Sappho of Mytilene, a city on the island of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea, is universally considered the greatest female poet of ancient Greece, if not of all time. Considered the beginning of the tradition of female same-gender poetry (and the ultimate source of the somewhat misleading label “lesbian”), Sappho’s work has played a central role in feminist theories about sexuality in literature, art, culture, and history. Among many fragmentary texts and partial quotations of her work, the “Ode to Aphrodite” is the only complete poem of Sappho to have survived. Accordingly, it cannot fail to interest students both of the art of poetry and of classical Greek culture.
“Ode to Aphrodite” survives because it had been quoted in a work on literary composition, De compositione verborum, by the ancient critic Dionysius of Halicarnassus, as an example of Sappho’s polished style. Portions of the poem also have been found on papyrus at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. The poem consists of twenty-eight lines, arranged in seven Sapphic stanzas, each consisting of, in extreme oversimplification, three eleven-syllable lines followed by a shorter line of five syllables, according to a specific pattern. (The 1980 edition of The Meters of Greek and Latin Poetry, by James W. Halporn, Martin Ostwald, and Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, offers a more exact, and more complex, account of Greek metrical practice.)
The basic story of the poem is straightforward: The first stanza invokes the goddess of love, Aphrodite, and seeks her help in dealing with a recalcitrant lover. The following stanzas describes Aphrodite’s earlier assistance. In the heart of the poem (the epiphany or manifestation of the goddess), Aphrodite addresses Sappho directly, calling her by name. The poem concludes, in the last stanza, with Sappho’s renewed request for the goddess’s intervention.
Though this outline sounds simple enough, controversy surrounds the text and its interpretation, literally from the first word on. For example, most scholars read the first words as poikilothron, though there is some slight textual authority for that first word to be poikilophron. Some Greek manuscripts include the latter, but most of them, along with the papyrus evidence, support the less interesting poikilothron. (The difference in Greek turns on a single letter, either a theta or a phi, with similar written forms—an oval with a line.) The term is unfortunately a hapax legomenon (that is, a word that occurs nowhere else in classical literature), but its uncontroversial first part is clearly derived from poikilos, which has a range of meanings suggesting “multiple aspects”:...
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