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Les Chansons de Bilitis – Love and licence in the ancient Greek diaspora

In April 1893 the French author Pierre Louÿs (1870 – 1925) attended the London première of Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance and noted the presence of the young Aubrey Beardsley in a nearby box. It was not the only connection between the two men. Louÿs had been the dedicatee of the original French version of Wilde’s Salomé, whose English translation Beardsley illustrated. Author and artist also shared obsessions typical of their period – with classical Greek and Roman texts; with erotica, courtesans and transgressive same-sex relationships; with music, especially Wagner; and with dandyism. Some eighteen months after the Wilde première, Louÿs would publish a book that reflected many of these obsessions, as well as representing one of the great literary hoaxes of late nineteenth-century France.i


When Les Chansons de Bilitis first appeared in bookshops in December 1894, they were presented as faithful translations by ‘P. L.’ of hitherto unknown Greek poems found on the walls of a sixth-century BC tomb, newly discovered in Cyprus. The poet was named as Bilitis, a young woman born of a Greek father and Phoenician mother, and a contemporary and acquaintance of Sappho. The volume is divided into three main sections that first narrate Bilitis’s girlhood and adolescence in rural Pamphylia, on the southern coast of modern Turkey, and her love for the youth Lykas, with whom she has a daughter she will abandon; then her early adulthood in Mytilene, the capital of the island of Lesbos, where she has a passionate affair with a young female companion, Mnasidika, whom she ‘marries’ but who will ultimately betray her; and finally her later years in Cyprus, where she becomes a courtesan and leads a life of sexual licence and Dionysiac revelry. Three epitaphs, said to decorate her sarcophagus, bring her story to a close.

Accompanying the ninety-three poems (the content pages list a hundred titles, but seven are shown as ‘untranslated’) is an introduction, also by ‘P. L.’, which offers a short biography of the poet and tells the story of the discovery of her tomb by an eminent German archaeologist, Professor G. Heim. A brief endnote references the Professor’s original scholarly tome on the poems, supposedly published in Leipzig in 1894, and his ambition to provide an ‘atlas’ of all the objects found in Bilitis’s tomb, then on display in a museum in Larnaca.


The opening poem of this first edition, ‘La Rivière dans la forêt’ (The Forest River), establishes the erotic atmosphere that suffuses the collection:ii

Je me suis baignée seule dans la rivière de la forêt. Sans doute je faisais peur aux naïades, car je les devinais à peine et de très loin, sous l’eau obscure.

Je les ai appelées. Pour leur ressembler tout à fait, j’ai tressé derrière ma nuque des iris noirs comme mes cheveux, avec des grappes de giroflées jaunes.

D’une longue herbe flottante, je me suis fait une ceinture verte, et pour la voir je pressais mes seins en penchant un peu la tête.

Et j’appelais: « Naïades ! naïades ! jouez avec moi, soyez bonnes. » Mais les naïades sont transparentes, et peut-être, sans le savoir, j’ai caressé leurs bras légers.

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

I called to them. To mimic them, I braided irises, black as my hair, around my neck, with clusters of yellow gillyflowers.

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

And I called: ‘Naiads! Naiads! play with me, be nice. But the naiads are transparent and perhaps, without realising it, I caressed their lissom arms.iii

The mystification continued when a second edition of Les Chansons was published in 1898, now featuring Louÿs’s name but still ‘traduites du grec’.iv Several of the pieces had been substantially revised and the volume had now expanded to 146 poems with an additional twelve titles listed as ‘untranslated’. This edition was to become the basis of the text we know today. The hoax was compounded by the inclusion of a fake bibliography that offered nine scholarly Bilitis references, only two of which were real.

Louys’s editorial mischief generated some amusing academic reactions involving scholars who claimed prior knowledge of the Greek originals, suggested variants to Louÿs’s texts, or even produced new translations.v It is difficult to know whether all these interventions were serious, or whether in some cases people were simply playing along with the joke. Anyone with a knowledge of German might have spotted a clue in the learned professor’s name – G. Heim = geheim= secret. These interventions have, nevertheless, contributed to the legend surrounding the volume.

