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

2016.08.31 | By Gregory Nagy

This song, attributed to Sappho, shows the same kind of formulaic structure that we see at work in the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey. Such a structure, in the case of Homeric poetry, indicates that this poetry originated from oral traditions. So also in the case of the songmaking exemplified by Song 44 of Sappho, the formulaic structure of this song indicates a parallel origin from oral traditions.

DeChirico_Hector and Andromache_1926
“Hector and Andromache” (1926), Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978). Image via.

In a posting that is listed in the Bibliography as Nagy 2015.02.27, I focused on evidence for arguing that Song 44 of Sappho shows the existence of ancient Greek traditions of women’s songmaking about the epic past. In terms of that argument, such traditions of women’s songmaking were distinct from but related to traditions of epic—which was a form of poetry produced by men, not by women. Here I take the argument further: Song 44 of Sappho, which has a form conventionally described as lyric, is not only related to the form of epic as exemplified by the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey: more than that, this form of lyric, like the form of epic, originates from an oral tradition.

I have made such an argument in two write-ups basically, as listed in the Bibliography: Nagy 1974 Chapter 5 and Nagy 1990a Appendix. Both of these two write-ups, and the two books that contain them, are now available online (thanks to the efforts of my colleagues Noel Spencer and Daniel Cline), and the URN-s are indicated in the Bibliography. The first of these two write-ups is foundational for a major part of my research over the last forty-two years. And the second provides an essential qualification. I summarize here the argument by dividing it up into ten parts, where each part depends on the preceding part.

A ten-part argument about Song 44 of Sappho and about Homeric poetry

Part 1. I link the term <<oral>> with the idea of <<formula>> as defined in Parry 1928a and Parry 1928b, and as redefined in Nagy 1996b:29.

Part 2. I follow a unified argument made by Lord 1960:47: In an oral composition, everything is <<formulaic>>. Lord’s teacher Milman Parry (1928a:10–11 = 1971:8–9) made a comparable observation about ancient Greek oral traditions, with reference to the all-pervasive formulaic system of Homeric poetry. And I follow the various arguments of Parry 1928ab/1930/1932 and of Lord 1960: that Homeric poetry originates from oral traditions.

Part 3. The formulaic structure of the meter that we find in Song 44 of Sappho, glyc2da, which can be described superficially as a <<dactylic pentameter>>, is cognate with the formulaic structure of the epic meter of Homeric poetry, which is commonly described as the dactylic hexameter. So, if the two formulaic structures are cognate, it follows that both originate from oral traditions. That is one of the main points I made in Nagy 1974 Chapter 5.

Part 4. The meters that contain the formulaic structures of Song 44 and of Homeric poetry, dactylic hexameter and dactylic pentameter, are likewise cognate. That is another one of the main points I made in Nagy 1974 Chapter 5.

Part 5. On the basis of comparable meters that are found in Indo-European languages other than Greek, especially in Indic (Vedic Sanskrit), it can be argued that the meters of both Song 44 and Homeric poetry are Indo-European in origin. That is yet another one of the main points I made in Nagy 1974 Chapter 5.

Part 6. Others too have argued that the meters found in the songs or <<lyric poetry>> of Sappho—as also of Alcaeus, and in other Greek lyric poetry—are cognate with the meter of Homeric poetry. Examples include the works of West 1973ab, Berg 1978, Tichy 1981, Haug and Welo 2001. What all these works have in common, despite many incompatibilities in methodology, is a general agreement that the multiple meters of Greek <<lyric>> and the single meter of <<epic>> are Indo-European in origin. But none of these works addresses this question: does <<lyric>>, like <<epic>>, have a formulaic structure?

Part 7. The work of Gentili and Giannini 1977 likewise argues that the meters of <<lyric>> and <<epic>> are cognate—but without positing an Indo-European origin. This work also challenges the positing of any <<monogenetic>> origin of <<epic>> meter from any single <<lyric>> meter. Such a challenge applies to all the works mentioned in Part 6.

Part 8. The same challenge also applies to Nagy 1974 Chapter 5. But the arguments presented there were then supplemented by the arguments in Nagy 1990a Appendix, where the dactylic hexameter of <<epic>> is explained as a convergence of two different formulaic systems contained in two different metrical systems found in <<lyric>>. Those two metrical systems can be described in terms of the nomenclature applied to studies of the meters found in the lyric <<poetry>> of Pindar: <<Aeolic>> and <<dactylo-epitrite>>. The <<Aeolic>> meters of Pindar are cognate with the meters found in the songs of Sappho and Alcaeus, while the <<dactylo-epitrite>> meters of Pindar are cognate with the meters found especially in the songs of Stesichorus. For more on Pindar’s meters, see Barnes 2013; on lyric and epic meters in general, see Barnes 2011.

