Homo ludens at play with the songs of Sappho: Experiments in comparative reception theory, Part One
|January 8, 2019||By Gregory Nagy listed under By Gregory Nagy||
2019.01.08 | By Gregory Nagy
§0. This essay is the first in a set of consecutive postings that will have the same title, differentiated as Part One, Part Two, and so on. The first two words in the title of each posting derive from an earlier essay, Nagy 2015.10.15, where I analyzed the theorizing of Aristotle about the human propensity to imitate. I highlighted in that essay the interest that Aristotle takes in primal attempts at imitation, which go back to the earliest phases of childhood. For Aristotle, as I pointed out, childish imitation is at the root of human playfulness. It was in the context of making this point that I had first played with the pseudo-scientific term Homo ludens. In the present context, I make use of that same term again as I proceed to focus on the playfulness I find in ancient literary creations that imitate Sappho.
§0.1. Ancient imitations of Sappho provide valuable evidence for reconstructing the ancient reception of Sapphic songs. The imitations that I will study here—all of which are creations of male authors—will have a bearing on a theory that I hope to develop long-term. From the standpoint of this theory, we need to study comparatively—not just in linear sequence—the reception of Sappho’s songs as reflected in ancient imitations created by male authors. A high point for my argumentation in these essays will be reached in Part Two, where I get to analyze the erotic novel Daphnis and Chloe. That novel, as we will see, is a playful exercise in showing how to soften the potential for hard-core pornographic appropriations of female sexuality by male imitators of Sappho. In a later posting, Part Five, I will turn to some ancient examples of such negative appropriations, which will be a low point for the narrative arc of my argumentation. By contrast with such a low point, Part One here will commence with examples of would-be positive appropriations. Then, coming to the end of Part One, I will introduce at §33 my analysis, commencing in Part Two, of the erotic novel Daphnis and Chloe. The text of that novel, as we will see, is a particularly valuable source for a comparative study of Sapphic imitations.
§0.2. It can be said in general that the use of a comparative method will make it possible to reconstruct more accurately both the form and the content of the original model for ancient imitations of Sappho—and this model was the whole body of Sappho’s songs. What I just said about Sappho as the original model is so obvious as to provoke someone to ask this question: why do you start your introduction with such a statement? And I should ask myself the same question, especially in view of the fact that I have learned, over the years, to be most wary of using the term “original” whenever I deal with procedures of reconstructing unattested phases of form and content.
§0.3. As we are about to see, however, my insisting on Sappho as the original model for her ancient imitators is justified in view of the existing state of affairs in Classical studies, where the ongoing interest in imitators of Sappho centers on reconstructing forward in time some kind of linear sequence of surviving imitations, proceeding sequentially from the earlier to the later imitators. And, since Classicists have access to so many texts of imitations that have survived over time while they are left with so little that survives from an original Sappho, their point of interest will naturally tend to get distracted, veering away from even the very idea of an integral body of songs attributed to Sappho. That is what I mean when I refer to the existing state of affairs in Classical studies. And that is why I propose here to move beyond the distractions that result from attempts at reconstructing forward in time some kind of a linear sequence to be found in the surviving imitations of Sappho. My methodology will combine the procedure of reconstructing forward in time with the complementary procedure of reconstructing backward as well. This way, I hope to avoid being limited to a starting point where all I have to work with are the few bits and pieces that have survived from an original body of songs attributed to Sappho. To say it another way: I propose to swim not only downstream, away from Sappho, but also upstream, back to the source—which is the original Sappho.
§0.4. I need to follow up with a question. In reconstructing Sappho backward as well as forward in time, what would be our target of reconstruction? Would it be an integral text of Sappho? But here we run into a big problem, which is the fact that the songmaking of Sappho is for us a moving target, since the reception and transmission of Sappho’s songs had been, in its earliest historical phases, not textual but performative.
§0.5. One example of early performative phases of Sappho’s songmaking is the channeling, so to speak, of her songs, as once performed in Lesbos around the late seventh century BCE, by way of later songs attributed to Anacreon, performing in Samos about a century later. In a detailed essay, Nagy 2007, starting at p. 226 there, I analyze such early phases in the reception and transmission of Sappho’s songmaking. A most relevant reference to the transmission of songs attributed to Sappho and Anacreon, as I will note later on in this essay, is what the stage-Socrates says about both Sappho and Anacreon in Plato’s Phaedrus 235c.
§0.6. A second example of early performative phases, also analyzed in the same essay, Nagy 2007, is the further channeling of Sappho’s and Anacreon’s songs in Athens, lasting for several more centuries—and here I include in my reckoning the songs attributed not only to Sappho and Anacreon but also to Alcaeus, a near-contemporary of Sappho. There is also a third example I analyze in that essay—one that I now find particularly relevant to my argumentation here. It has to do with the secondary role of Alcaeus and, later, of Anacreon as playful imitators of songs that should properly have been performed not by men at private symposia but by girls notionally led by Sappho herself in choral singing and dancing at public festivals.
§0.7. What I just said about playful imitations by men in the course of early performative phases in the transmission of Sappho’s songs is relevant also to later textual phases. All along in the essays I will be presenting here in Parts One through Seven, we will have to keep in mind a complication that I am addressing here directly for the first time: in studying the reception and transmission of songs attributed to Sappho, we need to consider not only the primary poetics of Sappho but also the secondary poetics involved in the appropriation of her songs by playful male imitators.
§0.8. For now, in any case, I will narrow the field of vision to later phases of reception and transmission, shifting far beyond the performances of Sappho’s songs in Lesbos around the late seventh century BCE and starting instead with the text of Sappho as edited at the Library of Alexandria, founded in the late fourth century BCE. The imitations I will first analyze here are based on such a relatively late starting point. At least for now, the target of reconstruction will be a text of Sappho as edited by the librarians of Alexandria in the Hellenistic era.
Two epigrams by Paulus Silentiarius
§1. In what follows, I start with one of the very latest ancient imitators of Sappho’s songs as once preserved in a textual tradition dating back to those Hellenistic times. His name is known to Classicists as Paulus Silentiarius, and he dates from the sixth century CE. I will concentrate on two of his epigrams.
§1.1a. Paulus Silentiarius in Greek Anthology 5.246:
1. μαλθακὰ μὲν Σαπφοῦς τὰ φιλήματα, μαλθακὰ γυίων
2. πλέγματα χιονέων, μαλθακὰ πάντα μέλη,
3. ψυχὴ δ’ ἐξ ἀδάμαντος ἀπειθέος· ἄχρι γὰρ οἴων
4. ἔστιν ἔρως στομάτων, τἆλλα δὲ παρθενίης.
5. καὶ τίς ὑποτλαίη; τάχα τις, τάχα τοῦτο ταλάσσας
6. δίψαν Τανταλέην τλήσεται εὐμαρέως.
