Ode to Aphrodite by Sappho

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Ode to Aphrodite Summary

"Ode to Aphrodite" is a 28-line lyric poem composed by Sappho, a famous woman poet from the Greek island of Lesbos. This poem is notable because, unlike Sappho's other poems, the complete text of "Ode to Aphrodite" survives. "Ode to Aphrodite," like most lyric poetry of ancient Greece, was composed for public performance, often with musical accompaniment.

Over the course of seven stanzas, Sappho prays to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Sappho names herself as the speaker of the poem and states that she longs for the affection of an unnamed woman. 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.

The first three stanzas of the poem portray Sappho's agonized request for Aphrodite's patronage. Using colorful imagery, Sappho begs Aphrodite for aid and describes the goddess of love leaving the heavenly realm and descending to earth.

The fourth and fifth stanzas record Aphrodite's diagnostic series of questions to determine how she can help Sappho. Aphrodite asks six rhetorical questions designed to comfort Sappho and remind her that Aphrodite is powerful enough to help.

In the sixth stanza, Aphrodite reassures Sappho that her romance will bloom with time. Aphrodite asserts,

Now she doesn't love you, but soon her heart will
Burn, though unwilling.

The clear implication is that Aphrodite will intervene on Sappho's behalf by using her power as the goddess of love.

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 even more 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.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1,952 words.)