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Six Gardens of Nymphs: Public and Private in Sappho's Lyrics
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Gardens of Nymphs: Public and Private in Sappho's Lyrics

Jack Winkler

Monique Wittig and Sande Zeig in their Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary devote a full page to Sappho.[1] The page is blank. Their silence is one quite appropriate response to Sappho's lyrics, particularly refreshing in comparison to the relentless trivialization, the homophobic anxieties, and the sheer misogyny that have infected so many ancient and modern responses to her work.[2] This anxiety itself requires some analysis. Part of the explanation is the fact that her poetry is continually focused on women and sexuality, subjects that provoke many readers to excess.[3] But the centering on women and sexuality is not quite enough to explain the mutilated and violent discourse which keeps cropping up around her. After all Anakreon speaks of the same subjects. A deeper explanation refers to the subject more than the object of her lyrics—the fact that it is a woman speaking about women and sexuality. To some audiences this would have been a double violation of the ancient rules which dictated that a proper woman was to be silent in the public world (defined as men's sphere) and that a proper woman accepted the

This essay was originally published in slightly different form as "Gardens of Nymphs: Public and Private in Sappho's Lyrics," in Reflections of Women in Antiquity , edited by Helene P. Foley, 63-9o (New York: Gordon and Breach, 1981).


administration and definition of her sexuality by her father and her husband. I will set aside for the present the question of how women at various times and places actually conducted their lives in terms of private and public activity, appearance, and authority. If we were in a position to know more of the actual texture of ancient women's lives and not merely the maxims and rules uttered by men, we could fairly expect to find that many women abided by these social rules or were forced to, and that they sometimes enforced obedience on other women; but, since all social codes can be manipulated and subverted as well as obeyed, we would also expect to find that many women had effective strategies of resistance and false compliance by which they attained a working degree of freedom for their lives.[4] Leaving aside all these questions, however, I simply begin my analysis with the fact that there was available a common understanding that proper women ought to be publicly submissive to male definitions, and that a very great pressure of propriety could at any time be invoked to shame a woman who acted on her own sexuality.

This is at least the public ethic and the male norm. It cannot have been entirely absent from the society of Lesbos in Sappho's time. What I want to recover in this paper are the traces of Sappho's own consciousness in the face of these norms, her attitude to the public ethic and her allusions to private reality. My way of "reading what is there"[5] focuses on the politics of space— the role of women as excluded from public male domains and enclosed in private female areas—and on Sappho's consciousness of this ideology.[6] My analysis avowedly begins with an interest in sexual politics—the relations of power between women and men as two groups in the same society. My


premise is that gender consciousness is at least as fundamental a way of identifying oneself and interpreting the world as any other class membership or category. In some sense the choice of a method will predetermine the kind and range of results that may emerge: a photo camera will not record sounds, a nonpolitical observer will not notice facts of political significance. Thus my readings of Sappho are in principle not meant to displace other readings but add to the store of perceptions of "what is there."

There are various "publics and privates" which might be contrasted. What I have in mind for this paper by "public" is quite specifically the recitation of Homer at civic festivals considered as an expression of common cultural traditions. Samuel Butler notwithstanding, Homer and the singers of his tradition were certainly men and the Homeric epics cannot be conceived as women's songs.[7] Women are integral to the social and poetic structure of both Iliad and Odyssey , and the notion of a woman's consciousness is particularly vital to the Odyssey .[8] But Nausikaa and Penelope live in a male-prominent world, coping with problems of honor and enclosure which were differentially assigned to women,[9] and their "subjectivity" in the epic must ultimately be analyzed as an expression of a male consciousness. Insofar as Homer presents a set of conventional social and literary formulas, he inescapably embodies and represents the definition of public culture as male territory.[10]

Archaic lyric, such as that composed by Sappho, was also not composed for private reading but for performance to an audience.[11] Sappho often seems to be searching her soul in a very intimate way, but this intimacy is in some measure formulaic[12] and is certainly shared with some group of listeners. And yet, maintaining this thesis of the public character of lyric, we can still propose three senses in which such song may be "private": first, composed in the person of a woman (whose consciousness was socially defined as


outside the public world of men); second, shared only with women (that is, other "private" persons; inline image, "and now I shall sing this beautiful song to delight the women who are my companions," fr. 160 L.-P.[13] ); and third, sung on informal occasions, what we would simply call poetry readings, rather than on specific ceremonial occasions such as sacrifice, festival, leave-taking, or initiation.[14] The lyric tradition, as Nagy argues,[15] may be older than the epic, and if older perhaps equally honored as an achievement of beauty in its own fight. The view of lyric as a subordinate element in celebrations and formal occasions is no more compelling than the view, which I prefer, of song as honored and celebrated at least sometimes in itself. Therefore I doubt that Sappho always needed a sacrifice or dance or wedding for which to compose a song; the institution of lyric composition was strong enough to occasion her songs as songs . Certainly Sappho speaks of goddesses and religious festivities, but it is by no means certain that her own poems are either for a cult performance or that her circle of women friends (hetairai ) is identical in extension with the celebrants in a festival she mentions.[16] It is possible that neither of these latter two senses of "private" were historically valid for Sappho's performances. Yet her lyrics, as compositions that had some publicity, bear some quality of being in principle from another world than Homer's, not just from a different tradition, and they embody a consciousness both of her "private," woman-centered world and the other, "public" world. This essay is an experiment in using these categories to unfold some aspects of Sappho's many-sided meaning.

