BMCR 2011.11.33

Sappho’s Gift: The Poet and Her Community

, , Sappho's Gift: The Poet and Her Community. Ann Arbor: Michigan Classical Press, 2010. xiii, 226. ISBN 9780979971334. $62.00.

[The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of this review.]

This is a translation of Ferrari’s Una mitra per Kleis: Saffo e il suo pubblico.1 The book consists of the author’s preface (pp. v-vi), the translators’ preface (p. xiii), fifteen chapters (pp. 1-204), an updated bibliography (pp. 205-11), an index verborum (pp. 213-14), and an index locorum (pp. 215-26). In this study Ferrari wishes to offer an extensive survey of Sappho’s poetry that elucidates “the political, anthropological, and discursive realms in which these songs were conceived and composed” (p. v).

Chapter I (“Song of the Headband”) initiates the reader to the political, cultural, and performative context of Sapphic poetry through a close reading of F 98a+b.2 While summarizing the tumultuous Lesbian politics of the period, Ferrari exposes the ideological connotations of habrosyne —a lifestyle represented in the poem by the imported Lydian μίτρα—and its association with politically influential families, such as the Cleanactids. After politics, Ferrari addresses the issue of performance: “Sappho’s compositions had a public, festive purpose, and were meant to be performed by Sappho herself (or by some other solo performer) or by a duly instructed chorus” (p. 13). In accordance to this programmatic statement, he envisions F 98 as a monodic prelude to a choral performance in which Cleis would feature as a chorus leader.

Chapter II (“Exile”) first establishes that Sappho, herself a Cleanactid, was exiled briefly to Sicily when Pittacus became aesymnetes. While mindful of the distinction between Sappho and her literary persona, Ferrari traces references to the poet’s exile in a song reconstructed from P.Oxy. 1787. In Ferrari’s text the speaker of the poem, presumably Sappho, blames Andromeda, a Penthilid and the “director of a competing group or ‘school’” (p. 23), for her exile. Ferrari follows up with a close reading that integrates his various textual supplements and concludes with speculation about the poem’s performance.

Chapter III (“Sappho’s School”) focuses primarily on the vexed issue of Sappho’s relationship with the maidens she often addresses. Rejecting the skepticism of Parker and Stehle, Ferrari maintains that Sappho and her rivals, Andromeda and Gorgo, were “engaged in directing educative allegiances fully recognized as such in Lesbian society” (p. 35). In support of this view, he lists several Sapphic passages indicating the young age of the addressees and produces evidence from later literature and vase representations. Ferrari envisions Sappho as a χοροδιδάσκαλος, like Aenesimbrota of Alcman’s Louvre Partheneion and Andaesistrota of Pindar’s Second Partheneion.

Chapter IV (“Tales of Abandonment”) reconstructs more details about Sappho the teacher. F 49 suggests that Sappho’s career may have started very early. F 57 yields the profile of a competitor: Andromeda, like Sappho, had wealth, status, and opportunities to perform in public festivals. The cost of defection, on the other hand, explored through the cases of Atthis and Mika, is defined both in social and in financial terms. While discussing the Atthis poems, however, Ferrari entertains an alternative, hypertextual reading: interpreted as a sequence, these songs would convey the girl’s story from her early admission to Sappho’s school until her condemned betrayal and would thus hold a paradigmatic function among Sappho’s students.

Chapter V (“The Rendering of Accounts”) deals with Ferrari’s updated reconstruction of yet another attack against Andromeda from P.Oxy. 1787. Ferrari focuses mainly on Sappho’s interaction with Aphrodite and on the meaning of the double gift she earns from Zeus: kleos that reaches the entire living world—a reflex of contemporary interest in the Panhellenic proliferation of poetry—and special privileges among the dead.

Chapter VI (“Contrasts”) seeks to identify the speakers and occasion of F 137. According to Ferrari, the dialogue should be interpreted as an agonistic exchange between Alcaeus and Sappho, such as the one represented on the Munich krater 2416. Correcting Page, Ferrari argues that such a poetic competition, which would justify Sappho’s otherwise unattested use of the Alcaic strophe, was not performed at a symposium but at a festival.

