BMCR 1996.04.24

1996.4.24, Williamson, Sappho’s Immortal Daughters

, Sappho's immortal daughters. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. xi, 196 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780674789128 $24.95.

Sappho’s poetry and her persona have captivated the Western imagination for millennia. But the last two decades has seen an unparalleled flowering of scholarly studies on Sappho. Despite the relative abundance of articles on Sappho in recent years, there have scarcely been any book-length studies devoted solely to her work. This year, however, two books on Sappho have already appeared in print and at least three more volumes are on the way. Clearly, Sappho is a hot topic these days.

Margaret Williamson’s contribution to this growing area of scholarship is truly impressive. Her book, Sappho’s Immortal Daughters, will bring Sappho to life for the uninitiated and offers a number of original insights about Sappho’s poems that will, no doubt, engage the most learned readers of Sappho. Williamson’s study traces the routes by which Sappho’s work has come down to us through centuries of fantasy, myth-making, and textual reconstruction. With clarity and sophistication Williamson accomplishes the difficult task of making Sappho and her world accessible to a wide audience from undergraduates to advanced scholars. The book focuses on three main areas of inquiry: the fictions and legends of Sappho that have dominated the reception of her work, the papyrological and textual history of Sappho’s texts, and the significance of her poetry in the cultural context of her own time.

In her preface and introduction Williamson makes clear that she is approaching Sappho as a “feminist academic” and that her critical reading of Sappho will be informed not only by her feminist viewpoint but by an awareness that her engagement with Sappho is a dialogue that involves, to some degree, “recreating” Sappho in her own image. From the outset, we are cautioned, I think rightly, that the attempt to “understand” Sappho is inevitably mediated by the powerful images of Sappho that have come down to us through centuries of editorial transmission. The fascination with Sappho as a legendary figure has been fueled by the fragmentary condition of her poems, the lack of any concrete information about her life, and the implications of homoeroticism in her work. Thus Williamson devotes the first chapter of her book to sorting through the fictions and legends of Sappho that originated in antiquity and continue to influence our understanding of her work. “Anyone who wants to engage with the realities of Sappho’s life and work,” Williamson writes, “must first engage with the fictions.”

Williamson does an excellent job of surveying the images of Sappho that flourished in antiquity: representations on Athenian vases, the famous legend of Sappho and Phaon, Sappho’s influence on Hellenistic writers, her reputation in Roman times, and her image in Ovid’s Heroides. Williamson brings her feminist viewpoint to bear on these images, pointing out how various legends and representations of Sappho reflect male perceptions of women as authors. For instance, Williamson perceptively suggests that the celebrated image of Sappho as the “Tenth Muse” is not merely a great compliment, but may betray a bias against thinking of real women as poets. Another central aspect of Sappho’s image in antiquity derives from her homoeroticism. Williamson points out that while Sappho’s homoeroticism does not always provoke outrage in archaic Greek writers, she argues that Greek writers tend to assimilate the images in Sappho’s poetry to a model of male power relations. A woman who makes love to other women must play the part of a man; to desire is masculine, to be desired is feminine. It is the appropriation of masculine roles that ancient authors find offensive in female homoeroticism. These twin images of Sappho as Muse and as sexual deviant become, as Williamson observes throughout her book, the “two main strands of Sappho’s mythical fortunes.”

Chapter 2, “Papyrus Into Print,” explains how the remains of Sappho’s poetry have reached us in the twentieth-century. This chapter assumes little or no prior knowledge of textual history and transmission on the part of the audience. Williamson succeeds splendidly at making this potentially dry subject (especially for a lay audience) remarkably engaging. The chapter lucidly describes the main sources for what remains of Sappho’s texts and the likely processes by which they have survived through the centuries. Williamson discusses the difficulties involved in reconstructing texts from tattered pieces of papyrus, and she provides a number of helpful illustrations of copies of damaged texts. She tells us how texts are established and how editorial conjectures and decisions are made. She reminds us, too, that fictions about Sappho and the cultural prejudices that produce these fictions may well have had a profound impact on the way Sappho’s texts have been copied and transmitted.

Chapters 3 and 4 examine the double images of Sappho as poet of mythical powers and as sexual deviant—in the context of Sappho’s own time. Chapter 3, “Poetry and Politics,” considers the social and political context in which Sappho’s poetry was heard and sung. Williamson discusses the conditions of poetic composition by women in light of how the traditions of poetic performance were woven into the fabric of women’s social life on Lesbos. Williamson disputes some of the traditional views of Sappho as priestess or educator presiding over choruses of young girls. She argues that while Sappho’s work was indeed linked with groups of young women, it is likely that Sappho composed for a variety of both formal and informal occasions. Writing within an “idealizing poetic tradition,” Sappho’s celebration of beauty in women, Williamson argues, corresponds to the celebration of martial prowess in men.

