To cite this article:

Engelmayer, Caroline. "A Lyric Aristeia and a Lover’s Rout: Gender and Genre in Sappho 31." Classics@ 16. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2017.

A Lyric Aristeia and a Lover’s Rout: Gender and Genre in Sappho 31

Caroline Engelmayer
Glory in ancient Greek epic was often reserved for two groups: warriors who earned their kleos through heroic feats on the battlefield and bards who increased their own renown by recounting fighters’ daring exploits. Warriors and performers tended to be men so kleos was typically denied to women. To be sure, some women obtained glory. The Amazon warrior Penthesileia, for example, wins impressive victories, including over fearsome male warriors, during the Trojan War. And, in Book 24 of the Odyssey, Penelope gains kleos, as the speech of Agamemnon’s psyche from the Underworld reveals: [1]
ὄλβιε Λαέρταο πάϊ, πολυμήχαν’ Ὀδυσσεῦ,
ἦ ἄρα σὺν μεγάλῃ ἀρετῇ ἐκτήσω ἄκοιτιν
ὡς ἀγαθαὶ φρένες ἦσαν ἀμύμονι Πηνελοπείῃ,
κούρῃ Ἰκαρίου, ὡς εὖ μέμνητ’ Ὀδυσῆος,
ἀνδρὸς κουριδίου. τῶ οἱ κλέος οὔ ποτ’ ὀλεῖται
ἧς ἀρετῆς, τεύξουσι δ’ ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἀοιδὴν
ἀθάνατοι χαρίεσσαν ἐχέφρονι Πηνελοπείῃ.
Blessed son of Laertes, ever-resourceful Odysseus, with great merit you acquired your wife, since blameless Penelope, daughter of Icarius, possessed good sense, when she was properly mindful of Odysseus, her wedded husband. The glory of his merit from will never come to an end and the gods will fashion a song for the earth-dwelling mortals, bringing beauty and pleasure to sensible Penelope. [2]
Odyssey 24.192–198
Yet these glorious women are not the norm in epic. Penthesileia is one of the few female warriors whose courageous feats at Troy are immortalized (but memorialized on artwork like vase paintings, and not included in Homer’s epic). And even Penelope’s glory is dependent on her husband’s renown, since her kleos stems from her ability to further Odysseus’ fame. In complimenting Penelope, Agamemnon contrasts her with his own wife Clytemnestra: Clytemnestra’s treachery robbed him of the glory of a successful nostos, whereas Penelope’s loyalty made possible Odysseus’ glorious homecoming (Odyssey 24.199–202). [3] Thus Penelope’s glory is not completely her own, as it originates from her ability to create kleos for her husband.
More typical of the relationship between women and glory in epic are Helen and Briseis. Rather than earning kleos, these women are for the most part powerless. After she is stolen from Menelaus by Paris, Helen is held captive in Troy, unable to leave and rejoin her husband. While she is not reduced to a role of complete helplessness—for example, she deftly uses language to upbraid Paris for his cowardice in battle in Book 3 of the Iliad—she loses control of her future. The outcome of the war, rather than her own actions, will determine whether she will be free or enslaved, whether she will return to her husband or live with another man. In this position of powerlessness, Helen does not obtain kleos. She cannot distinguish herself in battle by exhibiting courageous feats nor does she win glory for herself by praising heroes at Troy, some of whom she resents for helping Paris steal her away. Likewise, the Iliad begins with Achilles and Agamemnon locked in fierce disagreement over who will gain possession of Briseis, whom they view as a war prize. Briseis, like Helen, skillfully uses language to convey her reactions to the war and the soldiers partaking in it (for example, when she laments the death of Patroclus in Book 19), yet she, too, ultimately has very limited control—and perhaps no control at all—over what will happen to her during or after the battle. In this position of powerlessness, Briseis does not gain glory. She neither wins recognition for valiant achievements in battle nor becomes a famous reteller of warriors’ deeds.
