The History of Sex – Part 149 – Sappho’s song plays on.

Posted on: March 26th, 2015 by Madison Lake No Comments

Portrait from a Pompeii fresco

When asked why he wanted to be taught one of her poems, Solon the Wise remarked:  “Because once I’ve learned it, I can die’.

Such great respect for her art was universal in Classical Athens.  She is still a household name in 2015.  Where does her everlasting power come from?  Sappho’s ‘afterlife’ is a fascinating story, since although the only facts about Sappho herself lie in her poems – she has been the subject of some wild fantasy over the years.  This titillation surrounds her sexual orientation.  The prudish Victorians were quite adamant about denouncing that she was a lesbian.  19th-century German scholars seemed to place her as a sort of headmistress, presiding over a boarding school of schoolgirls.

Despite being a well-respected figure in Athenian society whose works were appreciated enough to be recorded and revered, she was also a countercultural icon.   Of course, her poems carry words of passion for other women, although not in ways that might resemble homosexuality as it is so strictly defined today.  She was admired for her deeply personal themes, the nuanced elegance of her writing, her acerbic wit, and playful tone.

Since silent reading at home in your favorite chair was virtually unknown in the ancient Greek world, most people got their drama-fix elsewhere.  Writing for the New York Times, Daniel Mendelsohn looked deeper into this.  In his musical reading of Sappho’s poetry, he asserts that the Ancient Greek language was tonal – similar to Mandarin Chinese is today.  High tones and low tones of the same sound indicated totally different meanings.  To illustrate, in the late 400’s (BC), when one actor read the line with poor intonation – it was like hitting a false note that completely changed the play: a line meant to be read as “After the storm, I see a calm once more”, ended up as “After the storm, I see a weasel once more.” At that moment, the crowd burst into laughter, and comedy was born.

Since Classical Greek language had this kind of musical quality to it, the romantic genius of Sappho’s lyrical poems is that even without a band, she seemed to have been the defining singer-songwriter of her generation.  If we look at her take on Homer, the patriarchal icon of Greek sagas, we see her subversively rebellious genius.  In readings of The Iliad, Helen is usually demonized for leaving her home and parents for Troy.  Yet by exalting a life lived for love and art above the usual themes of civic duty and moral values, Sappho’s version personalizes and romanticizes Helen’s journey ~ the very first “make love not war” song.

In the end, although no one will ever know how Sappho’s melodies really sounded, its no wonder that her unwritten melodies are still with us today.


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