To cite this article:

Cottrell, Katherine. "Competition, Mutuality, and Ambiguity: Women’s Erotics in Sappho Song 1 and 94." Classics@ 16. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2017.

Competition, Mutuality, and Ambiguity: Women’s Erotics in Sappho Song 1 and 94

Katherine Cottrell
Anne Carson and Ellen Greene offer disparate theories of the erotics at work in Sappho’s surviving corpus. Carson maintains that Sappho’s erotics are in line with those of the dominant culture that frames lovers and beloveds as occupying two drastically different roles in a pederastic, homosexual relationship, viz. as active and passive lovers. Greene offers an alternative read of Sappho’s women’s erotics as one of mutuality based on her analysis of fragment 94 that runs counter to Carson’s analysis of the erotics of Sappho’s songs. Greene uses the results of her argument concerning this fragment to engage Carson’s take on Song 1. The answer, competition or mutuality, is not as exclusive as these two papers might suggest. Instead, inspired by Lisa Maurizio’s work on the ambiguity of the Pythias at Delphi, it is possible to imagine that Sappho purposely played into the ambiguity between the two possible readings. After an examination of Carson and Greene’s arguments, respectively, I will attempt to reconcile the two arguments to show that the respective readings do not have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, I find them complementary in a way that attests the songstress’s deft poetic talent.
Anne Carson offers an interpretation of Sappho’s Song 1 that hinges on a grammatical insight made in the sixth stanza of the song. [1]
καὶ γὰρ αἰ φεύγει, ταχέως διώξει,
αἰ δὲ δῶρα μὴ δέκετ᾽, ἀλλὰ δώσει,
αἰ δὲ μὴ φίλει, ταχέως φιλήσει,
κωὐκ ἐθέλοισα.

For if she flees, shortly she will pursue
If she does not accept gifts, rather she will give
If she does not love, shortly she will love,
even being unwilling.
Sappho 1.21–24
This stanza is Aphrodite’s judgment after Sappho’s pleas in the earlier parts of the song. Sappho invites Aphrodite to come to her aid in matters of unrequited love. Aphrodite appears in a moment of epiphany both to the character Sappho within the poem itself and to the audience by speaking through the performer(s).
Once Aphrodite makes her appearance she asks Sappho who is wronging her. Carson notes that there is a disjunction between the end of the fifth stanza and the beginning of the sixth. Sappho never answers Aphrodite’s question. Instead, Aphrodite continues to share her divine sentence. The controversy Carson wishes to address is whom the girl will pursue, to whom she will give gifts, and whom she will love. There are two basic camps in this debate: those who believe Aphrodite is implying that the young girl will return Sappho’s affections and those who believe Aphrodite is suggesting that soon enough (ταχέως) the young girl will suffer as Sappho is now while chasing after a different, fleeing young girl. Carson argues for the latter category of the young girl growing up and suffering a similar fate to Sappho’s current suffering, i.e. she will become like the Sappho character and will unrequitedly pursue her beloved. There is, of course, a collection of slight variations of each of these interpretations. For example, in the first option the young girl and Sappho could switch the directionality of their interests. The young girl could become the pursuer of the fleeing Sappho. [2] Another option in this interpretation is that the girl will return Sappho’s love and the two will enter into a state of mutual pursuit. This version is argued for by Greene and will be discussed below.
The suffering of the same fate in a later time according to Carson is the justice of Aphrodite that Sappho is calling for when she invites Aphrodite back again to help her. Carson writes, “she [the character of Sappho] is not daydreaming about imaginary reversals but looking forward to a concrete and inevitable revenge.” [3] Aphrodite assures the character of Sappho that the young girl, her beloved, will soon grow older and become a lover herself. She will then suffer as the character of Sappho does in the original performance of the song.
