From Greek Lyric to Rap Song: A New Swiss Sappho? (An Impertinent Comparison)

Claude Calame, Écoles des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales; translation by James Kierstead, Stanford University
Comparative analysis has always been one of the foundation stones of cultural and social anthropology, of both historical and synchronic approaches. During the eighteenth century, encounters between missionaries and “savages” in the New World prompted European scholars to embark upon the comparative analysis of the customs of the classical Athenians. Grounding this comparative analysis and making it possible was religious sentiment, seen as shared by all men and women who were all equal; according to the thinking of the time, they were all descendants of Adam and Eve and in the palm of the Lord God’s hand [1] .

1. The Comparative Approach

But comparative analysis as a method traces its origins to comparative linguistics. In the historical writing inspired by and dependent upon historical linguistics, in which an effort was made to find the roots of Indo-European languages and civilization, ancient Greek language and culture inhabited a privileged place [2] . Within ancient history, Friedrich Max Müller was among the first to apply the comparative methods of Indo-European linguistics to the history of religions and to anthropology more generally. Müller’s intellectual evolution can be traced in the passage from Lectures on the Science of Language (1864) to his Gifford Lectures on “anthropological religion” (1888-1892); and from the comparative philology he employed in his close readings of the Rig Veda to the comparative theology he drew upon in outlining the course of human history, a course which takes us from speculative mythology to the universalizing religion of Christianity. The approach was not merely historical, but also evolutionary, because it imposed on the course of history an ultimate destination. Once again, the Greeks played a key role in this progression from “primitive” religion to enlightened Christianity, founded upon certain revelation.
From these beginnings in Indo-European philology – quickly joined by its Semitic cousin – the comparative approach has flourished and branched into a bewildering number of separate approaches. Alongside diffusionist models we find associationalist ones. Mythologies are traced back genealogically to a single root culture; or the most diverse cultures are compared with reference to a widely diffused topos, such as “Eniautos daimon”. Despite the scepticism which is now elicited by the great comparative projects of the twentieth century aiming at universalism, comparative studies grounded in empirical research and cautious in their methodological assumptions still retain great relevance and value. In particular, comparative literature has restored a level of respectability to an approach that uses a backdrop of similarities to highlight differences. Beginning with surface similarities which enable the building up of a body of work that can be compared in the first place, comparative analysis then proceeds to identify differences which can be referred to the specificities of each of the individual cultural performances under scrutiny. The contrast brought to light by comparison of this sort is salutary, as long as it remains conscious of the artificial and instrumental nature of the concepts which have made such an exercise in cultural translation possible in the first place [3] .
Thus it is the surface similarities between the diction of the Slavic guslars researched by Parry and Lord that permitted Gregory Nagy’s comparison of the dactylic hexameter of Homer with the meters of the melic poets [4] . The results of this analysis, which combines synchronic and diachronic perspectives, were nothing short of astonishing. Epic meter was shown to be derivative of elements present in Aeolian poetry, known to us through Sappho, Alcaeus, and the “dactylo-epitrite” tradition of Pindar’s Epinician Odes. As Sappho’s famous narrative poem on the marriage of Hector and Andromache illustrates, the kôla making up the rhythmic fabric of Homeric poetry are dependent on the tradition of songs which we conventionally place under the label “lyric”; the songs, that is, which come from the great indigenous genre of mélos.
It is precisely in the context of these very varied poetic forms, which make clear the “song culture” of archaic Greece, that the anthropological approach has advantages. Indeed, only comparative analysis in a historical perspective can eliminate the misunderstanding caused by the romantic definition of “lyricism”. Far from referring to the expressing of personal feeling on the part of the poet, as in the dictionary definition of lyric poetry, the various forms of the poetic “I” put into play by Greek melic poetry are indicative of ritual action. The act of song is assumed collectively by a chorus, along with a dance rhythm and instrumental accompaniment, in a ritual or cultic setting with a specific political and social signification [5] . For our part, these instances of activation of the political community (in the Greek sense of “political”) and of their cultural memory require for their understanding an approach drawn from discourse analysis (focused on communicative strategies), in combination with historical anthropology (for the communicative context) and comparative ethnopoetics (for the forms of poetry that were performed in song, dance, and music). Particularly central here is the notion of “(re-)enactment” as it has been developed by Gregory Nagy and applied to different forms of Greek poetry [6] .

