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If we show that poetry...is not one thing for men and another for women but the same, by comparing the songs of Sappho with those of Anacreon...will anyone have any reason to find fault with the demonstration?
Plutarch, On the Virtues of Women (243b)
"Monique Wittig and Sande Zeig in their Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary devote a full page to Sappho. The page is blank." So John Winkler began one of the most perceptive articles of recent years on Sappho. Wittig and Zeig's blank page is a salutary warning that we know nothing about Sappho. Or worse: Everything we know is wrong. Even the most basic "facts" are simply not so or in need of a stringent critical reexamination. A single example. We are told over and over again that Sappho "was married to Kerkylas of Andros, who is never mentioned in any of the extant fragments of her poetry" (Snyder). Not surprising, since it's a joke name: he's Dick Allcock from the Isle of MAN. It's been over 139 years since William Mure pointed this out and it is there in Wilamowitz and easily accessible in the Real-Encyclopädie. The only source for this factoid is the Suda, and it is clearly taken from one of the numerous comedies on Sappho. Yet one finds this piece of information repeated wihtout question from book to book, usually omitting the dubious source, usually omitting any reference at all.
Thus the note I am sounding is cautionary and my purpose in this paper is primarily negative. I hope to foster an atmosphere of skepticism. Whenever anyone presents a statement about Sappho, I want us to ask, "How do you know? Says who and where?" I wish to remind us to distrust.
My purpose in this brief animadversion is not to attack the straw men of previous centuries, nor to rehearse the fascinating history of the critical fortunes of Sappho (for which see Lefkowitz and for France, DeJean). Rather, I wish to reconsider a single interpretive paradigm which continues to have remarkable influence: Sappho as schoolmistress. I want first to examine this picture of Sappho and what, if any, evidence has been used to construct it, then to look at the models which (explicitly or implicitly) have formed the basis for this picture. Next, I turn my attention to two particular attempts to rescue this image--Sappho as music teacher and Sappho as sex-educator. To support these models there has arisen a curious double movement of assimilation and isolation. Her sexuality (the expression of which she shares with no one else) has been absorbed into a male model of pederastic power and aggression, while her poetry (the expression of which she shares with many) has been cut off from all other poets. Finally, I consider a different paradigm for understanding Sappho, which I believe is truer to the few facts we do possess.
Perhaps an even better image for Sappho than the blank page is the palimpsest. There does exist a text of Sappho, but it is so thickly written over with critical accumulation that it is almost impossible to make out the words beneath. This repetition of statements and assumptions from book to book is indicative of what seems to me to be a widespread tendency in the study of Sappho, where statements are taken from previous works without any critical evaluation, frequently without citation, as if they were facts so basic that "everyone" knows them. Further, this lack of critical evaluation towards Sappho stands in sharp contrast to the general skeptical approach to the other lyric poets, for example Alcaeus. Specifically, there is a failure to try as far as possible to look at the text without first reading the commentary.
The reasons are in part understandable and even creditable. The text of Sappho is in fragments which we must shore against their ruin. The language is difficult, the society obscure. We tum to the handbooks and commentaries for aid. But this means that we come to Sappho already blinded by the largely unexamined assumptions of the previous generations of scholars; and in the case of Sappho the accumulation of assumptions is millennia deep and includes Greek comedies, Italian novels, and French pornography. The case is worse for Sappho than for any other author, including Homer. For here we are dealing not only with archaic literature but with sexuality; the commentaries are heavily endued with emotion and our own preconceptions. More importantly, we are dealing with homosexuality (or rather what we construct as homosexuality) and women's sexuality. Sappho creates idiocies and raises questions that simply are never asked of any male poets.
It is not that these various constructions and reconstructions of Sappho are necessarily wrong. Rather, they are largely unprovable and completely unexamined. My note throughout will be that there is simply no evidence for many of the statements so decisively made. Rather than argue ex silentio, I hope to point out that much of what we read in the handbooks is an argumentum ex nihilo, based solely on unexamined tradition, presupposition and prejudice. Classicists experience a horror vacui (especially of biographical data) perhaps more strongly than others and few have been able to resist the temptation to fill in the blanks (cf. Dover). Every age creates its own Sappho. Her position as the woman poet (as Homer is the male poet), the first female voice heard in the West, elevates her to a status where she is forced to be a metonym for all women. Sappho ceases to be an author and becomes a symbol. She is recreated in each age to serve the interests of all who appropriate her, whether friend or enemy. We, of course, are doing the same. All we can hope to do is be as little blind to what evidence there is and explicitly to acknowledge the limitations of our knowledge and the bases for our assumptions.
In its strongest form, Sappho Schoolmistress is the well-known creation of Wilamowitz (1913), who was concerned with defending Sappho from charges of homosexuality, in particular Pierre Louys' recently published Chansons de Bilitis (1895). To do so, Wilamowitz took over the theories of Karl Müller (1840) and Friedrich Gottlieb Welcker, and recast Sappho as a virgin schoolmistress. This whole construction was created to explain away Sappho's passion for her "girls," allowing her the emotion of love but denying it any physical component, by recasting it in the form of an explicitly "Platonic" and propaedeutic love. Calder and DeJean have dealt with this at length (see also Jenkyns and Rüdiger). I will merely point out that it arises from a historically conditioned construct of feminine psychosexual development, unique to England and Germany, springing in part from an attempt to justify the role of and allay anxieties about the current regime of single-sex schools. Thus, Sappho is cast as a friendly spinster teacher at a boarding school--this is not an exaggeration--educating girls before turning them over to a normal life of marriage and motherhood. The girls in turn pass through a phase of a crush on an older teacher which somehow or other "prepares" them for normal heterosexuality (see section VIII below). With the authority of Wilamowitz, Sappho the Schoolmistress came to be enshrined in the canonical pages of the Real-Encyclopädie (Aly), in Schmid-Stählin's Geschichte der griechischen Literatur (1929) and once embalmed there, it seems as if it can never be buried. It passed to Jaeger, Flaceliere, Campbell (1967), Gerber, Arthur and beyond. It reaches its ultimate point of absurdity in Devereux' now infamous picture of Sappho waking up one morning, realizing she has no penis, and dashing off fr. 31 in a (literally) hysterical seizure. He comments (1970):
Perhaps the most astonishing thing in this quote is the word "professions." Devereux shows no hesitation in recreating archaic Mytilene on the basis of Mädchen in Uniform (see the criticisms of Marcovich). Sappho Schoolmistress has become Sappho Gym Teacher.
