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New poems by Sappho discovered

30th Jan 2014

New poems by Sappho discovered
An anonymous collector has given papyrologists and poetry lovers alike something to smile about after the study of a fragment of ancient papyrus led to the discovery of two previously unknown poems by the famed poet Sappho.

An anonymous collector has given papyrologists and poetry lovers alike something to smile about after the study of a fragment of ancient papyrus led to the discovery of two previously unknown poems by the famed poet Sappho.

Dr Dirk Obbink  of the University of Oxford has identified the poems as unequivocally the work of the Greek poet, citing her use of metre and dialect as distinctive and unquestionable proof of their provenance. In addition, the first fragment links up with known poems and names, for the first time, the poet’s brother, Charaxos.

It has been suggested that the poem, which is interpreted as a prayer to Hera from Sappho calling for her brother’s safe return from a trading trip, is a play on Homer’s Odyessy. 

Sappho is reminiscent of Homer’s wife Penelope, who waits twenty years for her husband’s return. Sappho however, is not so patient and calls upon another of her brothers, Larichos, to grow up quickly in order to take care of the family.

Sappho is known for her lyric verse which captures both the intensity of love and desire and the destructive and often inescapable role of jealousy in romantic relationships and obsessions.

Her poems largely fall into two thematic groups –  biography/cult and love/Aphrodite – a binary that may have provided an alternating framework for her reputed nine volume collection of poetry.

Sappho is often associated with female sexuality and same sex attraction. She was born on the island of Lesbos in approximately 630 B.C and the word ‘lesbian’ owes its derivation to her.

However, the poet’s own sexuality is a subject of much conjecture as little is known of her biography beyond the content of her own work.

Sappho became a casualty of the narrowing of the Greek school curriculum in late antiquity (evidently Mr Gove is not the first to restrict what young minds are exposed to in the classroom).

This was further compounded by increasing ‘selectivity’ in the Middle Ages, and, unlike many of her contemporaries, Sappho’s work was not copied and collated by Medieval monks.

Despite a thriving black market that often puts ancient papyrus into the hands of private collectors and away from the eyes of scholars, this discovery gives hope that there may be more of Sappho’s work waiting to be revealed and restored to the pantheon of ancient poetry.

Dr Obbink’s article can be read here.