In poem 31, Sappho presents a fundamentally different relationship between women, heroism, and glory, even while using language typical of epic. Although the poem is fragmentary, in the piece that survives, the poem’s Speaker recounts the overwhelming anxiety that grabs hold of her whenever she so much as glances at the woman whom she loves. For the Speaker, this nervous breakdown is so powerful that it seems as if she is actually suffering physical symptoms. As she endures what she describes as a near-death experience, the man in the poem, who can sit near the woman without having a panic attack, seems godlike in comparison:
Φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θέοισιν
ἔμμεν᾽ ὤνηρ, ὄττις ἐνάντιός τοι
ἰσδάνει καὶ πλάσιον ἆδυ φωνεί-
σας ὐπακοὐει
καὶ γελαίσας ἰμέροεν, τό μ᾽ ἦ μάν
καρδίαν ἐν στήθεσιν ἐπτόαισεν
ὠς γάρ ἔσσ᾽ ἴδω βρόχε᾽ ὤς με φώνη-
σ᾽ ὀυδὲν ἔτ᾽ εἴκει,
ἀλλὰ καμ μὲν γλῶσσα ἔαγε, λέπτον
δ᾽αὔτικα χρῶς πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμακεν,
ὀππάτεσσι δ᾽ οὐδὲν ὄρημμ᾽, ἐπιβρό-
μεισι δ᾽ ἄκουαι,
ἐκαδε μ’ ἴδρως κακχέεται, τρόμος δὲ
παῖσαν ἄγρει, χλωροτέρα δὲ ποίσας
ἔμμι, τεθνάκην δ᾽ ὀλίγω ῾πιδεύης
φαίνομ᾽ ἔμ᾽ αὔται.
ἀλλά πὰν τόλματον, ἐπεὶ καὶ πένητα

He seems to me to be equal to the gods,
That man, whoever sits opposite you
And listens close by
To your sweet speaking
And pleasant laughing, it
Makes the heart in my chest fly
For when I look at you, even briefly,
Speaking remains in me not at all,
But my tongue stops working, straight away
A slender flame darts under my skin,
And there is no vision in my eyes, and
Drumming in my ears,
Sweat grabs hold of me, and trembling
Seizes all of me, and I am greener than grass
And I seem nearly dead to myself
But all is to be dared, because even a poor person
Sappho 31
Initially, it may seem that the poem’s Speaker is precluded from glory and heroism because she cannot even look at the woman without experiencing such crushing anxiety that it manifests itself as physical weakness. However, in this essay, I argue that Sappho’s portrayal of the Speaker breaks from depictions of women that were predominant in epic. Using language characteristic of epic in a lyric poem, Sappho shows that, while women typically could not display strength or gain glory in war, they could achieve recognition for their accomplishments as lovers. [4]
First, I will argue that Sappho uses allusions to epic in fragment 31 to depict the man in the poem, the successful lover, as stronger than an epic fighter and to portray the Speaker, the thwarted lover, as weaker than her epic counterparts, thus indicating that, in love, women participated in a sphere with higher stakes than physical battle. Then, I will make the case that even the Speaker, the failed lover, displays heroism in her encounter with the woman. Finally, I will contend the Speaker wins recognition for herself by recounting her feats as a lover, just as epic poets gained fame for retelling the deeds of heroes.
Through echoes of Homer, Sappho uses epic allusions to show that lovers can achieve greater extremes of strength and weakness than epic fighters. [5]  Καρδίαν (6) and ἐν στήθεσιν ἐπτόαισεν (6) are both phrases found in epic. [6] Additionally, ἴσος θέοισιν (1), a phrase reminiscent of Homeric language, implies that the “man [in Sappho 31] can remain seated … ‘face to face’ with the girl, like a hero facing up to an opponent.” [7] Likewise, six of the eight symptoms the Speaker suffers “have their counterpart in Homer: dumbness, blindness, sweating, trembling, pallor, and fainting,” [8] while the phrase “greener than grass” (χλωροτέρα δὲ ποίσας, 14) “derives from Homeric vocabulary expressing fear.” [9] Sappho thus uses epic allusions in lyric to liken love to war, depicting the man, the Speaker, and the woman as participating in a metaphorical fight, even as female characters such as Briseis and Helen were excluded from physical battle in Homer.
