Graveyard Greek

…was the heading The Times gave the letter Armand D’Angour and I wrote to them, a response to their article on a “puzzling” Greek inscription on the tombstone of Cecil Headlam, a successful author and cricketer, in the churchyard of St Margaret’s, Hothfield, Kent. Since Greek script is incompatible with The Times’ computers, our answer to the “mystery” is lacking some detail, so I’ll set it out properly here. You’ll have to work out what in it is Armand’s and what mine, and I’ll kid myself that you’ll find that difficult.


Here is a good image of the inscription from Kent Online, where the story seems to have started:

As we said in the letter, a couple of observations are necessary before one can set about interpreting the text. Patrick Kidd, quoted in The Times article, spotted the misspelling in the second line, ΣΓΝΕΙΧΕΝ for ΣΥΝΕΙΧΕΝ, and Armand and I (and no doubt countless others) realised that the L in what looks like ΚLΙΝΗΝ in the third line cannot be right as L is not a Greek letter. It’s Ε, and the word is ΚΕΙΝΗΝ, “that woman” or “her”. It’s hard to be sure from the photo how Ε has become L, but it may be erosion of the stone, lichen concealing the upper arms of E, or another mistake in the carving like the Γ in ΣΓΝΕΙΧΕΝ.

A final piece of useful information is that Cecil Headlam’s wife was named Mary May.

This leaves us with the following text:





Set out as



this is more obviously a piece of verse, an elegiac couplet standard for an inscription of this kind.

Decapitalising, we have:

ζεῦγος ἔρως εὔμορφον ἀεὶ τὰ μάλιστα συνεῖχεν

    ὡς ἐφίλει κείνην, ὣς τότε Μαῖα φιλεῖ.

We translate this as “Love always bound together the lovely union to the utmost:/ as he loved her, so in turn May loves him.”

The most difficult part of the text is the τότε, “then”, “next”, as discussed on Twitter here. But the gist of the inscription remains perfectly clear, and it’s a touching expression of love, not a puzzle or code.

I’m not at all sure what follows will cast any light on τότε or any other aspect of the inscription, but I discovered a bit more about Mary May and Cecil Headlam while pondering this epigram, and it makes for some interesting social history.

Mary May Headlam, née Fraser (on 16th July 1874, I think, in Inverness), was first married, to Edmund Hardie Elles, on 30th November 1897 at St John’s Church in Peshawar, on the North-West Frontier (a building I tried and failed to visit last summer). They lived thereafter in Peshawar, Kolkata and various places in southern England. On the death certificate of one of her daughters (from as recently as 2004) Mary May is described as a book indexer and Edmund as a stockbroker.

But The Times has been concerned with Cecil and Mary May before. On 19th November 1912 it reported on Edmund Elles’ petition for divorce:

The co-respondent [Cecil Headlam] first met the parties in 1904 and became an intimate friend. In 1911 the petitioner [Edmund Elles] became suspicious of the co-respondent’s relations with the respondent [Mary May], who admitted affection for him and promised not to see or correspond with him. The petitioner left shortly after on a business visit to India. On his return to England he discovered that the respondent had left their children and was living with the co-respondent at the Grand Hotel Cosmopolite du Golfe at Wimereux, in France… Mr Justice Bargrave Deane pronounced a decree nisi, with costs against the co-respondent, and gave the petitioner the custody of the children of the marriage.

Divorce in 1912 (the decree nisi was granted on 18th November) was a very big deal indeed. There is an account of “Le Divorce, Edwardian Style” here, and the divorce of Edmund and Mary May Elles exemplifies what Evangeline Holland describes. Cecil and Mary May’s adultery was a scandal. As it happens, the census of 1911 seems to capture Mary May Elles at home with her two daughters, 9 and 5, Edmund Elles absent and presumably in India, shortly before her departure for the Pas de Calais. One wonders if she ever saw her daughters again.

Mary May and Cecil were married in 1913 (Edmund remarried in 1915). Cecil died at Hothfield on 12th August 1934, after which Mary May becomes quite hard to trace. Cecil’s elder brother Horace was married to another Mary whose dates are exactly the same as Mary May, which doesn’t help. But I think she dies at Worthing in 1959.

Does that further information have any bearing on our interpretation of a Greek epigram? It gives it some kind of context, I think, and that’s probably where I should leave it: this “lovely union” would not have seemed so to many of the Headlams’ contemporaries. But I’ve an impulse to see in the τότε, and the peculiar expression of the second line, some reflection of the experience of a married woman loved but unable to return that love until marital breakdown meant she could.

Maybe someone else can do better.

Pesh fire engine2

Tags: , , , , , ,

About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

9 responses to “Graveyard Greek”

  1. Ross McPherson says :

    Since this is a site where anyone can have a go, I’ll have my penny’s worth. I read ‘love’ and ‘yoke’ as nouns in apposition, so that the verb syneichen governs the clauses in the second line, with hos as a conjunction. So I would translate thus:

    “Love, the beautiful yoke, above all brought it about that he loved her, that she then loves him.”