In the midst of all this reconstruction (or rather romancing), one most important (and most frequently ignored) fact must be pointed out: nowhere in any poem does Sappho teach, or speak about teaching, anything to anyone. Page demolished the silly notion of Sappho in some sort of formal teaching position in 1955 and since we have had to be reminded by Lefkowitz (1973/1981), Kirkwood, Pomeroy, Snyder (1990), and others, that there is simply no evidence for Mistress Sappho's School for Young Ladies. Yet despite these efforts, this image of Sappho continues to be taken as gospel. So we encounter Eva Cantarella flatly asserting: "But Sappho was not only mistress of the intellect--her girls learned about the weapons of beauty, seduction, and charm: they learned the grace (charis) that made them desirable women. Here the description finishing school is not incorrect, but it is certainly insufficient." Though Cantarella does not tell us how she came by a copy of the syllabus at Sappho's school, we can see that she took the details from Schmid-Stahlin, and if we ask where they got them from, we find out they just made them up. Since Sappho had a school&emdash;something we all know&emdash; it must have had a curriculum, and they grub through the poems in search of details. Anything mentioned in the poems becomes a course offering. Thus the wedding of Hector and Andromache is part of a series of "Stories from Greek Myth" for her pupils, nor they do fail to list the lessons in cosmetics. On this basis, Sappho 16 would be proof that she trained her girls in cavalry maneuvers. Merkelbach accepted Wilamowitz' Mädchenpensionat "cum grano salis," but still provides a syllabus including "weibliche Arbeiten," for which his evidence is fr. 102 (in which a girl tells her mother she can no longer spin; no mention that she learned to do so at Sappho's Boarding School), inc. auct. 17 (which he assigns to Sappho, apparently because it speaks about spinning), and the existence of sewing circles in Germany and other cultures. Burnett writes: "Cult, deportment and dress were all apparently matters for study among Sappho's girls, but music was at the core of their curriculum". The college catalogue is derived from the various descriptions of clothes; the deportment from 57 (a rustic girl) and 16 (Anactoria's walk): a love poem is reduced to a report card. Most recently Lardinois: "Sappho's teaching need not have been restricted to music and dance, however. An impression of all the activities Sappho performed with her girls is to be found in fragment 94". Flowers, garlands, perfumes, soft beds on which to expel desire, shrines, groves, and dance, become parts of a course description.
Thus Sappho's School for Girls still seems to be a going concern. Yet despite these periodic attempts to close it, one thing remains untouched and unquestioned, which shows the lingering influence of Sappho Schoolmistress even among those who ignore it or explicitly reject it. Sappho is still assumed in nearly every book, monograph, and paper to be an older woman with some kind of power over a group of young unmarried girls. This is the unquestioned assumption we have inherited from the handbooks which still forms the basis for discussion of Sappho. Oddly enough then, it is the most Victorian, anachronistic, sexist, and perverse part of Müller and Wilamowitz' picture of Sappho that continues to exert the strongest influence.
A new paradigm has grown up. In this view, which is the dominant interpretive model (apart from making Sappho a headmistress outright), she is still seen as an older woman presiding over an organization devoted to educating young girls before they leave for marriage, but now she does so in a ritual context. The all-pervasiveness of this assumption left over from Sappho Schoolmistress is shown by the pandemic use of the words "girls," "Mädchen," "jeunes filles," "fanciulle," and the like.
The new model is informed primarily by the growing realization of the importance of the oral performance of lyric poetry (Merkelbach; Russo; Segal; Gentili 1988) and by anthropological studies (Brelich; Calame 1977). This important stressing of the primarily oral nature of Sappho's poetry provides the basis for the important new interpretations of, among others, Merkelbach, Hallett (1979), Burnett, and Gentili (1985/1988). Sappho sang, and she must have sung to an audience. However, all of these scholars unquestioningly assume, still on the basis of the old all-pervasive paradigm, that her audience consisted entirely of unmarried girls. For this, to put the matter briefly, there is no credible evidence at all.
Three factors have contributed to this dominant belief: the lingering influence of Wilamowitz and others in the handbooks, certain late testimonia, and an anachronistic model of female homoerotics derived from Sparta. I will deal with the last two in turn. Since so much has been built on the ancient citations, it seems necessary to quote them in full and treat them at some length.
Five late testimonia speak of Sappho as a "teacher" in some sense. None of them is evidence that Sappho ran an institution of any sort. The earliest is Ovid Trist. 2.363-65:
Here, of course, Ovid is no more imagining Sappho running a school for love than he is imagining Anacreon running an drinking academy. Maximus of Tyre (c. 180-5 A.D.) in his oration compares Sappho to Socrates:
Maximus' concern here is to show the nobility of love. He no more states that Sappho ran a school than he sets up one for Hesiod, whom he cites for comparison with Socrates immediately before this passage or for Archilochus or Anacreon, whom he quotes immediately afterward. Further, the important point is missed that not even Socrates ran a "school." As Page (1955) points out: "There is no suggestion of any formal association." The comparison is made on the basis of their love of beauty and a certain ironic and sarcastic tone that Maximus finds in his quotations. And, we should note, even Maximus does not speak of "girls" and "boys," but of "men" and "women." It is as wrong to deduce that Sappho was surrounded only by prepubescent girls as it would be to deduce that Socrates never spoke to anyone except males under the age of eighteen.
Maximus is our only source for such "rivals." Yet by taking his comparison in a naively literal fashion, there has sprung up the widespread vision not just of Sappho's Academy but of a Lesbos littered with warring boarding schools. This in turn has had profound effect on the interpretation of the poems. Thus when Atthis leaves to go to Andromeda, some scholars (e.g., Kirkwood) speak of her "defecting" from Sappho to Andromeda's possibly "larger group," despite the fact that apart from this one, late, broad, humorous, and superficial analogy there is no indication that Andromeda is anything other than a rival lover nor is there even a mention that any of the women that Sappho dislikes had a "circle" of young girls. This idea of "defection" is applied even to poem 1, where the woman Sappho loves is said to be "deserting the Sapphic thíasos for the community of a rival" (Gentili 1988). But Sappho says nothing of a thiasos, or a community, or desertion, or even a rival; there is only Aphrodite and Sappho, and a woman who does not love Sappho back. This is absurdly out of hand. Compare the situation of Anacreon 357: there is only Dionysus, Anacreon and a boy who does not love him back; or compare Theognis 250-54 or 1299-1304. Yet does anyone say that Kleoboulos or Kyrnos had "defected" from the "thiasos" of Anacreon or Theognis and joined that of a "rival"?