Poem 1 is one of the passages in Sappho that has been best illuminated in recent criticism. Several analyses have developed the idea that Sappho is speaking in an imagined scene which represents that of Diomedes on the battlefield in Iliad 5.[17] Sappho uses a traditional prayer formula, of which Diomedes' appeal to Athena at Iliad 5.115-17 is an example ("Hear me,


Atrytone, child of aegis-bearing Zeus; if ever you stood beside my father supporting his cause in bitter battle, now again support me, Athena"), and she models Aphrodite's descent to earth in a chariot on the descent of Athena and Hera (5.719-72), who are coming to help the wounded Diomedes (5.781). Sappho asks Aphrodite to be her ally, literally her companion in battle, summachos .

Intricate, undying Aphrodite, mare-weaver, child of Zeus, I pray thee,
do not tame my spirit, great lady, with pain and sorrow. But come to me
now if ever before you heard my voice from afar and leaving your
father's house, yoked golden chariot and came. Beautiful sparrows swiftly brought
to the murky ground with a quick flutter of wings from the sky's height
through clean air. They were quick in coming. You, blessed goddess,
a smile on your divine face, asked what did I suffer, this time again,
and why did I call, this time again, and what did I in my frenzied heart
most want to happen. Whom am I to persuade, this time again ...
to lead to your affection? Who, O Sappho, does you wrong? For one who flees will
soon pursue, one who rejects gifts will soon be making offers, and one who
does not love will soon be loving, even against her will. Come to me even
now, release me from these mean anxieties, and do what my heart wants done,
you yourself be my ally.[18]

One way of interpreting the correspondences that have been noticed is to say that Sappho presents herself as a kind of Diomedes on the field of love, that she is articulating her own experience in traditional (male) terms and showing that women too have arete .[19] But this view, that the poem is mainly about eros and arete and uses Diomedes merely as a background model, falls short. Sappho's use of Homeric passages is a way of allowing us, even encouraging us, to approach her consciousness as a woman and poet reading Homer. The Homeric hero is not just a starting point for Sappho's discourse about her own love; rather Diomedes as he exists in the Iliad is central to what Sappho is saying about the distance between Homer's world and her own. A woman listening to the Iliad must cross over a gap that separates her experience from the subject of the poem, a gap which does not exist in quite the same way for male listeners. How can Sappho murmur along with the rhapsody the speeches of Diomedes, uttering and impersonating his appeal for help? Sappho's answer to this aesthetic problem is that she can only do so by substituting her concerns for those of the hero while maintaining the same structure of plight / prayer / intervention. Poem 1 says, among


other things, "This is how I, a woman and poet, become able to appreciate a typical scene from the Iliad. "

Though the Diomedeia is a typical passage, Sappho's choice of it is not random, for it is a kind of test case for the issue of women's consciousness of themselves as participants without a poetic voice of their own at the public recitations of traditional Greek heroism. In Iliad 5, between Diomedes' appeal to the goddess and the descent of Athena and Hera, Aphrodite herself is driven from the battlefield after Diomedes stabs her in the hand. The poet identifies Aphrodite as a "feminine" goddess, weak, analkis , unsuited to take part in male warfare (331, 428). Her appropriate sphere, says Diomedes exulting in his victory over her, is to seduce weak women (analkides , 348-49). By implication, if "feminine" women (and all mortal women are "feminine" by definition and prescription) try to participate in men's affairs—warfare or war poetry—they will, like Aphrodite, be driven out at spear point.

Poem 1 employs not only a metaphorical use of the Iliad (transferring the language for the experience of soldiers to the experience of women in love) and a familiarization of the alien poem (so that it now makes better sense to women readers), but a multiple identification with its characters. Sappho is acting out the parts both of Diomedes and of Aphrodite as they are characterized in Iliad 5. Aphrodite, like Sappho, suffers pain (inline image; 354), and is consoled by a powerful goddess who asks "Who has done this to you?" (373). Aphrodite borrows Ares' chariot to escape from the battle and ride to heaven (358-67), the reverse of her action in Sappho's poem.[20] Sappho therefore is in a sense presenting herself both as a desperate Diomedes needing the help of a goddess (Athena/Aphrodite) and as a wounded and expelled female (Aphrodite/Sappho) seeking a goddess's consolation (Dione/Aphrodite).

