Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Searching for Sappho (2016)

Philip Freeman, Searching for Sappho: The Lost Songs and World of the First Woman Poet (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016). 

An easy to read overview of the life, times and art of Sappho (circa 630-570 B.C.), and Freeman makes it all seem easy, translating from ancient Greek into modern English. We learn that in Classical Greek marriages, men were generally ten or twelve years older than their brides. Mystery cults and religions abounded. Sensuality was then, as now, complex. The biggest hope -- and danger -- for many woman was pregnancy. Heterosexual men could -- and did -- supplement their love lives with regular courtesans and hetaira, "the companions often pictured on drinking cups. . . skilled not only in giving sexual pleasure, but also in music and conversation" (page 55).

Women of pregnancy age had to be more clever than men if they wished to supplement or compliment their marriages. Relations with other women made a lot of sense, as in the case of Sappho, who was at least for a time married to an older man (probably) and had one daughter that we know of (per Freeman). Why avoid pregnancy?  It was very dangerous, riskier than fighting in a war, to the mother, who could easily die in childbirth. Men could also turn to other men, if so wired or inclined.

We also learn that Sappho probably sang most of her poems, a sort of trobairitz with a lyre. Freeman has her performing at weddings and other ceremonies, and put in exile at least twice due to power struggles on Lesbos.

Freeman pieces together what he can, but most of Sappho's poetry is known only in beautiful fragments. Still, there is hope that more verses will continue to be recovered, as has been the case during the past century. 

And of time, how we measure it can be confusing and misleading. We may tend to think of ancient times as one big suck hole, but consider this: "By the time of Sappho [2600 years before this post], the pyramids were almost as ancient to her as she is to us . . ." (page 99)! 

Finally, Freeman notes that there are about one hundred known women poets of Classical Greco-Roman times -- there are many more to explore. Like Sappho, much of their so far rediscovered poetry is in the form of fragments. And let us imagine new finds among other civilizations and cultures as well. Let's hope, let's seek, let's find!

Sappho #147.  "Someone, I say, will remember us in time to come" (page 278).  And we do, as others will remember us. 

Today's Rune: Initiation.   


the walking man said...

"And we do as others remember us"--I find that a fascinating statement. No matter what the reality of our present, we become in our unalterable future what others think they know of us regardless of our reality today.

Charles Gramlich said...

I want to read this. I've heard much about her but know little.

thejspotjodi said...

Erik-sounds like they were greek geishas!