Part 9. The dual <<etymology>>, as outlined in Part 8, of dactylic hexameter as the singular meter of <<epic>> accounts for every major word-break pattern in this meter, as argued in Nagy 1996a Appendix. By contrast, the other etymologies as attempted in the works listed in Part 6 cannot account for all these breaks.

Part 10. There are similar problems with the <<colon-theory>> of Fränkel 1960, where the operation of <<cola>> is not correlated with the operation of <<formulae>> as described in Parry 1928b and in Nagy 1974 Chapter 3. Fränkel’s theory cannot account for the full range of formulaic variation in the making of Homeric verse (Nagy 1990b:29–35; see also Clark 1994, 1997).

Three comments on formula and meter, with reference to Song 44 of Sappho and to Homeric poetry

Comment 1, via Nagy 1990a:49 (1§60). The metrical structure of Song 44 is stichic and not strophic. The term <<stichic>> refers to a structure that goes from verse to verse, vs. the term <<strophic>>, which refers to a structure that goes from stanza to stanza. The stichic rather than strophic meters of <<lyric>> are actually attested as usable for extended narratives of a type parallel to <<epic>>, composed in the dactylic hexameter, which is the stichic meter of <<non-lyric>> par excellence. A prime example of a <<stichic>> structure in <<lyric>> is Song 44 of Sappho, featuring a narrative that has a heroic setting: this song is composed in a stichic meter, glyc2da, on which see Nagy 1996a Appendix. All of Book II of the canonical Sapphic corpus was composed in this meter: Hephaestion 7.7, p. 23.14–17 ed. Consbruch. This meter, glyc2da, even though it is stichic here, is clearly cognate with various strophic meters of Lesbian <<lyric>>. An example is glyc1da in Song 94 of Sappho, on which see Nagy 1996a Appendix. Stichic meters of narrative <<lyric>> such as the glyc2da of Song 44, conventionally sung to the accompaniment of the lyre, are doubtless more closely related than is the spoken meter of hexameter to the format of the South Slavic guslar who sings to the accompaniment of the gusle. In this connection, I quote West 1973a:188: “If there was epic or heroic balladry in (say) 1600 [BCE], its characteristic verse was most likely the glyconic [= glyc], whose cognates are used in Sanskrit and Slavic epic.”

Comment 2, via Nagy 1974 Chapter 5 and Nagy 1990a Appendix. The formulas of Song 44 are cognate with the formulas of Homeric poetry. If we map these formulas within the respective metrical frames of glyc2da in the case of Song 44 and pher3da in the case of one of the two metrical prototypes of dactylic hexameter, we find a general pattern of matching formulas shaped …uu – uu # xx… in Song 44 and …uu – uu || –x# in Homeric poetry. (The symbols here are <<u>> = short syllable, <<–>> = long syllable, <<x >> = short or long syllable, <<#>> = word-break at the end/beginning of two consecutive verses, <<||>> = word-break inside a verse.) A prime example is …κλέοc ἄφθιτον # (xx)… in Song 44.4 and …κλέοc ἄφθιτον || ἔcται# in Iliad 9.413–414. Matching the formulaic pattern of pher3da here in Homeric poetry is the formulaic pattern of pher1da in Ibycus SLG 151.47, where we find…κλέος ἄφθιτον || ἑξεῖς#. What is most remarkable in such matching patterns is that the wordings fit independently their respective metrical and formulaic frames. To show this independence, I cite the case of …ἐπ’ ἄλμυρον # πόντον… in Song 44.7–8, where the matching phrase …ἁλμυρὸν || ὕδωρ# in Odyssey 9.470 etc. has an underlying variant …ἁλμυρὸν … πόντον, as we can see from expressions like …ἁλμυρὸς ἔτρεφε Πόντος# and …ἁλμυρὸς ἔνδοθι πόντος# in Hesiod Theogony 107 and 964, respectively. In other words it seems that ὕδωρ displaces πόντος in certain environments, not the other way around.

Comment 3 via Nagy 1974:145. In the case of the correspondence between <<lyric>> …κλέοc ἄφθιτον # (xx)… in Song 44.4 and <<epic>> …κλέοc ἄφθιτον || ἔcται # in Iliad 9.413–414, the further correspondence of these phrases with Sanskrit śráva(s)ákşitam in Rig-Veda 1.9.7 points to an Indo-European heritage for the formulas and meters of ancient Greek verbal art. On the syntax of κλέοc ἄφθιτον | ἔcται # in Iliad 9.413–414 and of śráva(s) … ákşitam in Rig-Veda 1.9.7, I offer both comparative and internal analysis in Nagy 1990a:244–245 n126 and Nagy 1990b:122–127.