2. From mélos to rap: an improbable comparison

Now, if there is a type of music or poetry around today in the Western postmodernity that lives up to the ideal of performance as the ancient Greeks knew it, if there is a form of modern singing that requires an ethnopoetic approach, it is rap. At the same time, Greek melic poetry is so far removed from rap in time and cultural context that the two might well seem to provide a good example of the “incomparable” [7] . It seems best to admit straight off that there is no guarantee that the comparison will turn out to have been worthwhile. A justification for such an impertinent comparison – if such a justification exists – will be found in the emergence, from a background of apparently irreducible difference, of elements that can indeed be compared in fruitful and illuminating ways.
In this short essay, I will focus on the two main stages of any comparative analysis: the recording of similarities, followed by the identification of differences. But there may also be something to be drawn from the so-called “comparative triangle”, which involves illuminating the comparatum (here, Greek melic poetry) by reference to the comparandum (rap), and ending by viewing both genres from the modern interpretive viewpoint, which corresponds to the uppermost point of the triangle. Guiding and informing our comparative analysis will be the notion of “anthropopoiesis”, understood as the totality of mankind’s practices of cultural and collective (self-)construction. Viewed from the perspective of ethnomusicology, anthropopoiesis is centered on the body, which has until recently been under-valued in the study of Greek melic poetry. Our specific comparandum will be a feminist track by the young Swiss rapper Steff la Cheffe, which satirizes readers of the women’s magazine Annabelle, and our comparatum will be the homo-erotic poem in which Sappho sings of Helen of Troy.
In order to situate ourselves properly in the ethnographic context, let’s recap very quickly some of the key phases of the development of rap. Rap music had its origins in the South Bronx in New York in the mid-1970s. Its originators were young immigrants, often from Jamaica. Independent since 1962, Jamaica was at that time in the midst of a ferment of black nationalism centered on Rastafarianism (with its narrative of African redemption), on the rhythm and blues of New Orleans, and on the various local traditions this gave birth to. Recorded on dub-plates, this form of music was created by the first disk jockeys, who made every track into a specific performance. Reggae (a term whose etymology is highly contentious) played a central role in the social movement instigated by the policies of the social-democratic government of Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley. Manley spearheaded a politics of emancipation, which was quickly met by attempts at repression at the hands of the CIA and IMF (already at that time deeply involved in enforcing “structural adjustment” on third-world countries) [8] .
It was in the block parties thrown in the streets of the South Bronx by young people collectively protesting the discrimination they were subject to that rap emerged. It began with the manipulation of vinyl records through “scratches” stretching the rhythms of the music, and with the integration of samples or extracts of other pieces of music. A central role was played by Clive Campbell, who (in a nice classical adaptation) took on the name of Kool Herc. Campbell is often considered the first DJ and the founding father of hip-hop, and he introduced a new technique, consisting in simultaneously operating two turntables both playing the same piece of music, but slightly staggered, so that the beat is distorted. It is against this backdrop of a technologically produced beat (allowing for repeat performances by others) that the M.C. or “Master of Ceremonies” delivers his lyrics (a familiar word made strange again by the classical comparison we are about to engage in). And somehow it is here, in a very different context and with a very different poetic content, that we re-discover all the elements of Greek melic poetry: vivacious word-play, shifts in vocal texture, physical gestures accompanying the rhythm of the words… Rap rhythmic delivery even came to be known as “flow”, the very term that is evoked in the Greek word rhuthmós (from rheîn, to flow) [9] .
But it needs to be remembered that rap was part of a larger cultural movement. This was the hip-hop movement, at the same time festive and protesting, which developed in the housing projects and black ghettos of the South Bronx from the beginning of the 1970s. Afrika Bambaataa, the founder of the Zulu Nation, was the seminal and iconic figure at block parties, musical performances that originated in the Bronx River Projects before spreading out to other groups in these new black quarters of New York, at that time lacking their own musical culture. The term hip-hop seems to have come from break dancing, whose pirouettes and tumbles will remind the adventurous comparativist of the danced performance accompanying the famous bard’s song about the affair of Ares and Aphrodite in Book 8 of the Odyssey. At the court of the Phaeacians, still so intimate with the gods, the rhythmic song of Demodokos, musically accompanied on the phorminx, is inaugurated by choreographed movements on the part of young people, who beat out with their dance-steps the choral area (also used for competitions), at the center of which sits the bard himself. And, while the Phaeacians involved in the bard’s performance celebrate with Ulysses, the musical narration culminates in an acrobatic ball-game and with the alternating choreographed figures of two young dancers who are accompanied by the chants of other young people participating in the performance [10] . Could the ethnomusicologically inclined Hellenist dream of a better case for comparison?
We can add to this that the hip-hop movement integrated the graphic art-form of the “tag”, which apparently had its origins in the black neighborhoods of Philadelphia and spread rapidly from there to subway cars in New York. In this art by spray-paint canister, form with its rugged design and performance with its liberating function have equal weighting; the “gangsta” lettering is traced out by night; and it is all done after a sort of rite de passage: jumping over the barbed-wire fence at the Harlem subway depot, getting across the high-voltage tracks, or dodging the cars along the Cross-Bronx Expressway [11] .
We should also not forget the characteristic street wear and slang employed by rappers, both of which have been taken up, along with the corresponding physical attitudes and intonations of rap, in the dress and speech of young people who have been born and who live in the ghettoized neighborhoods of French-speaking cities.

