07 July 2009

Greatest Hits: Sappho & Co.

By Lindsay Townsend

Sarmatia in my BRONZE LIGHTNING, which begins in the Mediterranean of 1652 BC, would surely have known of the the Muse. Homer called her 'Daughter of Zeus' in The Odyssey, but the poetry we have left from ancient Greece comes much later and mostly from men: Alcman, Pindar, Theocritus, and the great playwrights of the fifth century BC, Callimachus of Alexandria.

The sources for women's writing in ancient Greece at first appear to be much more scarce. Women do appear in Greek plays: Klytemnestra, Antigone, Lysistrata. In these works they have lively voices but their words have been written by men. Where is the literature written by women? Where do Greek women speak directly to us?

Roman painting from Pompeii, once believed to represent SapphoSadly, little has survived. Manuscripts were copied by men and they selected what to copy. It could be there are more papyri in the Egyptian desert--thousands of them still remain in the ancient rubbish dump still being excavated at Oxyrhynchus after a hundred years--or in some yet undiscovered cache that will give us more authentic women's voices. So far the pickings are thin, but there's real quality there.

Foremost amongst the poets is Sappho, whose life on Lesbos in the early sixth century BC, at the centre of a group of girls worshipping Aprodite and the Muses, gave her material for nine books of poems full of affection, admiration and longing. Only a few poems have survived, but their directness is appealing. 'As pale as summer grass,' she (or her narrator) describes herself, a flame playing under her skin, as she gazes hopelessly at one of her girls chatting with a man. Another fragment:
The moon has set, and the Pleiades.
The night is half gone.
Time passes, and here I lie alone.
Later in the century came Korinna, who lived in Boiotia and wrote in the local dialect. One poem talks of her own voice, 'as clear as a swallow's', which gave delight to the 'white-robed ladies of Tanagra', her home town. The ancient world thought she was a rival of the great Pindar himself.

Terracotta figurine of a woman holding a theatre mask, from TanagraSome, like the fifth-century poets Praxilla of Sicyon and Telesilla of Argos, have left so little writing intact that we can hardly judge their work. Another, Erinna, lived on Telos, an island near Rhodes, and died before she was twenty, leaving us a reputation based on The Distaff, a tribute to her dead friend Baukis, whose father lit her funeral pyre with the torches intended to light her wedding. Only a few tantalising lines remain out of three hundred.

We have more complete poems by Anyte, who lived in Tegea on the Greek mainland in the third century BC, than by any other Greek woman, even Sappho. Even so, there are just eighteen certainly by her, a poor legacy for a poet very highly regarded in her day and for long afterward. One tells of children playing with a billy-goat, one of the sadness of a small girl, Myro, at having to make graves for her pet cricket and cicada. Here’s another, describing a statue of the goddess Aphrodite:
This is the place of the Cyprian, where she fulfils her pleasure
Looking out for ever from the land over the shining sea,
To make voyaging kindly to sailors. All around the ocean
Trembles, staring at her image of oil-glistening wood.
There's a useful anthology here which only underlines the scarcity of ancient Greek women's writing which survives. Maybe one day the papyrus mounds of Oxyrhynchus will give us more.

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