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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Erotic Greek Poetry: Sappho "The 10th Muse"

Eros and Psyche

Mesopotamians invented writing and used it to create erotic poetry, but it wasn't until the invention of the alphabet and a system that nourished individuality that erotic poetry could flourish. It was the Greeks who first created personal poetry.

Lyric poetry called lyric got its name from the fact that it was originally sung by individuals or a chorus accompanied by the instrument called the lyre. The first of the lyric poets was probably Archilochus of Paros about 700 BC. Only fragments remain of his work, as is the case with most of the poets. The few remnants suggest that he was an embittered adventurer who led a very turbulent life.

Two of the major poets were Sappho and Pindar. Sappho, who lived in the period from 610 to 580 BC, has always been admired for the beauty of her writing. This blog entry will focus on the lyric poetry of Sappho, rich with mythology and eroticism.

Greek Mythology

It is necessary to understand Greek mythology to comprehend the poetry of the ancients. In fact, the English word erotic stems from the Greek erōtikós meaning "of love, caused by love, given to love," equivalent to erōt- (stem of érōs ) Eros + -ikos -ic.
In Greek mythology, Eros, was the attendant (some sources say the son) of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and sexual rapture. Eros was a divine figure around which poets constructed a physiology of desire that functioned in specific ways within a network of social relations.

From the early legend of Eros it is said that he was responsible for the embraces of Uranus (Heaven or Sky) and Gaia (Earth) and from their union were born many offspring. It was also written that Eros hatched our race and made it appear first into the light (Birds, by Aristophanes).

Eros mischievously intervened in the affairs of gods and mortals, causing bonds of love to form, often illicitly. Ultimately, in the later satirical poets, he is represented as a beautiful, winged, young boy, the precursor to the chubby Renaissance Cupid – whereas in early Greek poetry and art, Eros was depicted as an adult male artist who embodied sexual power.

Eros spun his magic and mischief in initiation rites and celebrations, educational practices, the Dionysiac theater of tragedy and comedy, and in real and imagined spatial settings.

For men, Eros functioned particularly in the symposium and the gymnasium, places where men and boys interacted and where future citizens were educated. The household was the setting where girls, brides, and adult wives learned their erotic roles--as such it provides the context for understanding female rites of passage and the problems of sexuality in conjugal relations.

Here are some excerpts from Greek literature of Eros at work:

"He [Eros] smites maids’ breasts with unknown heat, and bids the very gods leave heaven and dwell on earth in borrowed forms." (Seneca, Phaedra 290 ff)

"Once, when Venus’ son [Cupid, aka Eros] was kissing her, his quiver dangling down, a jutting arrow, unbeknown, had grazed her breast. She pushed the boy away. In fact the wound was deeper than it seemed, though unperceived at first. [And she became] enraptured by the beauty of a man [Adonis]."  (Ovid, Metamorphoses 10. 525ff)  

Eros and Psyche

According to one legend Eros, himself, fell in love. This legend tells of Eros always at Aprodite's side assisting her in all her conniving and godly affairs. One day Aphrodite became jealous of a mortal, a stunning young woman named Psyche (translated in meaning as the word soul), whose beauty attracted people from all over the world, thus celebrating her more than Aphodite.

In her fit of jealousy Aphrodite asked Eros to poison men’s souls so that they would not desire Psyche. Eros, however, fell in love with Psyche and was completely mesmerized by her beauty. The lovesick Eros was so stunned that as he lay his golden arrow on Psyche's heart, he pricked himself instead and fell in love with her. He was so in love that he erased all of what he had done to her, and went away.

Despite all the suitors coming her way, Psyche stayed unmarried, but she wanted to marry the man she would want to love. Her parents became so desperate because of their daughter’s destiny had no choice but to ask for an oracle, hoping that they would manage to solve the mystery and give a husband to their daughter.

In the meantime, Aphrodite, angry that Psyche hadn't done his deed and that Psyche wasn't falling for anyone, let alone someone hideous, sent down a spell of her own on Psyche.

Apollo gave the oracle to Psyche's parents that Psyche would marry an ugly beast whose face she would never be able to see, and that he would wait for her at the top of the mountain.