§1.1b. Here is my working translation of the original Greek text:
Soft are the kisses of Sappho, soft are the entanglements with her snow-white limbs, soft are all her tuneful parts. But her soul is made of hard adamant, resisting all persuasion. That is because the desire goes only as far as mouth-and-mouth; as for the other things, it has to do with girlhood. And who could possibly endure this any further? Someone may perhaps soon get to endure it, perhaps soon, and then, having endured, even the thirst of Tantalus he will endure handily.
§1.1c. Here is a more literal working translation, where I also highlight, within square brackets, some of the Greek words that I am translating:
1. Soft are the kisses [philēmata] of Sappho. Soft are with her limbs [guia]
2. the entanglements—with those snow-white limbs of hers. Soft are all her tuneful-parts [melē].
3. But her soul [psūkhē] is made of hard-adamant, resisting-all-persuasion [a-peithēs]. That is because it goes only as far as
4. —I mean, the desire [erōs] goes only as far as—mouth-and-mouth [stomata]; as for all the other things, it [= erōs] has-to-do-with girlhood [partheniā].
5. And who could possibly endure [-tlānai] this any-further [epi-]? Someone may perhaps-soon [takha] get to endure it, perhaps-soon [takha], and then, having endured [tlānai],
6. even the thirst of Tantalus he will endure [tlānai] handily.
(I add here later, 2019.02.08, a most relevant observation by Anastasia Erasmia Peponi 2018:175, about the use of the word melē at line 2, which I have been translating as ‘tuneful parts’: “An extraordinary fusion of ‘Sappho’s soft kisses and soft entwining of her snowy body-parts’ with her ‘soft melê’–the latter to be understood as a pun referring to both her limbs and her lyric songs.”)
§1.2a. Paulus Silentiarius in Greek Anthology 5.236:
1. ναὶ τάχα Τανταλέης Ἀχερόντια πήματα ποινῆς
2. ἡμετέρων ἀχέων ἐστὶν ἐλαφρότερα.
3. οὐ γάρ, ἰδὼν σέο κάλλος, ἀπείργετο χείλεα μῖξαι
4. χείλεϊ σῷ ῥοδέων ἁβροτέρῳ καλύκων,
5. Τάνταλος ἀκριτόδακρυς· ὑπερτέλλοντα δὲ πέτρον
6. δείδιεν, ἀλλὰ θανεῖν δεύτερον οὐ δύναται.
7. αὐτὰρ ἐγὼ ζωὸς μὲν ἐὼν κατατήκομαι οἴστρῳ,
8. ἐκ δ’ ὀλιγοδρανίης καὶ μόρον ἐγγὺς ἔχω.
§1.2b. Here is my working translation of the original Greek text:
I swear, perhaps soon the pains of Acheron, having to do with the punishment of Tantalus, are getting lighter for him to bear than the sorrows I have. That is because he never saw your beauty and was thus never prevented from making his lips be one with your lips, which are more luxuriant than the buds of roses. I mean, Tantalus never did—the one who is shedding tears continuously. That rock hanging over him he fears, but to die a second death he is unable. As for me, I am still alive as I dissolve from the bite of the gadfly. I am drained of power and am near death.
§1.2c. Here is a more literal working translation, where I also highlight, within square brackets, some of the Greek words that I am translating:
1. I swear, perhaps-soon [takha] the pains of Acheron, having to do with the punishment of Tantalus,
2. are getting lighter [for him] to bear than the sorrows [akhea] I have.
3. That is because he never saw your beauty and was thus never prevented from making his lips be one
4. with your lips, which are more luxuriant [habro-] than the buds of roses.
5. I mean, Tantalus never did—the one who is shedding tears continuously. That rock hanging over him
6. he fears, but to die a second death he is unable.
7. As for me, I am still alive as I dissolve [kata-tēkesthai] from the bite of the gadfly.
8. I am drained of power and am near death.
§1.3. The eroticism that we find in these two epigrams composed by Paulus Silentiarius evokes the poetics of Sappho, and the first epigram makes this evocation explicit by actually naming her. Such eroticism is clearly an imitation of previous imitations of Sappho by previous epigrammatists. I cite here the valuable work of Angela Gosetti-Murrayjohn (2006), who has conscientiously studied what she calls the “filiation” of such imitations (p. 43). She compares the two epigrams of Paulus Silentiarius, as found in the Greek Anthology at 5.236 and at 5.246, with three similar epigrams, dating back to earlier periods, which are likewise to be found in the Greek Anthology: Rufinus at 5.14, Meleager at 5.171, and “Plato” at 5.78. Tracing our way backward in time from Paulus, who as I already noted dates from the late sixth century CE, we can see that the three other epigrammatists are all sequentially earlier, going farther and farther back in time. In the case of Rufinus, the conjectured datings range from the fourth back to the first century CE (Gosetti-Murrayjohn p. 48). As for Meleager, our information is secure: he dates farther back in time, to the first century BCE. And, dating even farther back in time, back to the Hellenistic era, is an epigram by “Plato,” imitator of the real Plato, who in turn may be viewed as a most distinguished imitator of Sappho in his own right (Gosetti-Murrayjohn p. 46).
§1.4. Although the work of Gosetti-Murrayjohn (2006) concentrates on the filiation of imitations while analyzing the poetics of eroticism in the two epigrams of Paulus Silentiarius, she leaves room for the possibility that some aspects of his imitations go back not only to earlier imitators of Sappho but also to Sappho herself, the textual transmission of whose songs was it seems still alive and well even in the relatively late era of Paulus, in the sixth century CE (p. 43). This possibility is central to my own argumentation as I present it here. What I will argue is that the poetry of Paulus not only imitates imitations of the songs of Sappho: it also imitates directly the songs of Sappho herself. In my overall project, not only here in Part One, I will make a similar argument also about other ancient imitations of Sappho. As I will try to show, at least some aspects of other such imitations as well—many more aspects, I think, than we might have initially expected—were based on an original text of Sappho.
§1.5. What I have just said is a formulation that is meant to accommodate a vast stretch of time during which the original text of Sappho was still preserved in its notional entirety. And my point is, the reception of Sappho during all that time—during all those centuries separating late imitators like Paulus Silentiarius in the sixth century CE from earlier imitators going all the way back to the Hellenistic era—cannot be viewed simply in a linear sequence, as if each new imitation depended on a previous imitation. Rather, as I advocated already at the beginning of this essay, we need to view comparatively the reception of Sappho’s songs as reflected in imitations created by ancient authors. From a comparative point of view, any given moment of reception will have its own history of transmission, and this history will at times reveal varieties of direct as well as indirect connections with the past. My overall project, then, is a set of experiments in finding such varieties of connectedness. That is what I had in mind when I referred, in the subtitle I give for the whole project, to my experimenting with comparative reception theory.
