How Homeric poetry may help us achieve a keener appreciation of Sappho’s wedding songs

2020.09.25 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. Back in the year 2013, which was the original publication date for my book The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours (hereafter H24H), I took the risk of drastically expanding one of the 24 “Hours,” making it twice as long as the other 23 “Hours”. What made that one hour—Hour 5—really more like two hours in length is that I added to the part where I was analyzing passages selected from the Homeric Iliad another part where I analyzed passages selected from the songs of Sappho. Actually, the part about Sappho was not an addition: rather, I inserted it in the middle of analyzing the part about the Iliad. I had a good reason for doing this, since I thought then, and I still think now, that a reading of selections from Sappho’s surviving songs helps achieve a better understanding of Homeric poetry. But I also think, conversely, that Homer helps achieve a better understanding of Sappho. In this brief essay, then, I propose to turn inside-out my original project, where I analyzed Homeric poetry by way of comparing it with what I know about Sappho’s songs. That is, I will reconsider one of Sappho’s most celebrated songs by way of comparing it, however briefly, with what I know about Homeric poetry. More specifically, I will concentrate on the Homeric gesture of picturing the hero Achilles as an eternal bridegroom. This Homeric gesture, I will argue, helps us appreciate more keenly what I call the wedding songs of Sappho.

La Jalousie (1802), by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774-1833). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§1. As a prime example of a wedding song, I focus on Song 31 of Sappho. Before I start my reconsideration of this song, however, I need to reaffirm the original argument I had made in Hour 5 of H24H, which is, that Song 31 of Sappho is in fact a wedding song where the ‘he’ in the song is the bridegroom, comparable to the god Arēs, while the ‘you’ is the bride, comparable to Aphrodite. Although I am more convinced than ever about this aspect of my argumentation, I must reckon with the fact that there exists, as of now, no consensus in the field of Classics about the meaning of Song 31. It follows, then, that there is even less of a consensus about the case that I am making—though I am by no means the only one to do so—that Song 31 is really a wedding song. Here is where the comparative evidence of Homeric poetry may help me make a better case. All along, there has been a missing piece in my argumentation about Song 31 of Sappho. When I argue that the third-person ‘he’ in this song refers to a bridegroom who is being compared to the god Arēs as a model for the hero Achilles, I have no direct evidence for the presence of Achilles in the song itself. But this missing piece can be reconstructed by way of comparing the poetics of Sappho with the poetics of Homer. In the Homeric Iliad, Achilles is pictured as an eternal bridegroom—as I described him in my opening paragraph. He will never become a husband. And we find a glaring analogy in the Homeric Odyssey. As we see in Rhapsody 8 of that epic, the god Arēs is likewise an eternal bridegroom. This war-god, paramour of the love-goddess Aphrodite, will never succeed in marrying her. Aphrodite, in the Homeric version of the story, is stuck forever with her slow-footed husband Hephaistos. If, then, the ‘you’ in Song 31 refers to the bride as comparable to Aphrodite while the ‘he’ refers to the bridegroom as comparable to Arēs, then the question arises: why would the bride and groom in a song that celebrates a wedding be compared to an adulterous couple? To ask the question another way: why would such an eternal triangle become a source of inspiration for a wedding song?

§2. Before I attempt an answer to my question about the eternal triangle of Arēs, Aphrodite, and Hephaistos, I need to review the text for Song 31 of Sappho:

 |1 φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θέοισιν |2 ἔμμεν’ ὤνηρ, ὄττις ἐνάντιός τοι |3 ἰσδάνει καὶ πλάσιον ἆδυ φωνεί-|4 σας ὐπακούει |5 καὶ γελαίσας ἰμέροεν, τό μ’ ἦ μὰν |6 καρδίαν ἐν στήθεσιν ἐπτόαισεν, |7 ὠς γὰρ ἔς σ’ ἴδω βρόχε’ ὤς με φώναι-|8 σ’ οὐδ’ ἒν ἔτ’ εἴκει, |9 ἀλλὰ κὰμ μὲν γλῶσσα ἔαγε λέπτον |10 δ’ αὔτικα χρῶι πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμηκεν, |11 ὀππάτεσσι δ’ οὐδ’ ἒν ὄρημμ’, ἐπιρρόμ-|12 βεισι δ’ ἄκουαι, |13 κάδ δέ μ’ ἴδρως κακχέεται τρόμος δὲ |14 παῖσαν ἄγρει, χλωροτέρα δὲ ποίας |15 ἔμμι, τεθνάκην δ’ ὀλίγω ’πιδεύης |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.

