Sappho speaks

Mary Beard

  • The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome by Jane McIntosh Snyder
    Bristol Classical Press, 199 pp, £25.00, May 1989, ISBN 1 85399 062 0
  • The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece by J.J. Winkler
    Routledge, 240 pp, £30.00, February 1990, ISBN 0 415 90122 7
  • Greek Virginity by Giulia Sissa, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
    Harvard, 240 pp, $29.95, March 1990, ISBN 0 674 36320 5

‘It is against the nature of things that a woman who has given herself up to unnatural and inordinate practices ... should be able to write in perfect obedience to the laws of vocal harmony, imaginative portrayal, and arrangement of the details of thought.’ For David Robinson, writing in the Twenties and reprinted in the Sixties, the ‘perfection’ of Sappho’s verse was clear enough proof of her unblemished character. He was perhaps unusual in his unshakable confidence that (at least in the case of female writers) fine poetry could be found only in association with fine morals: but in other respects he was merely part of that great scholarly tradition that has attempted to rescue Sappho from the implications of her own writing – from the implication, in particular, that she enjoyed the physical love of other women. So, for example, even some recent critics have sought to portray her as a primarily religious figure, the leader of a cult of young girls devoted to the goddess Aphrodite. Others, with a yet more extreme capacity for fantasy, have seen her as some kind of female professor or headmistress, instructing her young charges in poetry, in music, even perhaps in the techniques of sensual pleasure that they would need in their future life as wives.

It is easy to ridicule these attempts to deny the central place of (lesbian) sexuality in Sappho’s poetry. Jane Snyder, in The Woman and the Lyre, runs through the main strands of traditional Sappho criticism, pointing out the anachronistic absurdity that underlies most of these reconstructions of her social background and literary context. The tough, warring world of sixth-century BC Lesbos was no place for some prototype of a liberal arts college for young ladies and, as Snyder rightly sees, it is sheer bowdlerising whimsy to suggest that it was. But, in distancing herself from such vain attempts to ‘imbue Sappho with respectability’, in asserting instead a simple wish to read the poems ‘for what they actually say’, Snyder loses sight of some of the important issues involved in those traditional responses to Sappho and her writing. What was at stake was not just the anxiety of conservative Classical scholars at Sappho’s apparent sexual preference for young women – though that was, no doubt, an aggravating factor in the most strident reactions. More important, as Jack Winkler suggests in his essay on Sappho reprinted in The Constraints of Desire, was the plain fact that the writer, the speaking subject of these poems, was a woman – a woman claiming the right to talk about her own sexuality. What was at stake was not so much lesbianism as the ‘woman’s voice’, and how that could be heard and understood.

Any discussion of women writers in Greece and Rome – of Sappho and her less well-known followers – must focus on the nature of that ‘woman’s voice’. The dominant ideology of most of the ancient world offered women no place in public discourse. The exclusion of women from politics and power was simply one side of that much greater disability – their lack of any right to be heard. As Homer’s Telemachus put it to his mother Penelope (when she dared publicly to interrupt a bard’s recitation), ‘talking must be the concern of men.’ How, then, within this insistent ideology of female silence, could women writers find any space for their own creativity? How did they interact with the overwhelmingly male literary and cultural heritage? Did they succeed in appropriating and subverting male language for a distinctively female form of writing?

Snyder barely touches on these central questions. Starting from Sappho and ending with Hypatia and Egeria writing a thousand years later, she pieces together an account of the major women writers of Antiquity and provides translations of the surviving fragments of their work. There are some odd omissions. Surprisingly, she makes no mention of St Perpetua, whose autobiographical account of her imprisonment and trial during the Christian persecutions is one of the most extraordinary documents to have been preserved from Antiquity. Nor does poor Melinno (author of a surviving ‘Hymn to Rome’) find a place. But, even so, for those used to the familiar (male) roll-call of Classical authors, the list of women writers that Snyder has assembled is itself impressive – Myrtis, Korinna, Praxilla, Anyte, Nossis, Erinna, Leontion, Sulpicia, Proba and many more.

