The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships…and Helen of Troy

by E.J. Lawrence

Last month, I promised to cover Helen of Troy eventually. Since this month’s theme is “We Thought We Knew Her,” I thought it would be a good opportunity to do just that.

I certainly had an “I thought I knew her” moment with Helen of Troy when I read Homer’s Iliad for the first time. The plot of The Iliad was one my teachers had explained before, but somehow I got through school without ever having to read it. So it was an adult discovery, and boy, was I ever shocked!

Especially about Helen.

You see, I’d always heard the story of the Trojan War. The beauty contest between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. How Paris chose Aphrodite because…well…love (*ahem* lust). How Aphrodite arranged for Paris to meet Helen. How Paris and Helen went back to his house in Troy…but Helen was already married, and her husband came after her. She was “the face that launched a thousand ships.” And, gosh, kind of a tart for leaving her husband.

And then I read The Iliad. While there were many things that surprised me in that text, I would like to focus on three misconceptions I had about Helen that were reversed in reading this text. Please keep in mind that Homer’s version of the story isn’t the only one, and thus these statements may be true in other versions. Still, Homer’s is a more holistic version, including perspectives from many of the main players in this drama which is why I find it a more “true-to-meaning” version.

Abduction_of_Helen_of_Troy_by_John_Cheere,_1700s,_loosely_based_on_an_original_by_Phillipe_Bertrand_-_Wrest_Park_-_Bedfordshire,_England_-_DSC08322
Abduction of Helen of Troy (John Cheere, c. 1700s)

Misconception #1: Helen went with Paris willingly

In truth…

Helen was tricked into leaving Menelaus, and Homer makes it clear she’s unhappy and torn in Troy. She blames herself for the war, but it doesn’t mean she’s worthy of blame.

She tells Priam, her new father-in-law:

“Would that evil death had been my pleasure when I followed thy son hither, and left my bridal chamber and my kinfolk and my daughter, well-beloved, and the lovely companions of my girlhood. But that was not to be; wherefore I pine away with weeping” (Book III.171).

He replies that she is not to blame for the war, but that doesn’t mean Helen becomes any happier. Though Priam is sincere, she doesn’t really seem to believe him.

In Colluthus’ The Rape of Helen, Paris is disguised as Eros, the god of love (most know him as Cupid, his Romanized name). Helen follows Eros, who reveals himself to Helen as the prince of Troy and “judge of goddesses” (because he’s super humble). Helen agrees to go, saying that she does “not fear Menelaus when Troy shall have known me” (305).

This does seem to suggest that she goes willingly, doesn’t it?…

Perhaps. Until one notices the name of the poem, The Rape of Helen. The word “rape” in its earliest usage could mean an unwanted sexual advance, but it actually meant more than that. Its more common meaning was to be taken by force, i.e. kidnapped. This shows that, if it were not for the interference of the gods (and Paris), Helen would not have gone of her own free will.

In Homer, Helen blames herself for the war, but Priam is there to remind her that “thou art nowise to blame in my eyes; it is the gods, methinks, that are to blame, who roused against me the tearful war of the Achaeans” (Book III).

Whether by Paris or the gods (or both), Helen was kidnapped and is not in Troy voluntarily.

Gaston_Brussiere21
Helen of Troy (Gaston Brussiere, 1895)

Misconception #2: Helen’s face “launched a thousand ships.”

A truer way to say this may be…

Menelaus launched a thousand ships.

A lot is made of Helen’s beauty and the fact that the war was fought over her (which I’ll address below), but the fact is that many of the men fighting under Menelaus thought the war was pointless and didn’t even want to go. In The Iliad, for instance, Achilles doesn’t want to be there. He actually spends half of the book sitting in his tent refusing to fight because Agamemnon stole his slave girl (did I mention these guys were *super* petulant?). When he does fight, it’s only because Hector killed his BFF Patroclus; definitely not because he cared about getting Helen back.

Even without Homer, though, the other myths about Achilles tell us that he hid among a harem of women just to avoid being dragged into Menelaus’ war in the first place.

Odysseus pretended to be insane to get out of fighting.