A formulation about formula and meter

Viewed from the broader perspective of Indo-European poetics, the terms <<formula>> and <<meter>> can be readjusted to accommodate such broader terms as <<phrase>> and <<rhythm>>. I have devised a formulation with such a readjustment in mind:

At first, the reasoning goes, traditional phraseology simply contains built-in rhythms. Later, the factor of tradition leads to the preference of phrases with some rhythms over phrases with other rhythms. Still later, the preferred rhythms have their own dynamics and become regulators of any incoming non-traditional phraseology. By becoming a viable structure in its own right, meter may evolve independently of traditional phraseology. Recent metrical developments may even obliterate aspects of the selfsame traditional phraseology that had engendered them, if these aspects no longer match the meter. (Nagy 1974:145; see also Allen 1973:13–14, 258; further analysis in Nagy 1990b:39–42.)

A postscript to the cover picture for this posting

The cover picture for this posting is taken from one of the many versions of “Hector and Andromache” as painted by Giorgio de Chirico. This 1926 version is my personal favorite. There is something singularly arresting about the bare back of Andromache, revealed at the tenderly vulnerable moment when she sadly embraces Hector for the very last time. I add here as a coda, with the generous permission of the artist, Fyodor S. Wheeler, a picture that takes a second look at the picture made by De Chirico.

"Porcia and the Painting." Original work by Fyodor S. Wheeler. Image via.
“Porcia and the Painting.” Original work by Fyodor S. Wheeler. Image via.

We see again the vulnerable bareness of the sad woman’s back, but now this woman in the foreground is not Andromache but another sad woman who is looking at a picture of Andromache. This sad woman is Porcia, wife of Brutus. The story is told in Plutarch’s Life of Brutus. For quotation and translation, see Nagy 2015.08.12, as listed in the Bibliography. Brutus will soon die just as Hector will soon die in the Iliad, and Porcia is having herself a really good cry, just thinking about the sadness of it all while she views an ancient picture of that final embrace of Andromache and Hector. Accompanying Wheeler’s picture is his own story about the inspiration of the picture as visualized by De Chirico—and as visualized again and again in the story about Porcia and her viewing of that ancient picture of Andromache:

There’s a story from Plutarch that tells of Porcia, Brutus’s wife, crying every time she saw a certain painting of the parting of Hector and Andromache, as told in the Iliad Book VI. Hector didn’t come back. Brutus didn’t either.

My class finished reading the Iliad and ugh so many parts where I saw Hector and Andromache as Brutus and Porcia. Why must I be a classics fan.



Allen, W. S. 1973. Accent and Rhythm. Prosodic Features of Latin and Greek: A Study in Theory and Reconstruction. Cambridge. I record here my firm conviction that this work is of lasting value, and it cannot be replaced by the later work of Devine and Stephens 1984 and 1994.

Allen, W. S. 1987. Vox Graeca: The Pronunciation of Classical Greek. 3rd ed. Cambridge.

Barnes, T. G. 2011. “Homeric ΑΝΔΡΟΤΗΤΑ ΚΑΙ ΗΒΗΝ.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 131:1–13.

Barnes, T. G. 2013. “Drakeis, dedorke, and the Visualization of kleos in Pindar.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 107:73–98.

Berg, N. 1978. “Parergon metricum: der Ursprung des griechischen Hexameters.” Münchener Studien zur Sprachwissenschaft 37:1136. See Nagy 1990:461n116 for a rejoinder to Berg’s critique of Nagy 1974.

Clark, M. 1994. “Enjambment and Binding in Homeric Hexameter.” Phoenix 48:95–114.

Clark, M. 1997. Out of Line: Homeric Composition beyond the Hexameter. Lanham, MD.

Devine, A. M., and Stephens, L. D. 1984. Language and Metre: Resolution, Porson’s Bridge, and their Prosodic Basis. American Philological Association, American Classical Studies no. 12. Oxford.

Devine, A. M., and Stephens, L. D. 1994. The Prosody of Greek Speech. Oxford.

Duban, J. M. 2016. The Lesbian Lyre: Reclaiming Sappho for the 21st Century. West Hoathly (W. Sussex). On pp. 616–618: survey of views about whether the ἄφθιτον at I.09.413 is predicative or attributive. On p. 618: periphrasis of theoeikelos at I.24.258–259.

Fränkel, H. 1960. “Der kallimachische und der homerische Hexameter.” Wege und Formen frühgriechischen Denkens (ed. 2) 100–156. München.

