O Sappho, Who Wrongs You?

Sappho, fr. 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 love?
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.

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.

A wayward thought:

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.”

Anacreon 357 (excerpt)

γουνοῦμαί σε, σὺ δ’ εὐμενὴς
ἔλθ’ ἡμίν, κεχαρισμένης
δ’ εὐχωλῆς ἐπακούειν·
Κλεοβούλωι δ’ ἀγαθὸς γένεο
σύμβουλος, τὸν ἐμόν γ’ ἔρωτ’,
ὦ Δεόνυσε, δέχεσθαι.

Alcman 27

Μῶσ᾿ ἄγε Καλλιόπα, θύγατερ Διός,
ἄρχ᾿ ἐρατῶν ϝεπέων, ἐπὶ δ᾿ ἵμερον
ὕμνῳ καὶ χαρίεντα τίθη χορόν.

Terra Cotta amphora. Attributed to the Berlin Painter. c.490 BC. Young man singing and playing the Kythera. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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 featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

What Became of Lais?

There are at least seven poems preserved in the Greek Anthology ‘celebrating’ a courtesan named Lais. The poem controversially attributed to Plato is elegant, compact, and clever. The poem attributed to Antipater is some combination of prosaic, creepy, and cruel.

Plato 6.1 (Greek Anthology)

That Lais who proudly laughed at Hellas
And had swarms of young lovers at her door,
Now gives to Aphrodite this mirror—
Since I won’t look at myself as I am,
And can’t look at myself as I used to be.

ἡ σοβαρὸν γελάσασα καθ᾽ Ἑλλάδος, ἥ ποτ᾽ ἐραστῶν
ἑσμὸν ἐπὶ προθύροις Λαῒς ἔχουσα νέων,
τῇ Παφίῃ τὸ κάτοπτρον: ἐπεὶ τοίη μὲν ὁρᾶσθαι
οὐκ ἐθέλω, οἵη δ᾽ ἦν πάρος οὐ δύναμαι.

Antipater 7.218 (Greek Anthology)

Debauched woman robed in purple and gold,
Love’s accomplice, softer than soft Kypris—
Corinthian Lais, it’s she I hold.
More dazzling than the tumbling waters
Of Peirene’s pellucid spring.
That mortal Cythereia: more pursued
By noble suitors than the unwed
Daughter of Sparta’s king, Tyndarius.
Men enjoyed her favors, her paid-for love.
Now, her saffron-scented tomb: the moist bones
Still redolent with incense unguents,
And her oiled hair exhales its fragrant breath.
For her, Aphrodite scratched her lovely face,
And in his mourning Eros groaned and cried.
If only she hadn’t made of her bed
A slave to money, and open to all—
Hellas would have endured ordeals for her,
Just as it had for Helen.

τὴν καὶ ἅμα χρυσῷ καὶ ἁλουργίδι καὶ σὺν Ἔρωτι
θρυπτομένην, ἁπαλῆς Κύπριδος ἁβροτέραν
Λαΐδ᾽ ἔχω, πολιῆτιν ἁλιζώνοιο Κορίνθου,
Πειρήνης λευκῶν φαιδροτέραν λιβάδων, [p. 124]
τὴν θνητὴν Κυθέρειαν, ἐφ᾽ ᾗ μνηστῆρες ἀγαυοὶ
πλείονες ἢ νύμφης εἵνεκα Τυνδαρίδος,
δρεπτόμενοι χάριτάς τε καὶ ὠνητὴν ἀφροδίτην:
ἧς καὶ ὑπ᾽ εὐώδει τύμβος ὄδωδε κρόκῳ,
ἧς ἔτι κηώεντι μύρῳ τὸ διάβροχον ὀστεῦν,
καὶ λιπαραὶ θυόεν ἄσθμα πνέουσι κόμαι
ᾗ ἔπι καλὸν ἄμυξε κάτα ῥέθος Ἀφρογένεια,
καὶ γοερὸν λύζων ἐστονάχησεν Ἔρως.
εἰ δ᾽ οὐ πάγκοινον δούλην θέτο κέρδεος εὐνήν,
Ἑλλὰς ἄν, ὡς Ἑλένης, τῆσδ᾽ ὕπερ ἔσχε πόνον.

