Assassin's Creed Odyssey's Sea Shanties Are Actual Greek Poems

By Luke Plunkett on at

Hi, Luke Plunkett here, your resident sea shanty enthusiast. And I’d like you to know that Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, a game featuring mythical creatures, immortal leaps and the most perfect human being ever created (not you, Alexios), takes its sea shanties of all things very seriously.

To recap: like a few games in the series before it, most notably Black Flag, Odyssey peppers its sailing sequences with the singing of your crew, and like Black Flag, these ditties are catchy as hell.

Because none of them are recognisable to the average ear, and because I’d guess very few of you speak Greek, people have just gone about their business assuming these are made-up, a shining example of Ubisoft’s massive investment of time and manpower into the Assassin’s Creed series.

But they’re not made-up! At least not entirely. In the lead-up to the game’s release last year, audio director Lydia Andrew said of Odyssey’s shanties in an interview with Gamereactor:

What we’re doing is working with experts, working with historians, doing a lot of research ourselves, and we’ve created songs. So for example we said what kind of songs do we think sailors would sing on a boat? Okay, well, they’d probably sing songs about missing their family, or songs about the battles they’ve been in, or the Gods of the sea, or a girl they’re in love with or a boy they’re in love with or something like that. We did a lot of research and found ancient Greek texts that would cover those subjects, from plays, from poetry, and some songs as well, and then we worked with a composer in Athens and he created these really great melodies and harmonies that the choir sang.

While a lot of work has gone into trimming them and adding music, these songs haven’t been created from scratch, nor are they simply based on plays and poems. Odyssey’s sea shanties in many ways are the “ancient Greek texts” that Andrew was talking about.

Peter Gainsford, a classicist living in New Zealand, is a specialist in ancient Greek poetry, and in particular how it can relate to modern culture. Inspired by a line from the historian and general Thucydides that’s found in BioShock (“All things good on this Earth flow into the City”), Gainsford has for a while now been digging around looking for other references to ancient quotes in video games. And in Odyssey, he hit the jackpot.

As a fan of Black Flag’s own songs and an expert in ancient Greek, Gainsford decided to sit down with each of Odyssey’s shanties and translate them. He’s also able to pinpoint the source of each.

For example, here’s Through the Storm, which was a poem written by Alcaeus. Gainsford says Alcaeus was “one of the great duo of early poets of Lesbos, along with Sappho. Both poets wrote in the Lesbian dialect, which is a bit difficult for people trained in classical Attic Greek. Alcaeus’ fame was so great that the verse form used in this poem is named after him, the ‘Alcaic stanza’.”

Here’s how the game sings it:

ἀσυννέτημμι τὼν ἀνέμων στάσιν,
νᾶϊ φορήμμεθα, νᾶϊ φορήμμεθα σὺν μελαίνᾳ,
νᾶϊ φορήμμεθα, νᾶϊ φορήμμεθα.

κῦμα κυλίνδεται, ἄμμες δ’ ὂν τὸ μέσσον
νᾶϊ φορήμμεθα, νᾶϊ φορήμμεθα σὺν μελαίνᾳ,
νᾶϊ φορήμμεθα, νᾶϊ φορήμμεθα.

χείμωνι μόχθεντες μεγάλῳ μάλα·
νᾶϊ φορήμμεθα, νᾶϊ φορήμμεθα σὺν μελαίνᾳ,
νᾶϊ φορήμμεθα, νᾶϊ φορήμμεθα.

This is the original poem:

ἀσυννέτημμι τὼν ἀνέμων στάσιν,
τὸ μὲν γὰρ ἔνθεν κῦμα κυλίνδεται,
τὸ δ’ ἔνθεν, ἄμμες δ’ ὂν τὸ μέσσον
νᾶϊ φορήμμεθα σὺν μελαίνᾳ

χείμωνι μόχθεντες μεγάλῳ μάλα·
πὲρ μὲν γὰρ ἄντλος ἰστοπέδαν ἔχει,
λαῖφος δὲ πὰν ζάδηλον ἤδη,
καὶ λάκιδες μέγαλαι κὰτ αὖτο,

χάλαισι δ’ ἄγκυρραι, τὰ δ’ ὀή[ϊα ...]

Finally, and most useful to most of you, the English translation:

I fail to understand the direction of the winds:
one wave rolls in from this side,
another from that,
and we in the middle
are carried along in company with our black ship,

much distressed in the great storm.
The bilge-water covers the masthold;
all the sail lets the light through now,
and there are great rents in it;

the anchors are slackening; the rudders [ ... ]

Alcaeus died in 560BC, while Odyssey takes place during the Peloponnesian War, which raged from 431–404BC. That’s not... too far off, and as such an eminent poet it’s entirely possible to believe folks would still be familiar enough with his work to be reciting it 130 years later.

Not all the shanties in the game are as authentic to the time period, however. Much like Black Flag, which actually borrowed many later songs (some from as late as the early 20th century), most of Odyssey’s source material is all over the place. Indeed, only one of the game’s shanties actually dates from the Peloponnesian War.

“The shanties range from around 650 BCE to 500 CE”, Gainsford tells Kotaku. “The earliest is ‘The lost shield’, by Archilochus – players will recognise it by the refrain ‘erreto, erreto, erreto’, ‘to hell with it, to hell with it!’ – and the latest is a hymn to Ares. There’s one that’s contemporary with the game’s setting, called ‘Muse of the forest’ (‘tio, tio, tio tiotinx’), taken from a play-cum-musical that was written during the Peloponnesian War. Other than the Ares song, generally speaking the later ones are the love songs and the drinking songs.”

While Alcaeus was a poet, and most of the other shanties are also based on poems, Gainsford says that doesn’t mean the words couldn’t also have been sung.

“Some definitely were sung. We can’t be certain for all of them. A lot depended on genre, register, all sorts of things. Just like in the modern world, some lyrics are for singing, some are for speaking, some for reading. Ancient Greek music isn’t very well documented: we only have a handful of fragments of musical scores from the time of the game.”

One of those, though, involves Alcaeus’ Through the Storm. “There are two shanties where we can be dead certain that they were sung by choruses, just like in the game: ‘Through the storm’ (‘nai phorimmetha, nai phorimmetha’, ‘we sail with our ship’) and ‘Muse of the forest’. For most of the others we can’t be sure. But the ancient Greeks liked to think of all poetry as ‘singing’, even if only in a metaphorical sense, so it’s totally reasonable to treat all of them as songs.”

Before we wrap things up, I ask Gainsford if he has any favourites from Odyssey’s shanty tracklist. “The composer Giannis Georgantelis did a terrific job with their sound and feel, so they’re all good candidates. Archilochus is one of my favourite poets, and ‘The lost shield’ is so cheeky that it’s hard to resist. But I think actually my favourite has to be ‘Song to Bacchus’ (‘phere kipellon, o pai, phere kipellon pai’, ‘bring the cup, boy!’).”

If you’d like to read more of Gainsford’s translations, you can check them out on his personal site.