3. Comparandum: Steff la Cheffe of Bern and Annabelle

In the island of traditional nationalism and shady banking that is modern Switzerland, Steff la Cheffe is champion of beatbox. What precisely beatbox is she explains herself in an interview: “It’s percussion with your mouth. You make sounds, tunes, and rhythms with your tongue, lips, nose, throat, palate, vocal cords and diaphragm”. In short: a human rhythmbox. Beatboxing is a sort of vocal equivalent of beatmaking in music more generally, consisting as it does of samples that have already been recorded, mixed up into a melodic composition with a strong rhythmic accompaniment. The rhythms of the beatbox are produced both by the rapper’s actual voice and by syncopated blockages of air in her nose and trachea.
But that’s not all. Coming from Breitenrain-Lorraine, a middle-class suburb of Bern, a very bourgeois town, Stefanie Peter has fashioned herself, in her “fonction-auteur” not only into a master of beatbox, but also into a rap singer. She writes her own lyrics, in the Bernese dialect, which, in common with all the dialects spoken by young German-speaking Swiss in the country and in the towns, is an almost entirely oral phenomenon. As well as rapping her “lyrics”, she publishes them as self-standing compositions. In the summer of 2012, Steff la Cheffe (as she prefers to be known), still very young, played a starring role at every open-air music festival in the Swiss Alps. La Cheffe’s tracks combine the staccato rhythms of rap with the peculiarly melodic and ringing cadences that are characteristic of Bernese among Swiss-German dialects.
This local rap-tradition, grounded in a dialect strongly associated with a particular sub-region and regional identity, yet at the same time dependent upon a larger globalized genre spread under the economic and ideological hegemony of the US, has obvious similarities to the context from which the poems of Sappho emerged centuries earlier. Like la Cheffe’s, Sappho’s was a poetic tradition characterized by a distinctive dialect, and yet part of a network of melic poetry of various forms and part as well of all the various rituals celebrated in the flourishing small-scale communities of archaic Greece. There are of course also a host of differences, starting with the fact that the archaic Greek city-states were not yet under the political and cultural domination of Athens in the sense that we Swiss are currently and deliberately under the economic and political domination of the US and of the financial institutions established by the Bretton Woods accords.
But the presence of dialect is far from being the only aspect of these poems which lends itself to comparative analysis. Let’s take an example from la Cheffe’s first album Bittersüessi Pille (Bitter-Sweet Pill – maybe an implicit echo of Sappho’s glukúpikros Eros, but substituting Eros with a pill in a thoroughly modern fashion…) [12] . The example will be the first of the two strophes of the track Annabelle, necessarily denuded of its musical accompaniment. Organized, perhaps, in a triadic structure of two strophes each answering the other to then finally conclude with an epode, the song is a first-person parody of the ideal reader of Annabelle, Switzerland’s premiere women’s magazine [13] .

