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.


I was first introduced to the dialects of Plato and Sappho in the last years of elementary school by an older friend who enjoyed reciting ancient Greek poetry and reading sections from Plato’s Symposion at family gatherings. She taught me their dialects during three long summers in Greece. The work of both of those ancient composers of prose and song became scholarly pre-occupations of mine later at college. It seemed to me then that their dialogues and songs displayed a comparable focus on the iconicity of language and on the articulation of the spatiality of erôs. Sokrates’ reference in the Phaidros to the words and writings of the palaioi sophoi andres kai gunaikes (“ancient wise men and women”) and his point that what he had in mind was probably Sappho (235b–c) echoed in my mind each time I tried to make sense of Diotima’s inner voice. My approach to Plato changed during a cold winter in Oxford, when I started graduate studies and intensively read parts of the work of Gregory Vlastos.

Although in the twentieth century the scholarship on Sappho became vast and labyrinthine, researchers did not attempt to write a synthesis on the complexities of the formation of her figure. Scattered accounts of later sources and analyses of cases like [Ovid]’s Epistula Sapphus often (consciously or unconsciously) engage in a convenient and chronologically blurred narrativization of different aspects of her ancient reception: no distinctions are made with regard to ancient synchronic perspectives and especially to the diverse sociocultural mechanisms and practices conducive to the shaping of receptorial filters in different contexts and periods. More importantly, a widely sanctioned scholarly paradigm considers ancient reception as a clear reflection of biographical tradition. At the same time, researchers have advanced numerous ingenious reconstructions of the original sociocultural context of the song-making of Sappho based, each time, on selected elements of the ancient reception itself, without investigating its cultural economies and synchronic structures. There is an urgent need for methodological theorizing on ancient reception and the anthropology of socioaesthetic idioms linked with reception in antiquity.

Despite sporadic scholarly remarks, the material related to the ancient shaping and reshaping of the figure and song-making of Sappho is considerably multilayered and extensive. The more I worked in the area, the more my investigations required significant expansion in different directions, lines of evidence, and sets of questions. Any time I deemed that a certain line of inquiry had been concluded, further intricate discursive idioms and practices, as well as metonymic and mythopractical webs of signification, shifted the boundaries and “imaginative horizons” of research. [1] It is my contention that the study of the ancient reception of archaic, classical, and Hellenistic socioaesthetic cultures involves many underexplored and unexplored areas and questions that future researches will need to tackle. Explorations of the cultural economies and sociopolitical discourses that conditioned the ancient receptions of Sappho may eventually reconfigure the way we reconstruct the context within which she composed her songs and our overall approaches to her fragments. This book, which focuses on a methodologically challenging area—the early reception—constitutes an anthropological investigation into the alterity of archaic, classical, and early Hellenistic discursive inflections and practices that contributed to the later Greek and Roman representations of the figure of Sappho. The lack of direct access to ancient socioaesthetic cultures—the impossibility of simple formulas—requires the advancement of interdisciplinary methodologies firmly based on the arresting technicalities of disciplines like archaeology, papyrology, and epigraphy. Therefore, the project undertaken here constitutes an attempt to write an archaeological ethnography of archaic and classical Greek socioaesthetic idiolects and sociolects; [2] its aim is to trace and recapture the interdiscursivity of the cultural textures that defined “Sappho.” [3]


[ back ] 1. For the notion of “imaginative horizons” from an anthropological perspective, see the pathfinding work of Crapanzano 2004.

[ back ] 2. I employ the term “sociolect” in the sense of language “both as grammar and repository of the myths, traditions, ideological and esthetic stereotypes, commonplaces and themes” constructed by a social group (Riffaterre 1990:130 and passim).

[ back ] 3. For the concept of “interdiscursivity” with regard to ritual textures, see Yatromanolakis and Roilos 2003; cf., further, Roilos and Yatromanolakis forth.