Homo ludens at play with the songs of Sappho: Experiments in comparative reception theory, Essay Seven

2019.03.01 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. This posting for 2019.03.01 is Essay Seven of a long-term project that started with Essay One at 2019.01.08. The numbering of my paragraphs here in Essay Seven continues from §110 of Essay Six, posted 2019.02.22, continuing from earlier posts. In Essay Seven here, I attempt to round out my findings, as of now, about the reception of Sappho’s songs in the ancient world. Most if not all of these findings, I must emphasize, are not as yet certain, but they can point the way, I hope, to eventual certainties.

“Sapho” (1849), by Théodore Chassériau (1819–1856).
“Sapho” (1849), by Théodore Chassériau (1819–1856). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Some positive aspects of my findings so far

§111. In my search for traces of ancient imitations and appropriations based on Sappho’s songs, I have found examples leading to some new angles for thinking about her songs—even about those songs of hers that are not directly attested. At least we can appreciate such unattested songs indirectly as we marvel at the beauty of the imitations and appropriations. That is all I mean when I speak of the positive aspects of my findings so far.

§112. Most of my new angles have come from reconstructions of Sapphic form and content as embedded in two textual sources, which I analyzed going backward in time. The first of these two was the erotic novel Daphnis and Chloe, dating from the second century CE, and the second was the poetry of Catullus, dating from the middle of the first century BCE.

§113. In the case of both these sources, one composed in prose and the other in poetry, I noted a recurrent pattern that I highlight here once again: male authors of such prose and poetry tended to heterosexualize various homoerotic themes that they found in Sappho’s songs. (In her analysis of Catullus 70, a poem that we have not considered here, the term “heterosexualize” is used in a comparable way by Elizabeth Marie Young 2015:194–195; in this case, the Greek model is Callimachus Epigram 25 = Greek Anthology 5.6, which is about male rather than female homoeroticism.)

§114. That said, however, I should not fail to emphasize that there are also heteroerotic themes to be found in Sappho’s songs. A case in point is the youthful male love-object Phaon, lover of Aphrodite and projected lover of Sappho, as mentioned, in passing, at §30.4 of my Essay One, with reference to Nagy 1990a:285 [10§18] n51. (My own reconstruction of Sappho’s self-involvement in the myth about Phaon, who is imagined as her lover, goes back to an essay I first published over 45 years ago, Nagy 1973, rewritten in Nagy 1990b.) The reception of such a sexualized pairing of Phaon and Sappho in the songs of Sappho comes to life in Heroides 15, a poem canonically attributed to Ovid (though his authorship has often been disputed). For a most perceptive analysis of this poem as a morphologically accurate adaptation of erotic visualizations derived ultimately from Sappho, I recommend the essay of Anastasia Erasmia Peponi 2018. Such visualizations in the ancient verbal arts, I should add, obviously became an inspiration for the kinds of romanticized images that I show in my posting here.

Some negative aspects of my findings so far

§115. Wherever the male appropriations of Sappho’s poetics seem beautiful and pleasurable to us as modern readers, the sexuality that often pervades such appropriations can seem comparably beautiful and pleasurable, yes, as for example in Catullus 5 and 7, the so-called “kissing poems.” But what about the ugly moments of sexuality that we also find in the poetry of Catullus? My answer to this question will point to some negative aspects of my findings so far.

§116. When I say “ugly,” I am thinking here especially of those moments where the speaker of a given poem of Catullus, self-dramatized as the poet himself, deliberately defames Lesbia in her role as a would-be stand-in for Sappho. The most striking examples of such defamation are those poems of Catullus, already noted, where he represents Lesbia as a self-degrading prostitute. But my findings concerning such defamation are negative not because I think that such sexual defamation is ugly. I find ugliness here, yes, but my negative finding is not about the ugliness itself. Rather, my concern here has to do with the simple fact that the evidence we have concerning the actual poetics of sexual defamation in the ancient world is so meagerly attested.

§117. There is a danger, then, that the surviving evidence, meager as it is, will be ignored. And the ignoring of this evidence can then lead classicists to infer—too narrowly in some ways, I think—that the ugliness of sexually defaming a woman was simply a fact of life that has to be accepted by us moderns as a pervasive social pathology experienced in ancient times by men in their relationships with women. In terms of such an inference, Catullus himself could be suspected of suffering from such a social pathology—either in any real-life relationship with the so-called Lesbia in her role as a would-be stand-in for a vacillating girlfriend named Clodia Metelli or, more distantly, in his poetic relationship with Sappho as a model of female sexuality that he, the poet himself, could view negatively as well as positively. Either way, or both ways, the occasionally vitriolic words of Catullus about women would merely be symptomatic of his being a man and not a woman. Such an inference, however, as I already said, is I think too narrow in some ways.

Rethinking the poetics of defamation

§118. I favor instead a more general inference, which is, that the negative as well as the positive aspects of poems by Catullus about Lesbia, both the ugly and the beautiful aspects, stem ultimately from—what to call it?—a poetics of humanity, not only of manhood. Vitriolic song or poetry can be performed by women, not only by men. I cite as an elegant illustration the book of John Petropoulos 1994 on the poetics of sexual defamation as performed by women in traditional Greek song culture both past and present.

