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Wharton's Life of Sappho

Part 3, Sappho's Girlfriends (a decidedly Victorian view)

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Seeing that six comedies are known to have been written under the title of Sappho (cf. p. 37), and that her history furnished material for at least four more, it is not strange that much of their substance should in succeeding centuries have been regarded as genuine. In a later and debased age she became a sort of stock character of the licentious drama. The fervour of her love and the purity of her life, and the very fact of a woman having been the leader of a school of poetry and music, could not have failed to have been misunderstood by the Greek comedians at the close of the fifth century B.C. The society and habits of the Aeolians at Lesbos in Sappho's time were, as M. Bournouf (Lit. Grecq. i. p. 194) has shown, in complete contrast to those of the Athenians in the period of their corruption; just as the unenviable reputation of the Lesbians was earned long after the date of Sappho. 'It is not surprising,' writes Mr. Philip Smith, in his article SAPPHO in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography, 'that the early Christian writers against heathenism should have accepted a misrepresentation which the Greeks themselves had invented.' The licence of the Attic comedians is testified by Athenaeus' mention that Antiochus of Alexandria, a writer otherwise unknown, whose date is quite uncertain, wrote a 'Treatise on the Poets who were ridiculed by the Comic writers of the Middle Comedy'; and by the fact that a little before 403 B.C. a law was passed which enacted that no one was to be represented on the stage by name, mŕ dein onomasti k˘m˘dein (cf. p. 38).

It was not till early in the present century that the current calumnies against Sappho were seriously inquired into by the celebrated scholar of G÷ttingen, Friedrich Gottlieb Welcker, and found to be based on quite insufficient evidence. Colonel Mure endeavoured at great length, both here and in Germany, to expose fallacies in Welcker's arguments; but the bitterness of his attack, and the unfairness of much of his reasoning, go far to weaken his otherwise acknowledged authority. Professor Comparetti has recently examined the question with much fairness and erudition, and, with the possible exception referred to above (p. 3, note), has done much to separate fiction from fact; but he does not endorse all Welcker's conclusions.

Sappho seems to have been the centre of a society in Mitylene, a kind of aesthetic club, devoted to the service of the Muses. Around her gathered maidens from even comparatively distant places, attracted by her fame, to study under her guidance all that related to poetry and music; much as at a later age students resorted to the philosophers of Athens.

The names of fourteen of her girl-friends (hetairai) and pupils (mathŕtriai) are preserved. The most celebrated was Erinna of Telos, a poetess of whose genius too few lines are left for us to judge; but we know what the ancients thought of her from this Epigram in the Greek Anthology:

These are Erinna's songs: how sweet, though slight!--
        For she was but a girl of nineteen years:--
Yet stronger far than what most men can write:
        Had Death delayed, whose fame had equalled hers?
            (J. A. SYMONDS.)

Probably fr. 77 refers to her. Of the other poetess, Damophyla of Pamphylia, not a word survives; but Apollonius of Tyana says she lived in close friendship with Sappho, and made poems after her model. Suidas says Sappho's 'companions and friends were three, viz., Atthis, Telesippa, and Megara; and her pupils were Anagora of the territory of Miletus, Gongyla of Colophon, and Euneica of Salamis.' She herself praises Mnasidica along with Gyrinna (as Maximus Tyrius spells the name) in fr. 76; she complains of Atthis preferring Andromeda to her in fr. 41; she gibes at Andromeda in fr. 70, and again refers to her in fr. 58, apparently rejoicing over her discomfiture. Of Gorgo, in fr.48, she seems to say, in Swinburne's paraphrase,

I am weary of all thy words and soft strange ways.

Anactoria's name is not mentioned in any fragment we have, although tradition says that fr. 2 was addressed to her; but Maximus Tyrius and others place her in the front rank of Sappho's intimates: 'What Alcibiades,' he says, 'and Charmides and Phaedrus were to Socrates, Gyrinna and Atthis and Anactoria were to the Lesbian.' Another, Dica, we find her (in fr. 78) praising for her skill in weaving coronals. And in fr. 86 a daughter of Polyanax is addressed as one of her maidens. The name is not preserved of her whom (in fr. 68) she reproaches as disloyal to the service of the Muses. The text of Ovid's Sappho to Phaon is so corrupt that we know not whom she is enumerating there of those she loved; even the name of her 'fair Cydno' varies in the MSS. Nor can we tell who 'those other hundred maidens' were whom Ovid (cf. p. 188) makes her say she 'blamelessly loved' before Phaon satisfied her heart. But the preservation of the names of so many of her associates is enough to prove the celebrity of her teaching.

Little more can be learnt about Sappho's actual life. In fr. 72 she says of herself, 'I am not one of a malignant nature, but have a quiet temper.' Antiphanes, in his play Sappho, is said by Athenaeus to have represented her proposing absurd riddles,5 so little did the Comic writers understand her genius. Fr. 79 is quoted by Athenaeus to show her love for beauty and honour. Compare also fr. 11 and 31 for his testimony to the purity of her love for her girl-friends: panta kathara tois katharois, 'unto the pure all things are pure.'



5. Sappho's riddle is translated in full by Colonel Higginson in his Atlantic Essays, p. 321.



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