Diachronic Sappho: some prolegomena

2015.10.22 | By Gregory Nagy

Detail from Attic krater attributed to the Brygos painter, 480-470 BCE. Line drawing by Valerie Woelfel.
Detail from Attic krater attributed to the Brygos painter, 480-470 BCE. Line drawing by Valerie Woelfel.

§1. It was my good fortune to be invited by Boris Maslov and Rocco Rubini to a workshop that they organized on the subject of Lyric and Epic. The workshop took place at the University of Chicago on Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015. My friend Roland Greene and I were asked to preside over the conversation dealing with Lyric on Thursday. Then, on Friday, both of us actively joined the conversation dealing with Epic; this time around, the presiders were Nandini Pandey and David Quint. On both Thursday and Friday, I concentrated on the songmaking of Sappho, especially on the songs currently known as the “newest Sappho,” and, in the course of our conversations, I shared my working translations for most of these songs. These translations, as we see them published in my posting for Classical Inquiries 2015.10.08, complement the interpretations that I summarize in my posting for Classical Inquiries 2015.10.01. In the course of the conversations that were generated in Chicago, it dawned on me that my current interpretations of the “newest Sappho” songs need to be presented together with my earlier interpretations of the “old Sappho” songs that I have been studying ever since the early 1970s. I am thinking here especially of my work on Songs 1, 16, 31, and 44 of Sappho. My views about these songs are consistent for the most part with my newer views about the songs collectively described as the “newest Sappho.” But even if these old-and-new views of mine are internally consistent, I find it difficult to reconcile them with views currently held by a number of other Classicists about Sappho. What makes my views different is that my approach to the songmaking of Sappho is diachronic as well as synchronic, whereas the corresponding approaches taken by the Classicists I have in mind are exclusively synchronic. And a big problem for these Classicists is that the various arguments generated by their various synchronic-only approaches are for the most part inconsistent with each other and cannot be mutually reconciled. I offer here merely a general critique of exclusively synchronic approaches, because my own argumentation is not meant to take aim ad homines.

§2. In building a model that I describe as a diachronic Sappho in the title, I am following the model of a diachronic Homer as developed in other projects of mine.1 The terms synchronic and diachronic, as I use them here in describing my approaches to Sappho as well as Homer, come from linguistics.2 When linguists use the word synchronic, they are thinking of a given structure as it exists in a given time and space; when they use diachronic, they are thinking of that structure as it evolves through time.3 From a diachronic perspective, the structure that we know as Sappho’s songmaking can be viewed, I argue, as an evolving medium.

§3. That said, I now offer a working inventory of some exclusively synchronic views that I think stand in the way of achieving a coherent understanding of Sappho’s songmaking. In each case, I write the given view in italic font and then I offer a diachronic counter-view in roman font. These counter-views are based on work published in relevant books and essays of mine that I list in the Bibliography below. I refer to these books or essays here simply by name (Nagy, abbreviated as N) followed by date of publication: for example, N 1974. What follows, then, is my working inventory of some exclusively synchronic views, followed by a brief write-up of diachronic counter-views:

A. Sappho wrote poems. No. There is no proof that the composition of songs by Sappho depended on the technology of writing. In N 1974 as also in the Appendix to N 1990a, I offer proof that a composition like Song 44 of Sappho was created by way of a formulaic language that is cognate with the formulaic language used in the compositions that we know as the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey. As I argue further in N 2011b:155–156, the composing and the transmission of the songs attributed to Sappho—and to Alcaeus—cannot be divorced from the performing of these songs. To put it as simply as possible: the songs of Sappho—and of Alcaeus—were meant to be performed, not read as texts. And here is one other point that I need to make already now: the compositions attributed to Sappho are not simply poems. They are songs. More on this point below, at D.

