Sappho After Sophocles

Sappho 1

Many-minded immortal Aphrodite,
Child of Zeus, plot weaver, I implore you:
Don’t with vexations and frustrations break
My heart, O queen.

Instead, come here, if ever in past times
From far off you heard, and heeded, my calls;
And quitting your father’s golden palace,
You came,

After yoking the chariot. Small birds,
Handsome, swift, bore you across the black earth.
Their fast wings whirred from the upper heavens
down through the middle air.

Quick, their arrival. Then you, blessed one,
A smile on your immortal countenance,
Asked: what is it, this time, that’s happened to me;
Why, this time, do I call;

And what does my crazed heart most desire:
“Whom, this time, must I persuade—
Go out, that is, and bring into your arms?
O Sappho, who wrongs you?

Even if she’s fleeing, soon she’ll pursue.
If she’s refusing gifts, she’ll give them.
If she’s not in love, soon she’ll be in love—
Even if against her will.”

Come this time too. Release me from hard cares.
Whatever my heart wishes to see done,
Bring about. And you yourself, be my ally
In this fight.

In Archaic song, Aphrodite is perhaps most commonly represented as a goddess who sports with mortal hearts, disturbing their peace with amorous suffering. And so it should be something of a surprise when Sappho presents the “many-minded” (ποικιλόφρον’) “plot-weaver” (δολόπλοκε) goddess as genial and helpful.

The unusual picture begs the question, is the judgment of love-mad Sappho reliable?

I say that it is not, and suggest looking at the Sappho-Aphrodite relationship through the lens of the Ajax-Athena relationship in Sophocles’ tragedy, “Ajax.”

For our purposes, what matters in the tragedy is this: Ajax believes the goddess is helping him when in fact she is harming him. She distorts his thinking such that he mistakes heads of cattle for Achaeans who have slighted him, and he proceeds to abuse and kill the animals.

The word most strongly linking Sappho-Aphrodite with Ajax-Athena is “ally” (σύμμαχος). The final words of Sappho’s song is the plea to the goddess to “be an ally” (σύμμαχος ἔσσο) in the fight for love. Ajax himself, blind to the goddess’s deception, exhorts her to “always stand by me as an ally” (ἀεί μοι σύμμαχον παρεστάναι [Soph. Aj. 117]). Athena picks up the word: she tongue-in-cheek describes herself as his σύμμαχος (Soph. Aj.190) while working his ruin.

Ajax does not know that he’s suffered “a god-sent sickness” (θεία νόσος [Soph. Aj. 185]) until he’s humiliated himself. His mad actions, while he was engaged in them, appeared to him the god-assisted fulfilment of his wishes. Athena says, “That man, when he was subject to his sickness / Delighted in his troubles” (ἁνὴρ ἐκεῖνος, ἡνίκ᾽ ἦν ἐν τῇ νόσῳ / αὐτὸς μὲν ἥδεθ᾽ οἷσιν εἴχετ᾽ ἐν κακοῖς ([Soph. Aj. 271-272]). And she encouraged him in this: “I egged him on; cast him into my wicked trap” (ὤτρυνον, εἰσέβαλλον εἰς ἕρκη κακά [Soph Aj. 59-60]).

Sappho is trapped in an amorous cycle whose stations are desire, frustration, and satisfaction. And as the song emphasizes, the cycle repeats. Sappho pursues new loves, always with Aphrodite’s intervention. Sappho supposes the goddess helps her to satisfaction, but the traditions of Archaic song would have it that Aphrodite’s hand is in the animating desire and subsequent frustration too. Tellingly, Sappho does not pray for release from what Hegel might call “the bad infinite” of love. Rather, she prays for Aphrodite to keep her running on the track. Like Ajax, she delights in her troubles.

“I pity him his unfortunate condition” (ἐποικτίρω δέ νιν δύστηνον [Soph Aj. 121-122]), Odysseus says of Ajax. Perhaps that should be our emotional response to the speaker of Sappho 1.

Sappho 1

ποικιλόφρον’ ἀθανάτ Ἀφρόδιτα,
παῖ Δίος δολόπλοκε, λίσσομαί σε,
μή μ’ ἄσαισι μηδ’ ὀνίαισι δάμνα,
πότνια, θῦμον,
ἀλλὰ τυίδ’ ἔλθ’, αἴ ποτα κἀτέρωτα
τὰς ἔμας αὔδας ἀίοισα πήλοι
ἔκλυες, πάτρος δὲ δόμον λίποισα
χρύσιον ἦλθες

ἄρμ’ ὐπασδεύξαισα· κάλοι δέ σ’ ἆγον
ὤκεες στροῦθοι περὶ γᾶς μελαίνας
πύκνα δίννεντες πτέρ’ ἀπ’ ὠράνωἴθε-
ρος διὰ μέσσω·

αἶψα δ’ ἐξίκοντο· σὺ δ’, ὦ μάκαιρα,
μειδιαίσαισ’ ἀθανάτωι προσώπωι
ἤρε’ ὄττι δηὖτε πέπονθα κὤττι
δηὖτε κάλημμι

κὤττι μοι μάλιστα θέλω γένεσθαι
μαινόλαι θύμωι· τίνα δηὖτε πείθω
[βαι]σ’ ἄγην ἐς σὰν φιλότατα; τίς σ’, ὦ
Ψάπφ’, ἀδικήει;

καὶ γὰρ αἰ φεύγει, ταχέως διώξει,
αἰ δὲ δῶρα μὴ δέκετ’, ἀλλὰ δώσει,
αἰ δὲ μὴ φίλει, ταχέως φιλήσει
κωὐκ ἐθέλοισα.

ἔλθε μοι καὶ νῦν, χαλέπαν δὲ λῦσον
ἐκ μερίμναν, ὄσσα δέ μοι τέλεσσαι
θῦμος ἰμέρρει, τέλεσον, σὺ δ’ αὔτα
σύμμαχος ἔσσο.

Maria Callas in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.” Here Lucia has gone mad after the loss of her lover.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at

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