Philostratus (c. 200 A.D.) in the Life of Apollonius of Tyana writes about a Pamphilian woman:
Again the model envisaged for Damophile, and by implication for Sappho, is that of Socrates and his pupils, and again this does not show the existence of a formal school. Dover (1978) cites this passage "for what it is worth&emdash;and this is very little, except as an indication of the form of the Sappho-legend in much later times" and comments: "If in the generation after Sappho there were other women poets in the Eastern Aegean, Lesbian tradition will have regarded them as pupils of Sappho."
Two sources, however, speak more directly of Sappho as teaching, but neither is remotely solid evidence for Sappho "running a school." The oldest is a fragment of an anonymous commentary on Sappho dating to the second century A.D. ("But she in peace educating the best women not only from the natives [of Lesbos] but also of Ionia"). The contrast ... is apparently between Sappho's quiet life in teaching and Alcaeus' stormy life in politics. We have no idea of the commentator's sources or accuracy and Treu (1968) rightly comments, "We are not obligated...to believe this." Likewise the Suda seems to make a distinction between comrades and pupils:
Megara, Telesippa, and Eunica of Salamis are mentioned only here in the surviving evidence as is Anagora of Miletus, unless she is the same as (or a mistake for) Anactoria (so Page 1955), while Gongyla is mentioned but in poems too fragmentary to tell if Colophon was mentioned. The Suda is merely continuing the standard process of turning poetry into biography (see Fairweather; Lefkowitz l98l). The prosopography of Sappho contains more than six entries, and the distinction the Suda makes between three friends and three pupils is illusory. It is also clear on what basis the Suda makes that distinction: the "companions and friends" all appear without a geographical designation, the "pupils" are foreign. That is, wherever the Suda or its sources found some reason for thinking a character was not from Lesbos, they explained her presence by assuming she was a "pupil." The idea of Sappho with pupils, common to these two sources, rests on this basis alone. There is still no mention of any sort of "school" and, let us note, even the wretched evidence of the Suda has been misinterpreted: it limits her "shameful love" to her "companions and friends," not to her students. On the value that can be assigned to such Byzantine speculation we need only recall that both Erinna (Suda 521, Eust. Il. 326.46) and Nossis are turned into pupils of Sappho.
Seven testimonia present some sort of picture of Sappho consorting with "girls." Ovid (Trist. 2.365, quoted above; Her. 15.15) and Horace (Odes 2.13.24-35) speak of her as in love with puellae. They may be imagining prepubescents here, but puella, of course, is used equally of girls, mature women, and goddesses, especially as objects of love, and Horace calls Sappho herself a puella at Odes 4.9.12. There is an implication in the passages of Philostratus, Maximus of Tyre (Alcibiades, Charmides and Phaedrus were young men), and the Cologne Commentary (paideusousa) that Sappho had young women as students. Even then there is no indication that these women were girls on their way to the marriage market. Himerius (Or. 28.2) speaks of her singing of the beauty of a young girl (parthenos).
Chronologically, the earliest witness (Horace) is 600 years after Sappho. As evidence the testimonia are valueless, again turning poetry into biography. They do not prove that Sappho ran a school. They do not prove that Sappho loved only nubile girls. What they do show is something quite familiar to feminists: the wholesale restructuring of female sexuality and society on the model of male sexuality and society. This is precisely the type of construction we find in Lucian's portrayal of the women of Lesbos in DMeretr. 5. The analogy, whether stated or assumed, for the relation of Sappho to her lovers is that of paiderastria, a power relation of older to younger, teacher to pupil, initiator to initiated (Dover 1978). Sappho wrote of love; she therefore must be the (necessarily older) erastes, those about whom she sang the (necessarily younger) eromenoi/ai. Lardinois is at least explicit: "She appears to have been a kind of female pederast". Surely, this ought to make us suspicious. This reinscription of Sappho along the lines of male power relations is implicit in Maximus of Tyre and explicit in several other texts. So the Oxyrhynchus commentary (252 V=P. Oxy. 1800=T1 Loeb) says that she was accused of being a gynaikerastria, a nonce-formation meaning "(female) erastes of women" (see Dover 1978: 174). Porphyrion, on Horace's use of mascula to describe Sappho, comments (ad Ep. 1.19.28=T 17 Loeb): "either because she was famous for her talent in poetry in which men figure more often or because she is slandered as having been a tribade". Themistius (Or. 13.170d=T 52 Loeb) writes: "We allow Sappho and Anacreon to be unrestrained and excessive in the praises of their beloveds". Themistius uses paidika, a technical term for the eromenos, the younger boy partner in a male pederastic relationship (Dover 1978).
To a large extent, I believe it is precisely this reinscription that accounts for the extraordinary power of Sappho Schoolmistress over the imaginations of so many, despite the total lack of evidence for it. I can illustrate this best, perhaps, by bringing up an incidental criticism of Sappho Schoolmistress. Why is Sappho always called the "leader" of her "thiasos"? Poets were important figures in the life of the polis to be sure, but there is no evidence to show that they "led" anything other than songs. Alcaeus is never called the "leader" of his hetairia. Sappho comes to interpretation already presumed to be the older woman in control of younger girls. Again, the model is of controlling male to controlled Other, and reveals a disturbing obsession with power and hierarchy. Sappho, the female poet, is being assimilated as much as possible to the male, in order to neutralize her.
