Historical Context

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Early Greek Development Sappho lived in a time of change, just after the end of the period known as the Dark Ages and just as the golden age of Greek life was beginning. At the beginning of the sixth century B.C., Greek people were not called by that name. The...

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Early Greek Development
Sappho lived in a time of change, just after the end of the period known as the Dark Ages and just as the golden age of Greek life was beginning. At the beginning of the sixth century B.C., Greek people were not called by that name. The Romans gave the people of the area the name “Greek.” The actual name that the people of this area used translated into English as “Hellenes,” hence the term “Hellenism.” In one sense, this period of Greek history had many similarities to the origins of the United States. The area that became Greece was filled with immigrants from other countries, just as with the early establishment of the United States. As the Dark Ages ended, a diverse group of people came together into one area, where they began to share the same language. All of these people would become known as Greek because they now lived together in the same location and because they shared similar religious beliefs. The Greek colonization of this area had begun only two hundred years earlier, but by the time Sappho was writing in the sixth century B.C., the unification of the Greek world was already well under way. One crucial aspect of this unification was the belief in myth as religion.

Greek religious life was based upon a complex grouping of gods and goddesses, whose existence governed every aspect of Greek life. Local superstitions were also important, as were some beliefs that had been imported from other cultures, but the centerpiece of religious life was the worship of Greek gods, who were remarkably human, in spite of their supernatural foundation. These gods were usually men or women, whose behaviors were governed by very humanlike passions. There were twelve Olympian gods, of which Aphrodite was one. There were many lesser gods as well, and many cities also had their own gods who served as protector. The Greek gods governed many aspects of daily life. For instance, the goddess Persephone is associated with a myth that explains the divisions of growing seasons and the creation of winter, while Aphrodite governed love and marriage. Many of these gods appeared in the poetry and drama of the period.

In addition to Sappho’s use of Aphrodite, Homer used many of the Greek gods in his two major epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Although Homer’s works had circulated orally for a long period of time, after they were written down in the sixth century B.C., they became the authoritative account of early Greek life, recalling the greatness that had been Greece and offering the promise of a golden age to come. Homer’s works also reinforced the role of the gods in Greek life and history.

Greek Life on Lesvos
Sappho was thought to have been part of the aristocracy. Although exact information about her parentage is unknown, most scholars think that her parents were wealthy and that she was brought up as part of a privileged class. In the sixth century B.C., Greece was made up of many city-states, each of which operated as individual communities and not as a unified government. The island of Lesvos was more cosmopolitan than the city of Athens,which was still largely a farming community.

Lesvos was an international trading center that shipped wine throughout the known world. This island was not the military center that Athens would become, since, unlike Athens, Lesvos was not involved in near constant warfare to defend its farmland. Lesvos was also farther east than the rest of Greece and so had been less affected by the Dark Ages, which had been brought about by the Dorian invasions five hundred years earlier. By the sixth century B.C., Lesvos was far ahead of Athens in its emphasis on art and culture.

The women on Lesvos enjoyed more freedom than the limited freedoms offered to other Greek women, especially the women of Athens. Women on Lesvos were more than appendages for their husbands. Women had more autonomy, spoke freely in public, and attended public gatherings. Their opinions were valued, and women could be educated and were encouraged to seek an education. Sappho’s school for young girls was not the only school available to serve this purpose. Although the great age of drama and poetry would not emerge in Athens for another hundred years, in Lesvos, literary culture was already encouraged. Young women were expected to engage in the writing of poetry and songs, just as they did at Sappho’s school. They were also encouraged to play musical instruments, most notably the lyre, which Sappho taught. Young girls were sent by their families to these schools, where they lived from about the age of twelve until age fifteen, when they left to marry. The freedom that women enjoyed was not absolute. Political strife could still interfere with life, even in the more relaxed atmosphere of Lesvos. For instance, although her family was wealthy and influential, Sappho was exiled twice during her lifetime.

Literary Style

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Catharsis is an ancient Greek device that suggests the purging or release of unwanted emotions, often through the use of poetry or drama. In Sappho’s poem, the speaker uses the heartache of love to describe the array of emotions that the lover’s abandonment has created. The poem easily describes the grief of the speaker through phrases such as “demented heart” and “aching pain.” The use of “demented” implies a loss of mind, a derangement of the speaker’s faculties that reveal the depth of her anguish. Sappho uses the language of poetry to express the emotions of rejected love, and in her descriptions of grief and heartache the reader is also able to acknowledge the universality of abandonment and love lost. The hopeful ending also suggests to the reader the possibility of resolution and a happy ending for all love affairs.

