BMCR 2017.08.32

The newest Sappho: P. Sapph. Obbink and P. GC inv. 105, Frs. 1-4

, , The newest Sappho: P. Sapph. Obbink and P. GC inv. 105, Frs. 1-4. Studies in archaic and classical Greek song, vol. 2. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin language and literature, 392. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2016. xv, 543. ISBN 9789004311626. $223.00.

Brill Open Access
[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

[Editors’ note: The editors of BMCR feel obliged to bring to the attention of readers of this review the fact that the provenance of the new Sappho papyri published and discussed in this volume is contested. Update: Chapter 2, by Dirk Obbink, was retracted in March 2021.]

The present volume, a collection of essays devoted to the spectacular new Sappho papyri published in the spring of 2014,1 brings together papers delivered at a conference in Basel in the summer of 2014, supplemented by several papers from a panel on the New Sappho at the SCS in January 2015. The turnaround from initial publication of the fragments to the present volume going to press in September 2015—barely eighteen months—is an impressive feat for which the editors are to be congratulated. A particular boon has been a subvention from the Faculty of Arts of Radboud University, allowing the book to be made freely available through Open Access. For this enlightened act of munificence the scholarly community and greater public should be particularly grateful.

In Chs. 1 and 2, Dirk Obbink provides an excellent text, apparatus, and translation of the fragments (P.GC and P.Sapph.Obbink), as well as a discussion of provenance and textual constitution. In large part the value of the Green Collection texts lies in supplementing already known fragments of Sappho, in particular frr. 5, 9, and 15–18 in the editions of Lobel-Page and Voigt. Thus we now can be increasingly confident that Sappho fr. 16 ends at line 20, with a new poem (16a) beginning at what had been known as fr. 16.21. The more substantive additions to Sappho’s corpus come from the text of P.Sapph.Obbink.

Obbink’s text is judiciously conservative, and generally does not admit any of the more uncertain supplements. Thus, more cautiously than Lobel-Page or Voigt, in fr. 15.9 he prints πι[κροτ ΄̣ ̣]αν ἐπεύρ[‒× (for the different possibilities see Lidov’s careful discussion, p.79). Where Obbink does allow supplements, the result is generally a happy one, as at lines 2–3 of the ‘Kypris’ poem, where he rejects the supplements of West, Benelli, and Ferrari, which would result in the unlikely scenario of the speaker of the poem wishing to conceal their emotions (a point eloquently and decisively made in Schlesier’s contribution). Occasionally however one might question the supplementation or articulation of letters, as at e.g. fr. 5.13, where we still find the unlikely τὸ κέγχρω, which in context provides the sense ‘(hearing) the rhythmic beat of the (shaken) millet seed’; Blass’ and West’s τό κ’ ἐγ χρῶ⟨ι⟩—in context ‘now plucking me to the raw’—seems far more plausible (despite Lidov p.71). In other aspects of textual constitution uncertainty persists. In particular, Obbink follows West in placing P.GC fr.1 between P.GC fr.3.ii and P.SO, observing in the apparatus that the placement ‘is confirmed by continuities of fibres and patterns of damage.’ Yet this seeming certainty is reduced to a mere possibility on p.39 n.13 and p.40, where we read that it is ‘probably’ to be so placed, or ‘a possible placement’. Given the inaccessibility of the fragments (P.SO is in a private collection), making high-resolution images of the papyri available online is a major desideratum. One of Obbink’s less persuasive suggestions is the revival of Page’s theory that epithalamia, or ‘epithalamiac’ poems, were collected at the end of each book of Sappho, outside of the alphabetical arrangement. Obbink arrives at this conclusion by observing the unlikelihood, in an alphabetic arrangement, of two poems with ‘epithalamiac’ features occurring at the end of Book 1 (frs. 27 and 30).2 This is hardly probative (are [at least] two poems about Sappho’s brothers beginning with π equally unlikely?). Questions of generic identification aside, it would not be difficult to imagine two poems with epithalamiac features beginning with e.g. χαίρε, ὦ, etc. (cf. frs. 108, 116, 117), and thus fitting the alphabetic arrangement.

In Ch. 4, ‘Sappho Iambist: abusing the brother’, Richard Martin builds on the work of Rosenmeyer and Dale3 and argues that the corpus of poems revolving around her brothers informed the later tradition that Sappho wrote iambics, or poetry in an iambic style. In this Martin is no doubt right, though his contention (one shared by Stehle) that in BP Larichos is as much an object of attack as Charaxos seems difficult to reconcile with the functional opposition of Charaxos and Larichos both in Sappho’s extant poetry and as it can be extrapolated from the secondary tradition (and furthermore suggests a less than complete appreciation of the syntax of the concluding stanza of BP). Even before the publication of BP, it could be (and was) argued from the indirect tradition that Charaxos and Larichos were employed as paradigmatic examples of vice and virtue respectively, and this is affirmed in the new text. As clearly emerges from Lardinois’s discussion (pp.178–81), any reading that suggests that Larichos is, but chooses not to act like, a man, receives little support from the text, while the descriptive similarities between the ‘helping daimon ’ and Larichos strongly suggest that Larichos—in marked contrast to Charaxos—is a prospect of salvation for the speaker and addressee (cf. the excellent discussion of Kurke, p.255).

