Sappho and Alcaeus. Vase detail.

On Sappho and Greek culture

Nikos Dais Poetry

Sappho bust inscribed Sappho of Eresos

Sappho bust inscribed “Sappho of Eresos”. Roman copy of a 5th century BCE Greek original.

Sappho was the most important poetess, and song writer of antiquity; one of the most important of all time.

She was born about 630 BCE in the city-state of Eresos. This means that she flourished about 2.600 years before our time! The ancient sources tell us little about her life, but her surviving verses reveal the intensity of her feelings. Unfortunately, we have lost almost 95% of Sappho’s poetry and all of her music. Moreover, the remaining 5% has come to us in tattered fragments. We have only one or two complete poems, out of many hundreds that she wrote.

The following fragment is considered by many scholars as one of Sappho’s best. It describes with an amazing power of self-observation the physical symptoms that Sappho experiences while she watches an attractive woman enjoy the company of a man. Sappho addresses her poem to this woman.

He seems to me an equal to the gods
that man who sits opposite you
and listens closely to your
sweet voice

and your enticing laughter. This, I swear,
sets the heart in my breast beating fast
for when I look at you for a moment
my voice leaves me

my tongue is broken and straightway
I feel a thin fire racing under the skin
my eyes see nothing
there is a roaring in my ears

cold sweat covers me
trembling seizes me all over
I turn paler than dry grass
and I feel a little short of dying.

But all must be dared, since…

The poem is obviously incomplete. The occasion may have been a feast, a banquet or an ordinary social meeting. The poetess watches a woman, presumably young and beautiful, enjoy the company of a lucky man. She immediately suffers a breakdown of senses and faculties. Her self-description has become a locus classicus of the symptoms of love and jealousy in world literature.

With personal poems like this, Sappho brought about a revolution in Greek poetry, and made a leap to the modern world.

We owe the salvation of this fragment to an ancient grammarian named Longinus, who quoted it in his book on literary style. What impressed him was in his own words  ‘‘Sappho’s excellence in choosing the emotions associated with love’s madness and in combining them into a single whole’’.

‘‘Are you not amazed’’ he observed ‘‘how at one and the same moment, she seeks out soul, body, hearing, tongue, sight and complexion, as though they had all left her and were external? And how in contradiction, she both freezes and burns, is irrational and sane, is afraid and nearly dead? So we observe in her not one single emotion but a concourse of emotions. All this of course happens to people in love.’’

Sappho marvels at her own self and her bodily reactions, when in love. ‘Wisdom begins in wonder’ said Socrates. It was this freedom to marvel at the world around and the self within, which led the Greeks to explore the physical world and human society.

Philosophy and history developed as ‘inquiries’ into the cosmos and the world of human beings. Living in small city-states increased the individuality of the citizens, and their need for political and personal freedom. After long struggles, the world’s first known democracy was established and the golden period of Greek culture began.

Sappho and Alcaeus

Sappho and Alcaeus

Fortunately, Greek religion was polytheistic and tolerant, with no class of priests or sacred books to prevent free thought. So within these conditions, a historical paradox occurred: Greek society and art developed along the road of freedom and originality, in complete opposition to the conventional life and stylized art of eastern empires and theocracies.

Sappho feels no shame at revealing her erotic passion in all its details. One century later, in Athens, passionate souls became the protagonists in the tragedies of Aeschylus. There could be no tragic heroes and tragic conflicts without passionate souls.

Socrates and his pupil Plato, two of the greatest among ancient philosophers, thought that love included every kind of longing for happiness, for knowledge and for the good. They considered the erotic passion as our natural reaction to beauty. They maintained that only through a passionate relationship, can two human beings climb the ladder of knowledge and virtue. In this way, the two lovers will understand universal beauty, and will eventually be lifted to heaven and join the company of the immortal gods.

Apollo of the Belvedere

Apollo of the Belvedere. God of music, poetry, art, oracles, archery, medicine, sun, light and knowledge.

For Socrates and Plato, erotic madness was one of three ‘good madnesses’, which were blessings sent by the gods. The other two were prophetic madness and the madness of artistic inspiration.

Aphrodite, the beautiful goddess of love, inspires lovers. Apollo, god of light, knowledge and art, inspires prophets. The Muses, goddesses of the arts, inspire poets, musicians, dancers, tragic and comic writers, even historians. Finally, Dionysus, god of wine, fertility and merriment, inspires mystics with ecstasy, and the masses of theatre goers and revellers with exhilarating inebriation.

You can see, how far away we are from the judeochristian world of sin, repentance and abstinence!

No Greek poet or thinker could create only with his mind. He needed his heart as well. This combination of intellectuality with emotion was behind Greek achievements. And this brings us back to Sappho.

Our poetess suffers in her heart and body, but observes with her mind. Like most Greek artists, she is attached to human beauty and to the search of happiness in this world. She lives in the visible world, with the intensity of all her senses.