Louÿs is a controversial figure for modern-day sensibilities. An inveterate womaniser, he was most comfortable in the company of sex workers, and, when he tired of his Algerian mistress Zohra bent Brahim, brutally consigned her to a life of poverty and prostitution. An anti-Dreyfusard, he always maintained that Dreyfus was guilty and that the Affaire had critically weakened France. A difficult friend, he managed to fall out with many of his contemporaries, including most notably André Gide and Claude Debussy. As a spendthrift, constantly short of money, he relied on his elder brother Georges (an eminent diplomat who was possibly Louÿs’s father) to fund his lifestyle. And he died a semi-reclusive cocaine addict in 1925, aged 54.

An illustration of Bilitis by Willy Pogany

Les Chansons display plenty of flesh and suggestive imagery. They have fired the erotic imagination of numerous artists, including George Barbier and the Hungarian-born Willy Pogany, whose naked figures and phallic couches illustrate early English translations by the novelist and screenwriter Alvah C. Bessie. The collection contains descriptions of heterosexual and lesbian trysts, while ‘Les Prêtresses de l’Astarté’ (‘The Priestesses of Astarte’) depicts moonlit revels in honour of the Middle Eastern goddess of war and sexual love.

Les prêtresses de l’Astarté font l’amour au lever de la lune; puis elles se relèvent et se baignent dans un bassin vaste aux margelles d’argent.

De leurs doigts recourbés, elles peignent leurs chevelures, et leurs mains teintes de pourpre, mêlées à leurs boucles noires, semblent des branches de corail dans une mer sombre et flottante.

Elles ne s’épilent jamais, pour que le triangle de la déesse marque leur ventre comme un temple; mais elles se teignent au pinceau et se parfument profondément.

Les prêtresses de l’Astarté font l’amour au coucher de la lune; puis dans une salle de tapis où brûle une haute lampe d’or, elles se couchent au hasard.

Astarte’s priestesses make love at moonrise; then they arise and bathe in a great pool with a silver rim.

With their crooked fingers they comb their tresses, and their purple-tinted hands, entwined in their black curls, are like coral branches in a dark and changeable sea.

They never pluck their hair, so that the goddess’s triangle will mark their belly like a temple; but they dye themselves with a paint brush and heavily perfume themselves.

Astarte’s priestesses make love at the setting of the moon; then in a carpeted room where a tall golden lamp burns, they lie down at random.

Why then have Les Chansons remained in print in respectable editions and what distinguishes them from other long-forgotten erotica from the period? One factor may be the erudition underpinning the book. If learned professors did indeed respond seriously to the Bilitis poems, it must have been no surprise, since by his early twenties Louÿs was developing a reputation both as a writer and as a committed, if spiky and controversial, amateur scholar of the Hellenic world, with a particular focus on the Grecian influence in the Near East – decadent Alexandria rather than classical Before Les Chansons appeared in late 1894, Louÿs had already undertaken translations of the first-century BC Greek poet Meleager, a native of present-day Jordan, as well as of The Dialogues of the Courtesans by Lucien, who was born around 120 A.D. in Roman Syria (now Turkey). A first volume of Louÿs’s own poetry, Astarté, was published in April 1892. Four years later, his novel Aphrodite, the story of the courtesan Chrysis set in ancient Alexandria, became a best-seller.

Louys’s scholarship was supported by an ever-growing library of rare books and manuscripts, numbering more than 20,000 by 1914. In fact, throughout his life, Louÿs would give every indication of being a frustrated academic, from the obsessive, quasi-scientific catalogues and classifications of sexual practices found in his papers and his vast collection of erotic texts and photographs, through to the articles he began to publish in 1919, ostensibly demonstrating that many of Molière’s plays had in fact been written by Corneille. Initially Louÿs had intended to annotate the poems in his first edition of Les Chansons with an extensive set of philological notes, either under his own name or that of G. Heim. While this idea was dropped, Louÿs’s detailed knowledge of the Near-Eastern Greek diaspora helped to infuse the poems with local colour and create a vivid – and, to many contemporary readers, entirely believable – portrayal of this lost world.

