Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History

  Compton, Todd M. 2006. Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History. Hellenic Studies Series 11. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Chapter 8. Sappho: The Barbed Rose

One would not expect Sappho, who was associated largely with delicate love poetry, to have a vita that would resemble the patterns followed by the Aesop and Archilochus vitae. Yet, though she does not have as full a dossier of the scapegoat hero cult themes as do Aesop and Archilochus, and her life is not as (folklorically) well documented as theirs, even so, certain themes in her vita link her to the familiar pattern. Though the greater part of her poetry dealt with exquisitely evoked love, yet there was a definite current of blame running through her poetic corpus. And Archilochus shows that the satiric muse is not necessarily divorced from poetic sophistication. The poet can take the archaic categories of praise and blame and exploit them with high artistic skill. Love can obviously inspire praise poetry, [1] but since it often produces such emotions as loss, betrayal, and bitterness, it can also inspire blame. (Archilochus’ Lycambid poetry resulted from “failed love,” a broken engagement.) Perhaps praise is always balanced by blame in the structure of the archaic mind. Archilochus writes, “I know how to love my friend, but I also know how to hate [and revile?] my enemy.” [2] The transposition of this ethical formulation to the field of poetry is praise and blame, love poetry and hate poetry: one would expect Sappho to be a satirist part of the time if she had enemies, as she did. A similar dualistic formulation is found in her fr. 5V.6–7, where Sappho prays that her brother be a joy to his friends, a [grief] to his enemies.

Sappho and blame

Sappho’s extant blame poetry divides itself neatly into four categories. First, there are three sets of victims: her wayward brother, Charaxus, and his lover, the courtesan, Doricha; Sappho’s rivals, especially Gorgo and Andromeda; and her pupils/lovers/friends who have deserted her. Then there are traditional abuse elements in her epithalamia.

Andromeda is mentioned in two other fragments. In one (131V), Sappho reproaches Atthis for flying off to Andromeda; in the other (133V), there is a note of gloating irony: “Andromeda has a lovely recompense” (Ἔχει μὲν Ἀνδρομέδα κάλαν ἀμοίβαν …). One can imagine something bad happening to Andromeda (a favorite’s departure?) and Sappho needling her over the failure.

Finally, some of Sappho’s poetry is turned against former students/lovers. As was noted previously, the deep emotions of love can be transformed into feelings of hurt, betrayal, or hatred when a relationship is severed; in Archilochus, the poetic response to such feelings is savage blame. The poetic response in Sappho is also blame, but expressed more delicately than in Archilochus. In fact, the theme of betrayal and suffering after friendship and love is a central theme in both poets’ work. Sappho’s two most complete poems, 1 and 31, are both grieving responses to loss of a loved one. In 1.19–23, a lost lover “wrongs” Sappho, will not accept her gifts, and does not love Sappho anymore: “Who wrongs you, O Sappho?” (τίς σ᾽, ὦ / Ψά]πφ᾽, ἀδικήει;). Such an accusation of injustice is squarely in the blame tradition; in Hipponax 115W/194Dg, the poet wishes the worst on his enemy, then explains that “he wronged me” (hos m’ ēdikēse). Also related to the satiric tradition is the poet’s chronicling of his/her sufferings. [23] In fr. 31V, Sappho apparently agonizes as she watches her former lover linked to a male husband/lover. The parting takes a terrible toll on her, and the famous physical symptoms described in the poem are a result. [24] Archilochus’ treatments of the agonies of love, 191W and 193W, are somewhat comparable to Sappho 1 and 31 in their use of physical symptoms to express suffering. Some of the diction is similar: khalepēisi … odunēisin, cf. khalepan … ek merimnan (193W.2/1V.25–26); kardiēn … stētheōn, cf. kardian en stēthesin (191W.1,3/31V.6). In both poets, love causes blindness (31V.111/191W.2); there is psychic dislocation, madness (191W.3/1V.18). [25]

The Vita

Thus, satire, mockery, even invective were not at all foreign to Sappho. Such a poetess, compared in antiquity to Socrates for her verbal admonitions and irony, could very easily incur the enmity of Lesbian high society, just as Socrates gained the enmity of certain prominent Athenians.

