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Wharton's Life of Sappho

Part 2, Sappho and Phaon

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The story of Sappho's love for Phaon, and her leap from the Leucadian rock in consequence of his disdaining her, though it has been so long implicitly believed, does not seem to rest on any firm historical basis. Indeed, more than one epigrammatist in the Greek Anthology expressly states that she was buried in an Aeolic grave.4

Still Phaon, for all the myths that cluster round his name, for his miraculous loveliness and his insensibility to love, may yet have been a real personage. Like other heroes, he may possibly have lived at a period long anterior to that of the traditions about him which have been handed down to us. He is said to have been a boatman of Mitylene (cf. fr. 140), who was endowed by Aphrodite with youth and extraordinary beauty as a reward for his having ferried her for nothing. Servius, who wrote about 400 A.D. (cf. p. 39), says she gave him an alabaster box of ointment, the effect of which was to make all women fall in love with him; and that one of these--he does not mention her name--threw herself in despair from the cliff of Leucas. Servius further states, on the authority of Menander, that the temple was founded by Phaon of Lesbos. Phaon's beauty and power of fascination passed into a proverb. Pliny, however, says he became the object of Sappho's love because he had found the male root of the plant called eryngo, probably our sea-holly, and that it acted like a love-charm. And when Athenaeus is talking about lettuces, as to their use as food and their anti-aphrodisiac properties, he says Callimachus' story of Aphrodite hiding Adonis under a lettuce is 'an allegorical statement of the poet's, intended to show that those who are much addicted to the use of lettuces are very little adapted for pleasures of love. Cratinus,' he goes on, 'says that Aphrodite when in love with Phaon hid him in the leaves of lettuce; but the younger Marsyas says that she hid him amid the grass of barley.'

Those fanciful writers who assert the existence of a second Sappho say that it was not the poetess who fell in love with Phaon, but that other Sappho on whom they fasten all the absurd stories circulated by the Comic writers. The tale runs that the importunate love of Sappho caused Phaon to flee to Sicily, whither she followed him. Ovid's Epistle, before mentioned (p. 3), is the foundation for the greater part of the legend. The inscription on the Parian marbles (cf. p. 9) also mentions a certain year in which 'Sappho sailed from Mitylene and fled to Sicily.' The chronicle, however, says nothing about Phaon, nor is any reason given for her exile; some have imagined that she was obliged to leave her country on political grounds, but there is no trace in her writings, nor does any report indicate, that she ever interested herself in politics.

Strabo, in his Geography already quoted (p. 10), says: 'There is a white rock which stretches out from Leucas to the sea and towards Cephallenia, that takes its name from its whiteness. The rock of Leucas has upon it a temple of Apollo, and the leap from it was believed to stop love. From this it is said that Sappho first, as Menander says somewhere, "in pursuit of the haughty Phaon, urged on by maddening desire, threw herself from its farseen rocks, imploring thee [Apollo], lord and king."' The former promontory of Leucas is now separated from the mainland and forms one of the Ionian islands, known as Santa Maura, off the wild and rugged coast of Acarnania. The story of Sappho's having ventured the Leucadian leap is repeated by Ovid, and was never much doubted, except by those who believed in a second Sappho, till modern times. Still, it is strange that none of the many authors who relate the legend say what was the result of the leap--whether it was fatal to her life or to her love. Moreover, Ptolemy Hephaestion (about 100 A.D.), who, in the extant summary of his works published in the Myriobiblion of Photius, gives a list of many men and women who by the Leucadian leap were cured of the madness of love or perished, does not so much as mention the name of Sappho. A circumstantial account of Sappho's leap, on which the popular modern idea is chiefly founded, was given by Addison, relying to no small extent upon his imagination for his facts, 'with his usual exquisite humour,' as Warton remarks, in the 233rd Spectator, Nov. 27, 1711. 'Sappho the Lesbian,' says Addison, 'in love with Phaon, arrived at the temple of Apollo habited like a bride, in garments as white as snow. She wore a garland of myrtle on her head, and carried in her hand the little musical instrument of her own invention. After having sung a hymn to Apollo, she hung up her garland on one side of his altar, and her harp on the other. She then tucked up her vestments like a Spartan virgin, and amidst thousands of spectators, who were anxious for her safety and offered up vows for her deliverance, marched directly forwards to the utmost summit of the promontory, where, after having repeated a stanza of her own verses, which we could not hear, she threw herself off the rock with such an intrepidity as was never before observed in any who had attempted that dangerous leap. Many who were present related that they saw her fall into the sea, from whence she never rose again; though there were others who affirmed that she never came to the bottom of her leap, but that she was changed into a swan as she fell, and that they saw her hovering in the air under that shape. But whether or no the whiteness and fluttering of her garments might not deceive those who looked upon her, or whether she might not really be metamorphosed into that musical and melancholy bird, is still a doubt among the Lesbians. Alcaeus, the famous lyric poet, who had for some time been passionately in love with Sappho, arrived at the promontory of Leucate that very evening in order to take the leap upon her account; but hearing that Sappho had been there before him, and that her body could be nowhere found, he very generously lamented her fall, and is said to have written his hundred and twenty-fifth ode upon that occasion.'

