SAPPHO'S WORD
Her word-puzzles, epithets and imagistic ideas:
inspirational fragments, cited by ancient authors
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Plato called Sappho "The Tenth Muse," because her insights, epithets and imagistic ideas are so profoundly challenging and inspiring. And for that reason, her word puzzles were often quoted and discussed by ancient authors and philosophers. Happily we have inherited a large collection of citations from Sappho's poetry by way of these sources. For example, Hermongenes says: "In general, the attribution of deliberate choice to things incapable of it produces a pleasing effect, as when Sappho questions her lyre, and the lyre answers her." Or when Maximus of Tyre (Greek, 2nd c. AD) says: "Socrates calls love a Sophist, Sappho [calls love] a myth-weaver (μυθόπλοκος)." Just that one idea (#188), to envision love as a "myth-weaver," is a poem all by itself, in fact, a whole essay could be written about it or discussed in a group from many, delightfully different points of view.

Below a selection of 30 deeply haunting insights by Sappho to enliven discussion & inspiration.

(Translations consulted: Mary Barnard's SAPPHO, David A. Campbell's GREEK LYRIC,
Anne Carson's IF NOT, WINTER, and other sources)

034 moon's light conceals (κάλαν σελάνναν...ἀπυκρύπτοισι)
"Sappho says the shining full moon conceals the stars from view."
~ Julian, Letters

039 intricately-colored (ποικίλος)
"Lydian dyes are superior and thus Sappho says: 'Even [her] feet were covered by intricately-colored straps — beautiful Lydian work.'"
~ Scholiast on Aristophanes, Peace

047 love shook my mind (Ἔρος δ' ἐτίναξέ μοι φρένας)
"Socrates is driven mad for Phaedrus by Eros, while Sappho says: 'Love shook my mind like a wind falling on oaks on a mountain.'
~ Maximus of Tyre, Orations
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050 the good always beautiful (ἄγαθος αὔτικα καὶ κάλος ἔσσεται)
"Since we know that the prime of youth is like the spring flowers and brings short-lived enjoyment, it is better to commend the lady of Lesbos when she says: 'Beautiful are they as far as appearances go, whereas the good are always beautiful.'"
~ Galen, Exhortation to Learning

051 double-minded (δίχα...νοήμματα)
"Sappho declares: I don't know what to do; I am of two minds."
~ Chrysippus (3rd c. BCE), on Negatives

052 to touch the sky (ψαύην...ὀράν)
"Sappho uses the form ὄρaνος, sky [when she says]: 'I do not expect to touch the sky with these two arms.'"
~ Herodian (Roman, 2nd-3rd c. AD), On Anomalous Words
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054 purple mantle (χλάμύς)
"They say that Sappho was the first to use χλάμύς, mantle, when she mentioned "Eros, who had arrived from heaven, clad in a purple mantle.”
~ Pollux (2nd c. AD), Vocabulary

104 Hesperus (Ἔσπερε)
"Sometimes Sappho makes charming use of repetition as in her description of Hesperus, the Evening Star: 'Hesperus brings home to their beginning all that shining morning scattered in the eight directions. It brings back the sheep, brings back the goat, brings back the child to her mother's hand.'"
~ Demetrius, On Style

114 virginity, virginity (παρθενία, παρθενία)
"The graces arising from figures of speech are clear and numerous in Sappho; for example, her use of repetition where a bride addresses her virginity, and her virginity replies to her using the same figure: 'Virginity, virginity, where have you gone, deserting me?' 'Never again shall I come to you; never again shall I come.'"
~ Demetrius, On Style
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115 slender sapling (zὄρπακι βραδίνῳ)
"And the Aeolic dactylic pentameters, catalectic with disyllabic close as in Sappho: 'To what may I compare you, dear bridegroom? I compare you above all to a slender sapling."
~ Hephaestion (Alexandria, 2nd c. AD), Handbook on Metres

118 speak, divine lyre (δῖά λέρε φωνάεσσα)
"In general, the attribution of deliberate choice to things incapable of it produces a pleasing effect, as when Sappho questions her lyre, and the lyre answers her: 'Come, divine lyre, speak to me and find yourself a voice,' and the lines which follow."
~ Hermongenes, Kinds of Style

120 I have an unspeaking heart (ἀβάκην τὰν φρέν᾽ ἔχω)
“βάζω, means ’I speak' and from the same comes, ἀβaκής, ‘unspeaking, quiet, gentle,' which Sappho uses, e.g.: ‘But I am not one of those with a spiteful temperment, I have an unspeaking heart.’”
~ cf. Anacr. 416
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122 Sappho's Persephone (Περσεφόνη)
"For it is natural that those who think themselves beautiful and ripe should gather flowers. This is why Persephone and her companions are said to gather flowers, and Sappho says: 'I saw "a tender girl picking flowers.'"
~ Stobaeus, Anthology