This multiple identification with several actors in an Iliadic scene represents on another level an admired feature of Sappho's poetics—her adoption of multiple points of view in a single poem. This is especially noteworthy in poem x where she sketches a scene of encounter between a victim and a controlling deity. The intensification of pathos and mastery in the encounter is due largely to the ironic double consciousness of the poet-Sappho speaking in turn the parts of suffering "Sappho" and impassive goddess. Such many-mindedness is intrinsic to the situation of Greek women understanding men's culture, as it is to any silenced group within a culture that acknowledges its presence but not its authentic voice and right to self-determination. This leads to an interesting reversal of the standard (and oppressive) stricture on women's literature that it represents only a small and limited area of the


larger world.[21] Such a view portrays women's consciousness according to the social contrast of public/private, as if women's literature occupied but a small circle somewhere inside the larger circle of men's literature, just as women are restricted to a domestic sanctuary. But insofar as men's public culture is truly public, displayed as the governing norm of social interaction "in the streets," it is accessible to women as well as to men. Because men define and exhibit their language and manners as the culture and segregate women's language and manners as a subculture, inaccessible to and protected from extrafamilial men, women are in the position of knowing two cultures where men know only one. From the point of view of consciousness, we must diagram the circle of women's literature as a larger one which includes men's literature as one phase or compartment of women's cultural knowledge. Women in a male-prominent society are thus like a linguistic minority in a culture whose public actions are all conducted in the majority language. To participate even passively in the public arena the minority must be bilingual; the majority feels no such need to learn the minority's language. Sappho's consciousness therefore is necessarily a double consciousness, her participation in the public literary tradition always contains an inevitable alienation.

Poem 1 contains a statement of how important it is to have a double consciousness. Aphrodite reminds "Sappho" of the ebb and flow of conflicting emotions, of sorrow succeeded by joy, of apprehensiveness followed by relief, of loss turning into victory. This reminder not to be singlemindedly absorbed in one moment of experience can be related to the pattern of the Iliad in general, where the tides of battle flow back and forth, flight alternating with pursuit. This is well illustrated in Iliad 5, which is also the Homeric locus for the specific form of alternation in fortunes which consists of wounding and miraculous healing. Two gods (Aphrodite and Ares) and one hero (Aineias) are injured and saved. Recuperative alternation is the theme of poem 1, as it is of Iliad 5. But because of Sappho's "private" point of view and double consciousness it becomes not only the theme but the process of the poem, in the following sense: Sappho appropriates an alien text, the very one which states the exclusion of "weak" women from men's territory; she implicitly reveals the inadequacy of that denigration; and she restores the fullness of Homer's text by isolating and alienating its very pretense to a justified exclusion of the feminine and the erotic.

Sappho's poetic strategy finally leads to a rereading of Iliad 5 in the light of her poem 1. For when we have absorbed Sappho's complex re-impersonation of the Homeric roles (male and female) and learned to see what was marginal


as encompassing, we notice that there is a strain of anxious self-alienation in Diomedes' expulsion of Aphrodite. The overriding need of a battling warrior is to be strong and unyielding; hence the ever-present temptation (which is also a desire) is to be weak. This is most fully expressed at Iliad 22. 111-30, where Hektor views laying down his weapons to parley with Achilles as effeminate and erotic. Diomedes' hostility to Aphrodite (the effeminate and erotic) is a kind of scapegoating, his affirmation of an ideal of masculine strength against his own possible "weakness." For, in other contexts outside the press of battle, the Homeric heroes have intense emotional lives and their vulnerability there is much like Sappho's: they are as deeply committed to friendship networks as Sappho ("He gave the horses to Deipylos, his dear comrade, whom he valued more than all his other age-mates"; 5.325-26); they give and receive gifts as Sappho does; they wrong each other and reestablish friendships with as much feeling as Sappho and her beloved. In a "Sapphic" reading, the emotional isolation of the Iliadic heroes from their domestic happiness stands out more strongly ("no longer will his children run up to his lap and say 'Papa' "; 5.408). We can reverse the thesis that Sappho uses Homer to heroize her world and say that insofar as her poems are a reading of Homer (and so lead us back to read Homer again) they set up a feminine perspective on male activity that shows more clearly the inner structure and motivation of the exclusion of the feminine from male arenas.

I return to the image of the double circle—Sappho's consciousness is a larger circle enclosing the smaller one of Homer. Reading the Iliad is for her an experience of double consciousness. The movement thus created is threefold: by temporarily restricting herself to that smaller circle she can understand full well what Homer is saying; when she brings her total experience to bear she sees the limitation of his world; by offering her version of this experience in a poem she shows the strengths of her world, the apparent incompleteness of Homer's, and finally the easily overlooked subtlety of Homer's. This threefold movement of appropriation from the "enemy," exposure of his weakness, and recognition of his worth is like the actions of Homeric heroes who vanquish, despoil, and sometimes forgive. Underlying the relations of Sappho's persona to the characters of Diomedes and Aphrodite are the relations of Sappho the author to Homer, a struggle of reader and text (audience and tradition), of woman listening and man reciting. A sense of what we now call the sexual politics of literature seems nearly explicit in poem 16:

Some assert that a troupe of horsemen, some of foot soldiers, some a
fleet of ships is the most beautiful thing on the dark earth; but I
assert that it is whatever anyone desires. It is quite simple to make
this intelligible to all, for she who was far and away preeminent in
beauty of all humanity, Helen, abandoning her husband, the ..., went


sailing to Troy and took no thought for child or dear parents, but
beguiled ... herself ... for ... lightly ... reminds me now of Anaktoria absent:
whose lovely step and shining glance of face I would prefer to see than Lydians'
chariots and fighting men in arms ... cannot be ... human ... to wish to share
... unexpectedly.