Playing a game of connect-the-dots: a search for direct references to Sappho in the poetry of Paulus Silentiarius
§2. The game starts with the Greek noun philēma, meaning ‘kiss’, which is derived from the verb phileîn, which in turn can mean ‘to kiss’ specifically as well as ‘to love’ generally. We find the noun philēma at line 1 in the first epigram that I quoted from Paulus Silentiarius, in Greek Anthology 5.246, where we read Sapphous…philēmata. At §1.1c above, I translated this wording as ‘the kisses of Sappho’, and we can see from the context of my overall translation that the original Greek text has to do with mouth-to-mouth kissing. Right away, I note a relevant observation by Gosetti-Murrayjohn (2006:51): the word for ‘kissing’ here, as she says, “evokes the linguistic lineage of the ΦΙΛ-based words of the earlier epigrams.” What she means is that we find references to kissing mouth-to-mouth also in the poetry of the earlier epigrammatists as attested in the Greek Anthology. The most salient example in the Anthology is a mouth-to-mouth philāma ‘kiss’ pictured in Rufinus, 5.14. But there is also mouth-to-mouth kissing—more specifically, lips-to-lips—in Meleager, 5.171 and in “Plato,” 5.78.
§3. I need to emphasize, however, that the kissing as pictured in the earlier epigrams of Rufinus, Meleager, and “Plato” is not connected directly to the songs of Sappho. Only the kissing that we see pictured in the later epigram of Paulus shows any direct connection to her songs. And that is because, as I will now start to argue in earnest, the ‘kisses of Sappho’ derive here from the actual songs of Sappho.
§4. Let me sharpen my point of view: the “linguistic lineage” of words formed with the root ΦΙΛ in the sense of ‘kiss’ does not depend exclusively on a chronological succession of surviving epigrams that picture mouth-to-mouth kissing. Rather, when it comes to ‘Sappho’s kisses’ as pictured in the epigram of Paulus, I will argue that the “lineage” in this case goes all the way back, directly, to the poetics of Sappho’s songs, where mouth-to-mouth kisses can be seen as gifts graciously given by girls to the grateful poetic persona of Sappho herself. Such kissing, as I will soon argue, is experienced directly in an erotic world that belongs to girls, not to men—even though men, in a state of lovesickness that may be either feigned or real, may desperately desire to take part in such a world, at least vicariously. I will save the specific linguistic evidence for such an argument until we reach a later part of my overall project, in a separate posting.
§5. For now, however, it will suffice for me to fine-tune the term “lineage” as used by Gosetti-Murrayjohn (2006: 43, 45, 51) with reference to poetic imitations of Sappho. At one point in her work (p. 53), she herself highlights a salient example where Sappho is being directly imitated by Paulus Silentiarius. It happens at line 8 of the second epigram as I translate it at §1.2c, where we read ‘I am drained of power and am near death’—and where the ‘I’ who speaks is explicitly a man in the original Greek. This poetic trope, expressing a desperate state of lovesickness, is evidently derived from what we read at lines 15–16 of Sappho’s Song 31: τεθνάκην δ’ ὀλίγω ’πιδεύηc |16 φαίνομ’ ἔμ’ αὔται, which I translate ‘and a little short of death |16 do I appear to myself’. Here the ‘I’ who speaks in the original Greek is explicitly feminine, not masculine. That said, I find it relevant to quote the general formulation of Gosetti-Murrayjohn (p. 43) about the “lineage,” as she calls it, of the epigrams: “these two epigrams of Paulus,” she notes, “are not just connected by a system of filiation; the implicit object of desire in the second epigram (5.236) is also [—as in the first epigram (5.246)—] Sappho.”
§6. Such a formulation leads me to ask: how is Sappho the “object of desire” in the two epigrams of Paulus Silentiarius? The answer, I think, has to do with the second word I now select as I continue to play the game of connecting the dots. That word is the noun erōs, as we see it in play at line 4 in the first of the two epigrams by Paulus, 5.246 in the Greek Anthology. In my working translation of this line, at §1.1c, I translated erōs as ‘desire’, in the erotic sense of the English word desire. But can we say here, without qualification, that Sappho is the object of such a ‘desire’? And, if not, then what would we say is the real object of desire?
§7. The noun erōs at line 4 of 5.246 is in the nominative case, ἔρως, combined with the noun partheniā in the genitive case, παρθενίης. As we can see from the working translation of Gosetti-Murrayjohn (2006:42), she interprets the combination ἔρως…παρθενίης as ‘desire for virginity’, taking the genitive of partheniā as an objective genitive. Here is the way she translates the overall wording at lines 3–4: ‘her desire goes only as far as mouths, but otherwise she desires virginity’. I argue, however, that the wording of the poetry has made room here for deliberate ambiguity. The same combination ἔρως…παρθενίης can be read either as ‘desire for virginity’, where the translation ‘for virginity’ renders an objective genitive, or as ‘desire having to do with virginity’, where the alternative translation ‘having to do with virginity’ renders a more general function of the genitive—the genitive of connection (I analyze this kind of genitive in Nagy 2015|2016 1§199). It is this alternative interpretation that I show in my translation at §1.1b of the relevant wording at lines 3–4: ‘the desire goes only as far as mouth-and-mouth; as for the other things, it has to do with girlhood’. And I show the same alternative interpretation in my more literal translation, at §1.1c: ‘it goes only as far as | —I mean, the desire [erōs] goes only as far as—mouth-and-mouth [stomata]; as for all the other things, it [= the desire] has-to-do-with girlhood [partheniā]’.
§8. The deliberate ambiguity that I see here results from the actual combination of the word erōs [ἔρως] with the word partheniā [παρθενίης] at line 4 in the epigram of Paulus Silentiarius, 5.246. To bring out this ambiguity, I have translated partheniā here not as ‘virginity’ but, more simply, as ‘girlhood’. That is because this word, as we see it used in Song 114 of Sappho, for example, refers simply to the social status of girlhood, of being a girl—that is, being a girl before becoming a woman by way of having sexual intercourse with a man. Ideally, as in Song 114, the context for thus becoming a woman is the venerable old institution of marriage, where the girl as bride gets married off to a bridegroom. Thus the word partheniā, as understood in the songs of Sappho, does not presuppose anything more than simply being a girl. It does not presuppose something more complicated, that is, some kind of presexual or even asexual social status for the girl. In terms of such an uncomplicated meaning for partheniā as ‘girlhood’, erōs in the poetics of Sappho can refer simply to sexual ‘desire’ as experienced by girls in a wide variety of erotic situations.
