Saturday, 7 November 2015


First published on my classics blog, Memento, on 9 November 2014

Limb-loosing Love makes me tremble again,
the bittersweet creature that cannot be fought....  (Fragment 130)
Sappho was one of the greatest poets of ancient Greece, as well as one of the very few female voices that we can still hear from the ancient world.  The Athenian lawgiver Solon reportedly said that he wanted to learn one of Sappho's songs so that he could then die.  The otherwise sober geographer Strabo wrote that Sappho was
a thing of wonder; for I do not know of any woman who appears anywhere in recorded history who even came close to rivalling her as a poet.
It is a desperate shame that Sappho's works survives only in fragments - either quotations embedded in other writers or literal fragments of papyrus dug up by archaeologists.  (For a couple of new texts which have recently come to light, see here.)  Lots of ancient writers survive only in fragments - or not at all - but few are as keenly missed as Sappho.

Sappho was first and foremost a love poet.  She was the first ancient poet to write in the make-love-not-war tradition, in which the poet rejects military glory in favour of love:
Some say an army of horsemen or soldiers
or ships is the most beautiful thing on
the dark-soiled earth, but I say that it is
whatever you love.
She goes on to apply this to her girlfriend Anactoria:
I would rather see her walking the way that
I love, and her face with its shining sparkle,
than the Lydians' chariots and their
armed infantry.  (Fragment 16)
As this quotation reminds us, Sappho is generally remembered today for the homoerotic dimension of her poetry.  However, she wrote about heterosexual relationships too (and was apparently married herself).  The following lines are from a partially preserved poem about the marriage of the Homeric characters Hector and Andromache:
"From sacred Thebe and ever-flowing Placia,
Hector and his comrades are bringing lovely,
lively-eyed Andromache in their ships over the
salt sea, laden with gold bracelets and perfumed
purple garments, skilfully-worked trinkets,
and numberless silver chalices and ivories."....
The sweet-voiced pipes and the lyre mingled together
with the sound of castanets, and the young maidens
sang a hymn, and up to the heavens went
the echo....
Myrrh, cassia and frankincense mingled together.
The women of riper years all cried out,
and all the men sent up a clear-voiced song
calling on far-shooting Apollo, skilled in the lyre,
and a hymn to godlike Hector and Andromache.  (Fragment 44)
One of the best known passages in her poetry comes from another wedding poem, where it refers to the blushing bride:
As the sweet apple reddens at the top of the branch,
at the top of the topmost branch, and the pickers miss it -
or rather, they do not miss it, but they cannot reach it....  (Fragment 105(a))
Another of Sappho's distinctions is that she was the first ancient poet to write about the locus amoenus, a place in the countryside associated with romantic calm and beauty.  These lines are from a hymn to Aphrodite:
Come here to me from Crete, to this holy
temple, come to your lovely grove of
apple-trees, where the altars are filled with the
smoke of incense.

Here cold water babbles though apple
branches, and all around is the shade
of roses, and sleep flows down from the
shimmering leaves.

Here the meadow with its grazing horses
blossoms with spring flowers, and the breezes
blow sweetly....  (Fragment 2)
Finally, one rather incongruous piece found among the fragments seems to be an attack on a rival.  It helps to illustrate the shadowy Greek idea of the afterlife as an anaemic, ghostly half-existence rather than a vivid heaven or hell.  It also echoes the theme of poetry bringing immortality which is found in various later pieces of literature (including Shakespeare's 18th Sonnet).  Pieria is a place in northern Greece which was associated with the Muses and poetic inspiration:
When you are dead, there you will lie, and no-one will remember
you or want to have you back, for you have no share in the
roses of Pieria; but unseen, in the house of Hades,
you will fly from us and flit among the shadowy dead.  (Fragment 55)