Sappho even goes a step further than merely equating love with combat. In poem 31, love is a more powerful force than war, a force that produces more drastic extremes of victory and defeat. The fact that the man, the successful lover, [10] exhibits even more fortitude than an epic hero at his greatest moment, his aristeia, is evidence of this. Garry Wills argues persuasively that ἴσος θέοισιν (“equal to the gods”) has the epic meaning of “equal to the gods” in strength rather than happiness. [11] However, he does not go on to analyze the different moments in which Homer uses similar phrases in an effort to determine whether Sappho’s depiction of the man is consistent with epic portrayals of conquering heroes. The similarity between ἴσος θέοισιν and the Homeric phrase δαίμονι ἶσος is especially compelling. Both phrases contain ἴσος followed by a word meaning “god” in the dative. Δαίμονι ἶσος is thus grammatically more similar to ἴσος θέοισιν than words or phrases like θεοείκελος and ἰσόθεος φώς, [12] so I will compare the strength that the man in Sappho 31 obtains when he is described as ἴσος θέοισιν to the feats that epic heroes accomplish when they are described as δαίμονι ἶσος in the Iliad. Significantly, whenever Homer uses δαίμονι ἶσος in the Iliad, he is describing warriors (Diomedes and Patroclus, for example) “at the height of their … aristeiai.” [13]
Even when these fighters are described as equaling the gods, they cannot shirk their limitations as mortals, yet the man in Sappho 31 does not face these same constraints. Even during their aristeiai, Homeric heroes do not truly become as strong as deities. When Diomedes attempts to fight Aeneas, who is aided by Apollo, Homer says,
τρὶς μὲν ἔπειτ’ ἐπόρουσε κατακτάμεναι μενεαίνων,
τρὶς δέ οἱ ἐστυφέλιξε φαεινὴν ἀσπίδ’ Ἀπόλλων·
ἀλλ’ ὅτε δὴ τὸ τέταρτον  ἐπέσσυτο δαίμονι ἶσος
δεινὰ δ’ ὁμοκλήσας προσέφη ἑκάεργος Ἀπόλλων.
Then three times he rushed violently, desiring earnestly to kill him, three times Apollo struck his radiant shield. But indeed when, on the fourth try, he charged, equal to a god, far-shooting Apollo spoke, making terrible threats.
Iliad 5.436–439
According to Lorenzo Garcia, the “theme of ‘counting’” reminds readers that these heroes are weaker than the gods since “Diomedes and Patroklos each strive in turn against a god three times, but on the fourth time they are beaten back.” [14] The structure of this passage mirrors Diomedes’ initial hope to defeat the gods during his aristeia. Homer repeats τρίς at the beginning of two consecutive lines, yet shows that this hope is unrealistic by beginning the next line, which describes what happens on the fourth try (τὸ τέταρτον) with the adversative ἀλλ’. Homer makes the distinction between humans and gods explicit when Apollo tells Diomedes, μηδὲ θεοῖσιν / ἶσ’ ἔθελε φρονέειν (“Do not strive to have the same thoughts as the gods,” Iliad 5.440–441), using the phrase θεοῖσιν / ἶσ’ that resembles δαίμονι ἶσος.
Homer also reminds the reader that Diomedes’ strength is limited by stating that he cannot achieve his aristeia without the help of deities. In Book 5, Ares complains to Zeus that Athena has helped Diomedes become equal to a god, stating,
Κύπριδα μὲν πρῶτον σχεδὸν οὔτασε χεῖρ’ ἐπὶ καρπῷ,
αὐτὰρ ἔπειτ’ αὐτῷ μοι ἐπέσσυτο δαίμονι ἶσος.
First, in close combat, he wounded Aphrodite at her hand on her wrist, but then he, equal to a god, rushed at me myself.
Iliad 5.881–884
Homer’s use of δαίμονι ἶσος here reveals that Diomedes needs deities’ help to become strong enough to fight a god. In the Iliad, it is beyond the power of mortals to become equal the gods on their own.
