#Introduction: A Simple Prayer

Introduction: A Simple Prayer

The Complexity of Sappho 1

υἱὲ Ταντάλου, σὲ δ’ ἀντία προτέρων φθέγξομαι

Pindar, Olympian I
Sappho’s Prayer to Aphrodite (Fragment 1 V. [1] ) holds a special place in Greek Literature. The poem is the only one of Sappho’s which survives complete. [2] Many of the conclusions we draw about Sappho’s poetry come from this one six-strophe poem. [3] In the poem we find grounds for our views about her worship of Aphrodite, [4] her involvement in the thíasos, [5] and her poetic “detachment.” [6] Over and over again we turn to this poem on the one hand as the exemplar of archaic cult worship and on the other as the poetry of the woman who along with Archilochus and Alcaeus has always held first place among the archaic poets; more, who alone holds that place in love poetry. [7]
It is natural, then, that we see Sappho 1 through the filter of the many readings and interpretations which others have offered; but we sense that something has escaped them. The very fact that so many have taken up the task and provided new insight {1|2} testifies to the ultimate inability of traditional explications to capture the power of the poem, what sets it apart.
And yet, the poem is so simple. It begins with a traditional invocation which recalls the homeric hymns, [8] states Sappho’s wish very simply, recalls an elegantly fashioned hypomnesia, speaks through Aphrodite about the nature of love, and finishes with a final entreaty. The prayer seems to capture all of Sappho’s pain and her struggle to win her beloved, seems to put Sappho herself into her words and shine with her desire. [9]
The act of prayer, like Sappho 1, holds a special place in literature. In prayer, ritual and literature meet. The sacred programme, necessarily predictable, [10] comes into contact with the forces of language, so notoriously unpredictable. [11] In the case of Sappho 1, the linguistic component of prayer seems to have a special effect, as critics who have encountered the poem have noted in the epiphany, which they have traditionally viewed as directed not toward heaven but toward earthly listeners [12] or towards precise ritual. [13] The meeting of ritual and literature seems to me to lie at the heart of the poem, for after all the poem fundamentally takes the form of a prayer, begun by an invocation, framed by entreaties, with the proper form of cult memory in the epiphany. [14]
The aim of my study of the poem is to explore the nature of this encounter between ritual and literature. Although my study is informed by many previous readings of the poem, my intent is to read the poem in a new way, as the intersection of the two forces rather than the appropriation of ritual by literature. [15] Starting from the recognition that the poem says it is a prayer—its first and primary verb is λίσσομαι—I use tools {2|3} of analysis which have not yet been brought to bear on the poem, in particular the speech theory originally formulated by J. L. Austin [16] and comparisons to studies of epic speech events.
I begin also from the recognition that the poem’s previous interpreters have offered enough traditional philological insight to fill many books. Every word of the poem has been scrutinized for all of its meanings; [17] every strophe has been searched for references to cult and magic. [18] My purpose is not to offer further philological insights beyond those of my predecessors. I therefore make use of the knowledge they have handed down and make reference to it, but I do not repeat it, except where that repetition is crucial to my own study. While it may be argued against me that in many places I ignore interesting facets of the poem, let this argument testify to the poem’s wealth rather than my poverty. I believe my exploration of the forces at work in Sappho 1 has a significance beyond the poem’s individual facets.
My study progresses from an overview of past response to the poem, to a discussion of speech act theory, and then to a reading of the poem informed by the concerns I outline. In Chapter I, I begin by surveying three of the more extensive and recent readings of the poem in an effort to illustrate the need for an exploration of the nature of the poem as prayer. In Chapter II, I turn to the focus of my study, the function of performative language in the poem, with a discussion of speech act theory in relation to the poem. In Chapter IIΙ, I begin a reading of the poem informed by the concerns of performative language. I continue this reading into the part of the poem known as the epiphany, where I think the poem manifests its nature, in Chapter IV. Chapter V {3|4} concludes the reading of the poem and attempts to answer the questions which have arisen in the preceding chapters.
This study concerns itself in great part with the status of the voice of the poet in the meeting of ritual and literature. As I noted above, the poem seems to contain Sappho in the words of its prayer, because it contains so much of her desire—for aid from Aphrodite and for her beloved. The best test of my understanding, I believe, is whether at the end I have answered this question: Where is Sappho in Sappho’s Prayer to Aphrodite? {4|5}


[ back ] 1. Eva-Maria Voigt, Sappho et Alcaeus: Fragmenta (Amsterdam: Polak and Van Gennep, 1971) 29–33.
[ back ] 2. For testimonia, see Voigt 30.
[ back ] 3. Denys Page, Sappho and Alcaeus: an Introduction to the Study of Ancient Lesbian Poetry (New York: Oxford UP) 110–112 offers a discussion.
[ back ] 4. Bruno Gentili, Poetry and Its Public in Ancient Greece: from Homer to the Fifth Century, trans. A. Thomas Cole (1985; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1988) 79–80. Charles Segal, “Eros and Incantation: Sappho and Oral Poetry,” Arethusa 7 (1974): 139–160. Reinhold Merkelbach, “Sappho und ihr Kreis,” Philologus 101 (1957): 1–29. A. Cameron, “Sappho’s Prayer to Aphrodite,” Harvard Theological Review 32(1939):1–17.
[ back ] 5. Gentili 80. Merkelbach passim.
[ back ] 6. Page 18. C.M. Bowra, Greek Lyric Poetry from Aleman to Simonides (London: Oxford UP, 1963) 203–204.
[ back ] 7. We need only consider the number of works published on Sappho (especially considering how little of her poetry remains) to recognize her primacy.
[ back ] 8. Page 16–17. Anne Pippin Burnett, Three Archaic Poets: Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983) 247–249. D.A. Campell, Greek Lyric Poetry (1967; Bristol Classical P, 1982) 264–265. Cameron 1–2.
[ back ] 9. Burnett 246 and Page 18 have interesting affective comments.
[ back ] 10. Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, Trans. John Raffan (1977; Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1985) 8.
[ back ] 11. The last two thousand years of literary criticism offer support for language’s changing nature.
[ back ] 12. Page 18. Burnett 253.
[ back ] 13. Gentili 80.
[ back ] 14. Burnett 247–248. Cameron 2–3.
[ back ] 15. Burnett 246. Cameron 13–17. Page 16–17.
[ back ] 16. J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, Ed. J.O. Urmson, Marina Sbisà (1955; Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1962).
[ back ] 17. The following have the fullest explications: Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, Sappho und Simonides: Untersuchung über griechische Lyriker (Berlin: Weidmannsche, 1913) 44–48. Page 4–18. Burnett 245–253. Campbell 264–266.
[ back ] 18. Cameron passim. Segal passim. Burnett 254–255.