[This is a poem of eight stanzas, of which the first, second, third, and fifth are almost intact, the rest lost or very fragmentary.]

It is easy to read this as a comment on the system of values in heroic poetry. Against the panoply of men's opinions on beauty (all of which focus on military organizations, regimented masses of anonymous fighters), Sappho sets herself—"but I"—and a very abstract proposition about desire. The stanza first opposes one woman to a mass of men and then transcends that opposition when Sappho announces that "the most beautiful" is "whatever you or I or anyone may long for." This amounts to a reinterpretation of the kind of meaning the previous claims had, rather than a mere contest of claimants for supremacy in a category whose meaning is agreed upon.[22] According to Sappho, what men mean when they claim that a troupe of cavalrymen is very beautiful is that they intensely desire such a troupe. Sappho speaks as a woman opponent entering the lists with men, but her proposition is not that men value military forces whereas she values desire, but rather that all valuation is an act of desire. Men are perhaps unwilling to see their values as erotic in nature, their ambitions for victory and strength as a kind of choice. But it is clear enough to Sappho that men are in love with masculinity and that epic poets are in love with military prowess.

Continuing the experiment of reading this poem as about poetry, we might next try to identify Helen as the Iliadic character. But Homer's Helen cursed herself for abandoning her husband and coming to Troy; Sappho's Helen, on the contrary, is held up as proof that it is right to desire one thing above all others, and to follow the beauty perceived no matter where it leads. There is a charming parody of logical argumentation in these stanzas; the underlying, real argument I would reconstruct as follows, speaking for the moment in Sappho's voice. "Male poets have talked of military beauty in positive terms, but of women's beauty (especially Helen's) as baneful and destructive. They will probably never see the lineaments of their own desires as I do, but let me try to use some of their testimony against them, at least to expose the paradoxes of their own system. I shall select the woman whom men both desire and despise in the highest degree. What they have damned her for was, in one light, an act of the highest courage and commitment, and their own poetry at one point makes grudging admission that she surpasses all the


moral censures leveled against her—the Teichoskopia (Il . 3.121-244). Helen's abandonment of her husband and child and parents is mentioned there (139, 174), and by a divine manipulation she feels a change of heart, now desiring her former husband and city and parents (139) and calling herself a bitch (180). But these are the poet's sentiments, not hers; he makes her a puppet of his feeling, not a woman with a mind of her own. The real Helen was powerful enough to leave a husband, parents, and child whom she valued less than the one she fell in love with. (I needn't and won't mention her lover's name: the person—male or female—is not relevant to my argument.) Indeed she was so powerful that she beguiled Troy itself at that moment when, in the midst of its worst suffering, the senior counselors watched her walk along the city wall and said, in their chirpy old men's voices, 'There is no blame for Trojans or armored Achaians to suffer pains so long a time for such a woman' (156-57)."

So far I have been speaking Sappho's mind as I see it behind this poem. There is an interesting problem in lines 12 ff., where most modern editors of Sappho's text have filled the gaps with anti-Helen sentiments, on the order of "but (Aphrodite) beguiled her ..., for (women are easily manipulated,) light (-minded ... )." We do not know what is missing, but it is more consistent with Sappho's perspective, as I read it, to keep the subject of inline image', "beguiled," the same as in the preceding clause—Helen. "Helen beguiled—itself (or herself)," some feminine noun, such as "city," "blame" (nemesis), or the like. What is easily manipulated and light-minded (kouphos ) are the senior staff of Troy, who astonishingly dismiss years of suffering as they breathe a romantic sigh when Helen passes. Perhaps Sappho's most impressive fragment is poem 31:

The one seems to me to be like the gods, the man whosoever sits facing you and listens nearby to your sweet speech and desirable laughter—which surely terrifies the heart in my chest; for as I look briefly at you, so can I no longer speak at all, my tongue is silent, broken, a silken fire suddenly has spread beneath my skin, with my eyes I see nothing, my hearing hums, a cold sweat grips me, a trembling seizes me entire, more pale than grass am I, I seem to myself to be a little short of dead. But everything is to be endured, since even a pauper ....

The first stanza is a makarismos , a traditional formula of praise and well-wishing, "happy the man who ...," and is often used to celebrate the prospect of a happy marriage.[23] For instance, "That man is far and away blessed beyond all others who plies you with dowry and leads you to his house; for I have never seen with my eyes a mortal person like you, neither man


nor woman. A holy dread grips me as I gaze at you" (Od . 6.158-61). In fact this passage from Odysseus's speech to Nausikaa is so dose in structure (makarismos followed by a statement of deep personal dread) to poem 31 that I should like to try the experiment of reading the beginning of Sappho's poem as a re-creation of that scene from the Odyssey .