André Lardinois’s paper, ‘Sappho’s Brothers Song and the fictionality of early Greek lyric poetry’, provides a particularly nuanced and enlightening reading of BP, and addresses—successfully—many of the thornier aspects of interpretation. His discussion of the implied contrast between the addressee, who longs for Charaxos back with a full ship, and the speaker who longs for Charaxos back safe (a point already advocated by Nünlist,4 and picked up by a number of other contributors), strikes at the heart of the underlying dynamic between the contrasting priorities of the ‘I’ and ‘you’ of the poem (an opposition that is resolved in the shift to ‘we’ in the concluding lines, as Kurke [p.248–9] rightly notes). Likewise spot-on is the discussion of the concluding stanza, and particularly his appreciation of the verbal aspect of the aorist subjunctive γένηται and the resonance of δή ποτε ( aliquando as per Denniston, GP 213, not an impatient ‘(if) ever’). Beyond his detailed reading, Lardinois goes some way towards contextualising BP and the ‘family’ poems within the poetics of fictionality in Archaic poetry, and sees them as ‘exempla that address a number of anxieties that haunted aristocratic Greek families’ such as loss of capital, risks of seaborne trade, familial strife, etc. This must be right; BP provides the most concrete evidence yet that the family poems belonged to the tradition of παραίνεσις, and functioned as a sort of morality play to reaffirm the aristocratic ideals of elite society in the world of Archaic Lesbos. And this in turn has implications for the possible performance context and social function of Sappho’s poetry.

In Ch. 17, Renate Schlesier provides an excellent discussion of the frustratingly lacunose ‘Kypris poem’. She begins with a valuable review of how Aphrodite is invoked elsewhere in Sappho’s corpus, and notes strategic differences in the objectives of the speaker depending on whether the goddess is addressed by name or by cultic epithet. Schlesier then turns to a careful reading of the tattered lines of the poem, evaluating the supplements and readings advocated by West and Ferrari, before (rightly) rejecting them. While I do have misgivings about her suggested πάθη̣ν κ̣άλ̣εσσαι in line 3, the overall discussion is excellent, and marks an important contribution to this particularly difficult fragment.

The volume concludes with Gregory Nagy’s paper on the ‘poetics of sisterly affect’ in the BP and elsewhere in Sappho’s corpus. As with many contributions, the paper delivers far more than the title suggests. Nagy begins by discussing the differing perceptions of the poetic personas of Sappho and Alcaeus along the diachronic plane, from their personas in their period of activity (‘choral’ for Sappho and ‘komastic and possibly choral’ for Alcaeus) to the period of Herodotus (‘monodic’). Nagy rightly makes the point that the synchronic reception of poetry and poets is filtered through and determined by the circumstances of poetic composition and performance in the ‘target’ audiences’ time. Turning to the newly augmented fr. 17 (the ‘Hera song’), and sifting through disparate evidence in Lesbian inscriptions and Hesychius, Nagy posits a yearly festival for Hera at Messon which had established a cult aetiology in the mythological tradition of the Atreidae making sacrifice to the goddess on Lesbos on their return from Troy. This festival, he argues, was the performance context for poems such as BP and fr. 17. (The role of Hera also receives excellent treatment in Boedeker’s contribution). Nagy’s reconstructed festival has a strong evidentiary base, and provides a compelling case for the prominence of Hera in both Lesbian cult and the Lesbian poets. The contribution is rounded out by an etymology of Sappho’s name as meaning ‘sister’, connecting it with a PN Ἀπφίον/Ἀπφία, as well as the Lallwort ἄπφα, which can mean sister, but is more generally a term of endearment. This is problematic. The inscriptions Nagy cites are Imperial, and the confluence of names such as Αὐρηλία Σαπφώ (Macedon, ca.200 AD) and Αὐρηλία Ἀπφία (Termessos, 3 rd century AD) could equally be explained through confusion between indigenous onomastic inventories and Roman names such as Appia(nus); the geographic distribution of names in Ἀπφί- strongly suggests an Anatolian (non-Greek) source. Likewise the attestations for ἄπφα meaning ‘sister’ are all late (Photius, Eustathius). And Nagy’s correlation of the PN Σαπφώ with the Lallwort ἄπφα entails positing a common noun * sapp h ō already in Proto-Greek, with the retention of word initial * s due to the ‘functional variant’ Ψαπφώ (thus discounting the possibility that the latter form, whatever the underlying phonetics of the initial consonant(s), is the original form). The loss of inherited initial * s is one of the earliest sound changes we can reconstruct for PG (late 3 rd millennium BC). Thus we must imagine that both common nouns *σαπφώ and *ψαπφώ were present in PG, and survived—uniquely—as PNs in the poetic tradition that informed Sappho’s verse some 1500 years later. The thread that connects all of this together is tenuous at best, and can hardly stand up to scrutiny. Sappho’s name most likely meant something to somebody, somewhere, at some time, but it’s quite possible that even Sappho herself had no idea what.