Chapter VII (“Gorgo”) introduces the Polyanactids: Pittacus, his Thracian father Hyrras, and his sister Gorgo, one of Sappho’s rivals. Though framed by two references to Gorgo in Sappho’s corpus (F 155 and T 213), this chapter focuses mainly on Alcaeus’ attacks against Hyrras and Pittacus. Ferrari examines at length the much-debated F 303Aa, in which a Polyanactid, presumably Hyrras (p. 87), is attacked for his despicable hetaireia. The author then discusses Pittacus’ frequent depictions as a glutton and a κακοπατρίδαις, a denigrating reference to his foreign origin rather than his social status. Ferrari then turns to Alcaeus’ F 303 Ab+Ac.1-3, another invective against Pittacus (the “greedy Polyanactid”, ll. 14-15); he argues that this song, like F 137, was not performed at a symposium but at a festival in the context of an amoebic contest. The chapter concludes with a reconsideration of P.Oxy. 2292 (=Sappho T 213). Ferrari reconstructs and interprets the embedded Sapphic fragment as an expression of sorrow at the prospect of seeing two girls defect to Gorgo’s group, but finds no ritual meaning in the word σύνδυγος (l. 3).

Chapter VIII (“Iconography” followed by five illustrations, pp. 103-7) examines Sappho’s early reception in Attic vase painting. Ferrari argues that the two figures on the Bochum krater (480/70 BCE) represent an outdoor komastic procession, not a sympotic scene with erotic undertones as Yatromanolakis has argued. The author finds another komastic procession on the Warsaw kalpis (500/490 BCE) and suggests that, since Sappho did not have access to symposia during her lifetime, her later association with them may have been aided by common traits shared by the symposiastic komoi and the original ritual contexts in which Sappho and her girls performed. The chapter closes with the Vari hydria (440/30 BCE) that represents Sappho not in a public space of performance but in a private setting, fulfilling her role as a music-teacher of maidens.

Following up the earlier hypothesis, Chapter IX (“Nocturnal Celebrations”) examines Sapphic songs performed during a παννυχίς, a procession most similar to the symposiastic komos. F 23, a song performed in open space at night, is interpreted as “decidedly monodic at least in the sense that it features a personal, subjective voice” (p. 111). F 30, on the other hand, was performed either as monodic or as choral; it was not, however, an epithalamium at waking or a song that followed the agoge, as commonly held. In Ferrari’s view, it was performed before the agoge as an invitation to the groom to initiate the final phase of the wedding ceremony.

The so-called Book of the Epithalamians (sic) is the main focus of Chapter X (“Nuptial Songs”). Poems with nuptial themes are found in other books of Sappho’s Alexandrian edition, so what differentiates the songs of this book? Assuming that F 104-17 are representative of these epithalamia, the deciding factor is not metrical uniqueness but “a generic awareness rooted in stylistic and performative features that could be found in the text itself” (p. 119). The songs included in this book are characterized by traditional themes and diction (illustrated in F 104a, 107, and 114), but, more importantly, they reveal their pragmatic function by reflecting the phase of the ritual during which they were performed: F 111 celebrates the entrance of the newlyweds into the thalamos; F 110 conveys the customary mockery immediately following the locking of the thalamos, while F 116 and 117 are most likely intended for the end of the wedding ritual as a farewell to the couple, a phase perhaps preceded by the makarismos of F 112. Ferrari then turns to the debate concerning the performative context of the famous F 44. Since this song cannot be connected to a single phase of the marriage ritual, he suggests that it was a proem to the whole wedding.

