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[This is kluge.]Where some ideas are stranger than others...

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Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...


The number of poems surviving from antiquity written by women and acknowledged to be such is appallingly small. More than a few scholars have taken this as evidence that women were somehow almost completely prevented from writing poetry in antiquity, with their chosen explanation being dictated by their views of women's humanity.1 The truth is however, we really have no idea how much written work from antiquity was lost, although the remnants of library catalogues and collections of poems and book summaries that refer to numerous now lost items give a sad hint. A non-trivial amount more was lost during periods of active destruction of any works deemed as too pagan for a christian audience.2 On top of this, women poets3 have had to deal with the "helpful deletions" carried out by scribes who decided since women weren't "supposed" to be poets, and writing poetry was therefore something derogatory to their reputations and embarrassing to men, it was better not to recopy or preserve their works. These factors, both neutral and directed, created an incredible gauntlet for women's works to somehow get through, all before we take into account things like the availability of education and materials to women to produce poetry in antiquity to start with. We can as little imagine what amount of oral poetry by women has been lost as poetry never made due to lack of opportunity.

So it could genuinely be considered a sort of human miracle that we have any women's poetry from antiquity at all, let alone that written by a woman widely lauded as "the tenth Muse." That poet is of course, Sappho.

As is typical for ancient writers in general, very little is known about Sappho as a person or about the full range of her poetic works. Scholars are in general agreement that she was from Lesbos and born into a wealthy family. Today it is also grudgingly conceded that she is one among many lesbians in the sense of a woman who was sexually attracted to other women who was married and had children. In Sappho's case, based on the information provided in her poetry she had one daughter, named Kleis.

Sappho wrote poetry in several metres, all of it intended to be sung. She was prolific, producing enough work for it to be divided into nine books, no small amount even when a book was still defined as a standard roll of papyrus made up for a longer document. It is not clear that Sappho divided up her poetry in this way, and the evidence from surviving papyrus fragments recovered at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt suggests her works may have been rearranged into "editions" according to interest to the person having it copied. Much of what survives has been interpreted as reflecting a highly circumscribed life, however, this is very much an argument from silence. Not enough of Sappho's poetry has survived time and editing by others to confirm this perception.

Ancient greek women were not as confined as the image of the "ideal woman" derived primarily from aristocratic athenian greek writers suggests. They certainly were not as free outside of the home to participate in public life as men, and at different times and places may have barely seen the outdoors, especially in aristocratic families where their labour could be replaced by that of slaves as a form of conspicuous consumption. This does not mean greek women weren't circumscribed in what they could write about if they did write poetry, but it is not a given they had no awareness or thoughts about the political issues of their day. It is quite possible if not likely though, that they may not have been able to write as openly about events and matters considered "public" and just as later women did, had to develop forms of writing that permitted them to express their views safely.4

Alas, it would take considerably more of Sappho's poetry as well of Anyte of Tegea, Aristodama, Cleobulina, Corinna, Erinna, Moero, Nossis, Praxilla, and Telesilla5 to demonstrate these ideas by actual example.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that male poets were not generally spending their time singing about the concerns and interests of women, and singing was a key component of women's ritual just as it was of men's. While examples of men writing lyric poetry for girls to sing exists, beyond these the only ones writing about childbirth, marriage, or desire were women themselves, including the poets just listed. All of which is to say the questions are far from simple, and the gaps in the record desperately tantalizing.

If you have looked around at other parts of the Moonspeaker, you will have observed that Amazons and lesbian writers are both major loci of interest. I am also a graduate student with an interest in classics, and in my on-line perambulations for copies of greek texts I could print off in a large font on standard letter sized paper to work with, it turned out even the Perseus Project has no on-line edition of Sappho's fragments. This is not completely surprising, since Sappho is not usually assigned to undergraduate greek students to read except in small selections, and by nature most digitized texts have come from the undergraduate greek curriculum.6 However, I would like one myself, and need to read her works for my program in any case, so it seems well worth making a virtue of necessity.

I should also acknowledge here how impossible this project would have been just two or three years ago outside of venues like the Perseus Project. Today the unicode standard is so well supported and font character sets so much better, it is no longer necessary to download a greek font separately in order to read polytonic greek on the computer screen. A regular visitor to an academic website could reasonably be expected to do so, because their interest was evidently strong enough for them to be willing to do it. For websites with more limited resources and a relatively casual visitor profile, such an expectation is far from reasonable. Now, as long as the encoding of a webpage is set properly and the browser used to read it is able to cope with unicode (a standard thing nowadays), anyone can use greek text in general simply by typing it in. No more wrestling with character entities, which are no solution at all for more than a few words of text.

The greek text provided here derives from volume 1 of the 1922 Loeb Classical Library Lyra Graeca: Being the Remains of All the Greek Lyric Poets From Eumelus to Timotheus Excepting Pindar edited and translated by J.M. Edmonds. A pdf of the complete volume and its two companions can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Based on my own learnings and more recent papyrus finds I will add to and tweak the text, noting clearly where that material comes from. I will not be reproducing Edmonds' translation, since I will documenting my own7. My work will certainly not be as "polished" as Edmonds' or a more modern translation such as Anne Carson's tour de force8, in the main because my interest right now is reflecting the grammar to the best of my ability without making it unintelligible.

Sappho's Dialect


  1. As in, not so long ago, the debate over whether women were genuine human beings had become lightly prettied up by being presented as debate over their "intelligence." However, since "intelligence" is still a key feature held to separate "men" from "beasts" such debates are far from neutral. This is precisely the purpose of "intelligence testing" — to dress up ugly racism and sexism alike in supposedly scientific and unbiassed terms.
  2. Hence the shelves of works by Aristotle and Plato still in existence, while almost the entire "presocratic" corpus has been reduced to the same shredded condition as the works of women poets.
  3. I share Adrienne Rich's view of the word "poetess" which alas has never had respectful connotations in english, "The word 'poetess' brings out the terroristress in me." To be honest, I'm not certain this is an exact quote and am still trying to source it, but it's so wonderful and consistent with her wit and humour that I still feel comfortable giving it here.
  4. This phenomenon is far from specific to women. Hellenistic male poets writing under the monarchies established by Alexander II's generals found themselves unable to safely discuss political matters in their works. It didn't take long for them to begin using forms like bucolic poetry and retellings of older stories to make their points in a more oblique fashion less likely to get them in trouble with the authorities.
  5. This list comes from the ever-trusty Wikipedia.
  6. This is not intended to imply that the curriculum is limited, in fact the range of works undergraduates and before them the modern equivalent of elementary to high school students were expected to work through is quite extraordinary.
  7. The obligatory disclaimer to this though, is this is not a professional translation, and translation itself is an art. You will definitely notice that it does not match translations by others, and this does not necessarily make it incorrect (or correct, for that matter), especially in fragmentary works where lines are contested. That said, I expect errors will creep in, and will be rooting them out as the project goes on.
  8. Anne Carson's wonderful book, with greek text on the left hand page and her translations on the right is titled If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. It is still widely available in a sensibly priced paperback edition, and is a rare book of its kind that could be purchased off the shelf in an ordinary chain bookstore when it was first released.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2017
Last Modified: Friday, January 29, 2016 2:38:01