Marble statue of an old woman. 1st Century AD Roman copy of a 2nd Century BC Greek original. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

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 featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

A Lover Betrayed

“The truth of the matter is that–by an exorbitant paradox–I never stop believing that I am loved. I hallucinate what I desire. Each wound proceeds less from a doubt than from a betrayal: for only the one who loves can betray, only the one who believes himself loved can be jealous…”–Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse.

Dioscorides 5.52 (Greek Anthology)

We swore a mutual oath to Eros,
And based on that oath, Sosipater
Placed his loving trust in Arsinoe.
But she is false, and her oath is empty,
While his love, nonetheless, abides intact.
What the gods can do, hasn’t yet been done:
O Hymenaeus, chant sorrowful songs
At Arsinoe’s latched door, condemning
The betrayal that is her marriage bed.

ὅρκον κοινὸν Ἔρωτ᾽ ἀνεθήκαμεν ὅρκος ὁ πιστὴν
Ἀρσινόης θέμενος Σωσιπάτρῳ φιλίην.
ἀλλ᾽ ἡ μὲν ψευδὴς κενὰ δ᾽ ὅρκια, τῷ δ᾽ ἐφυλάχθη
ἵμερος: ἡ δὲ θεῶν οὐ φανερὴ δύναμις.
θρήνους, ὦ Ὑμέναιε, παρὰ κληῖσιν ἀΰσαις
Ἀρσινόης, παστῷ μεμψάμενος προδότῃ.

5th Century BC Greek loutrophoros, a bathing vessel, depicting a wedding procession.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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 featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

The Sun Also Rises

Variations on a theme–two epigrams by Meleager preserved in the Greek Anthology:

5.172

Morning star, enemy of lovers,
Why so quick to rest above my bed
Just as dear Demo’s body warms mine?
If only you’d turn back your fast course,
Be the evening star, Hesperus, again,
O sweet light shining on me most relentlessly.
That time, when Zeus was with Alcmena,
You went the other way—
You’re no stranger to reversing course.

5.173

Morning star, why now, enemy of lovers,
Are you slow to rotate the world
When another man warms himself
Under Demo’s woolen cloak?
Yet, when the slim girl is in my arms
You’re quick to stop and fix yourself in place,
Thus shining on me your gleefully wicked light.

5.172

ὄρθρε, τί μοι, δυσέραστε, ταχὺς περὶ κοῖτονἐπέστης
ἄρτι φίλας Δημοῦς χρωτὶ χλιαινομένῳ;
εἴθε πάλιν στρέψας ταχινὸν δρόμον Ἕσπεροςεἴης,
ὦ γλυκὺ φῶς βάλλων εἰς ἐμὲ πικρότατον.
ἤδη γὰρ καὶ πρόσθεν ἐπ᾽ Ἀλκμήνῃ Διὸς ἦλθες
ἀντίος: οὐκ ἀδαής ἐσσι παλινδρομίης.

5.173

ὄρθρε, τί νῦν, δυσέραστε, βραδὺς περὶ κόσμον ἑλίσσῃ,
ἄλλος ἐπεὶ Δημοῦς θάλπεθ᾽ ὑπὸ χλανίδι;
ἀλλ᾽ ὅτε τὰν ῥαδινὰν κόλποις ἔχον, ὠκὺς ἐπέστης,
ὡς βάλλων ἐπ᾽ ἐμοὶ φῶς ἐπιχαιρέκακον.

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 featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

Commitments in the Absence of a Notary

Meleager 5.8 (Greek Anthology)

Holy Night and Lamp,
We took no other witnesses,
Except you two, for our oaths:
He to be content with me,
I never to desert him.
We swore, and you bore joint witness.
But those oaths, he now says, are written in water.
Lamp, that’s why you see him in the arms of others.

