Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Sappho, a female poet from the Greek island of Lesbos, is known for her erotic romance poetry often written to female subjects. “Ode to Aphrodite” is one of her most commonly known poems, as unlike most of her other work, the complete text survives; the rest of her oeuvre exists only in fragments. Referring to the poem as complete is something of a misnomer, for translators still struggle to determine the correct interpretation of several lines. That all twenty-eight lines of Sappho’s lyric poem “Ode to Aphrodite” survive is notable and such small grammatical conflicts do not mar the poem’s reading.
Written in the style of the Sapphic stanza, the poem comprises twenty-eight lines divided across seven four-line stanzas. Each stanza includes three lines of the identical metrical pattern followed by a fourth, shorter line of a different pattern. Like most ancient Greek lyric poetry, “Ode to Aphrodite” was composed for public performance and would have often featured a musical accompaniment.
The poem is similar to a prayer, as the speaker, at first unnamed but later revealed to be Sappho herself, speaks to the goddess of love, Aphrodite. She implores the goddess’s aid, for she yearns for the affection of an unnamed woman who shows no sign of reciprocation. Because Sappho is ignored by her prospective lover, she pleads for Aphrodite's help to win the heart of the woman. Because of her supplication, Sappho is personally visited by Aphrodite and granted a reply.
Stanza one opens with an invocation, as Sappho calls to the goddess by name. Calling her (according to the Elizabeth Vandiver translation) “iridescent-throned,” Sappho references her beauty and divinity. As a “Child of Zeus” known as a “wile-weaver,” Aphrodite is uniquely situated to aid the speaker, for she is an expert in matters of the heart and knows how to subtly lure and entice. While Sappho praises Aphrodite, she also acknowledges the power imbalance between speaker and goddess, begging for aid and requesting she not “crush down my spirit” with “pains and torments.” This first stanza introduces the speaker and the object to whom their prayer is directed.
The second and third stanzas build from the first to flesh out the context of Sappho’s heartfelt prayer, describing Aphrodite’s descent from the heavenly realm to earth. In rich, vibrant terms she depicts the goddess’s arrival, standing before her with “sudden brilliance” conjured by the lovestruck speaker’s plaintive cry. The imagery she chooses is luxurious and colorful, ascribing power and beauty to the goddess who so willingly answers her call.
Stanza four records the content of their conversation; Aphrodite, who Sappho refers to as “deathless,” smiles down upon the lovesick mortal and asks a series of diagnostic questions to evaluate her circumstances and determine how she might be able to help the long-suffering Sappho. She wonders about the nature of the girl’s sorrow, asking after its source and what she might be able to do to help ease her pain. Reminding Sappho that she is, indeed, a goddess, she reassures the speaker of her power to help and requests to know whom she should summon and convince.
In the sixth stanza, the goddess assures Sappho that her romance will bloom with time. Her reassurance is heartfelt and acknowledges the pain of Sappho’s current circumstance, in which her love spurns her by running from her and rejecting her gifts. This is soon to change, Aphrodite confidently asserts, explaining:
Now she doesn't love you, but soon her heart will
Burn, though unwilling.
The final line of the sixth stanza, “Burn, though unwilling,” implies that Aphrodite will intervene on Sappho's behalf and...
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use her influence as the goddess of love to woo the object of Sappho’s affections and change her heart. The seventh and final stanza of "Ode to Aphrodite" ends with a supplication for continued aid from the goddess. The promises Aphrodite makes in the earlier stanzas appear to have been unfulfilled at the time of the poem's writing, and Sappho seems desperate for further reassurance or aid.
Despite the relatively simple content of "Ode to Aphrodite," scholars and translators have engaged in a fierce debate over varying interpretations of the poem. For example, some argue that Sappho's poem is a parody of a portion of the Iliad. Others interpret "Ode to Aphrodite" as a record of ancient Greek religious experience. The most commonly accepted explanation of the poem is that the lyric is the frustrated cry of a woman struggling with unreciprocated romantic love.