Saturday, January 4, 2020

For Love of a. . . Sappho, fr. 102

Dulcis mater, non possum profecto pulsare telam, desiderio domita [pueri / puellae?] gracilem per Venerem.

γλύκηα μᾶτερ, οὔτοι δύναμαι κρέκην τὸν ἴστον

πόθῳ δάμεισα παῖδος βραδίναν δι’ Ἀφροδίταν.

--Sappho fr. 102; translated from the Greek by Christian Frederick Neue, 1827.

Sweet mother, I can no longer work the loom, for I am undone by my love for a …,
thanks to the sublime Venus

* Although the narrator is clearly a woman (δάμεισα is feminine), the gender of the narrator's crush is unknown, as παῖς can mean young child, young man, or young woman. Is the narrator yearning for motherhood (literal meaning of παῖς) ? Does she love a young man (ὁ παῖς)? Does she love a young woman (ἡ παῖς)? The tantalizing ambiguity of this passage makes it one of the most poignant and universally beloved poems of the ancient world.

Name:  Σαπφώ / Sappho
Date:  630 – 570 BCE
Works:  <lost: only fragments remain>

Region 1: Peninsular Italy; Region 2: Western Europe; Region 3: Western Coast of Africa; Region 4: Egypt and Eastern Mediterranean; Region 5: Greece and the Balkans

Sappho was universally applauded by the ancient world as the “Tenth Muse.” Because she was one of the earliest Greek lyric poets, there is very little definitive information on Sappho’s life.  It is generally agreed that Sappho was a wealthy noblewoman from the island of Lesbos who had three brothers and a daughter named Kleis. She used her prominent social position to support a cohort of other women artists, and composed many poems about them, expressing her love for them, praising their beauty, and celebrating their marriages. Whereas earlier Greek poetry was epic poetry with serious themes of gods, warfare, and the state, Sappho’s lyric poetry is emotional, intimate and personal. Her poetry centers around womanhood and womanly love, providing rare insight into social mores of the time period. The modern term “lesbian” (a woman who is attracted to another woman) reveals the longevity of her impact upon western culture [NOTE: Although “lesbian” is the accepted term in modern English, authors in the ancient world used a different word for a homosexual woman, and only occasionally used the term “lesbian” euphemistically]. Unfortunately, although her poetry was universally revered by the Greeks and Romans alike, Sappho’s works only exist as fragments, adding mysterious allure to her larger-than-life status but unfortunately hindering our understanding of her life and thoughts.
 Archaic Greek
ARCHAIC: (through 6th c. BCE); GOLDEN AGE: (5th - 4th c. BCE); HELLENISTIC: (4th c. BCE - 1st c. BCE); ROMAN: (1st c. BCE - 4th c. CE); POST CONSTANTINOPLE: (4th c. CE - 8th c. CE); BYZANTINE: (post 8th c CE)