If Sappho is speaking to a young woman ("you") as Nausikaa, with herself in the role of an Odysseus, then there are only two persons present in the imagined scene.[24] This is certainly true to the emotional charge of the poem, in which the power and tension flow between Sappho and the woman she sees and speaks to, between "you" and "I." The essential statement of the poem is, like the speech of Odysseus to Nausikaa, a lauding of the addressee and an abasement of the speaker which together have the effect of establishing a working relationship between two people of real power. The rhetoric of praise and of submission are necessary because the poet and the shipwrecked man are in fact very threatening. Most readers feel the paradox of poem 31's eloquent statement of speechlessness, its powerful declaration of helplessness; as in poem 1, the poet is masterfully in control of herself as victim. The underlying relation of power then is the opposite of its superficial form: the addressee is of a delicacy and fragility that would be shattered by the powerful presence of the poet unless she makes elaborate obeisance, designed to disarm and, by a careful planting of hints, to seduce.

The anonymous "that man whosoever" (inline image in Sappho, inline image in Homer) is a rhetorical cliché, not an actor in the imagined scene. Interpretations which focus on "that someone (male)" as a bridegroom (or suitor or friend) who is actually present and occupying the attention of the addressee miss the strategy of persuasion that informs the poem and in doing so reveal their own androcentric premises. In depicting "the man" as a concrete person central to the scene and godlike in power, such interpretations misread a figure of speech as a literal statement and thus add the weight of their own pro-male values to Sappho's woman-centered consciousness. "That man" in poem 31 is like the military armament in poem 16, an introductory setup to be dismissed: we do not imagine that the speaker of poem 16 is actually watching a fleet or infantry; no more need we think that Sappho is watching a man sitting next to her beloved. To whom, in that case, would Sappho be addressing herself? Such a reading makes poem 31 a modern lyric of totally internal speech, rather than a rhetorically structured public utterance that imitates other well-known occasions for public speaking (prayer, supplication, exhortation, congratulation).


My reading of poem 31 explains why "that man" has assumed a grotesque prominence in discussions of it. Androcentric habits of thought are part of the reason, but even more important is Sappho's intention to hint obliquely at the notion of a bridegroom just as Odysseus does to Nausikaa. Odysseus the stranger designs his speech to the princess around the roles which she and her family will find acceptable—helpless suppliant, valorous adventurer, and potential husband.[25] The ordinary protocols of marital brokerage in ancient society are a system of discreet offers and counteroffers which must maintain at all times the possibility for saving face, for declining with honor and respect to all parties. Odysseus's speech to Nausikaa contains these delicate approaches to the offer of marriage which every reader would appreciate, just as Alkinoos understands Nausikaa's thoughts of marriage in her request to go wash her brothers' dancing clothes: "So she spoke, for she modestly avoided mentioning the word 'marriage' in the presence of her father; but he understood her perfectly" (Od . 6.66-67). Such skill at innuendo and respectful obliquity is one of the ordinary-language bases for the refined art of lyric speech. Sappho's hint that "someone" enjoys a certain happiness is, like Odysseus's identical statement, a polite self-reference and an invitation to take the next step. Sappho plays with the role of Odysseus as suitor extraordinary, an unheard-of stranger who might fulfill Nausikaa's dreams of marriage contrary to all the ordinary expectations of her society. She plays too with the humble formalities of self-denigration and obeisance, all an expansion of inline image, "holy dread grips me as I gaze on you" (Od . 6.161).

"That man is equal to the gods": this phrase has another meaning too. Sappho as reader of the Odyssey participates by turn in all the characters; this alternation of attention is the ordinary experience of every reader of the epic and is the basis for Sappho's multiple identification with both Aphrodite and Diomedes in Iliad 5. In reading Odyssey 6 Sappho takes on the roles of both Odysseus and Nausikaa, as well as standing outside them both. I suggest that "that man is equal to the gods," among its many meanings, is a reformulation of Homer's description of the sea-beaten Odysseus whom Athena transforms into a godlike man: inline image, "but now he is like the gods who control the expanse of heaven" (6.243). This is Nausikaa's comment to her maids as she watches Odysseus sit on the shore after emerging from his bath, and she goes on to wish that her husband might be such.[26] The point of view from which Sappho speaks as one struck to the heart is that of a mortal visited by divine power and beauty, and this


is located in the Odyssey in the personas of Odysseus (struck by Nausikaa, or so he says), of Nausikaa (impressed by Odysseus), and of the Homeric audience, for Sappho speaks not only as the strange suitor and the beautiful princess but as the Odyssey reader who watches "that man" (Odysseus) face to face with the gently laughing girl.

