Sappho, the famous lesbian poet from the island of Lesbos dating to 600 BCE. Who had not heard of her? But that was all I knew.

That changed when I heard an interview with Sappho scholar and translator, Diane J. Rayor on The History of Literature Podcast with host Jacke Wilson. I am so glad Sappho found Rayor and Rayor found Sappho.

While listening to that podcast about famous Greek Woman Poet Sappho, one of the things that struck me the most was how long Sappho’s poems were recited and wildly popular. That is the only reason we know about her.

Diane J. Rayor explains that the poems are actually songs and as such were performed in small, salon-like settings as well as at rituals, weddings, and other festive occasions.

Sappho was a lyric poet, a songwriter, and a performer. She also played the lyre and is credited with inventing the plectrum or string pick.

She traveled around her island home with a chorus of women and also had many pupils. After her death, her songs continued to be performed and requested for over 300 years before they were written down. After that, they continued to be performed. The wide appeal she experienced in her lifetime lasted for centuries after.

Sappho was a devotee of Aphrodite, the Goddess of love and often appeals to Aphrodite in her poems to help with a love interest or to help her hurting heart. She wrote of love and desire, and worship and adoration of Aphrodite.

Rayor’s process of study and translation is inspiring. Often there are only tiny fragments of the songs on parchment or other archaeological remains. Rayor informs us that she is not a papyrologist. Once found, she must wait for someone to translate those fragments into Greek  before she can begin her own translation. Often there is only one word preserved.

Fragments continue to be found to this day, adding to the understanding of Sappho’s work. Each new fragment offers more information and detail, allowing  Rayor to refine her translation.

The opening page of  Rayor’s latest book Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works, informs that

“Of what survives from the approximately nine papyrus scrolls collected in antiquity, all is translated here: substantial poems and fragments including three poems discovered in the last two decades.”

The book includes the poems—what has been found of them and translated by Rayor. In the back of the book are notes on each poem and fragment published so one can learn  where they came from, who found them, and what some of the themes are or mean.

The book also includes the following key:
[ ] editorial supposition
. . . missing word(s)
* single missing line
*** missing lines

Rayor includes these details to let the reader know the truth of what has been found and to perhaps fill in the blanks themselves. She emphasizes that if she did not include these markings, the reader may think what is on the page represents the poem in its original form which is misleading.

These spaces and suppositions allow the reader to engage with Sappho as well as Rayor’s translation and suppositions so that they are not only actively reading Sappho but actively understanding the translations and the remains of what has been found to date.

If more fragments are found and Rayor is able to identify them with a certain song, she will insert them into the missing space.

[94]

I simply wish to die.
Weeping she left me

and told me this, too:
We’ve suffered terribly, Sappho.
I leave you against my will.

I answered: Go happily
and remember me —
you know how we cared for you.

If not, let me remind you
*
. . . the lovely times we shared.

Many crowns of violets,
roses, and crocuses together
. . . you put on by my side

and many scented wreaths
woven from blossoms
around your delicate throat.

And . . . with pure, sweet oil
[for a queen] . . .
you anointed . . .

and on soft beds
. . . delicate . . .
you quenched your desire.

Not any . . .
no holy site . . .
we left uncovered,

no grove . . .      dance
. . . sound

~Sappho, translated by Diane J. Rayor

Though there is very little known about the actual woman Sappho, much can be deduced from the time and place that she lived, stories told about her and in the stories of others of the time. In the Podcast, Rayor tells us how important the work of Sappho is for giving us a rare glimpse into the lives of women and women’s communities at the time.

[154]

As the full moon rose,
women stood round the altar

~Sappho, translated by Diane J. Rayor

In the introduction of Rayor’s most recent translations, Greek Scholar André Lardinois writes:

“For even if the ancient testimonia about Sappho’s life are factually incorrect, they do tell us something about the way in which her poetry was received in antiquity. Right from the beginning it was the erotic content of (some of) her songs that struck the ancients most”(5).

Lardinois continues:

“What many of these [Sappho’s] songs have in common is their focus on different aspects of the lives of women.

The cultic hymns suggest that Sappho was a respected member of her community. Otherwise it is hard to imagine that she was granted the honor of writing songs for the gods. It is notable that they are all hymns to female deities. Ancient Greece was a segregated society, in which women publicly worshipped the female gods in particular. They were encouraged to see their own lives reflected in these deities’ different manifestations: a Greek woman’s life could be described as a transition from the state of Artemis (parthenos, or girl) to Aphrodite (numphê, or marriageable young woman) to Hera (gunê, or wife) and Demeter (mêtêr, or mother). Sappho composed about all these goddesses”(9).

