Short Writings Volume III | “A poetics of sisterly affect in the Brothers Song and in other songs of Sappho,” by Gregory Nagy

Featured research on The Brothers Song and “Sappho’s sisterly identity”

“What would be so delightful about songs expressing an aristocratic woman’s tormented feelings about a brother who squandered his family’s wealth on a courtesan in Egypt?”

Short Writings Volume III (front cover)

In an attempt to answer this question, Gregory Nagy comments on the “mixed feelings” of a sister on his essay “A Poetics of Sisterly Affect in the Brothers Song and in other songs of Sappho,” in “Short Writings:Volume III.” (2015.09.08)

§7. … But the pain that torments the family because of the brother’s misfortunes is not the only kind of torment we find in the poetics of Sappho. The same word oniā ‘pain’ that refers to the torment experienced by the family of Sappho refers also to the torment of erotic love experienced by Sappho herself. In Song 1 of Sappho, her speaking persona prays to Aphrodite to release her from such torment:

|3 μή μ’ ἄϲαιϲι μηδ’ ὀνίαιϲι δάμνα, |4 πότνια, θῦμον

|3 Do not dominate with hurts [asai] and pains [oniai], |4 O Queen [potnia], my heart [thūmos].

Sappho Song 1.3-4

§8. Similarly in the first six lines of the Kypris Song, the speaking persona of Sappho once again turns to Aphrodite, praying that the goddess may release her from the torment of erotic love:

|1 πῶϲ κε δή τιϲ οὐ θαμέω̣ϲ̣ ἄϲαιτ̣ο, |2 Κύπρι δέϲ̣π̣ο̣ι̣ν̣’̣, ὄτ̣τ̣ι̣ν̣α [δ]ὴ̣ φι̣λ̣[είη] |3 [κωὐ] θέλοι μάλιϲτα πάθα̣ν̣ χ̣άλ̣[αϲϲαι;] |4 [ποῖ]ον ἔχηϲθα |5 [νῶν] ϲ̣άλοιϲι̣ μ’ ἀλεμά̣τ̣ω̣ϲ̣ δ̣αΐϲ̣δ̣[ην] |6 [ἰμέ]ρω<ι> λύ{ι̣}ϲαντ̣ι̣ γ̣όν̣’ ω̣μ̣ε.[

|1 How can someone not be hurt [= asâsthai, verb of the noun asā ‘hurt’] over and over again, |2 O Queen Kypris [Aphrodite], whenever one loves [phileîn] whatever person |3 and wishes very much not to let go of the passion? |4 [What kind of purpose] do you have |5 [in mind], uncaringly rending me apart |6 in my [desire] as my knees buckle?

Sappho Kypris Song 1-6

§9. The ending of this song was already known before the discovery of the new supplements for the beginning as I just quoted it. At this ending, we find the persona of Sappho declaring the poetics of her own self-awareness:

|11 ἔγω δ’ ἔμ’ αὔται |12 τοῦτο ϲυνοίδα

|11 And I—aware of my own self—|12 I know this.

Sappho Song 26.11-12

§10. Such self-awareness as we find it at work in the songs of Sappho brings me back to the question I was asking from the start: what exactly is so delightful about songs expressing an aristocratic woman’s tormented feelings about a brother who squandered his family’s wealth on a courtesan in Egypt? I think that the answer to this question does in fact have to do with the delight of sensing that a woman’s veiled self-awareness about her own feelings is making a connection here with an unveiled love story—about an upper-class man’s self-destructive affair with a lower-class woman whose charms he finds utterly irresistible.

§11. The songs of Sappho reveal an awareness of two kinds of torment. First, there is the torment experienced by a whole family in fearing a disgraceful loss of wealth and prestige. But then there is also the torment—and the delight—of a passionate love affair. This second kind of torment is experienced not only by the brother of Sappho but also by Sappho herself. The song-making of Sappho reveals here not only an awareness but also a self-awareness. And here is a special delight for the hearer of Sappho’s songs—to hear about the torment of her own passionate loves.[Read full text]

Nagy argues that “the poetics of sisterly affect are so deeply rooted in the songs of Sappho that even her identity as a choral personality is shaped by such poetics.” He provides linguistic evidence that demonstrates how the name Sappho is a case of an onomatopoetic form, which literally means ‘sister.’