It is to be noted in this connection that the part of the cliff of Santa Maura or Leukadi, known to this day as 'Sappho's Leap,' was used, even in historical times, as a place whence criminals condemned to death were thrown into the sea. The people used, it is said, to tie numbers of birds to the limbs of the condemned and cover them with feathers to break the force of their fall, and then send boats to pick them up. If they survived, they were pardoned.

Those modem critics who reject the whole story as fabulous derive it from the myth of the love of Aphrodite and Adonis, who in the Greek version was called Phaėthon or Phaon. Theodor Kock (cf. Preface, p. xvii) is the latest exponent of these views, and he pushes them to a very fanciful extent, even adducing Minos as the sun and Britomartis as the moon to explain the Leucadian leap. Certainly the legend does not appear before the Attic Comedy, about 395 B.C., more than two centuries after Sappho's death. And the Leucadian leap may have been ascribed to her from its having been often mentioned as a mere poetical metaphor taken from an expiatory rite connected with the worship of Apollo; the image occurs in Stesichorus and Anacreon, and may possibly have been used by Sappho. For instance, Athenaeus cites a poem by Stesichorus about a maiden named Calyca who was in love with a youth named Euathlus, and prayed in a modest manner to Aphrodite to aid her in becoming his wife; but when the young man scorned her, she threw herself from a precipice: and this he says happened near Leucas. Athenaeus says the poet represented the maiden as particularly modest, so that she was not willing to live with the youth on his own terms, but prayed that if possible she might become the wedded wife of Euathlus; and if that were not possible, that she might be released from life. And Anacreon, in a fragment preserved by Hephaestion, says, as if proverbially, 'Now again rising I, drunk with love, dive from the Leucadian rock into the hoary wave.'

And Sappho with that gloriole
                . . . . .
Of ebon hair on calmed brows--
O poet-woman, none forgoes
The leap, attaining the repose!
        (MRS. E. B. BROWNING.)

Sappho 'loved, and loved more than once, and loved to the point of desperate sorrow; though it did not come to the mad and fatal leap from Leucate, as the unnecessary legend pretends. There are, nevertheless,' continues Mr. Edwin Arnold, 'worse steeps than Leucate down which the heart may fall; and colder seas of despair than the Adriatic in which to engulf it.'

4. Such light as can be thrown upon the legend from Comparative Mythology, and from the possible etymologies of the names of Sappho and Phaon, has been, I fear rather inconclusively, gathered by Leonello Modona in his La Saffo storica (Florence, 1878). Human nature, however, varies so little from age to age, that I think it better to judge the story as it has come down to us, than to resort to the most erudite guessing.

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