Things start getting more complicated: erōs as ‘desire’ in Plato
§9. We are now about to see a complication, which creates a deliberate ambiguity in the combination of the word erōs [ἔρως] with the word partheniā [παρθενίης] at line 4 in the epigram of Paulus Silentiarius, 5.246. Besides the Sapphic understanding of erōs as erotic ‘desire’, there is also a Platonic understanding. And, unlike Sapphic erōs, Platonic erōs can be understood in two different ways: it can be both sexual and asexual.
§10. I start with the asexual. A better word here would be metasexual, by which I mean a kind of sexuality that is metaphorical and thus transcendent, celestial. In the dialogues of Plato, we see at work a metasexual kind of erōs ‘desire’, to be experienced by the human psūkhē or ‘soul’ in its longing for ultimate beauty. A shining illustration is the Recantation or Palinode performed by the stage-Socrates in the Phaedrus of Plato, 244a–257b. The performance takes the form of a stylized hymn to erōs ‘sexual desire’, personified as the most beautiful of gods, Eros, who leads the psūkhai ‘souls’ of lovers toward the ultimate light of absolute beauty. We find further illustrations in the Symposium of Plato, especially at 181b, 183e, 186a, 192d–e, 208e–209a.
§11. But then there is also the blatantly sexual kind of erōs, even in the dialogues of Plato. There is a telling example in Plato’s Symposium, where we read an encomium performed by the staged figure of Agathon in honor of Eros personified. This god Eros is physical as well as spiritual—though his physical sexuality is not hard or rough but gentle, since he is said to reside inside the psūkhai or ‘souls’ of only those humans whose dispositions are ‘soft’ and thus gentle, not ‘hard’ and thus cruel—as we read the wording of the stage-Agathon in Symposium 195e–196e. Such a playful evocation of sexual desire, I must note already here, fits perfectly the spirit of the overall encomium of Eros as performed by the stage-Agathon, who actually describes his performance as a paidiā, a ‘playing of games’, when he reaches the conclusion of his encomium at Symposium 197e.
Playful references to desire in “Platonic” epigrams
§12. The ambiguous Platonic understanding of erōs as both physical and soulful has strongly influenced the epigrammatic tradition. We see this influence especially in epigrams stemming from the Hellenistic era, some of which were actually attributed to Plato. I will focus on three such “Platonic” epigrams.
§12.1a. “Plato” in Greek Anthology 5.78:
1. τὴν ψυχὴν Ἀγάθωνα φιλῶν ἐπὶ χείλεσιν ἔσχον·
2. ἦλθε γὰρ ἡ τλήμων ὡς διαβησομένη.
§12.1b. Here is my working translation of the original Greek text:
1. I held back my soul as I was kissing Agathon, at the point where we were lip-to-lip.
2. That was because my soul came at me, that wretched one, as if it were about to cross over the borderline.
§12.1c. Here is a more literal working translation, where I also highlight, within square brackets, some of the Greek words that I am translating:
1. I held back my soul [psūkhē] as I was kissing [phileîn] Agathon, at the point where we were lip-to-lip.
2. That was because she [= my soul], that wretched one, came [at me] as if she [= my soul] were about to cross over the borderline.
§12.2a. “Plato” in Greek Anthology 5.79:
1. τῷ μήλῳ βάλλω σε· σὺ δ’ εἰ μὲν ἑκοῦσα φιλεῖς με,
2. δεξαμένη τῆς σῆς παρθενίης μετάδος.
3. εἰ δ’ ἄρ’, ὃ μὴ γίγνοιτο, νοεῖς, τοῦτ’ αὐτὸ λαβοῦσα
4. σκέψαι τὴν ὥρην ὡς ὀλιγοχρόνιος.
§12.2b. Here is my working translation of the original Greek text:
1. I am throwing this apple at you. And, if you willingly kiss me,
2. then, since you accepted it, give up to me a share in your girlhood.
3. I say this because, if you are thinking it—and I only wish it would not happen, what you are thinking—then you should accept this apple as that same thing that you are thinking,
4. and you should reflect upon the ripeness, how short-lived it is.
§12.2c. Here is a more literal working translation, where I also highlight, within square brackets, some of the Greek words that I am translating:
1. I am throwing this apple [mēlon] at you. And, if you willingly [hekousa] kiss [phileîn] me,
2. then, since you accepted it, give up to me a share in your girlhood [partheniā].
3. I say this because, if you are thinking [noeîn] it—and I only wish it would not happen, what you are thinking—then you should accept this [apple] as that same thing [that you are thinking],
4. and you should reflect upon its ripeness [hōrā], how short-lived it is.
§12.3a. “Plato” in Greek Anthology 5.80:
1. μῆλον ἐγώ· βάλλει με φιλῶν σέ τις. ἀλλ’ ἐπίνευσον,
2. Ξανθίππη· κἀγὼ καὶ σὺ μαραινόμεθα.
§12.3b. Here is my working translation of the original Greek text:
1. I am an apple. Throwing me is someone who loves you. So, now, with your head nod “yes,”
2. O Xanthippe. Both you and I are fading.
§12.3c. Here is a more literal working translation, where I also highlight, within square brackets, some of the Greek words that I am translating:
1. I am an apple. Throwing me is someone who loves [phileîn] you. So, now, with your head nod “yes,”
2. O Xanthippe. Both you and I are fading [marainesthai].
§13. Ι comment at length here on the first of these three “Platonic” epigrams, Greek Anthology 5.78, as translated at §12.1c. In this epigram, the psūkhē ‘soul’ of a male speaker is satisfying its desire—or I should say ‘her desire’, since the gender of this Greek noun is feminine—to kiss a man by the name of Agathon, who is meant to be seen as the stage-Agathon of Plato’s Symposium. As I have already noted at §11, with reference to Plato’s Symposium 195e–196e, the stage-Agathon is a playful advocate of Eros as the personified god of sexual desire, and he resides inside the psūkhai or ‘souls’ of only those humans whose disposition is ‘soft’ and not ‘hard’. How, then, would such a Platonic understanding of erōs be relevant to the “Platonic” epigram here? The imagined kissing of and by Agathon in this epigram has already reached, from the very start, a point where one mouth has made contact with the other mouth. But now the question is, will the desire that is felt inside the psūkhē of the male speaker urge him to go further, just as it has already urged him, till now, to go as far as kissing mouth-to-mouth? Will his feminized psūkhē urge him to try and go all the way, sexually? If so, then it—or, better, she—will ‘cross the borderline’. But, as it seems, there is to be no ‘crossing’ after all. It is because the male speaker has already said in the first line of the two-line epigram that he ‘held back’ his own psūkhē. And why did he need to hold back? An ambiguous explanation follows in the second line of the two-line epigram: the male speaker says it was because his psūkhē or ‘soul’ had come at him as if ‘she’ were about to ‘cross the borderline’. This explanation is ambiguous because it does not say whether the ‘soul’ here is experiencing a physical desire for sex or a metaphorical desire for ultimate beauty? Is the ‘crossing’ to be understood as something sexual? Or is the ‘crossing’ soulful, as it were? To ask the question another way: does the ‘crossing’ here refer to a sexual transgression—or to a spiritual transmigration of the soul? In the end, what creates such ambiguity is the evocation here of the Platonic psūkhē, which can either desire metaphorically the ultimate in beauty—or desire physically the ultimate in sexuality. The first kind of desire could be equated with Platonic love, as it were, while the second kind would be something that will get irresistibly attracted to the kind of soft-core pornography that we imagine being perfected in the encomium of Eros as performed by the stage-Agathon of Plato’s Symposium.
