Sappho in the Making: The Early Reception

  Yatromanolakis, Dimitrios. 2008. Sappho in the Making: The Early Reception. Hellenic Studies Series 28. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Chapter 5. In Search of Sappho’s Companions: Anthropological Fieldwork on Socioaesthetic Cultures

The postcard on the cover of the book depicts a privileged view of a central street of Mytilene at the beginning of the twentieth century. One of the major Greek Orthodox monuments of the city, the elaborate church of St. Therapon, most prominent in Mytilene until today, dominates the left background of the picture, the right front of which is occupied by an eclectic mixture of random local passersby. Rather than a historical “document” of the life and sociocultural economies of Mytilene at a specific historical period, this image may be viewed as an aestheticized “monument”—a metonymic, anthropologically intriguing illustration of the discursive mechanisms involved in the rewriting and circulation of foreign societies among privileged consumers of cultural capitals. Characteristically, the French caption at the bottom of the picture (Une rue de Mételin) undertakes to rewrite the snapshot of the photographed indigenous life in the lingua franca of European cultural colonialism at the beginning of the twentieth century. This rendering entails a discursive transference of the multilayered—but here inevitably fragmented—local culture into a hegemonizing artistic crystallization intended for consumption by European admirers of (ancient, medieval, and contemporary) Greece’s perplexing, albeit often idealized, alterity. From this perspective, this postcard captures some of the discursive processes implicated in any attempt to convey, interpret, and naturalize the otherness of foreign, past or present, cultures.

“Rewriting” is inherent in cultural or literary historical accounts and hermeneutics, despite the fact that only rarely is its almost omnipresent function explicitly recognized in the study of Greek antiquity. It is this unwillingness to accept rewriting as an intrinsic constituent of any analytical process that often gives rise to lasting essentialized ideological or methodological approaches. In classical philology—defined as the study of texts in their original context, viewed always to a certain degree through the lenses of the textual work of Alexandrian Greek scholars—these approaches resist being superseded by newer paradigms, themselves methodological models not invulnerable to large-scale revision and modification. Practices of rewriting and monumentalizing Greek antiquity into sometimes unnecessarily confident reconstructions of archaic realities have been explored in different parts of this book. My analysis has attempted to shift the research focus from a “corrective” approach to ancient Greek evidence to the intricacy of the cultural practices that shaped the synchronic receptorial filters through which the song-making and figure of Sappho entered visual, literary, and wider sociocultural discursive domains of archaic, classical, and early Hellenistic antiquity. Moving beyond the polar hermeneutic schema of original authorial past vs. authoritative interpretive present, an anthropological approach to ancient cultural informants advocates the urgency of investigating Sappho in the making, especially in the early and pivotal stages of her reception. By focusing on the densely layered loci of these stages of the shaping of Sappho and other archaic and classical song-makers, my investigation has aspired to eschew the hermeneutic linearity of historicizing approaches that attempt to reconstruct in aggressive detail the original context or intentions of her poetry while leaving aside the synchronic discursivity of ancient informants who mediate between the past of her authorial voice and the present of their recontextualizing practices.

The theoretic methodology proposed in this book attempts to demonstrate several main arguments. If we return to the current sporadic outlines of the ancient reception of Sappho—viewed as a unified conglomeration of miscellaneous images from distant periods susceptible to modern narrativization—we run the risk of casting into schematic oblivion the richness, cultural vibrancy, and, more importantly, the interdiscursivity of existing sources—ancient Greek, Roman, and medieval. As one looks more closely at this material, which, despite contrary current assumption, has not yet been thoroughly collected, it appears persistently more extensive and more eloquent as an articulation of the pluralities of what ancient informants defined as “the songs of Sappho.” Reconstructing the original, late seventh- and early sixth-century contexts of the compositions of Sappho—the search for her companions—must continue being practiced as fervently as before. However, in current reconstructions of her original context, a marked tendency exists to look askance in the wrong places. Throughout this work, I argue that only through a plurality of investigations into the linguistic and cultural anthropology of sources and their broader sociopolitical discursive textures can scholarly advances be made with regard to how Sappho and her archaic world of social action might be viewed and written about in modern times. Once we shift our research focus to nexuses of synchronic ancient discursive idioms, mythopractical associations, and syntagmatic metonymies closely connected with the shaping and representation of her figure, the picture becomes more complex and our results concerning the original realities lurking behind the textual fragments of Sappho more historically grounded. Interesting questions surrounding late seventh-century Sappho remain: Was she perhaps a chorus leader in, or a poet for, archaic khoroi of young girls, a socioreligious initiator of some sort? Was her performative medium choral or monodic (a rather schematic understanding of performance in view of the arguments advanced in Chapter Four with regard to how we might want to conceptualize genre in archaic and classical Greece?) [1] And did she possibly represent a tamed version of male symposiastic poets like Alkaios or a coeval companion of women from Lesbos and the coast of Asia Minor? These questions must be based, I contend, on anthropologically oriented investigations into the socioaesthetic cultures that defined the agency of individual ancient discourses, which point both to Sappho’s original cultural context on Lesbos and to their need to rewrite it.

