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

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Chapter V: The Descent of the Goddess

The Apotheosis of Difference

Ὣς ἔφασαν κοῦραι μεγάλου Διὸς ἀρτιέπειαι καί μοι σκῆπτρον ἔδον δάφνης ἐριθηλέος ὄζον δρέψασαι, θηητόν· ἐνέπνευσαν δέ μοι ἀυδὴν θέσπιν, ἵνα κλείοιμι τά τ᾽ ἐσσόμενα πρό τ᾽ ἐόντα…

Hesiod, Theogony

How is the poetic voice constituted? The question has vexed critics in one form or another from the time poetry became an accepted speech act. Having seen the differentiation which Sappho enacts in the epiphany, causing the goddess to descend to earth and speak to her (σ’ ἆγον στροῦθοι διὰ μέσσω; τίνα πείθω, αἰ φεύγει τάχεως διώξει), causing the aid of Aphrodite’s speech to appear in the present, giving Aphrodite a voice to pronounce the final and eternal play which grips Sappho and her beloved, as well as Sappho and Aphrodite, we must ask the question which has informed my entire study—what happens to Sappho in her prayer—as the following: What is the status of Sappho’s voice in the poem? She speaks the prayer, but the prayer also seems to speak her; it speaks her desires (μὴ δάμνα; τυίδ᾽ ἔλθε), it speaks the aid she wants and the predicament she cannot escape (αἰ φεύγει τάχεως διώξει). The play of ritual and different persuasion in the invocation gave Sappho command of the ritual, allowed her to open a difference in the goddess and call upon her own Aphrodite (ποικιλόθρονε, δολόπλοκε). The epiphany enacted that play, showed the necessity of the difference for the success of the prayer (τίνα πείθω), but it also demanded that Sappho give Aphrodite the voice which says that there is no end to different persuasion (Page’s comment on διώξει and Aphrodite’s smile), that Sappho must forever submit her own voice to difference, always allowing another {52|53} voice to enter and persuade, as Aphrodite does in the poem. What happens to the poet’s voice when her own prayer persuades her?

The importance of the voice pervades the movement of ritual and difference which is the subject of my study. As I first noted in Chapter III, the figure who stands at the heart of the difference between the ritual and the different is the poet/entreater herself. Her primacy lies first in her sole ability to shape what she says, to take the ritual tradition of prayer and affect it through the difference which stems at its most basic level from her desire (λίσσομαι σε μὴ δάμνα, ἀλλὰ τυίδ᾽ ἔλθε). I supported this view through comparative studies of epic and speech acts in epic, Lord’s external and Martin’s internal. In these studies the bards and the heroes constituted their poetic voices by re-making the traditional speech acts which they inherited from the bards and heroes before them. To validate their speech acts, each bard and each hero told stories from his memory: the bard his epics and the hero his exempla. Sappho uses her invocation (ποικιλόθρονε κτλ.) of Aphrodite to re-make the ritual and her memory of the goddess’s descent (αἴ ποτὰ κἀτερώτα ἦλθες κτλ.) as a story like those of epic, in the process constituting her poetic voice.

But prayer differs from epic in an important respect. Prayer is addressed explicitly to a divinity, in an effort to motivate aid for the entreater. This difference, I think, gives us insight unique to the study of prayer into the creation and problems of the poetic voice. For if, as modern literary critics tell us, all literature represents “otherness,” [1] a text which is addressed to the Other, the absolute, the god, must reveal in some special way the workings of its otherness. [2] And as we look at the workings of ritual and difference we see an interesting twist in the status of Sappho’s voice in relation to the goddess she entreats and so brings down from heaven. {53|54}