§3. I will not attempt here a commentary on the details of this song, since I have already made such an attempt in H24H 5§§37–44. Instead, I confine myself to a general comment that I had made at 5§36 while introducing my commentary. In the wedding songs of Sappho, I noted generally, the god Arēs is a model for the generic gambros, ‘bridegroom’, who is explicitly described as īsos Areui, ‘equal [īsos] to Arēs’, in Sappho Song 111.5. Correspondingly, there are many instances of implicit equations of the generic bride with the goddess Aphrodite: in Sappho Song 112, for example, the bridegroom is said to be infused with the divine charisma of Aphrodite, evidently by way of his direct contact with the bride. Accordingly, I read the ‘you’ in Song 31 of Sappho as a reference to the bride, comparable to Aphrodite, just as the ‘he’ is a reference to the bridegroom, comparable to Arēs. This pattern of linking Arēs with the bridegroom and Aphrodite with the bride brings me back to my question about the eternal triangle of Arēs, Aphrodite, and Hephaistos: why would such a configuration become a source of inspiration for a wedding song?

Erinna Taken from Sappho (1865), by Simeon Solomon (1840-1905). Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Jealousy and Flirtation (1874), by Haynes King (1831-1904). Image via Wikimedia Commons.
On the Beach– Two Are Company, Three Are None (1872), by Winslow Homer. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§4. My answer to this question is based on the comparative evidence of Homeric poetry, with specific reference to the myth about the love affair of Arēs and Aphrodite as narrated by the blind singer Demodokos in his second of three songs he performs in Rhapsody 8 of the Odyssey. I epitomize here what I argue in Homer the Preclassic (Nagy 2010:88–89 = 2009 I§210):

It has generally been thought that the story of this torrid affair represents a poetic form that is somehow newer than the epic of Homeric poetry. As Walter Burkert (1960:132) has observed, however, the “divine burlesque” that characterizes this story is in fact not innovative but archaizing, and there are numerous parallels to be found in the myths and rituals of Near Eastern civilizations; this observation applies also to the “divine burlesque” that characterizes some of the narrative sequences in the Iliad, especially in Rhapsodies 1, 14, and 20–21—and in the Homeric Hymns (Burkert 1960:132). So, it is unjustified to view the myth about the adulterous liaison between Arēs and Aphrodite as an innovative interpolation within the epic narrative of the Odyssey (bibliography in Burkert 1960:132n3). Such a view was current already in the world of ancient scholarship: we are told in the scholia for the Birds of Aristophanes (at verse 778) that editors of Homer athetized the verses about the love affair of Arēs and Aphrodite.

§5. The “divine burlesque” involving Arēs and Aphrodite in the second song performed by the blind singer Demodokos in Odyssey 8 is analogous to a scene in Iliad 14 where Hērā, goddess of marriage, seduces her husband Zeus for ulterior motives that have nothing to do with love. The myth, as retold in the Homeric story, implies a loveless marriage that is nevertheless fueled by intermittently spectacular sex. I analyze this scene in my selective Homeric commentary (Nagy 2017), with specific reference to Iliad 14.200–210. Here is an epitome: 

In this scene in Iliad 14, Hērā has a sexual encounter with Zeus on the heights of Mount Ida. In my comments on the wording of the goddess at the moment when she initiates her encounter with the god, at verses 200–210, I argue that this wording “derives from genuine theogonic traditions centering on the idea of sacred intercourse as an act of cosmogonic creation.” But I am forced to admit: “From the dramatic standpoint of the immediate narrative context, Hērā is making up what she is saying.” And the goddess is making things up because her ultimate intent here is to deceive the god. How, then, does the intent to deceive square with the cosmic prestige of Zeus and Hērā as the divine married couple who rule the universe of the ancient Greeks? Is their marriage dysfunctional? My answer is two-sided: yes, the marriage of Zeus and Hērā is surely dysfunctional in the “past” world of myth, but it becomes functional in the “present” world of ritual as a re-enactment of myth.

