Ode to Aphrodite
Although it is possible to read the Ode to Aphrodite without extensive knowledge of Sappho and the culture in which she lived and worked, readers familiar with ancient Greece will develop a deeper appreciation for the poet’s accomplishments by comparing her works to other classical texts. What may seem like a highly personal poem is actually, on one level, highly derivative and conventional. Clearly designed for public performance, the Ode to Aphrodite relies heavily on conventions commonly used by Greek writers whose audiences were expecting to be entertained with familiar subjects and situations.
Specifically, in the Ode to Aphrodite the poet makes numerous allusions to Homer and other male writers. Additionally, a careful stylistic and content analysis of the work reveals that it is similar to many religious poems in the Greek tradition. Anne Burnett has called the work “the poetic expression of a personal religious faith,” in which Sappho “explores the changes that can be wrought by prayer, in a petitioner and in a divinity.”
Deliberate borrowings and conventional themes not only provide a reader with information about the tradition in which Sappho worked, but also reveal something about her strategies for representing the lives of women to her audiences, which were primarily made up of women. What one notices upon careful examination of the Ode to Aphrodite is that Sappho does not merely borrow conceits from her predecessors. Instead, she modifies and inverts familiar materials to create entirely new portraits of both the speaker and the goddess she addresses. For example, the scene described in the Ode to Aphrodite is reminiscent of one in book 5 of the Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.). Sappho transforms, however, Homer’s weak deity into a powerful force on whom women can call for help. Sappho’s use of Homeric epithets and situations provides an informed commentary on the values of her culture. Modern readers may discover, as Sappho’s original audiences no doubt did, that her poetry is ironic and imaginative, offering a sensitive appreciation of women’s experience.
Ode to Aphrodite, a representative introduction to the poetry of Sappho, may be summarized thus: The poet, Sappho, invokes the attention of Aphrodite, goddess of love, and invites her to leave the house of Zeus, mount her chariot, and let her doves bear her to the earth. The poet imagines their meeting: The goddess will ask who it is that troubles Sappho by fleeing from her, by refusing to reciprocate the ardors of love. That person—Sappho imagines the promise of the goddess—will soon suffer as Sappho now suffers. The vision, briefly and movingly expressed, concludes, and in the last lines Sappho takes up the prayer with which the poem begins. It is a prayer to a goddess who may or may not be gracious.
(The entire section is 1201 words.)