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The Poetry of Sappho: Introduction
By J.B Hare
Imagine that two millenia or so in the future, literary experts attempt to collect the glories of our literature. Most of our paper writings have crumbled into dust or used for kindling; all our digital files are long gone or indecipherable. English is a dead language and many of the cultural references are a complete puzzle to them. They have a strange jumble of popular and high literature: one partial summary of of the episodes of a saga called 'Star Trek', a fragment of an archive of fan fiction about a warrior princess named Xena, some quotes from various authors extracted from anthologies written three hundred years from now, and a few cryptic bits of poetry from somebody named Shakespeare, who was apparently very highly regarded, and wrote in an archaic dialect: specifically, one complete sonnet, a couple of soliloquies and a few random lines from his plays. Now try to psychoanalyze Shakespeare from those fragments. This is about where we stand vis-a-vis Sappho.
What is Known
The poet Sappho lived in the sixth century B.C. on the island of Lesbos, which is situated in the Northeastern Aegean. We do not know the exact date of her birth or death, but it has been suggested that she was alive from about 610 B.C to 570 B.C. Her family is known to have been wealthy merchants; Lesbos in the sixth century B.C. was very prosperous. That she lived a life of luxury, and loved beatiful clothes and ornaments is clear from several allusions in the fragments. In addition, it is known that women of Lesbos at this time were exceptionally liberated and moved freely in social and religious circles. Lesbos was the center of a flourishing school of lyric poetry. Some of the other Lesbian poets of this period were Terpander and Alcaeus, and there were several other women poets.
Sappho was born in either Eresus or Mytilene, but lived most of her life in Mytiline. Herodotus, who wrote about 150 years after Sappho's death, said that her fathers name was Scamandronymous. We know that she had three brothers, named Charaxus, Larichus, and Eurygius. From Athenaeus we learn that Larichus had the post of cup-bearer at Mytilene, which was an honorary office only open to the aristocracy. It is therefore assumed that Sappho and her family were of the upper class. Charaxus as a merchant who exported the renowned wine of Lesbos to Naucratis in Egypt. He was reputed to have married a wealthy Egyptian woman named Doricha, who is mentioned in Herodotus. Nothing is known of her third brother.
Aside from writing a large amount of exquisite poems, it is difficult to tell what Sappho's actual occupation was (as the late William Everson noted, poetry is a vocation, not to be confused with one's occupation). There is evidence in several of the poems that Sappho may have been part of a circle of women who were priestesses of the goddess Aphrodite, which in that time and place may have implied ritual prostitution. In another poem she boasts of having trained a champion runner (#68). One of the commentators says that she invented a particular kind of garment, the chlamys. In yet another (#87), her daughter (or perhaps Sappho speaking to her mother), complains that she can't focus on her weaving because she's, to put it bluntly, horny. Priestess? Sacred Whore? Athlete? Fashion designer? Weaver? Sappho may have been any or all of these at some point in her life. We simply don't know.
There are no contemporary portraits of Sappho; it is said that she was short and dark. After her death she was portrayed on coins, medallions, vases and in statuary. There were two famous statues of Sappho in antiquity, both which have disappeared.
Sappho was exiled for a time in Sicily; this is the only event in her life for which there is actual documentary evidence. An inscription cut in a block of marble and found at Paros, now in the British Museum, gives a chronology of events from the sixteenth to the third century B.C. The chronology states that Sappho fled from Lesbos to Sicily when Aristocles ruled the Athenians. The reason was some sort of political upheaval in Lesbos.
It is said that she flung herself off of the Leucadian promontory over unrequited love for a beautiful boatman named Phaon. This is completely unsubstantiated (if not out of character). This myth formed the basis for several romantic poems about her as late as the Renaisannce.
