“Who, O Sappho, does you wrong?”

(Featured image: Sappho and Alcaeus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema)

Fragment 1, Sappho’s best-known and most complete work in our possession, is an urgent prayer to Aphrodite that the goddess might use her famous charms to reciprocate an unrequited love.

Sappho 1 painted on Tara’s back in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Sapphic stanza: ¯ ˘ ¯ x ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ ¯ (3x)
¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ¯

Ποικιλόθρον’ ἀθάνατ’ Ἀφρόδιτα,
παῖ Δίος, δολόπλοκε, λίσσομαί σε,
μή μ’ ἄσαισι μηδ’ ὀνίαισι δάμνα,
πότνια, θῦμον,

1   ποικιλόθρον[ε] ποικιλό|θρονος voc sg fem ‘[one with a] multicolored (ποικίλος) throne (θρόνος),’ an exocentric compound adjective; but Ann Carson reads this word as ποικίλοφρον (voc. of ποικιλόφρων) ‘with a spangled (ποικίλος) mind (φρήν)’—Ἀφρόδιτα is the Aeolic vocative of Ἀφροδίτᾱ ‘Aphrodite’

2   Δίος Ζεύς gen sg; here and elsewhere note the recessive accent characteristic of this dialect; Attic and Ionic have Διός—δολόπλοκε δολό|πλοκος voc sg fem ‘weaver (πλοκός, from πλέκω ‘weave’) of wiles (δόλος)’

3   ἀσαισι ἄσᾱ dat pl ‘vexations’—ὀνίαισι ὀνίᾱ dat pl = ἀνίη ‘sorrows’—δάμνα δαμνάω imperat ‘overpower’

4   θῦμον = θυμόν, an accusative of respect

ἀλλὰ τυῖδ’ ἔλθ’, αἴ ποτα κἀτέρωτα 5
τᾶς ἔμας αὔδως ἀίοισα πήλυι
ἔκλυες, πάτρος δὲ δόμον λίποισα
χρύσιον ἦλθες

5   τυῖδ[ε] ‘to here, hither’ (Aeolic)—αἴ ποτα = εἴ ποτε—κἀτέρωτα = καὶ ἀτέρωτα ‘also at another time’  = ‘also at a previous time’

6   τᾶς ἔμας αὔδως = τῆς ἐμῆς αὐδῆς—ἀίοισα = ἀίουσα αἰω fem pres part ‘hearing,’ taking genitive object τᾶς ἔμας αὔδωςπήλυι = τηλοῦ ‘far away’

7   λίποισα = λιποῦσα λείπω fem aor part

8   χρύσιον ambiguous as to whether it agrees with l. 7 δόμον or l. ἄρμ[α]; the latter seems better

ἄρμ’ ὐπασδεύξαισα· κάλοι δέ σ’ ἆγον
ὤκεες στροῦθοι περὶ γᾶς μελαίνας 10
πύκνα δίννηντες πτέρ’ ἀπ’ ὠράνω αἴθε-
ρος διὰ μέσσω.

9   ὐπασδεύξαισα = ὑποζεύξασα ὑπο-ζεύγνυμι ‘put under the yoke’—ἆγον = ἦγον ἄγω 3 pl imperf

10   στροῦθοι = στρουθοί ‘sparrows’—περὶ γᾶς μελαίνας = ὑπὲρ γῆς μελαίνης

11   πύκνα ‘close-packed; numerous’—δἰννηντες pres part ‘whirling, spinning’—ὠράνω = οὐρανοῦ; earlier *εhε and *οhο contract into η and ω, not ει and ου, respectively (cf. the present active infinitive ending in l. 19 ἄγην)

αἶψα δ’ ἐξίκοντο· σὺ δ’, ὦ μάκαιρα,
μειδιάσαισ’ ἀθανάτῳ προσώπῳ
ἤρε’, ὄττι δηὖτε πέπονθα κὤττι 15
δηὖτε κάλημι,

15   ἤρε[ο] = ἤρεο 2 sg aor mid ‘asked’—ὄττι ‘what (indirect question)’; this begins the threefold line of indirect questioning, which becomes direct in l. 18)—δηὖτε = δὴ αὖτε ‘now, this time’—πέπονθα πάσχω 1 sg perf ‘I have undergone’; note the switch to present-tense (well, present perfect) here and in l. 16 κάλημι and in l. θέλω to make the dialogue sound more immediate—κὤττι = καὶ ὄττι