Not so impressive, unfortunately, are the paltry surviving fragments of their work and Snyder’s generally banal attempts at literary and historical analysis. Among the best-preserved is the poetry of Korinna: three excerpts from what were probably much longer poems and a few isolated couplets, amounting to about a hundred lines in all. Snyder’s main concern is to assign Korinna to her ‘appropriate niche in the history of Greek literature’: she reviews the modern controversy about her date (fifth century BC or third century?) and she searches vainly for the literal truth, rather than the much more important symbolic truth, in the conflicting stories of Korinna’s victories in poetic contests over her male rival, Pindar. She does, in the end, admit the impossibility of reaching any firm conclusions on these areas of Korinna’s life-history. But her underlying preoccupation with the poet’s biography tends all the time to deflect her attention from serious analysis of the poetry itself. This she discusses in only the most general terms: she compliments its ‘swiftly-paced narrative’, its ‘simple, direct language’, its refreshing treatment of ‘parallels between the mythological world and everyday human behaviour’, while suggesting at the same time that it was ‘essentially conservative’, ‘interested only in transmitting received tradition, not challenging it’, and largely lacking in ‘philosophical profundity’. These judgments may be all very well as far as they go; there is certainly no need to see Korinna as a creative genius. But they fail to engage directly with the central problem of women’s writing within a male tradition. Was Korinna, as Snyder appears to suggest, simply submerged by that tradition? Or do her ‘conservative’ mythological narratives (including, interestingly, in one of the longer fragments, the story of the rape of the nine daughters of the river god Asopus) hint at a more pointed parallel between ‘the mythological world and human behaviour’ than Snyder allows?

In many cases the very fragmentary state of what is preserved makes discussion of the literary issues associated with women’s writing in Antiquity next to impossible. Even with extraordinary scholarly ingenuity, there is not much that can usefully be said about the fewer than twenty surviving words of Telesilla of Argos! But Sappho, with several substantial extracts, and at least one complete poem preserved, comes into a very different category. It is here, where some close analysis of a woman’s writing is for the first time possible, that Snyder’s evasion of the important issue is most glaring.

In discussing Sappho’s output, Snyder does seek to identify ‘female language’ in her poetry. She appeals, for example, to the poet’s sense of description, her apparent fondness for the natural world and her tendency to introspection. What she misses, however, by concentrating on these stereotypical ‘female’ characteristics is Sappho’s radical subversion of the male literary (epic) tradition that Winkler discusses so acutely. This is seen most clearly in the poem known as the ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’, in which Sappho calls on the goddess to come once more to her aid in pursuit of the girl she loves. Snyder recognises that this poem was written ‘in imitation of the standard form of a Greek prayer’, adapted by Sappho ‘to suit her own purposes’. But she does not appear to recognise that Sappho is echoing, much more specifically, the prayer of the hero Diomedes in the midst of battle in the fifth book of Homer’s Iliad. As Winkler demonstrates, that echo provides the key to our understanding of Sappho’s ‘voice’ (or ‘voices’) in this poem. It focuses our attention on the distance between the male world of epic heroism and the private domain of female concerns; it shows the poet reading and reinterpreting Homeric epic to give it a new meaning in distinctively female terms; it effectively subverts the whole ‘heroic order’, by (as Winkler says) ‘transferring the language for the experience of soldiers to the experience of women in love’. Sappho’s writing here amounts to a tactical inversion of the dominant male language.

The ideology of ‘female silence’ was, of course, challenged in other ways. Women found a ‘voice’ not just in writing, but also most obviously in religious ritual, prophecy and oracular utterance. Giulia Sissa’s Greek Virginity, a translation of her (more aptly titled) Le Corps Virginal, takes as its starting-point the virgin priestess of Apollo at Delphi, the Pythia. What was the connection, she asks, between her oracular function and her virginity? How far can the Pythia’s ‘right to speak’ (or at least to act as a human mouthpiece for the god) be related to Greek ideas on the structure of the female body? How are we to understand her ‘form of language that was at once divine and feminine’?

Sissa argues that the ‘openness’ of the Greek virgin was central to the Pythia’s role. There is a striking contrast here with modern (and some Roman) ideas of the ‘closure’ of the virginal body. For us, the seal of the hymen acts as a physical token of a girl’s intactness – until that moment of violent, wounding rupture at first penetration. For the Greeks, virginity did not entail a physical barrier: their idea of a human body had no place for a hymen. The body of the virgin was open and ready for penetration. Its moment of closure came only when it sealed around the growing foetus during pregnancy – the one sure sign that virginity had been lost. In the case of Pythia, her virginity ensured her openness to Apollo, and (like a perfect bride) to him alone. Christian writers poured scorn on the way she sat (as they claimed) astride a tripod, legs apart, taking up the vapours of his prophetic spirit into her vagina. But, as Sissa shows, that was precisely the point: the body of the Pythia was open to the word of the god. There is more at issue here than strange notions of female physiology. The role of the Pythia highlights an inextricable connection between the ‘woman’s voice’ and sexuality, between ‘the mouth that speaks and eats’ and the ‘mouth’ of the vagina. Sissa’s book is a subtle exploration of the woman’s body as a vehicle not just of divine prophecy but also of human speech.