Sappho the poet was an innovator. At the time poetry was principally used in ceremonial contexts, and to extoll the deeds of brave soldiers. Sappho had the audacity to use the first person in poetry and to discuss deep human emotions, particularly the erotic, in ways that had never been approached by anyone before her. As for the military angle, in one of the longer fragments (#3) she says: "Some say that the fairest thing upon the dark earth is a host of horsemen, and some say a host of foot soldiers, and others again a fleet of ships, but for me it is my beloved."
In the ancient world she was considered to be on an equal footing with Homer, acclaimed as the 'tenth muse'. Her poetry was collected three hundred years after her death at Alexandria in nine books. Some of her poems were known to be hundreds of lines long.
Today, only a few scraps of her poetry survive, only three of them consisting of more than one verse (the longest being seven verses of four lines), a handful of four line and two line fragments, and the rest just phrases or short quotes. Most of the fragments are second- or third-hand quotes from other texts. Some small fragments were found (in the early twentieth century) wrapped around mummies in Egypt; essentially recycled papyrus. These have been identified only because of Sappho's distinctive literary style.
Sappho's books were burned by Christians in the year 380 A.D. at the instigation of Pope Gregory Nazianzen. Another book burning in the year 1073 A.D. by Pope Gregory VII may have wiped out any remaining trace of her works. It should be remembered that in antiquity books were copied by hand and comparatively rare. There may have only been a few copies of her complete works. The bonfires of the Church destroyed many things, but among the most tragic of their victims were the poems of Sappho.
Sappho, Image and Reality
The reason that the Church wanted Sappho's works eradicated is not certain, but it probably had something to do with the subject matter of her poems. From the surviving fragments, we know Sappho wrote splendid hymns in praise of the Pagan Goddesses, particularly Aphrodite, and love poetry of great sophistication, passion and deep understanding of the human heart. This at least is apparent even from the few fragments we have. Such subjects were anathema to the bigots of the Dark Ages.
The matter of her sexual orientation did not become controversial until much later, during the nineteenth and twentieth century. It was not an issue for her contemporaries; it was not even an issue in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, when her poetry started to emerge from obscurity.
It should be emphasised that we have few clues about her sexual orientation. Moreover, we are still unclear what same-sex romantic or erotic love between women may have implied in Sappho's culture. What we do know is that there was not widespread fear and persecution of homosexuals in antiquity. Even during the middle ages, same-sex unions occured and were not disapproved of by the Church. This is not why Sappho's poems were burned. If anything, it was her (possibly exaggerated) reputation for promiscuity which brought her reproach in the early Christian era.
It was only during the Victorian era that Sappho's sexual preference per se, rather than her poetry, became a focus of interest. Since there is no actual explicit 'lesbian' sexual content in her poems, in the late 19th Century the French Decadant novelist Pierre Louys decided to invent some. Louys claimed that he had discovered the poems of an ancient Lesbian poetess named 'Bilitis', a contemporary of Sappho. Louys published free-verse 'translations' of her works complete with scholarly apparatus. The Bilitis poems provided all the juicy details that were missing from the Sappho corpus (or at least as much as Louys could imply in a book published at the time). Conspicuously missing were the original texts of Bilitis' poems, which is understandable, since our spotty information on the Aoelic dialect which Bilitis would have spoken would make them hard to forge.
The Bilitis hoax (which, although purely a male fantasy, has literary merits in its own right) took Europe by storm. In time, Bilitis became confused with Sappho in popular culture to the point where it is impossible to tell the two apart. Sappho was a popular subject for moody decadent painters at the turn of the 20th century. Today the adjective 'Sapphic' conjures up images of lesbian sex, rather than its original meaning of a specific classical Greek poetic form. Bilitis was even made into an atrocious soft-euro-porn movie in the 1970s starring the nymphet Sylvia Crystal, with cinematography by the fashion photographer David Hamilton (albeit with little connection to the Louys book other than some voice-overs). Popular culture to this day employs Sappho and ancient Greece as a codeword for homosexuality. Ironically, the beforementioned Xena television drama, with its ambiguous portrayal of a relationship between two women,--possibly by accident, considering how it made a hash of ancient mythology and history--somewhat reflected the fluid nature of Hellenic sexual identity.