The key turn in Carson’s argument is that the sixth stanza lacks a direct object for διὠξει, δώσει, or φιλήσει. She notes that Aphrodite does not promise the character of Sappho that her beloved will do any of these things for Sappho. Without the explicit promise of happy returns, Carson argues that the jilted lover in this song, like many other pining lovers in Greek erotic poetry, is praying for a certain kind of revenge. She wants her beloved to know how it feels to be rejected. Carson expects that a Greek audience familiar with the typical balance of power in pederastic relationships would hear this stanza and assume the sort of delayed revenge for which she argues. She writes, “Aphrodite’s tone, then, is one of brisk and reassuring dismissal, as the goddess of love disclaims the possibility that Sappho’s beloved, no matter who she is, will remain an object of desire forever.” [4] Time is on the character of Sappho’s side, while her young beloved will soon fall prey to the passage of time, passing from beloved to lover. [5]
Ultimately, Carson offers her interpretation of this sixth stanza as the resolution to a variety of approaches ranging from close readings of grammar, cohesion of the meaning of the stanzas, and integration into larger structures of Greek erotic verse. She emphatically believes that Sappho is not asking for reconciliation, instead “she is praying for justice.” [6] The character Sappho is asking for the goddess to enact erotic justice on her behalf.
In stark contrast to Carson’s reading, Ellen Greene offers a cohesive theory of women’s erotics that is entirely against the grain of the larger structures of Greek erotic verse and understandings of the power dynamics in relationships. Greene argues that in fragment 94 specifically Sappho offers “an erotic practice and discourse outside of patriarchal modes of thought.” [7] In a moment of full disclosure, I will admit that I am partial to Greene’s larger project of using alternate methodologies to reimagine the nature of erotics presented in Sappho’s songs. [8] However, as will be discussed below, I do not find her argument entirely convincing. Her article is a means to challenge Carson’s reading of women’s erotics in Sappho’s songs in order to highlight the multitude of understandings that can arise from the meager fragments still remaining.
At first blush, the disagreement between Carson and Greene looks almost like the confusion Socrates has in the Symposium concerning the nature of Eros. Just after her account of the birth of Eros, Diotima tells Socrates that it is not surprising that he thought of Eros as he did given that he conceived of love as “being loved,” not as “being a lover” (Plato Symposium 204c1–7). The nature of Eros, for Diotima, is that he is a lover, not a beloved and ought to be seen as such. If we, like Page via Carson, understand this switch to mean that the young girl has become Sappho’s lover, then all is well. However, in the mortal realm, this sort of direct switching of roles between ἐραστής and ἐρώμενος does not seem to work. Not at least within the Symposium itself, as Alcibiades fails miserably in his increasingly desperate attempts to court Socrates.
The ἐραστής and ἐρώμενος relationship is the fundamental relationship discussed within the Symposium. It culminates in Diotima’s speech concerning the correct progression of τὰ ἐρωτικά, the rites of love. Within Diotima’s speech, the character Socrates and the author Plato offer a new sort of eroticism that eschews the standard processes of pederastic love. Diotima offers a story of ascent that begins with the love between two who are pregnant in mind, but insists that this love must transcend this level of personal love (Plato Symposium 207a–212b). I digress here. But I wish to point out that the following theory put forth by Greene might not be as outlandish at it seems. Sappho was composing well before Plato wrote. But, surely, Plato was not the only thinker to posit a different erotics. [9]
While Greene is in the camp that Sappho is asking Aphrodite not for delayed divine justice, but instead for the young girl to return her favor more immediately, she is not advocating for this clear reversal. Instead, Greene uses the lack of direct object as a proof that Sappho the poet is not willing to make either the beloved or the lover objects of the other’s affection. Instead, they both exist as subjects. Greene is making a fine point here. She believes that Sappho, the character, is entreating Aphrodite to allow both her and the girl to exist in a space outside this traditional ἐραστής and ἐρώμενος relationship.