    So the implication is that he loved her first, and that she then responded with a love that continues (something like a historic present).

    • Geoffrey Plowden says :

      I don’t think this works.
      i Zeugos does not mean yoke. It means things or people joined by a yoke.
      ii Suneiche is transitive, needs an object.
      iii there is no new subject for ephilei. The sentence requires it to have the same subject as suneiche.
      iv This use of hos seems very doubtful.
      Of course, I may be wrong in all this.
      Geoffrey Plowden

    • Armand D'Angour says :

      I did consider the possibilty of apposition, but syneichen really needs an object – it doesn’t and cannot mean ‘brought about’, I fear we have to live with the likelihood that this is not the most accomplished of verse compositions.
      As Lllewelyn says, the real problem is ‘tote’, but it’s not too much of a stretch to think that whoever used the word thought it amounted to ‘thereafter’ in the way I think you’re suggesting – ‘as he loved her, so she [thereafter loved and] loves him’.

  2. Geoffrey Plowden says :

    I don’t think this works. First, zeugos does not mean yoke, but the couple or pair, of things or creatures, joined by a yoke. Also, the postulated apposition of two nouns is impossible, I think. Then, can synekho mean “bring about” an effect? Then again, where does “he” come from to be the subject of ephilei? No man has been mentioned, and the subject as the sentence runs has to be eros, the subject of syneikhe. I am also doubtful that hos can bear the meaning you give it.
    In spite of Llewelyn and Armand’s letter, I believe that the epitaph is an unsuccessful piece of writing. But do contest what I say if you think I am wrong.

    • Ross McPherson says :

      Yes I can contest that (I am silly enough to contest anything), especially since the idiom here is created by an Englishman. As you say, it has the look of an unsuccessful piece of writing, but some elements are damned good. Note that Eros yokes noun and adjective (zeugos and eumorphon), so that love is symbolically a yoke that joins a beautiful pair. So I see nothing wrong with my “love, the beautiful yoke”. I just can’t see the nouns here as subject and object – they are a unit. So the verb syneichen must govern the pentameter line, where we find another yoked pair, the hemiepe, each commencing with hos. The subject of ephilei is implied, very appropriate for a dead man no longer to be seen on earth. I translated “brought about” as the nearest in English I could get to a sensible meaning for a Greek word that can tolerate a bit of stretching. For example, it can mean join, contain, comprise and constrain. I don’t see why hos can’t act as a conjuction in the way I have used it, but of course Greek idiom is for experts to decide. I’m just a self-taught amateur having a bit of fun. And thanks for the encouragement!

  3. James Ramsden says :

    I think I may have just got somewhere after being a bit blind, because the clues are all there in the original Times article: – Headlam a polymath, dressed for cricket and the fact that there was ancient Greek in the family.

    Headlam made sure the inscription would be put on the stone as it stands, including the mistakes. These he put in deliberately, because as a cricketer it amused him to leave behind him what would amount to a last googly, bowled for the puzzlement of posterity.

    We need to confirm that Headlam was a spin bowler. If he was then the mistakes he put in may themselves provide additional clues: – the G in line 1 for ‘googly’; and the L in line 2 for ‘leg break action’, the property of a googly.

    Anyway I hope he knows that he has successfully bowled us all out. James

  4. Ross McPherson says :

    The replies are getting a bit out of sequence so I’ll create a new space, Geoffrey and Armand. Being self-taught, I am in the habit of construing things as if I am the only one that can get the meaning wrong. It’s only here that I am working with material that could be wrong in itself. Still, there are such good elements in this couplet, I want to believe that they can be stitched together somehow. So maybe syneichen does double service, keeping together the “lovely union” (though “lovely enslavement” might better reflect the conventional trope of tyrannical passion) but, because the syntax already coveys that meaning, we are encouraged to seek another object in the next line, where we actually find male and female united by two clauses, though separated in time (he is past, she is present). There is something rather touching about all this, even if it is failed verse: it seems to fail because it tries to say so much. So I’m happy to tighten up the meaning of syneichen (kept together), but I’ll posit potential objects in both lines, and maybe even an implied object (them). This is an expansive approach to meaning that I have never encountered or looked for in ancient Greek, but it would be fairly consistent with liberties in modern English verse. Still, I’m not dopey enough to argue with you guys, just pushing the boundaries a little.

  5. Ross McPherson says :

    Adding to the points I just made, we could say that there is something highly pertinent in an elusive object for syneichen, because love didn’t keep them together in the end. Death dissolved the partnership. So, the subject eros does and does not have as its object the beautiful union, a pair of loving clauses, and an implied them. It all dissolves in inconsequentiality. But no Greek ever said that.

  6. Dimitrios Konidaris says :

    Dear Sir, I want to say that L is a Greek letter, found in archaic inscriptions .. in any case the Latin alphabet comes from that of ancient Chalkis – Euboea ..
    Thank you for the posts
    D N Konidaris

Leave a Reply