Sappho’s “Hymn to Aphrodite” is the only poem from her many books of poetry to survive in its entirety. The actual text of the poem was quoted by Dionysus, an orator who lived in Rome about 30 B.C. He quoted Sappho’s poem in full in one of his own works, which accounts for the poem’s survival. Sappho’s poem consists of a plea from a forlorn individual to help secure the ardor of a reluctant lover. Such requests were common for the period in which the poem was written, but Sappho’s poem also provides a dialogue, since it provides the goddess’s response to the poet’s plea. Sappho’s devotion to Aphrodite is reflected in this personal response, which suggests an intimacy, and thus a uniqueness, among such works. As is the case with “Hymn to Aphrodite,” many of Sappho’s poems focus on love and marriage, often addressing pleas to the goddess Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Sappho organized a group of her young female students into a thiasos, a cult that worshipped Aphrodite with songs and poetry, and “Hymn to Aphrodite” was most likely composed for performance within this cult.
The “Hymn to Aphrodite” has no specific date of composition but, like all Sappho’s work, was composed in the sixth century B.C. After Sappho’s death, her poems were preserved in an early third century B.C. library in Alexandria, Egypt, but eventually the texts disappeared and only fragments now remain. Recently, several translations of “Hymn to Aphrodite” were included in Margaret Reynolds’s study of Sappho’s poetry, The Sappho Companion (2001). Another scholarly translation is included in Sappho: Poems and Fragments (1992), by Josephine Balmer.