B. Sappho is a historical person, to be dated around 600 BCE, who intended her songs for other historical persons who are named or unnamed in the wording of these songs. Before we can speak of the historicity of Sappho, we must first ask ourselves this all-important question: for whom were her songs intended? The answer, as I argue in N 2015a, is that Sappho’s songs were originally “intended” for all the people of Lesbos. So, these songs are “intended” not only for family, not only for some inner circle of women and girls, not only for some sub-group of people who are participating in a specific event. And I view the concept of “intention” diachronically here, not only synchronically. The persons to whom Sappho speaks in her songs become personae or—let’s say it more simply—characters in the world of these songs, just as Sappho by virtue of speaking (1) to these characters and (2) about these characters and (3) about herself becomes a character in her own right. The ancient Greek word for the functioning of personalities or personae or characters in the world of song is mīmēsis, as I argue with specific reference to Sappho in Classical Inquiries 2015.10.01. A more extended argument, with reference to Greek songmaking in general, is made in N 2013b.

C. The occasion for the songs of Sappho can be determined by whatever the words of these songs have to say about the world of Sappho. No. As I argue in N 1993, 1994–1995a, 1994–1995b, 2007a, 2007b, 2010, 2015a, the occasion for each of the songs was determined by the historical circumstances that shaped the traditions of performing the songs, and these circumstances changed over time.

D. The medium of Sappho, in the performance of her songs, was (1) choral or (2) sympotic or (3) “concertizing.” From a diachronic and a historical point of view, as I argue especially in N 2007b, 2010, 2015a, all three of these media fit the songmaking of Sappho. From an exclusively synchronic point of view, on the other hand, Classicists are sometimes forced to choose, depending on the context that they are reading: it is as if the songs of Sappho must be only choral or only sympotic or only “concertizing.”

E. The personality of Sappho shows that she is a woman who loves girls. Here we see an overly narrow typing of Sappho as represented by the words of her songs. The songs of Sappho, as I will argue in the postings that follow this one, reveal a kaleidoscope of female personae. She can be a middle-aged woman or even an old woman, but she can also be a young girl. She can be a woman who loves girls, or a girl who loves another girl or is loved by other girls or by women. She can behave in a wide variety of ways, ranging from the stateliness shown by a priestess of the goddess Hera all the way to the frivolities of a courtesan who enchants the men who hear her songs sung at their drinking parties. She can also be a loving or a scolding sister, as I argued in N 2015a. She can even show her love of boys, as I argued in N 1973, where I reconstructed what must have been Sappho’s poetic declaration of an erotic desire for a radiant young hero named Phaon.

In preparation for the postings ahead, I offer here my working translations of some songs of Sappho that I studied in N 2013 (hereafter abbreviated as H24H):

1) from Song 44 of Sappho (“The Wedding of Hector and Andromache”)

