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Sappho's Prayer to Aphrodite (1, LP16)

Posted: February 26th, 2015, 3:32 pm
by cwconrad
A bit of Greek lyric, not easy, but rewarding. There are seven stanzas, the first three below, the other four to follow, hopefullly in the not-too-distant future.

The meter: A good and relatively simple introduction to Greek prosody and metrics by William Annis may be found at: The discussion of Aeolic meters begins on page 9; a scheme of the Sapphic meter appears at th bottom of page 10. Rather than attempt to display the metrical pattern of the four line Sapphic stanza, I’ve decided to mark in bold characters the syllables that are stressed in chanting. It’s worth noting, however, that there is ordinarily a close linkage between the third line of the stanza and the “adonius” of the fourth line, which always has the same metrical configuration as the last two feet of a dactylic hexameer: dactyl (_ uu) followed by a spondee (_ _) — or a trochee (_ u) which counts as a spondee, since there’s a pause following it)

The dialect: On Lesbian Aeolic dialect:
Among characteristic features are psilosis, the loss of aspiration (rough breathing) on initial consonants, recessive accent, the accent will go back as far as possible, -μι forms of contract verbs, dative plurals in -οισι and -αισι; the -οντσ- in participial syllables that becomes -ουσ- in Attic/Ionic becomes -οισ- in Lesbian Aeolic: so Aeolic φέροισα = Attic/Ionic φέρουσα. These and others will be noted in comments.

First stanza: Invocation and beginning of petition

ποικιλόθρον' θανάτ φρόδιτα,
παῖ Δίος δολόπλοκε, λίσσομαί σε,
μή μ' ἄσαισι μηδ' ὀνίαισι δάμνα,
πότνια, θῦ[μον, …

line 1 ποικιλόθρονος is an adjective describing the goddess of love, Ἀφρόδιτα. It derives from ποικίλος/α/ον, an adjective that might as well mean “many-splendored” — in different contexts it can signify “polychrome” or “many-layered”, “mottled,” “spotted,” etc., and from θρόνος, ὁ: seat, chair, throne — that this adjective describes Aphrodite as one who is seated on a throne that is perhaps as splendid as a peacock’s tail.
line 1 ἀθάνατος/ον: alpha-privative + θάνατος, “death”
line 1 Ἀφρόδιτα: vocative, like the two adjectives preceding it and παῖ and δολόπλοκε in the next line.
line 2 παῖ Δίος: Did you suppose that παῖς was regularly masculine? Not here. Aphrodites is, after all, the daughter of Zeus; some have suggested that she is no less mighty than her father.
line 2 Δίος: Attic/Ionic Διός — genitive of Ζεύς
line 2 δολόπλοκε: δολόπλοκος/ον: adjective compounded from δόλος, “deceit, subterfuge, wile” and πλοκ- from the root of the verb πλέκειν, “weave, interlace”
line 3 μή μ(ε) … δάμνα: negated imperative of δάμναμι, Aeolic form of δάμνημι or δαμάζειν, variant forms of the same IE root as English “tame” and “damn” with overtones of both. This is what Sappho begs Aphrodite not to do to her θύμος.
line 3 ἄσαισι: dat. pl. of ἄσα = Attic-Ionic ἄση: nausea, irritation, nagging desire
line 3 ὀνίαισι: dat. pl. of ὀνία = Attic-Ionic ἀνία: pain, heartache
line 4 πότνια: voc.: the noun derives from the IE root pot- that ordinarily indicates power, authority, rule; in older Greek poetry it is a sort of honorific for the domina, the Lady of the house, the one who “really” wears the pants. In a later era and in a different culture, women will pray to “Holy Mary, Mother of God”; Sappho prays to a sort of dominatrix — and yes, there are elements of sadomasochism here.
line 4 θύμον: Attic θυμός: heart, spirit, soul

Second stanza: Petition continued: “do, do, do what you done, done, done for me before … “