Likewise, Patroclus does not actually equal the gods even when he is described as δαίμονι ἶσος. Not only is his godlike power described as temporary, but he dies soon after he is likened to the gods, thus suffering the ultimate reminder of his mortality. During his aristeia, when he approaches Troy and charges, Apollo holds him off:
τρὶς μὲν ἐπ’ ἀγκῶνος βῆ τείχεος ὑψηλοῖο
Πάτροκλος, τρὶς δ’ αὐτὸν ἀπεστυφέλιξεν Ἀπόλλων
χείρεσσ’ ἀθανάτῃσι φαεινὴν ἀσπίδα νύσσων.
ἀλλ’ ὅτε δὴ τὸ τέταρτον ἐπέσσυτο δαίμονι ἶσος,
δεινὰ δ’ ὁμοκλήσας ἔπεα πτερόεντα προσηύδα
Three times Patroclus charged at the bend of the high wall, three times Apollo drove him away with force, striking his radiant shield with immortal hands. But indeed when, on the fourth try, he charged, equal to a god, Apollo spoke winged words, making terrible threats.
Iliad 16.702–706
As with Diomedes, Homer states that Patroclus can rival the gods three times but will fail on his fourth attempt; his godlike abilities are short-lived. In fact, Patroclus suffers an even more pressing reminder of his mortality than Diomedes when, at the end of his aristeia, he is killed by Hector, aided by Apollo and Euphorbus. He can only be “equal to a god” for an instant, then he must confront his own mortality, an all too human characteristic. [15]
While the man in Sappho 31 is described as “equal to the gods,” like these epic heroes, he is not constrained by the same limitations of mortality that Diomedes and Patroclus cannot escape. No gods help the man in fragment 31 become ἴσος θέοισιν. His ability to speak with the girl that the Speaker loves without feeling debilitating symptoms makes him “equal to the gods,” and the man accomplishes that on his own. In fact, while a god helps Diomedes become δαίμονι ἶσος, the man is described as divine in his own right. Φαίνεται (1), the word that the Speaker uses to recount the man’s appearance, is a term used in descriptions of epiphanies, moments when divinities reveal themselves to humans. [16] The man thus appears to the Speaker as a god appears to a mortal in a vision. Likewise, κῆνος is the language of epiphany too, as in Philostratus Heroikos 3.3–5, where it conveys “remoteness” and shows that “the gap between the superhuman and the human is so great that it sets the superhuman apart from the human even in the process of attempting to bridge that gap in an epiphany.” [17] The same divide between the superhuman and the human is present in Sappho 31. Sappho’s language indicates that the man is portrayed not just as resembling the gods but as actually becoming a god, while the Speaker, a mortal, remains distant from him, as κῆνος shows. The man, unlike a Homeric hero, does not need a god’s help to become ἴσος θέοισιν because he himself is divine within the logic of the poem.
Furthermore, in contrast to Homeric aristeiai, there no sense that the man’s status as “equal to the gods” in Sappho 31 is temporary. In fact, Sappho’s language indicates that the man routinely exhibits superhuman power since “Verse 7 introduces a general rule, ὠς … ἴδω: ‘whenever I look at you.’ … The subjunctive gives this clause the sense of ὁπόταν” and makes it function as a present general construction. [18] Through this grammatical structure, Sappho suggests that similar encounters between the woman, the man, and the Speaker have occurred before. Whereas Diomedes and Patroclus only become godlike once, the man in Sappho 31 achieves a godlike status repeatedly, whenever he can speak with the woman without suffering a breakdown. Through this depiction of the man, Sappho adapts epic themes to the lyric context of love; in his ability to sit near the woman without having an anxiety attack, the man displays even greater strength than a soldier during his aristeia. If only the Speaker could sit near the woman, she, too could exhibit this godlike might. It is this heroism, this physical strength that surpasses even epic warriors’ abilities, that she strives for as she attempts to look at the woman, even though she keeps failing.