Greene writes, “Aphrodite’s question to Sappho in lines 18–19 … seems to imply that Sappho wants Aphrodite’s help in turning the girl’s love in Sappho’s direction.” [10] Greene argues against Carson that given the framing of the song, Sappho would have no need of a repeated decrying of divine, universal justice. During any given performance of this song, it is not the first time the character of Sappho has called upon Aphrodite. The consistent use of the particle δηὖτε calls attention to this. [11] If the character Sappho had been assured of this justice once, Greene does not believe that she would need to repeatedly call on Aphrodite for reassurance, especially if this assurance is based on a universal truth.
The crux of Greene’s argument, though, lies outside her specific critiques of Carson. For her argument—that Sappho is not calling for erotic justice in the conventional sense, but also is not asking for the girl to become ἐραστής to the character Sappho—to work necessarily requires a non-conventional erotics (for archaic Greece). Her disagreement with Carson’s reading is a continuation of her line of discussion concerning fragment 94, apostrophe, intersubjectivity, and a counter-understanding to the hierarchical structure of ἐραστής and ἐρώμενος relationships.
Greene’s analysis of fragment 94 utilizes Benjamin’s concept of intersubjectivity. Greene explains that this theory is, “a mutuality between lover and beloved based on a subject position for women that defies cultural norms and furnishes an alternate basis for categorizing female experience.” [12] Women, and other marginalized groups, are able to posit these sorts of alternatives because they fall outside the dominant discourses. This is not to say that they do not participate in dominant structures, but that they have a different position in relation to them. The idea is that by being marginalized women are asked to participate in the dominant, hierarchical modes of love, but they also have opportunities to create alternatives specifically because they recognize the dominant view as constructed.
Greene uses Benjamin’s theory to analyze the way Sappho the poet creates this mutual subject position within fragment 94. It relies on both the progressive grammar and the poet’s use of apostrophe. First, apostrophe is a way that the erotic self both constitutes itself and constitutes the absent beloved. Since it is doing both at once the objectivity of the other is called into question. In some sense the self and the other are co-created in a way that dissolves the distinction between the two.
A key sentence from Greene’s article summarizes how she thinks fragment 94 works to create this enclave of mutuality. She writes, “The speaker’s erotic fulfillment comes not from making the beloved a beautiful object of contemplation, but by drawing the beloved to her by making the beloved a part of the lover’s interior world of memory and imagination.” [13] Greene argues that Sappho the poet does this by using the apostrophe. In using apostrophe, the speaker invites the absent beloved into her memory and is able to constitute both her erotic self and the beloved in that imagined space. That space, as Greene points out, is full of poetic imagery and seems to exist in a detemporalized and unmoored space. [14]
Greene does not rely on apostrophe alone to suggest this subject-object breakdown. She also considers the performer’s progression from third-person narrative to second-person imperative, to the first-person “we.” She notes that the song as it exists starts with a third-person narrative of separation. It then moves to imperatives where the speaker addresses her beloved. Then, in line 8 πεδήπομεν appears. Greene writes, “The ‘we’ of πεδήπομεν initiates a shift from reported speech to a detemporalized mode of discourse in which individual voices of the two lovers are no longer clearly differentiated.” [15] So not only does the apostrophic structure of the fragment suggest a collapsing of self and other, but the grammar does the same.
Overall, I find Greene’s argument compelling. I think it is possible in this fragment to see how the conventional hierarchical structure breaks down. Her critique of Carson’s analysis of stanza six in Song 1 is also plausible. However, as stated above, I do not think it is then the exclusive truth. Similarly, I do not think that Carson is incorrect in reading stanza six of Song 1 in the way that she does. I would like to address in the rest of this paper the question of how these two seemingly exclusive readings can coexist in a both/and relationship as opposed to an either/or as they suggest is necessary.
First, I would like to discuss who comprises the assumed audience of these songs for Carson and Greene, respectively. Carson does not explicitly state whom she imagines as the audience for Song 1. She does not talk about this song as it is performed. The presumed audience, however, includes men. Carson is aware that the written tradition of Sappho was guarded by scholiasts and other literate individuals which, given the society, suggests men. This, like her interpretation, is true within its limitations.