On the mountain, Psyche waited and trembled, then felt the gentle breath of the West Wind. The wind lifted her up and carried her down to a lush, green valley. When she awoke, she saw a forest with a fountain in the center and a magnificent palace. Psyche timidly walked inside and found that the rooms were filled with radiant, golden light. Then a voice welcomed her, saying, “All that you see here about you is yours. We shall attend to your every need.” Psyche looked for the speaker but saw no one. Then a different voice offered Psyche a refreshing bath, while still another invited the young woman to a banquet fit for a queen.”

After the wedding, Psyche was able to be with her husband only at night. His tenderness and the enormous love he showed to her made her happy and fulfilled beyond her wildest expectations. She talked about her happiness with her sisters and confined in them how sad she was she couldn’t see his face.

Hence, the jealous sisters persuaded Psyche that her lover was not only an ugly beast but also a monster who would eventually kill her, so she should kill him first to save herself.

With the oil lamp and knife in her hands, Psyche one night was ready for murder, but when she enlightened the face of her beast-husband, she saw the beautiful God Eros. Caught by surprise, she spilled the oil on his face. Eros woke up and flew away telling Psyche that she had betrayed him and had ruined their relationship so that they could never be united again.

Psyche started searching for her lost love, and finally she begged Aphrodite, who had imprisoned Eros in the Palace, to see him. Aphrodite gave her three impossible tasks to accomplish in order to prove her love.

Driven by her desire to reunite with Eros, she was fearless. After accomplishing the first two tasks, Psyche had to go to the Hades (Underworld) and bring the box with the elixir of beauty to Aphrodite, who ordered her not to open the box. Instead of the elixir, Morpheus (the god of sleep and dreams) was hiding in the box and since the curious Psyche opened it, she fell asleep.

Eros found out what had happened, and he ran away from the Palace and begged Zeus to save his Psyche.

Amazed by their love, Zeus went even further – he made Psyche immortal so that two lovers could be together forever. This myth tells the story of how love and soul came to be together.

Erotic Love

In the classical world, erotic love was generally referred to as a kind of madness or theia mania ("madness from the gods"). This passion of love was described through an elaborate metaphoric and mythological schema involving "love's arrows" or "love darts," the source of which was often the personified figure of Eros.

At times the source of the arrows was said to be the image of the beautiful love object itself. If these arrows were to arrive at the lover's eyes, they would then travel to and "pierce" or "wound" his or her heart and overwhelm him/her with desire and longing (love sickness).

The image of the "arrow's wound" was sometimes used to create oxymorons and rhetorical antithesis concerning its pleasure and pain. "Love at first sight" was explained as a sudden and immediate beguiling of the lover through the action of these processes, but this was not the only mode of entering into passionate love in classical texts

At times the passion could occur after the initial meeting, as, for example, in Phaedra's letter to Hippolytus in Ovid's Heroides: "That time I went to Eleusis... it was then most of all (though you had pleased me before) that piercing love lodged in my deepest bones."

(Ovid. Heroides and Amores, translated by Grant Showerman. 
Second edition revised by G.P. Goold. 1986)

At times, the passion could even precede the first glimpse, as in Paris' letter to Helen of Troy in the same work, where Paris says that his love for Helen came upon him before he had set eyes on her: " were my heart's desire before you were known to me. I beheld your features with my soul ere I saw them with my eyes; rumour, that told me of you, was the first to deal my wound."

(Ovid. Heroides and Amores, translated by Grant Showerman. 
Second edition revised by G.P. Goold 1986)

The word eros came to refer to “intimate love” or romantic love. In ancient times, the quality of this love was thought to be spiritual as well as physical, and was generally believed to be the deity who caused the love of beauty, healing, freedom, and many other good things as well as the love between people.       


The Greatest Lyric Poet

Sappho, the greatest of the lyric poets, lived on the island of Lesbos in the northwestern Aegean. She was born sometime between 630 and 612 BCE, and it is said that she died around 570 BCE, but little is known for certain about her life.