125 I myself wove garlands (αυταόρα ἐστεφαναπλόκην)
"It was young folk and people in love who wove garlands; with reference to the custom by which women of old used to wear garlands, cf: Sappho: 'I [myself in my youth] used to weave garlands.'"
~ Scholiast on Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazusae

132 a beautiful child...like golden flowers (ἔστι μοι κάλα πάις)
Quoted as part of a discussion on Greek metre, this sentiment by Sappho as regards Cleis, her daughter: "I have a beautiful child who looks like golden flowers, my darling Cleis, for whom I would not [take] all Lydia or lovely [Lesbos]."
~ Hephaestion, Handbook on Metres
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133 rich-in-blessings (πολύολβο)
"When the ionic is anaclastic (i.e. has its syllables inverted), it is preceded by an iambic of six or seven short units, as in Sappho [where the goddess says]: "Why, Sappho, do you [neglect] Aphrodite so rich in blessings?"
~ Haphaestion, Handbook on Metres

134 Cyprogeneia (Κυπρογενηα)
"Sappho's Κυπρογενηα refers to 'Cyprus-born Aphrodite, as in: 'I talked with you in a dream, Cyprogeneia.'"
~ Hephaestion (Alexandria, 2nd c. AD), Handbook on Metres

138 face-to-face (κἄντα)
"Stand face to face, friend...and unveil the grace in thine eyes."
~ Quoted by Athenaeus. Bergk thinks this line by Sappho may have formed part of an ode by her to Phaon, who helped Aphrodite when she was disguised an an old woman, and was thus rewarded with youth and handsome beauty.
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146 neither honey nor the bee (μήτε μέλι μήτε μέλισσα)
"I want, etc. is used of those who are not willing to take the bad with the good, as in Sappho: 'For me neither the honey nor the bee.'"
~ Tryphon (ca. 60 BCE), Figures of Speech

160 free women...'companions' (ὲλεύθεραι γυναῖκες...ἔταιραι)
"Even today free women and young girls call their intimate and dear friends 'companions' as did Sappho: 'these things now for my companions I shall sing beautifully.'"
~ Athenaeus (2nd-3rd. c. AD), Scholars at Dinner

162 Eyes? (τίοισιν ὀφθάλμοισι[ν])
Sappho says: "With what eyes?"
~ Choeroboscus, On the Canons of Theodosius
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172 sweetly-bitter (γλῠκύ-πῑκρος)
"Diotima [in Plato's Symposium] says that Eros, 'Love,' flourishes when he has abundance, but dies when he is in need: Sappho combined these ideas and called love bitter-sweet." [ref. Sappho Fragment #130]
~ Maximus of Tyre (2nd c. AD), Orations

181 fordable (ζάβατον)
Instead of to be "stepped across" (διάβατον), Sappho says "fordable."
~ Scholiast on Dionysus of Thrace

185 honey-voiced (μελίφωνος)
"Honey-voiced - this is Sappho’s most delightful epithet."
~ Philostratus (2nd-3rd C. AD), Pictures
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188 myth-weaver (μυθόπλοκος)
"Socrates calls love a Sophist, Sappho a myth-weaver."
~ Maximus of Tyre (2nd c. AD), Orations

199 the Moon's love (της Σελήνης ἔρωτoς)
"It is said that Selene [the moon] comes down to this cave [on Mt. Latmos in Caria] to meet [the shepherd] Endymion. Thus Sappho and Nicander tell the story of the moon's love."
~ Scholiast on Apollonis of Rhodes

200 persuasion, Aphrodite's daughter (Πειθὼ Ἀφροδἰτης θυγατέρα)
"Sappho says that Peitho, ‘persuasion’ is the daughter of Aphrodite."
~ Scholiast on Hesiod, Works and Days
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209 gadabout (πoλυρέμβαστoς)
"A friendship that is gadabout, as Sappho says, makes a virtue of publicity."
~ Eustathius, Letters

213b greener than grass (χλωροτέρα...ποίας)
"[in love]...'the humming, the spinning of the ears and the trembling of the body [seized] me,' and after that Sappho says: 'I am greener than grass, yet it seems to me I am little short of dying.'" (ref. Sappho fragment #031)
~ early 3rd century papyrus

Incertum Treading Softly (τέρην)
Sappho says: "The women of Crete once danced thus in measure round the fair altar (βῶμον), treading softly on the delicate bloom of the grass."

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