“Violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho”

•April 23, 2013 • Leave a Comment

On the throne of many hues, Immortal Aphrodite,
child of Zeus, weaving wiles–I beg you
not to subdue my spirit, Queen,
with pain or sorrow

but come–if ever before
having heard my voice from far away
you listened, and leaving your father’s
golden home you came

in your chariot yoked with swift, lovely
sparrows bringing you over the dark earth
thick-feathered wings swirling down
from the sky through mid-air

arriving quickly–you, Blessed One,
with a smile on your unaging face
asking again what have I suffered
and why am I calling again

and in my wild heart what did I most wish
to happen to me: “Again whom must I persuade
back into the harness of your love?
Sappho, who wrongs you?

For if she flees, soon she’ll pursue,
she doesn’t accept gifts, but she’ll give,
if not now loving, soon she’ll love
even against her will.”

Come to me now again, release me from
this pain, everything my spirit longs
to have fulfilled, fulfill, and you
be my ally.

Sappho’s “Hymn to Aphrodite”. Translation by Diane Rayor.

Let me just say, I adore Sappho.

This is the only complete poem of hers to survive since its writing around 600 BCE. The Library of Alexandria back then possessed a collection of her works, in nine volumes. Several tragedies befell the library, and a lot of Antiquity’s works were lost, which I could rant about for days, but I won’t. Most of Sappho’s poems now exist only in broken paragraphs, sentences, and sometimes only a few words put together. She wrote lyric poems (more properly songs; meant to be accompanied by a lyre) in a form now called ‘sapphic’ meter. She was known as one of the great poets, in her own time and much later. Plato had this to say about her:

Some say the Muses are nine: how careless!
Look, there’s Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth.

Of course I hardly need mention that Sappho’s name and home have been immortalized in reference to her love for fellow women. However, there’s a lot of myths about her that obscure the truth. She was probably bisexual, as she wrote about the love for both sexes. Her social circle consisted of women and men who were also involved in poetry and music, but there’s no indication that she led a school of lesbian women, or any such later notions. 800 years after Sappho lived, one Maximus of Tyre said this about her:

“What else could one call the love of the Lesbian woman than the Socratic art of love? For they seem to me to have practised love after their own fashion, she the love of women, he of boys. For they said they loved many, and were captivated by all things beautiful. What Alcibiades and Charmides and Phaedrus were to him, Gyrinna and Atthis and Anactoria were to her.”

So, even if she was bisexual, she had perhaps come to be remembered more as leaning lesbian. Still, the words “lesbian” and “sapphic” didn’t have their current meaning until the 19th century.

You can’t really talk about Sappho without mentioning Alcaeus of course. He was her contemporary, writing and performing similar works in overlapping circles. They were considered the best of their time, known throughout the Greek world. Her performance, along with a female choir, during one local festival seems to have prompted Alcaeus’s description of her which I’ve used as this post’s title. (Maximus of Tyre also described her as “small and dark”, no doubt owing to all those delicious Mediterranean rays she soaked up on that island). Now, I doubt she actually had violet hair — Greek color concepts varied a lot from present-day English-world concepts. For instance, the sea was sometimes described as “wine-colored”.

Okay, I’m getting off topic now, so I’ll stop here, with one of my favorite paintings: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s “Sappho and Alcaeus”. (Click to enlarge)

Sappho and Alcaeus


A Goodnight Poem

•January 28, 2013 • Leave a Comment

“Nay hush,” said Laura.
“Nay hush, my sister:
I ate and ate my fill,
Yet my mouth waters still;
To-morrow night I will
Buy more,” and kissed her.
“Have done with sorrow;
I’ll bring you plums to-morrow
Fresh on their mother twigs,
Cherries worth getting;
You cannot think what figs
My teeth have met in,
What melons, icy-cold
Piled on a dish of gold
Too huge for me to hold,
What peaches with a velvet nap,
Pellucid grapes without one seed:
Odorous indeed must be the mead
Whereon they grow, and pure the wave they drink,
With lilies at the brink,
And sugar-sweet their sap.”

Golden head by golden head,
Like two pigeons in one nest
Folded in each other’s wings,
They lay down, in their curtained bed:
Like two blossoms on one stem,
Like two flakes of new-fallen snow,
Like two wands of ivory
Tipped with gold for awful kings.
Moon and stars beamed in at them,
Wind sang to them lullaby,
Lumbering owls forbore to fly,
Not a bat flapped to and fro
Round their rest:
Cheek to cheek and breast to breast
Locked together in one nest.

Excerpt, “The Goblin Market”, by Christina Rossetti, 1862

A Norse prayer

•December 13, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Hail, day! | Hail, sons of day!
And night and her daughter now!
Look on us here | with loving eyes,
That waiting we victory win.

Hail to the gods! | Ye goddesses, hail,
And all the generous earth!
Give to us wisdom | and goodly speech,
And healing hands, life-long.

~Brynhildr the Valkyrie’s toast to the gods. From “The Ballad of the Victory-Bringer“, or “Sigrdrífumál”, part of the Poetic Edda, an old Norse saga.

On a side note, I really like Brynhildr, although I haven’t read the entire Edda yet. A couple of men tricked her and treated her evilly, in various ways depending on which story you read, but she was bad-ass. She was strong, willful, recognized as wise, and clearly desirable. Also, possibly a dominatrix, as she tied her husband to the ceiling on their wedding night.

You can read the Ballad at sacred-texts.com, and here’s a great painting of the Valkyrie that I adore, by G. Bussière.

O Fortuna

•December 1, 2012 • Leave a Comment

O Fortune,
like the moon
you are changeable,
ever waxing
and waning;
hateful life
first oppresses
and then soothes
as fancy takes it;
and power
it melts them like ice.

Fate – monstrous
and empty,
you whirling wheel,
you are malevolent,
well-being is vain
and always fades to nothing,
and veiled
you plague me too;
now through the game
I bring my bare back
to your villainy.

Fate is against me
in health
and virtue,
driven on
and weighted down,
always enslaved.
So at this hour
without delay
pluck the vibrating strings;
since Fate
strikes down the strong man,
everyone weep with me!

“O Fortuna” from the Carmina Burana

Listen here, with Latin lyrics and translation. (Here’s a hint: you’ve heard this before.)

“It is finished”

•December 1, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Tell the king; the fair wrought house has fallen.
No shelter has Apollo, nor sacred laurel leaves;
The fountains are now silent; the voice is stilled.
It is finished.

Last declaration of the Oracle at Delphi, 393 CE.