§14. Now I comment on the second of the three “Platonic” epigrams, Greek Anthology 5.79, as translated at §12.3c. In this epigram, Platonic desire is metaphorized as a heteroerotic yearning to kiss a girl on the lips, and, in this case, the male speaker seems to be expressing a hope that the mouth-to-mouth kissing will lead the girl to go further—to go all the way, as it were, and thus to give him a share of her partheniā or ‘girlhood’. Let’s go all the way, he says to her, since life is short, and the ripeness of the apple, just like your ripeness, will last only for a very short time. But the question remains: does the wording of this sexual proposition mean that the speaker intends to cancel the girl’s “virginity,” in the sense of changing her from being sexually inactive to sexually active? I think not. As I have already argued at §8, with reference to the wording of Sappho, the word partheniā refers simply to the social status of girlhood—of being a girl, that is, being a girl before becoming a woman by way of having sexual intercourse with a man. So, in terms of such an argument, the Greek word partheniā as applied to the girlhood of a girl does not indicate sexual inactivity—as does the English word virginity. As we will soon see more clearly, in terms of the songs attributed to Sappho, a girl—as girl—may actually engage in sexual activity with other girls, or with women as well. Accordingly, I will continue to avoid the English word virginity as a translation of the Greek word partheniā. What I have just said, however, now leads to a new question: in a Platonic context, how can sexuality be metaphorized within the realm of partheniā as ‘girlhood’? I think that the answer is simple: Platonic love includes homoerotic models for female as well as male humans. Such inclusivity can be inferred, I think, from a close reading of a text I have already highlighted: it is the hymn to Eros as performed by the stage-Socrates in the Phaedrus of Plato. But this answer leads to yet another question: what does it mean, for a male speaker to ask a girl to give up to him a share of her girlhood, as we read at line 2 of Greek Anthology 5.79? The answer to this question will need to be postponed until a later stage of my argumentation.
§15. Now I comment, briefly, on the third of the three “Platonic” epigrams, Greek Anthology 5.80, as translated at §12.3c. Here too, as in Greek Anthology 5.79, the ripeness of the apple is short-lived—just like the ripeness of the girl who is being compared to the apple. Both the apple and the girl will soon be ‘fading’.
Back to Paulus Silentiarius
§16. Now I return to the context of erōs at line 4 of the epigram by Paulus Silentiarius, 5.246 in the Greek Anthology, translated at §1.1c. I repeat here my literal translation of the first four lines:
1. Soft are the kisses [philēmata] of Sappho. Soft are with her limbs [guia]
2. the entanglements—with those snow-white limbs of hers. Soft are all her tuneful-parts [melē].
3. But her soul [psūkhē] is made of hard-adamant, resisting-all-persuasion [a-peithēs]. That is because it goes only as far as
4. —I mean, the desire [erōs] goes only as far as—mouth-and-mouth [stomata]; as for all the other things, it [= erōs] has-to-do-with girlhood [partheniā].
§17. Here at line 4 of 5.246, as at line 2 of the Platonic epigram, 5.79, translated at §12.3c, we find a parallel use of the Greek word partheniā in the sense of ‘girlhood’. And, here too at 5.246 as at 5.79, the spelling of the word is parallel, written in its Ionic form, partheniē. As we contemplate the parallelisms here, we now finally get to see the ambiguity built into the combining of erōs ‘desire’ with partheniā ‘girlhood’ at line 4 in the epigram of Paulus, 5.246. In the two paragraphs that follow, at §18 and at §19, I show two different interpretations.
§18. On the one hand, if we interpret the combination of erōs ‘desire’ with partheniā ‘girlhood’ to mean ‘desire for girlhood’, where the genitive of partheniā is understood as an objective genitive, then there will be a frustration of erotic desire for the male speaker here, since the psūkhē or ‘soul’ of Sappho as signaled at line 3 of the epigram will be understood to be a negative rather than a positive model of the Platonic soul. Unlike the philēmata or ‘kisses’ of Sappho, which are described at line 1 as soft, the psūkhē or ‘soul’ of Sappho at line 3 is as hard as adamant. In the hardness of her psūkhē, Sappho must be cruel in love—at least, she must be cruel to the male speaker. To be contrasted are the psūkhai ‘souls’ that we see being described as ‘soft’ in the encomium of Eros as celebrated by the stage-Agathon in the Symposium of Plato. Only those souls will be gentle, not cruel, in love. The Platonic soul of Sappho, which is as hard as adamant, would surely not allow any kissing to become anything more than a Platonic metaphor—a metaphor that in this case occludes, frustratingly, the very thought of going all the way, as it were. Such Platonic love would surely impede a sequence where lovers start off by kissing, thus engaging in the preliminaries, and then continue from there all the way to the ultimate consequent, which would be sexual intercourse. But the Platonic psūkhē of Sappho, hard as adamant, cannot be persuaded: it is a soul that is a-peithēs ‘resisting-all-persuasion’, as we read at line 3 in the epigram 5.246 of Paulus Silentiarius.
§19. On the other hand, if we interpret the combination of erōs ‘desire’ with partheniā ‘girlhood’ at line 4 of 5.246 to mean ‘desire for things having to do with girlhood’, where the genitive of partheniā is understood as a genitive of connection, then the desire becomes non-metaphorical and, thus, overtly erotic. In this case, the agency of desire will no longer be seen as a Platonic ‘soul’, a psūkhē. Rather, it can now reveal itself as a Sapphic ‘heart’, a thūmos, as we find it at work in Song 1 of Sappho. This way, erōs can now be seen as Sapphic desire, which makes Sappho herself not only the object of desire—the love object that is desired—but also the subject who desires. She can be both the girl who is loved by a woman and the woman who is loved by a girl. In earlier work, Nagy 2015 §§166–172 (plus 2017.08.28) and Nagy 2015.10.01 §§2–5, 54–56, I connect such a bivalent role of Sappho, both beloved girl and loving woman, with the etymology of the name of Sappho, which I explain as a Greek term of endearment that means something like ‘dear sister’ or even just ‘darling girl’.