Sappho may have gone into exile in Sicily at one point in her life, a biographical detail likely because of the perpetually stormy politics in her homeland. It is believed that Sappho ran a sort of finishing school for girls who were in training to be the companions of men, since most of her poems are addressed with great affection to young ladies.

Her poetry was well-known and greatly admired through much of antiquity. Plato called Sappho ''the 10th Muse.'' She was prolific and composed nine volumes of work, but only about a thousand lines survive, some later found on bits of papyri as small as postage stamps. There were no spaces between the words, no line breaks, and they were probably intended to be sung to music.  

Sappho's poetry centers on passion and love for various people and both sexes. The word lesbian derives from the name of the island of her birth, Lesbos, while her name is also the origin of the word sapphic. Neither word was applied to female homosexuality until the 19th century.

Sappho isn't easy to label with simple qualifiers like "lesbian." Her poetry centers less on the distant objects which attract her than the larger world around them and the even greater world within the poetess herself. Sapphic verse explores the intensity of emotions surrounding love. Critics claim she stands shoulder to shoulder with Petrarch, Shakespeare and Keats.

The narrators of many of her poems speak of infatuations and love (sometimes requited, sometimes not) for various females, but descriptions of physical acts between women are few and subject to debate. Whether these poems are meant to be autobiographical is not known, although elements of other parts of Sappho's life do make appearances in her work, and it would be compatible with her style to have these intimate encounters expressed poetically, as well.

Plato called her "the tenth Muse" and her likeness appeared on coins. It is unclear whether she invented or simply refined the meter of her day, but today it is known as "Sapphic" meter. Her poems were first collected into nine volumes around the third century B.C., but her work was lost almost entirely for many years. Merely one twenty-eight-line poem of hers has survived intact, and she was known principally through quotations found in the works of other authors until the nineteenth century. In 1898 scholars unearthed papyri that contained fragments of her poems. In 1914 in Egypt, archeologists discovered papier-mâché coffins made from scraps of paper that contained more verse fragments attributed to Sappho. - See more at:

Some of Sappho's Poems

 Hymn To Aphrodite
Throned in splendor, immortal Aphrodite!
Child of Zeus, Enchantress, I implore thee
Slay me not in this distress and anguish,
Lady of beauty.
Hither come as once before thou camest,
When from afar thou heard'st my voice lamenting,
Heard'st and camest, leaving thy glorious father's Palace golden,
Yoking thy chariot. Fair the doves that bore thee;
Swift to the darksome earth their course directing,
Waving their thick wings from the highest heaven
Down through the ether.
Quickly they came. Then thou, O blessed goddess,
All in smiling wreathed thy face immortal,
Bade me tell thee the cause of all my suffering,
Why now I called thee;
What for my maddened heart I most was longing.
"Whom," thou criest, "dost wish that sweet Persuasion
Now win over and lead to thy love, my Sappho?
Who is it wrongs thee?
"For, though now he flies, he soon shall follow,
Soon shall be giving gifts who now rejects them.
Even though now he love not, soon shall he love thee
Even though thou wouldst not."
Come then now, dear goddess, and release me
From my anguish. All my heart's desiring
Grant thou now. Now too again as aforetime,
Be thou my ally.
--Translated by William Hyde Appleton

Song of the Rose
If Zeus chose us a King of the flowers in his mirth,
He would call to the rose, and would royally crown it;
For the rose, ho, the rose! is the grace of the earth,
Is the light of the plants that are growing upon it!
For the rose, ho, the rose! is the eye of the flowers,
Is the blush of the meadows that feel themselves fair,
Is the lightning of beauty that strikes through the bowers
On pale lovers that sit in the glow unaware.
Ho, the rose breathes of love! ho, the rose lifts the cup
To the red lips of *Cypris invoked for a guest!
Ho, the rose having curled its sweet leaves for the world
Takes delight in the motion its petals keep up,
As they laugh to the wind as it laughs from the west.
--Translated by William Hyde Appleton

* An epithet of Aphrodite, meaning “Lady of Cyprus”


Again love, the limb-loosener, rattles me
a crawling beast.
As a wind in the mountains
assaults an oak,
Love shook my breast.
You came, *Atthis, you did so good
You refreshed my heart that was burned by desire
Whiter than milk
Fresher than water
Softer than the finest veil.
I loved you, Atthis, long ago
even when you seemed to me
a small child.
It was you that enchanted the mortals,
Child of Aphrodite,
You the best of stars
And whiter than milk…


* Daughter of Cranaus, the second King of Athens, succeeding Cecrops I

Ode To a Loved One

Blest as the immortal gods is he, 
The youth who fondly sits by thee, 
And hears and sees thee, all the while, 
Softly speaks and sweetly smile. 

