Ode to Aphrodite

by Sappho

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Ode to Aphrodite

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Probably the only complete surviving composition of Sappho, this poem of seven quatrains is written in a Greek lyric meter called the Sapphic stanza. The poem illustrates the three traditional parts of a prayer: the invocation, the sanction, and the entreaty.

In the invocation, Sappho calls on Aphrodite in a colorful, descriptive address to the goddess. Referring to Aphrodite respectfully as mistress, Sappho acknowledges with anguish and emotion Aphrodite’s control of the human souls that she subdues with distress and grief.

The central part of the poem moves from the poetic present to the past. This section represents the sanction of a prayer, a recognition of a god’s earlier relationship with a mortal. Here Sappho focuses on divine epiphany, on her own previous relationship with Aphrodite. The goddess omnisciently guesses the motive for Sappho’s prayer: Sappho’s passion for another woman, whom Aphrodite promises will soon love Sappho “even unwillingly.” (Much of Sappho’s poetry reveals a similar lesbian orientation.)

In the last four lines, Sappho returns to the poetic present and ends her prayer with an entreaty, a request. Sappho here begs more calmly for a second epiphany, for release from the pains of love. Aphrodite is described as Sappho’s “companion-in-arms,” her ally. This military metaphor emphasizes the strength of Aphrodite and of the emotion she oversees: Humans are powerless before this goddess and before this force.

The formal structure of the poem suggests a detached self-analysis; the tone, however, implies personal experiences and feeling. Verbal and thematic links between the first and last quatrains poetically express the answer to Sappho’s prayer: Intense emotion at the beginning of the poem is displaced by calmer, more rational speech at the end. Sappho’s prayer is thus a source of spiritual comfort. The poem, the experience itself, is the answer to her prayer.


Bowra, C. M. Greek Lyric Poetry from Alcman to Simonides. 2d rev. ed. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1961. An important study of major contributions to ancient Greek poetry. Provides a perceptive exploration of Sappho and her influence on other ancient poets. Chapter 6 is exclusively concerned with Sappho, and examines the Ode to Aphrodite.

Burnett, Anne Pippin. Three Archaic Poets: Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983. Technical and scholarly, the third section provides close attention to Sappho as a major contributor to ancient Greek poetry and discusses important aspects of Greek society.

Castle, W. “Observations on Sappho’s to Aphrodite.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 89 (1958): 66-76. A brief but concise introduction to the Ode to Aphrodite and certain issues of classical scholarship regarding the poem.

Davenport, Guy, trans. Preface to Sappho: Poems and Fragments, by Sappho. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1965. Provides a useful but brief discussion of Sappho’s contribution, her concept of Aphrodite and the poetry’s relation to and influence on modern writers. Includes notes on the translation.

Weigall, Arthur. Sappho of Lesbos: Her Life and Times. New York: Garden City, 1932. Although a bit antiquated as a general study, chapter 16 provides a superior and exhaustive review of all elements of the ode, from the meter to traditional aspects of the goddess in ancient Greek society. Index.

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