Chapter XI (“Contexts”) begins with a close reading of F 94. Just as the present (Sappho’s sorrow in l.1) is contrasted to the past, the private activities inside Sappho’s house (πὰρ ἔμοι, l. 14) are in opposition to the outdoor spaces of performance (ll. 24-8). As for the intimate scene of lines 21-3, Ferrari maintains that “[a]ttentive to the as-yet undefined and aimless sexuality of adolescence, the poet does not speak explicitly or allusively, but recalls to the mind of her interlocutor the sensual pleasure of sleeping together among age-mates and the affectionate ties that follow” (p. 141). Ferrari’s interest in the contrast between private and public leads him to F 150, the conclusion of a threnos that must have been performed exceptionally inside Sappho’s house rather than in a public place, since ritual lament would temporarily dissolve the lines between private and public space. The term μοισόπολοι (l. 1) of F 150 raises the question of Sappho’s cultic associations. Although skeptical about her participation in a cult of the Muses, Ferrari accepts Himerius’ testimony concerning the rites of Aphrodite (T 194, cf. F 140), presumably a public ceremony organized by Sappho.

Chapter XII (“The Grove and the Temple”) explores the performance of two poems addressing Aphrodite, F 2 and F 5. The former, inviting the epiphany of the goddess in the context of an outdoor ritual, was performed as a monody perhaps accompanied by a dancing chorus. Reconstructing line 16 so as to attribute the role of wine-pourer to Sappho, Ferrari highlights her double function as a poet and as the director of the rite. The occasion for F 5 is unknown, but it, too, was probably a monody sung in front of a large audience, as was F 15, the other prayer for Charaxos. As for the place of performance, F 2 indicates a sacred grove, whereas F 5 points to a temple, perhaps the one mentioned by Myrsilus of Methymna ( FGrHist 477 fr. 14).

Chapter XIII (“To Aphrodite”) focuses on F 1, a poem that combines personal suffering with the traditional features of a cultic hymn. Based on ποικιλόθρον’ (l. 1), Ferrari situates the song’s performance in a temple, in the niche of a sitting statue of Aphrodite. He then turns to the suffering of the poem’s persona loquens, whose symptoms overlap with those of the phlegmatic patient in the Hippocratic De morbo sacro. Ferrari, however, concedes that Sappho is “outside these and similar medical theorizations” and “does not even speak of νόσος”; she simply records “occasional symptoms within a personality admittedly inclined to μανία” (p. 168), using everyday language and poetic conventions, but perhaps also drawing from personal experience.

Chapter XIV (“‘Pathology’ 1: Panic”) develops further the “clinical” interpretation of emotional suffering in Sapphic poetry. The famous F 31 is read against modern definitions of panic attack disorder and the Hippocratic profile of the bilious temperament. When F 1 and F 31 are considered together, Sappho (or at least her persona) emerges as bipolar. Her “hypertimic” (sic) phase is represented by F 130.1-2 with the hallucinatory vision of the ὄρπετον, whereas her depressive phase can be traced in the desire for death and the idyllic description of the Underworld in F 95. Returning to F 31, Ferrari argues that the source of the speaker’s anxiety is not love or jealousy but the “phobic anticipation of an event inscribed in the ordinary history of the group” (p. 185), namely that the girls will eventually be courted and leave the group to get married.

The final chapter (“‘Pathology’ 2: Old Age”) discusses old age in F 21 and F 63, but mainly in the new Cologne Sappho. Ferrari discusses the relationship between the old persona loquens and the young addressees in this song; unlike Alcman’s fr. 26 PMGF, Sappho’s poem is an invitation to a dance performance, not a proem to another song. The speaker admits the inevitability of old age (ll. 7-8), but the instruction of young girls and their performance emerge implicitly as a consolation.

Ferrari certainly meets the goal set in his preface; the range of readings and suggestions found in this book is truly impressive and only partly covered in the summary above. Ferrari’s insights enrich our understanding of Sappho’s poetry and elucidate many aspects of her world, although some readers may object to the extent of Ferrari’s biographical approach or to his faith in the veracity of ancient sources. The structure presents some challenges: each chapter consists of several short sections, but transitions are often lacking and cohesion is not always obvious. Unfortunately there is no concluding chapter to bring the various threads together. Nevertheless, Ferrari’s book, now accessible to the English-speaking world thanks to Acosta-Hughes and Prauscello, is recommended reading for all students of Greek lyric poetry.


1. Biblioteca di Materiali e discussioni per l’analisi dei testi classici, 19. Pisa: Giardini, 2007.

2. For the fragments of Sappho and Alcaeus, I follow Ferrari in using “F” with Voigt’s numeration (when available).