Classical Inquiries | Diachronic Sappho: some prolegomena

Detail from Attic krater attributed to the Brygos painter, 480-470 BCE. Line drawing by Valerie Woelfel.
Detail from Attic krater attributed to the Brygos painter, 480-470 BCE. Line drawing by Valerie Woelfel.

“A diachronic as well as synchronic approach to the songmaking of Sappho” by Gregory Nagy

In his posting Diachronic Sappho: some prolegomena, Gregory Nagy argues that the art of Sappho’s songmaking can be viewed as an evolving medium through time. He offers his views in support of this argument.

A. Sappho wrote poems. No. There is no proof that the composition of songs by Sappho depended on the technology of writing. In N 1974 as also in the Appendix to N 1990a, I offer proof that a composition like Song 44 of Sappho was created by way of a formulaic language that is cognate with the formulaic language used in the compositions that we know as the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey. As I argue further in N 2011b:155–156, the composing and thetransmission of the songs attributed to Sappho—and to Alcaeus—cannot be divorced from theperforming of these songs. To put it as simply as possible: the songs of Sappho—and of Alcaeus—were meant to be performed, not read as texts. And here is one other point that I need to make already now: the compositions attributed to Sappho are not simply poems. They are songs. More on this point below, at D.

B. Sappho is a historical person, to be dated around 600 BCE, who intended her songs for other historical persons who are named or unnamed in the wording of these songs. Before we can speak of the historicity of Sappho, we must first ask ourselves this all-important question: for whom were her songs intended? The answer, as I argue in N 2015a, is that Sappho’s songs were originally “intended” for all the people of Lesbos. So, these songs are “intended” not only for family, not only for some inner circle of women and girls, not only for some sub-group of people who are participating in a specific event. And I view the concept of “intention” diachronically here, not only synchronically. The persons to whom Sappho speaks in her songs become personae or—let’s say it more simply—characters in the world of these songs, just as Sappho by virtue of speaking (1) to these characters and (2) about these characters and (3) about herself becomes a character in her own right. The ancient Greek word for the functioning of personalities or personae or characters in the world of song is mīmēsis, as I argue with specific reference to Sappho in Classical Inquiries 2015.10.01. A more extended argument, with reference to Greek songmaking in general, is made in N 2013b.

C. The occasion for the songs of Sappho can be determined by whatever the words of these songs have to say about the world of Sappho. No. As I argue in N 1993, 1994–1995a, 1994–1995b, 2007a, 2007b, 2010, 2015a, the occasion for each of the songs was determined by the historical circumstances that shaped the traditions of performing the songs, and these circumstances changed over time.

D. The medium of Sappho, in the performance of her songs, was (1) choral or (2) sympotic or (3) “concertizing.” From a diachronic and a historical point of view, as I argue especially in N 2007b, 2010, 2015a, all three of these media fit the songmaking of Sappho. From an exclusively synchronic point of view, on the other hand, Classicists are sometimes forced to choose, depending on the context that they are reading: it is as if the songs of Sappho must be only choral or only sympotic or only “concertizing.”

E. The personality of Sappho shows that she is a woman who loves girls. Here we see an overly narrow typing of Sappho as represented by the words of her songs. The songs of Sappho, as I will argue in the postings that follow this one, reveal a kaleidoscope of female personae. She can be a middle-aged woman or even an old woman, but she can also be a young girl. She can be a woman who loves girls, or a girl who loves another girl or is loved by other girls or by women. She can behave in a wide variety of ways, ranging from the stateliness shown by a priestess of the goddess Hera all the way to the frivolities of a courtesan who enchants the men who hear her songs sung at their drinking parties. She can also be a loving or a scolding sister, as I argued in N 2015a. She can even show her love of boys, as I argued in N 1973, where I analyzed her profession of erotic desire for the radiant young hero named Phaon.

Readers may find more from Gregory Nagy on Sappho at Classical Inquiries.