Just as the man becomes mightier than an epic hero, in Sappho 31, failed attempts at love are more crippling than defeat in battle. During the Speaker’s breakdown, she says her tongue stops working (γλῶσσα ἔαγε, 9), a symptom that renders her incapable of speaking. Yet this symptom does not afflict defeated warriors in epic. “[H]eroes do not fall into silence even at the threshold of death … The Homeric hero is not reported as losing his voice before he dies.” [19] Epic warriors often use their final breath to offer a retort to their conquerors—a parting shot or an ominous reminder of their victor’s own mortality—but the Speaker cannot say anything when she seems “nearly dead” to herself. The Speaker’s silencing is especially significant in a poem preoccupied with the theme of speech: the woman speaks sweetly to the man (ἆδυ φωνείσας, 3–4) and laughs pleasantly (γελαίσας ἰμερόεν, 5). Sappho thus juxtaposes the Speaker’s loss of voice (γλῶσσα ἔαγε, 9) with repeated descriptions of the woman’s ability to speak. And this gap between the Speaker and the woman—the woman’s speech as opposed to the Speaker’s silence—heightens the sense the Speaker conveys that there is some insurmountable obstacle in her repeated efforts to look at the woman without experiencing a breakdown.
The Speaker’s silence also belittles her more than an epic bard—another comparison that, as Dolores O’Higgins points out, is implicit in the poem. [20] Even though the man becomes stronger than a hero, the Speaker, who recounts his strength as a lover, does not share the same glory that bards, who sing of warriors’ feats, often receive. In epic, bards, who recount heroes’ battles, gain glory for their poetic performances: “Hero and performer develop a reciprocal relationship. The hero becomes a super-star performer in his own right, while the performer becomes heroic, larger-than-life, even godlike in sacred moments.” [21] For example, in Homer’s Odyssey, the bard Demodocus becomes famous (περικλυτός, 8.83) from singing of the glorious deeds of soldiers at Troy (κλέα ἀνδρῶν, 8.73).
In contrast, the Speaker loses her voice and, rather than obtaining glory, says she seems nearly dead. Silencing “does not afflict the one Homeric poet who is threatened with mortal danger. Phemius pleads eloquently—and successfully—for his life at Odyssey 22.344–53.” [22] Furthermore, Sappho’s description that the Speaker’s tongue stops working (γλῶσσα ἔαγε, 9) forces the reader to pause for a second when reciting this verse because of the hiatus between the alpha in γλῶσσα and the epsilon in ἔαγε. An elision would normally be expected there because both of those vowels are short. As a result, a performer who recited Sappho 31 lost her voice for a brief moment, too, during this hiatus, in a miniature version of the silencing described in the poem. [23] Such a performer, of course, played the role of the Speaker—she recited the Speaker’s first-person account of her attempts to look at the woman. So while epic bards did not lose their voice, the Speaker is silenced within the action of the poem and, for an instant, in the poem’s performance too. Thus, in poem 31, love is more perilous than battle, so perilous that the symptoms of defeat in love affect even the poem’s performer. Through her depiction of the man’s extreme strength and the Speaker’s extreme weakness, Sappho shows the stakes of love are higher than war.
While the Speaker endures a debilitating defeat, it would be too simplistic to view her only as an unsuccessful fighter since there is something heroic even about her defeat. Even though she has a breakdown whenever she sees the woman, she still tries to look at her. The comparison between the Speaker and a defeated warrior reveals that, within her comparison of love to war, her “enemy” is herself; it is her own overwhelming emotions that leave her more powerless than a vanquished fighter. And although the Speaker repeatedly fails in her fight against herself, as these repeated breakdowns show, she is not deterred. To be sure, this type of heroism is not the same brand of bravery that many fighters display in epic, the type that values achievements: exhibiting superhuman strength, slaying an enemy, sacking a city, hauling off plunder. Instead, hers is a heroism characterized by fearless attempts: she is repeatedly thwarted in love, a sphere with even higher stakes than war, yet she does not give up. In fact, in Homer, too, this type of firm resolve in the face of overwhelming odds is portrayed as heroic. One could compare the Speaker continuing to look at the woman to Hector preparing to fight Achilles in Book 22 of the Iliad—he knows he will likely lose, yet resolves to battle anyway. Just before he fights Achilles, his father reminds him that Achilles is the stronger warrior:
Ἕκτορ μή μοι μίμνε φίλον τέκος ἀνέρα τοῦτον
οἶος ἄνευθ᾽ ἄλλων, ἵνα μὴ τάχα πότμον ἐπίσπῃς
Πηλείωνι δαμείς, ἐπεὶ ἦ πολὺ φέρτερός ἐστι
Hector, my dear child, do not await such a man without others, lest you meet your doom straightaway, overpowered by Achilles, since he is much more vicious and unyielding than you.