‘Things having to do with girlhood’ in Song 1 of Sappho
§20. Here I quote the relevant wording in Song 1 of Sappho, which I will then compare with wording we find in the erotic epigrams I have studied so far, thus continuing playfully my ongoing game of connect-the-dots.
§20a. Sappho Song 1 lines 18–28:
|18 τίνα δηὖτε πείθω |19 βαῖϲ᾿ ἄγην ἐc ϲὰν φιλότατα; 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.
§20b. Here is my working translation of the original Greek text, as published in earlier work (Nagy 2015.10.22):
|18 “Whom am I once again this time [dēute] to persuade [peithein], |19 setting out to bring her to your love [philotēs]? Who is doing you, |20 Sappho, wrong? |21 For if she is fleeing now, soon [takheōs] she will be pursuing. |22 If she is not taking gifts, soon she will be giving them. |23 If she does not love [phileîn], soon [takheōs] she will love [phileîn] |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.
§21. At lines 18–24 here, we read words spoken to stage-Sappho by stage-Aphrodite, followed at lines 25–28 by words spoken conversely to stage-Aphrodite by stage-Sappho. In analyzing the relevance of these words to the erotic epigrams that we have already read, I start by focusing on the noun philotēs at line 19, which I have just translated by way of the English noun ‘love’, and on the double occurrence of the verb phileîn at line 23, translated by way of the corresponding English verb ‘love’. In ancient Greek poetry, I must emphasize, the meaning of the noun philotēs is usually more specific, referring to overtly sexual contact, while the verb phileîn, in prose as well as in poetry, can have the specific meaning of ‘kiss’ as well as the general meaning of ‘love’. We have in fact seen both meanings of phileîn at work in the three “Platonic” epigrams as I translated them above: phileîn needs to be translated specifically as ‘kiss’ at §12.1 and at §12.2 but more generally as ‘love’ at §12.3. As for the noun philotēs at line 19 in Song 1 of Sappho, I have so far opted for the general translation ‘love’, but there is room for a more specific interpretation here, ‘making love’. The expression making love is in fact a particularly appropriate translation here, since, in earlier phases of English, this expression was used more generally with reference to courtship, and only in more recent phases of the language has it come to mean, primally, having sex.
§22. But now the question arises, with reference to the word philotēs at line 19 in Song 1 of Sappho: who is to have sex with whom? Or, to ask the question more delicately, who is to make love with whom? Or, to put it even more delicately, who is to love whom? And there is a related question: who is the person whom Aphrodite is asked to ‘persuade’, peithein, thus bringing this person back to ‘your love’, that is, to Sappho’s love? As we see from the wording of Song 1, there are details about this person that will help us find answers to such questions. As we learn from the words spoken by the stage-Aphrodite herself, this person who needs to be persuaded by Aphrodite is someone who is now running away from Sappho, someone who is now refusing to receive gifts from her, and someone who, as of now, simply does not love her. But this person, as Aphrodite foretells, will soon be running after Sappho and will soon be offering gifts to her and will soon love her. And here is where, on the basis of comparing what we read in imitations of Song One, especially in epigrams by Paulus Silentiarius and by “Plato,” we may be able to interpret more specifically and less generally some details about the lovemaking. On the basis of such comparisons, to focus on a most salient detail for now, the offering of a love-gift that is meant to persuade the unspecified person ‘to be loving’ can be seen as the offering of an apple, and the act of love that will be given in return for that love-gift can be seen as mouth-to-mouth kissing. Unlike the Platonic psūkhē or ‘soul’ of Sappho, which is hard as adamant and is thus a-peithēs ‘resisting-all-persuasion’, as we read at line 3 in the epigram 5.246 of Paulus Silentiarius, the Sapphic thūmos or ‘heart’ is made ready for soft kisses, and that is because, as we read at line 18 in Song 1, the goddess Aphrodite herself is asked to ‘persuade’, peithein, the beloved girl who will become, one fine day, takheōs ‘soon’, the loving woman whose endearing name is Sappho.
§23. There is a measure of uncertainty built into the reassuring adverb takheōs ‘soon’, which in Greek often modulates into a hopeful ‘perhaps’. And the double use of takheōs ‘soon’ at lines 21 and 23 in Song 1 of Sappho augments the uncertainty, adding a sense of urgency. The uncertainty of promised love is picked up by the poetry of Paulus Silentiarius in his epigram 5.246: at line 5, we see here a comparably double use of takha, and both times at §1.1c I translate this adverb as ‘perhaps-soon’. The uncertainty is picked up again in that other erotic epigram where Paulus is imitating Sappho: at line 1 of 5.236, we see once again the adverb takha, and at §1.2c I translate this adverb once again as ‘perhaps-soon’.
Back again to Paulus Silentiarius
§24. As we have just seen from my translation, which goes back to §1.1c, the double use of the adverb takha ‘perhaps-soon’ at line 5 in the epigram 5.246 of Paulus signals the uncertainties of promised love. Such uncertainties, as we will now see, lead to the sufferings of sexual frustration, exemplified by the mythological paradigm of comparable sufferings experienced by Tantalus, as narrated briefly at line 6. And the frustration is caused by the erōs of partheniā as signaled at line 4—which as we have seen can be interpreted ambiguously as either ‘desire for girlhood’ or ‘desire having to do with girlhood’. This poetic theme of sexual frustration for the male speaker in epigram 5.246 is mirrored in epigram 5.236 of Paulus, as translated at §1.2c, and the mirroring is signaled by the use of the same adverb takha ‘perhaps-soon’ at line 1 of that poem. This mirroring is also signaled by way of a further narration, at lines 1–6 of epigram 5.236, about comparable frustrations experienced by Tantalus. The details there about the actual sufferings of Tantalus differ in some ways from what we read at line 6 of epigram 5.246, but the point of comparison is the same, which is, the poetic theme of sexual frustration as expressed by a male speaker.
§25. All this is not to say, not at all, that Paulus Silentiarius was poetically expressing his own personal feelings of sexual frustration in composing this pair of epigrams, 5.246 and 5.236. I should think that such expressions would have been socially incorrect for Paulus as a public figure in the Byzantine Empire of the sixth century CE—in the era of the militantly Christian emperor Justinian. Rather, he was playfully expressing such feelings as experienced by poetic personae that he was imitating. On the surface, we see that these personae were male speakers, but, underneath, there was also a female persona that Paulus was imitating, and that was Sappho herself. The formal pairing of the two epigrams 5.246 and 5.236 shows that the ultimate target of imitation, not only for 5.246 but also for 5.236, was Sappho—even though we see an explicit reference to her only in 5.246. Here Paulus is following a Hellenistic convention by composing paired epigrams where one member of the pair refers explicitly to someone named or something named, while the other member refers to the same someone or something only implicitly, without naming names (there is a collection of examples in Ludwig 1963:75n44).