'Twas this deprived my soul of rest, 
And raised such tumults in my breast; 
For, while I gazed, in transport tossed, 
My breath was gone, my voice was lost; 

My bosom glowed; the subtle flame 
Ran quick through all my vital frame; 
O'er my dim eyes a darkness hung; 
My ears with hollow murmurs rung; 

In dewy damps my limbs were chilled; 
My blood with gentle horrors thrilled: 
My feeble pulse forgot to play; 
I fainted, sunk, and died away.

--Translated by Ambrose Philips 


Come back to me, Gongyla, here tonight,
You, my rose, with your Lydian lyre.
There hovers forever around you delight:
A beauty desired

Even your garment plunders my eyes.
I am enchanted: I who once
Complained to the Cyprus-born goddess,
Whom I now beseech 

Never to let this lose me grace
But rather bring you back to me:
Amongst all mortal women the one
I most wish to see.

--Translated by Paul Roche

To Andromeda

That country girl has witched your wishes,
all dressed up in her country clothes
and she hasn't got the sense
to hitch her rags above her ankles.

--Translated by Jim Powell

Fragments From Sappho:


And there was no dance,
no holy place
from which we were absent.”


Like a sweet-apple
turning red
on the tip
of the topmost branch.

Forgotten by pickers.

Not forgotten --

they couldn’t reach it.


When you lie dead, no one will remember you
For you have no share in the Muses’ roses.
No, flitting aimlessly about,
You will wildly roam,
a shade amidst the shadowy dead.


...and she outshines the Ladies of Lydia, 

As the rose fingered moon at sunset, 
Surpassing all the stars...


Some say an army of horsemen, or infantry,
A fleet of ships is the fairest thing
On the face of the black earth, but I say
It's what one loves.

This is very easily understandable to do
For each of us. She who far surpassed
The beauty of all, Helen, just went and left
Her noble husband

Sailing she went far away to Troy,
And thought nothing of child or parents dear,
Nothing at all, but................... led her off,
............ ing.
............................and lightly.........
...reminds me of *Anactoria who is not here
Whose lovely way of walking, and the dark flash
Of her face I would rather see ---- than
War-chariots of *Lydians and spear-men struggling
On a dusty battlefield.

* A woman known by Sappho 
* About 687 BC, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, King Gyges started the new country of Lydia 

Speaking of Eroticism:

"Not bedding, but a "relationship," is what women seek. And in this difference it is impossible to fail to acknowledge a distinct superiority of the feminine sensibility, however cattish this may sound. Whereas men are overwhelmed by the strong pulsations of the body, women remain free to bestow a wider meaning to the corporeal elements of the erotic.

"The erotic does not end in spastic contractions and reflex discharges; it transcends them, to reach into the ethereal realms of memory and feeling, like a note that reverberates long after the string has pulsated.

"A woman may resort to her body in ways congruous with her aims and in a fashion is apt to be ranked as "manipulative." But only when she is long remembered and continually desired, as if by a cyclically renewed, ever kindled thirst; only when her image fills to capacity the consciousness of the man she has chosen, and stretches temporally beyond the meager boundaries of physiologic immediacy; only then does she claim to have won. 

"When her immanent presence projects across time and space to leave a profound impress on another being; then she has 'scored.'" 

--F. Gonzalez-Crussi, Mexican born U.S. pathologist and educator, 
On the Nature of Things Erotic, 1988

F. Gonzalez-Crussi, Mexican-born U.S. pathologist, educator. "The Conditions for Seduction, According to an Old Chinese Text," On the Nature of Things Erotic, Harcourt Brace (1988).

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