Chapter 4, “Sexuality and Ritual,” explores the age-old fascination with the question of Sappho’s homoeroticism and how discussions of her sexuality have been “filtered through” attitudes and assumptions in later cultures. Williamson surveys attitudes and prejudices toward Sapphic eroticism through the ages and critiques views that attempt to impose paradigms of male sexual activity in antiquity on relations between women. She argues, along Foucauldian lines, that sexuality in Greece and Rome was less an expression of personal identity than an index to one’s social and political roles in the community. Considering that women were mainly excluded from the structures of power, it is likely that women’s homosexual roles followed a different pattern from those of men. Looking at the ways the lover and the beloved are portrayed in Sappho’s poetry—in particular the expression of desire as a merging of several female voices—Williamson argues that erotic relations between women were probably less hierarchical than those between men. Her argument is supported by evidence from Greek vase paintings and from a discussion of Aphrodite’s prominent role in Sappho’s poetry. Williamson makes the important observation that Aphrodite is one of the few positive archetypes in Greek culture of a female sexuality not confined to fertility and reproduction. As the only Olympian who steps out of the roles of active male and passive female, Aphrodite offers an empowering image of female sexuality—an image that enables Sappho to celebrate women as “active lovers.”

In the fifth, final chapter, “The Songs,” Williamson offers her own readings of specific poems of Sappho—readings she calls “one more dialogue with Sappho’s daughters.” The image of Sappho’s poems as “her daughters,” from which Williamson takes her title, originates in an epigram of the late third century (B.C.E.) Greek writer Dioscorides. Williamson uses this image to remind us of an important duality in Sappho’s position in literary history. Williamson first points out that the children women bore were traditionally considered to be the vehicles of men’s inheritance, and not the inheritance of women. Secondly, Williamson notes that the idea of a female poetic inheritance arose in the Hellenistic period. Her title thus suggests the dual nature of Sappho’s position in literary history: as a woman poet whose literary fortunes have largely been in the hands of men, and as a woman poet who helps establish a poetic tradition for women.

In Chapter 5, Williamson locates Sappho’s poetry within an archaic lyric tradition. By comparing her poems to those of other (mostly male) archaic Greek poets, Williamson shows how Sappho’s work has much in common with that of her male counterparts. Although she points out the formulaic qualities in Sappho’s verse, Williamson contends that Sappho’s fragments produce a version of erotic experience that defies cultural norms. Through an examination of the subject positions mapped out in Sappho’s poetry, she argues that Sappho’s erotic discourse differs considerably from that of other, male writers. While the domination of one over the other seems to be the pattern in the erotic relationships described by male archaic poets, Sappho’s poems “extend and diversify the positions that female singers can occupy in the expression of desire.” Through readings of Sappho’s major fragments, Williamson demonstrates how the distinctions between subjects and objects of desire become blurred through a plurality and merging of female voices. The fluidity of subject positions available to female singers and audiences is traced to woman’s partial exclusion from the masculine world of the symposium.

Williamson offers many illuminating insights about specific poems—particularly in regard to the repeated appearance in Sappho’s poems of female figures who take an active role in love. I find Williamson to be a very perceptive reader, and only wish that the scope of the book had permitted more extensive poetic analysis.

Williamson’s book is extremely reader-friendly. Her style flows smoothly and her ideas are engaging. She provides an English translation for each of the fragments she cites, thus making the book accessible to a lay audience. An unusual yet refreshing quality of Sappho’s Immortal Daughters is its lack of multitudinous, voluminous numbered notes within the text—indeed the text has no numbered notes at all. This helps the reading to flow, unencumbered by the usual interruptions of weighty annotation. Whatever needs saying is said in the text itself. This does not detract from scholarship (at least not in this book). All necessary scholarly references are provided, listed by chapter, in a separate section at the end of the book. The book does not, however, provide a separate, alphabetically listed bibliography, which I would have found useful.

One of the great values of Williamson’s book is its ability to bring Sappho and her culture to life for both a specialist and general audience. Williamson’s masterful analysis of Sappho’s poems and her thoroughly engaging way of guiding us through the circuitous route of Sappho’s literary history makes Sappho’s Immortal Daughters a worthy contribution to the legacy of Sappho.