An image of Bilitis by Georges Barbier

The lasting success of Les Chansons owes more, however, to their poetic and artistic qualities, which were immediately appreciated by such influential contemporaries as Jules Renard and Maurice Maeterlinck. Henri de Régnier was thrown into ‘erotic transports’, while Mallarmé declared the collection ‘une merveille’. The poems may create an impression of artlessness and mellifluous fluidity, but Louÿs told his brother Georges that the first edition had required eight months of intensive work and two thousand pages of drafts. The much revised and expanded second edition, he would write later, had taken four years of toil. The author’s papers include a diary specifying when each song was composed as well as extensive preparatory notes, including extraordinary lists of vocabulary under the headings ‘not used’, ‘to be repeated’ and ‘to be avoided’. Nothing was left to chance.

The collection’s tripartite structure allowed Louÿs to shape a compelling narrative arc in which the reader follows Bilitis from youthful innocence and first love, through a passionate exploration of the senses, to a maturity ultimately characterised by world-weary melancholy. The three epitaphs provide a tender coda to her journey. Imitating similar inscriptions on classical tombstones, the closing paragraphs of the third epitaph read:

Ne me pleure pas, toi qui t’arrêtes : on m’a fait de belles funérailles ; les pleureuses se sont arraché les joues ; on a couché dans ma tombe mes miroirs et mes colliers.

Et maintenant, sur les pâles prairies d’asphodèles, je me promène, ombre impalpable, et le souvenir de ma vie terrestre est la joie de ma vie souterraine.

Do not weep for me, you who stop here: I was given a lovely funeral; the mourners tore their cheeks; my mirrors and necklaces were placed in my tomb.

And now, I walk on the pale meadows of asphodel, an impalpable shadow, and the memories of my earthly life are the joy of my life in the underworld.

Within this narrative, Louÿs manages to stay just the right side of prudence, avoiding the very explicit language and imagery of his other erotic poems and ‘secret’ Bilitis songs, which were only published after his death. The choice of rhythmic prose in a four-paragraph form that suggested a sonnet was also no accident. The Bilitis poems played into contemporary interest in the prose poem, fostered by the work of Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarmé, as well as by lesser writers such as Judith Gautier (a close friend).vii The use of prose reflected Louÿs’s belief in its intrinsic value and its difficulty. As early as 1889 he had written to Léon Blum that the prose to which he aspired would be ‘rythmée comme la poësie’. Elsewhere he wrote, ‘Before my first page of prose, I felt it required seven years of training in poetry to have a sense of rhythm, otherwise prose is nothing.’viii

Les Chansons clearly struck a chord with many readers – Henri de Régnier wrote to tell Louÿs that the Princesse de Polignac (Winnaretta Singer) and her female friends had become quite emotional when talking of Bilitis’s lover Mnasidika.ix One might dismiss such reactions as sentimentally prurient, but that would be to ignore the strong element of lived experience in the book. Gide, for instance, saw in the portrayal of Bilitis the influence of Louÿs’s travels in Algeria in the summer of 1894 and his encounter with a young prostitute, Meryem bent Ali. Bilitis’s overwhelming despair and jealousy when she is abandoned by Mnasidika is a convincing portrayal of a spurned lover.

An pencil and watercolour drawing by Auguste Rodin, annotated 'Bilitis', from the collection of the Musée Rodin, Paris

Louÿs himself felt that Les Chansons were particularly original in two related respects. First, in their honest portrayal of sex, which reached back beyond contemporary Christian morality to the uninhibited ancient world. As he wrote in a letter to his brother, ‘la question pudeur n’est jamais posée’ (‘there’s never a question of modesty’).x Secondly, the acceptance of lesbian love as something natural and pure in the middle section of the book. In this same letter to his brother, Louÿs argued that lesbians had been depicted in previous literary works as either femmes fatales or degenerates. The Bilitis poems were the first time ‘qu’on écrit une idylle (his italics) sur ce sujet-là’ (‘that an idyll has been written on this subject’). The poem ‘Le Passé qui survit’ (‘The Living Past’) describes the passionate emotions engendered by Bilitis and Mnasidika’s wedding night:

Je laisserai le lit comme elle l’a laissé, défait et rompu, les draps mêlés, afin que la forme de son corps reste empreinte à côté du mien.

