Girl, interrupted: more about echoes of Sappho in Epigram 55 of Posidippus

2015.12.03 | By Gregory Nagy

Epigram 55 of Posidippus, a poet who flourished in the third century BCE, refers to the songs of Sappho. That is what I argued already in my posting for 2015.11.19. But the reference to Sappho in that epigram is even more complex than I had said in that posting. In that posting (at n8), as also in an earlier piece I had published (Nagy 2010, listed in my Bibliography), I had mentioned the idea of “girl, interrupted”—borrowing the words of the title given by Susanna Kaysen to her 1993 book, Girl, Interrupted, which was the same title used in the 1999 film version featuring Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, and Clea Du Vall. (The same title resurfaces, without any reference to its history, in an article by Daniel Mendelsohn 2015, also listed in my Bibliography.) I connected this idea of “girl, interrupted” with an idea that I saw being developed in the elliptic story told by the allusive words of Epigram 55 about a girl named Nikomakhe whose happy young life was sadly interrupted by a premature death. Nostalgically, the words of the epigram recall the happy times when this girl together with her girlfriends were singing the love songs of Sappho, sung one after another. Such singing of Sappho’s songs, I argued, promises to cancel the interruption of the girl’s happy life. But what is the context for such singing? Since my last posting for 2015.11.19, I have been reconsidering this question in e-conversations with a few dear friends, and what follows here in this posting for 2015.12.03 is a tracking of my reconsiderations.

D. G. Rossetti, “Penelope” (1869). Image via, in the public domain.

Introduction

§0.1 This posting for 2015.12.03 picks up from where I left off at 2015.11.19. There I concentrated on Epigrams 52 and 55 of Posidippus, but here I narrow the field of vision to Epigram 55 all by itself. I quote again the text as re-edited by Bernd Seidensticker 2015 (the translation is my own):

|1 πάντα τὰ Νικομάχηϲ καὶ ἀθύρματα καὶ πρὸϲ ἑώιαν |2 κερκίδα Ϲαπφώιουϲ ἐξ ὀάρων ὀάρουϲ |3 ὤιχετο Μοῖρα φέρουϲα προώρια· τὴν δὲ τάλαιναν |4 παρθένον Ἀργείων ἀμφεβόηϲε πόλιϲ, |5 Ἥρηϲ τὸ τραφὲν ἔρνοϲ ὑπ’ ὠλένοϲ· ἆ τότε γαμβρῶν |6 τῶν μνηϲτευομένων ψύχρ’ ἔμενον λέχεα.

|1 Everything about Nikomakhe, all her pretty things and, come dawn, |2 as the sound of the weaving shuttle is heard, all of Sappho’s love songs [oaroi], songs [oaroi] sung one after the next, |3 are all gone, carried away by fate, all too soon [pro-hōria], and the poor |4 girl [parthenos] is lamented by the city of the Argives. |5 She had been raised by the goddess Hera, who cradled her in her arms like a tender seedling. But then, ah, there came the time when all her would-be husbands, |6 pursuing her, got left behind, with cold beds for them to sleep in.

Posidippus Epigram 55[1]

§0.2. In my posting for 2015.11.19, §3, I argued that the expression Ϲαπφώιουϲ ἐξ ὀάρων ὀάρουϲ ‘Sappho’s love songs [oaroi], songs [oaroi] sung one after the next’ at line 2 of Epigram 55 here indicates that the songs are sung in relay, from one song to the next. Each singer is followed by the next singer in singing her song. I went on to say that such relay singing, as I have argued in other projects, is typical of performances at private symposia arranged by and for male participants, as also at public concerts where kitharōdoi ‘kithara-singers’ or aulōidoi ‘aulos-singers’ compete with each other for prizes as they take turns in singing citharodic or aulodic songs respectively.[2] Similarly in Epigram 55, as I further went on to say in §3 of my posting for 2015.11.19, we see a reference to the taking of turns in singing citharodic songs of Sappho at a symposium—but the difference here is that the singers are represented as girls, not as boys or men. Essentially, we see here a female symposium. In terms of this argument, then, as I said in §3, “Epigram 55 pictures those happy times long ago when a girl named Nikomakhe would be partying all night with her girl-friends while singing and listening to the love songs of Sappho.”