For the Trojan side, Hector calls his own brother “evil” and a player (to use the modern term), and he pities Helen. In Book VI, he tells, Paris, “Thy people are perishing about the town and the steep wall in battle, and it is because of thee that the battle-cry and the war are ablaze about this city” (bolding mine), but he is always kind to Helen, and she even remarks that he and Priam alone have shown her such kindness.

Thus, it seems those closest to Paris and Menelaus know Helen is an excuse for the ships, not a reason.

Frederic_Leighton_-_Helen_On_The_Walls_Of_Troy
Helen on the Walls of Troy (Frederic Leighton, 1865) *I love how evident Helen’s pain is in this painting*

Misconception #3: The Ten-Year Trojan War was Fought over Helen

Actually…

Helen was incidental in the war.

In the poem, people often say, “we’re doing this for Helen” or “this war is for Helen,” but as the old saying goes, there are always two reasons for war: the stated reason, and the actual reason. The stated reason is Helen. The actual reason is…stupidity.

In many ways, The Iliad is an anti-war text. It certainly doesn’t shy away from showing the evils of war, as well as the impact war has on the innocent. Take, for instance, one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the poem (**SPOILER ALERT**): While Hector is being slaughtered by Achilles and his body is being desecrated, Hector’s wife is upstairs in the palace, drawing him a bath (Book XXII). The contrast of Hector–arguably the most admirable warrior in the entire text–being killed in an “unfair” manner while his wife prepares for his return from battle sends a clear message that war destroys lives and families.

The other thing to consider is how much of a moron Paris is. He’s the one who starts the whole mess by selecting Aphrodite in the first place. What Hera and Athena promise him are far more lasting investments. What Aphrodite offers is a temporary investment–Helen won’t remain beautiful forever. Even the start of the war has nothing to do with Helen, not really. Rather, it’s about Paris’ sexual gratification because Helen is never anything more than an object to Paris.

Then, once Paris gets Helen, it becomes about Menelaus’ pride. Helen almost becomes collateral damage, which is the true tragedy of the story.

One might think this is a “modern interpretation.” That perhaps the ancient readers would be able to accept Helen as the “plot device” for starting the war and her fading into the background is just a part of it.

But if that were the case, I would not be writing this post and certainly not for this blog, which aims to show the prevalence of women in ancient literature.

Because even Homer himself acknowledges on multiple occasions that it is not for the sake of Helen the person, but Helen as object that they fight. This, according to Homer, is pointless and unfair, not only Helen and the Trojan women, but to the warriors forced to fight (and die). And since she’s an object, she becomes a point of lust (for Paris) and pride (for Menelaus), and for that, many, many good warriors lose their lives–not for her sake; but for the sake of Paris and Menelaus. Who are both pretty awful. (Paris is probably more awful than Menelaus, but that’s a much longer discussion…)

Hector calls out his own brother for starting the war by being selfish: “But Hector saw [Paris], and chid him with words of shame: ‘Evil Paris, most fair to look upon, thou that art mad after women, thou beguiler, would that thou hadst ne’er been born and hadst died unwed’” (Book III).

He goes on to tell his brother that Menelaus is a better warrior, and almost insinuates that he hopes Menelaus takes him in the fight because he’s a better man than Paris ever will be.

Ouch.

It’s not only Hector who sees through to the real reason for the war, but also his father when he reminds Helen the gods are the ones who started this war. Priam avoids directly blaming his son who chose Helen, but he acknowledges the gods have stirred up this war–which does, in fact, make sense, given that it was Eris, the goddess of discord, who started the whole apple beauty contest thing.

 

Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_Helen_of_Troy
Helen of Troy (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1863)

So is Helen the femme fatale I’d always been told she was? After all, I remember learning about the femme fatale archetype, and Helen being listed as a “good example” of such a woman–a woman who seduces men to their deaths.

Yet, when digging into the story, I just cannot come to that conclusion. Helen did not lead men to their deaths. Aphrodite did. Athena did. Paris did. Menelaus did. But Helen? Helen, like most people in these Ancient Greek dramas, was merely a pawn of the gods to use in their war. The Iliad is a good representation, not just for Ancient Greece, but also the modern-day world, of how wars often begin. Not over beautiful women…but over greed and pride.