§26. As we have already seen, however, the imitation of Sappho by Paulus Silentiarius is mediated by his imitation of Hellenistic epigrams attributed to Plato, and it is by way of such layered imitation that the poetics of Paulus can channel Sappho, as it were, despite a shift from a first-person speaker who is female to a first-person speaker who is male. Thus a Sapphic lover who is female can shift to a Platonic lover who is male—but who can still remain playfully Sapphic. And here I return to the centerpoint of such playfulness, which can be seen as the ambiguous poetics of erōs ‘desire’ either for the girls of girlhood or for the things having to do with girlhood—depending on how we interpret the genitive construction of partheniā ‘girlhood’ at line 4 in epigram 5.246 of Paulus.
§27. As we have also already seen, the wording of Paulus at line 4 of that epigram can invite a safely Platonic rethinking of erōs ‘desire’—provided that the genitive of partheniā ‘girlhood’ is understood as objective, as if the status of girlhood were a limitation placed on the sexuality of girls, while the reader’s thinking may remain dangerously Sapphic if that same genitive is understood instead as merely connective rather than objective— in which case the male speaker of the epigram may be sharing with his readers a lesson in love, secretly teaching them how to invade, stealthily, the erotic world of girls. But the ambiguity created by the potential understanding of an objective genitive in this poem of Paulus can protects his poetry from the appearances of soft-core pornography, even if the poet’s playfulness in referring to the erōs of partheniā gives his poetry a charm that mirrors the primal sensuality of Sappho’s kisses.
§28. That said, I now come to a surprisingly deeper meaning embedded in the wording that combines the noun erōs with the genitive of the noun partheniā at line 4 of epigram 5.246. As we will now see, there exists in the poetics of Sappho an understanding of erōs that actually allows for the combining of this noun with an objective genitive.
Back again to Sappho
§29. Here I quote the relevant wording in two songs of Sappho, which I will then compare with wording we find in the erotic epigrams I have studied so far, thus further continuing playfully my ongoing game of connect-the-dots.
§29.1a. Sappho Π2 25–26 = Fragment 58.25–26 ed. Voigt
⸤ἔγω δὲ φίλημμ’ ἀβροϲύναν, …⨼⸥τοῦτο καί μοι | τὸ λά⸤μπρον ἔρωϲ ἁελίω καὶ τὸ κά⸥λον λέ⸤λ⸥ογχε.
§29.1b. Here is my working translation of the original Greek text, as published in earlier work (Nagy 2015.10.22):
But I love luxuriance [(h)abrosunē] […] this, | and passionate love [erōs] for the Sun has won for me its radiance and beauty.
§29.2a. Sappho 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 πλέοι̣[ϲα |10 κωὐδ[ὲ πα]ῖδοc οὐδὲ φίλων το[κ]ήων |11 π̣ά[μπαν] ἐμνάϲθη, ἀλλὰ παράγ̣α̣γ̣’ α̣ὔταν |12 […]ϲαν […] |15 [..]μ̣ε̣ νῦν Ἀνακτορί[αc ὀ]ν̣έ̣μναι-|16 [-ϲ’ οὐ ] παρεοίϲαc, |17 [τᾶ]c <κ>ε βολλοίμαν ἔρατόν τε βᾶμα |18 κἀμάρυχμα λάμπρον ἴδην προϲώπω |19 ἢ τὰ Λύδων ἄρματα †κανοπλοιϲι |20 [πεϲδομ]άχενταc.
§29.2b. Here is my working translation of the original Greek text, as published in earlier work (Nagy 2015.10.22):
|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]. |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 […] |15 [All this] reminds me right now of Anaktoria. |16 She is [not] here. |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 […].
§30. What follows is a brief epitome of relevant arguments I developed in an earlier work, Nagy 2010:
§30.1. The two lines of Sappho Π2 25–26 come from the longer of two surviving versions of Sappho’s “song of Tithonos.” In the second line of my translation at §29.1b, I interpret the Sun as the objective genitive of erōs ‘love’. Such a genitive construction would be parallel to the phrase ὄττω τις ἔραται ‘whatever one loves’ in Sappho 16, where this ‘whatever’ (16.3–4) is described as κάλλιστον ‘the most beautiful thing’ in the whole wide world (16.3), as I show in my translation at §29.2b.
§30.2. There are three things to compare with ‘the most beautiful thing’ in Song 16 of Sappho, but each one of them pales in comparison to ‘whatever’ that thing is that ‘one’ loves. These three things to be compared are three radiant visions of beauty. The first of these visions is the dazzling sight of magnificent chariot-fighters in their luminous war-chariots massing for frontal assault against their terrified enemy; the second vision is of footsoldiers on the battlefield; and the third vision is of battleships at sea (16.1–2). But none of these three radiant visions of beauty can match that ultimate brightness radiating from the speaker’s love-object, Anaktoria (16.15–16). When Anaktoria sings and dances in the chorus, the loveliness of her steps and the brilliant light you see radiating from her looks (16.17–8: ἔρατόν τε βᾶμα | κἀμάρυχμα λάμπρον ἴδην προσώπω) cannot be surpassed by anything in the whole wide world. That radiance of Anaktoria is now directly compared with the radiance of the luminous chariots and the other two luminous foils (16.19–20).
§30.3. According to the logic of Sappho’s poetic cosmos, nothing can surpass the radiance of the sun. So the all-surpassing radiance of ‘whatever’ it is that the speaker says she loves more than anything else in the whole wide world must be the same thing as the sun— or at least it must be a metonymic extension of the sun, such as the radiance of Anaktoria herself when she sings and dances in the chorus.
§30.4. Similarly in the Tithonos song of Sappho, which is about the terrors and sorrows of dark old age, the speaker’s declared love for the sun is what turns her life into a world of radiance and beauty. As I translate at §29.1, she loves habrosunē ‘luxuriance’ (Π2 25: ἔγω δὲ φίλημμι’ ἀβροσύναν), which is associated with the sun. In the poetics of Sappho, this association extends to the beautiful heroes Adonis and Phaon, lovers of Aphrodite and projected lovers of Sappho: they shine like the sun in their radiant attractiveness (documentation in Nagy 1990a:285 [10§18], 298 [10§29] n113), and, in the case of Adonis, he is explicitly described as (h)abros ‘luxuriant’ at line 1 in Song 140 of Sappho. (My reconstruction of Sappho’s self-involvement in myths about Adonis and Phaon goes back to an essay I first published over 45 years ago, Nagy 1973, rewritten in Nagy 1990b.)