Gentili, B., and Giannini, P. 1977. “Preistoria e formazione dell’esametro.” Quaderni Urbinati 26:7–37.

Haug, D., and Welo, E. 2001. “The proto-hexameter hypothesis: perspectives for further research.” Symbolae Osloenses 76:130–136.

Lord, A. B. 1960. The Singer of Tales. Second edition 2000, edited and with introduction by S. Mitchell and G. Nagy [vii–xxix]. Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature 24. Cambridge, MA. Third edition, by D. F. Elmer, forthcoming.

Nagy, G. 1974. Comparative Studies in Greek and Indic Meter. Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature 33. Cambridge, MA.

Nagy, G. 1990a. Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past. Baltimore. The Appendix at pp. 439–464 supplements the argumentation in Nagy 1974.

Nagy, G. 1990b. Greek Mythology and Poetics. Ithaca, NY. Revised paperback edition 1992.[1]

Nagy, G. 1996. Homeric Questions. Austin.

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

Nagy, G. 2010. “Language and Meter.” Chapter 25, A Companion to the Ancient Greek Language (ed. E. J. Bakker; Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World 2010) 370–387.

Nagy, G. 2011. “The Aeolic Component of Homeric Diction.” Proceedings of the 22nd Annual UCLA Indo-European Conference (ed. S. W. Jamison, H. C. Melchert, and B. Vine) 133–179. Bremen. In Nagy 2012 v1.

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

Nagy, G. 2015.02.27. “Song 44 of Sappho and the Role of Women in the Making of Epic.” Classical Inquiries.

Nagy, G. 2015.08.12. “Cato’s Daughter Porcia has herself a really good cry.” Classical Inquiries

Nagy, G. 2015.10.22. “Diachronic Sappho: Some Prolegomena.” Classical Inquiries.

Page, D. 1955. Sappho and Alcaeus: An Introduction to the Study of Ancient Lesbian Poetry. Oxford. See p. 67. A detail mentioned here by Page, which calls for further research, is the distribution of dative plural -οιc with or without word-final -ι, so, -οιcι vs. -οιc. Two cases merit special attention: line-final φίλοιc in Sappho F 44 line 12 and line-final θέοιc at line 21. In line-medial position, such forms generally show -οιcι. By contrast, the definite article in the dative plural is τοιc and ταιc even in line-medial position. See also Page p. 208 on Alcaeus “G2” (now F 130) line 15, cυνόδοιcί μ’ αὔταιc, and on Sappho F 160 lines 1–2, τάδε νῦν ἐταίραιc | ταὶc ἔμαιc τέρπνα κάλως ἀείσω. Page notes a similar pattern of distribution in the phraseology of Archilochus and Anacreon: line-medial -οισι vs. line-final -οιc.

Parry, A, ed. 1971. The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry. Oxford.
GN—The first part contains Parry’s work on the Homeric texts, before he undertook his fieldwork research in the former Yugoslavia. The second part combines his experience in fieldwork with his expertise in the organization of Homeric poetry.

Parry, M. 1928a. L’épithète traditionnelle dans Homère: Essai sur un problème de style homérique. Paris. tr. in Parry 1971:1–190.

Parry, M. 1928b. Les formules et la métrique d’Homère. Paris. tr. in Parry 1971:191–234.

Parry, M. 1930. “Studies in the Epic Technique of Oral Versemaking. I. Homer and Homeric Style.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 41:73–147. repr. in A. Parry 1971:266–324.

Parry, M. 1932. “Studies in the Epic Technique of Oral Versemaking. II. The Homeric Language as the Language of Oral Poetry.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 43:1–50. repr. in A. Parry 1971:325–64.

Tichy, E. 1981. “Hom. ἀνδροτῆτα und die Vorgeschichte des daktylischen Hexameters.” Glotta 59:28–67.

West, M. L. 1973a. “Greek Poetry 2000–700 B.C.” Classical Quarterly 179–192.

West, M. L. 1973b. “Indo-European Metre.” Glotta 51:161–187.



[1] Corrigenda. On p. 203 between “same line)” and “specified,” insert “of the marital bed; similarly, she ‘recognizes’ (ἀναγνούσῃ xix 250) as sēmata (same line) the clothes …” (in the present printed version, the reference to the marital bed as sēmata at Odyssey xxiii 206 is distorted by a mistaken omission of the wording that needs to be restored here: by haplography, the mention of the marital bed is omitted, and this omission distorts the point being made about the clothes and brooch of Odysseus as sēmata in their own right at xix 250). On p. 214n42, “Pausanias 9.44.44” should be 8.44.4.