There is absolutely nothing in her poetry to show that Sappho was an older woman. There is nothing in the texts to show that her addressees were young children, or that they left her care for marriage. This latter wide-spread assumption seem to be built entirely on the fact that she wrote epithalamia--as if that were all she wrote. Outside of the obvious wedding songs, where the youth and virginity of the bride are mentioned, there are exactly six references in the surviving fragments, some of which might also be epithalamia, to the age of the women for whom or about whom she is singing. On this slender basis has been erected the whole tower of Sappho Schoolmistress. In 140a, she refers to the celebrants as korai. But the Adonia was everywhere that we know of a private festival of adult women, and korai is ritual language, not age description. At the mutilated end of 17, a prayer to Hera, in what seems to be part of a ritual, she probably refers to maiden(s): p]arth[en . . ., though the reference is not necessarily to the celebrants. In 56, in an unknown context, she says that no girl will have such skill. In 153, again in an unknown context, she refers to a "sweet-voiced girl," using parthenos both times. In 122 a tender child is plucking flowers; the context is unknown and may well be mythological. Finally, in the most famous example (49), she says, "I loved you once, Atthis" and elsewhere, "You seemed to me to be a small child and graceless". Even if we accept that these two lines are consecutive or even necessarily belong to the same poem or referred to the same person, which I do not, there is nothing here that shows that Sappho was an older woman. Indeed, the imperfect ephaineo could equally argue quite the opposite, that Sappho speaks here to an age-mate about the time when both Sappho and the woman were children. That is certainly what is implied by Terentianus Maurus' recasting of 49a: "when she sang that she loved little Atthis, when her own virginity was in flower"; the virginitas sua in question is Sappho's. This notion of Sappho surrounded by age-mates is further strengthened by a fragment, which, since it does not gibe with the communis opinio, has been ignored, and this is fr. 24a.2-5:
Here, despite the damage to the papyrus, we have clear picture of agemates, who shared common experiences while growing up together. In the same papyrus, we find fr. 23:
Now although Hermione, Helen's daughter, might be a proper comparison for a young girl, Helen is the comparanda for a mature woman. No male lyric poet compares his pais with the adult male gods or heroes. The same comparison to goddesses is made in 96.3, 21-3 and the statement that "Leto and Niobe were dear companions,"l42) may also have introduced a comparison to Sappho and a friend. The fragments, therefore, point not to Sappho the predatory gym teacher of Devereux' fancy, but to a woman in love with women of her own generation. The only thing odd about this picture is that [it] is not generally held.
Most importantly, in none of the epithalamia is the girl getting married addressed by name; in none is she spoken of as loved by Sappho. Nor in any of the poems in which Sappho speaks to or about her companions, is there a mention of their marriages, their having "studied" with Sappho in preparation for their marriages, or anything else to indicate that they were other than what Sappho calls them: her "companions" (hetairais). In short, the "girls" of the epithalamia and the "companions" of the lyric poems are simply not at all the same people, a point rightly made by Winkler. Only the presuppositions of Sappho Schoolmistress has caused them to be so mistaken.
The search for formal occasions involving young girls has led many into invoking Alcman's partheneia.32 However, as Treu (1968) succinctly says, "But the closest parallel, Alcman and his maidens' choruses, is not relevant." Alcman is not the same as Sappho nor doing the same things as Sappho. Alcman is a man, hired by the community, to provide choral songs, on civic occasions, for choruses composed of young women and of young men, to whom he evidences no individual erotic emotions. Sappho is a woman, independent of any demonstrable civic role, a lyric poet performing solo songs, who also writes choral works for private marriage ceremonies, singing often to individual women, with whom she is in love.
Not only is Sappho lumped in with Alcman, but their societies are held to be identical. However, archaic Lesbos and archaic Sparta share only a single factor: expressions of desire by women for women. The assumption underlying their facile equation, therefore, is a form of sexual essentialism: all female homosexuality is the same, and therefore the societies are the same. This is logically fallacious as well as theoretically and anthropologically naive. We know little about archaic Lesbos apart from Sappho and Alcaeus; we know little about archaic Sparta apart from Alcman; but it seems unlikely that the two had much in common, whatever picture one may form of Alcman's Sparta by contrast with Tyrtaeus or the austere mirage spartiate of later times. To compare the two on the basis of this shared ignorance does not profit us much.
In a famous sentence in the Life of Lycurgus (18.9), Plutarch says of the Spartan type of paedeutic male homoeroticism:
Note here that Plutarch mentions female homoeroticism only in order to show the high regard the Spartans had for male homoeroticism. He does not allot women a part of the agoge. Scholars have shown remarkably little restraint in taking this single remark and recasting Alcman's Sparta, some 700 years earlier, on its basis, and then using that reconstruction of Sparta as a model for Lesbos. Gentili (1988), for example, swings back and forth from Sappho's Lesbos to Alcman's Sparta to Plutarch's Sparta, with a breath-taking disregard of both space and time. Thus when he reaches his "single, unambiguous conclusion" that Alcman's "partheneion is an epithalamium composed for ritual performance within the community to which the girls belonged", i.e., a homosexual ritual quasi-marriage between Agido and Hagesichora, he is able to cut immediately away and state, "Himerius, writing in the fourth century A.D., and interweaving his orations with paraphrases and citations from archaic lyric, particularly that of Sappho and Anacreon, bears witness in one passage [Or. 9.4] to the presence of an internal ceremony of exactly this sort [i.e., two women in a formal marriage]." In passing, beside the dubious methodology of employing a fourth century A.D. paraphrase of Sappho as if it were evidence about seventh century B.C. Sparta, Gentili mistakes a metaphorical treatment of Sappho's poetry as a description of a real event, turns the textual mess *graphei* parthenous <eis> numpheion into evidence for lesbian marriage in Sparta/Lesbos, and ignores Alcman 81, where the poet has the chorus of maidens ask for a husband.
Gentili states (1988): "We know from Plutarch (Lyc. 18, 9) that homoerotic female relationships were also allowed in archaic Sparta, in communities of more or less the same type as the Lesbian ones. And it has been demonstrated . . . that the partheneia of Alcman are full of stylemes, metaphors and typical expressions that derive from the the language of love and are extensively paralleled in Sappho." But we "know" nothing of the sort. We don't know what, if any, source Plutarch had for this statement; we don't know that female erotic relationships in archaic Sparta were in the form Plutarch imagines for them; we don't know anything about Spartan women's "communities" (in the plural) nor of Lesbian "communities," nor that they were "more or less the same type." What we do have is ample evidence for Plutarch's back-projection of his assumptions about contemporary Sparta onto the time of Lycurgus. Plutarch may well be right about the existence of female homoeroticism in contemporary Sparta or even the Sparta of Alcman's day. However, we must be suspicious of his construction of it. Even Cantarella notes: "In some way, then, one senses that female homosexuality was culturally 'constructed' on the model of the male and presented--by the few male sources that allude to it--as a copy of this" (1981/1987).
