, beneficent friends, oh! here I am. Do not hide yourselves, but come to my aid, for I am sorely overburdened by the weight of so many plucked flowers.

I shall choose from among you a poor hamadryad with lifted arms, and into her leafy hair I'll thrust my heaviest rose.

See! I have taken so many from the fields that I shall never be able to carry them home, unless you make me up a huge bouquet. If you refuse, take care:

Yesterday I saw the nymph whose hair is tinted orange served like a beast by the satyr Lamprosathes, and I shall denounce the shameless creature.


I threw myself weeping into her arms, and for long minutes she felt my warm tears flowing over her shoulder before my anguish allowed me once again to speak:

"Alas! I am only a child; the young men will not look at me. When shall I have lovely young breasts like yours, to swell my gown and tempt their kisses?

"No one glances with avid eyes when my tunic slips; no one picks up the flower that falls from out my hair; no one tells me that he'll kill me if my lips should know another's."

Tenderly she answered me: "Bilitis, little maid, you cry like a cat in the moonlight and are worried without reason. The most impatient virgins are not those the soonest chosen."


Sparrow, bird of Kypris, accompany our first desires with your notes. The new body of young girls blooms with flowers, just as blooms the earth. The night of all our dreams arrives and we whisper it together.

At times we match our different beauties, our long hair, our budding breasts, our quailplump deltas, couched beneath the springing down.

But yesterday I strove this way against Melantho, my elder. She was proud of her bosom, which sprouted within the month, and, mocking at my flattened tunic, called me Little Child.

No man could possibly have seen us, we showed ourselves nude before the other girls, and, if she won upon one point, I vanquished her by far upon the others. Sparrow, bird of the Kyprian, accompany our first desires with your notes.


I bathed alone in the stream in the wood. I must have frightened the poor naiads, for I could scarcely see them far away in the dark water.

I called to them. To mimic them I plaited iris blossoms, black as my hair, about my neck, twined with knots of yellow gilly-flowers.

With a long floating weed, I made myself a green girdle, and to see it I pressed my breasts and inclined my head a little.

And I called: "Naïads! naiads! play with me, be nice." But the naiads are transparent, and perhaps I even caressed their lissom arms, unknowing!


As soon as the sun's heat diminishes, we will go and play on the banks of the river; we will struggle for a frail crocus, or for a sopping hyacinth.

We will make a human necklace, and we'll weave a wreath of girls. We will take each other by the hand, and grasp each other's tunic-skirts.

Phitta Meliai! give us honey! Phitta Naïades! let us bathe with you. Phitta Meliades! shade sweetly our perspiring bodies.

And we will offer you, oh! beneficent nymphs, no shameful wine, but oil and milk and many crook-horned goats.


Travelers coming from Sardis speak of the necklaces and precious stones with which the Lydian women deck themselves, from the tops of their tresses to their tinted feet.

The young girls of my country have neither bracelets nor diadems, but their fingers bear a silver ring, upon the scroll of which the triangle of the goddess is engraved.

When they turn the apex outward, it signifies; "Psyche to be taken." And, when they turn it inward: "Psyche taken."

The men believe in it, the women don't. As for myself, I scarcely notice the direction of the apex, for Psyche is an easy catch. She is always "to be taken."


Upon the soft grass, in the night, young girls with violet hair have danced together, and one of each pair gave the lover's answer.

The virgins said: "We are not for you." And, as though they were ashamed, they shielded their virginity. An aegipan played a flute beneath the trees.

The others said: "But you will come to seek us." They fashioned their dresses after the manly garb, and languidly struggled and twined their dancing limbs.

Then, each declaring herself to be subdued, she took her comrade by the ears, cupfashion, and, tilting her head, she drank a lengthy kiss.


The brook is nearly dry, the drying rushes perish in the mud; the air is burning, and far from the steep embankments a thin clear streamlet flows upon the sand.

There it is from morn to night that little naked children come to play. They bathe, no higher than their calves, so sunken is the stream.

But they tramp in the current and often slip upon the rocks, and little boys throw water upon little laughing girls.

And when a company of passing merchants leads down their great white cattle to the sink, they cross their hands behind them, and watch the heavy beasts.


I am beloved by little children; when they see me come they run to me and tug upon my tunic, and grasp my legs about with tiny arms.

If they have gathered flowers, all are mine; if they have caught a beetle, they place it in my hand; if they have nothing, they fondle me and make me sit before them.

Then they kiss me on the cheek, they rest their little heads upon my breasts; they supplicate me with their shining eyes. How well I know just what they mean to say!