There are two characters in the prayer: Sappho and Aphrodite (the beloved remains a question mark: τίνα, τίς, who may or may not exist as far as the poem is concerned). When Sappho speaks her ritual initial λίσσομαι, she asks Aphrodite not to subdue her. In other words, Aphrodite either has already inflicted suffering on Sappho or Sappho fears that she will. Aphrodite is the source of Sappho’s pain. But the goddess clearly also represents the aid Sappho hopes for, and the epiphany represents the arrival of this aid. The epiphany and its enactment of the success of the prayer thus take on new significance. Because it is Aphrodite who gives Sappho the pain she wants to be rid of or avoid, and it is Aphrodite whom Sappho causes to come down to her, Sappho achieves more than simply a demonstration of what happens to a prayer when she gets hold of it; she wrests the agent of her pain away from itself—she takes hold of the goddess and forces her desire to conclusion. That her desire causes the goddess to smile and pronounce the words which doom Sappho herself to eternal play only testifies to Sappho’s voice’s ability to brook the difference she opens even though it cannot remain under her control.

That Sappho’s beloved remains to the end a question mark only indicates more strongly the nature of the repetition involved in the epiphany. On die surface, the indeterminacy shows that Aphrodite’s return to earth has occurred over and over for different beloveds (ὄττι δηὖτε πέπονθα κὤττι δηὖτε κάλημμι; τίνα, τίς), and so will happen again. When we look at the mystery in light of Sappho’s relation with the goddess, though, we see that beyond the indeterminacy lies a strange determinacy, for the placement of the epiphany within time (ποτα κἀτέρωτα) and within the language of the poem (the realm of the different) ensures that Aphrodite’s appearance will play the role of eternal repetition which we assigned to prayer in Chapter II, as well as the role of eternal difference which we found inevitable. Every time the epiphany has recurred and will recur, the beloved has been and will be a mystery, every time. This perpetual mystery reveals the nature of the desire at the heart of the prayer. For after all, Sappho’s real {54|55} desire is not that Aphrodite not subdue her, nor that the goddess descend, but the beloved herself. It is the beloved whom Sappho wants to persuade. By leaving this crucial character in the poem for all intents and purposes out of the poem, Sappho ensures her success. Because the beloved in the poem has no referent outside of the poem, whoever it is cannot avoid the play Sappho illustrates through Aphrodite’s words and actions. Each time the epiphany recurs, the non-referential beloved must play the game. The natural objection that of course when she spoke the poem Sappho had someone in mind does not lessen the significance of this point. The movement of Sappho’s voice and thus her goddess turns on Sappho’s taking control of the situation in her prayer, causing difference by her persuasion, looking into her memory and calling up a story through which she may find a new repetition and a new success. Within the poem, the figure of the beloved, whether or not it has a correspondent on seventh century B.C. Lesbos, must be persuaded because it has no being for Sappho’s prayer and so for Sappho within the prayer except as a question.

At the end of Sappho’s prayer, the poet/entreater returns to the performative speech act with which she began.

ἔλθε μοι καὶ νῦν, χαλέπαν δὲ λῦσον
ἐκ μερίμναν, ὄσσα δέ μοι τέλεσσαι
θῦμος ἰμέρρει, τέλεσον· σὺ δ᾽ αὔτα
σύμμαχος ἔσσο.

The four imperatives recall very similar commands at the start of the poem, though Sappho seems triumphant now, rather than pained. At the end, her prayer and her persuasion accomplished, Sappho can repeat ἔλθε and then go on with the positive commands, beginning with “loose from me,” almost exactly the positive way to express “do not subdue.” But at the end of the prayer Sappho continues with further imperatives, confidently, assured by the epiphany that her demands will be met, though perhaps not to her ultimate advantage.