§119. Here I interrupt for a moment the flow of my argument, since I need to address an incidental question about the ugliness we find in the very act of sexual defamation: is this ugliness really ugly only to us as representatives of our own modernity? I would answer such a question by asserting that modernity is not really all that useful a criterion for determining what seems either ugly or beautiful. I cannot presume that modernity will help me understand humanistic universals, since I consider our own sense of what is modern—or ancient, for that matter—to be a matter of historical contingencies.

“Sappho” (1913), by Julius Johann Ferdinand Kronberg (1850–1921).
“Sappho” (1913), by Julius Johann Ferdinand Kronberg (1850–1921). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§120. That said, I will now argue that the relative meagerness of evidence we have for the poetics of defaming a woman like Sappho should not prevent us from attempting at least a general explanation of such poetics. Even on the basis of what little evidence we have, I can say for sure that the poetics of defaming either Sappho or any stand-in for Sappho derives from a broader kind of poetics, one that does not make neat distinctions between the defaming of women by men on one side and, on the other side, the defaming of men by men—or even the defaming of women by other women. That poetic tradition is comedy—especially as it flourished during the fifth and fourth centuries BCE in Athens. A most perceptive analysis of the evidence for the reception of Sappho in comedy is the commentary by Peponi 2002:28–31 and 2018:175n23, with further bibliography, including Yatromanolakis 2007:293–312. At §§90–92 of Essay Five, I have further comments on the reception of Sappho in comedy.

§121. Also, at §90, I comment in general on earlier poetic traditions of defamation as exemplified by what are called in Greek/Latin the iamboi/iambi of Archilochus, whose poetic persona is actually paired in later poetic traditions of comedy with the poetic persona of Sappho.

§122. The poetic persona of Archilochus is relevant in another way as well. Just as Sappho can be defamed in the poetry of comedy, so also the women known as the Lykambides ‘daughters of Lykambes’ are defamed in the earlier poetry of Archilochus. Elsewhere in Classical Inquiries, I have made extensive comments on this earlier kind of poetic defamation in ancient Greek song culture:

2018.06.06. “Picturing Archilochus as a cult hero.”
2018.06.30. “Sacred Space as a frame for lyric occasions: The case of the Mnesiepes Inscription and other possible cases.”
2018.07.06.“Erotic desecration and sacralization in Greek myth and ritual.”
2018.07.13. “The sad story of a priestess in love: a resacralizing of sex in Greek myth and ritual.”
2018.07.20. “Pausanias as a novelist: A micro-sample.”

Prospects for a synthesis of findings about the ancient reception of Sappho

§123. The immediately preceding paragraph here in Essay Seven, §122, has taken me further back in time, well beyond the chronological frame of the seven parts just concluded. In Essays One through Seven, I have concentrated on relatively later periods in the course of my studying the reception of Sappho, starting only with the Hellenistic era and moving forward in time from there. Before I attempt a synthesis of my findings so far, I propose to stop for now and ask for comments from colleagues who study the reception of Sappho in the Hellenistic era and further ahead in time. Of special interest to me will be their views concerning imitations and appropriations of Sappho in the novel Daphnis and Chloe and in the poetry of Catullus. I hope to invite comments specific to any of the paragraphs numbered §§1–122 as contained in Essays One through Seven, which I hope to turn into an electronic monograph. Concurrently, I also hope to invite comments on the paragraphs I have written in Nagy 2018.12.13 and 2019.02.14, which I will consolidate as an Epilogue for the projected monograph.

“Sappho” (modeled 1862, carved 1867), by William Wetmore Story (1819–1895).
“Sappho” (modeled 1862, carved 1867), by William Wetmore Story (1819–1895). Image via Flickr, under a CC BY 2.0 license.


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. 2018.12.13. “Two small comments on Catullus Two: an iconic effect and an expression of delight in what is beautiful.” Classical Inquirieshttps://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/two-small-comments-on-catullus/.

Nagy, G. 2019.02.14. “Musings about a scene pictured by the Achilles Painter.” Classical Inquiries. https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/musings-about-a-scene-pictured-by-the-achilles-painter/.

Peponi, A.-E. 2002. “Fantasizing Lyric: Horace, Epistles 1.19.” In Horace and Greek Lyric Poetry, ed. M. Paschalis, 19–45. Rethymnon.

Peponi, A.-E. 2012. Frontiers of Pleasure: Models of Aesthetic Response in Archaic and Classical Greek Thought. Oxford.

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.

Petropoulos, J. C. B. 1994. Heat and Lust: Hesiod’s Midsummer Festival Scene Revisited. Lanham, MD. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Petropoulos.Heat_and_Lust.1994.

Yatromanolakis, D. 2007. Sappho in the Making: An Anthropology of Reception. Cambridge, MA, and Washington, DC.

Young, E. M. 2015. Translation as Muse: Poetic Translation in Catullus’s Rome. Chicago.