Some narrowings and some widenings of perspectives for viewing the reception of Sappho in the ancient world

2020.11.13, rewritten 2020.11.15 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. For an illustration that is most relevant to what I have to say in this essay, I show a line-drawing of a close-up from a vase painting by the Meidias Painter, whose artistic career, in Athens, can be dated to the late fifth century BCE. In this close-up, we see the picturing of a lady named Eurynoe (ΕΥΡΥΝΟΗ), who is playfully teasing a pet bird. As I noted in a previous essay, Nagy 2020.10.30, which I link here to the present essay, such a picturing may possibly be traced back to a comparable scene that is pictured in a now-lost song of Sappho. Such a possibility, however, depends on both a widening and a narrowing of perspectives, as I note in the title of this essay, for viewing the reception of Sappho in the ancient world.

Red-figure hydria. Florence, Museo Archeologico 81948. Line-drawing by Jill Robbins. Featured in this close-up is a lady named Eurynoe, who is playfully teasing a pet bird. For the overall painting, I cite the Beazley Archive, here.

§1. Where does my perspective need to be widened? I start with the pet bird that is pictured in the painting painted by the Meidias painter. In my previous essay, Nagy 2020.10.30, which I cite again here, I compared this pet to another pet bird, pictured in Poem 2 of Catullus. The pet bird in that poem is a passer or ‘sparrow’, but can we really say that such a bird would have been a ‘sparrow’ for Sappho? In Song 1 of Sappho, Aphrodite the goddess of erotic love is pictured as riding on the platform of a chariot that is drawn by birds called strouthoi in Greek. So, to ask the question in another way, can we say that the strouthoi of Sappho’s songmaking are ‘sparrows’? I  have consulted my colleague and friend Natasha Bershadsky about this question, and she has an answer, to be found in her essay posted in Classical Inquiries. Suffice it for me to report here that she finds no need to insist that the strouthoi of Sappho’s Aphrodite are specifically ‘sparrows’.

§2. So, with reference to the birds that are described as drawing the chariot of Aphrodite in Song 1 of Sappho, it should be enough for me to say, with my perspective widened, that these birds in her song are pets of Aphrodite, and, by extension, of Sappho herself. But I could add, by way of a perspective that gets widened even further, that Aphrodite’s menagerie of love-pets include not only birds but also humanoid personifications of erotic love. As a parallel to the picturing of birds drawing the chariot of the goddess in Song 1 of Sappho, I cite a comparable picturing of the same goddess in another painting by the Meidias Painter, also shown in my previous essay, Nagy 2020.10.30, linked here: in this other painting, which features the figure of Phaon receiving the amorous attention of a beautiful lady, we see positioned above the heads of the loving couple the figure of Aphrodite herself in the act of driving a chariot drawn by two “cupids” that are identified by adjacent letterings as Himeros and Pothos, both of which names are personifications conveyed by the nouns himeros and pothos, both of which mean ‘longing, desire’.

Red-figure hydria. Florence, Museo Archeologico 81947. Line drawing by Jill Robbins.

§3. But where does my perspective for viewing the reception of Sappho in the ancient world need to be narrowed instead of widened? To highlight a telling example, I will first need to refocus my reconstruction of this reception, where I go as far back in time as my diachronic modeling can take me—back to the songmaking traditions of the island of Lesbos in the archaic period, conventionally dated by classicists to 600 BCE or thereabouts. Starting from this archaic period, I will now need to “reconstruct forward,” going forward in time all the way into the classical period of Athens in the late fifth century BCE, as represented in the paintings produced by the Meidias Painter. In reconstructing situations of all-night all-female partying, there is relatively more evidence to be found in the classical period, as exemplified by the beautiful Pannychis, who is pictured by the Meidias Painter as a personification of such partying, and there is relatively less evidence in the archaic period as exemplified by Sappho. In the archaic period, we see in general merely the basic facts about all-night festivities involving girls and women. In the classical period of Athens, by contrast, we see various different kinds of such festivities. A case in point is the grand Athenian festival of the Thesmophoria, mentioned at §10 of my previous essay, Nagy 2020.10.30, linked here.

§4. As I proceed now to narrow my perspective, however, I will for the moment focus not on the Thesmophoria, a festival sacred to two goddesses representing a combination of the idealized Daughter, who in many situations goes without a name and is called simply Korē ‘Girl’, and her idealized Mother, called Demeter. Rather, I will focus on a festival sacred to a single goddess representing not only the premarital and marital aspects of female life-experiences but also the extramarital aspects. She is of course Aphrodite, goddess of illicit as well as licit sexuality. I have in mind here the classical Athenian phase of a festival celebrating what are called the Gardens of Adonis, linked with a wide range of premarital and extramarital merriment. On the occasion of this festival, the female population of Athens—girls and mothers, wives, and courtesans, too—are engaged in all-night partying while they are mock-mourning the death of the pretty-boy hero Adonis. For a most engaging introduction, I recommend the English-language translation of a relevant book by Marcel Detienne (1977/1994), who surveys the surviving rituals and myths about the life and death of Adonis as a mortal lover of Aphrodite, goddess of love and sexuality.

