Friday, February 26, 2021

For the love of Sappho

In antiquity Sappho's poetry was highly admired, and several ancient sources refer to her as the "tenth Muse". The earliest surviving poem to do so is a third-century BCE epigram by Dioscorides. She was sometimes also referred to as "The Poetess", just as Homer was "The Poet". 

The scholars of Alexandria included Sappho in the canon of nine lyric poets. According to Aelian, the Athenian lawmaker and poet Solon asked to be taught a song by Sappho "so that I may learn it and then die". This story may well be apocryphal, especially as Ammianus Marcellinus tells a similar story about Socrates and a song of Stesichorus, but it is indicative of how highly Sappho's poetry was considered in the ancient world.

Sappho's poetry also influenced other ancient authors. In Greek, the Hellenistic poet Nossis was described by Marilyn B. Skinner as an imitator of Sappho, and Kathryn Gutzwiller argues that Nossis explicitly positioned herself as an inheritor of Sappho's position as a woman poet.  Beyond poetry, Plato cites Sappho in his Phaedrus, and Socrates' second speech on love in that dialogue appears to echo Sappho's descriptions of the physical effects of desire in fragment 31. 

Some Romans inherited the Greeks appreciation for Sappho. In the first century BCE, Catullus established the themes and metres of Sappho's poetry as a part of Latin literature, adopting the Sapphic stanza, believed in antiquity to have been invented by Sappho, giving his lover in his poetry the name "Lesbia" in reference to Sappho (and, perhaps, Clodia Metelli), and adapting and translating Sappho's 31st fragment in his poem 51.

But Roman critics found her lustful and perhaps even homosexual. Horace called her "mascula Sappho" in his Epistles, which the later Porphyrio commented was "either because she is famous for her poetry, in which men more often excel, or because she is maligned for having been a tribad" - a term used to refer to eroticism between women although not used until Late Antiquity. By the third century CE, the difference between Sappho's literary reputation as a poet and her moral reputation as a woman had become so pronounced that the suggestion that there were in fact two Sapphos began to develop. In his Historical Miscellanies, Aelian wrote that there was "another Sappho, a courtesan, not a poetess."

Earlier Greek red-figured vessels would tend to contradict this later assessment, though, depicting Sappho with her contemporary male poet Alcaeus of Mytilene,  referencing a rumored love affair between the two poets. Alcaeus is credited with inventing the Alcaic stanza and, like Sappho, is listed as one of the nine lyric poets by the scholars of Hellenistic Alexandria.  Since both poets composed for the entertainment of Mytilenean friends, they had many opportunities to associate with each other on a quite regular basis, such as at the Kallisteia, an annual festival celebrating the island's federation under Mytilene, where Sappho performed publicly with female choirs. Alcaeus' reference to Sappho in terms more typical of a divinity, such as "holy/pure, honey-smiling Sappho" may owe its inspiration to her performances at the festival, though, rather than to a personal relationship.

But, sexual innuendo has often been used in efforts to discredit powerful or exceptional individuals in the ancient world. I wrote an article about it entitled "Sexual innuendo and character assassination in the ancient world back in 2012:

Terracotta bell-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water), ca. 460 B.C.E., Attributed to the Danaë Painter at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The scene here has an intimacy that is exceptional in Greek vase-painting. In an indoor setting, a seated woman plays the lyre. Before her stand two women, one of whom rests her chin and hands on the shoulder of the other. The listeners are enraptured by what they hear. All of the elements in the representation reflect daily life in mid-fifth century B.C. Athens. It is nonetheless tempting to see the subject in more specific terms. One scholar has suggested that the women might be muses. Another possibility is that the performer is the poetess Sappho, who appears on several black-figured and red-figured vases.

Sappho and Alkaios (Alcaeus) by the Brygos painter, 480 BCE Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich, Germany. The bubbles in front of Alkaio's mouth show that he is singing but Sappho rejects his courtship. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Matthias Kabel - I reduced the saturation then brightened to make the red-figure color tone more consistent with other red-figure ceramics and dehazed then burned in the black ceramic background to remove blue overtone.

Drawing of Alkaios und Sappho by Johann Jakob Horner, 1831, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Red-figure vase (hydria, or kalpis) by the Group of Polygnotos, ca. 440–430 BC. Seated, Sappho is reading one of her poems to a group of three student-friends. National Archaeological Museum in Athens, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Μαρσύας

Hellenistic Period Head of poetess Sapho, Roman, from ancient Smyrna, Istanbul Archaeology Museums courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Bjørn Erik Pedersen.

Hermaic pillar with a female portrait, inscribed Sappho Eresia Roman copy of 5th century BCE original that I photographed at the Capitoline Museum

Marble statue of a girl Roman 1st or 2nd century CE copy of a 3rd or 2nd century BCE Greek work (Sappho?) that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Detail of a mosaic depicting a bust of Sappho from the tombstone of Aurelius Aurelianus, 3rd Century CE, Split Archaeological Museum courtesy of Carole Raddato (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A constructed portrait bust of a woman known as the "Oxford Bust" or "Sappho" Head Roman version of a Classical Aphrodite 50 - 200 CE that I photographed at the Ashmolean Museum. Body was probably sculpted between 1540 and 1600 CE if not a reworked ancient piece.

Double portrait of the poetess Sappho (?) and Alkios of Mytilene, 2nd century CE from Italy, Roman copy of a 4th century BCE original, Neues Museum, Berlin courtesy of Carole Raddato, (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Beautiful modern sculpture of Sappho by Mauritian-born artist, Comte Prosper D'Epinay, Rome, 1895, that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Closeup of Beautiful modern sculpture of Sappho by Mauritian-born artist, Comte Prosper D'Epinay, Rome, 1895, that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

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