I do not know exactly what is going on in Alcman's partheneia, but there is no trace of this male type of erastes to eromenos / older to younger love in them. Instead, we find something quite different: expressions of love between age-mates, each for the other. In the Louvre Partheneion, the singers, including Hegesichora and Agido (Page 1951), are ten girls together, who call Agido their cousin. Outside the circle of the chorus stands the shadowy figure of Aenesimbrota but she is not a candidate for a role of elder female erastes. In 73-77 the chorus sings:
First, let us admit that we have no idea who Aenesimbrota is. All we know is that she has some connection with the four girls named here. Page (1951) suggests that she is "one to whose house you would go if you were looking for Astaphis, Philylla, and the rest." This seems reasonable, though in fact all the text says is that her house is a place to go to say things about the four girls. However, Page's next sentence quite oversteps the evidence: "In short, the text indicates, without the least obscurity, that she is the keeper of a training school for choir-maidens." While Hagesichora's leading of the chorus is explicit in the text, there is no mention of any "training" by Aenesimbrota. There would seem to me to be a superfluity of trainers: the chorus leader Hagesichora, her second-in-command Agido, now Aenesimbrota, all of whom leave very little for Alcman to do. Page's suggestion may very well be so, but there is more obscurity here than he was willing to admit. An equally possible (and equally unprovable) scenario is that Aenesimbrota is the mother of the four girls, especially if the chorus consisted of actual cousins, and this notion receives some support from Pindar's fragmentary PartheneionII.
Yet whatever Aenesimbrota was to the girls, there is one thing that she most definitely was not, and that is their lover. Even Calame (1977) believes that Aenesimbrota was a teacher to the chorus, "but one who stayed outside of their amorous relationships." In short, there is no evidence for the sort of masculine erastes to eromenos relationship that Plutarch envisions for Spartan women to be found in Alcman at all.
Aenesimbrota cannot be turned into Sappho. I doubt she was a professional chorus trainer. Even if she was, Sappho wasn't. Page (1951) explicitly denied any comparison to Sappho's "school," but others were and continue to be less circumspect. Thus we have a vicious circle: the image of Sappho Schoolmistress is invoked to explain (and misinterpret) Alcman's Sparta which in tum is used to justify Sappho Schoolmistress. We simply cannot turn Plutarch into Alcman and Alcman into Sappho.
The lingering influence of Wilamowitz, the search for a ritual setting to "explain" her poetry, and the invocation of Alcman as a parallel, have led to a very popular by-form of Sappho Schoolmistress, that of casting Sappho as music teacher. Thus Dover writes (1978):
Dover is right to reject the notion of a "school of sexual technique" but a "charm" school (confined to the natives) fares no better. Again, it is necessary to point out that in no extant poem does Sappho "teach" anything to anyone. But Dover points out a way that Sappho Schoolmistress might yet be saved. Since she wrote choral poetry, she would have, presumably, taught the chorus her songs. However, as Page notes (1955): "There is no evidence or indication that any of Sappho's poetry apart from the Epithalamians [and 140, a fragment of a song for an Adonia], was designed for presentation by herself or others (whether individuals or choirs) on a formal or ceremonial occasion, public or private." Along with Page and others, I am presuming here that Sappho's epithalamia are actual songs for actual ceremonies on Lesbos, but they cannot be pressed into service to turn Sappho into a professional music teacher. Dover and others are correct to state that Sappho presumably "taught" these songs to her chorus. The mistake comes not in calling her therefore a "chorus-teacher" but rather trying to use the ambiguity of that word to imply some sort of modern idea of "teacher," as if "chorus-teacher" were the name of a profession, a specific social role distinct from that of poet.
There are two extremely important differences between Sappho's epithalamia and the type of choral songs that Dover is imagining, and between Sappho and Alcman (the poet to whom she is explicitly or implicitly compared), Pindar, Bacchylides, or later tragic and comic poets. First, epithalamia are part of the private, familial, ritual of the marriage (Maas; Muth; Keydell). They are not a public, civic, or political rite. Alcman is said to be the didaskalos for the traditional choruses of girls and of boys at Sparta, maintained then, one presumes, at public expense to provide the chorus for public ceremonies, such as the partheneia. This is a completely different situation than Sappho's, whose epithalamia were created for the specific private occasion of individual marriage ceremonies, consisting of the relatives and friends of the bride and groom. Unlike Alcman, Sappho was not hired by the city for the occasion nor was the entire polis expected to attend. Partheneia and epithalamia are distinct genres and the mere fact that choruses of young girls feature in both does not mean that they are the same thing, have the same poetics, or serve the same societal function, a fact that Calame rightly points out (1977). Thus the civic choeurs de jeunes filles that he studied have, by his own admission, simply nothing to do with Sappho.
Second, there did not exist, as far as we know, anywhere in the Greek world, an institution of standing choruses. Even for the greatest of civic celebrations, the tragic festivals at Athens for example, each chorus was put together for a single specific occasion. Nowhere did there exist choral "schools" in which the citizens of even a single polis enrolled to learn a job skill, much less a Pan-Hellenic choral academy. Alcman was the "teacher" of his choral verses to the sons and daughters of Sparta, yet no one has ever suggested that he ran a "school" there. Pindar was in demand throughout the Hellenic world, but no one speaks of his "school." He did not travel with a band, nor were children or citizens sent to any kind of central music academy run by him in order to learn how to sing and dance in his choruses. Alcman and Pindar have a precise social role: it is not "teacher," not even "chorus teacher," it is "poet." These kind of suggestions are never made about any male poet, only about Sappho. There is indeed improbability--and, more importantly, no evidence--in supposing a school to train "performers in girls' choruses at festivals." And the epithalamia were not in fact sung at public festivals, but private weddings. The picture of girls being sent from all over Asia Minor to enter an academy in order to form a permanent chorus of bridesmaids belongs to Gilbert and Sullivan, not archaic Greece.