§5. I should emphasize, however, that Adonis is a “boy-toy” for Aphrodite only while he is alive, and that he then becomes, once dead, the “boy-toy” of Persephone, who is the Korē or ‘Girl’ of Hades, as we read at lines 54-57 and 96 in the Lament for Adonis by Bion of Smyrna (second /first century BCE). Although the ‘Girl’ or Kōrā, as she is called in the poetic dialect of Bion at line 96, is unwilling to release Adonis from death, all hope is not lost: there is an implication, in the concluding lines 97–98 of the Lament by Bion, that Adonis will come alive, as it were, whenever sexual desire comes alive again—which will happen, it is playfully predicted, at the yearly festival of Adonis: year after year, he can come alive and then die again and be mourned by his loving Aphrodite on the occasion of his annual festival. 

§6. I have much to say about Adonis, but for now I focus on observing how the very idea of celebrating any festival of Adonis matches what we see being pictured in a painting by the Meidias Painter, as I analyzed it at §5 in my previous essay, Nagy 2020.10.30, linked here. In that painting (Florence, Museo Archeologico 81948), we see Adonis (the lettering says ΑΔΩΝΙΟΣ) embraced from behind by Aphrodite (ΑΦΡΟΔΙΤΗ), and hovering over the amorous couple is a winged cupid or Eros named Himeros, a personification of ‘longing, desire’. Also attending the party is the beautiful lady Pannychis, who as we have seen is the personification of all-female partying that lasts all night long. She is highlighted in the cover illustration for another relevant essay, Nagy 2020.11.06, linked here. In short, it can be said that the scene of female all-night partying, centered on Adonis in this painting by the Meidias Painter, mirrors the festivities of the Gardens of Adonis in classical Athens.

§7. In the diction of Sappho, we find indications of comparable festivities involving both details I have highlighted: both the all-night partying and Adonis. In the case of “all-nighters,” as we saw at §9 in my earlier essay, Nagy 2020.11.06, linked here, we find references to pannukhizein, which actually means ‘to party all night long’. As for Adonis, we find references to him as well in the surviving songs of Sappho, but I note with interest here an added detail: these references, it seems, accentuate a note of sadness. That is to say, it seems that Adonis is about to die, and so he must be mourned:

Fragment 140a.1:
κατθνα<ί>σκει, Κυθέρη’, ἄβρος Ἄδωνις· τί κε θεῖμεν;
He is dying, O Aphrodite, luxuriant [habros] Adonis is dying. What can we do?

Fragment 168.1
ὦ τὸν Ἄδωνιν
Alas for Adonis!

§8. I detect a comparable note of sadness in the atmosphere of the party swirling around the amorous pair of Adonis and Aphrodite in the painting painted by the Meidias Painter. In her related essay posted in Classical Inquiries, linked here, Natasha Bershadsky likewise detects a note of sadness. Maybe, she asks in her essay, the little bird perched on the finger of the lady attending Adonis is destined to die? Responding to my friend’s rhetorical question, I cite Poem 3 of Catullus which begins with these five lines:

lugete o veneres cupidinesque
et quantum est hominum venustiorum: 
passer mortuus est meae puellae  
passer, deliciae meae puellae,   
quem plus illa oculis suis amabat. 

Start your laments, O you Venuses and Cupids,
and you too, however many of you mortals there may be out there who are more amorous than the rest of the lot.
The sparrow, he is dead, the one that belonged to my girl,
the sparrow, delight of my girl,
the one whom she loved more than her own eyes she loved.

The Venuses and Cupids here are depersonalized by way of making their names plural. In the singular, Venus and Cupid—that is, Aphrodite and Eros—are divine persons, yes, but then, in the plural, they become the depersonalized sensations of love and desire, which can then become re-personalized in the roles of attendants who minister to Aphrodite and Eros—and I would add to the figure of Eros the figure of Adonis as a ritualized stand-in for Eros. Such are the attendants, I suggest, also of Aphrodite and Adonis in the painting of the Meidias painter. These attendants are personifications corresponding to the Venuses and Cupids in Poem 3 of Catullus. 

§9. But what about the dead sparrow of Lesbia in Poem 3 of Catullus? I think that the death of this little bird is a poetic signal for the impending death of Adonis himself.

§10. That said, I return now to my argument in my earlier project, in section E of Nagy 2019.03.08, linked here. I continue to think that the picturing of a bird pecking at the fingertip of Lesbia in Poem 2 of Catullus may have been an erotic image that originated—indirectly or perhaps even directly—from a now-lost song of Sappho. But perhaps we have to think of two lost songs of Sappho, matching the combination of Poems 2 and 3 by Catullus. The picturing of the little bird in the painting of the Meidias Painter could then perhaps be seen as a poetic signal pointing toward more than any one single song of Sappho, now lost to us. Who knows? There may have survived in the memories of Athenian audiences not one but two such songs—or maybe even more than two. In one such song, the girl—maybe she could be pictured as Sappho herself— takes delight in her little bird. Then, in another song, she could be mourning the death of her pet love. And, by extension, she could be mourning for Adonis.

For bibliographical references, see the dynamic Cumulative Bibliography here.