But Helen is also a reminder that, when people are treated as objects, they do not become objects. Though to Paris, Helen was a commodity to which he thought he had a “right” (since Aphrodite “gave” her to him), Helen was a person who took on pain and blame, feeling that the world was on fire because she set it.

That, of course, was not the reality. But it was her perception that no one, no matter how any times they told her it wasn’t her fault, could change. In the story of Helen and the Trojan War, everyone loses–The Trojans, the Greeks, the heroes and the kings on both sides, the wives on both sides. No one escapes this war without injury.

But perhaps Helen loses most because she feels the weight of the responsibility. She understands the yoke to which Paris has tied her, even though he does not. Though one might take some comfort in knowing that Paris dies in the war he created because his first wife–whom he cast off for Helen–refuses to heal him, no amount of pain caused to Paris can take away the pain he caused Helen. As Lady Macbeth would say, “What’s done cannot be undone” (Shakespeare V.1)…so perhaps it’s best to consider the consequences before doing something that cannot be undone.

Though history has tried to make her an archetype, a pawn, a McGuffin in the tale of the Trojan War, Homer in both The Iliad and The Odyssey gives us a fuller picture of her story and her pain. Which is why it’s so important to read the original sources rather than rely on someone else’s summary–for in summary, Helen can be flat. A femme fatale. A reason so many died.

But in reading Homer, Helen ceased being an object to me and became a person. And isn’t that the purpose of literature?

 

Sources:

http://www.theoi.com/Text/HomerIliad1.html

http://www.theoi.com/Text/Colluthus.html

http://shakespeare.mit.edu/macbeth/full.html

 

 

 

Otrera: The First Queen of the Amazons

by Kaitlin Bevis

Demigoddesses were rare in Greek mythology. The few mentioned tended to be some variety of nymph. One exception of that trend were the Amazons.

Hippolyta is a notable figure in Greek mythology made all the more famous by the Wonder Woman franchise, but she was not the first queen of the Amazons. Her mother, Otrera is most frequently credited with founding the Amazon nation.

Amazons
Departure of the Amazons (Claude Deruet)

In some versions of the myths, Otrera is the daughter of the eastern wind and consort to Ares. In others, she’s a daughter of Ares. She is credited with the creation of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.

In short, she was an awesome figure in mythology. So why haven’t more people heard of her?

I made it my mission to change that by incorporating her into my Aphrodite trilogy. Her matter-of-fact level-headedness was a much-needed addition to Medea’s tragic naiveté and Aphrodite’s divinely skewed view.

VR

Here’s one of my favorite scenes featuring Otrera:

“OKAY, LET ME get this straight,” Otrera said the next morning as we were getting ready.

Aphrodite and I rolled our eyes at each other and moved to either side to give her some counter space in the bathroom. If the three of us had to share a cabin with only one bathroom, at least it was a big bathroom. A mirror ran the length of the entire wall, reflecting the crowded strip of marble-patterned countertop and two sinks. A space about as wide as a hallway separated the countertop and the wide Jacuzzi tub, and the walls of the bathroom and shower stall came together to form a semi-private room that tucked the toilet out of view.

Otrera had taken the news that Aphrodite was a goddess in stride, but when it came to the plan Aphrodite and I had come up with, Otrera had been “getting this straight” all night and most of the morning.

If Otrera noticed our eye-rolling, she didn’t comment on it. “You want to do something stupid in hopes that if you get Narcissus angry enough, you’ll get thrown into the hidden hospital wing. Then you’re going to search the top-secret, guarded lab and find the Lord of the Underworld while you’re in there. Once that’s done, you want to have Medea teleport all the weapons and poisons away before summoning a pissed-off goddess to our island?”

“I’m open to other ideas.” Aphrodite’s lips pulled back in a way that somehow looked more like an animal baring its teeth than a smile.