|4 τάc τ’ ἄλλαc Ἀϲίαc .[.]δε.αν κλέοc ἄφθιτον· |5 Ἔκτωρ καὶ ϲυνέταιρ̣[ο]ι ἄγ̣οι̣ϲ’ ἐλικώπιδα |6 Θήβαc ἐξ ἰέραc Πλακίαc τ’ ἀ.[..]νάω |7 ἄβραν Ἀνδρομάχαν ἐνὶ ναῦϲιν ἐπ’ ἄλμυρον |8 πόντον· πόλλα δ’ [ἐλί]γματα χρύϲια κἄμματα |9 πορφύρ[α] καταύτ[..]να, ποί̣κ̣ι̣λ’ ἀθύρματα, |10 ἀργύρα̣ τ̣’ ἀνά̣ρ[ι]θ̣μα [ποτή]ρ[ια] κἀλέφαιc. |11 ὢc εἶπ’· ὀτραλέωc δ’ ἀνόρουϲε πάτ[η]ρ̣ φίλοc· |12 φάμα δ’ ἦλθε κατὰ πτ̣όλιν εὐρύχο̣ρ̣ο̣ν φίλοιc. |13 αὔτικ’ Ἰλίαδαι ϲατίναι[c] ὐπ’ ἐυτρόχοιc |14 ἆγον αἰμιόνοιc, ἐ̣π̣[έ]βαινε δὲ παῖc ὄχλοc |15 γυναίκων τ’ ἄμα παρθενίκα[ν] τ..[..].ϲφύρων, |21 [… ἴ]κελοι θέοι[c] |22 […] ἄγνον ἀολ[λε-]|23 ὄ̣ρ̣ματ̣α̣ι̣[…]νον ἐc Ἴλιο[ν] |24 αὖλοc δ’ ἀδυ[μ]έλησ̣[…] τ’ ὀνεμίγνυ[το]|25 καὶ ψ[ό]φο[c κ]ροτάλ[ων…]ωc δ’ ἄρα πάρ[θενοι] |26 ἄειδον μέλοc ἄγν̣[ον ἴκα]νε δ’ ἐc α̣ἴ̣θ̣[ερα] |27 ἄχω θεϲπεϲία̣ γελ̣[…] |28 πάνται δ’ ἦc κὰτ ὄδο[…] |29 κράτηρεc φίαλαί τ’ ὀ[…]υεδε[..]..εακ[.].[…] |30 μύρρα καὶ καϲία λίβανόc τ’ ὀνεμείχνυτο |31 γύναικεc δ’ ἐλέλυϲδον ὄϲαι προγενέϲτερα[ι] |32πάντεc δ’ ἄνδρεc ἐπήρατον ἴαχον ὄρθιον |33 Πάον’ ὀνκαλέοντεc ἐκάβολον εὐλύραν, |34 ὔμνην δ’ Ἔκτορα κἈνδρομάχαν θεοεικέλο[ιc].4

|4 … and the rest of Asia … imperishable glory [kleos aphthiton]. |5 Hector and his comrades [sun-(h)etairoi] led her, the one with the glancing looks, |6 from holy Thebe and … Plakia, they led her, the lovely Andromache |7 in ships over the salty |8 sea. Many golden bracelets and purple |9 robes …, intricately worked ornaments, |10 countless silver cups and ivory. |11 Thus he spoke. And the dear father quickly stood up. |12 And the news reached the dear ones throughout the broad city. |13 And the Trojans yoked to smooth-running carriages |14 the mules. And the whole ensemble climbed on, |15 all the women and maidens | … |21 looking just like the gods [ikeloi theois] |22 … holy |23 set forth into Troy … |24 And the sweet song of the pipe mixed … |25 And the sound of the cymbals, and then the maidens |26 sang a sacred song, and all the way to the sky |27 traveled the wondrous echo … |28 And everywhere through the streets … |29 Mixing bowls and cups … |30 And myrrh and cassia and frankincense were mingled. |31 And the older women cried out elelu. |32 Meanwhile all the men sang out a lovely high-pitched song, |33 calling on Apollo Pāōn, the far-shooter, master of playing beautifully on the lyre. |34 And they sang the song of Hector and Andromache, both looking just like the gods [theoeikeloi].

Sappho Song 44.4–345

2) testimonium from Himerius

Himerius (Orations 9.16) says:

Σαπφοῦς ἦν ἄρα μήλῳ μὲν εἰκάσαι τὴν κόρην, […] τὸν νυμφίον τε Ἀχιλλεῖ παρομοιῶσαι καὶ εἰς ταὐτὸν ἀγαγεῖν τῷ ἥρωι τὸν νεανίσκον ταῖς πράξεσι.

Sappho compared the girl to an apple […] she compared the bridegroom to Achilles, and likened the young man’s deeds to the hero’s.

Sappho Fragment 105b6

3) Song 115

τίωι ϲ’, ὦ φίλε γάμβρε, κάλωc ἐικάϲδω; | ὄρπακι βραδίνωι ϲε μάλιϲτ’ ἐικάϲδω.

To what shall I liken you, dear bridegroom, to make the likeness beautiful? | To a tender seedling, I liken you to that most of all.