 §157. … I start by considering a pattern of alternation, attested in Greek epigraphical texts stemming from the Roman era, in the formation of names given to women. My point of reference is the name Sappho, which I consider here in contexts where the naming apparently has nothing to do with the famous Sappho. For example, we find a name like Aurēliā Sapphō (Αὐρηλία Ϲαπφώ) coexisting with names like Aurēliā Apphion (Αὐρηλία ᾿Απφίον) and Aurēliā Apphiā(Αὐρηλία ᾿Απφία). Such coexistence is most suggestive. As we know from the Greek lexicographical tradition, the noun apphion (ἀπφίον) is a neuter diminutive variant of the onomatopoetic form appha (ἄπφα), which means ‘sister’. Clearly, both appha (ἄπφα) and apphion (ἀπφίον) are onomatopoeticbaby words, meaning something like ‘little girl’. Another derivative of appha (ἄπφα) is apphiā (ἀπφία), which can be explained as a feminine adjective. So, we can see that the names Apphion (᾿Απφίον) and Apphiā (᾿Απφία) are based on these baby words apphion (ἀπφίον) and apphiā (ἀπφία) respectively. And such baby words can apply not only to sisters in particular but also to beloved little girls in general—or even to beloved women. […] Another traditional way of defining the diminutive apphion (ἀπφίον) is to say that it is a hupokorisma ‘term of endearment’ (ὑποκόριϲμα) for a girl or woman who is an object of sexual desire (ἐρωμένηϲ). Lastly, the word apphō (ἀπφώ), morphologically symmetrical with the name Sapphō (Ϲαπφώ), is explained by lexicographers as another word for ‘sister’.  […]

§158. What is still missing in this set of linguistic evidence is a common noun shaped *sapphō (*ϲαπφώ), which would mean ‘sister’. (When I say common noun here, I mean a noun that is not a name, as opposed to a proper noun, which is a name.) In the case of a proper noun like Apphion (᾿Απφίον), however, we know for sure that it is based on the neuter diminutive common noun apphion (ἀπφίον), meaning ‘little sister’ or ‘little girl’. So, I am ready to argue that the proper noun Sapphō (Ϲαπφώ) was likewise based on a similar common noun *sapphō (*ϲαπφώ), so far unattested, which would be a variant of the attested common noun apphō (ἀπφώ), meaning ‘sister’.

§159. But the question remains: why is the form Sapphō (Ϲαπφώ) attested only as a proper noun? My answer is that the form Sapphō (Ϲαπφώ) survived phonologically as a proper noun only because it was a functional variant of another proper noun, Psapphō (Ψαπφώ), which is attested as a variant form of Sapphō (Ϲαπφώ) in the textual tradition of Sappho. If Sapphō (Ϲαπφώ) had not been a functional variant of Psapphō (Ψαπφώ), it would have become Apphō (*᾿Απφώ) at an early stage in the history of the Greek language when word-initial s- (as in *s-apphō) became h- (as in *h-apphō), which in turn became simply a glottal stop (as in –apphō) by way of ‘psilosis’. I propose, then, that the form Psapphō was in fact a playfully affectionate phonetic variant of the form Sapphō. The variation of Psapphō / Sapphō (Ψαπφώ / Ϲαπφώ) is comparable to such variations as psitta / sitta (ψίττα / ϲίττα), which are onomatopoetic calls. […]

§160. The point is, just as the variant form psitta (ψίττα) prevents, by analogy, a phonological change in the variant form sitta (ϲίττα), which would otherwise be expected to change from sitta (ϲίττα) to *hitta (*ἵττα) to *itta (*ἴττα), so also the variant Psapphō (Ψαπφώ) prevents, again by analogy, a phonological change in the variant Sapphō (Ϲαπφώ), which would otherwise be expected to change from *sapphō (*ϲαπφώ) to *happhō (*ἁπφώ) to apphō (ἀπφώ) in the case of common nouns—but not in the case of hypocoristic names where the alternation of Psapphō / Sapphō (Ψαπφώ / Ϲαπφώ) is maintained.

§161. I conclude, then, that the name Sapphō, like the names Apphion and Apphiā, was originally an onomatopoetic baby word derived from terms of endearment addressed to a sister. For an interesting parallel in English usage, as attested in some regions of the United States, I point to such women’s names as Sissy, even Sister.

§162. In the case of ordinary women who happened to be called Sapphō in the Greek-speaking world, there would be of course nothing extraordinary about their name if it really meant ‘Sister’. Such a meaning becomes extraordinary, however, when we find it embedded in the poetics of a choral personality who, once upon a time, called herself by the name of Sapphō. Hers was an extraordinary persona who could speak to all the people of Lesbos, unveiling her sisterly affections just as memorably as she veiled her womanly desires.[Read full text]

Don’t miss Nagy’s work on the “newest Sappho,” available now on Classical Inquiries.

Also preview original artwork by Glynnis Fawkes, created to supplement Nagy’s working translations of Sappho.