The truth of the matter is that Sappho was probably bisexual, not lesbian in the sense of the word today, i.e. exclusively attracted to women. Moreover, nobody made a big deal about it for nearly 2,500 years after she was dead.
The best and most cited evidence is her powerful Hymn to Aphrodite (#1), the longest fragment of Sappho's still in existence. In this poem, Sappho prays to Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, to sway the heart of an unnamed woman, to whom Sappho proclaims an unrequited erotic attraction ("what I, in my hearts madness, most desire"). Aphrodite promises Sappho that her beloved will soon turn around and offer her gifts, rather than the other way around, and will love her (Sappho), "however reluctant". In other poems she addresses female lovers, lovers of lovers, ex-lovers, and other women by name: Anactoria, Atthis, Andromeda, Mnasidika, Eranna. These are such short fragments, however, it is hard to infer anything. For all we know, they could be characters in a fictional setting.
There is also textual evidence that Sappho had a heterosexual side as well. In one fragment, we learn that Sappho had a daughter Cleis (#82) "like a golden flower", she longs for her lost virginity in several others (e.g. #104), and in yet another (#72) she addresses a younger, male lover: "For if thou lovest us, choose another and a younger spouse; for I will not endure to live with thee, old woman with young man". None of this conclusively proves anything, either, since homosexual women can obviously lose their virginity and have children. We also have no idea what the context of the last quote is.
We do not have any historical record of Sappho having an extended relationship with a woman, or explicit poetry of hers which depicts 'lesbian' sexuality. If you come to her expecting to find woman to woman erotica, you will be missing the point. The reputation of Sappho in the twentieth century based on her supposed exclusive preference for women is a self-perpetuating myth which has completely obscured the real value of her work: some of the most hauntingly beautiful and evocative poetry that has ever been written. Even some of the shortest fragments meet the test of 'true poetry' that Robert Graves proposed: they make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
What is clear is that Sappho had a passionate romantic and erotic life which was integrated with her devotion to the Goddess Aphrodite. If today it is scandalous that her concept of love transcended gender, that is only a contemporary prejudice.
The Poems of Sappho Part I
Hymn to Aphrodite
Poikilo'ðron? a`ða'nat? ?Afrodita,
pai^ Di'os, dolo'ploke, li'ssomai' se
mh' m? a?'saisi mh't? o?ni'aisi da'mna,
a?lla' tui'd? e?'lð?, ai?'pota ka?te'rwta
ta^s e?'mas au'dws ai?'oisa ph'lgi
e?'klues pa'tros de` do'mon li'poisa
a?'rm? u?pozeu'ksaia, ka'loi de' s? a?^gon
w?'kees strou^ðoi peri` ga^s melai'nas
pu'kna dineu^ntes pte'r? a?p? w?ra'nw
ai?'ðeros dia` me'ssw.
ai^psa d? e?xi'konto, su` d?, w?^ ma'saira
meidia'sais? a?ða'natwj prosw'pwj,
h?'re? o?'tti dhg?^te pe'ponða kw?'tti
kw?'tti moi ma'lista ðe'lw ge'nesðai
maino'laj ðu'mwj, ti'na dhu?^te pei'ðw
mai^s a?'ghn e?s sa`n filo'tata ti's t, w?^
kai` ga'r ai? feu'gei, taxe'ws diw'ksei,
ai? de` dw^ra mh` de'ket a?lla' dw'sei,
ai? de` mh` fi'lei taxe'ws filh'sei,
e?'lðe moi kai` nu^n, xalepa^n de` lu^son
e?k meri'mnan o?'ssa de' moi te'lessai
ðu^mos i?mme'rrei te'leson, su? d? au?'ta
Immortal Aphrodite of the shimmering thone, daughter of Zeus, weaver of wiles, I pray thee crush not my spirit with anguish and distress, O Queen. But come hither if ever before thou didst hear my voice afar, and hearken, and leaving the golden house of thy father, camest with chariot yoked, and swift birds drew thee, their swift pinions fluttering over the dark earth, from heaven through mid-space. Quickly they arrived; and thou blessed one with immortal countenance smiling didst ask: What now is befallen me and why now I call and what I in my heart's madness, most desire. What fair one now wouldst thou draw to love thee? Who wrongs thee Sappho? For even if she flies she shall soon follow and if she rejects gifts, shall soon offer them and if she loves not shall soon love, however reluctant. Come I pray thee now and release me from cruel cares, and let my heart accomplish all that it desires, and be thou my ally.