My hand paused midway between my powder compact and my face as I studied Aphrodite in the mirror. She still looked like Elise, but she’d changed somehow. Maybe it was just because I knew who she was now, or maybe it was just that she was covered in scabbing scrapes and fading bruises. But she didn’t look like the demigoddesses I’d seen. There was a quiet power to her. A determination. The shock had faded and left something, someone, dangerous in its place. Someone other.

I’d never seen her at full strength. The poison had already leached away most of her powers before we met. But now, I found myself wondering. Was she like them? Poseidon and Persephone? Was she so filled with power that she almost seemed to glow with it? Was my attempt to join the Pantheon, my proclamation that I was what came next, laughable to her? Swallowing hard, I resumed applying my makeup, suddenly self-conscious.

Rein it in a bit, Medea. Right. I could feel myself over-attaching to Aphrodite. Latching on to her like I had Jason, far too much, far too fast. Normal people didn’t do that. But I couldn’t seem to stop myself. If you build her up too much, you’re setting her up to let you down. But it was like a train hurtling toward a broken bridge just beyond the bend. I saw the disaster looming, but I couldn’t seem to make myself jump the track.

Otrera remained unimpressed. “You do realize they’re just as likely to kill you as lock you up if you do anything too drastic, right?”

“If Narcissus lets me die, he loses his scapegoat,” Aphrodite reasoned, scowling when she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror. “And he definitely can’t let any harm come to Medea. She’s his escape route.”

What did she look like when she wasn’t disguised as Elise? I tried, and failed, to imagine her without her tousled hair that somehow made the just-out-of-bed look unobtainably sexy. Her gold skin was darkened with bruises, cuts, and scrapes, her hawkish eyes perpetually narrowed with frustration or anger. Every feature was so uniquely her that I couldn’t imagine her looking like anyone else. How had I ever mistaken her for the model in all those pictures? Her every mannerism was different from the Elise behind the makeup tutorials I’d watched before her arrival on the island.

“If they cross any major lines,” Aphrodite continued. “If they do anything they might actually look back on and regret, then Narcissus risks losing the crowd.”

“Let’s assume you’re right.” Otrera reached under the cabinet for her lotion. “What happens once you get thrown in there? You’ll be under guard, and you’ll be locked up. How does that help us get off the island?”

“That’s why she has to get locked up with me.” Aphrodite jerked a thumb toward my reflection in the mirror. “She’s linked to the Steele and the poisons. I can talk her through ‘porting them away once we’re behind the shield.”

I nodded, like my input held any weight with either of them.

It should. It had during the chaos of yesterday, but now that they’d both latched onto their own idea of the best way to handle things, no one else’s input mattered. Not each other’s, and definitely not mine.

Hush now, sweetie, the grown-ups are talking, their tight faces seemed to say when I interrupted with questions or suggestions. It wasn’t right. My input should be the be-all and end-all. Not only was I the linchpin in Aphrodite’s plan, but I was the method of escape in Otrera’s. Part of me resented the way they dismissed me. Like just because I was younger than them—well, physically in Aphrodite’s case since she was only what, three?—my ideas were somehow invalid.

But unlike Jason, I could tell I was more than a tool here. They might just see me as a naïve kid, but I mattered to them as a person. So maybe I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I was still leagues ahead of where I left.

Last time you were willing to settle for “better than where you left”, you ended up impregnated by a lying psychopath who used your blood to torture people. Maybe it’s time to set your standards higher.

“Why not just shred the shield?” Otrera stepped back from the counter. “Medea said she could teleport through the shield protecting the island. The one protecting the hospital can’t be much stronger.”

Medea is right here, I wanted to point out. Instead, I studied myself in the mirror, searching for what they saw when they looked at me. Dark hair; strange, frightened eyes; young; small for my age. I wouldn’t take me seriously either, but at the moment, I was stronger than either of them.

Shouldn’t that count for something? My fingers itched to write in my journal. Everything was so much clearer when I wrote it down. But I hadn’t had a chance. They’d been right here all day, all night, all morning. Writing about them while they were just a few feet away felt wrong.