The striking symmetry of “accomplish what my heart desires to accomplish” brings us back once again to a study of what exactly an imperative does in a text. I explored the essential performative nature of imperatives in Chapter I in connection with the beginning of the prayer. Here Sappho uses the imperative τέλεσον along with the infinitive of the same verb, τέλεσαι, to create an exact parallelism between what her heart (θῦμος) desires and what Aphrodite will accomplish. Aphrodite will stand in for Sappho, and what Sappho wishes to do but cannot the goddess will do. [4] Now that Sappho’s voice has been persuaded into difference, the goddess who pronounced her fate now must fulfill it. Aphrodite and her voice, which Sappho called into being, have become Sappho’s substitute, just as the Aphrodite Sappho prayed to became Sappho’s substitute in the epiphany to persuade the beloved, Sappho’s own desire, and speak the play of αἴ φεύγει, {56|57} ταχέως διώξει. This substitution of the goddess for Sappho recalls the hero-cult worship of the poet-hero derived from her status as a therápôn, a ritual substitute, which I described above. [5] To find it here in the return to the performative cult frame for the prayer tells much about the motion of the poem between ritual and difference (in Nagy’s terms, cult and myth). [6] The return of the cult substitution brings the prayer full circle and along with the imperatives finishing λίσσομαι puts the goddess back on her throne (or in her flowers), so to speak. The prayer comes to a close, and Sappho lets us know.

The last of the imperatives, the last two words of the prayer, is in many ways a synthesis of the entire scope and content of the poem. The imperative involved, ἔσσο, on consideration proves extremely provocative. The imperative of the verb “to be” carries a special weight in a performative context, for the addressee of the imperative is told not just to do something, but to be something. This is not the place for a detailed investigation of questions of ontology, but it is important to realize the intensely self-reflexive nature of being, the concentration on the addressee of the imperative “be my comrade.” This final part of Sappho’s prayer, her final wish, remakes the goddess explicitly, with more than the unsteady force of the different. Such an imperative of the verb “to be” is perhaps the only utterance which embodies the constative in its performative element. In praying that Aphrodite be her comrade, Sappho seeks to define the goddess that way, in the same way that the constative difference which arises out of the different, persuasive force of her epithets did at the beginning of the prayer. The important difference here at the end of the poem is that with the final imperative, hinging on λίσσομαι all the way at the beginning, “I pray you, be my comrade,” Sappho joins the two forces, and performatively constates the goddess. The role she chooses, the word which closes the prayer, σύμμαχος, twists Aphrodite into an unexpected role, but one which, at the end of the poem, seems completely suitable. The entire poem has {57|58} concerned itself with the role of the goddess in Sappho’s present distress, and, as I detailed in the preceding chapters, Sappho’s prayer necessarily opens up a difference in that role, defining it for herself with the persuasive element of her words. The poem takes Aphrodite from her father’s house on Olympus, down to earth, and, implicitly, back again. The word “comrade-in-arms” is at the very least un-feminine. It makes us think first of battle, an exclusively masculine pursuit. The simple translation “comrade,” even the slightly more complex “comrade-in-arms,” do not capture the pregnancy of σύμμαχος with battle—the word literally means “co-combatant,” and as Campbell says, is used in melic poetry after Sappho only by Pindar. [7] But when we think of Aphrodite yoking the chariot in which she arrived, [8] the new role of the goddess seems more appropriate than random. In order to aid Sappho, this most feminine of goddesses, notoriously ἄμαχος, [9] must take on a form more pugnacious. The view Sappho shows us of Aphrodite up to this point is of the persuader, the differencer who has her most important statement in the declaration of the eternal dance of difference (αἰ φεύγει, τάχεως διώξει κτλ., again). The nature of that dance is fundamentally non-combative—the pursuer never gets to confront the fleeing beloved, the beloved will not even receive gifts, the beloved will not meet the lover in love. If Sappho is to find any relief at all, she needs a co-combatant in the goddess who avoids combat. Only as a co-combatant can the goddess take up the persuasion which Sappho gives her in lending her voice (τίνα πείθω) and so perhaps turn around the eternal dance of love which she describes with that voice (αἰ φεύγει, τάχεως διώξει κτλ.), using different persuasion as a weapon. But like all weapons, Aphrodite’s is double-edged; once she is armed, the one who armed her cannot control exactly where she will turn. Here we encounter the same paradox we found in the epiphany and in Sappho’s voice, for this process of enabling Aphrodite closely resembles the same process which implicitly enables Sappho to pray at all. As a devotee of the goddess, Sappho is {58|59} empowered to initiate the prayer which opens up the difference in the goddess. In the same way, when Sappho enables her prayer through the enactment of the epiphany, she necessarily enables Aphrodite to open up a difference of her own. Here we find Page’s analysis of what Aphrodite says useful again. [10] For how else could Aphrodite mock Sappho’s love if not through Sappho’s own enabling of her?