Like Aesop and Hipponax, Sappho is ugly; like Hipponax, she is at one point exiled. Finally, Sappho’s legendary death assimilates her even more closely to the pharmakos, as she dies voluntarily, like Aesop, throwing herself from a cliff. Strabo writes, of the white cliff of Leucas:

ἔχει δὲ τὸ τοῦ Λευκάτα Ἀπόλλωνος ἱερὸν καὶ τὸ ἅλμα, τὸ τοὺς ἔρωτας παύειν πεπιστευμένον· οὗ δὴ λέγεται πρώτη Σαπφώ, ὥς φησιν ὁ Μένανδρος, τὸν ὑπέρκομπον θηρῶσα Φάων’, / οἰστρῶντι πόθῳ ῥῖψαι πέτρας / ἀπὸ τηλεφανοῦς ἅλμα κατ’ εὐχήν / σήν, δέσποτ’ ἄναξ. … ἦν δὲ καὶ πάτριον τοῖς Λευκαδίοις κατ’ ἐνιαυτὸν ἐν τῇ θυσίᾳ τοῦ Ἀπόλλωνος ἀπὸ τῆς σκοπῆς ῥιπτεῖσθαί τινα τῶν ἐν αἰτίαις ὄντων ἀποτροπῆς χάριν.

It contains the temple of Apollo Leucatas, and also the “Leap,” which was believed to put an end to the longings of love. “Where Sappho is said to have been the first,” as Menander says, “when through frantic longing she was chasing proud Phaon, to fling herself with a leap from the far-seen rock, calling upon thee in prayer, O lord and master.” … It was an ancestral custom among the Leucadians, every year at the sacrifice performed in honor of Apollo, for some criminal to be flung from this rocky look-out for the sake of averting evil [though he was saved from drowning by boats waiting below].

So Sappho killed herself in a fashion characteristic of the pharmakos, [
40] and in a cult site in which criminal pharmakoi were expelled from land to sea. She dies calling upon Apollo (apparently), as did Aesop. As in the case of the death legends of Aesop and Hesiod, this death legend could be an aition for ritual practice.


[ back ] 1. See g.23V, 34V(with test.III), 16.17–20. Texts of Sappho and Alcaeus are from Voight 1971, unless otherwise noted. Translations are from Campbell 1982, unless otherwise noted. Themistius 13p.170d speaks of Sappho and Anacreon giving unbounded praise to their lovers, cf. Dover 1978:174; Naafs-Wilstra 1987:276–277. Sappho could also praise patron divinities, notably Aphrodite (1V).

[ back ] 2. ἐπ]ίσταμαί τοι τὸν φιλ[έο]ν[τα] μὲν φ[ι]λεῖν[, / τὸ]ν δ’ ἐχθρὸν ἐχθαίρειν τε [κα]ὶ κακο[ (23W.14–15). Archilochus can also write, “And I know one big thing, how to return terrible evils upon the man who treats me badly” (ἓν δ’ ἐπίσταμαι μέγα, / τὸν κακῶς <μ’> ἔρδοντα δεινοῖς ἀνταμείβεσθαι κακοῖς, 126W). Cf. 201W: “The fox knows many things, but the porcupine one big thing” (πολλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα). See Campbell 1983:120–121.

[ back ] 3. See Page 1955:131–138 (a somewhat unsympathetic treatment), Burnett 1983:212.

[ back ] 4. Suda s.v. Sappho (test. 236V).

[ back ] 5. West 1974:25.

[ back ] 6. On Poems 2 fr. 29 (p. 252 Hausrath). As Burnett notes, this statement refers to “temper,” not “meter,” Burnett 1983:211n11.

[ back ] 7. Herodotus 2.135 (test. 254aV): ἐλύθη χρημάτων μεγάλων ὑπὸ ἀνδρὸς Μυτιληναίου Χαράξου … ἀδελφεοῦ δὲ Σαπφοῦς τῆς μουσοποιοῦ … Χάραξος δὲ ὡς λυσάμενος Ῥοδῶπιν ἀπενόστησε ἐς Μυτιλήνην, ἐν μέλεϊ Σαπφὼ πολλὰ κατεκερτόμησέ μιν. Curiously enough, this is the same passage in which Herodotus witnesses to Aesop’s slave parentage and his being killed by the Delphians. According to Herodotus, Rhodopis was “a fellow-slave of Aesop the story-writer” (σύνδουλος δὲ Αἰσώπου τοῦ λογοποιοῦ).

[ back ] 8. arsit inops frater meretricis captus amore / mixtaque cum turpi damna pudore tulit. … me quoque, quod monui bene multa fideliter, odit.