Certain common themes emerge from the volume as a whole. An increasing readiness to interpret the family poems as ‘fictive’ is evident, though some (e.g. Caciagli) still take a fairly biographical reading. A particularly dominating theme in the contributions is the prominence of Messon for the performance of many of Sappho’s poems. The cult site of Messon, identified by Louis Robert with the locus amoenus in Sa. 17 and Alc. 129 and 130 and connected to the deities mentioned therein (Hera, Zeus, and Dionysus),5 was likely an important site and a possible venue for some of Sappho and Alcaeus’ performances. However, there seems to be an emerging and somewhat uncritical orthodoxy that Messon was a default performance space for Sappho, with concomitant effects of the so-called ‘Lesbian trinity’ or ‘Lesbian triad’ (both unfortunate turns of phrase). Thus Obbink (Ch.9) tries to identify the daimon in BP as Dionysus largely in order to incorporate the third member of the cult into the poem.

Minor criticisms aside, this is a useful, thought-provoking, and important contribution to the study of Sappho. Every paper has something of value to offer, and many will retain a place of importance in the bibliography for years to come.

Table of Contents

Introduction. Anton Bierl and André Lardinois.
Part 1: Sappho in the New Fragments
1. ‘The Newest Sappho: text, apparatus criticus, and translation.’ Dirk Obbink.
2. ‘Ten poems of Sappho: provenance, authenticity, and text of the new Sappho papyri.’ Dirk Obbink.
3. ‘Songs for Sailors and Lovers.’ Joel Lidov.
4. ‘Sappho, Iambist: abusing the brother.’ Richard Martin.
5. ‘The newest Sappho and Archaic Greek-Near Eastern interactions.’ Kurt A. Raaflaub.
6. ‘How did Sappho’s songs get into the male sympotic repertoire?’ Ewan Bowie.
Part 2: Brothers Song
7. ‘Sappho’s Brothers Song and the fictionality of early Greek lyric Poetry.’ André Lardinois.
8. ‘Hera and the return of Charaxos.’ Deborah Boedeker.
9. ‘Goodbye family gloom! The coming of Charaxos in the Brothers Song.’ Dirk Obbink.
10. ‘Sappho and the mythopoetics of the domestic.’ Anastasia-Erasmia Peponi.
11. ‘Gendered spheres and mythic models in Sappho’s Brothers Poem.’ Leslie Kurke.
12. ‘Larichos in the Brothers Poem: Sappho speaks truth to the wine-pourer.’ Eva Stehle.
13. ‘The reception of Sappho’s Brothers Poem in Rome.’ Llewelyn Morgan.
14. ‘“All you need is love”: some thoughts on the structure, texture, and meaning of the Brothers Song as well as on its relation to the Kypris Song (P.Sapph.Obbink).’ Anton Bierl.
Part 3: Kypris Song
15. Sappho as Aphrodite’s singer, poet, and hero(ine): the reconstruction of the context and sense of the Kypris Song.’ Anton Bierl.
16. ‘Sappho and Kypris: “the vertigo of love” (P.Sapph.Obbink 21–29; P.Oxy. 1231, fr. 16.’ Sandra Boehringer and Claude Calame.
17. ‘Loving, but not loved: the new Kypris Song in the context of Sappho’s poetry.’ Renate Schlesier.
18. ‘Reimagining the fragments of Sappho through translation.’ Diane Raynor.
Part 4: Hera Song (fr. 17)
19. ‘Notes on the first stanza of fr. 17.’ Joel Lidov.
20. ‘Sappho fr 17: wishing Charaxos a safe trip?’ Stefano Caciagli.
21. ‘A poetics of sisterly affect in the Brothers Song and in other songs of Sappho.’ Gregory Nagy.


1. S. Burris, J. Fish, and D. Obbink, ‘New Fragments of Book 1 of Sappho’, ZPE 189 (2014), 1–28; D. Obbink, ‘Two New Poems by Sappho’, ZPE 189 (2014), 32–49.

2. D. L. Page, Sappho and Alcaeus, Oxford (1955), 112–26; Obbink’s discussion might have benefitted from reference to D. Yatromanolakis, ‘Alexandrian Sappho Revisited’, HSCP 99 (1999), 179–95; A. Dale, ‘Sapphica’, HSCP 106 (2011), 47–74.

3. P. A. Rosenmeyer, ‘Sappho’s Iambics’, Letras Clássicas 10 (2006 [2011]),11–36; Dale (n.2). The issue containing Rosenmeyer’s paper did not appear until 2011, and was thus unavailable to me when writing Dale 2011 (a point missed by Martin).

4. ‘Das Schiff soll unversehrt sein, nicht voll! Zu Sapphos neuem Lied über die Brüdder’, ZPE 191 (2014), 13–14.

5. L. Robert, ‘Inscriptions de Lesbos’, REA 62 (1960), 276–85.