Sappho Song 1157

4) Song 31

|1 φαίνεταί μοι κῆνοc ἴϲοc θέοιϲιν |2 ἔμμεν’ ὤνηρ, ὄττιc ἐνάντιόc τοι |3 ἰϲδάνει καὶ πλάϲιον ἆδυ φωνεί-|4ϲαc ὐπακούει |5 καὶ γελαίϲαc ἰμέροεν, τό μ’ ἦ μὰν |6 καρδίαν ἐν ϲτήθεϲιν ἐπτόαιϲεν, |7 ὠc γὰρ ἔc ϲ’ ἴδω βρόχε’ ὤc με φώναι-|8ϲ’ οὐδ’ ἒν ἔτ’ εἴκει, |9 ἀλλὰ κὰμ μὲν γλῶϲϲα ἔαγε λέπτον |10 δ’ αὔτικα χρῶι πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμηκεν, |11 ὀππάτεϲϲι δ’ οὐδ’ ἒν ὄρημμ’, ἐπιρρόμ-|12βειϲι δ’ ἄκουαι, |13 κάδ δέ μ’ ἴδρωc κακχέεται τρόμοc δὲ |14 παῖϲαν ἄγρει, χλωροτέρα δὲ ποίαc |15 ἔμμι, τεθνάκην δ’ ὀλίγω ’πιδεύηc |16 φαίνομ’ ἔμ’ αὔται·

|1 He appears [phainetai] to me, that one, equal to the gods [īsos theoisin], |2 that man who, facing you |3 is seated and, up close, that sweet voice of yours |4 he listens to, |5 and how you laugh a laugh that brings desire. Why, it just |6 makes my heart flutter within my breast. |7 You see, the moment I look at you, right then, for me |8 to make any sound at all won’t work anymore. |9 My tongue has a breakdown and a delicate |10 —all of a sudden—fire rushes under my skin. |11 With my eyes I see not a thing, and there is a roar |12 my ears make. |13 Sweat pours down me and a trembling |14 seizes all of me; paler than grass |15 am I, and a little short of death |16 do I appear [phainomai] to myself.

Sappho Song 318

5) Song 1

|1 ποικιλόθρον’ ἀθανάτἈφρόδιτα, |2 παῖ Δίοc δολόπλοκε, λίϲϲομαί ϲε, |3 μή μ’ ἄϲαιϲι μηδ’ ὀνίαιϲι δάμνα, |4 πότνια, θῦμον, |5 ἀλλὰ τυίδ’ ἔλθ’, αἴ ποτα κἀτέρωτα |6 τὰc ἔμαc αὔδαc ἀίοιϲα πήλοι |7 ἔκλυεc, πάτροc δὲ δόμον λίποιϲα |8 χρύϲιον ἦλθεc |9 ἄρμ’ ὐπαϲδεύξαιϲα· κάλοι δέ ϲ’ ἆγον |10 ὤκεεc ϲτροῦθοι περὶ γᾶc μελαίναc |11 πύκνα δίννεντεc πτέρ’ ἀπ’ ὠράνωἴθε|12ροc διὰ μέϲϲω· |13 αἶψα δ’ ἐξίκοντο· ϲὺ δ’, ὦ μάκαιρα, |14 μειδιαίϲαιϲ’ ἀθανάτωι προϲώπωι |15 ἤρε’ ὄττι δηὖτε πέπονθα κὤττι |16 δηὖτε κάλημμι |17 κὤττι μοι μάλιϲτα θέλω γένεϲθαι |18 μαινόλαι θύμωι· τίνα δηὖτε πείθω |19 βαῖϲ᾿ ἄγην ἐc ϲὰν φιλότατα;9 τίc ϲ’, ὦ |20 Ψάπφ’, ἀδικήει; |21 καὶ γὰρ αἰ φεύγει, ταχέωc διώξει, |22 αἰ δὲ δῶρα μὴ δέκετ’, ἀλλὰ δώϲει, |23 αἰ δὲ μὴ φίλει, ταχέωc φιλήϲει |24 κωὐκ ἐθέλοιϲα. |25 ἔλθε μοι καὶ νῦν, χαλέπαν δὲ λῦϲον |26 ἐκ μερίμναν, ὄϲϲα δέ μοι τέλεϲϲαι |27 θῦμοc ἰμέρρει, τέλεϲον, ϲὺ δ’ αὔτα |28 ϲύμμαχοc ἔϲϲο.