In performing this experiment of reading Sappho's poems as expressing, in part, her thoughts while reading Homer, her consciousness of men's public world, I think of her being naturally drawn to the character of Nausikaa, whose romantic anticipation (6.27) and delicate sensitivity to the unattainability of the powerful stranger (244 f., 276-84) are among the most successful presentations of a woman's mind in male Greek literature.[27] Sappho sees herself both as Odysseus admiring the nymphlike maiden and as Nausikaa cherishing her own complex emotions. The moment of their separation has what is in hindsight, by the normal process of rereading literature in the light of its own reformulations, a "Sapphic" touch: inline image, "Farewell, guest, and when you are in your homeland remember me who saved you—you owe me this." These are at home as Sappho's words in poem 94.6-8: "And I made this reply to her, 'Farewell on your journey, and remember me, for you know how I stood by you."'[28]

The idyllic beauty of Phaiakia is luxuriously expressed in the rich garden of Alkinoos, whose continuously fertile fruits and blossoms are like the gardens which Sappho describes (esp. frs. 2, 81b, 94, 96), and it reminds us of Demetrios's words, "Virtually the whole of Sappho's poetry deals with nymphs' gardens, wedding songs, eroticism." The other side of the public/private contrast in Sappho is a design hidden in the lush foliage and flower cups of these gardens. There are two sides to double consciousness: Sappho both reenacts scenes from public culture infused with her private perspective as the enclosed woman and she speaks publicly of the most private, woman-centered experiences from which men are strictly excluded. They are not equal projects; the latter is much more delicate and risky. The very formulation of women-only secrets, female arheta , runs the risk not only of impropriety (unveiling the bride) but of betrayal by misstatement. Hence the hesitation in Sappho's most explicit delineation of double consciousness: inline image, "I am not sure what to set down, my thoughts are double," could mean "I am not sure which things to set down and which to keep among ourselves, my mind is divided" (51).


Among the thoughts which Sappho has woven into her poetry, in a way which both conceals and reveals without betraying, are sexual images. These are in part private to women, whose awareness of their own bodies is not shared with men, and in part publicly shared, especially in wedding songs and rites, which are a rich store of symbolic images bespeaking sexuality.[29] The ordinary ancient concern with fertility, health, and bodily function generated a large family of natural metaphors for human sexuality and, conversely, sexual metaphors for plants and body parts. A high degree of personal modesty and decorum is in no way compromised by a daily language which names the world according to genital analogies or by marriage customs whose function is to encourage fertility and harmony in a cooperative sexual relationship. The three words which I will use to illustrate this are numphe, pteruges , and melon . The evidence for their usage will be drawn from various centuries and kinds of writing up to a thousand years after Sappho; but the terms in each case seem to be of a semitechnical and traditional nature rather than neologisms. They constitute the scattered fragments of a locally variegated, tenacious symbolic system which was operative in Sappho's time and which is still recognizable in modern Greece.

Numphe has many meanings: at the center of this extended family are a "clitoris" and "bride." Numphe names a young woman at the moment of her transition from maiden (parthenos ) to wife (or "woman," gune ); the underlying idea is that just as the house encloses the wife and as veil and carriage keep the bride apart from the wedding celebrants, so the woman herself encloses a sexual secret).[30] "The outer part of the female genital system which is visible has the name 'wings' (pteruges ), which are, so to speak, the lips of the womb. They are thick and fleshy, stretching away on the lower side to either thigh, as it were parting from each other, and on the upper side terminating in what is called the numphe . This is the starting point (arche ) of the wings (labia), by nature a little fleshy thing and somewhat muscular (or, mouse-like)."[31] The same technical use of numphe to mean clitoris is found in other medical writers and lexicographers,[32] and by a natural extension is applied to many


analogous phenomena: the hollow between lip and chin,[33] a depression on the shoulder of horses,[34] a mollusk,[35] a niche,[36] an opening rosebud,[37] the point of a plow[38] —this last an interesting reversal based on the image of the plowshare penetrating the earth. The relation of numphe , clitoris, to pteruges , wings/labia, is shown by the name of a kind of bracken, the numphaia pteris , "nymph's wing," also known as thelupteris , "female wing"; by the name of the loose lapels on a seductively opening gown;[39] and by the use of numphe as the name for bees in the larva stage just when they begin to open up and sprout wings.[40]

This family of images extends broadly across many levels of Greek culture and serves to reconstruct for us one important aspect of the meaning of "bride," numphe as the ancients felt it.[41] Hence the virtual identity of Demetrios's three terms for Sappho's poetry: nymphs' gardens, wedding songs, eroticism. Several of Sappho's surviving fragments and poems make sense as a woman-centered celebration and revision of this public but discreet vocabulary for women's sexuality. The consciousness of these poems ranges over a wide field of attitudes. The first can be seen as Sappho's version of male genital joking (which she illustrates in 110 and 111),[42] but when applied to the numphe Sappho's female ribaldry is pointedly different in tone:


Like the sweet-apple [glukumelon ] ripening to red on the topmost branch,
on the very tip of the topmost branch, and the apple pickers have overlooked it—
no, they haven't overlooked it but they could not reach it.

