Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
January 21, 2022

Ancient poems found in time for Valentine’s

By MARU JAIME GARZA | February 21, 2014

For better or for worse, Valentine’s Day resonates with all of us. Some use the day for inspiration, searching for that special someone. Others attempt to forget the romantic day’s existence altogether. A select few turn to literature, hunting for poems that will arouse tender feelings in others.

Fortunately for these more literary among us, two poems were recently discovered by Sappho, a Greek poetess from the 7th century B.C.E. While one of the poems, which were written on ancient papyrus, speaks of a blunted romance, the other is probably more important to academics than romantic dreamers, as it includes biographical information about Sappho’s life. This second work will help classicists, historians, archaeologists and anthropologists gain a deeper understanding of the mysterious woman whose writing has been fragmented by time.

The two pieces, dated to around 200 C.E., belong to an anonymous collector who recently showed the works to Dirk Obbink, a classicist at the University of Oxford. Based on the meter, dialect and themes of the lines, Obbink attributed the poems to Sappho. While this illumination is exciting, being able to attribute the works to Sappho only scratches the surface of academic investigations.

Sappho researchers, in order to better understand the texts and Sappho’s relation to them, stress the importance of reconstructing the society in which the poems were written. Greek society of the 7th and 6th centuries B.C.E. was very restrictive for women. This suggests that Sappho was likely one of the few female writers of her time.

In addition to standing out among her fellow poets and songwriters because of her gender, Sappho may have stood out among Greeks because of her birthplace. Sappho came from Lesbos, a Greek island traditionally constructed as a land of beautiful, promiscuous women. Homer, a writer of the 8th century B.C.E., reinforced this stereotype in the ninth book of the Iliad: Seven women of Lesbos are used as equals with gold and horses for bargaining power. Many of Sappho’s writings are described as erotic. Thus, this poetess seems to have distilled the feminine culture of her birthplace into lines of poetry.

This distillation process may have transcended the page, as researchers seem to believe that Sappho intended her words to be performed in front of an audience. Urn-like artifacts from Sappho’s time, most notably red-figure hydriai, have been essential to this understanding of Sappho’s intentions. One particular hydria depicts Sappho holding a scroll and surrounded by other women. Researchers think this may imply that Sappho’s compositions were performed for women’s gatherings.

This interpretation, along with complex socio-cultural perceptions, have led some investigators to push this view a bit further; they believe that Sappho’s texts were homoerotic and may have been performed in a brothel–like environment. However, there has been some academic resistance against this interpretation, as some Sappho investigators have attempted to decipher the surrounding women as Muses and Sappho as a divine figure.

Despite this hydrai depiction, some researchers think that Sappho’s works may not have been restricted to female gatherings. In the male-dominated society of ancient Greece, men would often get together for drinks, conversation and light entertainment. Because the exact nature of this entertainment is unknown, some historians have speculated that Sappho’s texts were read to these male audiences. The tendency of Sappho’s works to be used in social gatherings, regardless of the audience’s gender, may have broadened the poetess’s fame, spreading her name from Lesbos to the Greek Ionian mainland and the adjacent islands.

In ancient Greece, Sappho’s fame may have been attributable to more than just her writings. In her texts, Sappho often alludes to performances of her work. She describes musical instruments and often includes other performance-related images and diction. The specificity of Sappho’s allusions have led some ancient historians and ethnomusicologists to conclude that Sappho composed her own melodies.

With amazing precision, these researchers think Sappho intended her music to be sung by females in higher tonalities. However, because music was passed down orally, researchers lack written proof of these musical compositions. Nevertheless, through devoted oral transmissions and elegant Greek scripts of text, Sappho has managed to transcend the ages.

Dimitrios Yatromanolakis, a professor in the Classics and Anthropology Departments and the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins University and the author of “Sappho in the Making,” believes there is still much to explore in Sappho’s art. With the discovery of these two spectacular works, all eyes are turned to those capable of discerning the ancient texts. However, the road will not be easy: Discerning these poems will involve a large degree of cultural and literary research.

Despite the thousands of years separating modern people from Sappho, many readers today derive joy from Sappho’s ancient songs. Maybe this Valentine’s Day a few of us will pass on Sappho’s words to a loved one.

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