I bruche nöii schue, i bruche es Gucci-täschli
I bruche e nöie duft, i choufe tusig fläschli
I bruche e schöni maske, i bruche make-up
I bruche e nöii nase, wüu di auti gheit ab
I ga zum starfriseur, macht mini haare schön
Wäsche, schnide, föne, macht mer strähnli, git i aune tön (wää)
I bruche wissi zän, choufe’n es bleichmittu
I wott e wissi weschte, choufe mer e reine chittu
I bruche lotion gäge mini zellulite (wää)
I bruche e wonderbra, type stöh uf grossi (muh)
I bruche diamante, i bruche bling bling
I bruche grills, bruche e chetti, bruche piercing
I bruche es chlises schwarzes, i ga i usgang
Bruche (?), bruche (?), bruche e mustang
Bruche prestige, i bruche es, tscheggsch nid
I bruche aus wi di girls us em heftli

I han e Freundin, han e Drama,
wäg dr Joy u dr Shape u dr GalaFrag d’Brigitte oder d’Petra,
di wüsse witer bi jedem thema (2x)

Anna Anna, Anna Annabelle, Anna Anna (2x, en voix off)


D’Annabelle han i gchündigt, si isch nüm mini fründin
Ihri tipps si mer z’bünzlig, ihri site si z’dünn gsi (2x)

That is, in a literal translation:

I need new shoes, I need a Gucci bag
I need some new perfume, I’ll buy a thousand bottles
I need a nice figure, I need some make-up
I need a new nose, because the old is too long
I go to a star hairdresser, he makes my hair look nice
a wash, a cut, a brush, he gives me streaks (which makes some noise – wah!)
I need some whiter teeth, I need a descaler
I need a white jacket, I’ll buy myself a jersey
I need an anti-cellulite cream (wah!)
I need a wonderbra, the push-up type (muh!)
I need some diamonds, I need some bling bling
I need some grills, I need a chain, I need some piercings
I need a black string, I’m about to go out
I need ? I need ? I need a mustang
I need some prestige, I need some, you dig?
I need some like the girls in the magazines

I have a “Freundin”, I have a “Drama”
because of Joy, of Shape, or of Gala
Just ask Brigitte, just ask Petra
they always know more on any subject (2x)

Anna Anna, Anna Annabelle, Anna Anna (2x, off)

Annabelle, I took it back, she’s not my friend anymore
Her tips, I find them out-of-date, her pages too thin (2x)

A literal translation, of course, cannot hope to reproduce the effect of the rhymes in the original bärndütsch, nor the play on the titles of other German-language Swiss women’s magazines referred to in the final double refrain, such as Drama, a magazine of “Fashion and Performance”, according to the advertisement for a magazine which is an anthology of feminine everyday life boosted by publicity.
Most striking here is the constant repetition of the first-person personal pronoun, “I”, the reiteration of which will no doubt sound familiar to scholars of archaic Greek poetry. It refers to the poetic “instance d’énonciation” so dear to this writer… But is the strong presence of the poetic “I” really enough to justify a comparison between the rap of Steff la Cheffe of Bern and the melic compositions of Sappho of Lesbos?

4. Comparatum: Sappho of Lesbos and Helen of Troy

Twenty-seven centuries ago, on the island of Lesbos, the poetess Sappho was the guide and teacher of a group of young girls, whom she led gradually into the full bloom of mature womanhood through the cultivation of the Muses and the worship of Aphrodite. But it was not Annabelle that caught Sappho’s attention, but rather Helen. It is not in the least surprising to find a reference to the Iliad (or, more precisely, to the Cypria) taking the place inhabited by a women’s magazine in the modern context of neo-liberal capitalism [14] . Let us refresh our memory now of Sappho’s poem, a piece that has received extensive commentary, but whose interpretation is too seldom contested:

I.Some say that the most beautiful thing
on the black earth is a host of horsemen,
others an army of foot-soldiers; others still a fleet;
as for myself, I say it’s what one loves.
II. To make anyone understand this is perfectly easy. 5
For even Helen,
who surpassed all others in the human race in beauty,
abandoned the best of husbands.
III.She embarked for Troy,
without remembering at all 10
either her daughter, or her dear parents.
But it’s [Aphrodite] who led her astray…
IV. …
[Helen] has stirred the memory 15
of Anactoria, who is not here.
V.How I long to see her charming gait
and the luminous sparkle of her face
more than all the chariots of Lydia
or foot-soldiers in arms.
This melic poem, composed in five so-called Sapphic stanzas, offers only one instance of the self-reference that is characteristic of the genre, and even this is indirect. The initial affirmation of egó is connected by the verb with the mysterious “some” of the opening priamel (who “say”, phaîsi, something different from the poetic “I”). Implicitly, this opening affirmation of the poetic “I” amounts to a speech-act as well as, in this instance, to an act of song. We are, then, fully in the realm of the performative; what Sappho is saying is, effectively, “I affirm in singing that…” By contrast, we do not find any similar self-referential and performative expressions in Steff la Cheffe’s lyrics, despite the constant and repeated presence of the poetic “I”.
This is because the expressive drive of the rap lyrics, in the first strophe of Steff la Cheffe’s song, is provided by the compulsive desire for the acquisition of certain goods, a desire which is in turn fueled by the reading of women’s magazines. The insatiable nature of the desire to acquire things is marked by the repetition of “I bruche”. This acquisitive need is so all-encompassing that it ends up eclipsing the poetic “I” itself. The interrogative inflection to the first two “bruche”s to appear without an “I” leads to a second-person apostrophe, as if some “you” had to be appealed to in order to aid in the understanding of the compulsive desire repeatedly referred to and then finally questioned. The insatiable acquisitiveness is, then, legitimized by the models pictured in the women’s magazines and appealed to in the track.
The personification is continued in the refrain. With their anthropomorphizing titles that are also names, the women’s magazines she calls upon are not only female deities kindling the poetic “I”‘s acquisitive desire, but also her friends and confidantes in an inner circle in which the “you” is implicit. A backing singer takes up the second refrain, evoking Annabelle as a semi-divine figure, in a sort of incantatory formula [15] . Nevertheless, at the end of the second strophe (in what might just be seen as a very short epode following the antistrophe) Annabelle is finally dismissed. The process takes place in two time-frames. First off, from impulsive acquisitive desire we pass to action, to indoor sport and vitamins to keep slim and in shape. Then the anthropopoietic figuring of the body is taken to the point of manipulating the very identity of the girl who wants to get ahead – an identity to be vigilantly guarded by various security measures and ultimately securely established only in the beds of the “bosses”, probably of the world of fashion. In terms of expression, the combination of imperious demands signaled by “gib mir” and renewed expressions of compulsive desire, again marked by “I bruche”, issues in a final imperative: “I have to get ahead, I have to get to board level”.
But after the refrain is repeated a second time, along with its listing of the titles of other Swiss women’s magazines, and after another repetition of the incantatory apostrophizing of Annabelle, artistic satisfaction quickly gives way to surfeit. And the beautiful Anna (Anna belle) is finally dismissed. No longer is she the “girlfriend” of before (a play on the title of the magazine “Freundin”). There is a clean break not only with her but with the lifestyle that she incarnates and advertizes. From being a girlfriend, Annabelle quickly returns to being just a magazine, now revealed as simply too lightweight, both literally and figuratively, to satisfy the poetic “I”.
In another study I have described the complex expressive progression of Sappho’s poem, which is centered upon the figure of Helen [16] . For our present purposes, let’s simply recall that the story of Helen serves as a supporting example for the initial affirmation made by the poetic “I”. In contrast with a squadron of cavalrymen, a naval armada, or an army of footsoldiers, who cannot, Helen alone can illustrate the adage according to which the most beautiful thing (tó kálliston) is what one loves. In the version of the myth of the abduction of Helen chosen here by Sappho, the beautiful heroine appears both as an example of someone who excited the power of Aphrodite (implicitly, in the young Trojan man) and as its victim (which is explicit – she is said to have abandoned her husband and family).
The final stanza of Sappho’s poem consists in a multifaceted comparison of Helen of Troy and the young woman sung by the poet. Like Helen (we are made to understand) Anactoria has attained the full bloom of feminine beauty. By now fully capable of seduction, and doubtless in the throes of love herself, Anactoria has left Sappho’s group; she too, then, is at the same time both a lover and a beloved. From a transitory and asymmetrical relationship of homophily with an initiatory quality, Anactoria has moved onto a heterosexual relationship with a higher level of equality and amorous reciprocity. That she was able to do so was in part the result of her association with Sappho’s group, which endowed her with social graces and a musical education with which to further embellish her natural, physical beauty. To this extent, the singer of this composition finds herself in the position of Menelaus, abandoned in spite of the emotional and legal bond which united him with Helen, just as Sappho has been abandoned in spite of the transitory erotic and social relationship she had with her beautiful young protégée. It is, then, by the end of the poem, Anactoria who inhabits the position of the most beautiful thing, the thing Sappho loves, more than all the chariots of Lydia and her footsoldiers in arms.