Sappho’s poem is generally titled the “Hymn to Aphrodite,” although it is occasionally listed in some texts as “Ode to Aphrodite.” The hymn is a genre that expresses religious emotion and is most often designed to be sung. Sappho’s poem almost certainly was performed in this manner. Later hymns, for example those created during the Middle Ages when the creation of hymns became an important expression of religious fervor, were the sole genre of Christian religious expression. In Sappho’s time, the hymn was no less fervent. Greeks believed in their gods as fervently as do Christians, who believe in their god and church as an absolute power. Sappho’s hymn is analogous to a prayer. She pleads with her goddess, Aphrodite, to intercede on her behalf. She opens the poem with a request for help, moves quickly into recalling past instances when the goddess has helped her, and concludes with an acknowledgement that she and her goddess are united as allies. A careful study of Sappho’s “Hymn to Aphrodite” acknowledges its place as a forefather to the later hymns of the Christian church.

Simply put, imagery refers to the images in a poem. The relationships between images can suggest important meanings in a poem. With imagery, the poem uses language and specific words to create meaning. For instance, in Sappho’s “Hymn to Aphrodite,” the goddess is described as a “guileweaver.” This term suggests the goddess’s cleverness with ruse and trickery. Later the speaker will recount a past experience when the goddess was able to force a lover’s return even though she returned “against her will.” Other images in the poem tell the reader even more about Aphrodite. She lives in her father’s, Zeus’s, “golden house,” where she sits on a “patterned throne,” whose image implies a rank equal to that of the most royal of personages. This image of aloofness is further supported by the notion that the goddess will approach Earth in a chariot pulled by “beautiful swift sparrows.” As a result of this image, the reader visualizes a magical entrance. The effect of all these word images is a picture of Aphrodite as powerful and strong, a goddess who is more than capable of helping the speaker.

A lament is a poem that expresses grief and is usually very personal in tone. The lamentation allows the poet a way to grieve her loss and is a way to make her pain visible. In the Old Testament, the Book of Lamentations provides the Jews with a way to mourn the loss of that which they loved, their city and their people. Sappho’s use of the lament in her poem provides a similar function. Her grief at her lover’s abandonment is acute and not easily assuaged. She calls upon the goddess to help return her lover to her, since that is the only solution that will resolve her pain. The pain described by the speaker is very personal. She opens herself, revealing the intensity of her grief, in an attempt to convince the goddess not to reject this plea for help. The effect of the lament is to describe for the reader the depth of anguish felt, even as it convinces the goddess that the need is genuine.

Lyric Poetry
Lyric poetry describes poems that are strongly associated with emotion, imagination, and a songlike resonance, especially when associated with an individual speaker or singer. Lyric poetry emerged during the Archaic Age and encompassed shorter poems than the previous narrative poetry of Homer or the didactic poetry of Hesiod. Since lyric poetry is so very individual and emotional in its content, it is, by its very nature, also subjective. Lyric poetry is also the most common form of poetry, especially since its attributes are also common to many other forms of poetry. Sappho is often acknowledged as one of the earliest poets to create lyric poetry. Her lyric poems were meant to be sung, as was all lyric poetry, and were accompanied by Sappho playing the lyre. In fact, Sappho is credited with the invention of the twenty-one-string lyre. Lyric poetry’s focus on individual feeling represented a new genre in Greek literary output.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Appleton, William Hyde, ed., Greek Poets in English Verse, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1893, pp. 118–19.

Barnard, Mary, Sappho: A New Translation, University of California Press, No. 38., 1958.

Barnstone, Willis, “Translator’s Introduction,” in Sappho, translated by Willis Barnstone, Anchor Books, 1965, pp. xxv–xxvi.

Bulfinch, Thomas, “Introduction,” in Bulfinch’s Mythology, Crown Publishers, 1979, p. 3

Davenport, Guy, “Translator’s Preface,” in Sappho Poems and Fragments, translated by Guy Davenport, University of Michigan Press, 1965, pp. vii–viii.

Jong, Erica, “Author’s Afterword,” in Sappho’s Leap, W. W. Norton, 2003, pp. 294–95.

Reynolds, Margaret, ed., The Sappho Companion, Palgrave, 2001, pp. 3, 15–32, 373–74.

Sappho, If Not Winter: Fragments of Sappho, translated by Anne Carson, Alfred A. Knopf, 2002, pp. 3–5.

—, Sappho: Poems & Fragments, translated by Josephine Balmer, Bloodaxe Books, 1992, p. 66.

Wharton, Henry Thornton, Sappho: Memoir, Text, Selected Renderings and a Literal Translation, J. Lane, 1885.

Williamson, Margaret, Sappho’s Immortal Daughters, Harvard University Press, 1995, pp. 49–52, 160–66, 171–74.

