A chance inquiry by an unidentified collector has led to a spectacular literary discovery: Parts of two previously unknown poems by Sappho, the great Greek poetess of the 7th Century B.C. One of the poems is remarkably well preserved and adds greatly to what is known about Sappho and her poetic technique.
The two poems came to light when the owner of an ancient papyrus, dating to the 3rd century A.D., consulted an Oxford classicist, Dirk Obbink, about the Greek writing on the tattered scrap.
Despite Sappho’s fame in antiquity and huge literary output, only one complete poem of hers survives today, along with substantial portions of four others.
Sappho wrote in a dialect of Greek called Aeolic, significantly different in sound and spellings than the Attic Greek that later became standard. The papyrus in fact contains a few markings where a scribe, judging that Aeolic Greek might be unfamiliar to readers, made cues for correct pronunciation.
My favorite poet, and a shocking testament to the commonality of the human condition no matter the distance in time or geography. If you have any love of poetry or lyrics and you’ve never read her work – mostly snippets and few remaining intact pieces – I strongly recommend it.
Sappho rocks. Even if she has been abused by countless successive generations of ideologues who try to force her into various (quite uncomfortable) boxes.
Translation by Thomas H. Buck of Slate of the Sapphic fragment:
But always you babble that Charaxus is coming
With a full ship. These things, I suppose, Zeus knows
and all the other gods—but you
do not need to understand them.
Just send me and instruct me
to pour out prayers to Queen Hera;
and beg that, steering his boat here
finds us safe and sound. The rest,
let us consign it all to the stars,
for fair winds suddenly appear
out of great gales.
Those whose fortune the Olympian King
turns back from sorrow –
They are happy
and shine with blessings.
And we, if Larichus ever lifts his head
to become a man,
from great heavy-heartedness we’d be