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Bust of Sappho, second century AD.

Bust of Sappho, second century AD.

Sappho and her Brothers

The survival of a recently discovered song by the early Greek poet is little short of a miracle, says David Gribble. How was it discovered and what does it add to our picture of a complex and elusive figure?

This story starts with a prayer and a song, sung around 600 BC on the Greek island of Lesbos by a woman seeking the safe return of her brother from a voyage. The woman was Sappho, one of the first poets of western literature, labelled the ‘tenth Muse’ by her admiring readers in the ancient world and one of the few female voices we have from antiquity. 

The brother was Charaxus, who, Herodotus tells us, travelled to Naucratis in Egypt, where he fell in love with the courtesan Rhodopis, and that Sappho afterwards rebuked him in a song.

By a miracle of survival, we can once again, for the first time in more than a millennium, read Sappho’s prayer, hear the singer’s voice, experience her hopes for her brother’s return and her trust in the gods. Recovered from the sands of Egypt, and latterly from the storage rooms of a university library, it has recently been published by the Oxford papyrologist, Dirk Obbink.

Sappho’s poetry and the mystery of her biography have impressed and excited readers since the ancient world. But the story of the survival of her works is just as exciting and astonishing and the transmission of this new ‘brothers’ song (the other brother being Larichus) is no less so.

Sappho was a ‘lyric’ poet, her works accompanied by an instrument (usually a lyre, hence the word ‘lyric’) and in some cases by dancing, too. She must have been primarily an oral poet, as writing was secondary to the spoken word. To imagine Sappho composing, we should think along the lines of a singer-songwriter, blending words with music to the accompaniment of a guitar, rather than a Byron or a Shelley at their desk.

We no longer have the music to her songs, but the metre of the verse reveals the rhythm at least. Sappho’s songs, like other Greek lyric, were composed in patterns of long and short syllables, patterns which we know, through comparison with ancient Sanskrit verse, go back to Indo-European prototypes.

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