[ back ] 9. She speaks with pia lingua (Heroines 15.68) in admonishing him. For other moralizing Sapphic poetry, cf. 158V. For the moral force of archaic Greek satire, see Jaeger 1945 1.121–124; Elliott 1960:11n20; above, chs. 3 and 4 on Archilochus and Hipponax.

[ back ] 10. See 13 (596b–c) (test. 254cV): ἣν ἡ καλὴ Σαπφὼ ἐρωμένην γενομένην Χαράξου … διὰ τῆς ποιήσεως διαβάλλει, ὡς πολλὰ τοῦ Χαράξου νοσφισαμένην.

[ back ] 11. Perses seized the greater part of the inheritance, Works and Days 37–38, but later is reduced to begging, 394–404. Charaxus is “made poor” (factus inops) by Doricha, Ovid Heroines 15.65, after he “evilly cast away” his money, 15.66.

[ back ] 12. Charaxus is iners (Heroines 15.63); Perses is inclined to waste his time lounging around the law courts, Works and Days 27–29.

[ back ] 13. See Hunt 1981:32–33; Nagy 1979:312. For further on Charaxus, see Benedetto 1982.

[ back ] 14. Athenaeus 10.425a = 203aV.

[ back ] 15. Lesky 1966:144–147 gives an overview of these controversies. For the groups as educational thiasoi, see Fraenkel 1975:175; Lesky only partially agrees (146). For Wilamowitz’s view of the groups as schools, see Lesky 1966:144; Page strongly disagrees (1955:128), but new evidence inclines Dover (1978:174–175) to regard Sappho as leader of a school of music and poetry, preparing young women for choral performance in festivals. Burnett (1983:15) accepts the school scenario. See also Calame 1977:62, 367–372; 368n17; 420–438. Gentili (1988:72–89), following Calame, sees Sappho’s circle as a kind of female homosexual thiasos worshipping Aphrodite and the Muses with song and ritual, including a kind of initiatory marriage ritual. Parker (1996) insists that there was no formal teacher–student relationship between Sappho and her circle, though he agrees that Sappho taught music performance to members of her group. Parker is entirely successful in dispelling modern “schoolmistress” ideas of Sappho, but less successful in arguing against possible ancient ideas of educational relationships. He argues for a hetairia setting for Sappho’s poetry; it is hard to imagine a poet of Sappho’s gifts not being the leader of the group.

[ back ] 16. Maximus of Tyre 18.9 (test. 219V): καὶ ὅ τι περ Σωκράτει οἱ ἀντίτεχνοι Πρόδικος καὶ Γοργίας καὶ [ back ] Θρασύμαχος καὶ Πρωταγόρας, τοῦτο τῇ Σαπφοῖ Γοργὼ καὶ Ἀνδρομέδα· νῦν μὲν ἐπιτιμᾷ ταύταις, νῦν δὲ ἐλέγχει καὶ εἰρωνεύεται αὐτὰ ἐκεῖνα τὰ Σωκράτους.

[ back ] 17. Athenaeus 1.21b–c, see further testimonia in Voigt 1971.

[ back ] 18. Page 1955:134.

[ back ] 19. For Sappho and homosexuality, see Dover 1978:174–179; Snyder 1997, and see below, this chapter. For a different interpretation of this word, see Gentili 1988:76.

[ back ] 20. According to Plutarch Table Talk 3.2 (646E); Advice to Bride and Groom 145f–146a, probably reflecting Sappho.

[ back ] 21. For the incantatory quality of Sappho’s poetry, cf. Segal 1947; Portulas 1983.

[ back ] 22. Detienne refers briefly to this poem, 1973:23n78. Sappho also boasts that, blessed by the Muses, “there would be no forgetfulness [lēthē ] of her when she was dead” (οὐδ’ ἀποθανούσης ἔσται λήθη). Aristides Orations 28.51 (test. IV ad 55V, cf. 32V = 193 LP).

[ back ] 23. See e.g. Archilochus 223W, where the poet must show how much he has been hurt before he retaliates with poetry. For the concept of injustice in Sappho’s poem, see Rivier 1967. Cf. also Sappho’s complaint that those to whom she has done good sin most against her, 26 LP, cf. Campbell 1982:76. For the broken oath in Sappho, cf. Calame 1977:368–369; chs. 3 and 4 above (Archolochus and Hipponax); and ch. 9 below (Alcaeus). For interpretations of the ritual background of this poem see Calame 1977 and Nagy 1996:98–99.

