Sunday, December 05, 2004

Background on Sappho-- An Ancient Greek Feminist

Sappho was an ancient Greek poet who infused her works with intense emotions - especially love, desire, longing, and their companion, suffering. She crafted her poems primarily as a tribute to the private world of women, something from which we are generally excluded in Greek literature. Therefore the poems provide us with a valuable and remarkable glimpse into the lives and aspirations of Greek girls. In some respects, they could be termed "romantic", but Sappho transcends her subject with such a moving, insightful, and poignant power that the poems are still highly relevant even today. Simply stated, she created some of the most vibrant love poetry ever composed.
Naturally, someone as intimately concerned with love as Sappho would be drawn to the irresistible realm of the goddess of love. And indeed, Aphrodite plays a significant role in many of Sappho's poems. It is to this goddess that Sappho addresses several of her works. In some cases, it seems as if the poet were a supplicant, begging Aphrodite for mercy from the ravages of unrequited love; in others, Sappho sings joyfully of the beautiful deity, and the poems are like graceful gifts to this golden goddess:
"Leave Krete and come to this holy temple where the graceful grove of apple trees circles an altar smoking with frankincense. Here roses leave shadows on the ground and cold springs bubble through apple branches where shuddering leaves pour down profound sleep. In our meadow where horses graze and wild flowers of spring blossom, anise shoots fill the air with aroma. And here, Queen Aphrodite, pour heavenly nectar into gold cups and fill them gracefully with sudden joy." It is intriguing to see how deftly Sappho has woven elements related to Aphrodite into the poem, and with such subtlety - she refers to the apple not once but twice (a symbol of the goddess - think for example of the golden apple awarded to her by Paris); and roses, a flower dear to the lovely deity, are mentioned as well. The poet conjures up an image of serene and most of all natural beauty, which alludes to Aphrodite and her realm.
In honor of her contributions to Greek poetry and music, Sappho is sometimes referred to as the "tenth Muse".


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