Academic journal article Helios

The Rhetoric of Prayer in Sappho's "Hymn to Aphrodite"

Academic journal article Helios

The Rhetoric of Prayer in Sappho's "Hymn to Aphrodite"

Article excerpt

Although critics normally begin their discussions of Sappho's "Hymn to Aphrodite" (1 LP) with the assumption that the poem has the structure of a prayer, (1) they do not tend to incorporate an appreciation of how a prayer works rhetorically-that is, how the petitioner tries to appeal to, persuade, and manipulate the addressed god in each section of a prayer. I argue here that Sappho's poem may also be appreciated as a persuasive composition, and that Sappho uses the structure of a prayer in order to define and refine her relationship with the goddess.

Before addressing the details of this particular text, let me clarify what I mean by the "rhetoric of prayer." Each section of a prayer has a specific function. (2) In the identification section, the petitioner addresses the deity with a number of epithets, usually references to the god's genealogy and favorite haunts, and refers to aspects of the god that will be relevant to the eventual request. She may mention qualities of the god which could be instrumental for the favor requested or mention those which might be detrimental to the favor requested, in a bid not to have the god appear in that manifestation. Either or both choices serve to define the god and to shape the petitioner's relationship to that god. In the central section, the petitioner reminds the god either of favors that she herself has previously done for it, or of the god's past favors for her. Both approaches can be persuasive. With the former, the petitioner can expect a sort of reciprocity: the god will grant the favor because of favors i t has received from her. Since a principle of reciprocity is at work, it is in the petitioner's interest to recall instances of generous sacrifices rather than another occasion when the god went unacknowledged. Similarly, with the latter approach, the petitioner is free to recall any instance of the god acting favorably toward her in response to a prayer. Since this occasion will serve as a precedent for future encounters, it is better for the petitioner to recall a particularly pleasing past interaction in terms flattering to all parties. Through this recounting of the cooperation for which the petitioner is praying, the central section contains both memories and predictions. Only at the end is the request made, now that the petitioner has convinced the god that the two of them enjoy a particular sort of relationship.

Sappho opens her prayer to Aphrodite with a three-word line: [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. (3) Although Sappho seemingly addresses the goddess in rather general terms, each of these words has considerable significance, acknowledging as they do the awesome power and potential of the goddess. The exact reading for the first word is disputed; since the manuscripts are almost equally divided between the two readings, [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], (4) sense must dictate our choice. The adjective [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("on a variegated throne") suggests honor and prestige, but is not specific and so has been called an "ornamental epithet" (Page 5). The adjective [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("with a variegated mind"), on the other hand, recognizes multiplicity. I prefer to read [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] because of its force in this context. With this single word Sappho is able to admit her familiarity with the complex and various potentials of this goddess, and re cognizes the multiplicity of this goddess, her "many-mindedness," and her changeable nature. By acknowledging Aphrodite's changeableness at the start of the hymn, Sappho signals to her that she is wise to her tricks.

The second word, [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], is not a term normally used to describe Aphrodite. Page points out that Homer rarely applies this adjective to individual gods, but does use it for the Olympians as a group and for certain lesser deities such as Thetis, Circe, and Proteus. (5) The mention of the immortality of individual Olympian gods was probably unnecessary because of their familiarity, but lesser deities were described with the adjective [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] to recall their status and power. …

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