Today, I promised myself. I’d make time today. I had to get my thoughts in order before we did anything. When I turned my head to look at Otrera, my neck objected with a phantom pinch of pain. Scowling, I rubbed at it. Last night, I’d been unable to stomach the thought of sleeping in the bed Jason and I’d shared after I abandoned him to the Pantheon. So, I’d pulled out the couch bed. Otrera had spent yesterday afternoon rearranging Jason’s office space, also known as most of the living room, to make room for her mattress. That was smart of her. The damage from the uncomfortable night of tossing and turning on the couch had long since healed, but the memory still hurt.

Aphrodite claimed my bed. After changing my sheets and complaining about the lack of pillows, she’d sprawled out on the king-sized bed with nary a thought to me or Otrera and crashed until she woke up in the middle of the night screaming bloody murder. Otrera and I both pretended that hadn’t happened, but I desperately wanted a few minutes alone with Otrera to talk about what we’d heard last night. The way Aphrodite screamed, how long it had taken her to calm down. I’d never heard anything like it before, and I never wanted to again.

Aphrodite sighed, stepping back from the countertop, apparently giving up on her reflection. “Look, they are going to know the second we mess with the shield. But if Medea and I can get ourselves placed behind the shield, they won’t know anything is wrong until they’re disarmed.”

“It’s a matter of seconds,” Otrera argued.

“Assuming she’s back at full strength,” Aphrodite replied, like “she” wasn’t standing right next to her. “I don’t know how long it takes to recover from moving a land mass.” The twist in her lips told me what a stupid idea she thought that had been.

But it had worked, hadn’t it? It had hurt like hell, but it had worked. I arched a brow at her in my reflection.

“If we try it your way,” Aphrodite said to Otrera, “we risk alerting everyone to what we’re doing, then being stuck there with no way to ‘port ourselves or the weapons out. With my way, it’s all one shot. If it doesn’t work, no one even knows we tried, so we live to try another day.”

“It’s a moot point at the moment,” I reminded them, finally working up the nerve to speak. “I’m still pretty burnt out from moving the island yesterday.” Feeling the power missing from my body last night was part of what had kept me tossing and turning. It was like a physical ache. After a few hours’ rest, I could feel some growing tendrils within me, but not enough for what Aphrodite was talking about.

Concern flickered in Aphrodite’s eyes, and she nodded, her face dead serious. “We can’t risk draining your powers completely. So we’re going to have to wait a few days.”

Days?” Otrera objected. “Yesterday, we were looking at escaping this island as soon as possible. Why not get out of here as soon as Medea’s recovered, then teleport back in when her powers are completely back? Hell, let’s meet up with the Pantheon and bring one of them with us if you’re worried Medea can’t manage all of that. Everyone wins! We’re safe, you’re reunited with your . . . brother.” Otrera cringed as though she’d tasted something foul.

Aphrodite glanced up at the ceiling as though she was praying for patience, and I wondered who that particular prayer would be directed to.

“I told you last night, divine genetics—”

“Don’t work that way,” Otrera said by rote. “They pass on power. The incest taboo is a human thing that makes total sense because of the way mankind works, but you’re all different and special. Yadayadayada. I’ve spent the last two and half years of my life on an island full of super inbred demigods. I’ve heard the spiel. It doesn’t mean it’s not gross.”

I fought back a smile. I’d always wanted to live out scenes from my favorite TV shows. And now, here I sat, listening to my roommates, my two best friends with wildly different personalities, who cared about each other more than they dared to admit, gripe at one another. I realized that as long as I ignored the death, the destruction, and the terrifying stakes, this was the happiest I’d ever been.

“You wanna know what’s gross?” Aphrodite challenged.

I stepped in before there could be actual bloodshed. “Otrera, if we do it your way,” I pitched my voice loud to drown out their bickering, “they won’t owe us. And you and I need them to owe us.”

“Exactly,” Aphrodite said. “An entire island popping up in Poseidon’s domain isn’t going to go unnoticed for long. Once he finds us, the rest of the Pantheon will follow. If we neutralize the threat before they get here, it will be better for everyone.”

Otrera still looked like she wanted to argue, but a glance at her watch cut her off short. “I’m on breakfast duty today.” She scowled at the watch, as if she could make it turn back time through sheer force of will. “Do not—” she held up a finger to me and Aphrodite in warning “—do anything stupid until I get back.”

