When I was at school, we learned of Ri-Pa-Pe – the rhythmic chant of Athenian oarsmen pulling a trireme’s 180 oars. Contrary to what you might think, triremes were manned not by slaves but by some 200 free men from all social strata. Indeed, for a 5th-century BC Athenian, the ships were an extension of their democratic beliefs as rich and poor rowed alongside each other. This served the larger civic interest of acculturating thousands as they worked together in cramped conditions and under dire circumstances. In the few emergency cases where slaves were used to crew ships, these were deliberately set free, usually before being employed.
To get back to the steady ri-pa-pe rhythm, it allowed triremes to reach an impressive maximum speed of 8 knots. Modern replicas powered by untrained students were able to reach over 6 knots, which is a testimony to the ship’s ingenious design that pushed the era’s technological limits.
But all this, I knew from school. What I didn’t know, and only found out recently thanks to Spencer McDaniel, one of my favorite Quorans, is that the ancient Greeks also had sea shanties. We know this because at least one ancient Greek sea shanty has survived to the present day. The song is recorded on a piece of papyrus that was found in the rubbish dump of the city of Oxyrhynchos in Egypt and dates to the second or third century CE. It reads as follows, in the original Greek:
ἁλίων Τρίτωνες ὑδάτων
καὶ Νειλῶται γλυκυδρόμοι
τὰ γελῶντα πλέοντες ὑδάτη
τὴν σύγκρισιν εἴπατε, φίλοι,
πελάγους καὶ Νείλοῠ γονίμου.
Here is an English translation of the song from the blog Sententiae Antiquae:
Sailors who race over deep waves,
along Triton’s salty swells,
Nile-runners who make their sweet way,
sailing over the waters’ smile,
friends, tell us your judgment
between the sea and the fertile Nile.
If you would like to hear a version of this song in performance, someone actually made a performance of the English version of the song on TikTok based on the natural pitch accents of the Greek language. Am I the only one who thinks it sounds surprisingly Irish?
So, no matter when or where your next story takes place, be sure to add a sea shanty for added realism (and fun)!