Sappho, once again this time

2017.02.23 | By Gregory Nagy

The expression ‘once again this time’ is my translation of the word dēute as used three times in Song 1 of a woman named Sappho. The meaning of this word captures the recurrent many-sidedness of the songs attributed to Sappho, admired by many as one of history’s greatest masters of songmaking.

"Sappho" (1893). Cornelis Ary Renan (French, 1858–1900). Image via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sappho” (1893). Cornelis Ary Renan (French, 1858–1900).
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

A personal preface to this posting

Claudia_1_webIn the two years extending from Valentine’s Day 2015 to Valentine’s Day 2017, I have posted in Classical Inquiries 22 essays dealing primarily or at least secondarily with Sappho. Today’s posting, 2017.02.23, brings the number up to 23. During all this time, the editors of Classical Inquiries have been Claudia Filos and Keith Stone. The two of them faithfully alternated with each other in editing my weekly contributions, which by now number over 100. I am sad to report that the present posting marks the last time when my dear colleague and friend Claudia serves as Editor of Classical Inquiries, though Keith will remain as Editor. She has decided to retire as the other Editor, and I will dearly miss working with her. As a small sign of my enormous appreciation for all that she has done for Classical Inquiries and for Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies in general, I dedicate this posting to her.

A small introduction to a small essay

The artistic legacy of Sappho is unfortunately most fragmentary, and so too is the research that has been done in modern times on her artistry. My own relevant research is no exception, and I address here in this small essay some of my concerns about the near-impossibility of achieving my ambition to paint, one fine day, a big picture of Sappho for Classicists and for non-Classicists alike. As for the images that I have chosen to decorate this essay, I show three real paintings, and I use as the cover-image a close-up from the second of these paintings.

"In the Days of Sappho" (1904). John William Godward (British, 1861–1922). Image via Wikimedia Commons.
“In the Days of Sappho” (1904). John William Godward (British, 1861–1922).
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

23 postings related to Sappho

These postings are listed here in chronological order:

#01. 2015.02.27. Song 44 of Sappho and the Role of Women in the Making of Epic

#02. 2015.06.01. Herodotus and a courtesan from Naucratis

#03. 2015.06.10. Previewing a concise inventory of Greek etymologies, Part 3

#04. 2015.07.01. A sampling of comments on Iliad Rhapsody 2

#05. 2015.07.08. Sappho’s ‘fire under the skin’ and the erotic syntax of an epigram by Posidippus

#06. 2015.08.26. A sampling of comments on Iliad Rhapsody 9

#07. 2015.09.07. Some ‘anchor comments’ on an ‘Aeolian’ Homer

#08. 2015.10.01. Genre, Occasion, and Choral Mimesis Revisited—with special reference to the “newest Sappho”

#09. 2015.10.08. The “Newest Sappho”: a set of working translations, with minimal comments

#10. 2015.10.09. An experiment in combining visual art with translations of Sappho

#11. 2015.10.22. Diachronic Sappho: some prolegomena

#12. 2015.11.05. Once again this time in Song 1 of Sappho

#13. 2015.11.09. An experiment in combining visual art with translations of Sappho, Part 2

#14. 2015.11.12. The Tithonos Song of Sappho

#15. 2015.11.19. Echoes of Sappho in two epigrams of Posidippus

#16. 2015.12.01. A sampling of comments on Iliad Rhapsody 19

#17. 2015.12.03. Girl, interrupted: more about echoes of Sappho in Epigram 55 of Posidippus

#18. 2015.12.31. Some imitations of Pindar and Sappho by Horace

#19. 2016.01.07. Weaving while singing Sappho’s songs in Epigram 55 of Posidippus

#20. 2016.08.31. Song 44 of Sappho revisited: what is ‘oral’ about the text of this song?

#21. 2016.10.08. Sappho and mythmaking in the context of an Aeolian-Ionian poetic Sprachbund

#22. 2017.02.17. Sappho in the role of leader

#23. = the present posting.

3 other relevant earlier online publications by GN

#A. 2007. “Lyric and Greek Myth”

#B. 2007|2009. “Did Sappho and Alcaeus ever meet? Symmetries of myth and ritual in performing the songs of ancient Lesbos”

#C. 2015. “A poetics of sisterly affect in the Brothers Song and in other songs of Sappho”

Toward a big picture for Sappho: preliminaries on what to read where in ##1–23

One way to get a glimpse of the big picture is to start at the ‘middle ground’, which is the meaning of the place-name Messon, located at the center of the island of Lesbos, pronounced Lesvos in Modern Greek. It was at Messon, inside a sacred precinct of the goddess Hera, that the songs of Sappho were once sung and danced in honor of the goddess. The fact that there is evidence for a coexistence of myth and ritual in the context of Messon makes this place a most effective point of departure for my argumentation already in #A. After I had published #A, further evidence came to light when new fragments of Sappho’s songs were published, including the Brothers Song and the augmented version of Song 17. I elaborated on these fragments in #B and #C. In #09, I produced working translations for these and other new fragments of Sappho. The whole set of these new fragments is affectionately known as “the Newest Sappho.”

But there is evidence for many other songs of Sappho that are not contextualized in the precinct of Hera, including the most celebrated of all the songs of Sappho, Song 1, which is morphologically a prayer to Aphrodite. The distinct context of this song is analyzed in #12.

While #09 features my translations of the “newest” fragments, I produced in #11 translations of the best-known “old” fragments of Sappho. Besides Song 1, I translated also Songs 16, 31, and 44. For both the “newest” and the “old” texts, my translations are occasionally enhanced in the form of visual narratives by Glynnis Fawkes, who works in the style of graphic novels; previews of such visual narratives for the “old” and the “newest” texts are shown in #10 and in #13 respectively.

Clearly, the contextual range for performing the songs of Sappho was varied, and I elaborate on this point in the introduction to #11. I also address in #11 some frequently asked questions about Sappho.

In the case of Song 44, as I note in #01, the genre is different from the genre we see in the other songs mentioned so far. The easiest way to approach the difference is to set up a distinction between monodic and choral songmaking, as I argue especially in #01 and in #20.

Although monodic songmaking is relatively easy for us to understand, further elaboration is needed in the case of choral songmaking. The term choral derives from Greek khoros ‘chorus’, which is an ensemble that both sings and dances. The nature of choral songmaking is explored in detail in #8 and already in #B and #C. Also explored in these essays is the convertibility of choral performance into monodic performance in contexts of private symposia and public concerts. Here I am making a distinction between choral songmaking in general and choral performance in particular. This distinction is further elaborated in #14 and earlier in #B and #C.

"Sappho" (1888). Gustav Klimt (Austrian, 1862–1918). Image via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sappho” (1888). Gustav Klimt (Austrian, 1862–1918).
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The performance of Sappho’s choral songs as monodic songs in the contexts of private symposia and public concerts transforms the medium of Sappho from singing and dancing by female ensembles to singing by male soloists. Besides #B and #C, other essays that elaborate on this transformation are #02, #11, #14. The interaction of women and girls within choral performance is noted in #22, with reference to the mother-daughter exchange that is dramatized in Song 9 of Sappho.

In a later posting, I will comment on my linguistic analysis of the traditional wordings we find in the songs of Sappho as compared with corresponding traditional wordings we find in Homeric poetry, especially with reference to the essays #03, #04, #06, #07, #16, #21.

In a still later posting, I will comment on the reception of Sappho’s songs in later phases of songmaking, especially with reference to the essays #05, #15, #17, #18, #19.