The long-standing debate over the meaning and connection of the sixth and seventh strophes, [11] as to whether Sappho ends in triumph that the beloved will be conquered or despair at the eternal reversals of love, seems to have a son of answer-in-paradox here. For though I find the play of ritual and difference I have exposed to indicate clearly that the sixth strophe speaks of endless play, I find equally compelling reasons to view the seventh as Sappho’s triumphant display of the power of her voice to achieve at least momentary victory through Aphrodite’s substitution for her (τέλεσον, τέλεσσαι) and the resulting closing of the difference in her voice. I further submit that that elusive quality of Sappho’s which critics have always called something along the lines of “detachment,” [12] a quality which has always seemed to me impossible for any poet to achieve, especially an arguably oral poet, [13] also has a reason here. The reason Sappho seems detached from her feelings about the cycle of love is that she is detached—the sentiment is in fact Aphrodite’s in the context of the prayer and so within Sappho’s own voice. To claim that Sappho is detached is to say not that she is the poet of the poem but that she is the poet of the poet. To put the problem another way, Sappho’s prayer to the goddess requires her to enable Aphrodite, thus detaching herself, but the detachment originates in the ritual—different tension of prayer, along with Sappho’s voice, rather than as a secondary feature of the voice. The same reasoning could apply to Sappho 31, {59|60} where Sappho’s “detachment” might be seen as symptomatic of her oppositional relationship to the object of her desire.

I think that in exploring the interaction of the performative and constative in the prayer I have, as Page might say, shed light on a dark text. Where traditional readings of the poem told us that Sappho cleverly incorporated hymnic elements, or that she was subject to her religion almost completely, examination of how the different elements of the text interact reveals a web of speech acts which between them shape, among many other things, the traditional readings. {60|61}

When Barbara Johnson treats the theories of Austin in her essay on Mallarmé and Austin in The Critical Difference she is content to use Mallarmé’s example to deconstruct Austin’s theory. Johnson succeeds in demonstrating the many problems with a strictly structural approach to speech act theory, but she leaves the door open for study of the difference between what texts do and what they mean without there going through it. [15]

So Johnson finishes her treatment. But when we look Sappho with these concerns in mind we find that the discontinuity which dooms Austin’s attempt to isolate the performative makes Sappho’s prayer possible. The constative element of the prayer is the discontinuity itself. I noted in Chapter II that the constative arises in the difference between ritual and persuasion, the difference between performatives. The discontinuity between speaker and speech takes place at the moment a performative utterance (that is, any speech) occurs, and so renders all performatives discontinuous in that each one emanates separately from the speaker; in this way it becomes the constative difference between performatives. Since the performative is determined by the perceived external, the series of repetitions of its performance, it represents the occasion, the context from which the speech originates; viewed externally this occasion lies behind the speaker. Johnson’s speaker thus lies between performative and constative, as Sappho’s voice in her prayer does. The frame we see here takes shape in the historical, externally perceived performance of the poem, which disappears within the poem itself. But in the external {61|62} frame the occasion gives rise to the performative within the poem which identifies with it, the ritual, the λίσσομαι which necessarily stays within the text. The external discontinuity which differs from the speaker and the occasion gives rise to the difference within the poem, the constative which arises from the difference of the ritual and the different. And between the two lies the speaker within the poem.