|1 You with pattern-woven flowers, immortal Aphrodite, |2 child of Zeus, weaver of wiles, I implore you, |3 do not dominate with hurts and pains,|4 Mistress, my heart! |5 But come here [tuide], if ever at any other time |6 hearing my voice from afar, |7 you heeded me, and leaving the palace of your father, |8 golden, you came, |9 having harnessed the chariot; and you were carried along by beautiful |10 swift sparrows over the dark earth |11 swirling with their dense plumage from the sky through the |12 midst of the aether, |13 and straightaway they arrived. But you, O holy one, |14 smiling with your immortal looks, |15 kept asking what is it once again this time [dēute] that has happened to me and for what reason |16 once again this time [dēute] do I invoke you, |17 and what is it that I want more than anything to happen |18 to my frenzied [mainolās] heart [thūmos]? “Whom am I once again this time [dēute] to persuade, |19 setting out to bring her to your love? Who is doing you, |20 Sappho, wrong? |21 For if she is fleeing now, soon she will be pursuing. |22 If she is not taking gifts, soon she will be giving them. |23 If she does not love, soon she will love |24 even against her will.” |25 Come to me even now, and free me from harsh |26 anxieties, and however many things |27 my heart [thūmos] yearns to get done, you do for me. You |28 become my ally in war.

Sappho Song 1 = Prayer to Aphrodite10

6) Song 16

|1 [ο]ἰ μὲν ἰππήων ϲτρότον οἰ δὲ πέϲδων |2 οἰ δὲ νάων φαῖϲ’ ἐπ[ὶ] γᾶν μέλαι[ν]αν |3 [ἔ]μμεναι κάλλιϲτον, ἔγω δὲ κῆν’ ὄτ-|4-τω τιc ἔραται· |5 [πά]γχυ δ’ εὔμαρεc ϲύνετον πόηϲαι |6 [π]άντι τ[ο]ῦ̣τ’, ἀ γὰρ πόλυ περϲκέ̣θ̣ο̣ι̣σ̣α |7 κ̣άλ̣λο̣c̣ [ἀνθ]ρ̣ώπων Ἐλένα [τὸ]ν ἄνδρα |8 τ̣ὸν̣ [πανάρ]ιϲτον |9 κ̣αλλ[ίποι]σ̣’ ἔβα ’c Τροΐαν πλέοι̣ϲα |10 κωὐδ[ὲ πα]ῖδοc οὐδὲ φίλων τοκήων |11 π̣ά[μπαν] ἐμνάϲθη, ἀλλὰ παράγ̣α̣γ̣’ α̣ὔταν |12 […]ϲαν |13 […γν]αμπτον γὰρ […] ν̣όημμα |14 […]κούφωϲ τ[…] ν̣οήϲηι ̣| 15 [..]μ̣ε̣ νῦν Ἀνακτορί[αc ὀ]ν̣έ̣μναι-|16 [-ϲ’ οὐ ] παρεοίϲαc, |17 [τᾶ]c κε βολλοίμαν ἔρατόν τε βᾶμα |18 κἀμάρυχμα λάμπρον ἴδην προϲώπω |19 ἢ τὰ Λύδων ἄρματα κἀν ὄπλοιϲι |20 [πεϲδομ]άχενταc.

|1 Some say a massing of chariots and their drivers, some say of footsoldiers, |2 some say of ships, if you think of everything that exists on the surface of this black earth, |3 is the most beautiful thing of them all. But I say it is that one thing |4 that anyone passionately loves [erâtai].11 |5 It’s really quite easy to make this understandable |6 to everyone, this thing. You see, that woman who was by far supreme |7 in beauty among all mortals, Helen, |8 she […] left her best of all husbands, |9 him she left behind and sailed to Troy, |10 caring not about her daughter and her dear parents, |11 not caring at all. She was swept along […] |13 […] twisted […] thinking |14 […] lightly […] think. |15 [All this] reminds me right now of Anaktoria. |16 She is [not] here.12 |17 Oh, how I would far rather wish to see her taking a dancing step that arouses passionate love [= eraton], |18 and to see the luminous radiance from the look of her face |19 than to see those chariots of the Lydians and the footsoldiers in their armor |20 as they fight in battle […].