§6. I see the same principle at work in Song 31 of Sappho. The wedding of bride and bridegroom is perfectly legitimate in the functional world of ritual, to be contrasted with the imperfect and even dysfunctional past world of stories told by myth, which can become functional—become perfected—only within the present world of ritual as a re-enactment of myth.

§7. Besides the god Arēs, what about that other “eternal bridegroom,” the hero Achilles? I think that he too is a referent in Song 31 of Sappho, in the sense that he is the mortal substitute for the immortal Arēs. In Hour 5 of H24H, I add a further complication: Achilles is not only the substitute for Arēs: he also substitutes, by way of his own death, for the god Apollo. But that is yet another story, which I analyze in H24H 5 §§115–124. For now, I concentrate on Achilles in his role as the understudy, as it were, of Arēs as eternal bridegroom.

§8. As I note in H24H 4§21, Achilles was featured as a generic bridegroom in the poetic tradition of Sappho. Himerius (Orations 9.16) says: ‘Sappho [Fragment 105b] compared the girl to an apple […] she compared the bridegroom to Achilles, and likened the young man’s deeds to the hero’s.’

§9. This idea of Achilles as a bridegroom is relevant to the fact that Achilles is a focus of lament in lyric as well as in epic traditions. Achilles is lamented as an eternal bridegroom because his fulfillment as a married adult is eternally deferred. In the poetics of Sappho, this idea of Achilles as a lamented bridegroom who failed to become a husband is connected with his sorrowful fate of dying prematurely, cut down in the bloom of his youth like a tender seedling that is thus doomed to wilt. This connection is implied in the wording we read in this fragment of Song 115 of Sappho:

τίωι σ’, ὦ φίλε γάμβρε, κάλως 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.

§10. In Homeric poetry as well, Achilles is compared to a tender seedling. A prime example can be found in a lament by Thetis, where the goddess makes such a comparison while expressing her sorrow over the sad fate of her son Achilles:

|54 ὤ μοι ἐγὼ δειλή, ὤ μοι δυσαριστοτόκεια, |55 ἥ τ’ ἐπεὶ ἂρ τέκον υἱὸν ἀμύμονά τε κρατερόν τε |56 ἔξοχον ἡρώων· ὃ δ’ ἀνέδραμεν ἔρνεϊ ἶσος· |57 τὸν μὲν ἐγὼ θρέψασα φυτὸν ὣς γουνῷ ἀλωῆς |58 νηυσὶν ἐπιπροέηκα κορωνίσιν Ἴλιον εἴσω |59 Τρωσὶ μαχησόμενον· τὸν δ’ οὐχ ὑποδέξομαι αὖτις |60 οἴκαδε νοστήσαντα δόμον Πηλήϊον εἴσω. |61 ὄφρα δέ μοι ζώει καὶ ὁρᾷ φάος ἠελίοιο |62 ἄχνυται, οὐδέ τί οἱ δύναμαι χραισμῆσαι ἰοῦσα. |63 ἀλλ’ εἶμ’, ὄφρα ἴδωμι φίλον τέκος, ἠδ’ ἐπακούσω |64 ὅττί μιν ἵκετο πένθος ἀπὸ πτολέμοιο μένοντα.

|54 Ah me, the pitiful one! Ah me, the mother, so sad it is, of the very best. |55 I gave birth to a faultless and strong son, |56 the very best of heroes. And he shot up [anedramen] equal [īsos] to a seedling [ernos]. |57 I nurtured him like a shoot in the choicest spot of the orchard, |58 only to send him off on curved ships to Troy, to fight Trojan men. |59 And I will never be welcoming him |60 back home as returning warrior, back to the House of Peleus. |61 And as long as he lives and sees the light of the sun, |62 he will have sorrow [akh-nutai], and though I go to him I cannot help him. |63 Nevertheless I will go, that I may see my dear son and learn |64 what sorrow [penthos] has befallen him though he is still holding aloof from battle.