They mean: "Bilitis sweet, tell us again, for we are good, the story of the hero Perseus, or else how little Helle met her death." *


Our mothers carried us together, and tonight Melissa, my dearest friend, was married. The roses still are lying on the road; the torches still are flaming, flaming...

And I return by the same path with mother, and I dream. Thus, what she is today, I also might have been. Have I grown up so soon?

The cortege and the flutes, the marriage song; the flowered carriage of the bridegroom, all these pomps some other night will spread themselves about me, among the olive branches.

Just as Melissa now, I shall disrobe myself before a man and taste of love by night, and later still small babes will feed upon my swollen breasts.


The next day I went to visit her, and we blushed the moment that we saw each other. She had me come into her private room, that we might be alone.

I had many things to tell her; but when I saw her I forgot them all. I did not even dare to throw myself upon her neck, I looked at her high girdle.

I was astonished that her face remained the same, she still seemed to be my friend; and yet, since the night before, she had learned so many things that maddened me.

Suddenly I sat upon her knees, I took her in my arms and whispered wildly in her ear, most anxiously. She put her cheek to mine and told me all.


At night the hair of women and the willow's branches merge and mingle softly with each other. I walked upon the water's edge. Suddenly I heard a singing voice: 'twas then I knew there were some maidens there.

I said to them: "What do you sing?" They answered me: "We sing of those returning." One waited for her father, one her brother; but she who waited for her lover was the most uneasy.

They had plaited crowns and garlands for themselves, cut palms from the palm-trees and dragged the lotos from the pond. They had their arms about each other's necks, and sang alternately.

I wandered on along the river's edge, sadly and alone, but, looking all about me, I perceived the blue-eyed moon had risen behind the trees, to see me home.


Shades of the wood where she now ought to be, tell me, whence has my fair mistress strayed? —She has gone down to the plain. —Meadow, oh! tell me, where is my mistress? —She has followed the banks of the stream.

—Beautiful river who just saw her passing, tell me, is she hereabouts? —She has left me to stray on the road. —Oh, road, do you still see her? —She has left me for the street.

—Oh, white street, path of the city, tell me, oh! where have you lead her? —To the golden street, which enters Sardis. —Oh! pathway of light, do her naked feet press you? —She has entered the home of the King.

—Oh, palace of splendor, light of the world, give her again back to me! —See! she has necklaces, hung to her breasts, chaplets of blossoms entwined in her hair, long strings of pearls looped on her legs, and two arms encircle her waist.


Come, we will stray in the fields, under the juniper bushes; we will eat honey fresh from the hive and make grasshopper traps from the daffodil stems.

Come, we'll see Lykas, who watches his father's flocks on the shadowy slopes of the Tauros. Surely he'll give us some milk.

I can hear his flute even now. He plays so cleverly. Here are the dogs and the lambs, and there he leans against a tree. Is he not even as fair as Adonis?

Oh, Lykas, give us some milk. Here are some figs from our trees. We have come to stay with you. Oh! bearded nannies, do not leap so high, lest you soon excite the restless goats.


This garland plaited by my very hands is not for Artemis who rules at Perga—though Artemis will shield me from the labour-pangs.

Nor for Sidonian Athene, although she be of ivory and gold, and bears in her hand a pomegranate to tempt the birds.

No, but for Aphrodite whom I love within my breast, for she alone can sate my hungry lips if I suspend upon her sacred tree my loops of tender rosebuds.

But never will I say my need aloud. I'll stand on tiptoe, whispering my wish in secret to a crevice in the bark.


The storm had lasted all night. Selenis of the lovely hair had come to spin with me. She stayed for fear of the mud, and, pressed tightly each to each, we filled my tiny bed.

When young girls sleep together sleep itself remains outside the door. "Bilitis, tell me, tell me whom you love." She slipped her thigh across my own to warm me sweetly.

And she whispered into my mouth: "I know, Bilitis, whom you love. Close your eyes, I am Lykas." I answered, touching her, "Can't I tell that you are just a girl? Your joke's a clumsy one. "

But she went on: "Truly I am Lykas if you close your lids. Here are his arms, here are his hands" ... and tenderly, in the silence, she flushed my dreaming with a stranger dream.


Excerpted from The Songs of Bilitis by Pierre Louÿs, Alvah C. Bessie, Willy Pogány. Copyright © 2010 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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songs of Bilitis 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Big_Bang_Gorilla on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Being erotic prose poems with atmospheric illustration. The writing is lovely and appealing; the illustrations have a period feel which is evocative of Beardsley's line drawing without the grotesque undertones.