Shimmering-throned immortal Aphrodite,
Daughter of Zeus, Enchantress, I implore thee,
Spare me, O queen, this agony and anguish,
Crush not my spirit
Whenever before thou has hearkened to me--
To my voice calling to thee in the distance,
And heeding, thou hast come, leaving thy father's
With chariot yoked to thy fleet-winged coursers,
Fluttering swift pinions over earth's darkness,
And bringing thee through the infinite, gliding
Downwards from heaven,
Then, soon they arrived and thou, blessed goddess,
With divine contenance smiling, didst ask me
What new woe had befallen me now and why,
Thus I had called the.
What in my mad heart was my greatest desire,
Who was it now that must feel my allurements,
Who was the fair one that must be persuaded,
Who wronged thee Sappho?
For if now she flees, quickly she shall follow
And if she spurns gifts, soon shall she offer them
Yea, if she knows not love, soon shall she feel it
Come then, I pray, grant me surcease from sorrow,
Drive away care, I beseech thee, O goddess
Fulfil for me what I yearn to accomplish,
Be thou my ally.
fa'inetai' moi kh^nos i?'sos the'oisin
e?'mmen w?'ner o?'stis e?nanti'os toi
i?za'nei kai` plasi'on a?du
kai` galai'sas i?mmero'en to` dh` ?ma'n
kardi'an e?n sth'ðesin e?pto'asen,
w?s ga`r eu?'idon broxe'ws se, fw'nas
ou?de`n e?'t? e?'ikei,
a?lla` ka'm me`n glwjssa ve'age, le'pton
d' au?'tika xrw^j pu^r u?padedro'maken,
o?ppa'tessi d? ou?de`n orhm?,
e?pirro'mbeisi d? a?'kouai.
a? de' m? i'?drws kakxe'etai, tro'mos de`
pai^san a?'grei xlwrote'ra de` poi'as
e?'mmi, teðna'khn d? o?ligw ?pideu'vhn
pa^n to'lmaton [......]
That one seems to me the equal of the gods, who sits in thy presence and hears near him thy sweet voice and lovely laughter; that indeed makes my heart beat fast in my bosom. For when I see thee even a little I am bereft of utterance, my tongue is useless and at once a subtle fire races under my skin, my eyes see nothing, my ears ring, sweat pours forth and all my body is seized with trembling. I am paler than [dried] grass and seem in my madness little better than dead, but I must dare all ...
Peer of the gods, the happiest man I seem
Sitting before thee, rapt at thy sight, hearing
Thy soft laughter and they voice most gentle,
Speaking so sweetly.
Then in my bosom my heart wildly flutters,
And, when on thee I gaze never so little,
Bereft am I of all power of utterance,
My tongue is useless.
There rushes at once through my flesh tingling fire,
My eyes are deprived of all power of vision,
My ears hear nothing by sounds of winds roaring,
And all is blackness.
Down courses in streams the sweat of emotion,
A dread trembling o'erwhelms me, paler than I
Than dried grass in autumn, and in my madness
Dead I seem almost.
