Sappho of Lesbos, c. 600-550 BCE

Poems 1-4 in Raynor's edition

        Sappho's fame depends a great deal on her skill in using the traditional Greek lyric meters, and in finding strikingly powerful evocations of inner emotional states.  The former strength is lost to those of us not trained in Classical Greek, but the latter may be accessible from Raynor's English translation.   Compare her view of the human emotional experience with those of Archilochus, Alkman, and Stesichorus.  Do you see anything that could serve as a stylistic marker of her particular style?  What circumstances draw creative ideas from her?

        Her invocation ("calling") of the goddesses Aphrodite and Hera may seem merely quaint unless the reader understands that the gods were a language by which the ancients understood how the universe  (including themselves) functioned.  The functional responsibilities of the gods can be found briefly described here.   Because Sappho's inspiration as a poet derives from her ability to speak to and for the divine, she poses some of the same problems for modern monothestic, agnostic, and atheistic readers which we'll encounter in Julian of Norwich's visionary prose.    For some ways to read such divinely inspired writing, look here.

1)   #1 is a prayer invoking Aphrodite.  This peculiar form of speech will be particularly important to our reading of Aeschylus and Julian of Norwich.  What kinds of mental and verbal behaviors can be called "prayer" and what distinguishes them from meditation, asking a simple question, and other superficially similar acts?  You might begin by considering prayer as putting one's mind in a state of readiness to receive inspiration.  What physical and psychological effects would accompany that state, and how might those relate to the state one is in when creating art, a paper, a dance, a theatrical performance, a song, or any other artifact we might call a product of inspiration?

2)  The request at the end of #1 ("be my ally") uses diction you can find in Homeric Greek when one warrior asks another to stand beside him in battle.  What does this do to your perception of Sappho's relationship to the creative thinking of the male lyric poets?

3)  #2 evokes the arrival of Aphrodite ("Kypris" after the island of Cypris where the goddess was said to have emerged from the ocean).  Observe her use of "deep sleep" to call to mind the goddess's effect, and see the note on 160 regarding the kinds of things described by the Greek "koma" (root of our "coma").  Where do you see this description of the erotic in the male poets, and how would you compare Sappho's attitude toward it with theirs? 

4)  #3 is a prayer to Hera, wife of Zeus and queen of the gods.  The "Atreidai" are Agamemnon and Menelaos, the brothers who led the Greek armies to Troy.  Compare this invocation to the form of #1.   What pattern do you see in the poet's attempt to summon and to receive the goddess's inspiration?

5)  #5 is Sappho's most famous direct challenge to the aesthetic and ethos of Homer.  The "Some" of this poem could be paraphrased "The entire preceding poetic tradition I encountered" and her rewriting of its attitude toward armies and ships is every bit as ambitious as her use of the Helen story.  How does Sappho understand what happen to Helen, and how does it shape her view of extreme passions on human consciousness?  What might that mean about the powers of inspiration?  Do you think human beings have changed a great deal in the past 2500 years, or are we all capable of behaving as radically under emotional inspiration as Helen was said to have done?

For Paul Halsall's excellent compilation of web sites and documents devoted to the study of ancient Greek culture, click here.