The Singer. Sappho.

— Sappho
— papyrus
— Greek lyric
— textual transmission

1. Attic red-figure vase (kalathos), c. 470 BCE from Sicily, currently in the Munich Staatliche Antikensammlungen. Attributed to Brygos Painter. Two lyric poets of Lesbos: left, Alcaeus (7th c. BCE); right, Sappho (7th c. BCE). Both names inscribed (ΑΛΚΑΙΟΣ; ΣΑΦΟ—sic). Out of Alcaeus’ mouth the letters: Ο Ο Ο Ο Ο, indicating song. Each holds a musical instrument known as the barbiton (similar to a lyre), and each holds a plectrum. The Suda says that Sappho invented the plectrum. Care is given to indicate each figure’s sexual features (Alcaeus’ genitals; Sappho’s breasts). Image: Munich Antikensammlungen. For more, see Nagy 2011.

sappho and alcaeus bayern.jpg

2. Anne Carson, Introduction to If not, winter (2002), p ix:

“Sappho was a musician. Her poetry is lyric, that is, composed to be sung to the lyre. She addresses her lyre in one of her poems (fr. 118) and frequently mentions music, songs, and singing. Ancient vase painters depict her with her instrument. Later writers ascribe to her three musical inventions: that of the plectron, an instrument for picking the lyre (Suda); that of the pektis, a particular kind of lyre (Athenaios Deipnosophistai 14.635b); and the mixolydian mode, an emotional mode also used by tragic poets, who learned it from Sappho (Aristoxenos cited by Plutarch On Music 16.113c). All Sappho’s music is lost.”

3. Sappho fragment 102*, translated by Anne Carson (2002). See Page duBois Sappho is Burning 1995: 11. *transmitted by 2nd c. CE Hephaestion (Ench. 10.5).

sweet mother I cannot work the loom
I am broken with longing for a boy (παῖς) by slender Aphrodite

4a. Sappho fragment 1*, translated by Anne Carson (2002).
*transmitted by Dionysius of Halicarnassus (1st c. BCE) On Literary Composition 23; + a papyrus fragment (P. Oxy. 2288) gives scraps of this poem.

Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind,
child (παῖς) of Zeus, who twists lures, I beg you
do not break with hard pains,
O lady, my heart

but come here if ever before
you caught my voice far off
and listening left your father’s
golden house and came,

yoking your car. And fine birds brought you,
quick sparrows over the black earth
whipping their wings down the sky
through midair–

they arrived. But you, O blessed one,
smiled in your deathless face
and asked what (now again) I have suffered and why
(now again) I am calling out

and what I want to happen most of all
in my crazy heart. Whom should I persuade (now again)
to lead you back into her love? Who, O
Sappho, is wronging you?

For if she flees, soon she will pursue.
If she refuses gifts, rather will she give them.
If she does not love, soon she will love
even unwilling.

Come to me now: loose me from hard
care and all my heart longs
to accomplish, accomplish. You
be my ally.

4b. P. Oxy. 2288 = fragmentary papyrus from Oxyrhynchus from 2nd c. CE. Containing parts of lines Sappho fragment 1.


5. Sappho fragment 31,* translated by Anne Carson (2002). 
*transmitted by the 1st c. CE On the Sublime 10.1 + P.S.I. 15 1470.

He seems to me equal to the gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking (φωνείσας)

and lovely laughing (γελαίσας) — oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me

no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
fills ears

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead — or almost
I seem to me.

But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty

6. Sappho fragment 5,* translated by Anne Carson (2002).
*transmitted by papyri (P. Oxy. 7 = P. Lond. Lit. 43 + P. Oxy. 2289).

O Kypris and Nereids, undamaged I pray you
grant my brother to arrive here.
And all that in his heart he wants to be,
make it be.

And all the wrong he did before, loose it.
Make him a joy to his friends,
a pain to his enemies and let there exist for us
not one single further sorrow.

May he willingly give his sister
her portion of honor, but sad pain
] grieving for the past
] millet seed
] of the citizens
] once again no
] but you Kypris
] setting aside evil [

7. P. Oxy. 7 = P. Lond. Lit. 43. Fragmentary papyrus from Oxyrhynchus from 3rd c. CE. Containing parts of lines Sappho fragment 5.

