Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

The Enigma of a Weaver of Tales

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

The Enigma of a Weaver of Tales

Article excerpt

Following textual 'clues' sheds little new light on an ancient literary figure, says Barbara Graziosi

Searching for Sappho: The Lost Songs and World of the First Woman Poet

By Philip Freeman

W. W. Norton, 336pp, £17.99

ISBN 9780393242232

Published 11 March 2016

We know little about Sappho, the Greek lyric poet who sang of love, girls and her love for girls, in the late 7th century BC. Her contemporary Alcaeus describes her as "crowned-with-violets, divine, sweet-smiling, Sappho". A papyrus dated to the early 3rd century AD claims that she was "quite ugly: dark in complexion and of very small stature". The 19th-century philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff insists that she was a headmistress in a finishing school for girls. Many see her as a gay icon. Inevitably, these different visions of Sappho reveal more about those who imagine her than about the poet herself. Very little survives of her songs: some quotations preserved in other ancient authors, and a (steadily increasing) number of papyrus scraps retrieved from the sands of Egypt or extracted from mummy cartonnage.

In the only complete poem we have, Sappho remembers how Aphrodite descended from Olympus in a chariot drawn by sparrows, smiled and asked: "Who is it, Sappho,/who has done you wrong?/For even if she runs away, soon she will pursue./If she refuses gifts, she'll be giving instead./And if she won't love, she will soon enough,/even against her will." Most of the fragments are brief: a few lines, sometimes a single word. A teacher of rhetoric of the 2nd century AD writes, for example: "Sappho calls Eros mythoplokos", ie, "weaver of tales". This is a beautiful word, and typical of Sappho: it sounds like a traditional epithet (the language of epic and religious cult) but is actually her invention. As for revealing something about her or her context, it gives little away: at all times, and in all places, love weaves many tales. …

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