§0.3. In my posting for 2015.11.12, I had argued that the shorter of two versions we have of Sappho’s Tithonos Song was suitable for relay singing at private symposia or at public concerts. Then, at §4 of my posting for 2015.11.19, I took the argument a bit further: the shorter version of the Tithonos Song would have been suitable also for relay singing at private female symposia at well. Then I went on to say at §4: “at least, that is what we have seen being represented in the stylized wording of Posidippus at line 2 of Epigram 55.”

Contexts in Epigram 55 for the relay singing of Sappho’s songs

§1. Here is where I need to reconsider my argumentation. In terms of what I have argued so far, the context for the relay singing of Sappho’s love songs is pictured in Epigram 55 of Posidippus as a female symposium that lasts all night till dawn. But I have not yet accounted for the expression

. . . καὶ πρὸϲ ἑώιαν |2 κερκίδα . . .

at lines 1–2, which I translated

‘. . . and, come dawn, |2 as the sound of the weaving shuttle is heard . . .’.

As my friend Bernd Seidensticker pointed out to me in an e-conversation dated 2015.11.27, this expression may imply that the singing of Sappho’s love songs starts at dawn, when the girls start weaving at the loom. In another e-conversation dated 2015.11.27, my friend Anastasia Erasmia Peponi points me to a fragment from the songs of Sappho where a love song is being sung in the context of weaving:

γλύκηα μᾶτερ, οὔτοι δύναμαι κρέκην τὸν ἴστον | πόθωι δάμεισα παῖδος βραδίναν δι’ Ἀφροδίταν

My dear sweet mother! I just can’t work the shuttle on my loom, since I’m overcome by desire for a young one—and it’s all because of delicate Aphrodite.

Sappho Fragment 102

In this context of weaving, as Natasha observes in her e-conversation with me, “I can imagine a series of such songs performed in sequence.” Natasha also points me to a scene in Odyssey 6.48–53 where the princess Nausikaa wakes up at dawn (48–49) and goes from her room to the central part of the palace (50–51), where she finds her mother sitting at the hearth and spinning wool in the company of the women who attend her (52–53). Presumably, the mother had started her spinning at dawn.

Patten Wilson, “A Penelope” (1895). Image via, in the public domain.

§2. In the light of such parallel passages, we may wish to reinterpret the context of the first two lines in Epigram 55 of Posidippus. Perhaps Nikomakhe and her girlfriends are pictured there as singing love-songs of Sappho while they work at their looms, starting at dawn. Accordingly, I should maybe unsay here what I had said at §3 in my posting of 2015.11.19: “Epigram 55 pictures those happy times long ago when a girl named Nikomakhe would be partying all night with her girl-friends while singing and listening to the love songs of Sappho.”

§3. Still, a part of me is not yet willing to let go of what I said about all-night partying by girls singing love songs in relay. In another e-correspondence dated 2015.11.27, my friend Claudia Filos reminds me of two passages in Pindar’s Pythian 3 that refer to such partying. In the first of these two passages, the merry sounds of wedding songs sung for a bride are described this way:

|17 . . . ἅλικες |18 οἷα παρθένοι φιλέοισιν ἑταίρᾳ |19 ἑσπερίαις ὑποκουρίζεσθ᾽ ἀοιδαῖς

. . . just as girls [parthenoi] who are age-mates [of the bride] love to do sweet-talk [hupo-kor-izesthai] in their songs sung for their companion [hetaira = the bride], come evening.

Pindar Pythian 3.17–19[3]

At a later point in the same song, a mother goddess is described this way:

|78 . . . τὰν κοῦραι παρ᾽ ἐμὸν πρόθυρον σὺν Πανὶ μέλπονται θαμὰ |79 σεμνὰν θεὸν ἐννύχιαι . . .

. . . that venerable goddess, whom the girls [kourai] at my portal, with the help of Pan, celebrate by singing and dancing [melpesthai] again and again [thama] all night long [ennukhiai] . . .

Pindar Pythian 3.78–79

The dawn that links the night before and the day after

§4. I come back to the expression

. . . καὶ πρὸϲ ἑώιαν |2 κερκίδα . . .

at lines 1–2 of Epigram 55, which I translated

‘. . . and, come dawn, |2 as the sound of the weaving shuttle is heard . . .’.

More literally, I could translate

‘. . . and, on the occasion of the at-dawn |2 shuttle . . .’.

