Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 725

There is a surprising amount of information about how Sappho’s work was received in ancient Greece. This is surprising because she never wrote down any of her work. She performed her compositions to music, and so they were memorized and later sung. Sappho lived at the cusp between the ending...

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There is a surprising amount of information about how Sappho’s work was received in ancient Greece. This is surprising because she never wrote down any of her work. She performed her compositions to music, and so they were memorized and later sung. Sappho lived at the cusp between the ending of the oral tradition and the beginning of the written word. Shortly after her death, a Greek alphabet was devised, and her poems were written down, gathered together, and collected into nine papyrus books. For the next three hundred years, Sappho’s work was studied and copied and passed around on papyrus, and it continued to inspire other poets, who both quoted from her and imitated her work. By the third century B.C., Sappho was recognized as a great lyric poet. Then her work virtually disappeared. Sappho herself continued to be well known because she became the object of Greek comedy and satire, but her poems were no longer being read.

What happened to her work became the source of several literary legends. Some stories blame the destruction of the great library at Alexandria for the loss of Sappho’s work, whereas other stories blame the loss of her work on the spread of Christianity and the church’s disapproval of Sappho’s celebration of female love. In The Sappho Companion, editor Margaret Reynolds attributes the loss of Sappho’s work to more ordinary events than deliberate largescale destruction. Reynolds argues that Sappho was merely a victim of changing fashions. The language of Athens became the classical Greek, with which scholars are familiar, while the language of Sappho, the Aeolic dialect, was regarded as provincial and no longer the language of art. Another change Reynolds notes is the change in writing materials. Papyrus was replaced by parchment codex, and many texts were rewritten on the new material. Reynolds suggests that perhaps “scribes and their employers thought Sappho an arcane taste, not worth the labour of retranscription.” Within a short period of time, all of her nine books had disappeared.

What remained were scraps of Sappho’s poems that had been preserved within the work of other writers who quoted from her songs and poems. The “Hymn of Aphrodite” is one of the few works that have survived in this manner after it was quoted in its entirety in Dionysus’s work On Literary Composition, published in about 30 B.C.

The availability of Sappho’s compositions changed late in the nineteenth century when farmers in Egypt discovered shreds of papyrus in an area that was being plowed for new fields. The areas being laid open had been a rubbish dump, and amongst the old pieces of papyrus were several fragments of poetry that were later identified as Sappho’s work. Many of the fragments had been used to wrap mummies. To do this, the papyrus was torn from top to bottom in narrow bands. In result, sections of poems were missing—often the center part. The nine books of poetry that had been written and compiled some twenty-five hundred years earlier were reduced to only about two hundred lines of verse, most with gaps in the middle of the line.

After the discovery of Sappho’s fragments, several translations of her work appeared. These were by writers who attempted to fill in the missing words with words that they thought fit the idea being expressed. It did not matter to these early translators that the archaic Greek that they were translating was exceedingly difficult to translate or that the word(s) chosen might not be correct. The idea of leaving a blank space in a line was unacceptable. Feminine pronouns that expressed Sappho’s love for other women were also changed to masculine, both to protect the sensibilities of the reader and also to sanitize Sappho’s reputation.

The tendency to rewrite Sappho has changed in recent years, and few readers of Sappho now read these early translations. A significant number of women literary scholars have become interested in Sappho’s work, and several translations that reflect both the author’s use of feminine pronouns and the gaps in verse have emerged and are being studied. The great irony about Sappho’s work is that her work has been preserved, not through Sappho’s own efforts, but through the work of admirers and scholars.

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