5. From comparison of differences to comparison of similarities

In these two texts taken as poems what is at play is a model of feminine beauty; taken as songs, what is at stake is nothing less than the anthropopoietic construction of a body, of an identity capable of seduction. But the kind of feminine identity that is constructed and affirmed in each of these “lyrics” cannot but be worlds apart in several ways. On the one hand, we have a beauty supplemented by an over-abundance of external supports, from medical interventions to bodyguards all designed to protect and preserve a very maternal idea of the self, all at the suggestion of a fashion magazine. On the other hand, we have a beauty that manifests itself in a walk or in the sparkle on a young girl’s face, under the supervision of Aphrodite, in her capacity as the goddess of blind love. Alongside these very different models of feminine beauty, we have very different expressive strategies. On the one hand, in Steffe la Cheffe’s lyrics we have the compulsive repetition of an insatiable desire for an artificially flashy appearance, one constructed from certain dominant norms stipulating how a (feminine) body and a face (for a young woman) should be. It is only at the end of the song that this desire for glossy beauty is realized in a vague sense of sexual satisfaction; before that, it is made to stave off the desire for consumption until the entire model is finally thrown out in a move which finally lifts the lid off the irony that has pervaded the piece from the beginning. On the other hand, in Sappho’s poem, there is a complex game of identifications among the protagonists of the Homeric episode and the poetic “I” in its relation to the absent girl, evoked in the perfect and present tenses in the ever-present memory of her walk and her glance, both of which kindle the full force of Aphrodite’s power. All of this is to demonstrate, in Sappho’s encomiastic poem, that the most beautiful thing is that which admits of amorous desire, and that this desire is addressed to a person of beauty.
Along with these two texts’ different expressive and enunciative strategies, and different aesthetics for different models of feminine beauty, there is also a difference in their pragmatics. In the modern Swiss German case, there is frequent interruption of the song by deafening amplifiers and glaring lights, all in a performative context involving both sexes in a young and critical crowd drawn largely from disadvantaged backgrounds; the classic venue is a large open-air hip-hop festival, of the kind that go on all through the summer in Western countries. In the ancient Greek case, the address of the poetess is an indirect one to the phílai hetaîrai, loyal companions in the group of young girls which, through rhythmic choral performances dedicated to Aphrodite, Sappho educates to a maturity that we would recognize as “sexual” [17] .
But when it comes to a culture as far removed from us as archaic Greece, an appeal to anthropology allied with a comparative approach at least permits us to conjure up by analogy a context and a form of performance that would otherwise be irrecoverably lost to us. Steff la Cheffe’s rap number, as a living example of a song and poem accompanied by dance and gestures, can restore to us – with the help of a little imagination – something of the phonic, musical, and anthropopoietic substance of Sappho’s melic songs. After all, both the songs compared are strongly marked by the presence of a poetic “I”. Both can be classed within the admittedly modern and fuzzy category of “lyric”. Both exist at the intersection of local traditions and international networks. Both are poems set to music and sung with particular intonations. Both are in peculiar dialects. Both employ a poetic form based on cadenced rhythms, and are accompanied by gestures and dance involving the body. Both make allusions to iconic female figures in their respective cultures. Both are lyrics produced by craftsmanlike manipulation of sonic and semantic material in an anthropopoietic tradition. Finally, both address themselves to a young audience, and both – the ritual ceremonies overseen by Sappho and the open-air hip-hop festivals headlined by Steff la Cheffe – have an educational and even initiatory quality.
It is perhaps in this direction – that of impertinent comparisons – that it is now best to pursue the repeated recommendations of scholars such as Gregory Nagy to incorporate anthropology within modern classical scholarship. In the model sketched out in this paper, comparative analysis depends not on the tracing of deep historical routes in the distant Indo-European past, but in juxtaposing Greek choral practices with those of traditional societies in other parts of the globe. So a Navajo Indian chant performed during the ritual initiation of pubescent girls has been employed to illuminate the ritual context of Alcman’s “first” Partheneion, as well as Sappho’s own Hymn to Aphrodite – two contemporaneous poets composing songs in their local dialects for choruses of young girls, the former at Sparta, and the latter in Lesbos [18] . In this initiatory chant, the poetic “I” identifies its present situation, hic et nunc, with the situation of the goddess of the white shell, the mother of the divine twins, at the center of the primordial Navajo family. In a complex polyphony, while the master of ceremonies chants the main burden of the song, the “I” of the young initiate is called to identify itself with Changing Woman, a female figure symbolizing change, whose Protean character recalls that of Aphrodite. If the ritual context of the performance of the Navajo chant lends a certain verisimilitude to the evocation of the sun and to the entire initiatory procedure indicated in Alcman’s poem, so the expressive centrality given to the white shell goddess illuminates the role of Aphrodite in Sappho’s hymn. The example of Steff la Cheffe’s Annabelle takes us further, since the rap number can provide an example of an asymmetric relationship between the poetic “I” and an apostrophized “you” in an erotic praise-poem. We might similarly compare Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman (1964, Nashville, Tennessee) with Sappho 31 (end of 7th century BC, Mytilene on Lesbos) [19] .
But it would be unwise to conclude this comparative attempt without returning very briefly to the uppermost point of the triangle that supplied a geometric model of our comparative approach [20] . Just like Greek melic poetry in its various forms, each of them strongly marked by rhythmic force and pragmatic depth, the different sub-genres of contemporary rap continue to produce a sizeable anthropopoietic effect, and thus to have considerable social impact. To this extent, the hip-hop movement is indicative of the tensions within modern liberalism, both in the United States and Europe. It constitutes, in effect, a continuing protest movement and source of collective identity for young people who have been disempowered and disenfranchised by the inherent discriminatory biases of the current global regime of competitive and egocentric individualism operating under the “laws” of the market and driven by the profit motive. At the same time, in individual episodes of verbal and physical violence, as well as in the flashiness of today’s rap videos and clips, with their power cars, sexualized women, and ubiquitous bling, the movement has itself surrendered to the dominant ideology that it once sought to subvert. As in the history of the blues, the big names in show business played a key role in this transformation, forcing the radical remnants of a once genuinely subaltern phenomenon into the shadows through mass marketing and saturation advertising on behalf of the major labels; the genuine rap of musical and social action is reduced to marginal spaces [21] . Once again the profit motive embodied in silver and gold, dominant everywhere, and working in tandem with the techniques of the mass media and of big advertising, has revealed itself as the driving force behind the irrevocable anthropopoietic force of (post-)modern liberalism.
But if, finally, the impertinent comparison I have offered here still risks being taken as a mark of scholarly arrogance, let me be content to recommend the polymorphous path set out by Gregory Nagy’s concept of musical and ritual performance, and to close by reiterating once again the usefulness and fruitfulness of an approach to Greek poetics that has a starting-point not in literary studies, but in anthropological and ethnopoetic pragmatics.