ἀλλὰ τυίδ' ἔλ[θ', αἴ ποτα κἀτέρωτα
τὰς ἔμας αὔδας ἀίοισα πήλοι
ἔκλυες, πάτρος δὲ δόμον λίποισα
χρύσιον ἦλθες

line 5 τυίδ' = AtticIonic τῇδε (τῇ ὁδῷ): “this way, hither”
line 5 αἴ ποτα = Attic/Ionic εἴ ποτε
line 5 κἀτέρωτα = Attic/Ionic καὶ ἑτέρ-ωθι: even/also at another time/place
line 6 τὰς ἔμας αὔδας = Attic/Ionic τῆς ἐμἠς αὐδῆς
line 6 αὔδας human speech, not quite = φωνή
line 6 ἀίοισα = Attic/Ionic ἀίοῦσα < ἀΐω = Attic/Ionic perceive by ear
line 6 πήλοι = Attic/Ionic τῆλου: far away
line 7 ἔκλυες: κλύω hear, often in the sense of heed, pay attention to
line 7 πάτρος δὲ δόμον: i.e. Olympus, home of Zeus and the other gods
line 7 λίποισα = Attic/Ionic λιποῦσα (see above on Lesbian/Aeolic dialect)
line 8 χρύσιον = Attic χρυσοῦς, Epic χρυσεῖος: Olympian homes are of gold

Third stanza: hastening through the blazing sky by sparrows’ wings awhirling

ἄρμ' ὐπασδεύξαισα· κάλοι δέ σ' ἆγον
κεες στροῦθοι περὶ γᾶς μελαίνας
πύκνα δίννεντες πτέρ' ἀπ' ράνωἴθε-
ρος διὰ μέσσω

line 9 ἄρμ(α) = Attic/Ionic ἅρμα, gen. ἅρματος, n. chariot
line 9 ὐπασδεύξαισα = Attic/Ionic ὑποζεύξασα < ὑποζεύγνυμι hitch (up/together)
line 9 ἆγον = Attic/Ionic ἦγον < ἄγειν: drive/draw
lines 9-10 κάλοι … ὤκεες στροῦθοι: Aphrodite’s chariot is drawn by sparrows that are fair and fast
line 10 περὶ γᾶς μελαίνας: Attic/Ionic might use ὑπέρ rather than περί for “over”; γᾶς = γῆς; μελαίνας: μέλας/μέλαινα/μέλαν black (Homeric: the soil or earth is “black”)
line 11: πύκνα … πτέρα: perhaps “compact … wings”: the wings of the sparrows that draw Aphrodite’s chariots are arrayed like troops aligned for battle
line 11: δίννεντες: Attic/Ionic δινεῖν: whirl around, circle about
lines 11-12: note how these two lines link so that a single word, [αἴ]θε-ρος, spans the end of line 11 and the beginning of line 12; ἀπ’ ὠράνᾤθερος: crasis for ὠράνου αἴθερος; ὠράνου = Attic/Ionic oὔρανος; αἴθηρ, gen. αἴθερος m. is the name given to the upper “blazing” part of the sky; English “ether” derives from the Greek word; μέσσω = Attic/Ionic μέσου; αἴθερος διὰ μέσσω: the preposition, as is common in Homer earlier and continuously through Greek poetry, falls in the middle of the two words it governs.

Re: Sappho's Prayer to Aphrodite (1, LP16)

Posted: March 2nd, 2015, 5:12 pm
by cwconrad
Meter: As in the first three stanzas, so here again, rather than attempt to display the metrical pattern of the four line Sapphic stanza,

Fourth Stanza: Confrontation: What is it this time, Sappho? (same question every time!)