Jusqu’à demain je n’irai pas au bain, je ne porterai pas de vêtements et je ne peignerai pas mes cheveux, de peur d’effacer les caresses.

Ce matin, je ne mangerai pas, ni ce soir, et sur mes lèvres je ne mettrai ni rouge ni poudre, afin que son baiser demeure.

Je laisserai les volets clos et je n’ouvrirai pas la porte, de peur que le souvenir resté ne s’en aille avec le vent.

I’ll leave the bed as she left it, unmade and rumpled, the sheets tangled up, so that the shape of her body will remain imprinted beside mine.

I’ll not go to the baths until tomorrow, nor wear any clothes, nor comb my hair, for fear of erasing her caresses.

This morning, I’ll not eat, nor this evening, and I won’t put rouge or powder on my lips, so that her kiss stays with me.

I’ll leave the shutters closed and I’ll not open the door, for fear that the lingering memory of our night should vanish with the wind.

At the same time, taking his cue from Lucien’s Dialogues, Louÿs displays few illusions about the actual experience of prostitutes and voices a great deal of sympathy for them. While there are brief periods of joy and camaraderie in the book’s third main section, there are also descriptions of boredom, melancholy, the cynical manipulation of clients (who are hailed as an Adonis, Ares or Herakles whatever their shape), the pimping of children, the middle-aged descent of the women into poverty as they lose their beauty, and the ever-present threat of violence that creates a need for protectors.

The poems have had a fruitful afterlife. Rodin, for instance, made beautiful drawings inspired by Les Chansons de Bilitis and said that after he read them, there was a little of Louÿs in everything he did.xi Debussy’s twelve-year friendship with the writer – who acted as a witness at the composer’s 1899 marriage to Lily Texier and only broke off relations after Lily’s attempted suicide in 1904 – resulted in his Trois Chansons de Bilitis of 1897, which remain a much-loved part of the mélodie repertoire. Debussy later wrote incidental music for a recitation with tableaux vivants of a further selection of the poems, six of which he turned into pieces for piano duet in 1914.


Perhaps the most fascinating story, however, is that of the founding of the Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco in 1955, the first lesbian civil and political rights organisation in the United States. During its fourteen-year existence, the Daughters held conventions, published a monthly magazine The Ladder and orchestrated other educational activities, as well as giving awards to men who were sympathetic to their cause, whom they called ‘Sons of Bilitis’ or SOBs. Asked about the name of the group, two of the group’s founders are said to have commented, ‘If anyone asked us, we could always say we belong to a poetry club’.


David Hunter
May 2021


i In writing this blog, I have drawn on Jean-Paul Goujon’s fascinating biography Pierre Louÿs – Une vie secrète, published by Fayard in 2002. My thanks to Peter Read for commenting on my draft.

iiThis poem became number 13 in later editions.

iii The translations are based on Alvah C. Bessie’s with modifications.

iv As late as 1930, some editions still carried this sub-title.

v Rather naughtily, when Louÿs sent Les Chansons to some professional Hellenists, he also included copies of his legitimate translations of Meleager and Lucien (discussed later in this blog). The three volumes also had a similar structure of introduction-translations-notes.

vi Louÿs seems to have had a difficult relationship with many professional Hellenists, who, in his view, embellished or censored the original Greek texts. He may also have believed that his work was criticised unfairly because of his amateur status.

vii See my earlier blog on Judith Gautier’s Le Livre de Jade

viii In 1893, in response to a society game of ‘Thirty Difficult Questions’, Louÿs nominated Rimbaud as his favourite writer of prose. Around 1920 he spent much time researching the sources of Rimbaud’s great poem ‘Le Bateau ivre’.

ix Winnaretta’s lesbianism was well known, and as Sylvia Kahan points out in her biography Music’s Modern Muse, she was generally assumed to be part of circle of high-society lesbians.

x Letter to Georges Louis, 22 December 1897.

xi For a fascinating discussion of Louÿs’s relationship with Rodin, see Peter Read’s article ‘Pierre Louÿs, Rodin and Aphrodite: Sculpture in fiction and on the stage, 1895 – 1914’ in French Studies, Vol. LXI, No. 1, 57 – 67 (2007).

Posted on:Wednesday 26th May, 2021