The preposition pros (πρόϲ), translated here as ‘on the occasion of’, can be used with the accusative case in a temporal sense to mark either (1) a stretch of time that extends up to a given point or, more simply, (2) a point in time. The examples collected in the dictionary of Liddell, Scott, and Jones bear out these two meanings, which they formulate this way: “of time, towards or near a certain time, at or about.” In contexts where the time indicated is the dawn, what seems to be stressed regularly is the actual transition from night to day, and the transition may take all night. A striking example is this passage recounting an incident in the life of Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great:

πιὼν δὲ τὴν νύκτα πᾶσαν καὶ μεθυσθεὶς πολὺ . . . ἀφεὶς ἅπαντας τοὺς ἄλλους ἀπαλλάττεσθαι ἤδη πρὸς ἡμέραν ἐκώμαζεν ὡς τοὺς πρέσβεις τοὺς τῶν Ἀθηναίων.

Drinking all night and getting very inebriated, he [= Philip] then dismissed all the others [= his own boon companions] and, come [= pros] daylight, he went on partying with the ambassadors of the Athenians.

Athenaeus 10.435c

§5. So also in what we see pictured in Epigram 55 of Posidippus, the weaving and the singing of love songs that accompanied the weaving may have been going on already well before the coming of dawn. Then the daylight that comes with dawn brings sobriety. Weaving during the day is surely a sober activity. But what about weaving and singing at night? I suspect that there could be more than weaving and singing. There could be drinking as well, and that is how I imagine what I described earlier as a symposium for girls.


Bibliography

Angiò, F., Cuypers, M., Acosta-Hughes, B., and Kosmetatou, E., eds. 2011. New poems attributed to Posidippus: an electronic text-in-progress. Version 12.1, Center for Hellenic Studies.

Austin, C., and Bastianini, G., eds. 2002. Posidippi Pellaei quae supersunt omnia. Milan.

Bastianini, G., and Gallazzi, C., eds., with C. Austin, ed. 2001. Posidippo di Pella: Epigrammi (P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309), Papiri dell’Università degli Studi di Milano, 8. Milan.

Kaysen, S. 1993. Girl Interrupted. New York.

Liddell, H. G., R. Scott, and H. Stuart Jones, eds. 1940. Greek-English Lexicon. 9th ed. Oxford. Abbreviated LSJ.

Mendelsohn, D. 2015.03.16. “Girl, interrupted: Who was Sappho?New Yorker 2015.03.16

Nagy, G. 2007. “Did Sappho and Alcaeus Ever Meet?” Literatur und Religion: Wege zu einer mythisch–rituellen Poetik bei den Griechen I (ed. A. Bierl, R. Lämmle, and K. Wesselmann) 211–69. MythosEikonPoiesis 1.1. Berlin and New York. In Nagy 2012 v2.

Nagy, G. 2010. “The ‘New Sappho’ Reconsidered in the Light of the Athenian Reception of Sappho.” The New Sappho on Old Age: Textual and Philosophical Issues (ed. E. Greene and M. Skinner) 176–99. Cambridge MA and Washington DC.

Seidensticker, B., ed. 2015. Edition, translation, and commentary for Epigram 55 of Posidippus in Seidensticker, Stähli, and Wessels 2015:224–26.

Seidensticker, B., Stähli, A., and Wessels, A., eds. 2015. Der Neue Poseidipp: Text – Übersetzung – Kommentar. Texte zur Forschung 108. Darmstadt.


Notes

This post was last edited for style and clarity on 2016.01.04.

Note on the title of this essay: The expression “girl, interrupted” comes from the title of the 1993 book of Susanna Kaysen. I first used this phrase in relation to Sappho in a 2010 article titled “The ‘New Sappho’ Reconsidered in the Light of the Athenian Reception of Sappho.” This article also appears in the online journal Classics@ Volume 4, edited by Ellen Greene and Marilyn Skinner.

[1] For an apparatus criticus, see Angiò, Cuypers, Acosta-Hughes, and Kosmetatou 2011.

[2] Nagy 2007, 2010.

[3] Alternatively, if we read ἑταῖραι instead of ἑταίρᾳ, we can translate: ‘. . . just as girls [parthenoi], companions [hetairai] who are the same age [as the bride], love to do sweet-talk [hupo-kor-izesthai] in their songs sung in the evening.



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