Wilson, Lyn Hathherly, “Aphrodite,” in Sappho’s Sweetbitter Songs, Routledge, 1996, pp. 21–42.

Further Reading
Cantarella, Eva, et. al., Pandora’s Daughters: The Role and Status of Women in Greek and Roman Antiquity, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. This book uses literary, judicial, and anecdotal sources to help readers distinguish accurate information about women’s lives during the classical period.

Deuel, Leo, Testaments of Time: The Search for Lost Manuscripts and Records, Knopf, 1965. This book includes a very interesting discussion of the papyrus discoveries in Egypt. Of particular interest is Chapter 8, “Pearls from Rubbish Heaps: Grenfell and Hunt.”

Dillon, Matthew, Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion, Routledge, 2003. This text offers an examination of the different ways in which girls and women participated in Greek religious life, especially with reference to feminine participation in the cults that existed in this period.

Lardinois, Andre, and Laura McClure, eds., Making Silence Speak: Women’s Voices in Greek Literature and Society, Princeton University Press, 2001. This book is a collection of essays that examine women’s literary creations and includes both Sappho’s poems and the letters written by other Hellenistic women.

Lefkowitz, Mary R., and Maureen B. Fant, Women’s Life in Greece & Rome: A Source Book in Translation, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982. This book is a fascinating collection of legal, medical, and social commentary that relates what early Greek and Roman men thought of the role that women played in men’s lives.

Martin, Thomas R., Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, Yale University Press, 1996. This book is a compact, easy-to-understand social and cultural history that is designed for the nonacademic reader.

Neils, Jenifer, et. al., Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past, Yale University Past, 2003. This text offers some interesting comparisons between childhood in the Greek world and childhood today. The book examines religious and educational life, as well as coming-of-age rituals.

Pomeroy, Sarah B., Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity, Dorset Press, 1975. Although an older text, this is one of the first books to use a feminist approach to the study of early women’s lives.

Compare and Contrast

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Sixth century B.C.: Solon establishes a timocracy in Athens, a form of government controlled by the richest members of society. Prior to Solon’s reforms, Athenian law permits the rich to own the best lands and monopolize government. Solon quickly begins constitutional reforms in Athens that bring about more moderation. Solon believes in reform, not revolution.

Today: Although ownership of property is no longer a requirement for a voice in government, in a very real sense, economic power still remains an important determinant of political rule. Greek ideas of democracy were influential in the establishment of the ideals of democracy established in the United States, but, just as it was in ancient Greece, financial power continues to exercise a disproportionate voice in government politics.

Sixth Century B.C.: The first suggestion of the origins of Greek theatre are thought to have begun in the late sixth century B.C., when a man named Thespis first adds speaking actors to performances of choral song and dance. The word thespian derives from his creation. Plays are performed outside during daylight, before large audiences, and at festivals that honor the god Dionysus.

Today: Greek theatre is still performed and still provides valuable lessons about human expression.

Sixth Century B.C.: A movement away from traditional mythology leads some Greeks to explore natural cosmology, in which there are no gods.

Today: The study of the origin and evolution of the universe continues to fascinate mankind. In the world today, this study has moved away from the metaphysical perspective of the ancient Greeks and instead focuses on scientific explanations.

Sixth Century B.C.: The first Parthenon, built on the Acropolis next to the Erechtheum, is built to honor the god Pallas Athena, a more militant persona of the god Athena. The goddess dresses in full armor and reflects the nature of Athenian life during this period. After the battle of Marathon, a second Parthenon is built during the fifth century B.C., which still stands today.

Today: Remains of the Parthenon are in ruin. Because it has been whitewashed by hundreds of years of sun, most visitors do not realize that the building was not always white. The decor and statuary that inhabited this building were at one time painted in vivid colors. The color is now gone, as is the roof and much of the decor, but even in its ruined state the Parthenon continues to attract visitors.

Sixth Century B.C.: Greek citizenship is open to free adult males but not to women, slaves, or foreigners.

Today: Greek citizenship is open to both genders, but citizenship to foreigners is less available. Citizenship brings with it many responsibilities, as the early Greeks recognized. The biggest difference today is that women are now acknowledged to have attributes of value that contribute to a country’s economic and political success.

Sixth Century B.C.: Greek sculpture from this period displays the influences of Egyptian art. Marble statues from this period depict men standing in a rigid pose, with arms carefully lined up next to the body. The pose is very singular in dimension, with a full frontal view and no sense of movement.

Today: Art is much more relaxed and natural. Nudes are no longer depicted as if standing at attention, with hands rigidly pulled into fists. Although a study of ancient Greek sculptures can relay information about art, their very rigidity offers less information about Greek life. The more natural art of today, on the other hand, provides a clearer window into the social culture in which it is created.

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