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Philippe Borgeaud, «Le problème du comparatisme en histoire des religions», Revue Européenne des Sciences Sociales 24, 1986: 59-76
Claude Calame, “Sappho’s Group: An Initiation into Womanhood,” in E. Greene (ed.), Reading Sappho. Contemporary Approaches, Berkeley – Los Angeles – London (University of California Press) 1996: 113-124
— , «Interprétation et traduction des cultures. Les catégories de la pensée et du discours anthropologique», L’Homme 163, 2002: 51-78
—, Masques d’autorité. Fiction et pragmatique dans la poétique grecque antique, Paris (Les Belles Lettres) 2005 (= Masks of Authority. Fiction and Pragmatics in Ancient Greek Poetics, translation by P. M. Burk, Ithaca – London: Cornell University Press, 2005)
—, “Greek Myth and Greek Religion,” in R. D. Woodard (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology, Cambridge (Cambridge University Press) 2007: 259-285
— , «Rythme, voix et mémoire de l’écriture en Grèce classique», in R. Pretagostini (ed.), Tradizione e innovazione nella cultura greca da Omero all’età ellenisitca. Scritti in onore di Bruno Gentili, Roma (GEI) 1993: 785-800; repris dans Sentiers transversaux. Entre poétiques grecques et politiques contemporaines, Grenoble (Jérôme Million) 2008: 205-216
—, L’Eros dans la Grèce antique, Paris (Belin) 2009 (3e éd.)
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Claude Calame, Florence Dupont, Bernard Lortat-Jacob, Maria Manca (edd.), La voix actée. Pour une nouvelle ethnopoétique, Paris (Kimé) 2010
Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. Une histoire de la génération hip-hop, Paris (Allia) 2007 (éd. or.: New York, Kindle Edition, 2005)
Marcel Detienne, Comparer l’incomparable, Paris (Seuil) 2000
Florence Dupont, Homère et Dallas. Introduction à une critique anthropologique, Paris (Hachette) 1990
Franco Ferrari 2007 Una mitra per Kleis. Saffo e il suo pubblico, Pisa (Giardini) 2007 trad. angl. par B. Acosta-Hughes & L. Prauscello, Sappho’s Gift. The Poet and Her Community, Ann Arbor (Michigan Classical Press) 2010
Ute Heidmann, «(Ré)écritures anciennes et modernes des mythes : la comparaison pour méthode. L’exemple d’Orphée», in U. Heidmann (ed.), Poétiques comparée des mythes, Lausanne (Payot) 2003: 47-64
Morgan Jouvenet, Rap, techno, électro… Le musicien entre travail artistique et critique sociale, Paris (Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme) 2006
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Emmanuel Levinas, Autrement qu’être ou au-delà de l’essence, La Haye (Nijhoff) 1974
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Charles P. Segal, Singers, Heroes, and Gods in the Odyssey, Ithaca – London (Cornell University Press) 1994


