I imagine Sappho sitting in a sunny room, her hair braided around her head like statues of Greek goddesses and her white robes falling gracefully about her slender frame. Her window overlooks the sparkling blue ocean around Lesbos and a shaft of sunlight brightens the parchment paper spread across her desk.
Perhaps she pauses to watch the servants in the courtyard below performing their chores before she turns back to her writing. Her thoughts are far away in Sardis with her friend Anactoria. She dips her quill in the ink and moves it across the parchment:
To an Army Wife, in Sardis
Some say a cavalry corps,
some infantry, some, again,
will maintain that the swift oars
of our fleet are the finest
sight on dark earth; but I say
that whatever one loves, is.
This is easily proved; did
not Helen—she who had scanned
the flower of the world’s manhood—
choose as first among men one
who laid Troy’s honor to ruin?
warped to his will, forgetting
love due her own blood, her own
child, she wandered far with him.
So Anactoria, though you
being far away forget us,
the dear sound of your footstep
and light glancing in your eyes
would move me more than glitter
of Lydian horse or armored
tread of mainland infantry.
Perhaps, when she rolls the parchment up, she will send it by swift-footed messenger to Anactoria in Sardis. Perhaps it will be placed on a shelf with the other parchments she has entrusted her poetry to. Perhaps it will be shared at a festival or sung at a great banquet, memorized by the bards to be spread throughout Greece for the enjoyment of Sappho’s many fans.
We don’t know for sure. What struck me most about what I learned of Sappho during my recent course in Greek mythology was what we don’t know about her. She lived in Greece from about 630-570 BC, was likely married and had a daughter, and wrote a great amount of poetry. She is the only female poet whose work from that era has survived to this day, so scholars don’t know if she was really the only female poet of that time or if hers is simply the only works to survive.
Most of Sappho’s poetry, our professor told us, exists in fragments. We have the eyewitness account of a monk who saw the last of Sappho’s books destroyed by fire during the Byzantine era. One of her poems was found wrapped around a mummified crocodile. Others are on bits of pottery or vases.
Something about Sappho’s story and her poetry intrigue me. I keep turning back to this poem, marveling at how much she conveys in a few lines. Maybe one of the things that most interests me is the fact that Sappho is the lone female voice in the Greek writers we know today. One blogger recently commented on the huge growth of mom bloggers, how this century has seen women writing down their everyday lives in a way that no other century has seen.
While I don’t really expect anyone in two thousand plus years to be reading mom blogs, I doubt that Sappho expected anyone would be reading her poetry more than twenty centuries after she wrote it either. I guess what haunts me most about Sappho is the ability of her words to span time, culture and geography to still connect two women.