Iliad 18.54-64

§11. Besides Achilles as a primary example of a failed bridegroom in the Iliad, there exist secondary and even negativized examples of such figures in the Odyssey. I have in mind especially the dashing young Phaeacians of Odyssey 8, and I epitomize here what I have to say about them in Homer the Preclassic (Nagy 2010:90–90 = 2009 I§§214–216):

I§214. In the second of three songs performed by the blind singer Demodokos in Odyssey 8, Hephaistos is angry at the dashing young Arēs for seducing Aphrodite, the wife of Hephaistos (verse 276). This theme of the anger of Hephaistos is pertinent to the story of Odysseus. By the time we reach the end of the Odyssey, Odysseus will have his own revenge as the outraged husband who is angry at the dashing young suitors for trying to seduce his own wife, Penelope. We can see in the victory of Hephaistos over Arēs a narrative link between the inner and the outer stories: just as Hephaistos flaunts his slowness of foot when he boasts that he has bested Arēs, described as the swiftest of all the gods in his footwork (329–331), so also Odysseus flaunts his own slowness of foot when he competes with the Phaeacians, attributing such slowness to the “sea legs” of sailors who have done too much sailing (230–233). Conversely, Alkinoos flaunts the fleet-footedness of the dashing young Phaeacians in both footracing and dancing, linking this skill with their skill in sailing (247). 

I§215. Implicitly, the Phaeacians’ skill in dancing is being applied in the choral performance of the second song of Demodokos, which is all about the revenge of Hephaistos. The Phaeacian dancers are dancing the parts. That is, they are implicitly dancing the parts of such characters as the swift Arēs and the slow Hephaistos while the singer is explicitly singing the same parts in concert. (This is not to rule out any accessory choral singing on the part of the dancers.) Moreover, the Phaeacians’ fleet-footedness in footracing and dancing matches the fleet-footedness associated with the god Arēs himself, who is traditionally pictured as a nimble runner and dancer. I analyze at length in The Best of the Achaeans (Nagy 1979/1999:327–335 = 20§§10–16) the ubiquitous representations of the dashing young god Arēs as ‘swift of foot’—in dancing as well as in running—and I highlight here a parallelism with the dashing young hero Achilles, who is likewise ubiquitously ‘swift of foot’. 

I§216 The dancers’ displays of fleet-footedness in dancing the part of Arēs may have been highlighted further by displays of mock slow-footedness in dancing the part of Hephaistos. Pointedly, the slow-footed Odysseus does not participate in the dancing, just as he did not participate in any footracing. He does not have to dance now, but he will sing later. And, just as he does not have to dance now, he will not have to sail later: when the time comes, the Phaeacians will do the sailing for him, just as they are doing the dancing for him right now—both the fast dancing of Arēs and the slow dancing of Hephaistos.


Burkert, W. 1960. “Das Lied von Ares und Aphrodite. Zum Verhältnis von Odyssee und Ilias.” In Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 103:130–144. Trans. G. M. Wright and P. V. Jones in Homer: German Scholarship in Translation 249–262. 1997. Oxford.

Nagy, G. 1979/1999. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. Baltimore. Revised ed. with new introduction 1999.

Nagy, G. 2010|2009. Homer the Preclassic. Printed|Online. Berkeley and Los Angeles.

Nagy, G. 2013. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Cambridge, MA.

Nagy, G. 2017. “A Sampling of comments on the Iliad and Odyssey.”

Nagy, G. 2018.07.27. “Are Zeus and Hera a dysfunctional couple?” Classical Inquiries.