8. Sappho fragment 16,* translated by Anne Carson (2002).
*transmitted by papyrus (P. Oxy. 1231 + 2166(a) + P.S.I. 123.1-2)

Some men say an army of horse and some men say an army on foot
and some men say an army of ships is the most beautiful thing
on the black earth. But I say it is
what you love.

Easy to make this understood by all.
For she who overcame everyone
in beauty (Helen)
left her fine husband

behind and went sailing to Troy.
Not for her children nor her dear parents
had she a thought, no —
] led her astray

] for
] lightly
] reminded me now of Anaktoria
who is gone.

9. Sappho fragment 44,* translated by Anne Carson (2002).
*transmitted by papyrus (P. Oxy. 1232 + 2076). 

herald came
Idaos     swift messenger
and of the rest of Asia      imperishable fame.
Hektor and his men are bringing a glancing girl
from holy Thebe and from onflowing Plakia
delicate Andromache on ships over the salt
sea. And many gold bracelets and purple
perfumed clothes, painted toys,
and silver cups innumerable and ivory.
So he spoke. And at once the dear father rose up.
And news went through the wide town to friends.
Then sons of Ilos led mules beneath
fine-running carts and up climbed a whole crowd
of women and maidens with tapering ankles,
but separately the daughters of Priam        [
And young men led horses under chariots  [
] in great style
] charioteers
] like to gods
] holy all together
set out                for Ilios
and sweetflowing flute and kithara were mingled
with the clip of castanets and piercingly then the maidens
sang a holy song and straight up the air went
amazing sound                       [
and everywhere in the roads was [
bowls and cups                      [
myrrh and cassia and frankincense were mingled.
And all the elder women shouted aloud
and all the men cried out a lovely song
calling on Paon farshooting god of the lyre,
and they were singing a hymn for Hektor and Andromache
like to gods.

Quotations of or allusions to Homer in this poem underlined: Idaos = herald in Troy (Il. 3.248), “swift messenger” (Od. 15.526), “glancing girl” (Il. 1.98), “from holy Thebe” (Il. 3.66), Plakia (Il. 6.395), “salt sea” (Od. 4.551), “the wide town” (Od. 24.468), “horses under chariots” (Il. 24.279), “straight up the air went” (Il. 13.837).

10. Sappho fragment 48,* translated by Anne Carson (2002).
*transmitted by 4th c. CE Julian ‘the Apostate’ (Letter 77).

you came and I was crazy for you
and you cooled my mind that burned with longing

11.  Sappho fragment 49,* translated by Anne Carson (2002).
* line 1 transmitted by 2nd c. CE Hephaestion (Ench. 7.7); line 2 by 1st/2nd c. CE Plutarch (Amat. 5). A third source (2nd/3rd c. CE Terentianus Maurus) quotes them together, “suggesting that the lines are consecutive, however unlikely that my seem” (Campbell 1990: 95).

I loved you, Atthis, once long ago

a little child (παῖς) you seemed to me and graceless

–> Plutarch (Amat. 5): “Addressing a girl who was still too young for marriage, Sappho says: ‘You seemed to me a small, graceless child.'”

12. Sappho fragment 96*, translated by Anne Carson (2002).
* transmitted by a 6th c. CE parchment (P. Berol. 9722).

] Sardis
often turning her thoughts here

you like a goddess
and in your song most of all she rejoiced.

But now she is conspicuous among Lydian women
as sometimes at sunset
the rosyfingered moon

surpasses all the stars. And her light
stretches over salt sea
equally and flowerdeep fields.

And the beautiful dew is poured out
and roses bloom and frail
chervil and flowering sweetclover.

But she goes back and forth remembering
gentle Atthis and in longing
she bites her tender mind

But to go there
talks [

Not easy for us
to equal goddesses in lovely form



and [                  ] Aphrodite

] nectar poured from
] with hands of Persuasion


] into the Geraistion
] beloveds
] of none

] into desire I shall come

13. Sappho fragments 177 and 179, translated by Anne Carson (2002).


3 thoughts on “The Singer. Sappho.

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