Aphrodite bristled at the order, but I shot her a quelling look as I followed Otrera through the tiny cabin. I couldn’t set foot in the living room without running into bedding. The three of us living here made for some pretty cramped quarters.

I loved it.

“We won’t,” I lied.

(From Book 6 of The Daughters of Zeus series, Venus Rising)


 

 

 

Venus Rises

by Kaitlin Bevis

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.” ― John BergerWays of Seeing

When people think of the Goddess Aphrodite, they think of sex. Of lust. Of cheating and scandal. They think vanity. Every version of Aphrodite I saw or read growing up went the extra mile to also portray her as a dumb blonde. Part of that is because of myths that did not portray her in a positive light. She did cheat on her husband, she was promiscuous, and her vanity did kind of start an epic war in Troy.

But then again, why is Aphrodite, a goddess who was forced into marriage to Hephaestus despite her long-term, established relationship with Ares, judged more harshly than Zeus for cheating on Hera? Why is her promiscuity viewed more harshly than the fact that Zeus was a serial rapist? The Trojan War was bad, but remember that time Zeus unleashed Pandora’s Box on human kind?

The way we interpret and reinterpret stories is a window into our values. The fact that Zeus is often a multi-dimensional character with some flaws whose worst crimes never seem to come up in most retellings and reimaginings, and Aphrodite is a stereotypical vain, mean-girl slut, says a lot about our current values.

Double standards are nothing new, but there’s a particular insidiousness to the double standards surrounding women who are confident in their beauty. Don’t believe me, check out what happens when a group of women start responding with “I know,” to compliments.

“Oh my gods.” Adonis threw up his hands in frustration. “Could you be more conceited?”

Why is that a bad thing?” I demanded.I honestly don’t get how anyone manages to function in a society with such a contradictory social code. You claim to value hon­esty, yet you thrive on lies. Calling a plain person plain is somehow an insult instead of a statement of fact, meanwhile the only acceptable form of validation is from other people giving you compliments and then you have to deny them?”

 — Aphrodite

It’s no wonder so many women are plagued with self-doubt. Women are socialized to constantly belittle themselves “What, this old thing,” and downplay their achievements, “Oh, thank you, it was nothing, really.”

That’s why rewriting Aphrodite into a complex, actual character was so important to me. Here was a woman who was confident in her sexuality and her appearance and played by the exact same rules as the men in the Pantheon. Historically speaking, that’s huge. That our modern-day society took a character from an ancient society that was totally cool with things like rape and owning people and reduced her to a more offensive, one dimensional, cardboard cut-out of every stereotype negatively portraying women you can think of, is frankly terrifying.

 

The final book in the Aphrodite Trilogy, Venus Rising was released June 9th. Please enjoy this spoiler-free excerpt. Venus Rising Banner

Prologue

Aphrodite

I’M NOT PERFECT. But I was designed to be. Once upon a time, Zeus sculpted me from foam and death. He made me into a puppet. A box. A symbol. A thing designed to be perfectly obedient to him.

I bent and twisted beneath his onslaught of lightning and thunder, but when the storm cleared, I remained. Fragile and broken, but still alive. His death released me from his vision of perfection, leaving me free to find my own. That’s when I discovered how far from perfect I truly was.

I’ve been called promiscuous, shallow, arrogant, self-centered, annoying, and worse by beings who physically can’t lie. They’re not wrong. I’m riddled with flaws. I am neither strong nor brave. I cling too tightly, love too freely, and fear that without my beauty, there’s nothing left of me. Nothing real.

But life goes on, regardless of my uncertainty. As time passed, I had no choice but to learn to stand on my own two legs, shaky as they might be.

Here’s what I’ve learned. I’m nobody’s statue or posable doll. I am neither a box nor a symbol. Yes, I’ve been loved by war, struck by lightning, hugged by spring, and mauled by the sea, but I’m more than a victim. I am greater than my story.

I’m real, flaws and all, and that’s terrifying. Every day, I become someone else. Someone stronger. Wiser. Better. I’m becoming myself.