αἶψα δ' ἐξίκοντο· σὺ δ', μάκαιρα, 13
μειδιαίσαισ' θανάτ προσώπῳ 14
ρε' ὄττι δηὖτε πέπονθα κὄττι 15
δηὖτε κάλημμι 16

line 13: αἶψα: quickly
line 13: ἐξίκοντο < ἐξικνεῖσθαι: arrive
line 13: μάκαιρα voc.: μάκαρ/μάκαιρα/μάκαρ: blessed, happy - characterizing the deathless gods in contrast to short-lived wretched morals (cf. Koine μακάριος in the Beatitudes)
line 14: μειδιαίσαισ(α): aor. fem. sg. ptc. (it would be -σᾶσα in Attic/Ionic) of μειδιᾶν: smile
line 14: ἀθάνατος/ον: immortal, deathless (alpha privative + θάνατος); this adjective is never found in the GNT, but it is a regular epithet of deities in standard Greek usage; it is perhaps worth asking why it characterizes the face of a goddess (a πρόσωπον is what you look at) and how the smile of a goddess would like to a mortal urgently petitioning her
line 15: ἤρε(ο): 2 sg. aor. mid.; infinitive ἐρέσθαι of present ἐρωτᾶν: ask
line 15: ὄττι πέπονθα: “what have I suffered?” = “what’s wrong with me?”; ὄττι and κὄττι (καὶ ὄττι in crasis): Aeolic form of Attic/Ionic ὅ τι, indirect question form of τί, which in these two successive short clauses means “what” and “for what” = “why”; πέπονθα: pf. active of πάσχειν
lines 15 and 16: δηὖτε: “yet again”: crasis form for δὴ αὖτε: again, once more, but considerably strengthened by δὴ — Note the implication that this scenario of the invocation to Aphrodite, Aphrodite’s swift coming and the questions that she asks has played out again and again and again.
line 16: κάλημμι: Attic/Ionic καλέω: alpha, epsilon, and omicron contract verbs in Lesbian Aeolic have long-vowel stems and -μι endings.

Fifth Stanza: More questions: Who is it this time?

κὄττι μοι μάλιστα θέλω γένεσθαι 17
μαινόλᾳ θύμῳ; “τίνα δηὖτε †πείθω 18
ἄψ σ' ἄγην† ἐς σὰν φιλότατα; τίς σ', ὦ 19
Ψάπφ', ἀδικήει; 20

line 17: What’s the outcome that I’m passionately wanting?
line 18: μαινόλᾳ: raving, frenzied (Attic μαινόλης), in agreement with θύμῳ
line 18-24: “τίνα … ἐθέλοισα” is Aphrodite’s direct speech to Sappho
line 18: δηὖτε: this is the third appearance of this word — over and over again has Aphrodite come when Sappho has called upon her;
lines 18-19: †πείθωἄψ σ' ἄγην†: the text is uncertain, but appears to mean, “Whom once again should I induce to bring you back to your love? ἄψ: back, back again; ἄγην: = ἄγειν; σὰν φιλότατα = σὴν φιλότητα
line 20: Ψάπφ(οι): Aeolic vocative of Σάπφω; ἀδικήει: Attic/Ionic ἀδικεῖ; “Who’s mistreating you”

Sixth Stanza: Aphrodite’s reassurance: Whoever it is will come back to you, however reluctantly

καὶ γὰρ αἰ φεύγει, ταχέως διώξει, 21
αἰ δὲ δῶρα μὴ δέκετ', ἀλλὰ δώσει, 22
αἰ δὲ μὴ φίλει, ταχέως φιλήσει 23
κωὐκ ἐθέλοισα.” 24

line 21: αἰ = Attic/Ionic εἰ; note that φεύγει is present tense, διώξει future; this gives ταχέως the force of “before very long”
line 22: δέκετ(αι): Attic/Ionic δὲχεται; again the contrast of tenses
line 23 yet again the contrast of tenses, again ταχέως
line 24: κωὐκ: crasis for καῖ οὐκ; ἐθέλοισα = Attic/Ionic ἐθελοῦσα. Note the gender.