Earlier authors looking for details of Sappho's educational program in her poems forced the epithalamia into this role. And there has been a return, again in ritual guise, of the idea of Sappho as sex-educator. Schmid-Stählin and Merkelbach speak vaguely of "instruction and preparation for marriage." For other examples of "sex-education" courses at Sappho's school, cf. Cantarella's remarks about "beauty, seduction, and charm" quoted above (1981/1987). Hallett, in a perceptive article (1979), is one of the few to have thought seriously about what ritual purpose Sappho's erotic monodies might have served. However, I cannot agree with her view of Sappho as a "sensual consciousness raiser", since it begins from the assumption that Sappho's circle consisted of girls being educated before marriage and that her love poetry was written only to these girls. Further, I find no evidence that Greek fathers or husbands wanted their daughters' or wives' sensual consciousness raised. The emphasis throughout the society is on the repression of female sexuality rather than its encouragement. A wife who enjoys sex too much is a potential adulteress, not a valuable commodity.
Burnett presents the most explicit picture of Sappho's Sex Academy (1983):
Burnett's insistence on an educative/ritual function for every song leads ultimately to a distorted picture. There is simply no evidence for any of this. There is no sex-education in the epithalamia. The purpose of an epithalamium is to praise the bride not to give her advice on the finer points of intercourse on her way to the wedding chamber. What we find instead is regret for the loss of virginity. There is nothing said about "attendant joys." And how exactly all this was supposed to work is left misty. Are we to imagine Sappho falling in love with just one girl at a time, or all of them indiscriminately, or as each one comes to market? Lardinois alone has tackled this ticklish problem head on: "Sappho had a circle of young girls around her, and it is unlikely that she had a sexual relation with all of them". His solution is that Sappho slept only with the head-girl at her boarding school, who was then appointed the "choragos" of the school choir.
What I find curious about this reconstruction is that its origins so clearly lie in the products of masculine fantasy. This does not mean that it is therefore incorrect. But when dealing with a reconstruction--and it must be emphasized that it is only a recontruction--that has its origins in Victorian sexism and sexology, we should be at least suspicious. This idea of a homoerotic "phase," either of "crushes" or of sexual experimentation, leading (being tamed/transformed) to "normal" heterosexual, reproductive sex is a common-place of both the literature of pornography and developmental psychology. It has a venerable history in both. For the first, cf. Nicolas Chorier's Satyra Sotadica de Arcanis Amoris et Veneris, which has claims to be the first pornographic best seller (1660/1935). Better known is Cleland's Fanny Hill (1748-49/1985). Compare the way in which Sappho is imagined to Cleland's description of Phoebe Ayres, Fanny's first lover, "whose business it was to prepare and break such fillies as I was to the mounting block; and she was accordingly, in that view, allotted me for a bedfellow; and to give her the more authority, she had the title of cousin conferred on her by the venerable president of this college." Marks emphasizes the importance of the school setting to much of this literature. For psychology, Helen Deutsch popularized the notion of the "pashes" of Anglo-German school girls as a stage in a universal feminine psycho-sexual development.
The result is that Sappho's very lesbianism and poetry are forced into the service of normative male heterosexuality. Sappho falls in love and writes poetry on commission, it would seem, in order to benefit men. Sappho, whether she touches the girls (Bumett) or not (Wilamowitz), still warms them up and hands them over to men for the real thing. She is left behind, blindly jealous or tenderly regretful, as you wish, in any case not threatening. This picture borders on the literally pornographic.
We find ourselves trapped in a particularly vicious hermeneutic circle. Aware to a greater extent perhaps than the New Critics of old that a poem can only be understood in terms of the society in which it was created, modern critics frequently wind up reconstructing a society on the basis of its poetry and then interpreting the poetry on the basis of that reconstruction. This can turn out to be only a slightly more sophisticated version of the biographical fallacy. It has, however, been the dominant form of interpretation of Sappho since antiquity. Cf. Lefkowitz' warning (1973/1981): "Thus biography, itself derived from interpretation of her poems, is in turn reapplied to the poems and affects our interpretation of them." The problem is that we are almost completely ignorant of what that social background was. This is particularly true in the cases of archaic Lesbos and Sparta. The objection is made that one must have some lens through which to view the poetry in order to be able interpret it. The problem arises when the glass darkens what we see. A distorting contruct is a danger, not an aid--a point already made by Kirkwood in a lengthy and perceptive footnote. Here again I want to urge a greater skepticism in distinguishing what we know (and where we know it from) from what we were told, from what we assume is likely, from what we see as parallels in other societies.
This ignorance about the circumstances of performance accounts for the large element of arbitrariness applied to assigning formal, ritual social settings for poems. This arbitrariness applies to three categories: the degree of formality envisioned, the types of poems, and the poets themselves.
First, the degree of formality can be easily overstated. An audience does not, as Merkelbach, Schadewaldt (1970) and Lasserre think, necessarily imply a ritual. Winkler's remarks are to the point: "The view of lyric as a subordinate element in celebrations and formal occasions is no more compelling than the view, which I prefer, of song as honored and celebrated at least sometimes in itself. Therefore I doubt that Sappho always needed a sacrifice or dance or wedding for which to compose a song".
Secondly, it is selectively applied to particular types of poems. It is easy to visualize the social settings for choral poetry, for skolia and epithalamia. But we are almost completely ignorant of the circumstances under which solo lyric poetry might have been performed in fifth-century Athens, much less seventh century Lesbos. The problem of "occasion" is particularly acute for erotic poetry. We can say little beyond that--for men at least--a sympotic setting seems likely.
A fuller realization of the element of performance in a still predominantly oral culture has, however, led to a certain monolithic approach in some scholars. Since the epithalamion is an easily imagined social occasion, Sappho's poems are forced to be epithalamia whether they wish it or not. Thus Merkelbach and others have taken fr. 17 as a "propemptikon for the passage of a bride over to her new home and country." The same is true for 94 and 96: they became a new genre of "Trostgedichte" ("Comfort Poems") for when the girls leave Sappho's school to get married. The absence of any mention of bride, husband, or wedding does not seem to bother him. This is hardly less absurd than Wilamowitz' reading of fr. 31 as a epithalamion, which Merkelbach also endorses with the change of heterosexual jealousy (Eifersucht) into homosexual regret for the loss of a pure beloved to "normal" life. Thus in an recent article entitled "Public Occasion and Private Passion in the Lyrics of Sappho of Lesbos," Snyder (1990) shows how difficult it is to determine which poems fell into what category and West (1970) appeals to an equally subjective sense of decorum at symposia.