16   κάλημι = καλέω; verbs in -άω, -έω, -όω tend to be -μι verbs in Aeolic; cf. l. 20 ἀδίκησι

κὤττι μοι μάλιστα θέλω γένεσθαι
μαινόλᾳ θύμῳ· ‘τίνα δηὖτε Πείθω
μαῖσ’ ἄγην ἐς σὰν φιλότατα, τίς σ’, ὦ
Ψάπφ’, ἀδίκησι; 20

17   γένεσθαι = γενέσθαι, an aorist infinitive with recessive accent

18   μαινόλᾳ μαινόλης ‘raving, frenzied’; technically a noun, but here in apposition to θύμῳ—ΠείθωPersuasion’; accusative subject of infinitive l. 19 ἄγην and the object of μαῖσαι; “Whom do you now want Persuasion to bring … ?”

19   μαῖσ[αι] μάομαι 2 sg ‘desire’—ἄγην = ἄγειν—ἐς σὰν φιλότατα lit. ‘into your love’ = ‘into loving you’

20   Ψάπφ[α] Ψάπφω voc; the narrator is Sappho herself—ἀδίκησι = ἀδικεῖ ‘does wrong to’

καὶ γὰρ αἰ φεύγει, ταχέως διώξει,
αἰ δὲ δῶρα μὴ δέκετ’ ἀλλὰ δώσει,
αἰ δὲ μὴ φίλει, ταχέως φιλήσει
κωὐκ ἐθέλοισα.’

21   διώξει διώκω 3 sg fut ‘follow’

24   κωὐκ = καὶ οὐκ—ἐθέλοισα = ἐθέλουσα; this is the only word in the poem that explicitly identifies Sappho’s beloved as female (note that the masculine participle ἐθέλων would not fit the meter)

ἔλθε μοι καὶ νῦν, χαλέπαν δὲ λῦσον 25
ἐκ μερίμναν, ὄσσα δέ μοι τέλεσσαι
θῦμος ἰμέρρει, τέλεσον· σὺ δ’ αὔτα
σύμμαχος ἔσσο.

25   χαλέπαν is an Aeolic 1st-declension genitive plural, like l. 26 μερίμναν

26   μερίμναν gen pl ‘cares, thoughts’—ὄσσα ‘as much as …’ = ‘whatever …’; its correlative τόσσα is implied with l. 27 τέλεσον

27   ἰμέρρει = ἱμείρει ‘longs for, desires’

28   σύμμαχος ‘ally, co-fighter’—ἔσσο εἶναι 2 sg pres imper ‘be!’; for the deponent morphology, cf. also the future ἔσεσθαι

And now, a treat for making it to the end of the poem (or at least for mousing down to my translation). Here is a enthralling rendition of Sappho 1, with music and in a solid reconstructed pronunciation. The faithfulness to the meter of the poem, on the part of both the singer and the guitarist, is impressive and refreshing. I cannot speak to the authenticity of the melodies; reconstruction of ancient music is something I have great curiosity about but have not spent a substantial amount of time looking into. I would be very interested to know how the music was put together.

Fragment 1 (Sappho)

Immortal Aphrodite of the pied throne,
child of Zeus, weaver of wiles, I entreat you—
do not overwhelm me with vexations and sorrows,
Lady, in my mind;

Rather, come hither, if ever once before 5
you—listening to my voice from afar—
heard me, and you left your father’s house
and came, yoking

your golden chariot; lovely ones led you,
swift sparrows, over the black earth, 10
whirling their many wings, out of the sky through
the middle of the air.

They arrived immediately; and you, O blessed one,
smiling with your deathless countenance,
asked what I have undergone this time and why 15
I call this time

and what it is that I most wish to happen
in my raving heart; “Whom this time do you wish Persuasion
to lead into loving you? Who, O
Sappho, wrongs you? 20

For even if she flees, she will soon follow you,
and if she does not receive your gifts, she will give to you,
and if she does not love you, she will soon love,
even unwillingly.”

Come to me even now, and release me from grievous 25
thoughts, and whatever my heart wishes you
to do for me, do it; and you yourself
do be my ally.


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