The conventional reading of the lyric assumes that the speaker is a lover (name: Sappho) who needs Aphrodite’s help to win (or punish) a reluctant beloved. An alternative interpretation: Sappho is a singer who needs Aphrodite’s help not to win a lover but to compose a persuasive love song. This reading turns first on the summons “come here” and “come”, and then on the god’s epiphany—or rather, the unexpected sounding of the god’s voice.
The temptation is to hear in the call to Aphrodite the traditional summons of lyric hymn. There, the suppliant speaker calls on the god to perform some beneficial task. For example, Anacreon 357:
On my knees I beg you,
Come to me,
Listen to my pleasing prayer:
To Cleobulus be
A good counselor so that he accepts
My love, O Dionysus.
In Sappho 1, things are somewhat different. The call to Aphrodite more resembles an invocation to the muse, the plea to enable song making (not find a lover). We might associate this practice with epic, but of course it exists in Archaic lyric too. Alcman 27:
Come, Muse Calliope, daughter of Zeus—
Begin with lovely verses—
Put charm into our hymn—
And make our dance a graceful one.
In Alcman’s figural language, the muse is to “begin” the very song Alcman himself is beginning to sing. Hesiod says of the muses, “they breathed into me wonderous song,” (Theog. 31-32) and Alcman asks the same of his muse. And so does Sappho. But what’s distinctive about Sappho is that she makes literal what is only metaphorical in the tradition. The voice of her responsive god literally issues from her throat as she sings her song (strophes 5 and 6). This is what it means for the god to have come: it is Aphrodite who “begins” when Sappho sings, enabling her song. The struggle of song-making: That’s the fight in which she needs an ally. In the absence of the allied muse, song-making would be an exercise in “vexations and frustrations.”
“The best sweat is one that breaks a fever on the necessary day, but one that brings relief is also useful. A cold sweat developing only around the head and neck is not good and also indicates limited time and danger.”
“It is understandable that he brought a prejudice on the highest offices in the land, which would no longer allow people to return the characters they started with, but instead could make them mean, boastful, and inhumane. Whether this is a movement or a change of nature because of chance or it is an unmasking of the truth when there is evil in authority, some other investigation will discover.”
“But you wouldn’t mix things up like those debate-me guys who talk about a principle and its results at the same time if you really want to discover something real. These guys probably have not one single understanding or concern for the truth.
They’re just good enough to please themselves with their ‘wisdom’, even though they’re mixing everything up.”
“Bigness seems to me not only never willing to be big and small at the same time, but the bigness in us is never eager to accept smallness nor to be surpassed, but it does two things: it flees or shrinks whenever the opposite—smallness—is present or, once it has approached, it perishes.”
“What kind of sense, then, is there to the idea that a wise person should not let go of good memories but forget bad ones? First, is what we remember under our control? Themistocles, it is said, when Simonides promised to teach him the art of memory, responded, “I’d prefer learning to forget. For I remember things I wish I didn’t and I can’t forget the things I want to.” [Epicurus] was a man of great insight, but the fact us that a philosopher who prohibits remembering asks too much of us.”
Iam illud quale tandem est, bona praeterita non effluere sapienti, mala meminisse non oportere? Primum in nostrane est potestate quid meminerimus? Themistocles quidem, cum ei Simonides an quis alius artem memoriae polliceretur, ‘Oblivionis,’ inquit, ‘mallem; nam memini etiam quae nolo, oblivisci non possum quae volo.’ Magno hic ingenio; sed res se tamen sic habet ut nimis imperiosi philosophi sit vetare meminisse.
“There was one oracle, also an autophone, which he had sent to all peoples during the plague. It was a single line of verse, “Phoebus, with uncut hair, keeps off the cloud of plague.”
This line was to be seen everywhere, written on doorposts as a spell against the plague. In most cases it produced the opposite result. For, through some fortune, those homes on which the line was written were those which were especially impacted. Don’t imagine that I am saying that they were destroyed because of the line, but that it happened this way in some fashion. Perhaps the people who were encouraged by the words acted negligently or took everything too easily and did nothing to help the oracle against the disease because they believed they had these syllables to fight for them and “long-haired” Apollo to shoot down the plague with his bow.”
“This thing alone had to be mourned the most,
This lamented: how when anyone would give up
when they realized they had contracted the disease
As condemned to die, they would stretch out with a sad heart,
Surrendering their spirit while considering the rites of the dead.
For the spread of that greedy sickness did not stop
Even for a single moment from one to another,
Thick together as woolly flocks and horned heads—
That’s the reason why grave was piling on grave.
Whoever was reluctant to see their own sick,
For this very excessive love of life and fear of death
They were punished eventually with a foul and evil end,
As deserters without help, paid back for their neglect.
But those who stayed to help faced contagion too,
And the suffering which shame compelled them to meet.
The pleading voice of the weary mixed with cries of complaint.
Well, the best kinds of souls met death like this.
…Then some falling upon others, fighting to bury their masses
Of dead, worn out by tears and grief as they returned.
They surrendered to their beds for the better part.
No one could be found anywhere who was untouched by the disease
By the death, by the sorrow of times like these.”
Illud in his rebus miserandum magnopere unum
aerumnabile erat, quod ubi se quisque videbat
implicitum morbo, morti damnatus ut esset,
deficiens animo maesto cum corde iacebat,
funera respectans animam amittebat ibidem.
quippe etenim nullo cessabant tempore apisci
ex aliis alios avidi contagia morbi,
lanigeras tamquam pecudes et bucera saecla;
idque vel in primis cumulabat funere funus.
nam quicumque suos fugitabant visere ad aegros,
vitai nimium cupidos mortisque timentis
poenibat paulo post turpi morte malaque,
desertos, opis expertis, incuria mactans.
qui fuerant autem praesto, contagibus ibant
atque labore, pudor quem tum cogebat obire
blandaque lassorum vox mixta voce querellae.
optimus hoc leti genus ergo quisque subibat.
. . . . . . .
inque aliis alium, populum sepelire suorum
certantes; lacrimis lassi luctuque redibant;
inde bonam partem in lectum maerore dabantur.
nec poterat quisquam reperiri, quem neque morbus
nec mors nec luctus temptaret tempore tali.
“I suggest you safeguard my words by writing them on tablet in your minds” αἰνῶ φυλάξαι τἄμ᾿ ἔπη δελτουμένας
Aeschylus, Suppliants, 200-204
“Don’t be too aggressive or broken in speech: These people are especially ready to be angry. Remember to be accommodating: you are a foreign refugee in need. To speak boldly is not a fitting move for the weak.”
“You are the city, really. You are the people. An unjudged chief of state rules The altar, the city’s hearth, With only your votes and nods, With only your scepter on the throne You judge every need. Be on guard against contamination!”
“Write this down with the many other notes In your mind of the wisdoms from your father: An unfamiliar mob is evaluated by time, But everyone has an evil tongue prepared to lash out over immigrants and speaking foully is somehow easy. I advise you not to bring me shame Now that you are in the age which turns mortal gazes.”