νὺξ ἱερὴ καὶ λύχνε, συνίστορας οὔτινας ἄλλους
ὅρκοις, ἀλλ᾽ ὑμέας, εἱλόμεθ᾽ ἀμφότεροι
χὠ μὲν ἐμὲ στέρξειν, κεῖνον δ᾽ ἐγὼ οὔ ποτε λείψειν
ὠμόσαμεν κοινὴν δ᾽ εἴχετε μαρτυρίην.
νῦν δ᾽ ὁ μὲν μὲν ὅρκια φησιν ἐν ὕδατι κεῖνα φέρεσθαι,
λύχνε, σὺ δ᾽ ἐν κόλποις αὐτὸν ὁρᾷς ἑτέρων.

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 featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

What A Little Moonlight Can Do

Philodemus 5.123 (Greek Anthology)

Lady of the night,
Two-horned lover of nocturnal revels,
Shine, Selene!
Shine, and as you beam through latticed shutters
Illume golden Kallistion.
There’s no wrong in a goddess watching
The doings of lovers.
To you, she and I are happy, I know, Selene.
For your soul was inflamed by Endymion too.

Note: Selene, the moon, is described as crescent shaped (“two-horned”). She fell in love with, and made love with, Endymion while he slept. The speaker of the epigram seems to suggest that he too will accost his beloved, Kallistion, while she sleeps.

Νυκτερινή, δίκερως, φιλοπάννυχε, φαῖνε, Σελήνη,
φαῖνε, δι᾽ εὐτρήτων βαλλομένη θυρίδων
αὔγαζε χρυσέην Καλλίστιον ἐς τὰ φιλεύντων
ἔργα κατοπτεύειν οὐ φθόνος ἀθανάτῃ.
ὀλβίζεις καὶ τήνδε καὶ ἡμέας, οἶδα, Σελήνη:
καὶ γὰρ σὴν ψυχὴν ἔφλεγεν Ἐνδυμίων.

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 featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

When No means No

Philodemus 5.308 (Greek Anthology)

Fancy lady, wait for me!
What’s your lovely name?
Where can I see you?
I’d give you what you want,
But you’re not talking.
Where will you be?
I’ll send someone with you.
You’re taken—is that it?
Snooty lady, take care.
You won’t even say “goodbye”?
I’ll come to you again and again—
I know how to soften
Even harder women than you.
Goodbye, lady, for now.

ἡ κομψή, μεῖνόν με. τί σοι καλὸν οὔνομα,; ποῦ σε
ἔστιν ἰδεῖν; ὃ θέλεις δώσομεν. οὐδὲ λαλεῖς.
ποῦ γίνῃ; πέμψω μετὰ σοῦ τινα. μή τις ἔχει σε;
ὦ σοβαρή, ὑγίαιν᾽. οὐδ᾽ ‘ὑγίαινε ’ λέγεις;
καὶ πάλι καὶ πάλι σοιπροσελεύσομαι: οἶδα μαλάσσειν
καὶ σοῦ σκληροτέρας. νῦν δ᾽ ὑγίαινε, γύναι.

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 featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

Dorcas Works For a Dork

Meleager 5.182 (Greek Anthology)

Deliver this message, Dorcas.
Look, tell it to her a second time,
And a third, Dorcas, start to finish.
Run! Stop lolly-gagging! hurry!
Wait a second, Dorcas, one second.
Dorcas, where are you rushing to
Before I’ve told you the whole thing?
What I said just now, tell her that.
Why am I so, so silly?
Don’t say a single word of that.
Say instead that—say all of it!
Don’t hold back—say everything!
Dorcas, why am I sending you?
You know what, I’m going with you.
Actually, ahead of you!

