Women's History and Ancient History

By Sarah B. Pomeroy | Go to book overview

JANE MCINTOSH SNYDER


Public Occasion and Private Passion in the Lyrics of Sappho of Lesbos

Part of the problem faced by literary critics and historians in interpreting the poetry of Sappho has to do with the imposition of a "public" audience onto poems which seem designed for a "private" hearer--or at least for a hearer who understands the special language of women speaking to other women in a context not considered "public" according to prevailing male standards of social organization. The problem is in many ways analogous to the difficulty an ethnographer has in studying women in a particular society using a model of that society which is derived only from the male portion of the population. As the anthropologist Edwin Ardener has observed, the ethnographer who interviews women in a certain society must be aware that the women "will not necessarily provide a model for society as a unit that will contain both men and themselves. They may indeed provide a model in which women and nature are outside men and society." 1 As I hope to demonstrate, Sappho's poetry covers the full spectrum of models--and it is those fragments at the women-and-nature end of the spectrum which have been the most puzzling over the centuries to male-oriented critics of her work.


I

Many of the fragments of Sappho's poems seem to have been intended for presentation in connection with some social occasion--most often a wedding--which was part of the larger social structure in which Sappho lived, namely the presumably male-dominated aristocracy of late seventh- and early sixth-century B.C. Lesbos. 2 We can recognize the genre of these

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