Sappho Song 1613

7) Sappho Π2

⸤ἔγω δὲ φίλημμ’ ἀβροϲύναν, …⸥ τοῦτο καί μοι | τὸ λά⸤μπρον ἔρωϲ ἀελίω καὶ τὸ κά⸥λον λέ⸤λ⸥ογχε.

But I love delicacy [(h)abrosunē] […] this, | and passionate love [erōs] for the Sun has won for me its radiance and beauty.

Sappho F 58.25–26 V = Π2 25–2614

8) Sappho Song 105a

οἶον τὸ γλυκύμαλον ἐρεύθεται ἄκρωι ἐπ’ ὔϲδωι, | ἄκρον ἐπ’ ἀκροτάτωι, λελάθοντο δὲ μαλοδρόπηεc, | οὐ μὰν ἐκλελάθοντ’, ἀλλ’ οὐκ ἐδύναντ’ ἐπίκεϲθαι.

Just like the sweet apple that blushes on top of a branch, | the topmost apple on the topmost branch. It has eluded the notice of the apple pickers. | Oh, but no. It’s not that they haven’t noticed it. They just couldn’t reach it.

Sappho Song 105a15

9) Sappho (PMG Fragmentum Adespotum 976)

δέδυκε μὲν ἀ cελάννα | καὶ Πληϊάδεc, μέcαι δὲ | νύκτεc, παρὰ δ’ ἔρχετ’ ὤρα· | ἐγὼ δὲ μόνα καθεύδω

The moon has set beneath the horizon | And the Pleiades as well. It is the middle of the | Night, over and over. Time [(h)ōrā] goes by. | But I sleep alone.16

Sappho PMG Fragmentum Adespotum 976


Bibliography

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Notes

1 See especially Nagy 2013.

2 See Nagy 2003:1, with reference to Saussure 1916:117.

3 On diachronic as distinct from historical perspectives, see Nagy 2011a.

4 In this transcription, the sign “[…]” is not meant to indicate the number of letters that are missing: it is merely a short-hand indication of lacunae.

5 H24H Hour 4 Text D.

6 H24H Hour 4 Text E.

7 H24H Hour 4 Text F.

8 H24H Hour 5 Text E.

9 On the reading βαῖϲ᾿ ἄγην at line 19, see Nagy 1996a:98n34.

10 H24H Hour 5 Text F.

11 Here is a transliteration of the first stanza: oi men ippēōn stroton oi de pesdōn | oi de nāōn phais’ epi gān melainan | emmenai kalliston egō de kēn’ ot|tō tis erātai.

12 In the papyrus fragment, the negative ‘not’ is not visible, but its restoration is supported by editors.

13 H24H Hour 5 Text H.

14 H24H Hour 5 Text I. On the reading ἔρωϲ ἀελίω instead of ἔροc τὠελίω, see Nagy 2010. In terms of the first reading, ἔρωϲ ἀελίω, the Sun is the objective genitive of erōs, ‘passionate love’. In terms of the second reading, ἔροc τὠελίω, the translation would be … ‘Passionate love [erōs] has won for me the radiance and beauty of the Sun’.

15 H24H Hour 5 Text J.

16 For background: when the moon-goddess Selene sets beneath the horizon, she goes to sleep with her lover Endymion. For a persuasive demonstration that this song should be attributed to Sappho, see Clay 2011. See also p. 41 of Nagy 2007a, https://www.chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/2654.



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