ἄγγειλον τάδε, Δορκάς: ἰδοὺ πάλι δεύτερον αὐτῇ
καὶ τρίτον ἄγγειλον, Δορκάς, ἅπαντα. τρέχε:
μηκέτι μέλλε, πέτου — βραχύ μοι, βραχύ, Δορκάς, ἐπίσχες..
Δορκάς, ποῖ σπεύδεις, πρίν σε τὰ πάντα μαθεῖν; [p. 218]
πρόσθες δ᾽ οἷς εἴρηκα πάλαι — μᾶλλον δὲ ῾τί ληρῶ;᾿
μηδὲν ὅλως εἴπῃς — ἀλλ᾽ ὅτι — πάντα λέγε:
μὴ φείδου τὰ ἅπαντα λέγειν. καίτοι τί σε Δορκάς,
ἐκπέμπω, σὺν σοὶ καὐτός, ἰδού, προάγων;

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 featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

How Will I know If She Really Loves Me?

Rufinus 5.87 (from the Greek Anthology)

Melissias will not admit her love,
But her body screams like it’s on the receiving end
Of a quiver of arrows: unsteady steps,
Bouts of gasping breath,
And hollow love-struck sockets.
Now then, O Longings, in your mother’s name,
(Cytherea with the beautiful garland)
Inflame the unyielding woman
Until she cries out, “I’m burning!”

ἀρνεῖται τὸν ἔρωτα Μελισσιάς, ἀλλὰ τὸ σῶμα
κέκραγ᾽ ὡς βελέων δεξάμενον φαρέτρην,
καὶ βάσις ἀστατέουσα, καὶ ἄστατος ἄσθματος ὁρμή,
καὶ κοῖλαι βλεφάρων ἰοτυπεῖς βάσιες.
ἀλλά, Πόθοι, πρὸς μητρὸς ἐϋστεφάνου Κυθερείης,
φλέξατε τὴν ἀπιθῆ, μέχρις ἐρεῖ ‘ Φλέγομαι.’

Comment

Isn’t it strange that the speaker’s great desire is for Melissias to say aloud what he purportedly already knows? This limited ambition begs the question, what in the first place justifies his belief that she’s in love? To hear him tell it, her body gives her away: her eyes, her feet, her breathing. It’s worth noting that the speaker describes Melissias’s body not as showing how she feels but as uttering it (κράζω: to shout, scream, shriek). It’s worth noting precisely because what the speaker is now asking for is more of the same: more utterances, but this time from the mouth. 

But what’s gained by having her mouth join the chorus of signifying body parts? The idea seems to be that the mouth is uniquely subject to the will while eyes and feet, for example, are not. Speech, that is, evidences an internal reality, a second being which might well be free even after the body submits. If that’s the case, then the behavior of the eyes and feet don’t suffice as evidence of the love, undermining the speaker’s explicit claim to the contrary. In other words, it appears the speaker actually doubts the reliability of the signs his conclusion rests on. And so he’s asked for . . . more signs.  

But words, like the body, can deceive. After all, Melissias has denied what she’ll next affirm. Where then is certainty to be found? That’s the speaker’s question, and ours. Here it’s worth recalling Wittgenstein’s insight: at some point the demand for certainty is no longer a desire for knowledge of the object but a desire to be the object. In other words, certainty would require collapsing the third-person and first-person perspectives, such that there would be no difference between saying “I know myself” and “I know her.” And that, I suspect, is beyond the power of the gods.

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 featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

Woe Is Catullus

Catullus 75

The fault is yours, my Lesbia,
That my mind is reduced to this:
It ruined itself by its own doings,
And now it couldn’t wish you well,
Even if you became perfect;
Neither could it stop loving you,
Even if you act wantonly.

Huc est mens deducta tua, mea Lesbia, culpa,
atque ita se officio perdidit ipsa suo,
ut iam nec bene velle queat tibi, si optuma fias,
nec desistere amare, omnia si facias.

Le Roy Flint, Sad Man, n.d., softground etching, Smithsonian American Art Museum

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 featsofgreek.blogspot.com.