The above takes Johnson a step further than she seems willing to go in her essay. Her own emphasis on the speaker’s relation to her speech proves very valuable, though, for once we recognize the discontinuity inherent in every speech act, we see the true importance of the speaker in the speech. On the simplest level Sappho is the origin of her poem. Within the frame of the performative and the constative, the occasion and the difference, however, she resides within her words. To return to previous lines of reasoning: as a devotee she re-makes her goddess; like the singer of epic she re-makes tradition with the difference of her treatment; like the hero she uses the memory of Aphrodite to establish her character; like the cult figure she is caught in antagonism with the goddess; and in giving voice to that goddess her own voice arises. All of these perspectives on Sappho’s role in her prayer which stem from the exploration of the performative and the constative have in common the placement of the poet inside the poem. Each role into which the performative, both ritual and different, element of her words casts Sappho involves the presence of her voice, which stems from the constative element. To again repeat, that difference is Sappho. Not the historical Sappho, for the discontinuity Johnson points out puts the historical speaker forever beyond our grasp, but the voice of the poet, both creator of the difference and created by it. The discontinuity makes every performative speech act a performance, both in the sense of action and in the sense of mimesis, “stage-acting,” taking away the historical occasion and the historical speaker, it also produces a like difference within the poem, and frames a voice, if not a speaker. And since the speaker in the historical occasion gave rise to the discontinuity in the first place, any name we attach to the voice within the words must be hers. {62|63}

The ἀυδὴν θέσπιν, the poetic voice, lies at the heart of Sappho’s prayer, supplies it with its strength, the power whose source I have here sought. In the prayer, in its performance and difference, there exists an inherent might. Through her words Sappho asserts herself by asserting her own possession of the performance of prayer, by shaping Aphrodite and the tradition according to her own desire. The power of any utterance lies {63|64} in its difference from the performative, whether we can exactly identify the performative or not. In Sappho’s prayer to Aphrodite an interior performative is established in the first strophe. From there all is difference. The power of the poem arises out of the strength of that difference, which makes the goddess descend to earth, makes her lend her aid, makes her speak the difference itself.

So the goddess descends, her descent embodied in the motion of the prayer from ritual to difference and back again, forever. She speaks, and she draws the power to her, to shape her own ends and control her own acts. Her voice commands and invokes, prophesies and comforts, fulfills her desire. She smiles. Why must we name her? {64|65}


[ back ] 1. See for example Barbara Johnson, “The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan, Derrida,” Literature and Psychoanalysis: the Question of Reading: Otherwise, ed. Shoshana Felman (1977; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982) 457–505.

[ back ] 2. Dodds 116–117 offers an interesting discussion of the otherness of epiphanies.

[ back ] 3. Burnett 258–259.

[ back ] 4. Wilamowitz 48: “Die Göttin selbst soll ihre Sache unternehmen.”

[ back ] 5. Nagy, Achaeans 289–297.

[ back ] 6. Nagy, Achaeans 295.

[ back ] 7. Campbell 266.

[ back ] 8. Rissman 9.

[ back ] 9. Bowra 202.

[ back ] 10. Page 15.

[ back ] 11. Page 15–18, Cameron, “Again,” and Rissman 10–11 are the more strident examples.

[ back ] 12. Page 18; Burnett 246; Bowra 187, 203–204.

[ back ] 13. Segal’s essay offers detailed argument on the oral nature of Sappho’s ritual magic.

[ back ] 14. Compare Burnett 257: “[Sappho] seems to feel rather like a god herself, as she sings these final syllables.”

[ back ] 15. Johnson’s own characteristic use of the difference of the performative and the constative appears strongly elsewhere, for example in Johnson, “The Frame of Reference” 501.

[ back ] 16. Johnson, “Poetry and Performative Language” 65.

[ back ] 17. Theogony 29–33; see the epigraph of this chapter.

[ back ] 18. Nagy, Mythology 52–53.

[ back ] 19. Nagy, Achaeans 289–297; Nagy, Mythology 48.