In ‘Sede Vacante’, the author combines stories from the Greek myths with a corresponding mythical Fate to illustrate the Fall of man and his inability to solve his fallen state alone. With the corruption of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, the Greek world turns its weary eyes to Olympus, only to find the thrones abandoned by gods who cannot save. The poem ends on a hopeful note, as the ‘myth made fact’, Jesus Christ, is foreshadowed through the longing for a hero who can fulfill the need for redemption, metaphorically represented in the empty seat. Matthew 25:31 tells us that “He will sit on His glorious throne” as King. The title, “Sede Vacante,” is a Latin phrase meaning ‘empty seat.’ (This is used most often in reference to the priestly position of the Papacy.) Through Jesus, our High Priest, we “approach the throne of grace with confidence.” (Hebrews 4:16) Christ both fills, and is literally, the ‘mercy seat’, the no-longer-empty throne. (Romans 3)

The Ancient Greeks and Romans wrote poetry in the Sapphic meter. Named for the Greek poet Sappho, this style requires a particular four-line stanza pattern of trochees and dactyls, with English versions also using certain stressed syllables to sustain the meter.  Later revived by the Medievals, with the addition of an ABAB rhyme scheme, and adopted by poets such as Swinburne and Hardy,  the Sapphic style remains one of the longest enduring forms of Classical poetry.

Sede Vacante[1]

Matthew 25:31

Snipping life-thread Atropos[2] ends the story,

Mighty wings of Icarus scissors clipped

Empty seem myth’s memento mori[3], for thee

The truth told tripped

Leaning, mirrored, Narcissus his own glory

Pooled, puddled — reflected — the weight of man

Keeping measured, Lachesis[4] fathoms, for he

Pride-plunged pain began

Spinning, self-same Arachne weaving warped

Looming lovely, Athena, Clotho[5] knowing

Wheeling, webbing humankind downward dropped

Arete[6] going

Stolen Beauty Troy’s Helen queenly cometh

Spoilt youth, proud prince of darkness dreaming dimly

Golden apple forbidden biting, stomachs

Conquering kingdoms

All thrones upon Olympus empty sitting

godless, storied deity barren, bounden

Silent, bereft Olympus judgment pending-

Deserted mountain

Where is justice, Astraea[7], star-ward fleeing?,

Well-heeled[8] great god, Achilles’s likeness, arose

This Son of God — immortal — Man’s Son, reigning

Dominion transposed

Citation Information

Karise Gililland, “Sede Vacante,” An Unexpected Journal: The Ancients 4, no. 3. (Fall 2021), 73-78.

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[1] Latin meaning ‘empty seat’; In this poem, the empty seat is both literal (both the empty thrones of Olympus and the ‘mercy seat’ of the Ark) and metaphorical as in  Romans 3; the phrase most often refers to the empty seat of the Papacy, a priestly position; the author also uses this as an allusion  to the priestly quality of Christ.

[2] Atropos — One of the three Fates, daughter of Themis (Law) Her name means ‘inflexible’. She severs the thread of human life.

[3] memento mori — Latin; “remember that you that you must  die”

[4] Lachesis — One of the three Fates, daughter of Themis (Law). Her name signifies ‘disposer of lots’. She determines and measures  the length of the thread of human life.

[5] Clotho — One of the three Fates, daughter of Themis (Law.) Her name signifies ‘spinner.’ She spins the thread of human life.

[6] Arete — the concept in Ancient Greek that refers to ‘excellence’ of any kind, including moral virtue or goodness.

[7] Astrea — goddess of justice; She was the last of the immortals to withdraw from the earth after the Golden Age. Afterwards, she became the constellation Virgo.

[8] well-heeled, referring both to the weak spot of Achilles, and the contrasting victory of  the full hero, Christ, in Genesis 3:15