SASiety Reviews: Are you lonesome tonight? Nocturnal Solitude in Greek Culture

Disclaimer: the text below reflects our comprehension of Prof Chaniotis’ paper. While we aim to convey his thoughts and ideas accurately, this review merely shows our own understanding of those ideas. 


On the 24th November 2020, ICS held their weekly Ancient Literature Seminar: Solitude and Community. This week Prof Angelos Chaniotis (IAS, Princeton) discussed solitude and darkness in Greek culture, with a survey of Ancient Greek artifacts; from Kylix to vases, sculptures and steles to literary, historical, as well as philosophical extracts. Prof Chaniotis revealed anxieties about the Greek culture that find their way into contemporary thought: those feelings aren’t necessarily removed from what you and I might feel today. Though, admittedly, we are not particularly well-versed in Greek culture, we thought that Prof Chaniotis’ paper was thought-provoking and, indeed, exhilarating. Not only did he provide many examples whereby night was tied in with connotations of solitude, but also of community and companionship. With great eloquence he displayed the ways in which those ideas still follow us today with music from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.

Prof Chaniotis started his presentation with Hecate, goddess of witchcraft, the night, moon, and necromancy. Often depicted alone in nighttime settings, Hecate could quite literally be seen as the embodiment of nightly solitude. Prof Chaniotis explained how Hecate was often thought to roam alone in darkness and the underworld; this done by choice. Reminiscent here are the words from Corpus Paroemiographorum Graecorum: “…decisions during the night … because the night offers tranquility and gives at leisure thoughts to those who reflect on important matters.” While this is a depiction of solitude, Prof Chaniotis added, that solitude was not as easily attainable for everyone, and indeed many great characters of Ancient Greek Literature seemed to be plagued by loneliness and obsessive thoughts during nighttime. The professor cited the examples of Ajax and Philoctetes. The former was haunted by dreams in his isolation and later committed suicide. The latter was exiled on the island of Lemnos. Though this solitariness would have undoubtedly provided many opportunities for reflective solitude, Philoctetes was instead tarnished by what philosopher Kierkegaard called, “solitude of pain”. In short, even the painful bites of a snake bite that Philoctetes suffered pale in comparison to the attacks of loneliness that Philoctetes felt. 

Prof Chaniotis then discussed how the ripples of such ancient attitudes and beliefs found their way into popular culture. The ending lyrics of Elvis Presley’s Are You Lonesome Tonight read thusly: “Is your heart filled with pain, shall I come back again?/ Tell me dear, are you lonesome tonight?” while there is also the juxtaposition between day and night with the lyric: “Does your memory stray to a brighter sunny day”. Sunny days are ones of companionship, while dark nights are ones of loneliness. The imaginary response might have been, Prof Chaniotis added, the familiar ABBA song, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Man After Midnight).

“Why is the ideal manifestation of solitude perceived in the evening?” Prof Chaniotis asked, “why is it that loneliness is observed as a particularly strong feeling in the night?” Prehistorically, he added, that was not the case. Night was interrupted by many activities; it brought people together; it gave them shelter. Dining, love-making, drinking, talking, story-telling were all part of a nightly repertorium of companionship and deep friendship. Lest we forget, the very word “Symposium” means drinking together. Safety after all, Prof Chaniotis reiterated, required joint efforts. 

However, one has to wonder how that representation of night as a dark and lonesome business began. We need to look no further than Hesiod’s Theogony,  where we see Nyx (born of Chaos), goddess of the night giving birth to many human anxieties personified as deities: Moros (Doom), Ker (destruction), Hypnos (Sleep), Thanatos (Death), Oizys (Pain, Distress), the Keres, Nemesis (Retribution), Apate (Deceit), Geras (Old Age), and Eris (Strife). Indeed, those are only some of Nyx’s children. This is only an example of how historians and poets exploited the feelings associated with night and isolation.

In a society, however, that valued companionship so much, solitude wasn’t necessarily a good thing and it was often stigmatized. Solitude isn’t reserved for the noble and the good, it is also reserved for the misanthrope. Here we might add the Baudelairean character, someone you might as well find in the literature of Joris-Karl Huysmans, particularly in his book À rebours. In the latter, the more the main character immerses himself in solitude, the more he is seen hating on humanity. In the words of Huysman, “His contempt for humanity grew fiercer, and at last he came to realize that the world is made up mostly of fools and scoundrels. It became perfectly clear to him that he could entertain no hope of finding in someone else the same aspirations and antipathies; no hope of linking up with a mind which, like his own, took pleasure in a life of studious decrepitude; no hope of associating an intelligence as sharp and wayward as his own with any author or scholar.” 


This, we were surprised to find, went all the way back to antiquity. Prof Chaniotis offered a couple of examples: one is from Plutarch’s Life of Antony, where two men are seen drinking during a symposium. “Apemantous said: ‘Timon what a fine symposium ours is!’ ‘It would be,’ said Timon, ‘if only you weren’t here.’” The others of two statues: The Old Drunkard (a statue from the Hellenistic period) and the other called Barberini Faun (or Drunken Satyr). What both of those statues show is immediate distress. Though one cannot tell what time of the day the scene depicts, we can assume the drunken woman becomes intoxicated during a festival, while the Drunken Satyr is having a troubled sleep after a night of relentless drinking. Those statues look rather wretched and disturbed in their solitude.  Moreover, there is this sense of abandonment. What they both lack is company and therefore, their stupor is abnormal. 

Barberini Faun. Source: Wikipedia.

What is interesting, however, according to Prof Chaniotis is the way in which this anxiety from the night was liberated and destigmatized through the efforts of poets such as Sappho, who, in one of the poems, writes: “The moon has set, also the Pleiades. We are in the middle of the night; time passes by, and I am sleeping alone/I alone am sleeping. […] Stand up, young man; go to your age-mates! We don’t want to sleep more than the nightingale.” This depiction is radically different to the ones that Homer represented in his Iliad. 

Those are only but a few examples that Prof Chaniotis mentioned in his talk, but through those examples a window opens that provides a better understanding about our own perception and prejudices in relation to darkness, loneliness, and solitude. Solitude and loneliness can take many forms during the evening hours, we have learnt, but through the exploitation of authors and artists, an idea has been solidified in our minds: that of solitude being greatly exaggerated during the night, pain or happiness equally magnified to titanic proportions. It is appropriate, we think, that this conversation took place after sunset: a reminder of our sense of community, albeit virtual, and of what ultimately binds us together. 


Written by Elena Zolotariov, IES PhD Candidate. 

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: