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

  Use the following persistent identifier:

Chapter III: Invocation and Entreaty

The Difference Appears

O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger; do
not punish me in your wrath
For your arrows have already pierced me;
and your hand presses hard against

Psalm 38

Throw away thy rod,
Throw away thy wrath;
O my God
Take the gentle path.

George Herbert, “Discipline”

In light of the interplay of performative and constative, the ritual elements of the invocation take on further significance. Burnett makes much of Sappho’s definition of Aphrodite as the goddess who can best grant the wishes expressed in the prayer. I would like to extend her argument further, since I think I have exposed a further reason for that definition. As I noted above in my exploration of the ritual called up by the performative utterance λίσσομαι, prayer-ritual relies on an unchanging conception of itself, founded on the sacred nature of ritual and its identification with the absolute who is entreated. The invocation is an integral part of the ritual of a prayer. As such, the invocation is also an integral part of the performative structure of the poem (the structure composed of the various performative elements which together enact the prayer). The formal epithets call on the goddess in the proper manner, performing the ritual action of invocation. Like λίσσομαι, the motivating verb of the whole ritual speech act, the naming of the goddess by formal epithets appeals for its authority to the unchanging tradition, which identifies itself with the invoked, the goddess.

That the unchanging divinity can never exist except in an imaginary, unattainable, non-linguistic prayer does not lessen the significance of the difference which appears within the goddess at the sound of Sappho’s epithets. Sappho’s language, simply through the presence of its differing element, re-makes the goddess for its own ends: within the context of the prayer the alleviation of pain. Burnett’s use of the word “definition” gains new meaning in this light. The tension in the language of the poem exposes a startling demarcation and definition taking place in the words of the invocation. Not only does Sappho describe (the descriptive speech act alone, in the absence of an overarching performative) the deity she invokes, but she actually defines her goddess, marking out her Aphrodite’s boundaries against the tradition invoked by the ritual performative.

As the prayer continues, the definition of Sappho’s Aphrodite from the ritual’s traditional Aphrodite and the definition of Sappho’s prayer against the prayer tradition continue in the tension between the ritual and the different. The very word λίσσομαι, as I noted in Chapter II, has a differing constative force of supplication (as opposed to avowal or vaunting). In fact this word which provides the nexus of the ritual perfromative is perhaps the best place to illustrate the difference which arises in the initial invocation and entreaty. In saying λίσσομαι Sappho starts to enact a prayer. Yet the word carries also a different, descriptive force in its difference from other prayer words like εὔχομαι, as I mentioned in Chapter II. That difference makes the word unable to remain consistent to the simple, traditional force of the ritual performative. To repeat, that ideal performative, which would identify absolutely with tradition, is unattainable. But as I noted in my {28|29} initial discussion of ritual, every prayer validates itself by identification with the perceived-as-unchanging tradition in its ritual performative aspect.

Just as no real, spoken prayer can ever be purely ritual performative because of the very existence of constative difference, the Aphrodite with whom the prayer ritual identifies can never truly exist in prayer. Out of the necessity of different language (in the sense I outlined in Chapter II) arises the difference, which we may see from this perspective as the difference between the ideal and the possibility of prayer’s language attaining it. From that difference comes the constative difference of the ritual force of λίσσομαι from its different, descriptive force. Because the performative utterance experiences the differentiation we see in λίσσομαι, the ritual, absolute, unchanging conception of Aphrodite becomes re-defined and thus differentiated simply by her invocation in the language of prayer; the prayer identifies with her unchangingness for its validity and so, because prayer must differ from itself (as unchanging ritual), the goddess in prayer must differ from herself (as unchanging object of the invocation).

My remarks about the formal epithets and the single word λίσσομαι apply also to the rest of the performative structure of the poem. The next part of the structure is the imperative μὴ δάμνα, which expresses the object of Sappho’s prayer. I noted in Chapter II that the imperatives of the poem extend the ritual performative motivated by λίσσομαι. Re-examining that continuative force now, we notice that as λίσσομαι has also different, descriptive force, so μὴ δάμνα has a different sense, besides its extension of the ritual structure: it describes what Sappho wants Aphrodite to do. Without the constative difference provided by the different force of the imperatives in the poem, the prayer could not be a prayer even though it had λίσσομαι; Sappho could not describe her desire.

I am advancing a view of a relationship of mutual dependence of the ritual and the different in the poem. The two could not exist independently of one another within the context of the prayer, else the prayer would not exist. Without the different, the ritual prayer would lack the ability to define its objects. Without the ritual performative, the poem would be at most a parody of prayer and at least a poem with some sacral language thrown in; it would be unable to accomplish a persuasion of the goddess, lacking the essential self-validation through identification with her which only a description can give. The two sides of the language of prayer together create the constative difference between them which I am here exploring. In a valid prayer, one within which exists the difference of the ritual and the different, the different re-defines and so re-makes the ritual and the tradition with which the ritual identifies.

The analogy to epic now reduces to the correspondence of those two differences. Clearly the epic moment, the re-making of The Song, consists of an invocation of the epic tradition just as a prayer invokes its own tradition. Even if no focal performative {31|32} utterance like “I pray” occurs in the epic, the very telling of a tale which is supposed to be the exact one handed down for eternity implies the performative act of invocation. In fact, the beginnings of epics are characterized by the imperative invocation to the divine source of inspiration, μῆνιν ἄειδε θεά being only the best known example. As we saw in the case of the imperatives of Sappho’s prayer, the imperative implies a performative utterance like “I pray.” The epic moment contains also the same sort of different remaking of the performative tradition which we observed in Sappho. The way the bard recounts the story contains the seeds of dissent from the tradition in that it always differs from the non-existent ideal, as Lord demonstrated.

Lord’s study provides an ethnographic basis for my study of the forces of difference at work in prayer. The same forces give rise to the tradition (when viewed from the outside) of epic performance by individuals. From one perspective the difference between the forces takes the form of the individual: in the case of epic, the bard; in the case of prayer, the suppliant. The parallel case of epic provides a simple—at least in terms of variables—manifestation of the difference which inheres in both it and prayer. Another striking parallel with epic will further clarify the effect of the differences between the forces in the Sappho’s poem.

With a view towards enhancing my own study, I think it fair to reformulate Martin’s system as a measure of the difference between the performative structure of the speech event—the appellation muthoi, the use of stories—which invokes the tradition of similar (in their performative structure identical) speech events, and the persuasion which takes place within that structure, the use of memory as a means of persuasion. The muthos represents a type of speech event which every hero can deliver, [19] traditional in that each muthos relies on the existence (or implied existence) of other muthoi which have gone before and will come after. To state this formulation another way, a hero’s muthos consists primarily of two different performatives: “I perform a traditional muthos” and “I persuade.” The more effective the hero’s use of that difference to persuade, the greater the hero. [20] The mutually dependent relationship of the performative structure of the speech event and the persuasion within it is necessary for the success of the speech event: without the designation muthos, the persuasion has no context and thus no effect; without the persuasion the structure of the muthos is quite literally empty and vain. Each story told as part of the persuasion exploits the difference between persuasion and muthos, re-making the muthos into the individual statement of the hero. The best hero, again, is he who can best exploit the relationship of the muthos and its persuasion, the {33|34} difference between the two. Achilles and Nestor are best at this, [21] Agamemnon and especially the lowly Thersites worst. [22]

Martin’s findings bear directly on Sappho’s poem in that we see the same tension and difference of mutually dependent speech acts; the non-traditional different re-makes the traditional, shaping it for its own ends. As an Iliadic hero tries to win honor through his persuasion of others in persuasive muthoi, Sappho tries to gain aid from Aphrodite in the invocation, entreaty, and epiphany. The first strophe of Sappho’s prayer, with the formal epithets and the imperative μὴ μ’ ἄσαισι μηδ’ ὀνίαισι δάμνα, / πότνια, θῦμον, takes the ritual motivated by λίσσομαι and re-makes it into a statement of Sappho’s specific desires. The overarching traditional structure of prayer-ritual comes into contact with Sappho, and like a epic hero she uses it towards her own ends. The most important conclusion to be gained here for my investigation is that the character of the individual performer arises as a result of the difference between this ritual structure and the different speech acts necessary for an individual to use it. Without that difference the heroes of epic would be simply fighting and pillaging machines; with the difference, their figures are rich and variegated. Without that difference Sappho could not express her desire to her goddess; with the difference she sends her prayer to the source of her aid. Martin’s uncovery of the crucial importance of memory in establishing the worth and character of the hero recalls Burnett’s emphasis on memory in Sappho’s poem. The remembered epiphany of Aphrodite which Sappho calls up in the prayer (αἴ πότα κἀτέρωτα) offers a parallel to the stories which the heroes call on for validation. I return to this use of memory in my reading of the epiphany in Chapter IV.

To return to a sequential reading of the prayer, the next two words are the two pain words: ἄσαισι and ὀνίαισι. Commentators have offered various opinions on the amount of pain involved, Burnett favoring the implausible conjecture of a “low level” {34|35} (how could Aphrodite subdue Sappho with a low level of pain?), [23] Page hesitantly indicating a more believable “anguish.” [24] The sense of the words (I am more inclined to agree with Page because of the crucial imperative δάμνα) carries less weight for my analysis than their difference. [25] The side-by-side occurrence of the two words (ἄσαισι and ὀνίαισι) which represent the same basic emotional condition re-emphasizes the role of constative difference generated by the different element of the prayer. The doubling of Sappho’s emotion diverges from the simple performative identification with perceived unchanging tradition. The two pain words generate a constative difference between their different descriptions of how Sappho feels. Each one is a speech act of description (“I describe my pain as ἄσα,” “I describe my pain as ὄνια”); in contact with μὴ δάμνα (μὴ δάμνα ἄσαισι, μὴ δάμνα ὀνίαισι) they demonstrate the ability to voice such a difference in herself which Sappho derives from re-making the unchanging tradition of prayer. My intention here is to illustrate how at every level of the poem the interaction of and difference between ritual-performance and different-performance informs Sappho’s words.

Likewise the epithet πότνια which further defines the goddess and Sappho’s placement of the goddess’ subdual in her θῦμος continue the same motion of the ritual and the different. Πότνια defines Aphrodite as Sappho’s own patroness, worthy of aid rather than pain. Sappho’s locating the pain in her spirit simply works as a further constative difference created by the different aspect of the imperative. By supplying this detail Sappho makes the prayer even more her own statement of desire.

In this Chapter I have attempted to establish the foundation of a reading of the poem informed by the interplay of performative and constative forces in Sappho’s prayer. The invocation and entreaty which begin the poem serve as the basis for the rest of the prayer, providing the overarching structure of ritual which allows Sappho’s own re-{35|36}making, her own expression of prayer and so eventually the aid she asks for. Chapter IV builds upon this foundation, exploring the relation of the ritual and the different in the epiphany of Aphrodite which stands at the heart of the poem. {36|37}


[ back ] 1. Burnett 248–249.

[ back ] 2. Burnett 248. Rissman 3 reads in a similar way.

[ back ] 3. Page 13. Burnett 248. Rissman 5.

[ back ] 4. Burnett 248. Rissman 2.

[ back ] 5. Page 6 has a discussion.

[ back ] 6. Rissman 7.

[ back ] 7. Burnett 247–248. See also Cameron’s emphasis on tradition, passim.

[ back ] 8. George Kennedy, The Art of Persuasion in Greece (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1963) 7 emphasizes the nature of persuasion as a speech act. Kennedy 40 refers to Sappho’s poetry as an early manifestation of persuasive rhetoric.

[ back ] 9. Bowra 201.

[ back ] 10. See again Burnett 245–249 and Cameron passim.

[ back ] 11. Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1960) 26–29.

[ back ] 12. Lord 27.

[ back ] 13. Lord 26–29.

[ back ] 14. Richard Martin, The Language of Heroes: Speech and Performance in the Iliad (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989) esp. 22–42.

[ back ] 15. Martin 59–65.

[ back ] 16. Martin 65–77.

[ back ] 17. Martin 77–88.

[ back ] 18. See also Kennedy 35–39 on the role of persuasion in Homeric speeches.

[ back ] 19. Martin 89.

[ back ] 20. Martin 89–90.

[ back ] 21. Martin 130–205 and 101–113, respectively.

[ back ] 22. Martin 113–119 and 101–113, respectively; Martin’s full discussion is fascinating, but does not pertain here.

[ back ] 23. Burnett 252.

[ back ] 24. Page 6.

[ back ] 25. See again Saussure 65–70 and my Chapter II for the structuralist view of difference.