Melon , conventionally translated "apple," is really a general word for fleshy fruit—apricots, peaches, apples, citron, quinces, pomegranates. In wedding customs it probably most often means quinces and pomegranates, but for convenience sake I will abide by the traditional translation "apple." Like numphe and pteruges, melon has a wider extension of meanings, and from this we can rediscover why "apples" were a prominent symbol in courtship and marriage rites.[43]Melon signifies various "clitoral" objects: the seed vessel of the rose,[44] the tonsil or uvula,[45] a bulge or sty on the lower eyelid,[46] and a swelling on the cornea.[47] The sensitivity of these objects to pressure is one of the bases for the analogy; I will quote just the last one. "And what is called a melon is a form of fleshy bump (staphuloma , grapelike or uvular swelling), big enough to raise the eyelids, and when it is rubbed it bothers the entire lid-surface."

Fragment 105a, spoken of a bride in the course of a wedding song, is a sexual image. We can gather this sense not only from the general erotic meaning of "apples" but from the location of the solitary apple high up on the bare branches of a tree,[48] and from its sweetness and color. The verb inline image, "grow red," and its cognates are used of blood or other red liquid appearing on the surface of an object that is painted or stained or when the skin suffuses with blood.[49] The vocabulary and phrasing of this fragment reveal much more than a sexual metaphor, however; they contain a delicate and reverential attitude to the exclusive presence-and-absence of women in the world of men. Demetrios elsewhere (148) speaks of the graceful naïveté of Sappho's self-correction, as if it were no more than a charming touch of folk speech when twice in these lines she changes her mind, varying


a statement she has already made. But self-correction is Sappho's playful format for saying much more than her simile would otherwise mean. The words are inadequate—how can I say?—not inadequate, but they encircle an area of meaning for which there have not been faithful words in the phallocentric tradition. The real secret of this simile is not the image of the bride's "private" parts but of women's sexuality and consciousness in general, which men do not know as women know. Sappho knows this secret in herself and in other women whom she loves, and she celebrates it in her poetry. Where men's paraphernalia are awkwardly flaunted (bumping into the lintel, fr. 111, inconveniently large like a rustic's feet, fr. 110), women's are protected and secure. The amazing feature of these lines is that the apple is not "ripe for plucking" but unattainable, as if even after marriage the numphe would remain secure from the husband's appropriation.[50]

Revision of myth is combined with a sexual image in fragment 166: inline image, "They do say that once upon a time Leda found an egg hidden in the hyacinth." As the traditional denigration of Helen was revised in poem 16, so the traditional story of Helen's mother is told anew. Leda was not the victim of Zeus's rape who afterward laid Helen in an egg; rather she discovered a mysterious egg hidden inside the frilly blossoms of a hyacinth stem, or (better) in a bed of hyacinths when she parted the petals and looked under the leaves. The egg discovered there is

(1) a clitoris hidden under labia

(2) the supremely beautiful woman, a tiny Helen, and

(3) a story, object, and person hidden from male culture.[51]

The metaphor of feeling one's way through the undergrowth until one discovers a special object of desire is contained in the word inline image, "I feel


for," "I search out by feeling" It is used of Odysseus feeling the flesh of Polyphemos's stomach for a vital spot to thrust in his sword (Od . 9.302), of animals searching through dense thickets for warm hiding places (Hes. Op . 529-33), of enemy soldiers searching through the luxurious thicket for the hidden Odysseus (Od . 14.356), of Demeter searching high and low for her daughter (h. Hom. Cer . 2.44), of people searching for Poseidon's lover Pelops (Pind. Ol . 1.46). The contexts of this verb are not just similar by accident: maiomai means more than "search for," it means "ferret out," especially in dense thickets where an animal or person might be lurking. In view of the consistency of connotations for this verb there is no reason to posit a shifted usage in Sappho 36, as the lexicon of Liddell, Scott, and Jones does. As these lexicographers read it, Sappho's words inline image are redundant— "I desire you and I desire you." Rather they mean "I desire and I search out." I would like to include the physical sense of feeling carefully for hidden things or hiding places.[52] In the poetic verb maiomai there is a physical dimension to the expression of mutual passion and exploration. Desire and touching occur together as two aspects of the same experience: touching is touching-with-desire, desire is desire-with-touching.

The same dictionary that decrees a special meaning for maiomai when Sappho uses it invents an Aeolic word inline image (B) inline image, "I walk," to reduce the erotic meaning of a Lesbian fragment of uncertain authorship, Incert. 16: "The women of Krete once danced thus—rhythmically with soft feet around the desirable altar, exploring the tender, pliant flower of the lawn." inline image is a recognized Aeolic equivalent of inline image , akin to inline image. The meanings "ferret out," "search through undergrowth," "beat the thickets looking for game," "feel carefully" seem to me quite in place. Appealing to a long tradition, Sappho (whom I take to be the author) remarks that the sexual dancing of women, the sensuous circling of moving hands and feet around the erotic altar and combing through the tender valleys, is not only current practice but was known long ago in Krete.