Iliad 22.38–41
Hector duels—and is killed by—Achilles despite his father’s warning. Although Hector says he might be able to triumph in the duel shortly before engaging Achilles in battle (Iliad 22.130), it surely comes as no surprise that Achilles vanquishes him given Achilles’ unparalleled strength and rage in the Iliad. Part of what makes Hector’s actions heroic is his fearless determination to battle Achilles when he knows he will likely not triumph. Hector, then, resolves to fight his foe even though the odds are against him, just as the Speaker keeps trying to speak with the woman even though she repeatedly fails. Even though the Speaker does not display the type of military prowess that Diomedes and Patroclus do—demolishing one’s enemies and reaching godlike pinnacles of power—she thus exhibits undaunted fearlessness in the face of likely defeat, a different brand of heroism but one also present in Homer.
The Speaker ultimately resolves that her powerlessness will only be temporary, urging herself to reject her helplessness. While the fifth stanza is fragmentary, its first line, “all is to be dared” (πὰν τόλματον, 21), suggests that the Speaker is determined to look at the woman again. While it is possible that τόλματον means ‘endured’ rather than ‘dared’, and καί (21) means ‘also’ instead of ‘even’, I agree with O’Higgins, who argues, citing the research of Pietro Pucci, that “the verb tolman (as distinct from its cognate, tlenai) usually means to dare rather than to endure, and that it does not appear to be used in the sense of ‘endure’ in the Iliad. Given the martial tone of Sappho 31, valor, rather than endurance, seems particularly appropriate.” [24] The Speaker realizes that, however unlikely it is that she, the defeated warrior and failed lover, can recover, it is still possible and she should try anyway, rather than passively acquiescing to her helplessness.
While it is unlikely that the Speaker will be victorious on her next try, it is not impossible. Indeed, Sappho’s depiction of the woman whom the Speaker loves, who is at once a successful lover and who does not lose her voice, shows these accomplishments are not out of the Speaker’s reach. If the man in the poem is likened to a “hero facing up to an opponent,” [25] the woman is compared to an epic soldier as well, the fighter whom he confronts in the battle of love. The woman is the more active member in her interaction with the man: she is speaking (φωνείσας, 3–4) and laughing (γελαίσας, 5), while he is listening (ὐπακοὐει, 4). It is his passivity—his ability to sit with the woman and listen to her—that confers upon him his epic, even superhuman, status. This description suggests that the woman is a successful lover, perhaps even more so than the man. And, in stark contrast to the Speaker during her breakdown, she keeps her voice and is even portrayed as more vocal than the man. The Speaker presumably hopes to keep her voice, too, when she next looks at the woman, just as she also hopes to become a successful lover. The woman thus serves as an example of a female lover who achieves accomplishments that the Speaker herself hopes to reach. The woman’s presence in the poem reinforces the idea that, in Sappho 31, women are not silenced and excluded from heroism because of their gender. However improbable it is that the Speaker will avoid a breakdown when she glances at the woman again, her gender does not preclude her from accomplishing that unlikely feat.