[290]

Once Kretan women danced just so to the beat
with their delicate feet around the elegant altar,
***
treading lightly on the grasses’ tender bloom.

~Sappho, translated by Diane J. Rayor

Lardinois tells us that Sappho also composed love songs about love between a man and a woman:

“To a modern reader of her poetry this may seem surprising, given Sappho’s reputation as a celebrant of lesbian love. Not so to an ancient Greek. Homosexuality and heterosexuality were not opposed to one another, as they are often perceived to be in modern times. A distinction was rather made between married love (Hera) and passionate love (Aphrodite) which included homo- and heterosexual affairs, and Sappho was considered to be the spokesperson of passionate love”(10).

Diane Rayor was introduced to Sappho’s poetry by a college professor and was instantly taken in. Wanting to understand more she learned Greek and became a translator. Over time, the translations become more and more delicately attuned to the famous lyricist. It is fun to watch and compare Rayor’s translations:

I have in my possession three books which include the translation of the poem included below listed as entry 1 in Rayor’s most recent book. One of the books even includes a previous translation by Rayor but this one, I feel, is the most eloquent.

[1]

Deathless Aphrodite on your iridescent throne,
wile-weaving daughter of Zeus, I beg you
not to break my spirit, O Queen,
with pain or sorrow

but come—if ever before from far away
you heard my voice and listened,
and leaving your father’s
golden home you came,

your chariot yoked with lovely sparrows
drawing you quickly over the dark earth
in a whirling cloud of wings down
the sky through midair,

suddenly here. Blessed One, with a smile
on your deathless face, you ask
what have I suffered again
and why do I call again

and what in my wild heart do I most wish
would happen: “Once again whom must
I persuade and lead into your love?
Sappho, who wrongs you?

If now she flees, soon she’ll chase.
If rejecting gifts, then she’ll give.
If not loving, soon she’ll love
even against her will.”

Come to me now—release me from these
troubles, everything my heart longs
to have fulfilled, fulfill, and you
be my ally.

~Sappho, translated by Diane J. Rayor

In the podcast Rayor tells us that Sappho probably wrote her poetry down but the earliest one we have preserved in wiritng is from 300 BCE. How do they know it is Sappho? They can tell a lot about Sappho from her particular dialect and meter use and they can tell a Sappho poem from those details as well.

“We get glimpses of the emotional life of a woman of her era and a woman’s perspective, what women in her community cared about and wanted to hear about.”

Diane J. Rayor has translated five other books of Greek poetry and drama including Euripides’ ‘Medea’: A New Translation and Sophocles’ ‘Antigone’: A New Translation. She was a Professor in the Classics Department she co-founded at Grand Valley State University, Michigan for thirty years.

Sappho’s poetry, when not about a wedding ceremony, is always directed to a woman or about a female love interest. The genre of lyric love poetry is one that Sappho inherited but those precedents were all from the male perspective and hers is primarily about the female perspective.

“The perspective that we get in Sappho’s poetry is not all the same as the male poetry, the male idea of active and passive in [with regard to] sexuality. In hers there does seem to be more mutuality,” Rayor suggests.

Rayor calls Sappho a “citizen poet, a member of her community who was a beloved performer.” She reminds us that the poems are all for performance and that the audience wanted to hear them. She calls Sappho “an expression of her society.”

[58 c/d]

[Reveal] the beautiful gifts of the violet-robed Muses, girls,
[dancing to] the song-loving [voice] of the sweet-toned lyres.

My skin was [delicate] before, but now old age
[claims it]; my hair turned from black [to white].

My spirit has grown heavy; knees buckle
that once would dance light as fawns.

I often groan, but what can I do?
It’s impossible for humans not to age.

For they say, [pierced] by love rosy-armed Dawn
went to the ends of the earth holding Tithonos,

beautiful and young, but in time gray old age
seized him, even with a deathless wife.

                                                         . . . believes
                                                         . . . may give

Yet I love the finer things. [Know] that passion for
the light of life has also granted me brilliance and beauty.

~Sappho, translated by Diane J. Rayor

(Dawn refers to a Goddess who loved a mortal man, Tithonos and persuaded Zeus to make him immortal but forgot to include that he should also not age.)

Sappho is a Nasty Woman Writer.

©Theresa C. Dintino 2023

Works cited

Rayor, Diane J. Trans. Sappho: A New Translation of the Compete works, second edition with an introduction by André Lardinois. Cambridge University Press. 2023

The History of Literature podcast, hosted by Jacke Wilson.  #516 “Sappho (with Diane Rayor)”