I have been able to find no simple sexual imagery in Sappho's poems. For her the sexual is always something else as well. Her sacred landscape of the body is at the same time a statement about a more complete consciousness, whether of myth, poetry, ritual, or personal relationships. In the following


fragment, 94, which contains a fairly explicit sexual statement in line 23,[53] we find Sappho correcting her friend's view of their relation.

... Without guile I wish to die. She left me weeping copiously and said, "Alas, what fearful things we have undergone, Sappho; truly I leave you against my will." But I replied to her, "Farewell, be happy as you go and remember me, for you know how we have stood by you. Perhaps you don't—o I will remind you ... and we have undergone beautiful things. With many garlands of violets and roses ... together, and ... you put around yourself, at my side, and flowers wreathed around your soft neck with rising fragrance, and ... you stroked the oil distilled from royal cherry blossoms and on tender bedding you reached the end of longing ... of soft ... and there was no ... nor sacred ... from which we held back, nor grove ... sound ...

As usual the full situation is unclear, but we can make out a contrast of Sappho's view with her friend's. The departing woman says inline image, "fearful things we have suffered," and Sappho corrects her, inline image, "beautiful things we continuously experienced." Her reminder of these beautiful experiences (which Page calls a "list of girlish pleasures")[54] is a loving progression of intimacy, moving in space—down along the body—and in time—to increasing sexual closeness: from flowers wreathed on the head to flowers wound around the neck to stroking the body with oil to soft bedclothes and the full satisfaction of desire. I would like to read the meager fragments of the succeeding stanza as a further physical landscape: we explored every sacred place of the body. To paraphrase the argument, "When she said we had endured an awful experience, the ending of our love together, I corrected her and said it was a beautiful experience, an undying memory of sensual happiness that knew no limit, luxurious and fully sexual. Her focus on the termination was misplaced; I told her to think instead of our mutual pleasure, which itself had no term, no stopping point, no unexplored grove."

Poem 2 uses sacral language to describe a paradisal place[55] which Aphrodite visits:

Hither to me from Krete, unto this holy temple, a place where there is a lovely grove of apples and an altar where the incense burns, and where is water which ripples cold through apple branches, and all the place is shadowed with roses, and as the leaves quiver a profound quiet ensues. And here is a meadow where horses graze, spring flowers bloom, the honeyed whisper of winds.... This is the very place where you, Kypris ..., drawing into golden cups the nectar gorgeously blended for our celebration, then pour it forth.


The grove, Page comments, is "lovely," a word used "elsewhere in the Lesbians only of personal charm."[56] But this place is, among other things, a personal place, an extended and multiperspectived metaphor for women's sexuality. Virtually every word suggests a sensuous ecstasy in the service of Kyprian Aphrodite (apples, roses, quivering followed by repose, meadow for grazing, spring flowers, honey, nectar flowing). Inasmuch as the language is both religious and erotic, I would say that Sappho is not describing a public ceremony for its own sake but is providing a way to experience such ceremonies, to infuse the celebrants' participation with memories of lesbian sexuality. The twin beauties of burning incense on an altar and of burning sexual passion can be held together in the mind, so that the experience of either is the richer. The accumulation of topographic and sensuous detail leads us to think of the interconnection of all the parts of the body in a long and diffuse act of love, rather than the genital-centered and more relentlessly goal-oriented pattern of lovemaking which men have been known to employ.

I have tried to sketch two areas of Sappho's consciousness as she had registered it in her poetry: her reaction to Homer, emblematic of the male-centered world of public Greek culture, and her complex sexual relations with women in a world apart from men. Sappho seems always to speak in many voices—her friends', Homer's, Aphrodite's—conscious of more than a single perspective and ready to detect the fuller truth of many-sided desire. But she speaks as a woman to women: her eroticism is both subjectively and objectively woman centered. Too often modern critics have tried to restrict Sappho's eros to the straitjacket of spiritual friendship. A good deal of the sexual richness which I detect in Sappho's lyrics is compatible with interpretations such as those of Lasserre and Hallett,[57] but what requires explanation is their insistent denial that the emotional lesbianism of Sappho's work has any physical component. We must distinguish between the physical component as a putative fact about Sappho in her own life and as a meaning central to her poems. Obviously Sappho as poet is not an historian documenting her own life but rather a creative participant in the erotic-lyric tradition.[58] My argument has been that this tradition includes pervasive allusions to physical eros and that in Sappho's poems both subjects and


object of shared physical love are women. We now call this lesbian.[59] To admit that Sappho's discourse is lesbian but insist that she herself was not seems quixotic. Would anyone take such pains to insist that Anakreon in real life might not have felt any physical attraction to either youths or women? It seems clear to me that Sappho's consciousness included a personal and subjective commitment to the holy, physical contemplation of the body of Woman, as metaphor and reality, in all parts of life. Reading her poems in this way is a challenge to think both in and out of our time, both in and out of a phallocentric framework, a reading which can enhance our own sense of this womanly beauty as subject and as object by helping us to unlearn our denials of it.


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