O]i? me`n i?pph'wn stro'ton oi? de` pe'sdwn
oi? de` na'wn fai^s? e?pi` ga^n me'lainan
e?']mmenai ka'lliston e?'gw de` kh^n?
o?'ttw ti`s e?'patai.
pa']gxu d? eu?'mares su'neton po'hsai
pa']nti t[ou^]t?. a? ga`r po'lu persko'peisa
ka']llos a?nðrw'pwn E?le'na [to`]n a?'ndra
o?`s to` pa`n] se'bas troï'a[s o?']less[e,
kwu?de` pa]i^dos oy?'de [fi'l]wn to[k]h'wn
ma^llon] e?mna'sðh, a?[lla`] para'gag` au?'tan
W?ros. eu?'k]ampton gar [a?ei` to` ðh^lu]
ai?' ke'] tis kou'fws t[o` pa'ron n]oh'shj.
ou?]de` nu^n, A?naktori'[a, t]u` me'mnai
ta^]s ke bolloi'man e?'rato'n te ba^ma
k]ama'rugma la'mpron i?'dhn prosw'pw
h ta` lu'dwn a?'rmata ka?n o?'ploisi
ei` men i?'d]men ou?' du'naton ge'nesðai
lw^jst?] o?n` a?n&the;rwp'ois, pede'xhn d? a?'rasthai,
[tw^n pe'deixo'n e?sti bro'toisi lw^jon]
With the emendations by Mr. J.M. Edmonds, the reprinting of which he has been kind enough to permit, a nearly literal rendering would be as follows:
Some say that the fairest thing upon the dark earth is a host of horsemen, and some say a host of foot soldiers, and others again a fleet of ships, but for me it is my beloved. And it is easy to make anyone understand this. When Helen saw the most beautiful of mortals, she chose for best that one, the destroyer of all the honour of Troy and though not much of child or dear parent, but was led astray by Love, to bestow her heart far off, for woman is ever easy to lead astray when she thinks of no account what is near and dear. Even so, Anactoria, you do not remember, it seems, when she is with you, one the gentle sound of whose footfall I would rather see than all the chariots and mail-clad footmen of Lydia. I know that in this world man cannot have the best; yet to pray for a part of what was once shared is better than to forget it...
A troop of horse, the serried ranks of marchers,
A noble fleet, some think these of all on earth
Most beautiful. For me naught else regarding
Is my beloved.
To understand this is for all most simple,
For thus gazing much on mortal perfectino
And knowing already what life could give her,
Him chose fair Helen,
Him the betrayer of Ilium's honour.
The recked she not of adored child or parent,
But yielded to love, and forced by her passion,
Dared Fate in exile.
Thus quickly is bent the will of that woman
To whom things near and dear seem to be nothing.
So mightest thou fail, My Anactoria,
If she were with you.
She whose gentle footfall and radiant face
Hold the power to charm more than a vision
Of chariots and the mail-clad battalions
Of Lydia's army.
So must we learn in world made as this one
Man can never attain his greatest desire,
[But must pray for what good fortune Fate holdeth,
Asteres me'n a?mfi ka'lan sela'nnan
a?^ips a?pykru'ptoisi fa'ennon ei?^dos,
o?'ppota plh'ðoisa ma'lista la'mphs
The stars about the full moon lose their bright beauty when she, almost full, illumines all earth with silver.
The gleaming stars all about the shining moon
Hide their bright faces, when full-orbed and splendid
In the sky she floats, flooding the shadowed earth
with clear silver light.
Quoted by Eustathius of Thessalonica in the twelfth century.
amfi` d? u?'dwr
psy^xron w?'nemos kela'di di? y?'sdwn
mali'nwn, ai?ðussome'nwn de` fu'llwn
And by the cool stream the breeze murmurs through apple branches and slumber pours down from quivering leaves.
By the cool water the breeze murmurs, rustling
Through apple branches, while from quivering leaves
Streams down deep slumber.
This beautiful fragment is quoted by Hermogenes about A.D. 170. Demetrius, about A.D. 150, says that it is part of Sappho's description of the garden of the nymphs.