Most importantly, a degree of ritual formality is invoked for Sappho that is not invoked for any male poet. Sympotic themes make it easy to discuss Alcaeus or Theognis as operating within a formalized social setting and it has been suggested that "ritual" occasions are sought for Sappho more often than for male poets because she lacks such a clear sympotic setting. However, there are many male poets and poems which are difficult to imagine as sung at a symposium or in any other formal setting; they are not therefore labeled "ritual." Kirkwood's observations still apply: "I am not conscious of any concern to determine the specific occasion of Alcaeus 130, the remarkable description of the poet in exile . . . or the occasion of Archilochus's famous song of hatred . . . (79a), or the specific occasion of any poem of Archilochus, Alcaeus, or Anacreon, except where the subject of the poem readily suggests its occasion, as in some of Alcaeus' drinking songs. Only for Sappho are the efforts of scholarship bent on providing occasions".
So for Sappho, Kraus (1546) calls the existence of her school, "only an assumption, to be sure, but a necessary one." I think it a most unnecessary assumption, certainly an assumption no one finds necessary for any other poet. Could Sappho not have written poetry except at a ladies' seminary? Male poets are simply left to be poets but Sappho, it seems, needs to be explained away, isolated in a cult or shut away in a school. Like many a woman of genius, Sappho has been institutionalized.
The sign of this attitude is the constant use of the word thiasos in connection with Sappho. This word is never used anywhere in any of the poems of Sappho (or Alcaeus) nor is it ever used anywhere in any ancient source about her. Yet it is approaching its hundredth anniversary, copied from Wilamowitz (1897) to Aly, Rose, Hadas, Schadewaldt 1950, Latte, Fränkel, Flacelière, R. Cantarella, Tarditi, Russo, Stigers (1977), Tsagarakis, E. Cantarella (1981/87; 1988/1992), Crotty, Burnett, and Commoti. Its only purpose, whether conscious or not, is to lend a spurious air of antiquity to a modern creation, and to make it sound as if we actually knew what Sappho's "thiasos" was. I am officially announcing its death. It should never be used again in connection with Sappho. Merkelbach writes, "Whether one calls it a group, thiasos, or hetairia, is a matter of indifference." But it is important: the word thiasos is not used in connection with any one but Sappho. And its primary purpose is to isolate Sappho from all other lyric poets. Alcaeus calls his comrades hetairoi; he has a hetairia. Sappho calls her comrades hetairai; she has a thiasos. Alcaeus has friends; Sappho has a cult.
This isolation extends not only to the circumstances in which we visualize Sappho singing, but to her songs themselves. She is segregated as a poet from consideration with other poets. Thus Gentili (1988) describes the topics and formats of the lyric poetry of praise and blame as, "political and social polemic, the occasional anecdote based on some commonplace episode of ordinary life, personal abuse, moralizing invective, cynical criticism of traditional ideas and the poets who are their spokesmen." Such is the poetry, he says, of Archilochus, Hipponax, Semonides, Xenophanes, Solon, Theognis, Alcaeus, and especially Anacreon; in short of everyone, except Sappho. Yet all these themes (except perhaps a "cynical" criticism) are found in her poetry. Burnett describes the circle of Alcaeus: "Met together for pleasure, they celebrated common cults and entertained one another with songs of every sort--hymns and exhortations, but also riddles, jokes, abuse, and salutes to the victories and defeats, departures and reunions, as well as to the sexual adventures, that made up their mutual lives" . Again, this differs not at all from what we find in Sappho, save in perhaps substituting "love" for "sexual adventures" in both poets.
Modern scholars have ancient precedent for segregating Sappho by sex from her fellow lyric poets. Strabo, Antipater of Thessalonica, Galen, Anon. compare her only with other women, while Antipater of Sidon, Plato, Plutarch (Amat. 18) make her a Muse not a poet.
But there exists another ancient tradition which counted her simply as one of the nine lyric poets (Anon., Gel.). Sappho sang of love. A wide variety of authors recognized that her subject matter was more important to her poetry than her gender and compared her with other poets who sang about love. Above all they compared her with Anacreon (Winkler). So Clearchus (c. 300 B.C.) treats their love songs together, as do Horace (Odes 4.9.9-12), Ovid (Trist. 2.363-65, quoted above), Pausanius, Aulus Gellius, Maximus of Tyre, Themistius (4th. cent. A.D.), and Plutarch (Mul. Virt.), who provides my epigraph. Apuleius (Apol.) says the only difference between the love songs of Sappho and Anacreon, Alcman, or Simonides is dialect. Menander Rhetor sees no difference in the kletic hymns of Sappho and Anacreon or Alcman. Dionysius of Halicarnassus chooses Sappho, Anacreon, and Hesiod as representing the polished (glaphyra) style. Demetrius in a famous passage summed up "the whole of Sappho's poetry" as "gardens of nymphs, wedding-songs, love-affairs". These are not unique to Sappho. What is unique to Sappho is the desire to lock her up in the garden.
Sappho sang hymns, wedding songs, love songs, songs of blame, and songs of praise. Russo on what he terms "the great Question of Sapphic studies" writes: "I find it easier to assume that some special purpose lay behind the existence of Sappho's circle of women, and that some degree of formal organization existed to carry out that purpose." My question is, why is that purpose made more formal than that which bound together Alcaeus' circle? Why is she alone made the leader of a thiasos, a schoolteacher, a priestess of Aphrodite and the Muses? For all his hymns, Alcaeus is never called the leader of a thiasos. For all his choral poetry, no one says that Stesichorus (!) set up a school for young boys. For all his erotic verse, no one calls Theognis a "sensual consciousness raiser."
The interpretive model of Sappho as Schoolmistress, Sappho as Ritual Leader does not work. It has no evidence to support it and it leads to some grotesque misinterpretations of the poetry. But if Sappho was not a Schoolmistress, what was she?