On the other hand, Greene assumes an exclusively female audience. [16] For Greene, Sappho must have written and performed her work (or had it performed) within the confines of female only spaces. It seems that this is the only way that the alternative erotics could have arisen according to her. I do not believe that Sappho needed an only female organization to create the work she did. In fact, I fundamentally disagree with this. Given the acts of preservation by males, there must have been something recognizable for them as well. How could she be so acclaimed still? Greene says, “many scholars believe that her fragments were performed either by Sappho herself or by a chorus of women to an audience comprising a community of other women.” [17] While Sappho’s songs are indeed choral, there is nothing that says exclusively female choruses performed them for exclusively female audiences. Sappho could compose from her female standpoint in a way that had a dual awareness that would not necessitate the complete absence of males in any part of the performance. [18] Greene writes about the bilingual ability with respect to Winkler’s work. She, however, thinks Winkler does not go far enough in his analysis. She wants to situate Sappho well outside the masculine. [19] This move is one of my main breaks from Greene’s argument.
Sappho composed these songs to be sung, not just once but repeatedly. The repeated performance of Sappho’s songs is the crucial aspect of my argument, which allows for both Carson’s and Greene’s reading of women’s erotics in Sappho 94 and Sappho 1. Here, I would like to introduce Gregory Nagy’s argument that Sappho’s songs were meant to be performed and his observations about the importance of understanding Sappho diachronically. I am borrowing directly from Nagy in his usage of the terms ‘synchronic’ and ‘diachronic’. Synchronic refers to a singular geographically and temporally situated instance of a song; diachronic refers to that song as it changes across time. [20]
Nagy deploys a similar argument in “Once Again This Time in Song 1 of Sappho” to the one I am proposing. He is working to settle the debate between the conflicting possible goals of the praying character Sappho in Song 1. He, too, uses Carson’s argument for divine justice or revenge (from Bennett) but contrasts it with Petropoulos’s argument from love spells, as the character Sappho wishes her beloved to love her back. Nagy argues that it does not have to be an either/or decision. [21] At any given synchronic moment, the character Sappho could be praying to Aphrodite to grant her the requited love of her beloved. But, if you put together different synchronic moments as a set (and thus view the performance of Sappho’s poetry diachronically) the beloved of the first performance could later perform the song herself with the goal of obtaining the affections of her own new beloved. [22]
While my tactics are similar and admittedly borrowed, I am aiming to deploy them with regard to a slightly different, yet still related, subject matter, i.e. the nature of women’s erotics as presented in Sappho’s fragments. I posit that Sappho the poet composed her songs in such a way that, when viewed diachronically, both Greene and Carson can be correct in their readings of her fragments. In one time, Song 1 is sung in a male symposium and Carson’s erotic justice is the correct understanding. In another, a pining female sings snippets of fragment 94 quietly after having heard it at a festival on Lesbos. In this instance she could be wishing for the intersubjective mutuality of Greene. I am looking at these two songs specifically as potentially paradigmatic for viewing Sappho’s fragments as a whole diachronically.
The key here is intentional ambiguity. Lisa Maurizio adds a second buttress to my argument. [23] Maurizio is concerned with reinscribing the authority of the Pythias as they wielded it. Maurizio writes, “how to interpret Delphic oracles as women’s speech nonetheless poses many difficulties because the Pythias were interrogated by exclusively male clients, and their oracles were transmitted orally and then recorded in writing by men.” [24] This is a similar project to interpreting Sappho’s speech as women’s speech. Maurizio discusses ambiguity as a site of negotiation of social expectation. [25] She argues that the Pythias used ambiguity to bolster their authority, to highlight the need for interpretation of all language, and to serve their clients. [26] Sappho’s ambiguity works similarly. She shows a command of traditional poetic forms, [27] but also moves those forms forward by introducing ambiguity. In the case of Song 1, one example of that ambiguity is in the lack of direct object in stanza six.