[ back ] 24. On this poem, see Segal 1974; a survey of interpretation in Burnett 1983:232.

[ back ] 25. Cf. Snell 1953:52–54, for other Archilochean–Sapphic parallels.

[ back ] 26. This is the house into which Pittacus, Alcaeus’ opponent (70V, 75V) married. There is some evidence that Sappho was in exile at the same time Alcaeus was, thus possibly allied with him politically, see Campbell 1982:xv. Cf. fr. 98V.

[ back ] 27. The source of the fragment, Maximus of Tyre 18.9, specifically describes this line as ironic; Page interprets it as a farewell, but cf. possible evidence for the fragment as a greeting, 1955:135n11.

[ back ] 28. See 103–117V; 31V; 44V; T 234V, cf. Catullus 61, 62, 64.323–381; Fraenkel 1975:173; Burnett 1983:216–224. Killeen (1973:197) suggests that there is an ithyphallic bridegroom in the last line of 111.

[ back ] 29. On Style 167 (test. III at 110V): σκώπτει … τὸν ἄγροικον νυμφίον καὶ τὸν θυρωρὸν.

[ back ] 30. P. Oxy. 1800, fr. 11 (test. 252V): τὴν δὲ μορφὴν [εὐ]καταφρόνητος δοκεῖ γε[γον]ένα[ι κα]ὶ δυσειδεστάτη[[ν]], [τ]ὴν μὲν γὰρ ὄψιν φαιώδης [ὑ]πῆρχεν, τὸ δὲ μέγεθος μικρὰ παντελῶς. Cf. bibliography in Campbell 1982:3n5; Maximus of Tyre 18.7, Ovid Heroines 15.31–36.

[ back ] 31. P. Oxy. 1800 (see preceding note): “She has been accused by some of being irregular in her ways and a woman-lover”(κ[α]τηγόρηται δ’ ὑπ’ ἐν[ί]ω[ν] ὡς ἄτακτος οὖ[σα] τὸν τρόπον καὶ γυναικε[ράσ]τρια). Suda s.v. Sappho (test. 253V): “She had three companions and friends … and she got a bad name for her impure friendship with them” (ἑταῖραι δὲ αὐτῆς καὶ φίλαι γεγόνασι τρεῖς … πρὸς ἃς καὶ διαβολὴν ἔσχεν αἰσχρᾶς φιλίας). Cf. Porphyrio On the Epistles of Horace 1.19.28 (test. 260V): “she is maligned as having been a tribad” (tribas diffamatur fuisse), and Seneca, Epistles 88.37 (test. 244V), on Sappho as a prostitute. As Dover remarks, none of this tradition precedes Hellenistic times (1978:174); he concludes, though, that Sappho and her circle practiced homosexual love (182). Was Sappho blamed for it? We know she was blamed by Hellenistic times, by other cities and cultures. For different attitudes, disapproving and tolerant, toward homosexuality in Greece, see 185–195. Surprisingly, Plato, in the Laws, 636ab, has an Athenian embarrass a Spartan by saying that the sexual pleasure shared by males with males, or females with females, “seems to be contrary to nature, a crime of the first order, committed through inability to control the desire for pleasure,” as quoted by Dover 1978:186. The fact that Plato specifies female homosexuality is worthy of note. Dover (1978:190) suggests that this passage seems to contradict the Symposium. Apparently, respectable Spartan women had accepted homosexual relationships with young girls (1978:173). Female homosexuality was somewhat of a taboo subject in Greek culture, but see ibid. See also, Calame 1977:62, 367–372; 368n17; 420–438.

[ back ] 32. Strabo 13.2.3 (test. 264V), cf. Scholiast O on Aeschylus Persians 883; Eusebius Chronicles, Olympiad 45.1. (test. 249V); Antipater, in Palatine Anthology 7.15, quoted in Campbell 1982:47; Sappho fr. 106V.

[ back ] 33. Aristides Orations 28.51 (test. IV at 55V): αὑτὴν αἱ Μοῦσαι τῷ ὄντι ὀλβίαν τε καὶ ζηλωτὴν.

[ back ] 34. 150V: οὐ γὰρ θέμις ἐν μοισοπόλων <δόμωι> / θρῆνον ἔμμεν’ οὔ κ’ ἄμμι πρέποι τάδε. Cf. fr. 32V.

[ back ] 35. Plato, in Palatine Anthology 9.506, Catullus 35.16, cf. Campbell 1982:49n1.