The Speaker does not only attempt to resist powerlessness as a character in the poem; she also does so as the poem’s narrator, by using her voice as a weapon and spreading the story of her heroic fearlessness through poetry. [26] Because of the first-person perspective characteristic of lyric, the Speaker is at once the narrator of this scene and a character in it: she is the person who suffers a breakdown after looking at the woman (the character) but also the person who recounts that experience (the narrator). While, as a character, she is silenced when her tongue stops working, as a narrator she retains her voice and is able to tell the story of her encounter with the man and the woman through oral poetry. [27] The poem itself becomes the vehicle through which she resists her silencing. [28] And in the fifth stanza, when she decides to overcome the symptoms she experiences shortly after losing her ability to speak, she resolves that even the silencing that she experiences as a character in the poem will only be temporary. Therefore, when the Speaker fights back against being silenced, she demonstrates fearless heroism by resolving to look at the woman again, and even gives herself an opportunity to display the heroism characterized by achievements, since there is a chance, albeit an extremely unlikely one, that on her next attempt she might be able to look at the woman without suffering a breakdown—a feat that seems heroic, even superhuman, to her. By deciding that “all is to be dared,” the Speaker preserves the possibility that she, like the man, might become “equal to the gods” as a successful lover.
It makes sense that Sappho depicts silencing as such a dreadful outcome since loss of voice would threaten the production of oral poetry, the medium that she participated in. Being silenced jeopardizes the Speaker’s ability to recount her reactions to the world around her, as she does while performing poem 31. The fact that the Speaker frames the first four stanzas with forms of φαίνομαι (φαίνεται, 1 and φαίνομ’, 16) creates a parallel between the Speaker and a poet: the first four stanzas are mediated through the Speaker’s perception. The audience does not learn of the man or the Speaker’s actual physical characteristics but rather how they appear to the Speaker. Likewise, the Speaker recounts her own impression of her breakdown, offering an account not only of her anxiety but also of the physical symptoms that reflect her emotional state. The Speaker does not literally lose the ability to see or hear after looking at the woman, yet she is so nervous that she feels as if she does. And that perception is what she communicates to the audience in the poem. She conveys her reactions to the world around her, as a poet does when composing a piece to be performed. If the Speaker is likened to a poet, then her subject matter is her own achievements in the battle of love. Through the act of performing this poem, she shares her valorous feats as a lover with her audience, recounting her undeterred resolve to keep trying to speak to the woman and wage battle against her own overpowering emotions even though she keeps losing.
Therefore, just as epic bards recounted the feats of heroes, the Speaker, who is described as a poet, spreads the story of the heroism that she herself has demonstrated as a lover. So while women typically could not exhibit heroism or gain fame for heroic accomplishments in war, the Speaker does so in the context of love, a realm that, for Sappho, has higher stakes than physical battle. Using language borrowed from epic, Sappho thus breaks from the typical narrative in that genre, in which women often were excluded from battle and did not win kleos, instead portraying the Speaker of poem 31 as displaying heroism and gaining renown.

Works Cited

D’Angour, Armand. 2013. “Love’s Battlefield: Rethinking Sappho Fragment 31.” In Eros in Ancient Greece, ed. Ed Sanders, Chiara Thumiger, Christopher Carey & Nick J. Lowe, 59–72. Oxford.
Furley, William D. 2000. “‘Fearless, Bloodless … like the Gods’: Sappho 31 and the Rhetoric of ‘Godlike.’” Classical Quarterly 50:7–15.
Garcia, Lorenzo F., Jr. 2013. Homeric Durability: Telling Time in the Iliad. Hellenic Studies Series 58. Washington, DC.
Marcovich, M. 1972. “Sappho Fr. 31: Anxiety Attack or Love Declaration? Alexandro Turyn Septuagenario.” Classical Quarterly 22:19–32.
Montiglio, Silvia. 2000. Silence in the Land of Logos. Princeton.
Nagy, Gregory. 1974. Comparative Studies in Greek and Indic Meter. Cambridge MA.
———. 2013. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Cambridge, MA. 3:hul.ebook:CHS_NagyG.The_Ancient_Greek_Hero_in_24_Hours.2013.
O’Higgins, Dolores. 1990. “Sappho’s splintered tongue: silence in Sappho 31 and Catullus 51.”  American Journal of Philology 111(2):156–16.
Race, William H. 1983. “‘That Man’ in Sappho fr. 31 LP.” Classical Antiquity 2:92–101.