If the Pythias—actual women, not characters in songs—capitalized on the power of ambiguity, then it is feasible that Sappho would have as well. In her conclusion Maurizio writes, “the Pythias tethered their mantic authority to their mantic ambiguity and forged a way to accommodate their male clients, Apollo and themselves.” [28] Sappho the poet seems to have done the same. She tethered her poetic authority to her poetic ambiguity in order to accommodate her male audience, her female audience, the Muses, and herself.
This paper began as an exploration of two interpretations of women’s erotics in Sappho. Analyzing both Carson’s argument for a traditional hierarchical, and competitive interpretation of Song 1 and Greene’s argument for an intersubjective mutuality as the basis of female erotics in Sappho highlighted the dangers of being so far removed from the songstress and her culture while undertaking the task of interpretation. Introducing Nagy’s suggestion of the necessity of viewing Sappho diachronically and not synchronically opened a door to multiple possibilities. Borrowing Maurizio’s concept of the authority of ambiguity in women’s speech reinforced the portrait of Sappho as a powerful and playful poet.


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———, ed. 1996b. Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches. Berkeley.
———. 1996c. “Sappho, Foucault, and Women’s Erotics.” Arethusa 29:1–14.
Lugones, María. 1996. “Playfulness, 'World'-Traveling, and Loving Perception.” In Women, Knowledge, and Reality: Explorations in Feminist Philosophy, ed. A. Garry and M. Pearsall, 419–434. New York.
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Nagy, Gregory. 2015a. “Diachronic Sappho: Some Prolegomena.” In Classical Inquiries, ed. C. Filos and K. Stone.
———. 2015b. “Once Again This Time in Song 1 of Sappho.” In Classical Inquiries, ed. C. Filos and K. Stone.
Skinner, Marilyn B. 1996. “Woman and Language in Archaic Greece.” In Greene 1996b:175–192.


[ back ] 1. Carson 1996.
[ back ] 2. Carson (1996:231) cites Page’s argument for this understanding of role reversal.
[ back ] 3. Carson 1996:229.
[ back ] 4. Carson 1996:230.
[ back ] 5. Carson 1996:231.
[ back ] 6. Carson 1996:232.
[ back ] 7. Greene 1996a:234.
[ back ] 8. Similarly, Marilyn Skinner’s work is also appealing. Her chapter “Woman and Language in Archaic Greece, or, Why is Sappho a Woman?” (Skinner 1996) falls outside the limited scope of this paper, but it follows a methodology of French feminist theory which opens new possibilities of understanding Sappho’s resonance for the modern reader.
[ back ] 9. Interestingly this alternative erotics is presented by a female character, Diotima. Her femininity, of course, has been written about at length. Sadly, this line of inquiry also falls outside the limits of this paper at present.
[ back ] 10. Greene 1996a:244.
[ back ] 11. As Nagy (2015b) discusses, these instances of δηὖτε do more work than just noting that, even on the debut of this song, the character of Sappho has previously called upon Aphrodite for aid.
[ back ] 12. Greene 1996a:235.
[ back ] 13. Greene 1996a:237–238.
[ back ] 14. Greene 1996a:242.
[ back ] 15. Greene 1996a:240.
[ back ] 16. Greene 1996a:241
[ back ] 17. Greene 1996a:241.
[ back ] 18. I am sure that many people have written on this topic. I was introduced to it first through the chapter “Playfulness, ‘World’-Traveling, and Loving Perception” by María Lugones (1996). Since then she has been my touchstone on the dual literacy of those from marginalized groups.
[ back ] 19. Greene 1996a:234.
[ back ] 20. Nagy 2015a §2.
[ back ] 21. Nagy 2015b §18.
[ back ] 22. Nagy 2015b §18.
[ back ] 23. Maurizio 2001.
[ back ] 24. Maurizio 2001:39.
[ back ] 25. Maurizio 2001:54.
[ back ] 26. Maurizio 2001:43–45.
[ back ] 27. Song 31 for instance plays with both epic and wedding songs: see Engelmayer in this volume for discussion of the former.
[ back ] 28. Maurizio 2001:54.