This brings us to a related argument. It has most often been assumed that no classical sources exist regarding the reception of Sappho. Our sources, the reasoning goes, are predominantly Hellenistic, with the exception of the allegedly numerous late classical comedies about the poet that exercised almost exclusive influence on later successive biographical readings of her poems. The prehistory of this Hellenistic flourishing of representations of Sappho has not been a scholarly concern whereas sporadic intuitive ideas about the late archaic and classical periods of her reception have remained influential, even regarding the question of homoeroticism in her compositions. However, if her songs and figure were scanned by early classical male audiences as indeed largely associated with a desire for sexual pleasure, we may perhaps not expect to find unambiguous references to female homoeroticism in Sappho’s poetry by classical authors, especially in Attic contexts. In extant classical literary sources there is no explicit mention. [2] And this is not confined to the songs of Sappho. Female same-sex relationships as such are distinctly unpopular in the literature of that period. [3] Kenneth Dover has ingeniously suggested that in the case of Attic comedy and art, this fact can be accounted for as a kind of cultural taboo imposed on the playwrights and craftsmen by the male anxiety of an androcentric society. [4] The only serious objection to this idea is the representation of scenes involving female homoeroticism or, as we might prefer to describe it as, female sexual fluidity in classical vase-paintings. [5] Even so, as I have argued with regard to early and late classical informants, Sappho’s songs were scanned by male audiences as analogous to songs that celebrated homoerotic male erôs between erastês and erômenos. [6] Therefore, one may need to formulate the whole question quite differently. The prehistory, visual or textual, of the Hellenistic representations of Sappho suggests hitherto unnoticed ways in which such issues can be approached.

Furthermore, the paradigms of comedy and the so-called biographical tradition should be approached from a less static and more sociopolitical synchronic ancient perspective. It is my contention that biographical tradition and ancient fictionalizing tendencies were characterized by more pronounced fluidity and interdiscursivity than what is normally assumed. A “corrective” approach to this tradition—the view that by undermining its fictions about the lives of poets we achieve a sort of entrance to the original ancient realities that defined their works—needs to be complemented or even undermined by a more wide-ranging, when possible, recontextualization of the cultural economies that shaped biographies as well as other kinds of ancient fictionalizing modalities. The same is true of the very late representations of Sappho being performed in dinner parties—images that in current scholarship are taken as evidence for late archaic and early classical realities.

I have suggested that we should think of ancient reception from an anthropological vantage-point and conduct fieldwork on metonymic nexuses of signification and complex discursive idioms conducive to the early crystallization and even expansion of cognitive frames and mental spaces. By tracing the ways in which the almost rhetorical (due to the use of schemata) and aestheticized vraisemblance of such visually and textually articulated frames and spaces engaged in dialogue with synchronic communicative systems and performance contexts, we may achieve a more anthropologically grounded investigation of ideological tensions. It was these tensions that eventually defined the unobtrusive, almost naturalized, cultural currencies in the overall process of receptorial scanning of musical performances by ancient female and male audiences. Our only guide to such cultural currencies is the diversity of papyrological, epigraphical, archaeological, and further textual informants.


[ back ] 1. Cf. further Yatromanolakis 2003a, 2007b, 2007e.

[ back ] 2. Although what we expect or do not expect may have nothing to do with ancient realities and idealities, we should not underestimate the relative scarcity of preserved material from the archaic, classical, and Hellenistic periods. It is interesting how easily the current state of sources can lead us to reach overconfident conclusions about the reception of “homoeroticism” in Sappho’s poetry by classical writers, and then apply these conclusions to all early readers and audiences of her songs, as the following case indicates: “The interpretation of Sappho’s poems is complicated by the fact that no writer of the Classical period found their homoeroticism sufficiently remarkable to warrant mention (although a red-figure Attic hydria, attributed to the Polygnotus group, from about 440 BC portrays Sappho in what may be a female homoerotic setting [Beazley, ARV 2 1060, no. 145]). . . . So either Sappho’s earlier readers and auditors saw nothing homoerotic in her poems or they saw nothing remarkable in Sappho’s homoeroticism” (Halperin 2003:722). On the Athens hydria, see Chapter Two (pp. 143–163): the representation on this hydria has nothing to do with female homoeroticism. What may be worth pondering in Halperin’s sweeping statement is that some elite male audiences, long familiar with the phenomenon of pederasty, saw little or nothing remarkable in Sappho’s “homoeroticism,” since they conceived it as being potentially comparable. For the culturally constructed concepts of heterosexuality and homosexuality, see Halperin’s earlier most interesting discussion (1990:41–53).

[ back ] 3. Cf. Dover 1989:172. Dover 1980:118 claims that Plato Symposion 191e5 “is the only surviving passage from classical Attic literature which acknowledges the existence of female homosexuality,” but Plato Laws 636c is overlooked. Dover’s 1980 statement is adopted by a number of scholars; see e.g. duBois 1995:91: “Lesbian sex like that celebrated in Sappho’s poetry in the centuries before [i.e., Plato Symposion 191e] is not described, except in this briefest allowance for it, in the classical age, even in the works of Aristophanes, which are very explicit about many other imaginable forms of sexual behavior.”

[ back ] 4. Dover 1989:172–173, 182; cf. duBois 1995:91: “Lesbian sex may also be unmentionable, except in some abstract sense, because it represents a threat to phallic sexuality” (and see duBois 1995:14).

[ back ] 5. See Koch-Harnack 1989:143–158 and Kilmer 1993b:26–30; cf. Chapter Two, n. 195.

[ back ] 6. See Chapter Two, with regard to the Bochum kalyx-krater, Chapter Three, and Chapter Four—concerning Epikrates Antilais fr. 4 K–A.