Wills, Garry. 1967. “Sappho 31 and Catullus 51.” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 8:167–197.


[ back ] 1. All translations are my own.
[ back ] 2. Nagy 2013 (ch. 11, n29) points out that χαρίεσσαν “conveys both beauty and pleasure.”
[ back ] 3. Nagy 2013:11§26.
[ back ] 4. Although I will assert the renown that the Speaker wins stems from her fearlessness, and not her success, as a lover, and thus is not identical to the glory that many epic fighters attained, Sappho still portrays women as gaining notoriety for heroic exploits.
[ back ] 5. By comparing Sappho’s language to Homer’s, I do not mean to imply that Sappho definitely read Homer. Instead, it is possible that she was instead familiar with an Aeolic epic tradition. However, since that tradition does not survive, I will use Homer as a stand-in for epic in general to argue that Sappho alludes to this genre in poem 31.
[ back ] 6. D’Angour 2013:63.
[ back ] 7. Furley 2000:14.
[ back ] 8. Marcovich 1972:26.
[ back ] 9. Race 1983:94.
[ back ] 10. Some researchers (for example Marcovich 1972) have argued that the man is not the woman’s lover and just functions as a “contrast-figure” who can sit and speak with her, while the Speaker is painfully unable to accomplish this feat. I find the argument that he is her lover to be convincing, but even if he is not, he still displays the strength that the Speaker would have to develop in order to speak to the woman whom she loves. Thus, through her description of the man, the Speaker indicates that love can require more fortitude than battle, since the man performs the physical feats that the Speaker would have to carry out if she were to become a successful lover.
[ back ] 11. Wills 1967:174–182. He persuasively argues that attestations of similar phrases show ἴσος θέοισιν refers to strength rather than happiness. His interpretation of the phrase is also convincing because it makes sense that the man is “equal to the gods” in strength, since the Speaker contrasts his godlike status with the physical symptoms that reduce her to paralyzing weakness. This contrast would be undermined if ἴσος θέοισιν referred not to might but to happiness.
[ back ] 12. Marcovich 1972:23. He points out that Homer uses all these phrases to liken heroes to the gods in the Iliad.
[ back ] 13. Garcia 2013, ch. 5.
[ back ] 14. Garcia 2013, ch. 5. Patroclus is also described as δαίμονι ἶσος, as will be discussed later.
[ back ] 15. Achilles is also described as “equal to a god” (Iliad 20.447, 20.493, 21.18, and 21.227). I devote more attention in this paper to Diomedes and Patroclus since it seems fairly clear that Achilles still faces the limitations of mortality during his aristeia. He achieves his greatest moment as a fighter after receiving his famous armor and shield, crafted by Hephaestus, from Thetis, a nymph. Thus he is able to fight and have his aristeia in part because of divinities’ help. And, although Achilles arguably reaches greater pinnacles of strength and is a more formidable fighter than Patroclus or Diomedes, he has chosen to forsake a long life for the opportunity to be a fearsome warrior, even though he knows he will die young. The specter of Achilles’ mortality, therefore, trails him even during his finest moments on the battlefield.
[ back ] 16. Nagy 2013:5§43.
[ back ] 17. Nagy 2013:15§45.
[ back ] 18. Wills 1967:168.
[ back ] 19. Montiglio 2000:80.
[ back ] 20. O’Higgins 1990:159.
[ back ] 21. Nagy 2013:4§47.
[ back ] 22. O’Higgins 1990:159.
[ back ] 23. Nagy 1974:45.
[ back ] 24. O’Higgins 1990:162.
[ back ] 25. Furley 2000:14.
[ back ] 26. While the Speaker is the narrator of the poem because of its first-person perspective, by using this term, I do not mean to imply that the Speaker is separate from the action of the poem. In fact, one of the features of lyric is that the person who recounts the action of the poem is also involved in it.
[ back ] 27. While, as mentioned before, the narrator is silenced for an instant during the hiatus in line nine, the fact that she retains her voice apart from that brief moment allows her to recount her experience in the battle of love, even as she loses her voice as a character.
[ back ] 28. O’Higgins 1990:162.