Part One – Sappho’s songs – posted in Boulder, CO Sept 17, 2022

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

through midair—

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

even unwilling.

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,

seizes me.

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.

Part Two – Sappho: projections, portrayals, portraits and performances – posted in Boulder, CO Sept 17, 2022

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864, Simeon Solomon, watercolor on paper, 33 x 38 cm, The Tate Gallery

The painting above by British artist Simeon Solomon pictures the famed ancient lyric poetess Sappho (on the right with the laurel leaf crown) with another ancient poetess Erinna. They are posed in an intense embrace on a bench in a garden in Mytilene, the ancient capital of Lesbos. Is this “lesbian” love or the ardor of one female artist/muse for another? What is Solomon striving for here? Little is known of both poetesses lives but we do know that Erinna lived a few hundred years after Sappho and Errina was definitely not from the island of Lesbos. In the painting there is a statue of Aphrodite near Sappho, as well as her lyre. The palette is muted, feminine, roses abound. Sappho embraces Errina passionately as a lover and as a fellow poetess. This gorgeous painting adds romantic fodder to the mystique around the great poetess Sappho. Simeon Solomon was himself a closeted homosexual who was later jailed for attempted sodomy.

Please read my previous blog post  “Part One – Sappho’s Songs” to learn more about Sappho’s remarkable lyric poetry. Sappho is the woman /the heroine / the artist I am currently studying as part of the “My Heroines” project. Here I have been researching ancient women heroines. I immerse myself in these women’s stories and representations in texts, writings, paintings, sculpture and critical discourse. I then reimagine and revise these figures in my own visage in performative still photographs that I have made and will continue to make with my collaborator photographer Luis Branco. Over the last year we have manifested Eve, Salome, Aphrodite and Helen of Troy in my sixty-something year old form in images that are weird, powerful and sometimes funny. You can see some of these performative works on my previous blog posts and also on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/sherrywigginsart/. In October (very soon) I will return to the residency at OBRAS Holland to work with Luis on the embodiment and performance of the great poetess Sappho and also the biblical heroine Judith (I will write more about Judith later).

Sappho and Phaon, Jacques-Louis David, 1809, oil on canvas 225 x 262 cm, Hermitage Museum

The Jacques-Louis David painting above portrays Sappho with another one of her mythological lovers Phaon. Aphrodite/ Venus’s loyal messenger Cupid accompanies them. According to the ancient myth Phaon was a ferryman who served the isle of Lesbos. He was supposedly old and ugly when Aphrodite came to his boat in the disguise of a croan. Phaon ferried her across the waters and would take no payment. Aphrodite was grateful and gave Phaon a special ointment in payment. When he rubbed himself with the ointment Phaon became young and very handsome. In the subsequent story Sappho, as an older woman, had an intense love affair with the beautiful young Phaon. However, Phaon eventually grew to resent her and rejected her love. Sappho was so heart broken that she decided to throw herself in the sea to either cure herself of the love affair or die. Thus the idea of the “Leucadian Leap”. According to this ancient legend, Sappho did die.

Mythical stories, paintings, performances and writing about Sappho (who lived during the time 630 – 570 BC) abound throughout the millennia along with the adoration of Sappho’s songs. Everyone loves Sappho but whom did she love? Did she love men? Did she love women? Or both? And why has this legend that Sappho committed suicide by jumping off the Leucadian cliffs persisted throughout the ages? In the late 19th and early 20th century there was a major resurgence of interest in Sappho amongst artists and poets as well as an exploration and acknowledgement of Sappho’s love of women. In fact, the word “lesbian” (which in previous times meant someone who came from the island of Lesbos) came to be used to describe the homosexual love and sexual relationships between women. Sappho and “sapphism” became a part of the cultural dialogue even when homosexual men were being persecuted and jailed (think Simeon Solomon, Oscar Wilde and others). Operas and plays with Sappho as the main character abounded. Sappho also came to the fore amongst lesbian artists and poets—there were the famed gatherings in Natalie Barney’s home in Neuilly, France where women dressed in Greek togas and danced around the garden. In the late 20th and early 21st century the term “sapphism” has also become an umbrella term describing the attraction or relationships between women—whether they identify as lesbian, bi, pan, asexual, trans or queer. Sappho is one of our most famous queer icons.

Above and following are some of my favorite 19th and early 20th century paintings and portrayals and performances of Sappho.

Sappho, 1893, Ary Renan, oil on canvas, 56 x 80 cm, Museo Ernest Renan

The Death of Sappho, 188, Miguel Carbonell Selva

Sappho (at Sunset), 1893, Gustave Moreau, location unknown
The Death of Sappho, 1873-4, Gustave Moreau, 81 x 62 , oil on canvas, location unknown
Sappho, 1852, James Pradier, marble sculpture, Musee d’Orsay
Sappho, 1873, Charles Mengin, 230 x 151 cm, oil on canvas, Manchester Art Gallery
Sappho, Julius Kronberg, 1913, oil on canvas, private collection
A gathering of women including Eva Palmer, Natalie Barney and possibly Liane de Pougy in Barney’s garden in the early 1900’s in  Neuilly, France. From the Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institute Archives, Alice Pike Barney Papers.
A gathering of women including Eva Palmer, Natalie Barney and possibly Liane de Pougy in Barney’s garden in the early 1900’s in Neuilly, France. From the Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institute Archives, Alice Pike Barney Papers.
Production photo of Régina Badet as Sappho. Le Théâtre 319 (1 April 1912)

I too have come to Iove Sappho—both her songs and all her mythical manifestations throughout the ages. I am excited (and nervous) about my project with the great poetess. I am traveling to the OBRAS Artist Residency in Renkum, Holland (where I worked on the project THE UNKNOWN HEROINE in 2019) in a few weeks to work on performing and embodying the great poetess with my collaborator photographer Luis Branco. Wish me luck.