The line drawing above depicts the ancient lyric poets Alcaeus and Sappho. This was drawn on an Attic vase that is attributed to the Brygos painter, 480-470 BCE. The ancient vase is housed in the Staatliche Antikensammlungen Museum, Munchen, Germany. The line drawing is by Valerie Woelfe
I have been studying the ancient lyric poet Sappho as part of the My Heroines project. I am getting ready to go to the OBRAS Artist Residency in Renkum, Holland to work on my “embodiments” and portrayals of the great poetess in performative photographs with my collaborator photographer Luis Branco.
The drawing above is taken from an ancient Greek vase (circa 470 BC) and it pictures the two lyric poets Alcaeus and Sappho who both lived and performed on the island of Lesbos during the 6th century BC. This is one of the earliest representations of Sappho (that we know of) and it was created at least some 100 years after her death. The two poets (Alcaeus and Sappho) did live during the same time on Lesbos, whether they played together is not known. There are many unsubstantiated ideas about Sappho, one is that Sappho and Alcaeus were lovers. We do know that Sappho was born and lived on the island of Lesbos between 630 and 570 BC. She was born to a wealthy family. We also know that she was a prolific lyric poet and she was heralded and praised in her own time and on throughout the ages. Her works were composed to be accompanied by music, sometimes with a female chorus for groups of women and men. Some of her songs were performed solo. She sang in the Aeolian dialect (different then the dialect used in Greece and Athens at that time). It is not known if Sappho herself wrote down her words/songs. It is thought that her songs were written down in about 500 BC in Greece and that there were approximately 10,000 lines compiled in several “books” of her poetry (8 or 9 papyrus scrolls). These scrolls were housed in the great library in Alexandria in about 300 BC and in other places as well. These books/scrolls have been lost and today only approximately 650 lines of her large body of lyric poetry survive and have been compiled and translated. None of the music that accompanied these lines exists today.
This Attic red-figure vase above is from the 5th century BC and features a seated woman reading from a papyrus scroll with three women attendants. Some think the seated figure is meant to portray Sappho. It is housed in the British Museum.
I have been reading various translations (in English) of these famous remains of Sappho’s lyric poetry. I have also been looking into the reception and understanding of Sappho’s work through the ages—from Plato (who called Sappho the “tenth muse”) through to contemporary queer and feminist studies of Sappho as well as some of the most recent translations and scholarship on her work. This is a daunting task and I have only skimmed the surface.
Sappho has been portrayed in paintings, poems, operas, plays, performances and critical analysis as a brilliant poetess and musician, a priestess of Aphrodite, a teacher of young women and sometimes as a wanton woman. There has always been much speculation, invention and mythologizing about her love life and her sexual proclivities. Does she love men, or women or both?
Anne Carson wrote in the introduction to her wonderful translations of Sappho’s work: If Not, Winter‑Fragments of Sappho:
“Controversies about her (Sappho’s) personal ethics and way of life have taken up a lot of people’s time throughout the history of Sapphic scholarship. It seems that she knew and loved women as deeply as she did music. Can we leave the matter there?”
I don’t think it is possible to “leave the matter there” for any of us as Ms. Carson suggests. We all read into the words of Sappho what we want to. We project onto Sappho our innermost sensibilities and questions: of identity, of sexuality, of love, of subjectivity, of female power and the repression there of. It seems to me that even the scholars and translators who have devoted their lives to her study aren’t entirely objective either. Sappho’s effect on all of us is sensorial and transformative‑her words ignite us in various ways. These words and poems were originally performed with musical instruments and often accompanied by a chorus of young women singing and dancing. I feel the urge to insert myself into these songs, these performances and complete them. And many others have felt the same.
I have selected several poems and fragments that I intend to work with in my own “performances” and embodiments of Sappho. I begin, here, with the most complete extant poem of Sappho. This translation is by Anne Carson from her book If Not Winter, Fragments of Sappho. This is known as poem #1, or Prayer for Aphrodite or Ode to Aphrodite.
Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind
child of Zeus, who twists lures, I beg you
do not break with hard pains,
O lady, my heart
but come here if ever before
you caught my voice far off
and listened left your father’s
golden house and came,
yoking your car. And fine birds brought you,
quick sparrows over the black earth
whipping their wings down the sky
they arrived. But you, O blessed one,
smiled in your deathless face
and asked what (now again) I have suffered and why
(now again) I am calling out
and what I want to happen most of all
in my crazy heart. Whom should I persuade (now again)
to lead you back into her love? Who, O
Sappho, is wronging you?