§30.5. In the poetics of Sappho, then, the sun is the promise of recycling for the girl who fears the interruption of her youth by old age, for the woman who fears the termination of her life. The love or erōs (ἔρως) for the sun as experienced by Sappho in the longer version of this song (Π2 26) is the converse of the love or eros (ἔρος) for Tithonos as experienced by the goddess of dawn, Eos, in the shorter version that we now call the “New Sappho” (Π1 18). As we see from the wording that survives in the shorter version, the beauty of Tithonos, who was kalos ‘beautiful’ as a neos ‘young man’ (Π1 19), will be ruined by what is described as a polion gēras ‘gray old age’ (Π1 20), just as the speaker’s beauty has been ruined (Π1 11) by the graying of her hair (Π1 12) because of gēras ‘old age’ (Π1 11)—after all, no human can remain agēraos ‘ageless’ forever (Π1 16). For a human to remain agēraos ‘ageless’ is ou dunaton ‘impossible’ (Π1 16). This impossibility, this adunaton, is keenly felt by the speaker as she laments her inability to dance any more—now that her knees are no longer nimble for dancing, no longer nimble like the limbs of playful fawns (Π1 13–14).
§31. Having reached the end of my brief epitome, I highlight one last time here the theme of a passionate love, erōs, for the ultimate radiance of the sun, as translated at §29.1—which is an erotic theme that takes shape by way of an objective genitive. And I highlight also a related theme we can also see in the translation at §29.1, which is the equation of this passionate love with a further love, as expressed by the verb phileîn, for habrosunē—a noun that I translate for the moment as ‘luxuriance’. This noun is derived from the adjective habro-, which we see attested at line 4 of the erotic epigram 5.236 of Paulus Silentiarius, quoted and translated at §1.2; correspondingly, I translate this adjective as ‘luxuriant’, at least for now. The adjective describes here the lips of a girl that the speaker desires to kiss. He says that the girl’s lips, all puckered up, are more habro– ‘luxuriant’ than rosebuds. The unnamed girl in this epigram 5.236 of Paulus at §29.2 is the same as the named girl in his paired epigram 5.246 at §29.1. She is Sappho—in her erotic role as a girl.
The erotic legacy of Sappho
§32. In Part Two, posted after Part One here, we will take a second look at two erotic details that I have highlighted in Sappho’s songs—details that we have seen being imitated in the epigrammatic poetry of Paulus Silentiarius. The first detail was at §1.1—about ‘the soft kisses of Sappho’; and the second was at §1.2—about the ‘luxuriant’ lips of a girl who is understood to be Sappho. And we will start to discover a dark side underlying this kind of poetry. As we will see in a later posting, Part Five, the potential for soft-core pornography in imitating the erotic experience of such luxuriant kisses—and of the naked embraces that go with the kissing—could easily degenerate into hard-core pornography in situations where would-be lovesick men learn to appropriate the agency of erōs as they find it at work in the erotic world of Sappho. Such male appropriation, as we will also see in Part Five, can even result in a transformation of Sappho herself: the beloved girl and the loving woman, who together come to life as one and the same Sappho in her songs, could then be turned into a negative example of female sexuality. And there could be a wide social range of such negativity: Sappho could then be pictured either as a cynical courtesan or even as a crude prostitute. Either way, she would now be ready to sell erōs to the highest bidder.
§33. Here in Part One, we have so far seen mostly an absence of such negativity in the various appropriations of female sexualtiy by ancient male authors in their imitations of Sappho. But now, as I come to the end of Part One here, I am ready to analyze, starting in Part Two, the playful literary exercise of a male author who is channeling, in a mutedly negative as well as positive way, the female sexuality that pervades the poetics of Sappho. This literary exercise is the erotic novel Daphnis and Chloe, replete with imitations inspired by the songs of Sappho.
Gosetti-Murrayjohn, A. 2006. “Sappho’s Kisses: Biographical Tradition and Intertextuality in ‘AP’ 5.246 and 5.236.” Classical Journal 102:41–59.
Ludwig, W. 1963. “Plato’s Love Epigrams.” Greek Roman and Byzantine Studies 4:59–82.
Nagy, G. 1973. “Phaethon, Sappho’s Phaon, and the White Rock of Leukas.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 77:137–177. Rewritten as Chapter 9 of Nagy 1990b, pp. 223–262.
Nagy, G. 1990a. Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past. Baltimore. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Pindars_Homer.1990.
Nagy, G. 1990b. Greek Mythology and Poetics. Ithaca, NY. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Greek_Mythology_and_Poetics.1990.
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, 211–269. MythosEikonPoiesis 1.1. Berlin and New York. Revised and updated version at http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:Nagy.Did_Sappho_and_Alcaeus_Ever_Meet.2007.
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. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:Nagy.The_New_Sappho_Reconsidered.2011.
Nagy, G. 2015. “A poetics of sisterly affect in the Brothers Song and in other songs of Sappho.” http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:NagyG.A_Poetics_of_Sisterly_Affect.2015. A shorter printed version is available as Ch. 21 in The Newest Sappho (P. Obbink and P. GC Inv. 105, frs. 1–5), ed. A. Bierl and A. Lardinois, 449–492. Leiden.
Nagy, G. 2015.10.01. “Genre, Occasion, and Choral Mimesis Revisited—with special reference to the ‘Newest Sappho’.” Classical Inquiries. https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/genre-occasion-and-choral-mimesis-revisited-with-special-reference-to-the-newest-sappho/.
Nagy, G. 2015.10.08. “‘The ‘Newest Sappho’: A set of working translations, with minimal comments.” Classical Inquiries. https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/the-newest-sappho-a-set-of-working-translations-with-minimal-comments/.
Nagy, G. 2015.10.22. “Diachronic Sappho: Some Prolegomena.” Classical Inquiries. http://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/diachronic-sappho-some-prolegomena-2/.
Nagy, G. 2015.10.15. “Homo ludens in the world of ancient Greek verbal art.” Classical Inquiries. https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/homo-ludens-in-the-world-of-ancient-greek-verbal-art/.
Nagy, G. 2015|2016. Masterpieces of Metonymy: From Ancient Greek Times to Now. Online | Printed version. Hellenic Studies 72. Cambridge, MA, and Washington, DC. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Masterpieces_of_Metonymy.2015.
Nagy, G. 2017.08.28. A response to the critique by Alexander Dale of my proposed etymology for Sapphō. Bryn Mawr Classical Review. http://www.bmcreview.org/2017/08/20170832.html?showComment=1503931355269#c5367783009603636431.
Peponi, A.-E. 2018. “Against Aesthetic Distance: Ovid, Proust, and the Hedonic Impulse.” In Life, Love, and Death in Latin Poetry, ed. S. Frangoulidis and S. Harrison, 167–187. Berlin.