... E?'lðe, Ku'pri,
Xprusi'asin e?n kuli'kessin a?'brais
summemigme'non ðali'aisi ne'ktar
Come, goddess of Cyprus, and in golden cups serve nectar delicately mixed with delights.
Come hither foam-born Cyprian goddess, come,
And in golden goblets pour richest nectar
All mixed in most ethereal perfection,
Thus to delight us.
Quoted by Athenaeus, who wrote in the first half of the third century A.D. The fragment is apparently part of an invocation to Aphrodite.
H?' se ku'pros kai` Pa'fos h?` Pa'normos
If thee, Cyprus or Paphos or Panormos [holds].
This is from Strabo, early first century A.D. Panormos was a frequent name, and does not refer to Palermo, which was not founded in Sappho's time.
Soi' d? e?'go deu'kas e?'pi bw^mon a?'igos
kapilei'psw toi ...
But for thee I will bring to the altar [the young] of a white goat... and add a libation for thee.
Cited by Apollonius of Alexadria about A.D. 140. The reading is uncertain.
Ai?'ð? e?'go xrusoste'fan? A?fro'dita,
to'nde to`n pa'lon laxo'hn.
May I win this prize, O golden-crowned Aphrodite.
From Apollonius. Sappho invented many beautiful epithets to apply to Aphrodite, and this fragment contains one of them.
Ai?' me timi'an e?po'hsan e?'rga
ta` sfa` doi^sai;
Who made me gifts and honoured me?
From Apollonius, illustrating Aeolic dialect in the word sfa'.
... Ta'de nu^n e?tai'rais
tai^s e?'maisi te'rpna ka'lws a?ei'sw.
This will I now sing skilfully to please my friends.
Athanaeus quotes this to show that there is not necessarily any reproach in the word e?tai'rai. Like many others, the fragment is unfortunately too short for anything but a literal translation. The breathing of the word in question in Attic Greek would of course be rough.
... O?'ttinas ga`r
eu?^ ðe'w kh^noi' me ma'lista ci'nnontai
For thee to whom I do good, thou harmest me the most.
From the "Etymologicum Magnum," tenth century A.D.
E?'gw de` kh^n? o?'ttw tis e?'patai.
But that which one desires I.
Quoted by Apollonius and in 1914 found to be part of the poem in the "Oxyrhynchus Papyrus," No. 1231.
tai^s kalais u?'mmin [to`] no'hma tw?^mon
To you, fair maidens, my mind does not change.
Quoted by Apollonius to illustrate the Aeolic form u?'mmin.
....E?'gwn d? e?mau'ta
And this I feel myself.
Quoted by Apollonius to illustrate Aeolic method of accentuation.
taisi [de`] psu^xros me'n e?'gento ðu^mos
pa`r d? i?'eisi ta` pte'ra ...
But the spirit within them turned chill and down dropped their wings.
The Scholist quotes this to show that Sappho says the same thing of doves as Pindar (Pyth. 1-10) says of the eagle of Zeus.
Another reading is psau^kros, "light", for psu^xros, "moist or chill." The sense would then be "the spirit within them became light and they relaxed their wings in rest."
... kat? e?'mon sta'lagmon,
to`n d? e?pipla'zontes a?'moi fe'roien
From my distress: let buffeting winds bear it and all care away.
From the "Etymologicum Magnum" to show the Aeolic use of z in place of ss. Bergk conjectures a?'moi for a?'nemoi, "winds". The fragment is tantilizingly incomplete, as so many others are, and the reading of one or two words in not certain.
Arti'ws m? a? xrusope'dillos A?u'ws.
Just now the golden-sandalled Dawn [has called].
There could hardly be a more beautiful epithet than "golden-sandalled" to apply to the Dawn. It is fully equal in this respect to "rosy-fingered," and in Greek both words are beautiful in sound.
This is quoted by Ammonius of Alexandria about A.D. 400 to show Sappho's use of A?rti'ws.
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