[ back ] 1. Lafitau 1724; cf. Borgeaud 1986, 59-64.
[ back ] 2. The seminal work in this field is that of the Berlin-based Sanskritist and linguist Franz Bopp (1833), which can now profitably be supplemented by the “archaeological” studies of Olender 1989, 20-30.
[ back ] 3. See the suggestions on methodology in comparative literature in Heidmann 2003; on cultural translation in a critical perspective, cf. Calame 2002.
[ back ] 4. Cf. Nagy, 1974, 1-22; 1990, 45-51, 439-464; cf. Sappho fr. 44 Voigt.
[ back ] 5. On the pragmatics of Greek poetic forms in musical performance see e.g. Calame 2007; for the enunciative polyphony in melic poetry, cf. 2005: 13-26. On both matters, see Nagy 1990: 339-382 in particular. Pecqueux 2007: 179-182.
[ back ] 6. Cf. e.g. Nagy 1994/5.
[ back ] 7. Cf. Levinas 1974, 203 for the recognition, through comparison of the incomparable, of the stranger in the face of the other; see also Detienne 2000, 41-52, for the comparative method more generally.
[ back ] 8. Cf. Chang 2007, 34-59, and Jouvenet 2006, 55-79.
[ back ] 9. See Calame 1993/2008, in which I revisit the meaning of rhuthmós in Greek; on the rhythmic quality of rap, see Pecqueux 2009, 53-58. For the corporeal aspects of rap dance, see Bazin 1995: 155-161.
[ back ] 10. Hom. Od. 8.256-267, 367-380; see also 4.15-18 where, in the banqueting hall of King Menelaus of Sparta, the song of the “divine bard” is introduced by the dancing of two acrobats; on these scenes, see the fine discussion by Segal 1994, 113-141.
[ back ] 11. On graff and tag, see Bazin, 1995: 167-201; also Chang 2007, 98-103.
[ back ] 12. Sappho fr. 130, 1-2 Voigt; cf. Calame, 2009, 25-36.
[ back ] 13. Annabelle is Switzerland’s magazine for women. Dreaming without losing sight of reality – that’s Annabelle“, as the advertisement says.
[ back ] 14. Sappho fr. 16 Voigt. As for the pertinence of the comparison between two cultural products that are so very different in so many ways, see the able discussion of Dupont 1990, 109-126 and 140-153, who compares the formulaic passages of Homeric poetry with the TV series Dallas, which had its own, similar pragmatics.
[ back ] 15. With a possible allusion to the 1959 Gene Vincent song Anna-Annabelle. The American rock-and-roll great declares his love for his baby (through a poetic “I”) when he says, “you are the cutest girl that I have ever seen”. A possible third term for comparison, staying within the category of “lyrics”?
[ back ] 16. Cf. Calame 2005, 112-125; see also Bierl, 2003, 103-112.
[ back ] 17. For the audience of rap lyrics, see Pecqueux 2009, 29-38; for Sappho’s audience, cf. Ferrari 2007, 39-46, with the references in Calame 1996.
[ back ] 18. Nagy 1996, 87-94 and 101-103, drawing on Lincoln 1981, 7-33.
[ back ] 19. Cf. Nagy 2007, 221-223.
[ back ] 20. Cf. Calame forthcoming; according to the number of texts under consideration, the triangle can be expanded to a square, pentagon, or any other polygon.
[ back ] 21. The different stages of the commercialization of rap are eloquently described by Chang 2007, 546-586; for the monopolization of French rap by show business bosses, and the numerous instances of political resistance, cf. Pecquex 2009, 91-97, as well as Jouvenet 2006, 111-170.