But that process isn’t always pretty.

If you want to learn more about Kaitlin Bevis, visit her website www.kaitlinbevis.com for bonus content.

 

 

Sappho: The Dangerous and Desirable Educated Woman

by Ava de Cenizas

Born six hundred years before the common era, Sappho exists solely within two poems and a few lyrical fragments. As a result, the contours of her story reflect the feverish desires of the paternalistic Greco-Roman culture more than any accurate historical knowledge of the preeminent poetess herself.[1] Her admirers lauded her poetry. Plato, theorized as a proto-feminist, called Sappho the tenth Muse. In more modern times, the early Church transformed her titillating love of women into the perversions of a pre-Christian culture. But to us, she shows another face: Sappho as the educated woman lighting the way for a younger generation.

Sappho Things

We know that Sappho was born in mid 600 B.C.E.[2] She spent a sizable portion of her life in the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. Despite the speculations of her sexuality, Sappho was likely married, although not to Kerkylas of Andros, a coarse joke from Sappho’s afterlife in Roman comedy. The name roughly translates to “Dick All-cock from the Isle of Man.”[3] Her daughter was named Cleis. She had several brothers. Or so we think.

Literate, Sappho belonged to an elite family. The dialect Aeolic her medium, she wrote and sung in a sophisticated meter that now carries her name, Sapphic. The subject, often the love of a woman:

Iridescent-throned Aphrodite, deathless

Child of Zeus, wile-weaver, I now implore you,

Don’t–I beg you, Lady–with pains and torments

Crush down my spirit….

And to Sappho, Aphrodite promises:

Now she runs away, but she’ll soon pursue you;

Gifts she now rejects–soon enough she’ll give them;

Now she doesn’t love you, but soon her heart will

Burn, though unwilling….[4]

Did Sappho cultivate young naïve women as her acolytes? Did she indoctrinate them into the cult of the goddess of love? Did the “her” in Sappho’s lines even exist?

Sapphro Sultry

The true nature of this salacious love has swamped discussion of Sappho’s relation to major cultural and political forces on Lesbos during her lifetime. But recent scholarly work attempts to extract Sappho from the hedonism. She is enthroned as the leading member of a circle of highly educated, aristocrat women bound by love, loyalty, and polity. Sappho’s words now seem clever political criticisms of rival families rather than frivolous love. Amid the conflict in Mytilene, Sappho and her family fled Lesbos for southern Italy, willingly or banished.[5]

Every new discovery of her lyrics tucked away in the lining of a sarcophagus tantalizes us with more hints, not answers. The “true” Sappho remains veiled.

But she is not lost. If “[e]very age creates its own Sappho” as the “metonym for all women,” then from her sparse history, let us reclaim this. In a sphere dominated by the erudite male, who pontificated on all aspects of society, including the woman’s role, Sappho seized power through the act of writing and song .[6] And those stodgy men expressed “rapturous admiration for her exquisite style.”[7] Even if the ensuing two thousand years have garbled the message, Sappho’s impact remains indelible on Western literature. Whether she wrote luscious poetry to beguile her female lover or as political satire, Sappho spoke her own truth. So should we in our own writing.

Ava de Cenizas

Sappho Sleeps

[1]When it comes to the fragments of poetry that remain from Sappho, “There are lies (the handbooks), damned lies (the ancient biographies), and statistics.” Parker, H. Sappho’s Public World. In Women poets in ancient Greece and Rome. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press (2005).

[2]Mendelsohn, D., “Girl Interrupted: Who was Sappho?” The New Yorker (Mar. 16, 2015); “Sappho,” Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/Sappho (accessed April 15, 2017).

[3]Parker, H. “Sappho Schoolmistress,” Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. 123 (1993).

[4] “Sappho’s Hymn to Aphrodite,” The Stoa Consortium,  http://www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology/vandiver.shtml#meter (accessed April 15, 2017).

[5] Parker, H. “Sappho Schoolmistress” Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. 123 (1993).

[6] Katz, M. “Sappho and her Sisters: Women in Ancient Greece,” Signs Vol. 25, No. 2 (Winter 2000).

[7] Id.