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Provenance, authenticity, and the text of the New Sappho papyri

Dirk Obbink

Paper 1: Provenance, authenticity, and text of the New Sappho Papyri

In this paper I wish to discuss the authenticity and dating of the new fragments on the basis of archaeological, linguistic, metrical, and textual evidence, and show how the detailed tracing of the provenance of one of the groups of new fragments was instrumental in leading to the discovery and identification of the other. Analysis of the preservation and conservation of the papyrus fragments yields further a strategy for reconstructing its fragmentary portions, including the new ‘Kypris Song’.

I will further discuss the literary and performative context in which these new fragments have to be situated. These new fragments of Sappho, published in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 189 (2014) 1-50, show conclusively the alternation in Book One of poems about family and cult on the one hand, and personal concerns about love on the other. In particular, a cycle of poems concerning sea-faring is revealed, centering on the life of a mercantile family of wine-traders on 7th century Lesbos. The presence of Dionysus in the trinity of gods in the Pan-Lesbian sanctuary at Mesa on the island is explained, and the whole complex of love, sea-faring, wine, and trade falls neatly into the context of Herodotus’ story (2. 135) of how Sappho’s brother Charaxos spent ‘a great deal of money’ (χρημάτων μεγάλων) to free his lover the courtesan Rhodopis (aka Doricha), then a slave at Naucratis in Egypt—for which Herodotus claims a pedigree in a poem of Sappho’s. In Sappho fragments 5 and 17 and now the ‘Brothers Song’ we can see the existence of a particular song type: a prayer for the safe return of the merchant-gone-to-sea (or going). The prayer may rehearse an occasion leading to the performance of a song, or its actual performance in the past or present. The prayer for safe return, introduced as a matter of concern, then expands to envisage what such a return would mean for the family—wealth (images of which are ubiquitous in Sappho, as I will show), and an enhanced social position in the community. A further connection with the poems involving Aphrodite, who dominates book one but is virtually absent from poems in the other books, is suggested, since she is also typically invoked in seaside cults as a protectress of sailors. She connects the poems about love and about the sea in Book One of Sappho.

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Session/Panel Title

New Fragments of Sappho

Session/Paper Number

5.1

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