For if she flees, soon she will pursue.
If she refuses gifts, rather will she give them.
If she does not love, soon, she will love
Come to me now: loose me from hard
care and all my heart longs
to accomplish, accomplish. You
be my ally.
Sappho #1 (translation by Anne Carson, If Not, Winter‑—Fragments of Sappho)
This is a call to prayer for Aphrodite—the goddess of love, sexual love, passionate love, married love, all love. Here Sappho calls to Aphrodite in a very intimate way. Aphrodite arrives flying her golden car with sparrows and says: “Who, O Sappho, is wronging you?” Aphrodite (Sappho) uses (now again) three times in the poem. It is as if Aphrodite has heard Sappho’s complaints and heart aches many times before. Here Sappho emphasizes the universal experience of pain when you are deserted by the one you love. Aphrodite’s advice to Sappho is somewhat ambiguous: “For if she flees, soon she will pursue. If she refuses gifts, rather will she give them. If she does not love, soon, she will love even unwilling.” It is not clear if “she,” the object of Sappho’s affection, will pursue Sappho or if “she” will pursue another. The point being that none of us has any control in this situation of love. Sappho asks Aphrodite to be her “ally” in this heart wrenching situation. Sappho calls on Aphrodite in several of her other poems as well, Aphrodite and Sappho are forever entwined.
The sweetness and the bitterness of erotic love and desire or “eros” is one of the themes that permeates Sappho’s surviving work. Fragment #130 (Sappho’s poems have been numbered over time) is one of Sappho’s most famous fragments. Here she brings to us the term “sweetbitter.” I have posted three different translations of the lines. It is interesting to note how Sappho’s lines are translated so differently.
Eros the melter of limbs (now again) stirs me—
sweetbitter unmanageable creature who steals in
Sappho #130 (translation by Anne Carson in If Not, Winter‑—Fragments of Sappho)
Once again Love, that loosener of limbs,
bittersweet and inescapable, crawling thing,
Sappho #130 (translation by Diane J. Rayor in “Sappho – A New Translation of the Complete Works”)
That impossible predator,
Eros the Limb-Loosener,
Bitter Sweetly and afresh
Savages my flesh.
Sappho #130 (translaton by Aaron Poochigian in “Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments)
Above is an image of the fragments known as the “Cologne papyri” which are fragments of Sappho’s poem # 58 also known as the Tithonus poem, dating to the third century BC, these fragments preserve twelve lines of the poem. Published in 2004, the finds drew international media attention.
One of my favorite songs is Sappho #58, also called the “old age poem” or the “Tithonus poem.” This beautiful song appears to be a very personal song about Sappho’s aging process and it is believed that she sang this song with a group of younger women. The poem has been the subject of much excitement and discussion in the 21st century because new (but ancient) papyrus fragments were identified in 2004, making this song one of the few substantially complete poems of Sappho. In this song Sappho alludes to the story of the goddess Dawn’s (Eos’) love for the mortal Trojan prince Tithonus. Eos requests that Zeus make Tithonus immortal and Zeus does so. However the goddess forgets to ask Zeus to grant Tithonus eternal youth. Thus Tithonus lives out his long life (with Eos) and ages into an old shriveled man. According to some stories Tithonus eventually turns into a cicada. I love this song of Sappho’s and feel it in my bones. Here I have posted the translation by Diane J. Rayor from her book “Sappho A New Translation of the Complete Works.”
[I bring] the beautiful gifts of the violet Muses, girls,
And [I love] that song lover, the sweet-toned lyre.
My skin was [delicate] before, but now old age
[claims it]; my hair turned from black [to white].
My spirit has grown heavy; knees buckle
That once could dance light as fawns.
I often groan, but what can I do?
Impossible for humans not to age.
For they say rosy-armed Dawn in love
went to the ends of earth holding Tithonos,
beautiful and young, but in time gray old age
seized even him with an immortal wife.
. . . believes
. . . may give
Yet I love the finer things . . . this and passion
for the light of life have granted me brilliance and beauty.
Sappho #58 (translation by Diane J. Raynor in “Sappho – A New Translation of the Complete Works”)
Please read my recent blog post (Part Two – Sappho: projections, portrayals, portraits and performances) https://sherrywigginsblog.com/2022/09/17/part-two-sappho-projections-portrayals-portraits-and-performances-posted-in-boulder-co-sept-17-2022/ to see some of my favorite portrayals of Sappho in paintings and performance.