[ back ] 36. E.g. frr. 1, 2, 5, 15, 22, 33V. Cf. Segal 1974:159. See also Page 1955:126–128; Nagy 1973:175–177.

[ back ] 37. Fr. 384V, see Crit. app. Cf. Ferrari 1940:33–53; Gentili, “Holy Sappho,” in Gentili 1988:216–222: “the greeting presents itself as a reverent tribute to the sacral dignity of the poetess as ministrant of Aphrodite” (222); Burnett 1983:276n130.

[ back ] 38. Parian Marble, ep. 36 (Jacoby 1904:12) (test. 251V): ἀφ’ οὗ Σαπφὼ ἐγ Μυτιλήνης εἰς Σικελίαν ἔπλευσε φυγοῦσα. Cicero tells us that a statue of Sappho stood in the Syracusan town hall, Against Verres 2.4.125–127. See also, for the exile, fr. 98V(b), Campbell 1982:125; 71V. Cf. Bauer 1963; Seibert 1979:283; Gentili 1988:81; Campbell 1982:xi, xv. Either Andromeda or Gorgo was a Penthilid: 71V.3, see above; Gentili 1988:261n42. Page remarks on the scantiness of political allusions in Sappho’s poetry (1955:131); 71 and 98 contain nearly the sum total of the politics in Sappho’s extant verse.

[ back ] 39. Cited more fully in Campbell 1982:23. Cf. Anacreon 376; Euripides Cyclops 166–167; Suda s.v. Sappho, second notice (test. 211aV); Ovid Heroines 15, esp. 160ff.; Segal 1974; Burnett 1983:272 (further bibliography, 272n117); Campbell 1982:22n1. Cf. Nagy 1973 (to the best of my knowledge, Nagy nowhere mentions the pharmakos aspects of the Sappho’s death; he sees Indo-European myth behind Phaon); Houbaux 1923. In Anacreon 376, we have another form of drunkenness to place beside war drunkenness and mantic drunkenness: love drunkenness (methuōn erōti); see also Ibycus fr. 6 Page. Cf. Sappho 1V.18.

[ back ] 40. As Gernet notes, “the victim of the Leap from Leukas … can be considered a pharmakos” (1981:133). See also Hughes 1991:160–161.

[ back ] 41. Aristotle Rhetoric 1398b, cf. Clay 2004:150–151. See also Farnell 1921:367; 421–426; Sappho seated in shrine, see Wroth 1975–1983, pl. 39.11; pp. 200, lxx–lxxi. Julius Polydeukes, in Pollux 9.84 (the Mytilenaeans put Sappho on their coins); Aristides Orations 12.85; Cicero Against Verres 2.4.125f., a bronze statue of Sappho by Silanion (mid-fourth century BC) in the prytaneion at Syracuse; Campbell 1982:13n1; Richter 1965 1.70–72; Heintze 1966.

[ back ] 42. See above on fr. 1.

[ back ] 43. For love/Aphrodite as persecutor-patron in Latin poetry, see below, ch. 23 (Ovid).

[ back ] 44. Fr. 258, in Strabo Geography 10.2.9 (test. 211aV), cf. oistraō LSJ s.v.: “sting, sting to madness; go mad, rage.” See also Mattes 1970:105, 110. This word is used by Plato in his discussion of madness, Phaedrus 251d, cf. Republic 573e; Theaetetus 179e. For the symbolism of the goad used in a description of madness and prophetic possession, see Virgil Aeneid VI 78–80, 100–101. Cf. the symptoms of fr. 31V, discussed in McEvelley 1978; Tsagarakis 1986, 1979; Privitera 1969; Manieri 1972; Burnett 1983:239–241; 1V.18; Ovid Heroines 15.176.

[ back ] 45. There was a tradition that a woman pharmakos was expelled in Athens, Hesychius s.v. pharmakoi. Legendary scapegoats, such as Aglauros, were often young women.

[ back ] 46. So the following themes can be found in the life of Sappho: 4, she is the worst, 4d, ugly, 4c, a sinner; 5, she is also the best, 5a, sacred; 8, her death is voluntary; 10a, she is exiled; 11, she dies, 11b, leaping from a cliff; 13, she subsequently receives hero cult (perhaps); 18, she may have a divine persecutor-patron, Aphrodite; 19, she suffers madness; 22, her poetry has a satirical/blame component, including the themes of 22d, artist satirizing artist and 22e, the curse.