Seventh Stanza: Sappho’s prayer resumed

ἔλθε μοι καὶ νῦν, χαλέπαν δὲ λῦσον 25
ἐκ μερίμναν, ὄσσα δέ μοι τέλεσσαι 26
θῦμοςμέρρει, τέλεσον, σὺ δ' αὔτα 27
σύμμαχος ἔσσο. 28

line 25: καὶ νῦν: just as so many times heretofore! χαλέπαν: Attic/Ionic χαλέπην
lines 25-26: χαλέπαν δὲ λῦσον ἐκ μερίμναν = ἐκλῦσον χαλέπαν μερίμναν: “relieve (my) harsh anxiety”; traditional analysis says that ἐκ is in “tmesis”, cut off, or separated from the verb to which it belongs as a prefix, but it’s probably better to understand it as an adverb qualifying λῦσον.
lines 26-27 ὅσσα: = Attic/Ionic ὅσα, here in the sense πάντα ὅσα: “all the things (however many) which …”; τέλεσσαι Aeolic aorist active infinitive of τελεῖν, “bring to fulfilment”; τέλεσον is aorist active 2nd sg. imperative; ἰμέρρει: Attic/Ionic ἱμείρει: “desires eagerly”;
construe: τέλεσον ὅσσα θῦμος ἰμέρρει τέλεσσαί μοι
lines 27-28: αὔτα: Attic/Ionic αὔτη with σὺ: “you yourself; ἑσσο: Aeolic present 2 sg. active imperative of εἰμί; σύμμαχος: love is a kind of warfare; Aphrodite is being asked to join Sappho’s campaign against this unnamed person. The fact that the person is not named suggests that the prayer is an essential element in Sappho’s prayerbook, intended for repeated use.

Re: Sappho's Prayer to Aphrodite (1, LP16)

Posted: March 3rd, 2015, 8:14 am
by Mark Lightman
cwconrad wrote:line 2 παῖ Δίος: Did you suppose that παῖς was regularly masculine? Not here. Aphrodites is, after all, the daughter of Zeus; some have suggested that she is no less mighty than her father.
ὁ μὲν τὴν γῆν βρέχει, ἡ δὲ τὰς παρειάς.
Sappho wrote:τίς σ', ὦ Ψάπφ', ἀδικήει;
Σαπφὼ Σαπφοῦν ἀδικεῖ. ἔρως γὰρ εὐκταῖον κακόν. :lol:
cwconrad wrote:...not easy, but rewarding.
πάνυ γε. χάριν οὖν δίδομέν σοι.

Re: Sappho's Prayer to Aphrodite (1, LP16)

Posted: March 14th, 2015, 5:20 am
by cwconrad
Daniel Mendelsohn has a nice piece in the New Yorker on "What Sappho's Poetry Sounded like to the Ancient Greeks", accessible here: ... ng-sappho?
“Because once I’ve learned it, I can die.” So said Solon the Wise, the great Athenian lawmaker of the sixth century B.C., when asked why he wanted to be taught a certain poem by Sappho. His extravagant admiration for her hotly yearning lyrics was shared by most literate people in the ancient world: from Plato, who called her the Tenth Muse, to the Roman poet Catullus, who, five centuries after she died, adapted a famous song of hers about erotic frustration into Latin.
The article includes the Greek text but deals in particular with the rhythm and actual sound of this particular poem, Ποικιλόθρον’ ἀθάνατ’ Ἀφρόδιτα, even offering a helpful phonetic transcription (for American English ears) of the entire poem; here, for instance, is the first stanza:
POI-kih-LÓH-throhn’ AH-thah-náht’ AH-phróh-DEE-TAH,
PAI di-OHS doh-LOH-ploh-keh, LIHSS-oh-MAI SEH,
MAY m’ah-SAI-sih MAYD’ oh-nih-AI-sih DAHM-NAH
POT-nee-ah, THUH-mon