Let us turn from Victorian fantasy and modern reconstructions to the one indisputable fact about Sappho: she was a poet. Let us look then at what poets did. It is time we ceased this double standard. I wish to propose an alternative reconstruction of Sappho's social world. She calls her comrades philai and hetairai. She calls herself "a firm friend". She should therefore be seen, not in a thiasos (whatever that might be) but, like Alcaeus, in a hetairia, an association of friends. I am not raising this point for the first time, but it seems to have been powerless against so entrenched a series of preconceptions. So Burnett has written: "Sappho sang for an audience in some ways very much like the fraternity that Alcaeus fought with during the day and drank with at night. Her circle, like the hetaireia, had a customary role to play in Lesbian society, and it too was aristocratic, musical, and constrained only by bonds of love and loyalty". So too Winkler: "It is by no means certain that her own poems are either for a cult-perfomance or that her circle of women friends (hetairai) is identical in extension with the celebrants in a festival she mentions". Trumpf compared the hetairia of Alcaeus to Sappho's circle and writes, "The sphere of activity of the poets are the half ritual, half political-social forms of organization of the groups and hetairia with their fixed institutions ". Any overly stringent attempt to separate the cultic from the socio-political is fundamentally mistaken--I doubt if any Greek would have understood the distinction we were trying to make--though civic celebrations (involving the whole polis) can be differentiated from private ceremonies. The point I wish to make is that there is no justification for imposing on Sappho a greater degree of ritual, formality, or institutionalization than on any other (male) poet. Sappho has a social role--it is that of poet. Since she does the same things as other poets and writes the same things as other poets, why is she not treated like all other poets? This rhetorical question has an answer: scholars for the most part are still refusing to treat Sappho as a poet and instead are turning her into a "wonderful thing" (Strabo 13.2.3: thaumaston ti chrema), that is, a freak of nature. A single example: Gentili says: "The closeness to the Muses can only be explained by the hypothesis of an actual cult in their honor within the community" (1988). May I offer another hypothesis? Sappho invokes the Muses because she is a poet. Alcaeus invokes the Muses. Why do these remarks not apply to him, or to Archilochus, or Pindar or anyone else who ever wrote poetry in the entire history of Greek literature?
Men got together with other men in a variety of formal and informal settings at which poetry might be sung. These included civic festivals and competitions, banquets (thalia, heorte, thusia) and above all the symposium. What might these occasions have been for Sappho? Bearing in mind that we know little about archaic Lesbos, we must go primarily on the basis of her own and Alcaeus' poetry. If, however, we strip away the blinkers of Sappho Schoolmistress, we find her celebrating the same or similar occasions in settings neither more nor less formal or cultic than those celebrated in the circles of friends that included Alcaeus, or Mimnermus, or Ibycus, or Theognis, or Anacreon.
There is no theme, no occasion, in Sappho that we do not find in other poets. For identifiable occasions, those which seem to us to be more "formal" are Sappho writing choral song for an Adonia, singing about some sort of all night celebrations, singing about choruses, and (according to an anonymous epigram) leading a chorus of women to the precinct of Hera. The Adonia was a women's festival and Praxilla wrote an famous (and derided) hymn to Adonis. Pindar describes an all-night festival. Alcman, of course, speaks of choros "dancing", as do Alcaeus, Anacreon, Ion, Pratinas, [Socrates], Theognis 779 (of a paean), and an anonymous drinking song. Alcaeus invokes Hera; Alcman writes a partheneion in her honor. Numerous poets have invoked numerous gods. Only Sappho is turned into a priestess.
A principal occasion for women (and men) gathering together in a less "cultic" setting for Sappho's songs is the wedding. Alcman wrote wedding songs (hymenaia); Homer, Hesiod and Aristophanes know of them; Licymnius and Telestes wrote dithyrambs about Hymenaios. Only Sappho sets up a school for bridesmaids.
But most of all, we find Sappho singing about (and I presume at) banquets. She speaks of the thalia at a temple grove to which she summons Aphrodite. So do Archilochus, Theognis, Pindar, Ion of Chios, and Xenophanes. She speaks of a heorte for Hera; so do Anacreon and Pindar. She refers to sacrificial meals (thusia, thuo); the same words are used by Alcaeus, Hipponax, Simonides, Theognis, Timotheus, Philoxenus of Cythera, Pindar and the anonymous drinking song the "Harmodius". And eveywhere else she speaks of garlands. So do Alcaeus, Alcman, Anacreon, Hipponax, Simonides, Stesichorus, Theognis, and Xenophanes. To say that Sappho's thalia is a cult but Archilochus' is a party, that Sappho's garlands belong to ritual but Anacreon's belong to banqueting, is a false distinction and special pleading. Pollux and Athenaeus make no distinction in quoting Anacreon, Sappho and Alcaeus together for the use of garlands at banquets. She speaks of myrrh, not as a matter of cosmetics, but as part of a celebration, exactly as do Alcaeus, Anacreon, Archilochus, Theognis, and Xenophanes. Finally, it is clear that wine was present at some of the celebrations at which Sappho sang. She certainly thinks it suitable for the weddings of gods and heroes and she relates the story that Achelous invented the mixing of wine. And in fr. 2, she refers to the nectar given by Aphrodite who pours the wine into their ky1ixes, the cup for drinking wine (cf. 44.29 on the wedding of Hector and Andromache; 192: a description of cups from an unknown context). Athenaeus quotes the poem as part of a series of descriptions of the features of a perfect symposium and Page (Page 1955) explicates the role of Aphrodite: "The wine which Sappho and her companions drink is conceived of as being, or including, nectar poured by the hand of their invisible but unquestionably present patroness."
For Bowra, Sappho 2 "has certainly the air of cult about it, and though Sappho's position may not be official, she certainly officiates". Saake (1972) sees her as a priestess. Gentili (1988) calls it a "ritual invocation." But Sappho does not rule a cult; she sings a song. Burnett rightly criticizes West's flippant tone, but he is correct to call the setting of fr. 2 a "picnic" (1970), an outdoor banquet of a well-known type (Gernet). We may not wish to call any of these banquets symposia as such, those exclusively male drinking parties, but if we compare Xenophanes 1, his description of the perfect symposium, with Sappho 2, 94, and others, we find all the same elements: cups, wine, wreaths, perfume. Even the incense, altars, and hymns are as much a feature of the symposium as of the sacrifice. Sappho is not serving as a priestess to girls; she is attending a banquet with friends.
Just as Sappho's poetry shares concerns and subject matter with Alcaeus and the other lyric poets, so Sappho's society should also be regarded as a hetairia. Analogous to Alcaeus' circle, Sappho's society was a group of women tied by family, class, politics, and erotic love. Like any other association, it cooperated in ritual activities, cult practice, and informal social events. Her subjects, like those of the other lyric poets, were praising her group's friends, attacking its enemies, celebrating its loves, and offering songs for its banquets. This picture has I believe a greater fidelity to the facts. It removes a distorting series of assumptions and reveals an exciting world, where women as well as men are concerned with love and politics and where Sappho is no longer a schoolmistress but a poet.