The Descent of the Goddess: Ritual and Difference in Sappho’s Prayer to Aphrodite

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Chapter I: Previous Response

The Critical Difference

And it ends up
Nobody’s, there is nothing for any of us
Except that fearful vacillating around the central
Question that brings us closer,
For better or for worse, for all this time.

John Ashbery, Introduction

Critical responses to the poem have varied widely. I survey here the most recent and informed readings in an effort to provide a starting point for my own investigation. The unfolding of past response demonstrates the need for my study, for previous readers have left many questions about the poem unanswered simply through the approaches they have taken. These questions provide a background for my inquiry and place it in a frame of reference, so that my own attempt to explore the poem may establish itself partly through its differences from what has gone before.

For contrast’s sake we should note that the poem itself follows the opposite configuration: Sappho begins by invoking the goddess and praying Aphrodite not to subdue her. In the course of the supplication, she calls up an image of the goddess speaking to her, who then says the things Page finds so instructive. I submit that Page’s analysis, in flouting the supplicatory nature of the poem which I just noted and will explore in more detail later, shows an insensitivity to the very reasons he seems to seek. Although his insights into the poem allow us to penetrate more deeply the “meaning” and “spirit” he proposes to explore, Page leaves untouched questions he raises about the poetic effect of the ritual form he says Sappho has imposed. We must ask, does not the form determine the nature and meaning of the poem it forms? Also, does not the form have a significance of its own? {6|7}

Yet Gentili in reality traps himself into a wholly occasional interpretation of the poem simply in the way he regards his claim that the function of the poem is not “purely literary.” The extension of this claim, that of the “precise ceremonial,” forces the poem into a realm of language where each element of a poem must correspond to one and only one element of a ritual. Aphrodite’s smile, with which Page beguiled us, must represent not a poetic gesture but solely a cult trope for depicting the goddess. In this conception of language as ritual, the poem is no longer a poem but an extension of the ritual. Because it “must mirror a precise ceremonial,” it cannot look outward, but only at its reflection. [8] An evocative epithet like δολόπλοκε becomes nothing more than a ritual label of the subsequent Ἀφρόδιτα, which in turn becomes the pale reflection of the cult’s conception of the goddess. The poem, for Gentili, has no meaning other than as part of the ritual. With the mirror of the poem, the poem-ritual unit becomes infinitely self-{7|8}reflective, intensively oriented towards itself. Since the entire poem—epithets like ποικιλόθρονε and δολόπλοκε, the remembered epiphany of the goddess in her chariot drawn by sparrows, Aphrodite’s very words—reflects the cult worship of the goddess, it has no force outside of that worship, if we follow Gentili’s logic. It is possible to read the resulting unit of the poem and the ritual as a text, and in some ways I will proceed to do so, but Gentili does not see any significance in that text, probably because he finds it “purely literary.” After he makes his claim for the occasional nature of the poem and proposes the theory that the occasion was an attempt to win back a member of Sappho’s circle who had deserted her, [9] he must leave the poem, for it offers no further insight into its power or its effect. The most telling facet of this reading is that for Gentili Sappho 1 represents a way to advance his theories on the thíasos. His interpretation from that perspective occurs wholly from without, as he makes of the poem a closed, self-reflecting structure. Using Sappho’s words to illustrate his study of the public, he leaves himself no room to illustrate the poetry.

Anne Burnett proposes in the introduction to Three Archaic Poets to provide a happy medium, a meeting point between the two camps which I have above represented in Page and Gentili. Her discussion of the “cri du coeur school” and the “occasional school” reflects in part the concerns I outlined above, the problems with too intensive a set on either of the two. [10] Such a hybrid prospect, like Gentili’s, seems promising at the outset When Burnett applies her hybrid view to Sappho 1, however, the result is not a complete, satisfactory reading of the poem but a mix of interpretation from the two schools which offers perhaps more comprehension but certainly less incisiveness than either of the other two readings. Burnett concerns herself with determining the character of Sappho’s voice, and she seems to vacillate between the two extremes in order to do so. In the course of the vacillation she offers many insights, but her conception of the poem, {8|9} in the end, is not unified enough to offer a definite answer to the questions she poses. Consider the prime example, on which the reading turns: “And so in the end, though it is not an implement of cult, neither is this a purely secular song; instead, it is a thing rare among the Greeks, the poetic expression of a personal religious faith.” [11] Even besides the obvious attempt to create a traditional cri du coeur reading with the trappings of occasion—the “thing rare among the Greeks” must immediately be suspect for any occasionalist—Burnett clearly would like to keep both schools in force without synthesizing them. “The poetic expression of a personal religious faith” is a neat way to tie the two sides up into one bundle, but Burnett does not deal in any way with the effects each must certainly have on the other when they are brought into such close contact. Instead she moves from point to point in an apparent attempt to illuminate (much as Page tried to do) the various decisions Sappho made for her poem: the new epithets she coined for the occasion, [12] how exactly she chose to differ from the norm of a cultic hymn, [13] why she chose to use concrete detail in the epiphany. [14]

The survey of the three critics exposes the elements of the poem which play the most important roles without defining those roles or their interaction. From this point my study will attempt to explore the areas which I think have been ignored and thus try to produce a new, illuminating reading of the poem. I begin where I think previous readers left the most room for further exploration: the nature of the ritual, prayer elements of the poem. These elements seem to me the fundamental motive of the poem.

It is obvious at the start that the poem is a prayer. Sappho begins, after all, ποικιλόθρον’ ἀθανάτ’ Ἀφρόδιτα / παῖ Δίος δολόπλοκε λίσσομαι σε. The temptation for the critic is then to shy away from what can be seen less disturbingly as an “imposed” form, and to move on without further questioning the poem’s ritual nature. The best way to express the question I now ask of that nature is: How much of a prayer is the poem? The best way to illustrate and explore the essential presence of “real” prayer in the poem is through the type of language which invokes it. {10|11}


[ back ] 1. Page 15.

[ back ] 2. Page 18.

[ back ] 3. Page 12.

[ back ] 4. Page 16.

[ back ] 5. Other typical examples of occasional reading appear in Merkelbach, specifically of Sappho 1, and in general in Wolfgang Rösler, Dichter und Gruppe: eine Untersuchung zu den Bedingungen und zur historischen Funktion früher griechischer Lyrik am Beispiel Alkaios (Munich: Fink, 1980) on Alcaeus.

[ back ] 6. Gentili 79.

[ back ] 7. Gentili 80.

[ back ] 8. Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in the Psychoanalytic Experience” (1937), Ecrits, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), rpt. in Critical Theory Since 1965, ed. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle (Tallahassee: Florida State UP, 1986) 734–738 is the primary work on the subject of the inclusive unit formed between and individual and a mirror.

[ back ] 9. Gentili 80.

[ back ] 10. Burnett passim, esp. 1–9.

[ back ] 11. Burnett 246.

[ back ] 12. Burnett 250–251.

[ back ] 13. Burnett 252.

[ back ] 14. Burnett 253.

[ back ] 15. Burnett 256.

[ back ] 16. Burnett 258.

[ back ] 17. Burnett 255–258.